A Beautiful Problem

“When I am working on a problem I never think about beauty. I only think about how to solve the problem. But when I have finished, if the solution is not beautiful, I know it is wrong.”

–R. Buckminster Fuller

Tell me about a problem you had to solve, one that had an elegant or beautiful solution.


  1. Fran Stekoll says

    After 46 years of a roller coaster marriage I left. I met him at 16. We both had summer music scholarships to College of Pacific. I was in lust, no love. After graduation from High School he went to Japan, I went to Redlands University. When he got out of the Army, we married. I was 19, he was 21. At first things were fine; we had two daughters and adopted a son. When his heart fluttered with atrial fib. the medication he took changed his entire personality, he became aloof, absent in both mind and body and a womanizer. I turned to God, began praying that “This too shall pass”, but to no avail. The crowning blow was when I found out one of his lurid affairs had produced a child. Thank God I had a home in Santa Cruz to move to.
    He said he loved us both. I said. “You can’t have your cake and Edith too”!
    I answered an ad in the Good Times for my Mother. “Gentleman, beach walks, concerts, dinners, conversation”. We met at the wharf for 4 hours.
    He lived in a Mobile Home Park, so did I. He had 3 children, 10 grand children, so did I. He had written books, so had I. He came from a Jewish
    background, My great grand father was a Rabbi. I told him I was looking for someone for my Mother. “Forget your Mother, I’ll take you” he said. We were married . The first wedding was with his family on a golf course in Kauai, The second was in the Gazebo at De Anza on Christmas Eve. We
    wore Mr & Mrs. Santa Suits. He was the best thing that ever happened to me. We traveled extensively, Africa, Tahiti, Greece, many United States. I have so many fond memories, so many pictures, I am so grateful. He’s been
    gone now 5 months; but I still feel his presence, his strong spirit. I know that
    God brought us together. He was my best friend. I have forgiven my ex-husband and accepted his shortcomings for if it wasn’t for his womanizing, I never would’ve met Matt. Now I’m getting on with my life.
    I’ve met another wonderful man. We seem to have much in common. We talk for hours. He lost his wife 7 months ago after 56 years. I was married twice for a total of 61 years. Life has so much to offer. I have much to offer
    too! I am open to accepting whatever God has in store for me. I try to live
    each day as if it is my last. I am active in my community, with my wonderful family and friends. I sing with Spring Lakes Choir and am active in my church. Each day brings new challenges which I embrace. There’s so much to live for every day. I appreciate life before it’s taken away. A lifetime of Laughing, Loving, Praying, Living. Is ours for the taking, rewarded by giving.
    I’ve been a giver all my life; but now I am learning how to receive. It’s quite
    a nice feeling.

  2. Jim Dowling says

    Heading Home
    It was Christmas vacation and I was coming home to the Bay Area from school in Iowa City. I caught a ride with friends as far as Reno, Nevada. My plan was to buy a Greyhound ticket to get me the rest of the way home. They dropped my off in front of the bus depot and I peered through big plate glass windows up at the schedule. My bus wouldn’t depart for another two hours. Yeah! I headed for the casinos. I’m no gambler but throwing a few bucks at the one-arm bandits seemed like a way to pass the time…and what if??
    My luck was non-existent. Every machine sucked my precious funds like a hungry black hole. I stashed what I believed a bus ticket should cost in my front left pocket and played with the rest of my ‘stash’ – about $30. It dissolved in an absurdly short time. Okay, I could walk away a total loser, lick my wounds in silence and head back to the station. Not my style. Gritting my teeth, I dug into the left pocket. One more shot. Just five bucks. No ‘pie in the sky’ dreams anymore. Just recoup – a little hair off the dog that mauled me. Win and I’d have money for my ticket and perhaps something left over for a nice meal. Lose and, what the hell, maybe I only get as far as Oakland on the bus. That meant hitch-hiking. I banished the thought…it was awful cold out there. And anyway, odds simply had to be stacked in my favor. No one loses 15 times in a row. That puppy was about to disgorge a fortune and I was gonna be there, gottamit.
    Yep. I lost.
    I came back to the bus station pretty depressed and dejected. I had toted a large duffle bag of clothes with me through the casinos and now I dragged it alongside me through the ticket line. My turn at the counter finally arrived. I dug every crumpled bill and coin out of my left front pocket and deposited on the little counter.
    “Where you going?” I remember he was a black man, a kind-looking person.
    “San Francisco,” I said hopefully.
    He counted it all up very quickly. There was a long line behind me. “That there’ll get you roughly half way,” he said.
    I sat there shell-shocked, numb, beyond prayers, staring in disbelief at the nice-looking man. I don’t know how much time passed, but I finally noticed that he was impatient, looking beyond me to the next customer. I scooped my money off the counter. As I reached down for the duffle, I heard a voice.
    “I’d like to buy that young man his ticket. How much?”

  3. Jenny says

    It was lunch time and I was taking the opportunity before returning to work, to go browse my favorite haberdashery store in town, Glendinings. It was full of fabric and sewing notions as well as linens. I spent joyful hours there. So I was headed to enjoy the next half hour or so when, as I was walking through the door, I heard my name.
    I stopped and turned. A soft female voice in the body of a woman, slightly younger than me was saying my name. I did not recognize her, but still stopped.
    “You are Jennifer Payne?” “You went to Tranquil?!” she asked.
    “Yes.” I replied.
    Tranquil was short for Tranquility Intermediate Girls School.
    “You may not even know me,” she continued, “but we all remember you.”
    I was puzzled and looked so for she quickly said her name and continued.
    “Yes, you do not even know how much we all loved you and would have died for you.” “What we love about you is that you just did what you did.”
    I was really puzzled now and almost said so.
    “Remember when you were Head Girl of Tranquil School, and you had to patrol the grounds?”
    “Yes.” I replied.
    “Well, you used to see us coming and would open the tap so we could take a quick drink before class.” “No one else did that.” “It was so kind of you and you did not let us say thanks.” “You simply said, ‘Hurry, drink and go.’ ” “You weren’t supposed to do that but you did.” “We loved that about you, and all that you did for us, Jennifer.” “So, thanks.”

    She finished, smiled and walked away. I did not get the chance to say anything more, and I don’t know what I would have said anyway. I stood in place for a moment. I remembered doing what she described, but, to me it was nothing special. We were supposed to be kind to each other, weren’t we?

    I walked into the store my mind in the experience and recalling those days. I could not focus on what I was seeing my mind was chewing on a myriad of things that the conversation provoked.”

    I was 16/17 years old, in Form 5 for the first time. I had been selected to Head Girl of my all girls High School. Selection was based solely on academics, and had certain responsibilities and expectations. The Head Girl was to be the example/mentor to those younger than her. She was to ensure that all students went into class and take note of those who were late for class. She was to be an example for the kindergarteners and was to visit their classes weekly to talk with them. I loved that last task.

    I could see the image of the school yard, huge mango tree in the center of the space, long approach to the back steps of the main building where all of the classrooms were located. Across from the tree attached to the building was a stand pipe. Now this was happening in the 1960’s. Independence was in the air, and yet colonial Trinidad & Tobago was still alive. The old colonial buildings, small houses, railroad travel to the countryside, small bus system, route taxis, not too many private cars as yet, radio but no television as yet. The colonists did not give the colonized much. The country was beginning to open its eyes to a new idea about itself and we were the generation on the cusp of that unknown future.

    I remember standing, waiting for the girls I knew who were coming to school in the capital, Port of Spain from the country areas by train and bus. Some could not afford train and bus. They ran from the train station to school when the train was late, about 3 -4 miles. Public transportation was notoriously unreliable and so I began to expect to see a stream of girls racing to beat the bell every morning, going into class hot and tired.

    I knew what it is like to be running to class and that they would be thirsty. It made complete sense to me that they would be tired and thirsty. As Head Girl I was supposed to send them on to class. To me, having to race, being hot and tired so early in the morning was enough, forcing them to be thirsty did not make sense. My simple solution was to allow them to quench some of their thirst so they would not have to ask permission to come back out for a drink, which some teachers would refuse. It was easy for me to open the tap and allow each a quick drink of water. So that’s what I did. I would have wanted someone to do that for me. It was such a simple solution.

    • Ilana says

      Wow. Thank you for posting this beautiful story. It brightened my day and I will take this positive energy with me. I love stories about small kindnesses and when they are, unexpectedly, appreciated. IM

    • Terry Gibson says

      Jenny, this is a beautiful story! I’m so happy this woman found you to say how important a seemingly small act–to you–really was. It’s so nice when this sort of thing happens.

    • says

      Jenny, I loved going back with you in time to this part of your life, and I can imagine that thread of kindness and compassion stretching all the way through your life–from the girl you once were to the woman you are now. You painted a vivid portrait!

    • Debbie says

      It is amazing how often others are watching us, observing what we do – and us them. Such a kind, thoughtful thing you did for those girls. I am also glad that you were able to receive the gift of realizing what a positive difference you made. I am sure there are more examples! Thanks for this great story.

  4. Ilana says

    An Elegant Solution to My Problem

    I’ve never been one to procrastinate. As a matter of fact the idea of not having my work ready to hand in a full week before it was due always scared the hell out of me. In college and graduate school this made group projects a little frustrating since this attitude puts me in the minority. Still, for Program Development, one of the five classes I still needed to graduate with my master’s degree in counseling psychology, I was working with the most amazing group of people. Tracy, Donna and Michael did not feel the same urgency to get to work on the project the day it was assigned but they respected how I felt. I told them as soon as we formed our team that I needed to get started right away. I took responsibility for the initial leg work. We needed to contact a facility that might need our project and make a proposal. They happily gave me the go ahead to begin the work. I contacted a nursing home and met with their programming staff.

    Our idea was to implement a program that had us bringing dogs in to visit with the residents. The staff at the nursing home was thrilled. We talked about how helpful it would be to the residents, what they would do with the dogs and how we would set it up. I went back to my team with the results of the meeting and they, too, were happy with my report.

    I spoke with Michael on the way out of class the morning of February 13, 2001. It’s strange what we remember. I had straightened my hair so it hung another two inches past my underarms. As we discussed our project and said goodbye, I put on my new husband’s collared fleece pullover. It was luxurious to pull my long hair through the neck of the shirt and feel it hit my shoulders. Only after I left did I realize, to my horror, that I had put the damned thing on backwards. Michael must have pretended not to notice. It was a perfectly normal, albeit embarrassing, morning.

    That night, everything changed. I had a cerebral aneurysm sometime between 11:30 and midnight. Thirty six hours after putting that fleece on backwards I was in a coma, unable to breathe on my own and seven long months from being able to do any kind of school work. How was I going to do right by my team? How was I going to get the work done and earn my degree? I’ll let the actual e-mails concerning the project answer these questions.

    I just got home from the hospital tonight. Thank you
    all for your messages and notes. To be perfectly
    honest I don’t know where this surgery leaves me in
    terms of our project. If there is no way I can do
    anything and you are going to have to hand it in as a
    three person project I would understand. My
    prediction is that by mid next week I can focus on
    school and this class is my most important so if there
    is something else I can do so I can still get credit
    for working with you guys I would love that. If you
    guys could talk it over and then have someone give me
    a call that would be fantastic. Good luck on your
    project if I cannot continue with you from here and
    good luck to us if there is a way I can. Thanks for

    (Written a few days later. I can still feel the tears in my throat as I reread it.)

    Hi guys,
    I want to feel that I have been honest with you about
    my capabilities. When I first got home from the
    hospital I was pretty ambitious. The truth is that
    recovering from brain surgery is more work than I
    thought. I don’t think I can do any work this
    quarter. I’ll probably get incompletes in all of my
    classes and make up the work. You guys have all been
    very generous to say you will put my name on the
    project but I cannot do anything else to help it get
    finished. Perhaps we should talk with Bobbie and tell
    her what I was able to do before my surgery. I feel
    pretty bad about this and in addition I wasn’t
    thinking about school when we made the appointment to
    see the neuropsychologist. It’s right on top of class
    on March sixth. I won’t even be able to come to the
    presentation. Forgive me if I am repeating things I
    have already told you but this transition has been very
    difficult for me. I really wish I could be fine and
    do all of my work. It was most important to me to be
    honest with you guys about what I can and cannot do.
    Good luck with everything I hope we’ll talk soon,

    (And finally, their responses)

    Please don’t worry about it! We (and I think I speak for everyone) will still
    keep your name on the project, and hopefully Bobbie will give you credit, too.
    After all, it was your idea and you hooked us up with (The nursing home). I hope you are feeling better and better and I look forward to seeing you soon!



    I am so glad to hear from you. I’m even more happy that you are home and that you are okay. You amaze me. As for the project, we never thought of you as a former group member. Your name has been included on the final paper and will be included on any work we turn in. We decided that a long time ago. The paper is not totally complete, but is close to it. I would be happy to update you on what we have done. For now I will just say that we are scheduled to do the presentation next Tuesday, March 6. Me, Donna, and Michael are going to meet this Thursday at 5 to practice the presentation. I would not mind in the least if you came and practiced with us, but will understand if you are not yet able to. I believe that had it not been for you, we’d still be running around in circles trying to find an idea for a project. Needless to say, and I think I can speak for everyone, you are still a part of our group.
    I’m so glad you are okay.
    Take care.


    (Donna wrote a similar e-mail but in order to avoid repetition I will not put it in here.)

    As it turns out my team had insisted that Bobbie, our professor, give me full credit for the project. They went in ready to fight for me but didn’t have to. Bobbie agreed with them right off. I was indeed meeting with the neuropsychologist when they made their, our, presentation. Had I been available I would still have been too sick to attend the class anyway. They made an announcement, before presenting, that they were a four person team. “Ilana M. is the last member of our team and as you all know, she is recovering from brain surgery. However, this was her idea and Ilana did a lot of the work before her surgery. This is her project as much as ours and we would like to dedicate this presentation to her.” I never asked them to do any of this. It was an incredibly loving and generous thing they did. An elegant solution to my problem.

    I have lost touch with Michael, Tracy, Donna and even Bobbie, over the last 11 and a half years. But I will never forget any of them or what they did for me.

    • Ilana says

      PS. Because they will always remain heroes in my mind it is important to me to make it clear that Tracy, Donna, Michael and Bobbie are all their real names. Mine is the only name I changed. You should know who they were as you read what they did for me.

    • says

      Ilana, that is an amazing story. I was laughing with recognition about how you thought you could go on with “life as usual” after having brain surgery! That could have been me! But the body places its demands on us, does it not. I hope you try to track these amazing people down–with today’s social media, it might be a lot easier than you think.

      • Ilana says

        Thanks Laura- It still hurts to remember how lost I felt when I learned I could not go back into my old life. I can’t tell you how good it felt that you understood that and had been there yourself. Thank you for sharing that. IM

    • Terry Gibson says

      Ilana, I love stories where someone needing a break gets it! And if anyone deserved one, it was you at this time. What a great group! You know, after Steve’s two brain surgeries, he wanted to leave the hospital within an hour and go do everything he’d do on a normal day; the doctors and I tried to reason with him. It wasn’t easy. I find the brain so fascinating! So glad you are better!

    • Debbie says

      Ilana – what a wonderful post. I am glad you honored those who were so kind to you. I am sure you would have done the same for any of them. Brain surgery – and then right back to school?! You are ambitious!

  5. Julie says

    It was a regular Sunday night in front of the TV. I was sitting next to my husband as I always do, feeling the encroaching fatigue of a Mother of one very precocious and active 10 year old. After my last time of yelling, “get to bed and go to sleep” I finally heard the quiet I had felt so desperate for.
    At some point between flipping through commercials and landing on just the right program to sustain us till bedtime, I had a thought. “That felt waaay too easy,” “usually by this time, I’m ready to pull my hair out, and I’ve gone into his room at least once or twice by now, what’s up?
    I glanced at my husband who is usually as tired as I am, smiled and said quietly with a suspicious tone, “I’ll be right back.”
    I walked into my son’s room with the intent to cover him with his blanket, tuck it gently around his gangly little frame and kiss him on the forehead. Thinking I might find him, sneaking one more play on his Gameboy or munching happily on a Newman O, I found him with something much worse. I caught him under his covers looking at his new I-Pod that he got from his older brother. I was never in favor of that “damn thing” because I knew he could have access to the internet and I was not yet savvy enough to know how to put Parental Controls on it.
    I told my son that he could only play games in the presence of me and his Father, and I asked my husband if he could put some kind of password in so that our prepubescent angel could not get online. I had to trust this “intruder” to the least mechanically challenged person in the house.

    As I was pulling the covers back over his head, my hope was that he was just playing one of his favorite games like, Doodle Jump or Gunner. You know, goofy and fun games for a goofy and fun kid. But based on the alarm bells that were going off in my head and the sheepish look on his face, I knew I was going to find something completely different. I went on Automatic Pilot and heard that ole familiar mantra I had started to use, “don’t react, stay calm and wait.” I took the I-Pod out if his hands, told him it was time to go to sleep and reluctantly tucked him in and kissed him goodnight.
    By this time it was around 9:00 or 9:30pm and my husband has just settled in to a good program and was hoping to tune out the rest of the world till morning. He looked at my face when I walked into the T.V. Room and probably questioned whether he should run now while he still had the chance or just sit and hold tight till the storm blew over. He chose the latter. Neither one of us was even sure there would be a storm, but after Co-raising 5 of his children from a previous marriage, we both had a hunch, this was not going to be pretty.
    With a feeling of absolute dread, I slowly started to open the site that my son had been looking at, it became apparently clear that he was able to bypass any password protection. It was a You-Tube video of a woman performing fallatio on an unidentified man, in full color, graphic orgasmic detail, I was shocked. Not of the video mind you, I have seen video’s like this before. I was shocked that my beautiful innocent 10 year old son, who was just learning about “where babies come from,” was exposed to Pornography of this nature. “Please God; couldn’t his first time be with nudie pictures like the ones my brothers looked at in Playboy? Why this? A million thoughts went racing through my head. I was hoping that all he saw was the one video, but as I continued on there was more. My insides were churning and the tears came streaming down my face. “What could this mean? I thought.” Does he have any understanding of what he’s looking at? Is this going to affect the way he sees women? Can it impact his sexuality and his understanding of the values I am trying to teach him about love and lovemaking? Oh my God, I was freaking out. Not my baby!
    I looked at my husband and I could barely speak. I handed him the I-Pod so that he could see what our precious son had been looking at. I watched the look on his face, and I knew immediately that I was not going to get the response I was after. My husband and I are on the same page as to how to teach morals and values to our children, only this is a man, with a man’s understanding of sex, I needed a different perspective. He was tired, probably a bit confused and knew that anything he was about to say, would probably be wrong and he could see that I was about to explode, and I did.
    I walked out into the cold night and into the garage, I found the biggest sledgehammer I could find. I threw the I-Pod on the ground and began to maim and kill the “Intruder.” I hit that S.O.B. with every ounce of rage I had in me. I was aware at that moment I had completely lost my mantra, I was in a full blown reaction and it felt great! “Not my son you don’t!
    I proceeded to get in my car and drive about 10 blocks to a friend’s house. I knew I needed to be with a woman as well as a mother who would understand me. My friend is a dear and wise woman who raised three sons on her own. I trusted that she would know what to say, and she did. She let me weep and rage. She listened as I went on and on beating myself up for ever letting the “intruder” into the house. I told her that I had felt violated as if someone had just walked into my house, pulled their pants down and masturbated in front of my 10 year old son. “How could I have let this happen, I thought.” She gave me lots of hugs and gently shared her own stories with me and I started to feel better.
    I am a big advocate for a good cry, I believe it clears the pipes and leaves one with the ability to think clearly again. I went home, feeling absolutely spent and slept through the night. My husband and I prayed in the morning as we always do, and this time we claimed what we knew. We were one with God, and if God is divine love and intelligence so were we and so was our son. We claimed that we had everything that we needed to move through this new lesson in Earth School and we were actually grateful.
    My husband went off to work and I waited for my incredible son to wake up. When I greeted him, I told him that we had to talk, he looked a little nervous and I expected that. I told him that his Dad and I had seen what he was looking at on his I-Pod and were curious as to how he had found it and how long he had been looking at it. We had a long and informative talk and I found myself taking a lot of “deep cleansing breaths.” I proceeded to tell him that his sexuality was sacred and that fact was true for everyone in the world . That unfortunately the messages he was getting off the internet would not support his knowing that.
    My son asked me where his I-Pod was and I told him exactly what I did. I told him I was in a reaction, that I wasn’t thinking clearly and I just wanted to destroy the “intruder.” He then went into his own reaction. He proceeded to yell at me, and stomp around the house. He was obviously and understandably furious at me for taking away something that was so special to him. He marched off to his room and slammed the door; I’m sure with thoughts of never speaking to me again. I gave him time, the same kind of time I needed. I prayed and walked into his room hoping that he would be willing to hear me out, he was.
    I softly laid down next to him and didn’t say a word. I listened to him sniffle and waited for his next move. He laid his head on my chest and started to cry, through his sobs I could hear him say, “You don’t understand how important my games were to me.” I started to cry and held him closer and said, “You don’t understand how important you are to me.”
    Later that day, as we were walking out the door to the grocery store, the beauty and clarity of a 10 year old looked up at me and said, “I know why you did what you did Mom, and it’s ok.”

    • Ilana says

      Julie- I love it! My children are 4, 6 and 8. Two girls and a boy. We have not had to deal with their having access to the internet, just yet but I have been fearing it. I laughed along with your “that was too easy.” and the quiet we are so desperate for. When I learned what was really happening my laughter came to an abrupt halt. Thanks for the warning and for the record I cheered for you as you destroyed the “intruder”. Well done! Both the writing and the attack on the i-pod. IM

    • says

      Julie what an intense and terrible story. I agree-the images your son was seeing is a lot different than a Playboy centerfold. Kids’ sexual curiosity is a given, but they are exposed to a lot more of an answer than they need or can handle when they’re exposed to porn like that. I’m so sorry. And I loved your elegant solution! On the other hand, and I’m writing this as the parent of kids who are almost grown–I found that I couldn’t keep technology at bay forever. We were a no TV household for twenty years. I wouldn’t let my son have a game boy or video games for many years–which resulted in many tears. But at a certain point, somewhere in the early double digits, we realized that this was also part of their culture and that they would be alienated from their peers if they weren’t full participants. So the lap tops and the video games and Facebook and all the rest of it came into our home. There have been times I worried that it was too much or too many hours, but as kids get older, you have to trust them more, let them make mistakes. You can’t control everything. Now my son is going to be a sophomore at MIT–he’s home for a short visit and just told me he’s thinking of coming around full circle to video game design as a career. So you never know. But I’m still very glad I had firm limits when my kids were younger–and I stand by your decision to smash the intruder! I hope that you or your husband will find a way to talk to your son about the images he did see that day, even if he doesn’t want to hear what you want to say–even if he chalks it up to one more unwanted parental lecture about the objectification of women and the specialness of sex–it’s still out job to put out that perspective. Otherwise, those kinds of images and the misinformation from his peers will shape his erotic life for a long time to come. I also love that your son came around to feeling protected at the end. That’s always how it is, no matter how much they protest. Even if they can’t admit it for 20 years, they appreciate our boundaries.

  6. says

    I have no elegant or beautiful solutions–I only have problems. I am a skite with a kite without a wheel. I plummet and fall–and rise again. I say “no” when I mean yes and “yes” to test. I am a puzzle, a riddle, a galore. I wish I had beautiful solutions to problems, but I do not. I still puzzle over the problem–only to make it bigger and more of a puzzle. (I used to watch the wheel go ’round, now I watch the dogs fly..)

    I wish I were a puzzle–because then I could cope: I would just be a part of the bigger puzzle that has no end. Puzzle, puzzle, puzzle–you puzzle me so.. What am I to do with you, oh puzzle–you constrict me no more (but you do). Oh puzzle, please stop doing what you do to me: I do hope you do some-day..

    Puzzle, puzzle, puzzle
    Oh, my puzzle.

    • Ilana says

      Sangeeta- This flows so beautifully. I agree with Laura, it’s poetry. I also like how it leaves us a lot of room for interpretation. One of my favorite singer/songwriters said in a concert he did (before I was even born) that “These are as much your songs as mine.” He was saying that we take his music into our hearts and interpret the songs the way they are meaningful to us. Your writing welcomed me to do the same. Thank you for sharing it. IM

  7. Beverly Boyd says

    Sometimes I don’t know the answer to a problem until it is staring me in the face!

    My second husband had been an art dealer for forty years when I met him. We worked the business together for another ten years developing an extensive inventory of antiquarian (old) prints. Most were taken from books printed in the nineteenth century with beautiful illustrations: lithographs, hand colored engravings, and the like. Paul haunted used bookstores all over the country in search of inventory. Then he patiently and carefully took the books apart, releasing the prints from the stitching that held them. As he worked he made hand written notes on the blank page inside the front cover where often a bookseller had penciled in a price. None of these notes were thrown away. Gradually a pile of detritus from the task accumulated near his workspace, then was gathered and put in a box in case the information on them was needed later.

    When he died there were thousands of prints, each group in a plastic sleeve, sometimes but not always with their descriptive frontispiece and title page. Paul knew exactly what they were from years of experience…I needed any clue I could get…I consulted his old sales invoices to determine what he had been charging. Purchase invoices were not always a reliable source of value. Some had been “sleepers”: the dealer had not known adequately what he had, or he was willing to sell for less. Some were overpriced but too good to pass up. I turned to the “box”…by then a file box full of miscellany…for clues. Sometimes I would find a title page and blank page that went together with a group of prints by lining up the holes and creases left by the stitching. I could use the information to help me know what price to put on them. It was a tedious process and invariably I became overwhelmed and put it away for another day.

    One day after many years of frustration, I had a notebook full of the plastic page protectors from another project that I had taken apart. What to do with all of them? “The box” was nearby. A light went on. I could go through the box and start putting bits and pieces I was quite sure went together in a plastic protector. In less than a day two notebooks were filled with items grouped in the plastic sleeves. Only a couple of inches of my “puzzle” pieces were left in the box. One, in particular, fascinated me: a dealer’s invoice with only one item written in a peculiar, heavy self-conscious printing style: “Theobroma cacao”. Every time I worked with the box I would be drawn to the curious handwriting. I was not familiar with the dealer and I certainly did not know the print, but the price Paul paid was high enough that I wondered what it was worth..

    Later that year I took the box with me when I went to upstate New York. For three weeks I was able to stay in a house my son owned . Most of my inventory was in a bedroom he let me use to store it. The house was for sale and nearly empty so I was able to spread the inventory that I had been keeping in one of the eleven (!) bedrooms. The back part of the second floor was a hotel style hall about fifty feet long with eight rooms opening off to the sides. (The house built in 1840 by a wealthy lumberman provided rooms for guest to stay when they came for a fortnight!) I lined groups of prints up along the walls and on the floor of the hall as well as in the empty rooms. Then, able to see everything, I was able to match information I had put in the notebook to the prints and positively identify and to some extent evaluate them.

    One large botanical print remained unidentified. I had looked at it so often and wondered about it. I took it to better light so I could see each marking easily. In stylized letters under the intensly colored lithograph it said: “Theobroma Cacao! How could I have missed it? I compared it with the curious invoice to be sure! I still don’t know what that print is worth. Thanks to the internet, I do know that it is the botanical name for the chocolate tree!

    For more years that inventory has been sitting in my garage gaining value. I have been avoiding it for some time due to lack of space and energy and time. I’d much rather be writing! I still don’t want to become a dealer, but now I am determined to, if not sell it, at least leave my family better informed than I was. The problem of storing it safely also bothered me. I was fortunate to be living in an affordable situation with a large garage. If I moved I would have to replace that space with a second bedroom or a similar size storage unit. I wanted to find someone I could trust to help me with it.

    One day a younger woman I know through a mutual friend, called to tell me that Lois had died. She asked me if I was planning to go to the memorial. With a two hour drive each way it would mean taking a whole day. I said I was planning a trip soon and needed to work on part of the inventory I might be able to sell to a dealer in Baton Rouge. I described it as feeling like an albatross hanging on my neck. I wanted to feel that I was continuing to live where I was by choice, not because I couldn’t figure out what to do with all those valuable pictures!

    It happened that the swimming pool Jan used for her Watsu bodywork practice was closed for repair and she would not have a place to work for about three weeks. Once again my problem was answered. She agreed to work for me a few hours a week for a couple of weeks. It is now six months later and we have worked at least one hundred hours together. She is an absolute godsend.

    Once we started work it seemed more and more answers to problems were just happening.

    While sorting in the garage I came upon a small vial of gold tooth fillings my mother had collected. Then I practically stumbled in the door of a gold dealer a couple of friends had recommended while on an errand to help another friend. That little vial produced a tidy sum so I was able to pay Jan and have some of the large more valuable prints covered.

    Another friend offered the free use of a garage on her property that the city was requiring to have an illegal living unit removed. After the bathroom was removed I was able to use some of the gold money to help Ellen clean up the debris and buy some plywood to make the floor safer to walk on.

    It seemed like every time I told someone what I was doing they knew someone who could help me.

    I found someone to help me with Ebay sales of some of the miscellaneous items. Alan has research skills and focus, which I lack. We make a good team and he is enjoying the opportunity to learn about the old prints.

    My son, who is a work from home Dad, is going to take a few 20th century things and try his luck on ebay and in Dallas where he lives.

    I connected with an appraiser, (paid for by the gold!) and with Jan and Alan’s help and the generous space of Ellen’s garage we were able to be ready for him and had a very fruitful two hours of his time. As I suspected some of the items he appraised are worth eight times what they were when we bought them. Eight times what I was willing to take from the dealer in Baton Rouge to just take it off my hands and be done with it.

    The dealer wanted a list of what I have. I knew it would take days to provide it. Now I could give him that list but he probably won’t want to pay me enough to compensate for the time I and others have spent. I gave up a couple of time consuming activities I enjoyed to do it and my writing has taken a big hit. I still don’t want to be a dealer, but it seems I am getting the help I need from people who have the skills to sell for me.

    A real blessing is that the constant low back pain and constant fatigue I had for months is gone now. I no longer have the emotional load of feeling overwhelmed and unsupported. The albatross has become a swan now that I no longer have to carry the inventory alone.

      • beverly Boyd says

        Thank you, Ilana,
        It does feel like a triumph. Today Jan and I worked together beginning the process of finding each of those sets that belong with the info in the binder pages. Then I know more shal be revealed!

  8. Debbie says

    I have been thinking about this prompt all week – and could not come up with a post about solving a problem and then finding it was beautiful. Many situations came to mind which were exactly the opposite – something I thought was beautiful that turned out to be a problem instead.

    Oh well, I wanted to read what everyone had posted so I finally admitted defeat. It was that kind of week on a personal level. Looking forward to seeing what each of you has contributed. Thanks.

    • Ilana says

      Debbie- Thank you for acknowledging that you struggled with this post. I have gained great respect for you over the last several months (almost a year!) and it is encouraging to hear that we all have a hard time sometimes. I hope that you will feel inspired by the next one. Be well, IM

  9. Terry Gibson says

    My Elegant Solution

    “I’m taking Butch out,” I said, while I stood in the hallway outside Mom and Mink’s room.

    It was 7 a.m. on a Friday morning in August and I was reporting my activities to them, as I had to do all the time. School was out, which meant I got no reprieve from either of them. How I hated summer for this reason.

    No answer. Perfect.

    I unhooked our small black Lab from the indoor leash they kept him on. At least he wasn’t muzzled overnight like at other times.

    I bent down to pet him. Tears welled behind my eyes as I ran my fingers through his thin black coat. Gently, I inspected the cut Mom left on his head after hitting him with the broom for barking. I kissed his wound and then nose. “Come on,” I whispered. “We’re gettin’ outta here.”

    We descended the spiral staircase two stairs at a time, but not too quickly or loudly. I stopped to listen for footfalls from above. My hands were so sweaty the leash almost slipped out of my grasp. “Come on,” I whispered to our overeager dog. “Shh.” I unlocked the bottom door and we stepped out into the new morning. I secured his leash on the pole beside their Chevy Impala.

    Inside, I opened the door opposite the exit and flicked on the light switch with my left hand. On my way downstairs, my right hand lightly touched the wall as I brushed away a few cobwebs. The basement was unfinished and consisted of one main room and a smaller alcove where there was a huge hole in the wall. It was dirty and depressing down there but it was much better than the attic; for one thing, I could negotiate moving around with much more ease. Once in the alcove, I studied my old exercise bike as if for the first time; I pedalled that thing furiously every single day, twenty-five miles without fail and in sixty minutes only. This activity had become so necessary for me, even when I wasn’t locked in the basement, I went down to ride.

    I reached into the hole, grabbed the handle of the bright blue cosmetic bag and pulled it out. When I searched one more time, I found the paper I had previously hidden under our mattress. I folded The Ottawa Sun over twice and stuffed it in my bag.

    My hands were shaking so much. My cheeks were flushed with fear. I clung to the bag and started to climb the twelve stairs to the top. On each step, I stopped. I almost hyperventilated as I trained my ears to recognize any noise from the top floor. Voices. Angry yells. Sweat poured off my forehead. Time was disappearing fast. I stopped mid-stair and spun on my heel in sheer panic. Downstairs again, I realized I had no choice.

    I grabbed a painted brick and stood on the yellow milk crate. I used it to tap on the small window that had been painted shut for years. Sometimes Mark, a guy who worked with Mink, would be walking or running by late at night and talk to my sister and I through the opposite window. I wondered if it ever entered his mind that we were locked down there.

    The filthy window yielded quickly, but not before I got the feel for putting a little force behind my smashing. Carefully, I used my bag as a shovel to clear away the shards of glass and other debris. I tossed my bag through the open window free and clear, right beside where Butch rested. Although I couldn’t see him, I put my finger to my mouth as if I could. Shh.

    It was more than half done. I practically ran upstairs. I still took squeak breaks because I knew that every step in that building sighed and groaned when people even looked at them. Astute, I listened. I was like a mother bear with new cubs at her side, while danger was palpable in the morning’s already searing heat.

    I protected my plan from everyone including my sister; of course, I knew she couldn’t keep a secret for a doughnut, let alone to save my life. On rare Saturday nights, when Mom and Mink drove twenty miles to attend their Weight Watchers meeting, they let us roam freely about the apartment. During these times, we relaxed a tiny bit and I made frequent visits to Bennett’s Grocery and Ice Cream Shop. I always bought my sister some candy on these outings so she wouldn’t focus on the newspapers I stuffed under our mattress. After rewarding her, I hurried to our room and spread the paper open on the bed. I flipped to the Help Wanted Ads.

    I petted Butch again and thought about my job. “Be right back,” I said, knowing how badly I had to get away from my prison of stone. We lived in Brockport’s Post Office, a heritage building, which was so carefully preserved and admired. Yet, where they saw beauty, I saw jail.

    I started walking quickly. There was no traffic or people. That was good. As I felt my resolve tighten, I noticed the fresh coat of teal blue paint on Bennett’s store. As I passed by, I wondered if Mrs. Bennett was there even at that hour; she was the old grumpy woman who chased school kids down the street with her broom after they peeped in her window where she sat in her rocker. I was almost as terrified of her as I was of Mom.

    About my job. I had two. I worked as a cashier for $2.15 an hour on weekends at Canadian Tire. I couldn’t save much because Mom confiscated my pay the moment I got home. I did manage to keep a few odd pennies away from her though, so I had $5. Tomorrow, however, I worked at Howard’s Cottages, my second job, which Dick and Eloise, my best friend Pat’s parents owned. They were from Pennsylvania and were so nice to me. My sister and I worked there cleaning the little bungalows. After work tomorrow, I’d have $24 more, which would help a lot. I had no idea how my sister would react when I abandoned her at the gate after work but I just had to get to Ottawa.

    Two minutes later, I reached the foot of Foley Mountain and one of the two roads out of town. Directly opposite the road was the gate and laneway into Howard’s Cottages, which were situated on Lake Brockport. I loved that area. It was so green and the view was stunning. There were trilliums, Ontario’s flower, just beyond the bushes; I knew this because of when Mrs. Heywood, a Minister’s wife, took us kids nature hiking a long time ago. I took a second to survey my picturesque little town and then disappeared into the bushes, where I picked a spot, and set my bag down.

    Mom and Mink would be up soon so I hurried home. As I got closer to that fortress to hell, I noticed pressure building in my chest. My hands shook and I felt a bit disoriented. I gulped in deep breaths and tried to calm myself. No matter how terrified I was, I operated on instinct.

    Twenty feet ahead, a yellow Acadian approached. It slowed and a good-looking man rolled down his window. “Excuse me,” he said, with a smile, “do you know where the road to Perth is?”

    I was surprised to be confronted by someone at that moment. And I did not talk to anyone unless I absolutely had to. But Peter Frampton’s “Baby I Love Your Way” was on his radio and he had warm, kind eyes. I gave him the directions.

    “Great, thanks.” His tires were starting to move when I stopped him.

    “Are you going there now?”

    “Perth? Yeah I am,” he said.

    It wasn’t Ottawa but Perth was on the way. Before I knew what I was doing, I spoke again. “Can I hitch a ride with you?”

    He looked hesitant for a moment. Then he smiled. “Sure you can.”

    “Thanks. Could you stop at the foot of the mountain for a second?”

    He nodded that it was okay so I jumped in.

    A minute later, I ran into the bushes and returned to the car in an instant.

    “There,” I said, throwing my blue cosmetic bag—my only suitcase, containing all my earthly possessions—into the backseat. “I’m all set.”

    I was free. As the man’s car chugged up the steep incline, I left them all behind. My prayers had come true. Someone was finally whisking me away, far from the reach of my cruel mother and stepfather.

    • Laura Davis says

      Terry, thanks for sharing this part of your story with us here on the blog. It’s harrowing and I was rooting for you every step of the way. so glad to imagine you with your little blue cosmetic bag getting into that car.

      • Terry Gibson says

        Thanks Laura. I forgot to say that I was sixteen, though you and some others may remember that. A little blue cosmetics bag. Today I’d love to know what was in it besides maybe two diaries. It wouldn’t even fit a towel, I think! Wild memories …

    • Debbie says

      Oh my goodness, I was breathless as I tore through your story. I will have to read it again, now, just to savor the writing. What an amazing story, Terri. I was completely captivated. Thank you so much for sharing this!

    • Ilana says

      Terry- What an amazing story. Had it been a work of fiction I would have found it incredibly well written and engrossing. Add on that it’s the true story of someone I have come to care about and it became even more exciting to read. Good for you! IM

      • Terry Gibson says

        Thanks Ilana. I write it with a bit of distance but keep forcing myself back into my body. I’m continuing this under “A Mind Stretched” because mine certainly was on that day. Stirring up fresh memories and feelings I haven’t felt since that summer. Amazing that I even have the capacity to go back so far.

        • Ilana says

          Nice job, Terry-I understand your need to write with distance. I am currently struggling over that with a piece I’m going to share next week in my writing group that is geared toward survivors of incest. A little distance might make it easier. I also wanted to share with you that I am 90% sure I will be at the retreat November 9-11th. I am seriously considering going by Ilana during the retreat. Be well, my friend and KOKO. IM

          • Terry Gibson says

            I could be there myself. It’s not guaranteed. My chances aren’t as high as yours but if you get there, I hope you enjoy it. If I get there, I’ll be happy to say ‘Hi,’ and hug you when or if it’s okay.

          • Debbie says

            Ilana – I am so glad you are going to experience one of Laura’s writing retreats. She is masterful at facilitating not only the writing but also in creating the chemistry of community. I predict you will cherish this experience!

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