Sunday, May 27, 2012

Summer Housekeeping Report #1

It's not actually summer yet, but it's beginning to feel that way. A string of days in the mid-80s, the garden out back actually starting to look like something. Absolute panic on my part when I think about keeping children entertained for the next eleven weeks.

So I have that summer feeling, which is akin to a New Year's feeling, which is to say, that feeling that makes you want to get everything in tip top shape and organized and clean and breezy. You want to shed all heaviness--heavy food, heavy blankets, heavy blanketings of dust on the furniture.

To that end, I've been cleaning out closets. First, I tackled the upstairs linen closet, forcing myself to stuff a huge bag full of sheets and towels we never use (but I've kept on hand "just in case"), the lovely Winnie-the-Pooh pillowcase my mom made for Jack, which he seems to have no use for anymore, go figure, and yes, even quilts. Bad quilts. Quilts that serve no purpose in my life, as they are, well, ugly.

After the linen closet, the downstairs hall closet. Forced myself to chuck shoes that I once loved but will never wear again, even though in their day they were quite fabulous. I love shoes, but there's no point in getting nostalgic over them. Life's too short. Also abandoned Will's tennis shoes from first grade, his cleats from second grade, his basketball shoes from last season that had to be replaced three weeks in due to a sudden growth spurt ...

And yesterday I did something I've been meaning to do for ages and ages. If you're like me, you rip recipes out of magazines even if there's only the remotest chance you might make them some day. Maybe you've been reading a lot about quinoa lately, and Cooking Light has five pages of quinoa recipes. Rip, rip, rip. You've never been able to pass up a recipe for cold sesame noodles, and here's one in Wednesday's cooking section of the paper. Rip. And so on, until you have several cookbook's worth of recipes--that you never, ever make. Never. Why is that?

I don't know. It probably has something to do with the fact that my children protest just about anything that doesn't involve a slab or red meat or macaroni and cheese. So I dream, but my dreams come to nothing.

Yesterday, I sat down with several binders and a pile of page protectors, and I put together three cookbooks. Well, first I got real and threw 85% of my recipe collection into the recycling bin. I have recipes that are eighteen years old that I've never once attempted. Actually, I held onto a few of those, just because they from my early married life, and it's fun to see what kind of cooking I aspired to back then.

The remaining recipes I put in one of the three binders: Summer Cooking, Fall and Winter Cooking, and Everyday Cooking. The everyday recipes are the old standbys--the Cheesy Chicken Chowder, the cold tuna pasta Salad, the spaghetti pie--my greatest hits, so to speak, the recipes I hardly need recipes for anymore, but can never find when I go looking for them.

It was a big job, but I sat out on the screened porch and listened to the Snap Judgement podcast, and I got 'er done.

So all this to say, mostly what I've been doing the last few days is walking around and looking in closets, and in the laundry room (really my laundry closet; it's a miniscule space),  where my out-of-control recipe collection lived. Everything looks spiffy and organized. Next up, the shelves over the washer and dryer, which are filled to the ceiling with things we no longer use. Hello--fingerpaints, anyone?


Bread and Roses was one of my favorite housewiferly blogs for a long time running, but it's been on a sabbatical for close to two years. Now Dulce's back and posting on a fairly regularly basis. Go visit her and say hey!

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Picture Day

I don't think I've ever posted a picture of one of my children on this blog, but I like this picture so much, and I've written so much about Jack lately, that I thought I'd go ahead. Here's me and Jack earlier this week after an award ceremony:

Isn't he cute? This picture made me realize I don't have many pictures of me and the boys. Lots of pictures of the boys together, but I think this is the first one of just me and Jack since Jack was three.

You know what I like about this picture? I like that I like it. I think it's a nice picture of Jack, naturally, but I think it's a nice picture of me, too. Which is good progress. Because while I would like to lose twenty pounds (with the specific goal of losing ten pounds this year), and I can look at this picture and see that, yes, it's true, I really could use to lose weight, it's not something I'm making up, I don't cringe with embarrassment.

Not too long ago I would have, but I'm trying to reform. I think I've spent a lot of my life being hard on myself when I should have been gentle and vice versa. I have not been kind to myself about my looks. Well, if you've struggled with your weight all your life as I have, you know the story. But as I approach fifty, I'm trying to talk to myself in a nicer tone of voice. I take myself out for walks and to the gym, not to lose weight, but to stay healthy. I eat less sugar because I feel so much better when I do.

I've lost about six pounds this year without dieting, mostly by cutting back on sugar and being mindful about my eating. Some days I still overeat because I'm tired or stressed out, but I'm getting better about paying attention to what my body says about what I feed it.

But enough about me! Take a look at Jack. He's so tall now! And he had a good time at the dance, though he only stayed about an hour and a half. He claims to have actually danced. He wanted to take a book with him, but I wouldn't let him. When I dropped him off at school Friday evening, his advisory group was gathering to go out to dinner, and the girls were all dressed up. I said, "Jack, the nicest thing you could do right now is be present for those girls. This means a lot to them, and it would be nice to show them that you care by talking to them instead of reading." And he put his book down on the seat and got out of the car.

Oh, there's hope for him yet!

Friday, May 18, 2012

Friday Report

So we thought Jack had killed his laptop. He spilled water on it Tuesday night--only a tiny bit, he insisted--and the screen scrambled, and it seemed like the gig was up.

Jack was upset. Very upset. Like he'd just had his heart broken for the first time. Like his house had burned down. His life as he knew it was over.

I myself had mixed feelings.

On the one hand, like most mothers, I can't bear for my children to suffer. Their heartbreaks are my heartbreaks. Their tears are my tears.

On the other hand, I really hate that laptop.

Jack's laptop has turned me into the computer police, and I'm so tired of it. A year ago, when Jack used my computer or the Man's, we had strict computer rules. Did they get broken? All the time, but we still had a modicum of control.

But when you give a boy a laptop, it's harder to stay on top of the situation. You make rules, and the rules get stretched. And stretched some more. Just a little bit at a time, until they get stretched out of shape and you can't quite remember what the rules were in the first place.

So last night, after Jack's laptop had had forty-eight hours to dry out, and Jack and the Man were ready to reboot, I didn't know how to feel. For Jack's sake, I wanted the computer to come back to life. But part of me wished it dead, dead, forever dead.

Well, it's alive. Jack scurried up the stairs with it, happy as a little clam. And I'm happy for him. But I'm back where I started, weary and tired, wishing computers had never been invented. Or that at least we'd never gotten Jack his own laptop. Pandora's Box--now how do we get the snakes back inside?


In other Jack news, he's going to his first dance tonight. One of my prayers for Jack this year has been that he would find a group of friends at school, and he has. The kids in his advisory are a great group, and when I go to pick Jack up in the afternoon, he's always hanging out with a bunch of them, talking and joking around. This is the boy that last year at pick-up was always sitting on the low wall outside the school, nose in a book, never making eye contact with anyone. Now he's out there cracking jokes and being velly, velly witty.

So one of the girls in his advisory decided they should all go the the school dance together, and Teresa, their advisor (and Jack's French teacher, bless her heart) offered to take them to Outback Steakhouse for dinner beforehand. So it's a date! A big night for all. And a great social step forward for Jack. He claims he's only going to stay at the dance for a little while, but who knows? Maybe he'll find a glass slipper in the stairwell. Maybe he'll turn out to be someone's Prince Charming.


Weekend plans: writing, gardening, biking, quilting, cleaning. Maybe cleaning. Probably not cleaning. How about you?

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

There are so many interesting things to tell you, but I just don't have the time. For one thing, I'm busy being a seventh grade room parent. This would be an easy-peasy job but for one tiny error I made at the beginning of the year: I agreed to help "coordinate" the end of the year seventh grade pool party.

Mistake. Big, bad mistake. It sounded like an easy job at the time. According to the PTA president, all the pool party "coordinators" had to do was check in with all the seventh grade advisories to make sure everyone was on top of the pool party situation. Bring sunscreen, don't forget your towel, that sort of thing. No biggie. My fellow room parent, Ellen, and I happily volunteered.

What the PTA president didn't tell us about "coordinating" the seventh grade pool party: That we will be in charge of finding a pool, ordering 30 pizzas, hauling in 280 bottles of water and keeping them cool, and we will be paying for everything up front. We'll be reimbursed later, of course, but you know how much this party costs? A thousand buckaroos. That's right: Ellen and I will have to shell out a ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS to get this party started.

I protest. Fortunately, so does Ellen, and she's going to talk to the PTA prez about how she might consider joining the rest of us back here in Reality City, where people often don't have ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS to spare.

Here's the thing about having a kid at a school like Our Fine Middle School, which is, as we like to say, an independent school: You will find yourself among people who don't give it a second thought when the president of the PTA says "By the by, you'll be reimbursed for your expenses of ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS." Not only are some of these folks nonplussed, they're talking about spending three hundred non-reimbursible dollars of their own money on beach ball party favors.

The seventh graders will not be receiving party favors. Not only can I not afford it, the fact is seventh graders don't deserve party favors. Everybody knows that.

So, anyway, my time right now is being spent having anxiety attacks about planning the pool party. I wish I had time to tell you about the lovely Mother's Day I had, which included a marvelous bike ride on Durham's famous Tobacco Trail. This is the first time we've gone bike-riding as a family. Will has only just gotten comfortable enough on his bike for an outing like this, but now that he is, I foresee a lot of family bike rides in the future. After we took our ride, we got frozen yogurt, and Jack only said four sarcastic things. Bliss!

Less blissful: On top of "coordinating" the 7th grade pool party, I'm also having to consider the pros and cons of getting braces, because that's what my new dentist wants me to do. I don't have to get braces, but he thinks I should. I don't know. I'm torn. But I'll have time to think about it next week, during my root canal. Yep, there's that, too. The good news is, I'm such an old pro, the thought of having a root canal doesn't even faze me. The fact is, I've gone through drug-free child birth (not on purpose, it just worked out that way), and next to that, a root canal, especially one involving heaps of Novacain, is a walk in the park.

The bad news? Guess how much it costs?  ONE THOUSAND DOLLARS. I'll be reimbursed through my dental insurance, but still, I'll have to pay it up front. The Man is seriously wishing he'd checked my dental records before he proposed. I don't blame him.

So, yes, what fun we're having! I hope you're having fun, too! Only maybe in a different, funner way!

Friday, May 11, 2012

Quiet, Please


This morning, instead of reading the newspaper and listening to the radio the way I usually do, I ate my eggs while reading Gladys Taber's The Book of Stillmeadow. And when I took my walk, instead of making to-do lists and planning out the day's errands, I did my best to pay attention to the birds and the flowers and the trees, to actually notice them instead of wandering past them lost in my own mental chatter. 

My mind has been too noisy lately. My state had its primary this week, and smack dab in the middle of it was a controversial amendment that caused a lot of hateful talk on both sides. We've also got a famous politician on trial right now, and every morning the paper carries all the sordid, ugly and awful details. Really, it's just too much. 

So I'm trying to be very quiet. It has occurred to me recently that I am welcome to disconnect. If I don't listen to the news or read the paper or check online, I might be uninformed, but my head's a better place to be. And why do I need to be informed that people hate each other? That powerful, narcissistic people believe themselves above the law? That no one is all that interested in peace?
Taking my walk this morning, I was reminded of a Wendell Berry poem called "How to Be a Poet," in which he writes, "There are no unsacred places;/there are only sacred places/and desecrated places."  Looking at the trees and the flowers, listening to the birds, feeling the cool air against my face, I knew I was in a sacred place, that the whole world is infused with God except where we've fouled it with our waste and our hate and our ugliness.

A quiet mind. A mind that can read for long stretches of time without being distracted, that can follow a thought through to its conclusion, that can pay attention to what's right in front of it. My mind's not there yet, but I'm working on it. I am practicing being as quiet as I can.

How to Be a Poet
by Wendell Berry

Make a place to sit down.   
Sit down. Be quiet.   
You must depend upon   
affection, reading, knowledge,   
skill—more of each   
than you have—inspiration,   
work, growing older, patience,   
for patience joins time   
to eternity. Any readers   
who like your poems,   
doubt their judgment.   


Breathe with unconditional breath   
the unconditioned air.   
Shun electric wire.   
Communicate slowly. Live   
a three-dimensioned life;   
stay away from screens.   
Stay away from anything   
that obscures the place it is in.   
There are no unsacred places;   
there are only sacred places   
and desecrated places.   


Accept what comes from silence.   
Make the best you can of it.   
Of the little words that come   
out of the silence, like prayers   
prayed back to the one who prays,   
make a poem that does not disturb   
the silence from which it came.

Source: Poetry (January 2001).

Tuesday, May 8, 2012

Honeysuckle Days

I'm sitting here on my couch, silly dog by my side, with the window open so I can smell the honeysuckle. The honeysuckle vines, which run rampant through our neighborhood, are the great gift of May. All you have to do is open a window or walk outside, and the whole world smells sweet.

Sometimes when my children are driving me nuts, I remind myself of the things I like most about them: They are great appreciators of Christmas traditions. They love the beach. They think it's a marvelous treat that I let them have a can of soda (Coke for Will, Dr. Pepper for Jack) on Fridays, and would never dream of asking for one on any other day. They both love the dog, even when they hate everyone else. And they both love honeysuckle. They're excited when they see the first vines in our front yard. They grab handfuls of blossoms and nip off the ends to squeeze out tiny drops of nectar.

I think this bodes well for them. They are the sort of people who find delight in the small pleasures the world has to offer. This is good.

The pictures in this post are from the various gardens in my neighborhood. They're last week's pictures, which makes them completely out of date. Every day I walk Travis down Spencer Street and up Woodburn, down Marion and up Sevier, and every day something new has appeared. I'm starting to think it's magic. I'm starting to think that every night little people bound out of the woods with spades and plots of plants and get to work. It's nuts.

Yesterday I had lunch with my neighbors Amy and Katherine. They are lovely people, and I'm so glad we're getting to be friends, but I already have a significant Amy and a significant Kathryn in my life. Adding two more to the list will only serve to confuse things. I'm wondering if I can get the new Amy and the new Katherine to adopt nicknames. Fifi and Babs. Coco and Roz.

A weird thing happened at lunch. Amy, after much discussion with the waitress, ordered a veggie burger. Amy has been a vegetarian for thirty years. So when she took a bite of her much discussed veggie burger and realized it was a hamburger, suffice to say she was upset. Nonplussed. Freaked out.

A lot of people I know, especially a lot of the committed vegetarians I know, would have had a fit. But Amy took a deep breath, then said, "I need to go walk outside for a minute," before leaving the table. While she was gone, the waitress came over and asked if everything was okay, and almost cried when Katherine and I explained to her what had happened. When Amy returned, the waitress come back to the table and apologized, and then the manager came to the table and apologized.

Through it all, Amy was extraordinarily gracious. She accepted their apologies, agreed that it was a mistake and that mistakes happen. She was lovely.  Her compassion for animals clearly extends to human beings.

And after all that, we still had a good lunch. The waitress brought Amy a real veggie burger (and didn't charge her), we all ate Katherine's french fries, and we gossiped about the gardens in our neighborhood. Katherine told of her cat's strange and somewhat sinister history, and Amy promised to teach me how to cook with tofu. After we paid, I grabbed the receipt for my taxes, because I knew I'd have something to write about.

And I did.

Friday, May 4, 2012

Friday Report

I'm trying to work up my enthusiasm to clean the kitchen. I tackled the mudroom earlier (straightened the shoes, swept up the dust, crammed all the newspaper bags into one big bag, kicked Will's lacrosse equipment into the Man's study), because I always feel neat and orderly when the mudroom is neat and orderly. But the kitchen is a bigger, badder job. Still, after the mudroom, it's the spot that gives me the most bang for my cleaning buck. A clean, shiny kitchen hums "La-dee-da, all my ducks are in a row," every time you walk through.

But it's so much work to clean it, especially after Jack's been cooking. Jack made a lemon tart for French class (they're doing a unit on food right now) last night. He's getting better about doing the dishes after he makes his pies, but still doesn't understand the concept of wiping down a counter. So there will be lots of sticky stuff to contend with.

Speaking of Jack, he turned thirteen last Friday. It's a big deal, except for the fact that he's been acting thirteen for three years now. He got a new bike and some computer stuff and some books. I don't think he said thank you for any of it. In fact, I don't think he's said thank you since he turned thirteen three years ago. We'll have to work on that.

Yesterday, on my walk I met my neighbors Kurt and Carolyn. They live next door to the garden pictured above (the one cultivated by shy people) and have quite an impressive garden themselves. Kurt told me he doesn't garden so much as collect plants. Here's a picture of a lily from somewhere in South America:

Here is the truth about Kurt and Lily: They are plant geeks. I mean that in the nicest possible way. You can just tell they think plants are the most interesting things in the world, and they talk about them in an informed and interesting way and then stop before you might get bored. I'm glad to know them.

The kitchen is calling me but I'm ignoring it.

This morning after my walk I decided to take a quick trip over to the Sarah P. Duke Gardens. I haven't been in ages, and this is the time of year to go. I thought I'd try to learn a bit more about the plants of my region and enjoy the flowers. And I did learn, and I did enjoy, but you know what? I prefer the gardens in my neighborhood, especially the messy, crazy ones. I'm not really an orderly person, when you get right down to it. Somebody better break the news to my kitchen.

So what are you doing this weekend? If you have the urge to clean somebody else's refrigerator, let me know. There's one sitting in my kitchen, and it's calling your name.

Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Habits of Mind

Every day is a new walk. I decided this morning that this is my mantra. First of all, it's true. See the picture above? This is my favorite intersection in my neighborhood, where Woodburn and Sevier cross. It's a majestic corner, with towering oaks that lean slightly over the road as if to say, This is ours, all ours. Even in the winter, the trees are mighty and imposing, skeletal though they may be.

I took the above picture yesterday. Here's today's picture:

That's smoke coming up from the sewer line. I don't know why there's smoke coming up from the sewer line exactly, though apparently there are official reasons that I was supposedly notified about. The smoke gave the intersection a ghostly, mysterious sort of feeling. Really, half the time this neighborhood feels enchanted; this morning, even more so.

Every day is a new walk. I've been reading books on Buddhist psychology lately, which I tend to do during stressful or busy times. Some days my mind is a bad neighborhood, and Buddhism--by which I mean Buddhism-Lite for Westerners--offers me practices to turn off all the hoodlum voices that make me feel even more stressed and tense.

What I keep hoping for is a way to be happy all the time, and by happy I mean free of stress and anxiety and conflict. When I am happy I want so badly to bottle it, to somehow save it for later. Many mornings as I've walked toward the intersection of Woodburn and Sevier, I wish I could live my life in that moment of beauty and sublimity.

Well, I can't. I just can't. I can't meditate or pray my way into a stress-free, conflict-free, anxiety-free life, and it really irks me. Or at least it did until I came up with my new mantra: Every day is a new walk. Every day I get to have these moments, if I pay attention, if I decide to be present. Every day will have its share of new anxieties, but there will also be opportunities to open my mind to beauty, compassion, kindness and joy. It's all there, and it can't be saved for later.