Sunday, December 15, 2013

The Empty Rooms (Part 2)

The following story is the final post in the Seven Rooms series.  If you missed part one of the Empty Rooms, click here: 

 After locking the door to the apartment, I carried the vacuum down to my white Chevy and drove two miles home. Lately things were looking up financially. I now had the bonus check from this cleaning job to look forward to, and a second job working on a landscaping crew to begin the next week.  A friend whom I met at the garden center owned a lawn maintenance company. Although it was unconventional to hire a white woman to work on his all male Mexican and Guatemalan crew, he knew of my situation and offered me the opportunity to help with edging and trimming lawns while his guys drove the mowers.  Over the next several weeks, I would ride around the city in the center seat of a truck between two young men, both named Jose'.  We stank of sweat.  The truck smelled like old lunch.

The two Jose's learned English by listening to the radio and watching television.  I learned more Spanish by listening to ranchero songs and their occassional conversations.  Mostly, we just worked.  Sometimes we ate lunch in the truck together and I nodded my head a lot.

At the end of a day operating a gas weed whip, I could barely lift my hands to my mouth to drag on a cigarette.  It was a brutal workout, and I often asked for help pulling the start cords.  The younger Jose' would be the first to come to my rescue.  After work, I was often too exhausted to fix a meal and would come home and belly flop on my bed.  Perhaps it would have been easier to drive a mower all day, but being new, I was happy to do the grunt work.  It was thrilling to work outdoors, visiting beautiful neighborhoods and completely free of the burden of talking.  There was no need to explain anything about my current situation because of the language barrier.  I just worked all day, ate a little, and slept.  It was a good way to survive the first summer when Emily was gone, having much needed time with her dad.  I was working too hard to have time to be an emotional wreck.

The truth is, I was a walking bag of pain.

And my harassing co-worker at the apartments knew this.  It's funny, but even while he tried every single day to get me to laugh at his dirty jokes, tried every hour to get me to pay attention to him in any kind of way, I developed a soft spot in my heart for him.  I was in this strange situation of feeling creeped out and full of pity.  What an odd turn in my life. I hadn't planned on growing up to wear steel toed boots and a tool belt, becoming a maintenance apprentice for this dirty old man driving me around in a rickety golf cart with bags of garbage and plumbing parts rattling in the back. The confusing part of my dilemna was that he genuinely liked people and wanted to be everyone's friend. It was difficult to ignore his enduring qualities, which took the edge off my disgust. On our routes around the complex fixing things like leaky garbage disposals and caulking bath tubs, he would talk to the residents about their lives and made them feel like someone cared.  For many, this was a rare gift to be seen as a person with feelings and problems.  One sunny day at the end of my shift, Frank (not his real name) pulled up to our workshop in the creaky golf cart and stopped to talk with a man sitting on the steps with a cloth laundry sack at his feet.  Frank was asking this man about joining the Moose Lodge and going out for a drink.  They talked about someday going sailing in the man's sailboat. In the middle of this conversation, (Frank was a long talker), the man unexpectedly interrupted to ask who I was.  Clearly annoyed at the interruption, Frank said, "oh, that's just JEN."

When the man reached over Frank to shake my hand and introduce himself, I was surprised by a feeling of instant recognition that passed through me like an electric current.  The charge of the moment made Frank feel defeated, and so he abruptly crafted an excuse to lock up the cart and put away tools.  I went home with the memory of that introduction floating around in my soul.

Some tall, dark and gorgeous man wanted to know my name.

I didn't know this, but before that meeting on the steps by the laundry room, my new friend had noticed me walking with my blue plastic bucket and my trash picking tool.  He was sitting in his car, and while I walked within his line of sight, he literally heard a voice in his head say "there goes your wife."

He shook his head a few times and wondered if he was going mad, then drove to work.  He forgot about the woman with the bucket and the voice until he saw me again at the steps.

A few days after that first meeting, I saw him at the mail boxes with a cocker spaniel.  I was driving home, but gave into a magnetizing impulse to stop and roll down my window. I said "hi" and we talked for a few minutes.  I asked him where he worked, and when he said (insert name of company where my ex husband used to work) I squelched an urge to step on the accellerator and drive out of sight. Ignoring that impulse, we discussed the idea of having coffee.   I gave him my number.  He repeated it to himself over an over on the way back to his apartment, which I learned later was the same apartment that I had been asked to clean.

Discoveries like this tell me that in life, there are no coincidences.  There is a plan in the making, and with our willingness to participate in blind faith, God shows up in a big way that will leave you with vertigo at the magic of it all.

My new friend was a humble guy who owned some clothing, tools, and a guitar.  He had a few dishes and a couple of pans.  He had been living on a sailboat before moving to our city, and the apartment he was now renting was devoid of furniture. What he lacked in material wealth, he made up for in emotional riches and layers upon layers of intelligence.  There was a depth to our conversations that sparkled with energy and light.  If I had been feeling sorry for myself, the pain of my suffering would be cared for in his tender understanding.  He was also recently divorced, and when I asked him where he was originally from, he said "misery."

But you wouldn't know it.  He wasn't the feel-sorry-for-me kind of person.  He was a survivor and a champion.  When I was invited to his apartment for dinner, I opened the door to this:

An empty room, suddenly furnished with a cardboard box table, covered with cloth and set with tin foil candle holders and tea lights.  Music I was comfortably familiar with played on a stereo, and the sound of a meal sizzling in a pan mixed with a delightful aroma was my welcome. I walked in to find him at the stove, dish cloth over his shoulder, tending beautiful little cuts of breaded veal and some vegetables.  No man had ever prepared a meal just for me. When we sat on the floor in the tea light, with this beautiful and simple gormet meal in front of me, I looked up into his smiling face and cried.

In every bite, I tasted kindness.  Care.  Compassion.

I didn't talk very much while he cleared the table and began to wash the dishes.  I think I just stat there in stunned emotion while he talked and washed up, too overwhelmed at the gift and the atmosphere of love he had created.

I went home and replayed the entire evening in my head until sleep finally came.  In the morning, everything was new.

Wishing you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New year from my family to yours!

Sunday, December 8, 2013

The Empty Rooms (Part One)

While I was able to comfort my infant daughter when she cried during the night, during her childhood there were many times when nothing I could do or say would stop the tears.

The first day of kindergarten was traumatic.  When the bus arrived, five year old Emily, looking fresh and smart in a plaid skirt, locked her desperate arms around a telephone pole and refused to get on the bus.  The driver invited me to ride along with her, and my acceptance of the offer was the only way she released her determined grip.  This new situation of school struck terror in her heart.  As I sat in our seat, the children in the rows ahead turned to stare at us.  Again, as with my failure to uphold the advice of Ferber, I gave up trying to be the socially acceptable firm parent.  My daughter was crying, and it weakened my heart to see her suffer.

In the years that followed, Emily would have to change and adapt to a new school five times.  Most of those moves happened in the middle of the academic year, when classroom friendships and loyalties had already been established.  By the time we found ourselves in North Carolina, I remember feeling a wash of helplessness as I sat on the edge of her bed while she cried about yet another new school with a completely different set of expectations and people.  Her second grade teacher said she was silent and withdrawn.   The instability of our many moves was making a negative impact, not only on Emily, but on my relationship with her father. So many moves in such a short time prevented me from continuing my education or establishing myself in a job. I wondered if the tendency to pack up our family and relocate was a predictable pattern that could go on forever.

I became more isolated with each move.  More desperate for a sense of autonomy, friendship and empowerment.  When I saw a sign advertising "help wanted' at a local garden center, I called the number and was invited to an interview the following day.  After five minutes of this interview, I found myself shaking hands with the owner and agreeing to start on Monday.

Here's a brief version of what happened next:

I fell helplessly in love.  With my job growing baby plants in a beautiful greenhouse.  I also fell into a terrible situation with the grower.

And then suddenly I was standing in the empty rooms of my first apartment as a single parent.

 Emily had to change yet another elementary school.  And later say a heartbreaking goodbye to her dad when he moved back up north four months later.

Emily's wounds were so deep and raw during that time, and my self hatred and desperation so acute, one day I took her for a drive so she could scream at me and kick the back of my seat until emotion would subside in the rush of exertion.  We came back home to that spare apartment with white walls, defeated and drained at the unfairness of it all.  People wondered when I would give up and move "back home."

Even I wondered. Especially when the garden center closed and I lost my job.  Especially when the state couldn't find a record of my employment to offer me unemployment benefits.  Especially when I found myself at the department of social services, waiting a dreary eight hours in line for food assistance.  People wondered when I would give up and go home. The sight of an under-weight person is something that makes people feel uncomfortable.   I did honestly consider going back to Michigan, but at that time of struggle I experienced an unseen power holding me steady in place. An invisible magnet seemed to keep me driving the same routes every day, leaving me without a common sense explanation as to why I felt so strongly rooted to this place.  All of my family lived over seven hundred miles away.  Friendships were light and casually floated on the conversations of small talk.  Or, they were negative friendships based on unmet need.

I'm beginning to recover from a time of great stress and survival in this photo.  I don't have pictures of me at the lowest weight as we didn't have a camera.

It was a hard, dark time.  But in the middle of this grieving, there were signs of hope that life was going to improve.  I found a part time groundskeeper position at an apartment complex that allowed me to be home every day when Emily was home from school.  At my new job, one co-worker was sexually harassing me.  Every day, as I rode around in his dirty golf cart while we picked up cigarette butts in the parking lot, I listened to his lame attempts to get me into another bad situation.  I would come home and shower, never able to completely wash out the creepy feeling of his hungry eyes.  I kept going to work every day in spite of the shame. My mom sent funds to help us pay a month's rent while I waited for my first check, and the food benefits and medicare for Emily started to arrive. Later, my ex decided to start sending monthly funds and to call Emily every single day.  We made friends with other single parents and their children in our building and formed a little community of support.  I let go of my desperate hope that the grower would ever appear in my life in a positive way.

One year after my separation, I filed for divorce.  Soon after the papers were in process, my supervisor asked  if I would like to have some extra work cleaning an apartment for a new renter who needed to move in within the week.  Normally this job was already done by husband and wife, but they were out of town and in order to seal the deal on the new lease, this apartment needed to be ready for move-in in three days.

I worked for six hours one afternoon, degreasing a stove, scouring tubs and tile, cleaning windows and blinds.  I left the empty rooms with a feeling of accomplishment, wondering about the people who would make this place a home.

As I locked the door, I had no idea that this wouldn't be the last time I would see the inside of these empty rooms.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

Emily's Nursery, The Fifth Room

I remember that I have left you at the moment I'm saying goodbye to my roomies and my freshman dorm room.  Someone wondered whether or not I was able to return and complete my studies.  Yes, and no.  I was able to return for my sophomore year, this time sharing an apartment with Heidi, Heather and Stacy.  This was a tough year for me, as my father was undergoing cancer treatments that nearly killed him. Frequently he was in and out of the hospital.  My mother was unable to leave his side, so I was unable to visit.  When a friend from high school learned of my dilemma, he offered to drive me back and forth on weekends when he wasn't working.

This high school friend later became my first husband and Emily's dad.  You can learn a lot about a person on a long drive.  You can talk in an easy manner while the world rushes past the window.  You can light up a smoke and listen to rock music, without caring about much of anything.  When it doesn't feel possible to accomplish anything, dreams fade and the comfort of a dependable, kind friend sets in.

 Three months after I married my friend, whom I also loved, we discovered that we were expecting.  I was totally unprepared for this news.

I had just signed up for classes at another university.

After holding my acceptance letter with conflict in my heart, I cancelled my participation in those courses because I had no idea that I could be a mom and a student at the same time. (I do know that it's possible now, but then, I had no confidence.)

So instead of books, we bought a rocking chair and a crib.  Both sides of our families threw us baby showers.  We lived in a lower level apartment, so the windows in the bedrooms met the ground. The window in Emily's nursery was large and let in the morning sun.  There was soft tan carpet on the floor and a large closet to hang the tiny little dresses we received as gifts.  My mother crocheted a white sweater set with a bonnet, and a little pink sweater with matching booties and some darling little buttons in the shape of flowers.  It was delicate and soft and I have kept it all these years.

Emily's nursery had a crib with a mobile that played music, and a night light that emitted yellow star shapes on the ceiling.  In one corner stood a laundry basket full of stuffed animals, in another, a small cabinet for baby books and lullaby tapes.  Every nap time and every evening, I would rock this new, pink skinned, beautiful miracle in my arms while I sat in the corner of her nursery, listening to the lullaby tapes and learning to sing all the lyrics.  Was it those early months of lullaby singing that imprinted something?  Emily has a beautiful voice and has loved to sing since the time she learned her first nursery songs.  She grew up to join the choir in middle and high school.   I know that one of the things she loves to do is to sing in the car when her favorite music comes on.  Her voice is beautiful and strong and if she would let me, I would take her to a college and encourage her to sign up for a music major.

 In the nursery, the world outside faded into nothing and I fell into a routine of attention, nurture and play.  She had a little white quilt with a cross-stitched teddy bear on the front, and I would lay her on this soft blanket, watching in amazement how she learned to reach for the stuffed blocks just out of her grasp.   When she was a little older, I hung a bouncer in the archway and sat cross legged on the floor, soaking up her delight in the freedom of baby bungie jumping.  If you happened to call me on the phone during these months, you would hear my voice rambling...  "Emily learned this today, and this, and this..."  She was so bright and smart and noticed everything.  She was afraid of strangers though, and would cry if they talked to her in the grocery check out.

  Emily was my entire world.  For the first two years I didn't work or take classes. I lived an hour and fifteen minutes from my parents and we only had one car.  There was no internet, and if there was, I didn't own a computer.  Phone calls were expensive.  It was just the two of us.  Emily's dad worked second shift, and took on as much overtime as was offered, so we didn't see him much.  I didn't have any friends, but I had a beautiful baby girl with blonde curly hair. She wasn't fussy very often, and so most of the time we were free to play, take long walks, watch Winnie the Pooh videos and sing.  I put off laundry until it was a mountain in the closet, left dishes on the counter, and responded quickly to the sudden arrival of tears or frustration.  I held her often and had a baby backpack to carry her in when we went shopping.  People called her spoiled.  Now they call it "baby wearing."

Then one day, when my husband thought we might need some socialization, he introduced us to some friends he met though work who were also new parents.  These parents were fans of parenting books and recommended that we read The Ferber Method to help Emily fall asleep on her own and sleep through the night.  I read the book, thinking that this was something I was supposed to do, and we tried it.

   Emily screamed and screamed at being left alone in her crib.  Her voice was piercing and the neighbors pounded and pounded on our ceiling for her to be quiet.  I kept thinking there must be a gentler way to do this, but my husband was determined.  My parents, God bless them, invited us to try the Ferber method at their house.   Emily screamed herself sick.  She put her chin over the side of the bars and gagged herself in distress.  I would go in to reassure her at the appointed time, completely heartbroken at her misery.  At five am, my father said, "that's enough." He had survived his cancer battle, and lived to be a grandparent!

   Back at our apartment, Emily and I shared a family bed from then on.  She was later able to fall asleep in her own bed if I would hold her hand or sit with her for a while, but usually would come in to crawl on my side of the bed at two a.m.    Her will was stronger than mine.

But what, in the end, was so wrong about that?  I wanted a happy baby who felt secure, not a baby who was traumatized by the fear of abandonment.  And by the time she was fourteen, she was so independent that she was able to make the very tough decision to live away from me.  The things we worry so much about usually are things that don't ever matter in the end.   I'm thankful now that I had those precious, fleeting years for just the two of us.  It was a gift more important than my college degree.

Sunday, November 24, 2013

219 Woldt: the fourth room

     I am eighteen and on my way north, to begin my post secondary education.  This is a dream for my parents and an exciting time for me.  I was accepted into the university that I wanted to attend, despite my low ACT score in math, which proved that I graduated from high school with a third grade understanding of numbers.

     Neither of my parents had been to a university, so this was new for all of us.  I had a few suitcases, a box of small personal items, a hair dryer and a curling iron, my winter coat and boots, and bedding.  We hauled everything up the stairs, and my father seemed out of breath when he reached the top. Mom made my bed.  There were supposed to be three other roommates to share my address, but none were present on my arrival.  We looked in one closet and noticed a band uniform.  My parents breathed a huge sigh of relief at the sight of it, and felt confident that as a former band student, I would easily make friends with the owner of this sharp looking wool suit with brass buttons gleaming in the dark closet.

     They hugged me goodbye.  My mother was crying.  From my window on the second floor, I watched my parents wave to me on the sidewalk, then walk out of sight.  For the first time in my life, I was truly alone.

     And I stayed that way for what seemed like an eternity while I unpacked my belongings in silence, listening to someone's stereo shouting out something good, something rock and roll and bluesy, down the hall.

      What an awkward situation to suddenly be living in a dormitory and have a complete stranger insert a key into the knob and walk in.  Having only ever shared a bedroom for one week with my brother, and never knowing what it was like to have a sister, I was suddenly faced with a new challenge and no past experience to strengthen my confidence.  I felt completely unsure of myself. To make matters worse, after unlocking the door, Julia Roberts walked in.

    Yes, I mean the movie star, Julia Roberts. More specifically, her exact duplicate in a nineteen year old form.  When she walked through the threshold, she found me standing in the middle of the room, feeling like the smallest ant, feeling like a goofy nerd with short brown hair and glasses (why, why did I think having my hair cut before going off to college would make me look more sophisticated???) and Julia, whose real name was Heidi, smiled one of those smiles that only Julia Roberts can do, with that oversized mouth and perfect teeth...

    And became my friend.  I loved her from that awkward first moment when her long, blonde frosted hair made me self conscious of my dark, short curls.  Who could not love Heidi?  She was lively and excited and totally enthusiastic that I was her new roommate.  This was a welcome that I hadn't expected.  I listened and nodded my head in silence while she told me everything.  Heidi loved to talk, and during her rambling, up and down discourse, my shy insecurity gradually began to melt.  I learned that the two other "roomies" were her best friends from high school, and that there was once a fourth in their room, but this girl had partied too much last year and went home.  So the three who were left were incredibly nervous about who would be assigned to 219 Woldt.

    Those three girls were like a little family.  I became their adopted sibling.  Heather (another blonde, and so full of humor ---in a dry, sarcastic, witty way) was Heidi's best friend. They shared a bedroom on the opposite side of our tiny living room.  Just before classes were to begin, Stacy moved into my side of the dorm.  She was like me in many ways, practical, dark haired, serious about school, wise, and kind.  She was the grounding energy to balance the emotional swells and rushing currents of teenage girls headed into adulthood.

     They took me to all of the parties.  They took me to the dance clubs.  We studied together in our living room, but they did not go to the library with me.  When I needed to remember who I was again, the college library was my sanctuary.  I even got a job on the sixth floor, working in the Historical Library.  Once I was scheduled to work at eight a.m. and was so hung over (perhaps still intoxicated?) that I slept with my head in the microfilm viewer and dry heaved in the trash can.

     I probably almost died in 219 Woldt.  The night before, someone had given me an enormous super sized cup full of some red substance called Slow Gin. I think they had mixed it with some kind of sweet soda pop. I lost my mind drinking that stuff.  By four o'clock the next afternoon, I was still heaving, confident that soon my demise would release me from the spinning, brain shattering pain. Thankfully there was a picnic going on outside and Heidi made me go down and eat a hot dog.  After eating, I felt like I would maybe live.

     Heidi called me "little roomie."   Little Roomie was a term of endearment, and made me feel loved.  When I was a child I played on a softball team and was named "LJ," short for "Little Jenny."  At five foot two and a half (maybe), I'm usually the shortest person in a room, unless there are children around.  Once I was directed to move along in a straight line at my daughter's elementary school, and most recently I was nearly trampled by a crowd of munchkins after a theatrical production of The Wizard of Oz.   Maybe my short stature brought out the nurturing mother in Heidi.  Even though her best friend was Heather, she always showed me love and kindness.  Long after I left college because of my father's first cancer battle, which began five months after I moved into that dorm room, it was Heidi who made an effort to reconnect.

     That freshman year, I witnessed and was sometimes a part of the ongoing drama of 219 Woldt.  It felt like living on the set of a soap opera.  There was always some event to rage against, cry over, or laugh ourselves sick over.  My roomies always included me in everything, keeping me up late and talking, talking, talking.  Sometimes I felt like I needed to remember who I was without them.  I found an ad for a used loft for my twin mattress,  and that became another sanctuary.

    The first time I caught a glimpse of my adult identity, I was in the loft.  I had a paper to write for an English comp class.  I made my bed and climbed back up the ladder with a mug filled with  fifteen brand new, sharpened pencils and a spiral notebook.  I looked at the instructor's teaching on the scope of the paper and felt discouraged.  I didn't want to write on any of those topics.  But just sitting up in the loft, on my soft quilt, looking at the cup of perfect new pencils, I experienced a mindful moment; I was suddenly far away from friends and family,  fully aware of myself as an individual person with a soul and a purpose.  I savored the process of writing,  finding deep pleasure in the simple act of meshing the graphite pencil tip onto smooth lined paper, feeling the loveliness of thinking through a problem.  Although I was at college to earn a teaching degree, in that moment I recognized myself as a writer and felt a kind of love that no one else can give, a kind of love that suddenly happens within a soul when you recognize that you have been created to simply enjoy life and add a bit of goodness to it.

   It felt completely natural to write.  I felt whole and good inside.  Happiness started to flow into my being, along with contentment, security, and peace.  While standing next to my movie star roomies, who were always, always good and kind to me, I still felt like I was somehow less in their limelight.  But on the page, I could be fully myself without considering whether my hair was right or how dumb I looked in plastic frames.  I didn't have a need for anything when I was writing.  No need for a boyfriend to like me or take me to the movies, or kiss me at a party.

     After Christmas break, I returned to my roomies and a new set of classes.  I was scheduled to retake college algebra, which I dropped the first semester.  After a few weeks of transitioning back into my dorm life, I discovered an inner confidence that was unfolding in the act of writing.  The distracting drama of my roomies was always present, but I also had a new gift.  I needed to protect that secret joy found in solitary writing.

Then, one weekend, I was called away.  My father was diagnosed with small cell carnioma. A rapid growing cancer was spreading like wildfire in his lungs.

   It was hard to keep going to classes.  One day, I just lay on the floor of our dorm and cried and cried, like a baby who has no way to comfort herself.  I cried and could not be consoled, even by Stacy.  Finally, exhausted and empty, I stood up to face my life as it happened to arrive. In the following months, I stopped being the adopted younger sibling of my roomies, but an adult with a real problem that had nothing to do with teen drama, boys or parties.  I went home for the summer, hugging Heidi with tears in my eyes, not knowing if I would return.




Sunday, November 17, 2013

My Childhood Bedroom

     At the end of a narrow hall, on the right just past the bathroom, behind a brown door with a metal knob was Jenny's room.  When you opened this door in the Seventies, you would see pink walls, red carpet and a white canopy bed decked out in pink and white gingham ruffles.  There were two windows, one facing the east, one facing the north.  This room had a small closet with a hinged door, so that it folded out when opened. Inside the closet hung a row of  dresses handmade by my mom and pressed with care.  On the closet floor there were three pairs of shoes: a sturdy and practical pair made of brown leather with flat laces, my favorite black and white saddle shoes and one white pair of dress shoes from Easter Sunday.  In winter, I just wore boots which we stored in the basement.

     In this pink room, before it was moved to my play area in the basement, there was a child sized table and chairs that had belonged to my mother. It was made of a beautiful golden colored maple, with corners that had been angled and shaped into a hexagon so that tiny children would not walk into a sharp corner.  On this table, my mother and I would host tea parties with a set of small blue and white china dishes that she saved from her childhood.  There was a little tea pot, a creamer and sugar, beautiful tea cups with saucers and plates.  My mom would make real tea for the pot and fill the sugar bowl with real sugar.  Sometimes my brothers would have tea with us, and then it was like a little holiday feast.  We took nibbles of Saltine crackers and sipped the tea, which none of us really liked, even with sugar.  But having something real to play with made this imaginary game a sensory experience which stayed with us.  It felt special and important to be trusted with my mother's miniature china set.  With those dishes, I learned the meaning of fragile and how to be extra careful with something valuable.  A crushing memory of my teen years shows me slamming my bedroom door so hard in my mother's face that some of the peices of her little china set flew off their perch on the corner shelf in my room and were broken.

     Before I was an angry, sullen and independent youth, I kept my dolls and a few stuffed animals in my room.  I had a large stuffed turtle with yellow legs and a big floppy head.  He had a red and white shell that was big enough to "ride."  I had a Raggedy Ann doll with a music box buried in her chest that played Brahms Lulaby. I wound the little metal loop on her back to start the ticking clicks and tinny notes that sounded as if they were being played far away and in some mysterious and faded past.

     There was a framed prayer hanging over my bed, the classic "Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep," crosstiched in pastel threads with outlines of a butterfly and a child resting on her knees, palms together, head bowed in pious reverence. There was so much to pray for, even as a young child.  I once cried myself to sleep over the sad story of how my friend came to own her Raggedy Ann.  The story was that while driving home in the rain one night, they saw something laying on the side of the road.  When they pulled the car over, there lay this red headed rag doll, with dirt on her face and her dress torn.  They picked it up and brought her home with them.  I remember crying over the thought that this doll had endured such a trauma. As I grew, my prayers took on more desperation as I began to learn about the world.  Once while reading my mother's Bible called "THE WAY" I read a story (inserted among the scripture passage) about a family in Ethiopia who were starving.  The story included photographs of a child with a distended stomach and no clothing.  I remember praying for people who really had nothing, feeling guilty and ashamed that I had so much comfort.

      As I grew, the little table and chairs were replaced by a sturdy student desk which my father made down in his dirt-room workshop.  It was heavy and made with a hinged top that I had to be careful not to drop on my head whenever I was cleaning out the old papers and coloring books inside.  One winter day, after I had been sick, my mother cleaned out the desk and discovered a long row of little pink chewable tablets that she had been giving me to help with my fever. Instead of standing over me while I ate my plain toast and drank my disgusting glass of bubbly Vernor's (ginger ale), she trusted that I would naturally want to feel better, and expected that I would obediently take my medicine. Being stubborn and sneaky and not wanting to taste that powdery little pill, I hid the tablets in the farthest back corner of my desk, behind papers, crayon peels and pencil shavings.

     Being the only girl in our family meant that I didn't have to share a room. Once my parents decided to move Roger in with me while the room he shared with Ken was being repainted.  I remember how exciting it was to have a roommate.  We jumped from bed to bed and kept eachother up late talking about silly things.  At the end of the week, Roger moved back into their freshly painted room, and I was alone.  For the first time, my bedroom felt like a lonely place.

     Maybe that was what happened as I became a teen.  The little pink room with the sunshine streaming in through that eastern window just became lonely.  I had a need to be out and to grow up, to make my way in the world with new people.  It was natural that one day I would leave.  It was natural that one day I would know what it felt like to be the one to have an empty room at the end of the hall, just wating for a daughter's return.




Sunday, November 10, 2013

The Second Room

The Sun Kitchen

     As I sit with the remembered images of my family in Michigan, most of the time I find them in the kitchen, gathered at the table, playing a game or sharing Sunday breakfast.  The sun streams in from the eastern windows, filling the space with morning.

     I see Dad when he was living with cancer, playing Cribbage with my brothers and my husband.  Sometimes he's there alone, filling in a crossword puzzle, sipping hot black coffee.  

     I see me, sitting in the vinyl covered metal chair, trying to eat the bowl of egg drop soup that had become the source of my misery.  My father had taken a Chinese cooking class, sharing his new culinary skills with us; skillfully making broccoli dance with watercress in the wok, frying delicious wing dings and dropping eggs into a bubbling broth.  I enjoyed most of these delicacies, but something in my imagination prevented that soup from touching my lips.  It looked exactly like a bowl of snot.  It grew cold, and looked  even more like gelatinous mucous, with thick globs floating in a yellow sea.  It smelled funny.  It made me weak, but at the same time, stronger in determination.  If anyone wonders why I find it easy to sit in silent worship with Quakers, it's because I had been practicing my silent sitting at the dinner table for years.

    Have I mentioned that I was living in the south for eight years before I learned that the nickname of a female donkey is "Jenny?"  I sat at our kitchen table in front of my egg drop soup like my animal namesake.  The rule in our house was that we must finish our meal before asking to be excused.  It was a long evening of concentrated determination, a battle of wills between my father and I.  But something in me knew that eventually I would be excused and allowed to go to bed.  It felt like an eternity, a purgatory of wating for all those seconds to tick past.  Eight thirty finally came, and Dad gently called from the living room, "you're excused, Jenny, go to bed."

     The kitchen was often a place that I wanted to avoid, simply because so much work was always going on in there.  In the summer there were jars everywhere and piles of vegetables to can.  While this chore was done joyfully by my father, and cooperatively by my mother, it took weeks of snapping, scrubbing, washing and manipulating hot jars fresh out of the pressure cooker.  Every day there was an evening meal to prepare that normally included several vegetable side dishes, a main course of meat, casserole or soup, and on the weekends, a little dessert.  My mother was an excellent baker and a wonderful entertainer.  Our large extended family often gathered for holidays in our home, where all the counters and tables were filled to the far corners with plates of cookies, pies, cake, jello salads, potato salad, ham or turkey, breads, chips, fresh vegetables to dip, olives and pickles or some wonderfully tasty invention.  I learned how to make all of these dishes from observation, but mostly from putting on an apron and standing for hours at the counter with ingredients in the midst of transformation, or at the hot steaming sink, washing endless dishes.

    So I had mixed feelings about the kitchen.  In my room, I might smell something fantastic like hot pancakes and bacon on the first day of summer vacation.  Then, with the promise of an entire three months of sunshine and green grass underneath my bare feet, the kitchen would be my first happy place to start the day.  Sometimes our kitchen would be a long corridor to navigate, stealthily through the obstacle of this question, "Jenny, will you help with..."   Groaning inside at the thought of the book and the tree that had to wait for my return, I hung my head and said, "yes, Mom."  I was not a cheerful worker.  I acted like I was a prisoner in a work camp instead of a child who had abundance.

   In my teen years, I lamented that in our town there were no fast food restaurants.  Everything we ate was grown in our garden or made from scratch, aside from bags of potato chips, crackers or pasta.  My parents were foodies before foodies were popular.  By the time I went away to college, I suffered from the loss of my parent's cooking.  The cafeteria food made me fat.  My first summer back home, I nearly cried at the taste of a cucumber.

     The kitchen was also a place where my father patiently tried to teach me simple algebra.  Poor Dad!  My brain rejected the use of letters in place of numbers like my taste buds rejected the swirly whites and yolk floating in egg drop soup.  I was a hopeless reader of books, a dreamer with a craving for escape.

     My grandparents sat with us in the kitchen, around our table, often.  Card games with my parents would go into the early hours of the next day.   I have this precious memory of my grandfather, hunching up his shoulder before slapping down his winning card.  My dad was the toughest gamer to beat.  So when victory came to any other player, the hooting and the hollering were heard through the whole house.

   I have a rich life of memories in that kitchen, where my mom still prepares beautiful meals for us when we gather.  Each time I return, stepping through the threshold and into the kitchen, I return to all of us, and feel each stage of my life well up inside.


Monday, November 4, 2013

Seven Rooms to Keep Me: The First Room

Seven Rooms to Keep Me

The First Room

     In our three bedroom ranch that sat in the middle of our neighborhood, there was a full walk-out basement.  In the seventies, it was divided into three distinct spaces; a great room with our furnace, water heater and steel support pole in the center, a laundry room with a double basin utility tub and electric washer and dryer, and the dirt room.  The dirt room was named for the mountain of earth that stood behind its heavy steel door.  The previous home owners left the basement unfinished, not minding the presence of so much loamy soil, richly full of worms, bugs and spiders, their legs and bodies crawling and squirming just under floor where they walked, ate and watched television.  I suppose we all live this way, with the earth under our feet, but to have this brown dirt mountain encased in an unfinished room downstairs would creep me out today.

     Perhaps this unfinished aspect helped my parents negotiate a fair price, for if problems could be fixed by steady labor, skill and patience, my father put on his jeans and went to work.  Rolling his t-shirt sleeve over a pack of Kools, he picked up a shovel and started hauling.  His vision was for this room to store row upon row of home canned vegetables which he would grow by the bushels in his farmer's sized garden.  Hunger in childhood was the silent machine operating behind the motion of his muscles, the memory of scarcity and suffering manifested in his sweat.  The dirt room would also become a second workshop for maintenance projects and handmade gifts he would craft in the late hours, away from curious eyes.  Christmas was his favorite holiday, the element of surprise a sacred law to preserve magic for children.  

     Yet first room that kept me--- busy and active during the long, cold, gray and wet Michigan winter was the great room of the basement, the place where my imagination was free to follow inner leadings, uninterrupted scenarios taking shifting forms in the theater of my mind.  My capacity for dreaming and pretending expanded below the surface and business of family life; down in the basement I discovered me.  The basement was a place for solitude and discovery, quiet except for the mechanical operations of water through pipes and footsteps overhead.

This great room had a smooth cement floor and painted walls.  One year the walls were covered in texturized "popcorn" paint, which we loved to pick at with our fingers, leaving white dust flecks on the floor.  It was once a space for learning to ride a bike received at Christmas, but most often my personal roller rink.  I had a tan plastic record player which I placed on the water heater, enjoying my mother's collection of vinyl records.  Jan and Dean's Dead Man's Curve was my favorite skating music.  I laced up my bright blue roller skates and whipped myself dizzy around the basement floor,  feeling a connection to pop stars who drove around hairpin curves at a deadly speed. 

     In the farthest corner of the basement, a child sized set of appliances stood with a wooden table and two chairs.  "House" was my favorite game, and still is today.  What was once the serious work of childhood is now a form of serious play.  Back then, I was very protective of my imagination and when a neighborhood friend would come to visit,  I was often bossy in my "house," failing miserably at my attempts to have them play my way.  I never wanted anyone to mistreat my dolls or be careless with my toys. Today I'm learning to let go and live with clutter and processes beyond my control.  It's a happy life when you learn to let go.  It's taken me a very long time to stop being disappointed that every person plays "house" a different way.  Because of those differences, I now celebrate that a family home is a shared space for learning, togetherness and love.  Down in the basement, when it was just was me, my Raggedy Annie, and a set of pretty blue flowered dishes, I was content in the blissful solitude where conflict and negotiations were not present.  

     The great room of the basement was also the room where we outfitted ourselves for a day of play in the snow.  At the big glass sliding door, facing the eastern sunrise, we sat looking out over the perfection of a white landscape where no feet had made their impressions, thrilled to the soul by this magic that sparkled in white gems and promised to float softly on our faces, landing like tiny cold feathers which instantly disappeared on our warm skin.  Through the glass door of the basement, we saw an expansive land of white covering the gently rolling fields and our stately elm transformed by shimmering, glistening crystals.  Once covered fully in snowmobile suits or bibs and coats, mittens, scarves, crocheted hats and boots, plastic baggies over socks and inner layers of long johns, corduroy pants and turtle necks, we were ready for the hill.  This was the same hill that the builders dug into to build the basement.  At the base of the hill a tall pine tree grew that marked the property line between neighbors.  It was our favorite hill despite the obstacle: this tree taught us how to steer.  Riding down the hill on our toboggan, three of us together with our dog, is one of those childhood memories that becomes more sacred over time.  I once read a writer's admonition to be careful with writing memories, because once written, the writer is left with the written version in place of the image recollection.  Although a sacred flash of past feeling, I now dare to write what it felt like to be smooshed all together on that wooden toboggan, me in the back, Roger in the middle, Kenny holding on tight to the rope in the front.  We yelled together all the way down and fell over in a pile.  When we later learned downhill skiing, the separateness of the sport left me nostalgic for a sled.

     When we were called in for mugs of hot Ovaltine on the stove (disgusting stuff, but warm anyway), we would go back in through the basement door, peeling and peeling off the wet layers of gear.  We carried our mittens and socks upstairs to dry on the registers, where the forced air would suddenly fill the room with the scent of steaming wet wool and polyester.  It was a fresh smell, like laundry in the rain.

   Below us in the basement, the dryer clicked with the sound of zippers on sopping wet snowsuits, and we patiently waited to go out again, running through the drifts under the stars.

Sunday, November 3, 2013

Seven Rooms to Keep Me

I have been debating this thought:  should I take a complete break from blogging?  It's been kind of an off and on, hit or miss occupation for months.  While the impulse to write is strong, I feel hesitant about either subject matter or the insecurity that arrives with a habit of "oversharing." I feel drawn to engaging in life with my family and absorbing the beauty of the outdoors.  Technology is so addictive and habit forming; the internet captivates my interests and feeds my searching, wondering mind... but stands as a barrier against my creative writing.  With so much out there, why bother?  What could I possibly add to the massive amount of text that we'll never in twenty lifetimes be able to read?

 Then I remember that the heart of blogging is about the friends I am blessed to have here, and to stop would mean that I've become silent and withdrawn.

There has been so much I've learned in this space and I still feel like I'm growing from it.  It is a home were I find comfort. In one way that's wonderful, but in other ways, the comfort aspect allows me to be lazy with writing, and also incomplete in a fuller expression of meaning and imagery. I've discovered that critical academic type writing is not something I'm prepared to jump back into, but sometimes I feel like I must at least try to stretch my muscles on projects with a focus and deadline.

So at least for now, I'm continuing here.  A writing prompt I discovered in an old text book from the library has renewed my courage.  The prompt is to write about seven rooms in your life.  Knowing that places and people can open doors when there are writing blocks, I jumped at this thought and decided to post, in a series of installments, Seven Rooms to Keep Me.  I plan to post one per week for seven weeks, and finish near Christmas.  With my busy sewing season growing dormant, it's time to nourish my love for language again, while working through the challenge of spending too much time with technology and not enough time outdoors.  Unfortunately the first installment was written on a word document, and I need to figure out how to send it to my desktop computer so that I may print and retype it here.  The sun is beaming outside, with fall bursting everywhere!

I plan to have the first of Seven Rooms ready by tomorrow. I hope you enjoy this beautiful Sunday,

In peace,


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Jack Pumpkinhead from Oz is Visiting

Evening television has been silent in our house lately.  We're wrapped up in the magical world of Oz.  Last night, we decided to create a hands on learning activity for our literature unit.  We love the neurotic Jack Pumpkinhead character and his "parent" Tip.  With a lot of help from Richard, whom Elliot calls a "genius" for his ability to take a few found materials and transform them into just the thing we were all imagining, we now have a storybook character proudly standing in our back yard!

Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Gift of Passing Time

I used to carry on my shoulders a bag of anxious desperation.  While there is a seemingly permanent stress knot at the base of my neck and left shoulder, I'm learning how to manage the pain and the feelings of anxiousness that arise with each new and unexpected set of expectations.  It's not often I speak about the particular challenges related to managing the multitude of tasks that one accepts when they adopt a more independent lifestyle.  The value and the wealth that arises from choosing home education and handmade industry have enriched my life more than any other regularly paid job.  But it involves much more activity than I was prepared to handle at the start.  Thankfully, though the blessing of adaptation and an open mind, I'm now enjoying a more vigorous engagement with life and my community.

How did I get here?   To this place where it just feels so right to be doing exactly what I am doing, stress knot and all?  In the beginning of this blog I wrote extensively about my uncertainty of a career path, and figured that one day I would be back in the workforce wearing a professional wardrobe, doing lots of important stuff.  Making a monthly salary.  Impacting the community and adding value.

Thank you God, for the grace you have given us.  For the gift of this time.

I have a gratitude that runs deep for this sacred gift of passing time. For this is a time when I took big leaps of faith and kept on living while also carrying fear.  Despite the insecure risings of uncertainty, I will always remember with fondness the daily blessings of family togetherness and the opportunity to experience life on a deeper, less pressurized, level.  We now have time to engage in the things that we find fascinating and satisfying.

It seems odd to me that as a child, my favorite subject was reading, but I did not read many of the classics that I'm now enjoying with Elliot. What grace to have a second chance!  We have dived into the pastoral and the fantastical worlds of  E.B. White, Mary Pope Osborne (Elliot's favorite series), Johnny Gruelle, Lewis Carroll, A.A. Milne, C.S. Lewis, Tolkein, William Kotzwinkle, Felix Salten, and Michael Morpugo. While I read most of these aloud, Elliot is currently reading aloud to us the second book in the Oz series by L. Frank Baum.  We've tasted daily poetry and fallen asleep with magical characters left hanging on the page, awaiting our return.

Mixed in between my enjoyment of the classics I missed, I'm also discovering a development in my own literature tastes, which seem to be departing from fiction and more into paths of wisdom and philosophy.  I'm reading Rilke's Letters at the moment, which are complex enough to satisfy the seeker's need to climb, revealing at the summit a landscape of  bright and beautiful meaning.  For those who would appreciate it, here's a passage from The Wisdom of Rilke, edited by Ulrich Baer:

Rilke writes,

     "I have by now grown accustomed, to the degree that this is humanly possible, to grasp everything that we may encounter according to its particular intensity without worrying much about how long it will last.  Ultimately, this may be the best and most direct way of expecting the utmost of everything---even its duration.  If we allow an encounter with a given thing to be shaped by this expectation that it may last, every such experience will be spoiled and falsifed, and ultimately it will be prevented from unfolding its most proper and authentic potential and fertility.  All the things that cannot be gained though our pleading can be given to us only as something unexpected, something extra: this is why I am yet again confirmed in my belief that often nothing seems to matter in life but the longest patience."

This longest patience is a willingness to let things just be the way they are.  To let people be the way they are, including yourself. When you are unable to give yourself lots of money or the "right" career, you can simply give yourself an appreciation for the passing of time to enjoy all the extras that arrive as gifts.  The gifts that are arriving seem to keep showing up without my effort to shape some sort of professional image or conventional package.  I cannot tell you what I am anymore.  I love to write, but am not really a writer by trade.  I love to create, but am not what a critic would call an artist.  I love to think and contemplate, but that habit sometimes lands me in trouble, especially when I think I've found a solution for some problem.  Very often I don't understand fully what I'm meant to do here. Time keeps passing, falling through my fingers, and no matter how much I'd like to cling to these years, they are fading fast.  Maybe this is why life feels so fresh and good.

Friday, October 25, 2013

The Happiness Jar

For my birthday this past spring, I asked for an empty jar.  This jar was to be the start of a mindfulness practice in which I would pay attention to the happiest moment or experience from each day, write it on a scrap of paper and drop it in the jar.  During a particularly dark time over the summer, I stopped making daily entries.  But now I'm finding that the heavy oppressive clouds are clearing, and I've resumed the practice once again. I thought it might make an interesting post to share some of the entries as we head into the weekend. I hope you enjoy!

This year, the happy moments were simple experiences that filled my heart:

Making my first quilted hammock for Emily's birthday gift. (She cried when she received it and told me that it meant more than any other gift she'd received).

Reading a love note from Richard that said "you wow my soul."

Visiting an old friend who I had not seen in a long time.

 Richard came home from work and asked Elliot what the best part of his day was.  Elliot said, "When you came home."

A bike ride in a rain shower, under a full rainbow.  Everything glistened in a mix of droplets and light.

Driving Richard to work early in the morning.

Sitting in our swing chair with Elliot while the sun warms our faces on a crisp autumn day.  Ozzie and Annie are at our feet.

Watching a lecture by Meng Tan about happiness, compassion and his quest to create the conditions for world peace in his lifetime.

A day at the water park with Elliot...riding the runaway raft ride while he tells me to "yell really loud!"

Walking through the woods to the lake, feeling the warm breeze and listening to the gently lapping water at the shore.

Date night at McCoul's with Richard.

Remembering to simply lay in bed in the afternoon and listen to music.

Summer vacation in Michigan: camping on the shores of Lake Huron, swimming in the cold waves, basking in the sunshine.  Riding to 7 Eleven with Emily for fountain cokes after dark, overhearing a local man tell a story that ends with the line "Well, I guess it's time to go home and finish drinking!"

Sitting outside all day with Elliot while he rescues an injured baby dove.  After dinner, it flew away.

A long run at sunset.

Elliot reading The Wizard of OZ aloud to us.

Blog friend visits (multiple entries in the happiness jar).

Elliot's birthday party.

Discovering forgotten money.

And there are many more, but this post is getting rather long!  Have a great weekend friends!

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Heart Wind in October

The leaves are turning, falling, floating, and I am too.  This month I'm experiencing a gentle lifting, a release and a drifting expansiveness. Perhaps it's simply experience and exposure to more people through taking big leaps of faith.  I feel a heart wind carrying my soul; instead of struggle and conflict, it's completely effortless to simply live and love.

If ever there was a year to remember in our home education, it's this year.  I want to remember every single day of  Elliot's fourth grade.  This year, we joined a science co-op that is so popular and filled with so many children that we stay all day.  Elliot has many friends to share this incredibly wonderful "Science Friday" experience, which began when a high school science teacher converted a large house on a big rambling property into an alternative education haven.  The property has a large yard for running, a hobbit house, woods, a pond and trees with swings.  Inside, every room is dedicated to experiments, labs, creative projects and presentations. No one lives in the house, which came to this brilliant and loving teacher through an inheritance.  Parents from all  over pack up their children and picnic lunches and begin arriving at ten, some staying until three.  It is a social event, a hands-on learning experience, and THE highlight for all who attend.   The feeling of being surrounded by the families who share this journey lifts our souls.  The lonely feeling that we started with is now a memory.

Recently we were invited to a birthday celebration for a girl with a large family.  As Richard and I are also blessed with large families, being in the midst of this vibrant, joyful group helped us reconnect to a part of ourselves that we often supress while living out of state.  Celebrating milestones with multiple generations of grandparents, cousins, aunts and uncles was a regular part of my life growing up.  It's no secret that I often feel isolated and detached from the loving people who helped to shape my perceptions and values.  The loving energy that surrounded us during the party helped to heal the absent feelings of losing my "tribe."  I fell in love all over again while I listened to Richard talking with the great grandparents.  He brought out their stories and funny, unexpected lines that had everyone laughing and feeling good.

Later, I learned that Elliot's best friend Aiden told his mom that he likes our family so much he wished that we were part of his family.  His comment was so thoughtful that when I think of this boy, I just sit in silent awe and gratitude.  I once worried so much that home education meant that Elliot wouldn't have many friends to see every day.  The outcome I didn't expect was the deep bond that happens between home schoolers who have the opportunity to develop friendship over years.  Instead of being separated every year by shifting classes and teachers, they can learn and play together over the entire course of their time in school.   Aiden and Elliot appreciate one another, share similar interests and challenges, and also are the sweetest, kindest boys!   These two also connect with their unique sense of humor and delights us as parents to see them together.

Woven within the social events, I'm also riding a heart wind creatively.  Elliot is a huge part of new developments in the artistic department.  When he asks me to try to make something with him, I always say yes.  Making is a big part of learning, and because it's fun, we tend to invest more time and push the limits of our abilities.  This year is also exciting as Elliot is entering a realism stage in his art.  The details of his drawings and use of colors are starting to take on more complexity.

And costume making this year is also becoming more complex.  I'm allowing myself to experiment and to keep trying new things.

Many of you have already seen this one...but it is just another example of the expanding of our potential as we work together on projects.  I wouldn't have even attempted this if it weren't for Elliot.  He did most of the design and helped to construct it.  I want to remember this time when Elliot's imagination and potential grew wings and soared to new levels of achievement.

We are having too much fun to stop this crazy project based learning!  I hope you all are having a wonderful, uplifting fall season. Thank you to everyone who continues to share in our journey and continually blesses us with friendship and support. We appreciate you more than you know.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Looking Like a Kung-Fu Master, Feeling Like a Wimp

During my current renewed interest in fitness (which happens in sporadic bursts), I discovered the secret to feeling skinny.  The secret is to buy a pair of bigger pants and a baggy, comfortable shirt!  Instead of being a psychological trick allowing more permissiveness in my diet, the baggy pants help to switch on the positive stream of consciousness.  And positive is the way to go during increased effort at the gym.  Positive thoughts keep me going, and not just in the area of health.

This is how Elliot saw me last night, wearing my light gray baggy pants and lighter gray baggy shirt, hand stitching some feathers to an owl.  He said, "you look like a kung-fu master!"  

And my ego got a little jolt...was he talking about my creative skills?

Nope.  It was my ninja fashion sense for loose garments.

Last week, on a chilly Sunday morning, I walked into the living room in my big comfy robe with a cup of coffee.  Elliot felt inspired to comment, "That's CLASSIC!  You look like a professor.  With that robe!  Drinking coffee!"

I said, "Ummm, Elliot, I'm wearing a robe because it's cold this morning."  To which he responded,

"Do people even wear those things anymore?"


Colder mornings are also arriving with new challenges unrelated to fashion.  Like staring the car and hearing the desperate cries of a cat meowing loudly from the engine.

At the frantic "meeeeeeyowwwww!" I turned off the ignition and the meowing stopped.  This meant two things:  either the cat was able to make an escape, or worse...........

The worse was what I was imagining.  Elliot and I called for our Annie cat, over and over, searching the yard with a prayer in our hearts.  We also have five neighborhood cats who frequently visit.  I sent a text to Richard, hoping that he would once again be my knight in shining armor and come home to open the hood of the car.

While I waited for his response, I told Elliot that we must think good thoughts. I reminded him that positive intention is a power you can use to help you through all of life's challenges.  We prayed for Annie to be safe, then walked into the back yard and called.   And called.

Wondering what all the fuss was about, our little black kitty popped out of her hiding place under the deck, pleased by our attention and in perfect condition.

Relieved, yet still needing to do the grocery shopping, I walked back to the driveway and told Elliot that I was still unable to drive the car.  Could there be a mangled, dead cat wedged inside a fan belt?

 He responded like some kid who just naturally grew up without my permission.

 "Well, open the hood.  I'll look inside."

At that moment, Richard called.  I started bubbling and wubbling and whining about how much I did not want to open the hood, because the sight of an injured fur baby was going to turn me into a weak puddle, a mass of shaky, weepy, overwrought uselessness.  I am a total wimp when it comes to injured and deceased pets.  He said,

"Woman, open that HOOD.  It is YOUR responsibility not to be afraid.  Do not act afraid, do not put that irrational fear into our SON.  Open the damn hood.  There's probably nothing inside."

So, with shaky hands, I opened the hood.  And Elliot peeked underneath.

The engine was clear.

We celebrated with doughnuts.  I later asked Elliot why he wasn't afraid to look in the engine.  He said, "well I was a little afraid to see a bloody, dead cat.  But we had to do it anyway."

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

One Year in the Making

This is my ode to slow.

Slow food is the kind I enjoy, from garden to table. Slow food taking time to release aroma and flavor in a crock pot or an oven satisfies the soul.  One loaf of homemade bread takes hours, from yeast activation to rising and baking golden and crisp, chewy and light with spongy cavities for butter to melt.  Fall is here, and I feel like slow.

A raw diet is probably best for fast weight loss, but lately I'm not craving crisp salads and lighter fare.  The food on my mind is a to-die-for molasses pumpkin bread with chocolate chips that Elliot made.  It's super moist and the spices compliment the semi sweet chocolate perfectly.  Technically, I think this bread could be classified as health food, especially if you omitted the half cup of sugar and used a flour alternative.  It's not health food for me, however!  One slice always leads to another.

Slow business is also the kind I enjoy, although it means that I reduce my "wants" and learn to live a frugal lifestyle.  I like my business steady and slow, and this season I'm feeling balanced and productive because I'm not over burdened by a rush of impatient requests.  I have a few custom orders in the works, just enough to keep me creating and improving my skills while able to manage school, home and family time.

Slow remodeling projects also bring more satisfaction.  One year ago, I repainted Emily's room.  I chose a very soft powdery gray for the walls, a base color of white for the big items like a comforter, dresser and trim, and decided to keep the pink curtains.  The process inspired a poem and helped me to connect to my feelings about what it means to live over seven hundred miles away from my daughter.  If I had a choice, I would rather her room be full of laundry and the flotsam and jetsam of a teen's life, because that would mean she's here with us.  But my daughter's room stays neat, all through the year.  In the beginning of the transformation, I had a very low budget for redesigning her room.  Perhaps it was a pointless waste...after all, no one was sleeping there...but it helped restore a sense of purpose lost.  How many parents long to keep supporting the growth of their children, years after they are needed?  The initial funds of two hundred were earned through my slowly growing business, and I used this for paint, bedding, a lamp and some mirrors. I scraped the popcorn ceiling and kept visualizing the end during the colossal mess of deconstruction.  When the bed was returned to the room,  I imagined a narrow white table to go on the adjacent wall, with a pretty chair for either sitting while working on a laptop, or personal care like hair and make-up.  I had an exact vision of  this area but had to leave it blank because once the budget was spent, it was spent.  The room stayed neat and pretty, although unfinished, for almost a year.

Yesterday, I woke up feeling happy.  We were enjoying a gentle fall rain, and I didn't feel like sitting in the house.  I decided to embark on a treasure hunting adventure, as Elliot needed a different chair for his Lego room. After hopping around to my favorite resale shops, a green chair for Elliot appeared, and so did the white table for Emily's room.  The table was ten dollars.  Feeling elated, like an archaeologist finding buried treasure, I bought the table and went home to set it up.  It was exactly as I had imagined it, minus a chair. Fueled by the success of this practice of intention, I drove straight to the fabric store and found the perfect chevron pattern in a sturdy weight (on sale!) to cover a dining room chair to complete the look.  I'm so excited about how the chair turned out that I might go crazy and cover every chair in the house.

I made my own pattern by measuring the chair.

The sunburst flower wall hanging is something I made with poster board and hot glue.  Thank you pinterest!

This dresser has been remade several times in the last ten years.  I found it standing next to a dumpster at the apartment complex where I used to work as a maintenance tech.  The metal sunburst mirror was a recent find at a consignment store.

One day, maybe we'll add new carpet.  This corner has some pieces that we saved from Emily's middle school days.  The pink curtains, white accent cabinet and silver jewelry box helped define the color scheme.  Adding black and white to the pink and silver helped the room to become more mature and bold.

It takes a long time when you are using the power of visualization and positive intention to get something accomplished.  When cash is tight, patience becomes currency.  Slow rooms, like slow food, are the best kind of rooms.  I have developed confidence by the process of slow...and a quiet knowledge that if something doesn't happen right away, it's because something good is in the process of arriving.  Or someone good, someone wonderful, who needs more time to arrive.

Like Emily, who is only able to visit once a year, at Christmas.  

This time away has been emotionally tough, but we've learned to keep loving, to keep in touch often, and to have faith that just because certain situations seem like they will never change, sometimes they do. Waiting is hard.   But it's not impossible. 

In the meantime, I might start a new project that could take a year.  I might just take a laptop up to that new space and write.  Maybe this room, which is one of two feminine spaces in the whole house (the other is my sewing/meditation space), is also meant for me.  I can simply sit in this room and feel the love and gratitude I have for the gift of being blessed with a daughter.

What kind of slow things do you appreciate in life?  

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Who is the Teacher?

     Here's a big confession:  on this road of home education, I make plans to teach for the day, and usually end up being the learner.  Getting over myself and stepping back is becoming easier for me as we continue to journey by faith and purpose.  I often hear remarks of parents with children in traditional schools and their claim that "I'm not organized or disciplined enough to do what you are doing."  While we do have a structure, a loose plan and scheduled activities, and while we are committed to showing up for class every day, at the core there are strong feelings and a philosophy operating behind the scenes.  It is the philosophy and the feelings that drive the progress.

     The feelings that prompted us to take this leap were powerful.  We felt that the spark of joy and enthusiasm in our son was being covered over and squelched by the climate and the attitudes he endured while in the traditional classroom.  We wanted him to love learning, because he was born to learn and grow and to be excited about life, people, nature and God.  What we saw was a boy who came home with his life overly burdened and his head down.

    Children are born to learn.  This learning happens even when the instruction is poor or non existent.  What we wanted for Elliot was to learn things to enhance his enjoyment and success in life.  To develop an inner confidence in his abilities to meet challenges and not be defeated by the struggle, effort and patience it takes to learn complex systems like language and mathematics, science and art.  But more than that, we wanted him to be comfortable in being himself without overly negative criticism or harsh consequences when he made slow progress in difficult areas.  What Elliot was really learning in the traditional school was that he couldn't learn and was probably never going to learn.

    My only goal in taking on the role of Elliot's academic teacher is to instill an unwavering belief that he can learn and succeed and that he has a potential so great that none of us even knows the full expression of his life in this moment.  Whenever he experiences a block, the only thing he needs is to have patience with himself and a desire to keep moving forward.

     So even when I only have these feelings and the philosophy to proceed with the learning for the day, I discover that what's really going on here is that I'm not the teacher.

    Perhaps this sounds like sarcasm, so let me explain.  I have much to learn about the full expression of my own life.  I'm a recovering introvert who loves days of solitude and not much interaction with people out in our city.  Elliot, on the other hand, loves everyone.  He talks to people first without waiting for an invitation.  He just dives right in and brings out kindness and smiles and good feelings.

     Yesterday was a glorious last day of September.  We packed a lunch, a backpack full of books, flash cards, pencils, markers and paper. We donned helmets and rode our bikes to the Natural Science Center (which has an aquarium and a zoo), then studied on the picnic tables outside in the park with playgrounds and trees all around.   On the way there, Elliot greeted almost every jogger, walker and biker with a friendly "Hi! I hope you have a nice day!" or "I hope you have a very nice day!"

   Instead of being annoyed by his precociousness, every single person beamed back a smile and responded "you too Sweetie!!!"

   One young college student, who seemed absorbed in his phone looked up and said "thank you, Buddy!"

    As the afternoon rolled on, we headed home.  On the sidewalks we saw the lifeless remains of a squirrel, a bird and a cicada.  Elliot responded,  "we sure have seen a lot of death today."

  I countered, "but really we saw a whole lot of life!"  And he agreed.  There were children at the playgrounds and animals at the zoo, and two deer in the park he was fortunate enough to see in the clearing near the trail.

     So much life.  And all of those people to receive and return his positive, kind intentions.  

    Later, while in the grocery store, his openness carried on when he spotted a shopper with a large squash that took up half the space in the cart. At the sight of it he said,  "nice pumpkin!"  And so the chain of his bubbly young energy flew once again out into the world.

  Of course, I made room in our cart for one of those giant orange pumpkins.

     Elliot is my teacher.   This understanding lights up something in me that cannot be contained.

Friday, September 20, 2013

Tape: A Poem by Elliot


by Elliot Hoppins

I had a grandpa.
We were best friends.
Until the paper was ripped.

I loved him so much.
But I held my memory
Of arguing,
And the paper was taped.

Although my father's passing indeed feels like a paper that was ripped, Elliot reminds me that memory is the tape that still holds us together, even when the memory is of a disagreement.  During Dad's cancer battle, Elliot and I went home for a three week visit.  During that time, after playing with his uncle's old Lego sets, Elliot proudly showed the finished creation to my dad, saying "look, Grandpa, I made a race car!"  To which my dad responded, "hmm, that looks like a truck."  Elliot would not be convinced, and argued back, "no, Grandpa, it's a race car."  This argument went on for thirty minutes, until my dad finally relented, teaching Elliot one of the best lessons of life:  both people can be right at the same time, depending on perspective.

Elliot says that this argument is the only memory he has of his grandpa, who died several months after that visit.  Elliot was only four.

Yet even with that memory of an argument, Elliot still thinks so fondly of his grandpa that he would call him his "best friend."  The paper ripping might have a double meaning of an argument and the loss of his grandpa through death.

We have just finished reading Felix Salten's Bambi.  If you have never read this book and are prepared to dive into some deep emotion about loss, life and renewal, this is a breathtaking experience.  This morning I found myself searching through baby pictures to recover!

What a gift it is to have a family, living or deceased.

Sunday, September 15, 2013

Back into Bear Country

This week, we went back into bear country.

It was beautiful. More importantly, I was able to face my fear of a bear attack in a baby-steps sort of way. Facing my fear did not come easily or all at once.

There was one significant trail that I decided not to hike, despite my earlier hunch that it would be an ideal place to start. This trail was on the top of a bald, where dense trees and undergrowth would not obscure my view of any black bear presence.  I thought that I would be able to handle my fear better if the chances of surprising a bear were less.  Walking in dense vegetation and near streams increase the odds of a sudden encounter.  Walking in open spaces would give me the advantage of sight.

  When we reached the top of Black Balsam Knob in the Smoky Mountains, we parked our car, leashed the dog and noticed a large youth group preparing for an overnight hike.  I felt comforted by this noisy and energetic gathering of kids and silently wondered if they would mind if we tagged behind for a while. Being in a large group is the safest way to manage a bear encounter.  While the group gathered for a pep talk, I walked over to a sign with trail map and alerts.  The first thing I read was a notice about  current black bear activity in the area.

On one hand, this was a good sign, because it meant that it was likely that we would have an encounter and a chance to directly face my fear.

On the other hand, this sign made me pause.  After examining the picture of a bear, I read the detailed instructions on how to behave in the event of an encounter.  The first instruction was to make loud noises like banging pots together.  (I do not hike with pots, hiking allows me to be free of the kitchen.)  I did have an air horn, which I thought might do the trick.)

Then I went on to read the instructions for how to manage an attack.  It explained that if you are hiking with a dog, bears will be better able to track and follow you.  So I wondered  about the reassuring lingo that most wildlife officials provide when they say "bears don't want to be near you, either.  They don't want you to see them."

If that is true, why would a bear want to track us with our dog?

The sign went on to say that if you are attacked, be prepared to fight back, because the bear may decide that you are prey.  It specifically said to teach any children you are hiking with to fight back and that playing dead is the wrong way to handle the situation.

So while I digested this advice, I decided that I was not prepared to fight a bear with my hands, nor to effectively protect Elliot, even though Richard would be there to help and would probably be taking on the majority of the fight.

I then looked at the mountain, scanning the bald for dark, moving mounds of fur.  I looked at the half mile of woods I would need to get through to reach the balds.  I looked at the youth group, happily eating their healthy snack wraps and totally unafraid.

Then Richard said, "if you're thinking of hiking behind that group, forget it.  That won't be fun for me.  I don't think this is going to happen today, and that's okay."

I stood a while longer, just to see if my impulse to hike that mountain kicked in.  It didn't and I accepted that today I failed my challenge.  As we drove away, I noticed two trucks with reinforced cages in the back.  One cage held a group of beagles, the other was empty (ready and waiting for what?)  Later I learned that the men were tracking the bears with dogs, in preparation for hunting season in mid October.  More than the posted paper sign, those trucks confirmed bear presence.

After seeing the trucks and before learning the purpose of the cages (only to contain the hunting dogs, apparently), I assumed the trucks meant a search for aggressive bears was in progress.  The conditions for hiking in this particular area, with a nine year old boy and a dog, did not seem like a challenge I was ready to take on. Last year, five bears were removed from the campground near Mt. Pisgah.  The reason why bears would track us is because they associate people with sweet snacks and roasting marshmallows.  I wondered how many times people who carry food and encounter a bear throw the food in order to buy some time to get away.  I did not carry any food that day and did not have a sweet offering to save my life.

No matter my good intentions, no matter the logic I used to explain why I didn't hike that day, it felt like a huge FAIL.

But I am not a quitter.

First baby step:  a half mile hike to the top of Craggy Dome.  The trail was dense, there were weird musky smells and freshly dug earth.  I was constantly wishing for a comforting explanation of swishy sounds, smells and signs of stratch marks on trees and earth.  I cried a little when I got to the top and told Richard that this might be "it" for me.
Second baby step:  A hike on Mt. Pisgah, near a resort, a highway and a country store.  People are in the area, but none on the trail.  I wear a "bear bell" but this annoys me and disturbs the peace.  The farther we get in, the more uncomfortable I feel.  After a while, I tell Richard I'm ready to head back to the car.

Elliot understands that I am afraid, but he is not afraid.

Third baby step and a victory:  We return home for a restful night sleep in our own beds, then wake up and drive one hour north to the Sauratown Mountain range and hike in Hanging Rock State park.  Bears are in the area, although not in great numbers.  Not many people were out hiking that day, making it feel like deep wilderness on the Indian Creek Trail.  After the popular waterfall stops, we didn't see anyone for miles along the creek trail.  This trail was dense with growth and the sounds of a rippling stream to mask our presence.  I looked for all the signs of bears that I was familiar with, particularly scat.  My heart raced at the sight of a mound of dark, decaying...


After recognizing the mushroom as a mushroom, I was very strict with myself and told my brain to "stop freaking out already!!!"  It was exhausting to carry on this way.  I told all the imaginary bears that I was prepared to use my air horn.  I walked on.  Slowly, I started to enjoy the woods.

I remembered to be faithful.

And to enjoy the beauty of this land.
I celebrated sharing the journey with my loving family.
And my husband, who is kind, understanding and supportive.
I believed in the possibility that there would be light at the end of this tunnel of fear.

And after climbing the rocks, there was light.

And sweet relief.

On the top of Hanging Rock, I fully relaxed and basked like a lizard in the sunshine.

Fear is an irrational sort of thing that can paralyze a person into safe comforts.  I've decided to keep hiking because it brings me great joy and a deeper appreciation for the gift of life.  I have decided to get tough with myself when I need to be, and gentle and understanding when I fail.


Have peace. 
Be kind to yourself, but:
practice going beyond what you think you can do.

Define your own version of wilderness.
For in that wilderness you risk being lost
and helpless.

Then you will find
your shining spirit
which will carry on. 

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