Sunday, December 3, 2023

I don't want anything

is something I used to say, when someone would ask me what I wanted for my birthday, for Christmas. I have everything I need, is what I was thinking. And if there was something I really wanted, I could buy it for myself. 

But recognizing that other people were trying to check me off their lists, I might throw out a suggestion. Say, slippers. 

And then I would get the slippers, and it would feel silly to me. Like, why are we all doing this, going through the gift motions, sending each other our suggestions, often very specific ones, with sizes and styles and helpful Amazon links? And never mind all of the waste and the rampant consumerism and who needs more stuff stuffing up their houses. So, when someone asked me what I wanted, my husband, for example, I'd say, I don't want anything, and he'd get upset, and I couldn't understand why. 

We were locked in this gift-giving/no-gift-giving dance for years, some years with him throwing up his hands in weary resignation and not getting me anything. Some years with him buying the slippers and wrapping them in front of me and making a show of putting them under the tree.  

But the truth is it wasn't all about my stance on waste and rampant consumerism, or how, in general, I believe we as a culture have too much stuff. There was more swirling around under the murky surface of my not-wanting. Money, being the big one, 

and how in the early years of our marriage, I was stressed out by debts and bills, and why not take myself and any gifts for me off the list? Which goes even deeper into an old childhood self, who was keenly aware that there was no money, so don't bother asking, and if you are given a gift, then you must be eternally grateful for it, 

and isn't it so much easier to not want anything.

What I was never taking into account, though, was how much I enjoy giving other people gifts. Last year I turned gift-buying for my husband into a mini scavenger hunt of sorts, seeing what I could find by only browsing in the shops within walking distance of our house. I had a blast putting together a cactus for him in the cactus making shop and choosing a model car kit in the hobby store and stumbling onto a set of glass beakers in a thrift store that I realized would look perfect lined up on the windowsill by his desk. My only exception to the within-walking-distance rule was the tickets I get for him every year to the Car Show, which I know he loves, and isn't that what all of this is about? 

The little charge of delight as someone you love opens a gift you've picked out specially for them. 

And then it suddenly occurred to me that this is what my husband has wanted to do for me, and here I've been denying him all these years. 

All of this is to say that I really don't want anything. Except for one thing. His delight. My delight. As we choose each other's gifts. As we share them with each other. 


Sunday, November 26, 2023

The Cows Don't Know It's Thanksgiving

It’s just another morning for milking and I am here for it. For the record I have never milked a cow in my life. Actually, I have never touched a cow. These cows are… soft, warm. They chew their cud and blink their pretty eyelashes and stare back at me, as if to say, you don’t know what you’re doing. 

You've got that right, cow! But I am open to learning. My daughter-in-law is patient with me. She works on this farm and has kindly invited me to shadow her as she does her morning chores in the dairy barn. Here is how you milk a cow:

You wash off the udder? The teats? You do some pre-milking squirts by hand. The trick is Squeeze and Roll. (I have to try this multiple times before I can get anything out, mindful all the while that a cow might kick me in the head.) The little bit of milk from this squeezing and rolling goes into a cup and the two barn cats come running for it. (One of the cats is named Barbara and I love her.) My daughter-in-law attaches a milking machine at this point and the cow goes on chewing and staring, steam coming out of her nose. Then, it is on to milking the seventeen other cows. 

It is cold out here. Patches of snow on the ground. A gray lake and white-capped mountains in the distance. It is beautiful. This is our first time visiting our son and daughter-in-law. For the past thirty-three years my husband and I have hosted Thanksgiving, cooked the entire spread, one year for nineteen people. Another year, just the two of us. This is our first time traveling. The first time being anyone's guests. 

We are open to learning. Turns out it is very nice. In the afternoon we all go on a walking tour of the town, a ferry boat churning across the lake, a row of pretty houses. This place is a tourist destination in summer, but for now the streets are quiet. If not for our son, we would never even know about it. But isn't that the way with our children? 

They grow up and go, and their places become our places, their people, our people. The things they do become the things we would like to try. Back in the dairy barn I am learning how to do what my daughter-in-law calls the "spa treatment." Here is how you do the spa treatment:

You rub a pepperminty lotion into your gloved hands and you carefully massage it on the cow's ... udders? flanks? backside? being mindful to avoid a kick in the head. When I'm finished, I move around to the other side of the barn to meet the cows I've previously only seen the backends of. As soon as I round the corner, one by one, they turn to look at me. Slightly wary, I imagine, wondering who this stranger is, but welcoming nonetheless. 

I am learning so much today and it's not even noon. I suddenly remember it is Thanksgiving. My daughter-in-law hands me a shovel and we clean up the cow poop together. Here is how you clean up cow poop:

(Just kidding. I'll leave that to your imagination.) 

When we’re finished, I suddenly remember it is Thanksgiving. It’s time to say goodbye to the cows and head home. A delicious meal on the table. The people we love, waiting for us. 

Sunday, November 19, 2023

Looking Forward Looking Back

I filled up a recycle bin with stuff this week, a long overdue project that I'd kept putting off until I finally ran out of excuses. The excuses were dumb things like, "I don't feel like doing this," and "What if I change my mind." 

The Stuff was mostly papers. Bins of old manuscript drafts and old files from writing and teaching events. Why have I held onto these things? Okay, the files, because you never know. I might be asked to teach a particular lesson again. (But I have these lesson plans saved on my computer, and the truth is I rarely reuse lessons.) 

Chucking the old manuscript drafts was a harder job. It meant sort of looking at them again as I tossed them. It meant thinking about all of the time spent, the work, the dreams. But guess what, the drafts are all saved on my computer too. And I have all the finished manuscripts, which is enough paper, I've decided. 

As soon as I decided it and began to tear and toss, I quickly cycled through what felt like an accelerated mourning process. Dizziness to depression to acceptance. All of those stories, all of those words, and no one will ever read them. 

But here is another truth: I didn't want to read them. Anyway, I have new stories to tell. When I finished tossing, I was drained, wrung out. But weirdly, I also felt jittery with pent up energy. I paced around the house itching to shed more things. Old books I never plan to read. A stack of old magazines. Whose dumb idea was it to hold onto that? 

Still jittery, I went outside and yanked out dead plants. Raked leaves. Cut the out-of-control ivy. I didn't want to write about this, but all week it has been throbbing in my head. A story in the news about a man, my age, who was out running in a neighborhood not far from mine. Something happened, the authorities still don't know, and he was killed. It turns out that I know the man's wife, and I can't make sense of any of it. The suddenness of the loss. The brutality. How random it is and how heartbreaking. How do you go on after something like that? 

But I know the answer. You just do. I went back inside and cleaned off the kitchen table. I found a box of flower bulbs that I'd meant to plant and forgotten about because they were lost under piles of clutter. All of my gardening and I have never planted spring bulbs. I had to don my reading glasses to decipher the directions on the box. Outside again, and I chose a place, dug my holes and tucked away the bulbs. 

Here is what I know today: the past is gone and there is no guarantee of the future. 

But if all goes well, the flowers will bloom in spring. Big showy purple ones to brighten the yard and bring whoever chances to walk by a moment of joy after the long winter. 

Sunday, November 12, 2023

Life slows down

when you are sick, and all you want to do is burrow under the blankets with the dog, who is mystified that you won't take her for her twice-daily long walks, but otherwise, seems content to cuddle up with you. We do a lot of dozing. Whatever plans I made for the week fall off my plate. 

A baby story-time at the library I'd been looking forward to leading. A dear friend's bookstore event (Natalie D. Richards' tenth book, and her first middle grade, which I can never remember the name of so I call it "The Moose Book" because that is what we called it when she was writing it). (For the record it is actually called Fifteen Secrets To Survival, and it is so clever and fun and just perfect for the 8 to 12 year old in your life-- in case you want an early holiday gift idea.)    

Instead of doing those fun things, I was flopped out on the couch, sipping hot tea (a special recipe from my husband's co-worker in India that he swears by, a blend of turmeric, ginger, basil, honey and lemon. A word about this tea that I figured out after stupidly dumping the contents of those herbs into the cup of boiling water and then needing to sift out the mush: 

you can use a tea holder. I use an adorable plastic dinosaur tea holder that my daughter-in-law gave me, and there's just something about that perky little guy floating around in my tea that gives me such a happy lift.

Also, I was reading a book about how to break up with your phone, called, conveniently, How To Break Up with Your Phone by Catherine Price. It's very funny (and scary). The funny part is how much I can relate to this particular addiction. How absurd it is that you can go from "just gonna check my email" to reading an article about the rise of fascism in America to shopping a sale at Eddie Bauer and back again, and the next thing you know another hour of your one wild and precious life has ticked by never to be experienced again.

The scary thing is something I already knew, but apparently needs to be pounded into me repeatedly, which is how our phones are specifically designed to urge us to pick them up and to keep us scrolling on and on and on, like an endless dinging and pinging slot machine. (Side note: one of the most depressing things I ever witnessed was twenty-five-ish years ago at a casino, a roped off area with two slot machines that only took one hundred dollar tokens, and there was a man perched on a seat in front of one, slipping $100 dollar token after $100 dollar token into it, pulling down the lever, and losing, over and over again, his face completely blank, like he couldn't stop, wouldn't stop, until he ran out of tokens. 

On our phones, of course, we never run out of tokens. The feed just keeps feeding itself forever.) 

Maybe it is okay to do some mindless scrolling, when you are sick, for example. But I am resolving to you now that I am breaking up with my phone. Or at the very least, I am going to set some serious boundaries on our increasingly toxic relationship. While I am sick is as good a time as any. 

Now. When I have my snoozy dog and plenty of hot tea and good books to keep me company. 

Sunday, November 5, 2023

Falling Back

I early-voted the other day. There was a line, but it moved along, and my husband and I moved along with it. This is a big election in Ohio, but then, all elections feel like that lately. When it was our turn, we voted YES for the library and YES for women having the right to make decisions about their own bodies. And then we went grocery shopping. 

Has it always been this way, with the world tipping further and further into a scary, unrecognizable place, and at the same time, you still need to buy peanut butter? 

Meanwhile, at work I am waging a daily battle with whoever the person is who keeps stealing the Vote YES brochures. At the library we have a table for voting information. Candidates in upcoming races are allowed to place a brochure on the table. The campaigns in charge of the ballot issues may set out their brochures as well. One day I noticed that the entire stack of Vote YESes had disappeared.

I texted someone I know who is involved in that effort, and she gave me another stack. The next day that stack was gone too. This happened three days in a row, and it bugged me. 

Bugged me is a mild way of putting it. Not that I think a brochure is necessarily going to convince anyone to change their mind on an issue, but it's the principle. If you believe your cause is right, why are you cheating? (This is me arguing with the person in my head.)

I know I know. Pretend-arguing with a person I don't know is a battle I can't win. And continually replenishing a stack of ballot issue brochures is right behind that on the pointless-ness scale. And yet I can't seem to stop. I am falling back. To an angrier version of an old self. To a time and place where I had to defend myself but I was powerless. 

This morning I wake in the light. The clock on my phone has set itself back in the night. So much time on my hands that I sign up last minute for a yoga class at a studio in my neighborhood. On the way over I walk past YES signs and NO signs. 

Before the argument can resume itself, I am inside, on my mat, clearing my mind while I stretch and balance. 

Home, and I remember. I am no longer in that place. And I am not that person. 

Sunday, October 29, 2023

I am a bulletin board

for Halloween, a last-minute Do-it-yourselfer costume that I find online. What you do is take a corkboard-colored shirt and hot glue a bunch of post-it notes to it. Wah Lah. Bulletin Board. The reason I had to make a costume was I was invited to a Halloween party. The people who host the Halloween party are very creative people. 

I like to think of myself as a creative person, but lately, I am not feeling it. 

I don't know why. It's raining. I'm listening to too many political podcasts. My husband's been out of town for the past few days and the alone-ness is getting to me. In the morning I walk down to the farmer's market and spend a distressingly long time looking at potatoes. I walk the dog in the drizzle and then I flounder around in the house, listening to more podcasts and despairing about the state of the world.  

Less than two hours before the party, and I still haven't put together my costume. Last week a friend suggested we do the Artist's Way again. This is a 12-week course with exercises to help you unblock your creative self. I've done this course three times over the years and it has always worked for me, but this time, I'm skeptical. 

One of the exercises is to write out positive affirmations, such as, I am allowed to nurture my artist, and I am willing to create. I find these affirmations kind of woo woo and weird. 

Also, each week you're supposed to take yourself on what the author calls an "artist's date." The artist's date is supposed to be fun. A couple of hours where you give yourself permission to play. I always struggle with this exercise. It just seems...silly. 

After I bought the potatoes at the farmer's market, I walked past a booth where a woman was selling homemade mini sweet potato pies. She had a big sign hanging behind her that said, YOU CAN BUY ONE, BUT WHY NOT BUY TWO? 

Yeah, I thought. Why not buy two? 

I turned around and went back to her booth. I eat a pie while I hot glue post-its onto my corkboard-colored shirt, and let me tell you how delicious that pie is and how very very glad I am that I bought two. At the Halloween party I feel silly walking around with all of my colorful post-its flapping. But I quickly decide to embrace the silliness. 

I am surrounded by creative people.

I am creative myself.  

Sunday, October 22, 2023

In my dream I am late for work

I have two minutes left to get ready, and all of the clothes in my closet are unfamiliar. Shirts that don't fit. Pants with holes in the legs. Finally, I grab something and rush out the door, but almost immediately, I take a wrong turn. I'm on a strange highway, speeding in the wrong direction. Now I am farther away than when I started.

All week I've been talking to a friend about writing. Or rather, how I've been struggling with how much I am not writing. My old perfectionist tendencies have come back, and I find myself stuck, churning over and over again through the same passage until it feels "right." 

The problem is it never feels right. At the library (in reality, I am never late for work, but I am usually cutting it close) it's my job to handle books. Check them in and check them out. Shelve entire carts of them. I have so many more not-written-yet books stuffed up inside me. But how do I get them out before it's too late? 

Well, here's a solution: Sit down and write them, one sentence at a time. But KNOWING this and DOING it, I can tell you, are two different things. 

Meanwhile, I am helping kids and their grown-ups in the youth department. The other day a young patron asked me where the radio books are. This is a little four or five-year-old girl I've interacted with before, but she's still shy about talking to me. "You want a book about radios?" I said, because I wasn't sure I'd heard her correctly. 

"A radio book, yes," she said. 

"We might have a book about radios," I said.  

"Not about radios!" she said. She was getting frustrated. I was getting frustrated. She comes in once a week with her father who speaks another language and sets up at one of the tables and works on his laptop. When they first started coming in, she'd scurry away if I even looked at her. But eventually, I wore her down by smiling a lot and showing her how to do the scavenger hunt and where we keep the audio books--

Wait! She didn't want a radio book. She wanted an audio book! These are picture books called Vox books with an audio component that reads to you as you turn the pages. We had recently moved our collection to a different part of the youth department and here she was, trying to find them. I pointed them out, and we were both relieved. 

The same day, a toddler kept giving me pizza. The library has a pretend kitchen with plates and trays and plastic food. Silently, she walked over plate after plate of pizza and set it on my desk. I had a long conversation with her that consisted entirely of me thanking her and telling her how great it tasted, and sure, I'd like another slice, while she answered the only word she knew apparently, which was Meh. 

It was a surprisingly enjoyable conversation. 

After work, it's getting late, but I move my imperfect sentences around on the page. Unfamiliar words and paragraphs that don't fit. Unexpected turns heading off in strange directions. One sentence. Two. Time slows and stops, how it always does when I am writing. 

I might be closer than I think.