Rose was a munchkin last week. She sang three songs with the other munchkins and said, “It’s just so nice to meet you!” And she found out that in the theater world, “There is a lot of drama backstage.” And need I say that she shone on stage?
This was a production put on by a traveling youth company that comes to Manhattan every January. They (only two young women) come in on a Monday and leave the following Sunday, with five days of rehearsals and three performances in between. And it starts with an audition.
I brought Rose into the Arts Center, where 123 kids, from kindergarten through 12th grade, sat on the floor. Rose had just had her hair permed and wondered if she might be cast as Toto with dark curly locks. She did not want to be a munchkin as that seemed more suitable for the little kids, but as it turned out the youngest were flowers, blossoms spouting out of their green hoods.
One of the issues of living 25 minutes out of town is that I’m left with these odd blocks of time on my hands and so decided to stay and watch the audition. Besides, I was curious about how two people could possible pick roles in such a short time. I had heard that there were costumes for about 65 children which meant that many would leave disappointed. I thought about Rose’s chances—50/50? Well, that would be for someone not so dramatic, not so into being on stage, not so eager to have a part, not so….I decided to be conservative and go with 80/20 on her side. But what was this anyway, one little play and so what if she didn’t get in? I don’t think of myself as that ambitious for my children. For example, while my friends greet Helen with questions on what research she is doing about colleges and majors, I tell her she doesn’t even have to get a degree if she ends up doing what she wants (oh, and not asking me for money anymore).
The auditions were interesting. A line was given, for some reason usually about ice cream, as “I love ice cream!” and “May I please have some ice cream!” with each child saying the sentence in turn. Although Rose was enthusiastic and clear, so were most of the others and I started to think we were back to 50/50—-no, but maybe more like 60/40. But, again, it was just a little play.
And then the roles were announced, with the chosen ones called to come down to the front. First the flowers, then monkeys….I could see no rhyme or reason to who got picked and who didn’t. Next came the announcement of the group that looked to be Rose’s age range—-the famous and darling munchkins (quite suddenly this role had become the most important player of the story). And I started to feel something I didn’t expect. I felt very anxious and even a little angry. What if they didn’t pick Rose? I thought of all the things I’d want to say but knew I wouldn’t. Crazy things like “How could you possibly not see the raw talent in this girl?” and “Who do think you are not choosing this child?” But her name was called and as she stood up beaming, my heart slowed down and I looked around, hoping my emotions hadn’t shown. Only later, talking to some other mothers, did I find out that I wasn’t alone in this reaction. One woman even said that as she listened to the names being called her, her palms got sweaty.
My mother would have agreed that Rose shone. She would have told her that and more than once. A year ago today she passed away. She left many things behind. Stacks of old prints that she never got framed and many that she did. Photo albums of Helen and her playing together, down on their hands and knees when Helen was 2 and she was 84. The belief that a day wasn’t complete if you didn’t make someone smile. This included grumpy neighbors and snappy sales clerks along with all who came to visit. But top on the list of who she wanted to see smile were her two children, my brother and me. She rejoiced in what worked for us, whether it was a job in North Queensland, Australia or in Topeka, Kansas. Whether it was baseball or art. She said my Christmas card poem was the best ever and she said it every year. She told me it was O.K. if my young children slept with me and what does Dr. Phil know anyway? And she was the one who said I should take a nap after our Sunday dinners at her house as “you must need a little rest”.
The night before she died, I was exhausted, having had only a few hours of sleep after the call at 3 a.m. that she had been taken to the hospital with pneumonia. She quickly rallied, tough even at “almost 99”, and had gone from critical to stable condition, seeming most concerned that those in the room had gotten something for lunch. As I stood there I willed myself to believe that she would survive this. And I remember quite clearly what I said later, at home, as I went to bed. I said, “If only I could sleep until 8”. The next morning a call woke me at 8:05, telling me my mother had just passed away minutes before.
I guess it’s O.K. that I had that reaction at the audition. It’s what a mother does. It’s making sure your son has a favorite food to eat. It’s letting your daughter have a little rest. It’s wanting more than anything to see your child get a part in the play. And nothing on this earth can replace that.
It was 6:45 a.m. and I was working on the “spoil the dogs and cats routine” when Rose wandered down the stairs and into the kitchen. She looked around rather blurry eyed and said, “I want one.” I was stumped—-one dog biscuit, one can of half eaten cat food? “One what?” I asked her. “I don’t know,” she responded and sat down on the floor next to the heat register.
Ever since that morning last week, I have been pondering over this strange exchange. I felt much the same way at Penney’s recently. I had gotten one of those coupons in the mail—spend 25 dollars and get 10 dollars off. Since everything in Penney’s is always on sale anyway, I could probably buy 40 dollars’ worth of things for 15 dollars—what a deal! And so with a little extra time in town, my car just seemed to direct itself to the mall parking lot. I wandered the aisles and picked up socks for Rose for her stocking and some fleecy pajama bottoms to be wrapped and put under the tree. But I hadn’t reached my 25 dollar minimum so I kept looking, thinking I might even find something for my own stocking (something Santa forgets to fill, except the year that Helen put in a scrap of paper with the words “a lump of coal” written on it). But there came a point when I realized something. It wasn’t just that we didn’t really need anything but that I didn’t know what I wanted or what Rose wanted. And so I put the socks and fleecy bottoms back where they belonged and left the store.
At the age of 34, I had one of those lightbulb moments when I knew that the difficult part of something was less the doing than the figuring out what you really wanted. I was leaving Australia and traveling home via Africa and possibly Europe. As the deadline to buy the airline tickets got closer, I became more and more anxious about what my plan should be. I had three options and the longest one was the trickiest, as it caused me to be in South Africa for four weeks without a place to stay while waiting to meet a teacher friend in Switzerland. But when I asked myself what I really wanted to do, I knew it was this longer and more complicated trip, in spite of my concerns. And that’s what I did. Only days after I arrived in Cape Town, I was invited to live and work during those four weeks with a woman teaching English to children who were not allowed to attend school because their Black African parents were not legal workers (this was in the days of apartheid). I will never forget those children and their eagerness to learn. It was very clear that they knew what they wanted. They wanted to be able to go to school.
When I got home from the mall, I did something I knew I wanted. I bought shares of goats from Heifer International in honor of people on my Christmas list. I do this every year, not because I should but because I want to. I love to see the cards when they arrive and to decide who to give them to. I like to think about the little girl who will receive the animal and care for it as carefully as a loved pet. How she will drink the milk and sell the extra for money that will give her the books and uniform to allow her to go to school.
Several days after the Penney’s experience, I spent a Sunday afternoon with Rose. We ate at a new café in town and stopped at the library. We found ourselves in the mall at the end of our outing, as I had to return some earrings that Helen thought she needed for her winter formal and then didn’t use (“My hair covers my ears now, so what’s the point?”). And there we were, in Claire’s with another deal—buy two pairs of earrings and get one pair free. I wasn’t being a complete sucker as Rose needed one pair with better quality metal for her recently pierced ears to heal well. So we found those and that left two pairs to get (one free, remember). “What do you want,” I asked her. She looked at me with quite a determined face and said, “I want us to have matching dangly bells that we can wear together for Christmas.” There was no hesitation, no doubt this time. And so we found some, red and silver bells with plenty of jingle which Rose does not want to wear to school, for as she put it, “I think it would be irritating to others in class.” We will wear them when we go to holiday outings, a nice reminder of our afternoon together.
I know there’s another little girl somewhere who knows what she wants. It’s much more basic than matching dangling earrings. She wants to go to school. And she wants a goat so this can happen. And I want to help her get one. It’s important to know what you want. Once you’ve gotten that far, you’re more than halfway there.
I have a rug now hanging on the wall in my dining room. It’s full of birds and a little magic as well. You see, I bought it in Mexico on The Day of the Dead.
San Miguel de Allende seems made for magic—the narrow cobblestone streets where only the Hispanic women would dare to wear high heels, the door knockers shaped as delicate hands that seem to reach out and grab you, the sunsets over the cathedral towers and distant hills (even better seen from a rooftop while drinking margaritas)—-all of this seems otherworldly. But I was there during the holiday that truly goes beyond this world, where there is a belief that the souls of those passed over come back to revisit those still on earth—El Dia de los Muertos, The Day of the Dead. The images are spooky, from the skulls made from sugar (some topped with sombreros which sadly didn’t make it home intact in my suitcase) to the dressed up skeleton figures in storefronts and the ghoulish painted faces of the people on the street, but the day is strangely not about the horror of death as much as an acceptance of it as part of life. Altars are set out by the front entrances of home with photos of ancestors, flowers and objects special to those now gone.
Our group made such an altar. A table was set up with levels and covered in cloth. Marigolds were put in vases or laid on the floor under the altar, for the goal is not to see how long they can survive but to enjoy their ephemeral beauty. We had brought photos from home of family and friends, parents and grandparents, and in some cases husbands. I had one of my mother and father on their wedding day, standing next to each other and looking so young, with their mothers, my grandmothers, beside them. I put it in a purple frame that Helen made in pre-school for a Mother’s Day gift. And when we stood at dusk and lit the candles, it did seem that the spirits were there. It seems to be a thing that happens in Mexico. There was something different in the air. A man and his son, strangers to us, stopped and stood in front of our altar, paying their respects. I thought about these people in the photos, also strangers to me, but loved by the new friends standing beside me. And the magic didn’t come just from the objects before us. It came from being in a place that believed in the magic. A place where families spend the whole night by their ancestors’ graves. It is a magic that comes from somewhere deep within.
And I miss that. I miss the magic of Mexico. A few days ago, a damp and chilly November morning, I took the dogs on the wooded trail behind our house. Being the poor animal trainer that I am, we started off as though we were in the Iditarod Sled Dog Race with me being the sled. But once the sniffing and territory marking began (them, not me), I had time to look around. The path was carpeted with the fallen yellow leaves from trees that lined the dry creek bed. With the cloud cover, a soft light was catching the edges of other falling leaves. I realized that I never walk in that woods without feeling lucky to have such a place. The dogs found things of interest ahead and as I walked along I felt something different in the air. I was alone but not alone. I saw my mother walking to a nearby garage sale on just such a fall day, eager to buy small presents for all of us. I saw my dad crossing the street with me when I was six, dressed in plaid flannel and corduroy pants, to play on the swings in the park. I saw my Grandma Rieder going to get eggs from the hen house to make rice pudding, a special treat I requested on my visits. And there was my Grandmother Carter, coming from the kitchen to her bedroom, where she would let her granddaughter try on all her costume jewelry. They were all there, walking the path with me.
I traveled to Mexico for a week long art workshop and I came home with much more than I went with. As I look at the rug now, I can still see the faded photo pinned to the stall of the man who sold it to me. A black and white picture of an older man working at a loom. “Yes, it is my father,” he told me. “He taught me how to make these rugs.”
I could say build the altar and they will come, as the Mexicans believe on their glorious Day of the Dead. But it doesn’t take an altar. The magic can happen in the decorated doorways of San Miguel, or in a small woods in Kansas. It’s there when you need it, waiting to be invited in.
Here’s a link to a website of Rebecca Brooks, the woman who organized this trip to Mexico, and who holds much magic herself. http://corazon.typepad.com/recuerda_mi_corazon/2014/01/postcards-from-paradise-stitching-up-the-sky-.html
Sometimes you just need a good story. Donald Miller, in his book A Million Miles in a Thousand Years, defines a good story as “a character who wants something and overcomes conflict to get it”. But the character has to be likeable or who wants to read about her? And the story has to be meaningful as well.
The other day one of our cats, Noel, got up on the roof and couldn’t get down, or at least she pretended she couldn’t and she’s so fat I believed her. I called out to Rose who was sitting on the couch playing a computer game, an activity she does all too often. She looked up from the screen, thought for just a moment, then came running out to where I was staring up at a round black ball of fur pathetically mewing. We tried all kinds of methods that involved step stools and tree branches and food and scratched arms and hands. “Wait until Wayne comes,” I finally told her. “He can bring his tall ladder and it will be easier.” Rose, at that time still up in a tree next to the house, looked at me with quiet determination and said, “No, this is my job.” Fortunately I had just finished Miller’s book and so didn’t argue. She needed a good story and she persisted until Noel was safely down.
I wrote a story for The Sun Magazine when I was 39 that they chose not to publish, much to my disappointment. It was for a column where readers write on a subject and some of the others that got published, well…..just my personal opinion, but…. The topic was “Doing Good” and I found it recently during one of my decluttering attempts. I think it has the elements of a good story and just hope that Donald Miller would agree:
It is late June and I sit on my shaded front porch for some relief from the afternoon heat. I glance through the local newspaper with little interest until I see a photo on the last page of section C. A large boar, on the way to a slaughterhouse in Chicago, has escaped and an animal control officer and a truck driver are trying to recapture him. One has him by the tail, the other by a rope around the neck. “Ham on the Lam” is the title under the photo, but I am much more haunted than amused. With his mouth open in an expression of rage and agony, and his front feet lifted off the ground, the boar seems to know where he is headed and is fighting desperately for this life. And it seems wrong that the scales are so weighted against him, with ropes and trucks and slaughterhouses.
It makes me remember my childhood game of making up new episodes of Bonanza, with me as “Annie” the little sister. I was a character so full of fun and spirit and mischief that folks would just shake their heads and say, “That Ben Cartwright has his hands full with that little lady.”
One of my favorite episodes was about a mean rancher who captured a herd of wild horses and made them stay in a crowded corral, unable to run and play. After careful planning, I snuck out one night, past Hoss’s snoring, past Pa’s bedroom, down the huge wooden stairway and out to the barn. There I saddled my trusty little pinto pony and away we rode. With the fringe on my buckskin jacket mimicking my pony’s mane and tail, it seemed that we were almost flying over the sagebrush as we headed for the evil corral and trouble. After petting and calming each wild horse, I unlatched the gate, then watched as they galloped off over the hills in the moonlight.
Of course I was later discovered and given lots of threats of punishment from all sides. But in the end, in the final scene of the story, Pa is telling Adam and Hoss and Little Joe that “it sure is something that it took a little girl to do good and I wish I’d had the courage to do the same.”
Everything seemed so clear in those stories I made up. The ponies were my friends, the mean rancher my enemy, and in the end, courage and kindness and doing the right thing were always rewarded. I can still find comfort in the simple values of my Annie Cartwright episodes, for at 39, the black and white edges of doing good and bad fade and weave together like the different vines on my back fence.
This summer, as the homegrown tomatoes ripen, I will buy my bacon for BLT’s, ham for cold macaroni salad. Along with the animal control officer and the truck driver, I will be the pig’s enemy. But how I wish the caption on this photo were different. How I wish instead of “It took hours to recapture the massive pig,” it read “A young girl on a fast pinto pony rode up out of nowhere and cut the rope, then watched as the boar ran off, to escape through the city and off over the hills.”
At 61, I still want to be that cowgirl, courageous and strong, riding her pinto pony across the prairie. I do have a brown felt hat and red boots and I’ve written a children’s book about that little girl that I plan to publish one day (let’s hope for better luck this time). Maybe it will encourage other little girls to act on what they believe. And I’m not so sure anymore that those edges of doing good and bad are that unclear—I have begun again to see them in more distinct patterns of black and white.
To my surprise, Rose never told her story about rescuing Noel. I know what Donald Miller would say. He’d say she didn’t really need to tell the story because she lived the story. And he’d say (well, he did say it and you should read his book) that a good life is like a good story. It starts with a character who wants something and has to overcome conflict to get it. It’s a life that’s not that comfortable or easy. It takes getting off the couch and moving with a purpose. And the purpose needs to be meaningful. Something like letting wild horse run free. Something like getting a cat off the roof. Something you believe to be the right thing to do.
I thought one of our cats, Stripes, had died on the road Saturday night. He is my favorite outdoor cat, though I don’t tell that to the other seven. We raised him from a surprise litter, calling him Emily until we realized we had our gender wrong. There’s a picture in my book of Rose holding him as a kitten, the markings on his face giving him the nickname”Pigface”. He follows me around the yard while I garden, wanting me to pick him up, not even caring if the hose gets him a little wet.
A knock on the door from a neighbor late at night in the country is seldom good. “There’s a cat on the road…a gray and white one….he isn’t moving. I think it’s one of yours.” And so it seemed to be Stripes, with only a flashlight to tell, the coloring and marking right, the open blank eyes giving him a strange look. My friend Jenell was there. She lifted the body I had wrapped in a towel and we carried him back, put him in a cooler with ice. That night I tried to imagine burying him, thinking about how the towel I had grabbed up was blue and white striped, a fitting burial cover.
I woke up not wanting to feed the cats, not wanting to think about the one missing. But when I stepped out the door there was Stripes, waiting with the others for breakfast. A very miracle, as Rose would say. Then I remembered another neighbor, how she had recently adopted a stray that had a very similar look. I left her a message and later that morning there was a knock on the door, another knock I dreaded answering. She lifted the cooler lid and pulled back the towel, and said indeed it was Tommy, her cat. She had brought a small flower with her and laid it on him, saying how she’d grown so fond of him in such a short time, how her young son had included a photo of him in a poster about their family, how she had a vet appointment for him just this next Tuesday. And why did he find her, only to be taken away so soon? And why was it so hard? Thinking back now, it all seemed like a scene in a detective show where the parents come to the morgue. How much they want to say, “No, that’s not our son.”
Even when you know the time is right, when a person or animal you love is ready to go, you are saying, “No, not yet, not now, give me more time.” It is a selfish wish, but one that is so very human. One of the last things I took from my mom’s home was her sewing basket. She had very bad veins in her legs and would take a break every afternoon to”put up my feet”, often reaching for the sewing basket kept by the couch, using this time to do some mending. I associate that sewing box and mending with a peacefulness, a time of rest. I took it out this past week, planning to sort the half used spools of thread, the iron-on patches for jeans, the hooks to mend bras. One night I pulled it close and put my feet on it. It felt good. It now sits in front of my den chair, ready for mending or, much more likely in my case, a spell of “putting my feet up”. It is a kind of unexpected gift. I have had others:
Strange those gifts
the dead give us.
I was driving to Kansas City
for my aunt’s funeral,
the cause of death
a tumor blocking her air passage.
Though a bitterly cold day,
the sun was shining,
with traffic freely moving on I-70,
finally clear of construction
of restricted flow.
I listened to
NPR’s Morning Edition,
no one to interrupt me,
the whole car to myself,
the whole prairie to myself.
I remember thinking,
this is heavenly.
January 29, 2004 (Kansas Day)
By last night I was weary from the weekend, drained from the cat thought to be dead and the one that was. I don’t know why things are so hard, but there are gifts to be found. Gifts of prairie skies and places of support for weary feet and minds. Gifts from the other side. I hope my neighbor can find one soon. I know that she is looking.
There’s a carnival glass sugar bowl on a window ledge in my sun room. It came from my old bedroom, on a shelf my brother made in junior high woodworking class, above the desk where I sat and did homework through high school. This last spring, after my mom’s passing, I needed to sort through her house and decide what to keep. Pack rat that I am (see previous post) I took way too many things. The box of greeting cards my parents received on their 25th anniversary. My mother’s last pair of glasses, unfashionably big and causing the girls to giggle. My brother’s favorite childhood stuffed toy, an elephant now faded with eyes oddly repainted red. When I asked him if he’d like to keep it, he said, “Why?” Why indeed. And especially, why me? He is three years older and I don’t remember it, but I do remember my mother showing it to me during one of our annual attic cleanups. She told me how he held it all the time when he sat in his little red rocking chair, the plastic cracked chair she placed it back into before we moved on to the pile of empty boxes saved for “someday when I need a box just that size” (again, previous post, and you can see where I got it from). And I also kept the carnival glass sugar bowl, while asking myself, “Why?”
Several days ago Rose told me she needed my help for her first sixth homework assignment. She was to ask a parent to find some object in the house with a story. She needed to learn the story, write about it, and be prepared to tell the class why it meant something to her mom or dad. As is often the case, she reminded me of this at the worst possible moment. I was trying to head out the door to get to a wedding in Kansas City while answering repeated calls from Helen “because no one else is picking up their phone!” Doing my usual sighing for dramatic effect (Rose is now an expert at doing an impression of this), I looked around and saw nothing that seemed right until I spotted the glass sugar bowl. This is what she wrote:
The special figure I have now is a carnival glass sugar bowl. The story of this bowl started in my mom’s second grade class. Back in the 1900’s, many families didn’t have very good items like we have now. One day in second grade, my mom and her family moved.
My mom was nervous that day because she had never moved before. She was told to walk to her new house after school. When the bell rang, her teacher asked her to stay a few more minutes, after everyone left. Her teacher asked about their new house and how they liked it. My mom answered some yesses and some no’s. After they chit-chatted, my mom’s teacher gave her a special present as a house warming gift.
Of course you know what it was, it was the magnificent sugar bowl. This sugar bowl is made out of carnival glass. It is an amber color, and the color and the handles remind me of a phoenix. What makes carnival glass special is that every piece is shiny, translucent, colorful, and iridescent. This figure is very special to my mom because it reminds her that it is from her favorite teacher. From this day forward it shines bright on her travels everywhere.
I haven’t taken it on any travels but it does shine bright in my window. And now another story comes to mind, a story about Rose and her favorite teacher. It was the first day of kindergarten and, like many of the parents, I stayed at the back of the room to make sure my child didn’t have a complete meltdown. The teacher, a petite woman with a very soft voice, stood in front of the children seated at her feet and asked who was a little nervous and a little scared. There was a lot of looking around and timid expressions before a few hands went up in the air. Then a few more and a few more until it was a sea of small hands. And then, the teacher, this wonderful teacher, held up her own hand and said, “You know, I’m nervous today too.”
I know now why I kept this carnival glass sugar bowl. I kept it to give Rose a story. A story about a little girl whose teacher understood her fears. And I kept it to give me a story too, and a reminder that, if you have the courage to hold up your hand when asked who is scared, there will always be someone around to help you find your way home.
I Sometimes think my middle name could be “Declutter” and this is not because I am good at it. Rather I spend a great deal of time thinking about decluttering, putting it on weekly lists, and mentioning it to everyone I know, as in “My goal this (week, month, season, year—depending on my level of ambition) is to declutter my house. Not that I don’t have limited success. A little over a year ago I got the dining room decluttered and wrote a four step plan to help others. (See before and after photos.) I really should have put in one more beginning step, which is: My name is Ann, and I am a pack-rat. Here is that plan:
Four easy steps to declutter and dedull a room in your house:
Step one: Determine if indeed the room needs any work. I like to go by several simple formulas. The first one involves dividing the area of covered flats spaces by the area of uncovered flat spaces you had a month ago. Another formula that I have found helpful is to calculate the difference (in multiples of ten) of your personal clutter and that of other family members, but this can sometimes lead to conflict. If you prefer, simply look at a room and decide if it gives you a feeling of peace and well-being. Above left is an example of a room that left me feeling ill at ease and also a bit agitated. There, you are done with step one. Continue to step two.
Step two: Find a friend or family member who occasionally listens to you. Never miss an opportunity to complain about the clutter and how you can’t stand it ONE MORE MINUTE. In my case, the friend (let’s call him Wayne) finally said, and I quote, “I can’t stand you complaining anymore and I’m going to build you a shelf so you can put things up off the floor.” “How lovely,” I said. End of step two.
Step three: Tell your older daughter (let’s call her Helen) that she cannot paint the room this month and maybe not even next month as it’s just too much, you can’t deal with ONE MORE THING and you don’t want to hear any more about it. After much more nagging from “Helen”, finally agree that you will allow it but have NO PART OF IT except choosing that bright shade of Sunrise over the Misty Hills Gold that you’ve had your eye on in the paint store for over three years. Here we go!
Step four: Once the shelf is up and the painting done, look around and see all the things still keeping you from feeling one with your universe. Go to any discount store and buy several large plastic bins or go to an alley behind a liquor store for free study cardboard boxes (while in vicinity, stock up on wine for next potluck). Take everything from flat surfaces and throw into bins or boxes. This can be at random although you might want to leave a few items at the top for use in the near future. In my case, these were heart-worm pills and rosebush fertilizer. DO NOT and I say again DON’T EVER put these containers out of sight. They must remain in full view in a place you see every day. In my case, I put them in the downstairs hall, which forces me at some point to actually look through them, wondering why I would ever need dried up blow pens and tiny pieces of screen door netting. Another alternative, not as effective, is to place the items in a more attractive container, as a pretty basket, and cover with a patterned piece of cloth that somewhat matches the decor of your recently redecorated room. WOW–finished (sort of)!
But now I’d like to give an updated opinion on clutter. This revised idea became more clear with a recent visit to dear relatives and friends on the East Coast. I was in three houses, all lovely, but not without areas of clutter. In one, I stepped over an assortment of trucks while crossing the living room, a treasured collection of a grandson. In the second, I saw the attic room which was to become a little boy’s bedroom, now filled to the brim with boxes and bins, some containing clothes to be handed down from his older sister to her younger cousin. In the third, there was a refrigerator door weighed down with magnets and photos not culled for 16 years, including pictures of my daughters taken on earlier visits many years ago. And with each “clutter” I encountered, I felt closer to the people living in those homes.
In my four step plan, I used the word dedull to describe the “before” room, but the truth is that’s not a good description. My cluttered dining room was not dull. A hotel room is dull. A house with every surface completely clear is dull. A home with no clues as to the characteristics of who lives there is dull. I will admit here that seeing clutter in others’ homes make me feel just a wee bit better about my own piles of stuff, but that’s not the point here. The point is that life is not tidy. It is messy. And it is messy in a unique way for each person on earth, a fact that blows me away if I think about it. And who I am and what is important to me, in all their messy forms, should be reflected in where I live.
I have often nagged my children about having a clear dining room table. I love to put flowers from my garden in the middle between two candles, on top of a printed cotton tablecloth, and nothing else. But right now along with my mother’s antique vase full of surprise lilies are Rose’s pierced ear cleaning solution and cotton balls and the collection of earrings she can’t wait to wear. There’s a stack of rough drafts and notes from Helen’s final research paper on autism, the last assignment required for the on-line summer class that’s needed for her December graduation, something important to a 17 year old ready to get a job in a place like California or Colorado. There’s a set of honey bee charms that I intend to make into necklaces and give out to three friends who are fellow “rebels” in a cause we can’t seem to drop.
This is a part of what’s going on in my life. Thank goodness my house is not too neat, that my table is not bare, that our dogs are alive and well enough to play with the toys laying in the middle of almost every room. One time, when the girls were younger, I had another adoptive mother over for tea and a visit. I complained about the state of my living room, piles of spelling lists and birthday party invitations on top of the stereo, the cat carrying case in one corner, the half finished craft project on the coffee table. She later wrote me an email, thanking me for the visit, and then she described what she had seen as “such messy joy and beauty.” It was the nicest thing anyone ever said about my home.
As the temperature heads toward 100 degrees, I swear I won’t walk the dogs. But I am easily suckered by guilt brought on by their two upturned drooling faces, and so walk we do. We go a half mile down the gravel road that runs by my house and then turn onto a dirt road for another quarter mile till we get to a lone mulberry tree. That’s where I’m ready to be halfway through with our sticky morning exercise. Not that I don’t get something from it. I often daydream along the way. This morning the inspiration came from a picture I have hanging near the mudroom door. It’s of a house surrounded by what I think of as an English cottage garden. There’s a wonderful assortment of flowers everywhere, of all colors and heights and types. I like this picture because that is the garden I want to have. I want to be sitting in the middle of it, in a wicker lounge chair. I am there with my two dogs (who never run away) lying beside me. I have a novel (Barbary Pym or Margaret Drabble) open in my hand. I’m wearing a soft cotton top and skirt (not at all damp from sweat). And a gentle breeze (bug free) strokes my sun kissed face. Ah…….what a heavenly place that would be, I think, as I tug Kosmo away from sniffing raccoon scat and wonder why Jack is being so uncharacteristically brave by barking at the neighbor’s cows. But here I am, on the prairie, where I often feel despair with my gardening attempts.
My father taught me to love gardening. He and I would pour over a Burbee seed catalog every February and carefully make a selection, always hopeful that his flowers would look like the ones in the photos. What he ended up with in our yard in Topeka were little beds of pretty flowers, but hardly lush or abundant and certainly not up to those in the catalog. My mother liked to comment that it was a lot of effort for so few results, yet she still had her favorites. Many days she would point out the morning glories climbing up the metal poles of the clothesline. And she often asked me to pick some nasturtiums to put in a glass sugar bowl for the dining table. From her I came to especially love these two flowers. I can’t seem to grow nasturtiums, though every year I buy a packet of seeds, thinking of those delicate orange bouquets on the checkered plastic tablecloth. Morning glories, however, seem to like me or at least the places I live. And they come the closest to making me feel like I could be living in that English cottage. This all started when I lived in town:
My Year for Morning Glories
It seems to be my year
for morning glories.
Three starter plants
from Hort Services–
blue, white, and red.
The white doing best,
reminding me of
in the hundreds,
blues and purples,
candy-striped when closed.
I dug some up early on,
but only half-heartedly.
Now those left are wrapped around
zinnias, cone flowers, black-eyed Susans,
the training wheels on Helen’s bike,
the front porch railing
(this last at my suggestion).
Wondering if the other plants
are looking weary
from lack of rain
or slow strangulation,
I go out to clip away
the twisting vines,
but still without much conviction.
It’s the wildness that I like.
And the way they greet each morning
with pure pleasure
at the abundance
of their own beauty.
When I moved to the country, I established morning glories that have reseeded and spread every year, winding their way around sunflowers and rose bushes and fence posts, and when I see them, my spirits lift. But to tell the whole story, there is one other area in my yard that has that sense of lushness. It is my vegetable garden, though not for any reason most would envy. In spite of my best intentions, year after year, I let the weeds grow up, entangling and covering up my cucumbers and tomatoes and squash. I never get around to mulching, I hate to use chemicals, and by late June it’s just too darn hot to pull out all the things I didn’t plant. And so what I have by now looks more like a what-not-to-do, or as a friend recently said after viewing, “Wow, I feel better about mine!”
I used to avoid looking too closely at this patch by July, but this year I changed my mind. I have begun to see it less as a failed attempt to grow food and more as a place where anything gets to grow. Every morning, as I make my “rounds” to all the flower and vegetable beds, as my father used to say, I stop last at this spot. I step knee deep into the green foliage to check on the one cucumber that’s growing bigger, to pick the last of the sweet pea pods on vines almost covered up. And then I stand back and look at the whole of it.
It’s the wildness that I like. It’s the great abundance of variety—of shape and height and wonderfully weedy blossoms. It’s this willingness to persist over the heat and drought and bugs. It’s the ability to survive and even thrive in the dog days of my Kansas summers.
Apparently I have “anger issues” which surfaced (no pun intended) over a pool set up in our yard. It would help my cause here to say that I have a bad history with above ground pools and so it should be completely understandable that I tried to discourage Rose and Wayne from buying a large inflatable one (complete with a pump filter no less) for our family “enjoyment”. Since they were using their money to pay for it, I could hardly be that much of a spoil sport (oh, another issue I apparently have), and so the “fun” began. As you can tell from the photo above, our yard is not level, far from it. The logical solution was sand, brought in by a truckload. But (big surprise) it didn’t work, causing one side to collapse, creating a cascading waterfall that emptied the pool in 30 seconds with Rose going over the edge in a free fall, laughing hysterically. More sand, more leveling, more filling and thank goodness we’ve had enough rain this spring so the well shouldn’t run dry. When the pool was about a third full for the second attempt and seemed to still lilt to one side, I will admit to saying something to the effect of, “It’s not going to work, it never works, I hate pools, it’s just going to be another waste of money, and I can’t stand it!” However, the pool didn’t overflow this time and I did a very generous thing and said I was glad that I was wrong.
We had several days with lots of splashing and the promised family “enjoyment” including floating loungers with cup holders before the water took on the color of a pale but dead toad. Somehow it seemed to be my job to research home remedies for this and so I used diluted bleach—several times. Still that bad shade of green and now the water was also turning very murky. I suppose I should have known I needed to do something more and sooner but remember this was not my idea and I’ve never had a pool this large and “why am I the one maintaining it and I said I didn’t want it and I knew it wouldn’t be easy and….”
I set out to a local hardware store that told me over the phone they had “everything” I would need. As it turned out, what they were missing was a person who knew more than I did about pool maintenance. The college-aged sales assistant and I discussed pH levels and what they meant for no less than 20 minutes before I asked if there was anyone else in the store who might know more about all this. “No one here would know more,” he assured me and finally managed to answer one question by getting on his smart phone. I came home with a bag full of stuff, including a huge plastic bin of white granules that would make my hard water more acidic, strips to test things I’ve never even heard of before, and something called a shock treatment. Helen said the only real solution was to drain the pool and refill it with fresh water and no one she knew had to use chemicals in their pool. Since I figured I might get in trouble for asking Rose to use chemicals from containers with large warning labels on them and Wayne was safely in his own home, I decided that, once again, this was on me. Eleven test strips, three treatments to lower the pH, and one shock treatment later, the pool started looking better.
And now I have mixed feelings about all my protests about this pool. Why was I so against it? Why was I so ready to pronounce it a failure? And why did all those thoughts make me so angry? The day after all the treatment, I was admiring my recently blooming cone flowers when Rose came bounding up to me, a furry caterpillar in hand. She was heading for the door. “Don’t take that inside…he belongs outside…he’ll die….put him back,” I said before even thinking. “But Wayne said I could have him as a pet,” she so quickly replied. Ah…..and like the pool, I was outnumbered.
48 hours later, the pool still has clear water, though wouldn’t you know it’s gone from 98 to 82 degrees, making a dip seem less tempting. Mr. Fuzzy Wuzzy (or Ms. for all we know) seems fairly content in a plastic cage made just for the purpose of holding insects that Helen reminded Rose was in the attic. He has milkweed leaves (from our yard) and lettuce leaves (from the store) and drops of water. He’s left a trail of what looks like small mulberries that match the pictures on the internet of caterpillar poop. I have been told in a very stern tone that if “Mr. Fuzzy Wuzzy is sitting very still he may be ready to make a cocoon and you should LEAVE HIM ALONE.” And unlike the pool, none of this taking care of business has been mine. Well, except when Rose is in town and I have to check regularly and promise to call if there are any alarming events.
As it turns out, checking on Mr. FW and the pool water has become rather enjoyable. I don’t want to be known by my children as having anger issues or being a spoils sport—at least not so often, as I believe there are times when anger and spoil sporting seem appropriate. But it would also appear that a little shock treatment can be helpful. It can clear the murky waters so we see what’s underneath. To see that there’s just a slightly dirty bottom and some grass clippings from when Helen mowed but mostly water clear enough to reflect the poles of the trampoline set nearby to use for a springboard. There’s just a caterpillar that might escape or even die (though not from neglect) but could turn into a butterfly. There’s just a late middle-aged mother who will need to keep using those test strips but who could spend a hot Kansas summer afternoon drinking ice tea (or whatever) with her children in a pool that, though set on uneven ground, seems stable enough for the time being.
This morning everything seemed to be going to the dogs. My house, my yard, my kids’ behavior, my behavior with my kids, their behavior towards my behavior, not to mention the world at large. So I took a cup of tea and sat on the back steps with Jack, our Great Pyrenees dog. Let me state here that he’s a lovely, gentle soul and my older daughter Helen says if I found a man like him I’d finally get married. She may be right—I could do worse. O.K., I have done worse.
So Jack seems to like nothing better than for me to join him out there, getting all excited with tail wagging and face licking before setting himself down right beside me. And then we just sit. Nothing more. Well, a little talking is good. I might comment on the birds or the weather and he might cock his head to indicate he’s interested in some animal sound, but that’s about it. We could sit for 5 minutes or 15, depending on our needs at the time. It’s very nice and I’ve decided to call this activity “Sitting with the Dog.” It’s not meditation. It’s not contemplation. It’s not any form of yoga, though I will add here that I used to know some yoga positions including one called downward dog. But this is just sitting with a dog. (To clarify, this activity does not include the, let us call them 11 and two weeks shy of 17 year olds who go find a dog for an excuse not to empty the dishwasher or feed the cats.)
If you don’t have a dog there are some other options:
A young child will also have that wonderful unconditional joy to have you sit with her but you have to find a time when she’s tired enough to be still but not too tired to start whining, possibly a two minute window extended to four with a popsicle.
Cats may come to mind to some of you and I have plenty (11 to be exact) at my house so I have an idea about this. Cats are better at the “Napping with the Cat” activity (possible topic for a future blog) but not so much the sitting. And they sometimes like to rest on odd body parts like your head and I don’t get what that’s about.
A really old people can be great for this but you both need to have the same expectations. The person has to be old or wise enough to know you don’t have to comment that much on the story you’ve likely heard 20 times already. It has to be all right for you to just sit quietly by his side. There could be short responses on your part and maybe some light resting of hands on frail limbs. This is a really nice thing to do for a really old person. It’s also a really nice thing to do for yourself.
So this morning I did this Sitting with the Dog thing. It felt pretty good. I forgot to be annoyed at everything and everyone, including myself. And there was a sense of being complete. I noticed I had something to contribute, which was making Jack happy. I got to see the ballet of two white butterflies, swooping and twirling around each other among the weeds by the fence. That was something to appreciate. And really, at any given moment, that’s all you need: something to contribute and something to appreciate. Even in a world that seems to be going to the dogs. And I also think a really old person would agree with that.