If I Had a Teacher, It Would Be a Dog, and Definitely Not an Economist

We’ve moved into the new house but have yet to sell the old one. Realtor assures me that this college town has an Autumn market. I’m gonna have to trust the pro on this one. But I can’t help but feel that my move is a model case of How Now To Move. My old house wasn’t ready. I threw it up at the end of the peak spring season. We had a bunch of other stuff to do this summer. I could have waited until my son went to college then moved into a smaller house that would, eventually, be just for me. For every contractor that’s been a gem, there’s been another one that’s a con man. I’ve tried to do some home improvements myself. I do them, but sloppily, and I’m taking time from my career. On paper, I’ve done everything wrong.

And, still, moving was the right thing to do. We have been liberated from that old house, and its patterns, and its memories. Despite all the problems we still have, it feels like the three of of us are a family, setting up house.

It’s financially inefficient, economically irrational, but there are other standards, and I seem to have hit on one that matters.

I do a little Pilates/yoga in the new sunroom before the sun rises. We eat dinner on the screened-in porch, tucked among the treetops. The new house is as nice as I thought it would be. On a recent evening dog walk I passed a woman walking and I was like “omg, when you pass that curve, you gotta look to the right and glimpse the sunset,” and she responded, “Yes! The light is so beautiful,” gesturing behind me. What I’d recommended was red. She invited me to turn around and see purple. It’s lovely here, on a ridge in town, and sometimes it’s breathtaking.

Despite such moments, I feel like such a loser. Here I am, juggling two mortgages, hemorrhaging money to banks and rotten contractors, when I could have used that money for the kids’ college, or for a real vacation, or for anything else but this . Basically, I’m going to sell my house for less than it’s worth, scoop up the equity, pay off (some of) the credit card bills, and start over. I’m in my mid-40s, and I’m not settling in, to comfort or security. I’m starting over. The crappy financial choices I’m making are rational in light of the crappy situation I’m in.

And while we’re being negative, I feel guilty that I’m providing my children such a crappy childhood. Sure, we have some nice moments, but I’m coming to see that my children lack a foundation. It’s just us, rattling around this house, day to day. We lack regular connections to family. We don’t feel tied to the community. We’re more Gray Gardens than Kennedy Compound. I had a lot of hopes and dreams for my kids. At this point, I’m feeling like our lives are spare. My one hope is that my kids are the kind of fighters who will overcome adversity and use their hardship to become good people, creative types, generous humans, humbled souls who still want more. All my hopes and dreams are now in their overcoming this life that I gave them, which makes me so ashamed. I brought them into the world thinking that I could provide children with a rich, full life, and I just feel like I blew it.

So I’m walking the dogs on a night when the light wasn’t magnificent, and I’m thinking of what a failure I am. I stepped off the path of personal and professional success,and I just keep digging a groove into this other path, which is the path of the outcast, the peculiar, the solitude. I’m just this weird widow who lives in the lovely cottage and walks the dogs a lot. And, while I shudder at the thought of taking one’s own life (for reasons that are obvious) I did consider that if I got some terminal disease tomorrow, that would be kind of a relief, because I could just stop, and capitulate, end this trainwreck, and get some rest. I realize how crazy that sounds as I type it, but I can’t deny it. I’m tuckered. I am worn out. There isn’t a lot of respite from the grind. But I’ve got these kids to raise. So I forge on.

The dogs and I turned a corner and encountered a dog loose in his/her yard. This is the sort of thing that worries me, what with the dog fighting and me being inept and all, but it was just some little terrier, and it was old, really old, and it couldn’t even move from its spot. As I passed with my giant dogs, it lifted up its head and yowled, “Ahhhooooowooooooowwwwww!” in the feeblest decibel, but it was all heart. I admired the effort. I paused to look at this old, weary, little fighter, and I threw back my head and laughed. And my bigger dog, easily 10x the size of the terrier, got his game up a little, as if the little dog were a contender, or maybe a friend.

And I got over it, for the moment.

What Took You So Long?

I’m putting myself out there.

I’ve gotten all gussied up.

Now, I just sit back and wait for my string of suitors.

They visit. They scrutinize me.

 

With each one, I get my hopes up. Maybe this will be The One!

I put my best foot forward. They peruse. They pass judgment. 

I’m nice enough, but not for them.

Or (ouch! this one stings!) I’m just not up to snuff

I’ve begun to suspend my hope–not give up on it, mind you, but hold my hope until The One comes along.

As for the rest–I’m not worth it to them, and I can’t take it personally. I’m desperate, though, so I’m subject to their opinions.

Someday, though, there’ll be The One. So I don’t give up hope; I just don’t give it away too easily.

I am jaded, but I am playing the game.

What game, you may ask?

No, I’m not dating.

I’m selling my house.

I wasn’t expecting to sell my house. I just dipped a toe in the water to see what was out there and what I’d have to do to sell mine. And then I stumbled upon this beautiful house, move-in ready, and there I was, signing a contract, sitting down with the loan officer to see how I could carry two mortgages temporarily, etc.

I can’t explain what pushed me over the edge.

Maybe it was the day last month I visited a house that was already under contract, and I saw the light stream through the windows, and I was assured that the world–nay, even this town–has so many more possibilities than my sad brain knew.

Maybe it was the day that I threw out the LL Bean rug that I’d bought when I fixed up the family room. I’d splurged on it with a vision of the kids tucked in there, safe and warm. Ends up that this was the dog poop rug. They’d poop (and pee?) on it, in spurts, but with regularity when they were on a spurt. I’d get the carpet cleaner out, air it out, apply baking soda, more cleaning, plop the dehumidifier on it. It spent the winter in the basement. I brought it back in and one night, at 2am, the dogs must have been like, ‘Oh, there you are!” I cleaned up the poop, did a perfunctory cleaning, then rolled it up and donated it. 

That’s when I knew that I need to move on, not just from my husband’s death, but from these past two years. I don’t regret what I’ve done for my kids. I think that I’ve held us up in a really difficult situation. But this transitional period is not sustainable. We need to do things differently now. I’ve shepherded them through this trauma. I’ve given everything I had. It’s not enough. I could carry them through the trauma and grieving, but there’s nothing I can do to fix their lives. That’s their respective jobs. I’m not giving up on the kids, of course, but it’s time for us to live like a widow and two blossoming human beings, instead of as a family in crisis. It’s time. For what, I don’t know. But it’s time for a change.

So I put a contract on a new house and put my house on the market. You think that was a metaphor for dating above? It isn’t. Every time a buyer or agent comes through this house, I feel scrutinized and judged. This house is a testament to our downward spiral. When someone gets nitpicky, I feel like they seeing right into the failure of our lives. The molding that the dogs scratched. The subpar parking situation that I put up with, because I’ve always settled for less and now I’m seeing that other people expect a lot more in life. I am internalizing a business transaction. I know this is ridiculous, but I can’t deny those feelings.  I’m so vulnerable, and these house showings are excruciating–both practically and emotionally–but I’m doing them anyway because that’s how much I want to get out of this house.

That feeling came upon me suddenly, with an urgency that surprised me. But there I was, one moment, and there I was the next, with an urge to get out of this house at, literally, any cost. Even if I have to carry two mortgages (although the credit union finagled a little arrangement where it’s not as bad as all that). Even if I put the house on at the end of the selling season in a college town. As financially irrational as it is, as bad as the timing is, this is a decision that feels right.

I tell this to the people that love me, almost apologizing for putting myself at financial risk, but what I see in their eyes is a furrowed brow and a gleam of pleasure in their eyes, because what every single one of them is not saying out loud is,

“Finally! What took you so long?”

They never said a thing, all this time. They hoped I’d get out of here, but they were just waiting for me, patiently. My current house will sell, not soon enough for me, but eventually. But what they are telling me is that this–this decision, this feeling of wanting more, this movement toward the light–is worth any risk. The risk itself is probably good in itself. It has me nervous. It keeps me on my toes. It pushes me out of my comfort level. And as scary as all this is for me, my interlocutors affirm that it’s all good.

House

So I didn’t buy a house.

Last week, Pseudonymous Friend and her husband clued me in to a house for sale on their street. I was feeling low and have been struggling for the better part of the semester, but I confidently marched into the office of the local realtor who sells quirky houses. I asked him to have a look at my place, to give me some long-term advice in the hopes that I could sell my house in two years. But, I added, I’d like to see that house for sale.

I spent all weekend freshening up my house. I patched a hole in a wall and painted a hallway. I filled in potholes in the driveway. I dusted cobwebs from deep corners. I threw open the windows and dusted the cobwebs from the side of the house. I wiped down cabinets, vacuumed up dog hair, mopped again and again. Standard spring cleaning, even if it was still cold. I scooped the dog yard. I raked out the front yard until the ivy popped through again. I started Friday morning and by Sunday night my bones ached. My house looks good, though. And I was able to be honest with the kids and get their blessing. I promised them I wouldn’t give up our current house unless a new house was really, really suitable  for us. They trust me, and I don’t take that trust lightly.

The realtor’s walk-through of my house was encouraging. He pointed out a few small jobs that can make a big difference, and he assured me that there are some $$$ jobs (painting the exterior, redoing the driveway) that don’t have to be done.

We then looked at the house for sale. It’s like mine–quirky!–but smaller, and even better quality than mine, with a much smaller driveway and hardly any yard to mow. I liked what I saw. I liked it a lot. As we finished the walk-through, his assistant let him know that an offer had already been made and accepted on the house. So that was that.

He was bummed for me, more bummed than I was. I stood in the the hallway, looking through the large kitchen window that offered a view that went on for miles. It was beautiful. I would have been really happy there. He rattled off other properties for sale. I turned each one down–that road is too busy, the houses are too close together on that other street. “There will be other houses,” I assured him.

It was disappointing to lose the chance at this nice, low-maintenance house, which I’d only found out about last Wednesday, but I was so surprised at my satisfied response–there are spaces filled with light, there are welcoming refuges, full of promise. I’ve given up on finding the house of my dreams, or the man of my dreams, or the life of my dreams, so this brief opportunity and its loss don’t hurt me. They buoy me, actually. There is hope. I can get the hell out of here. Out of this current house, out of this, whatever this is, this funk, this prison. It’s not going to happen now. But it’s out there. I got a glimpse.

This evening, Daughter took a dog and climbed the hill in the woods behind our house to the street behind us. I took another dog up the street and kept walking until our paths crossed. We said hi, as if we were friends that ran into each other, then we walked back to our house through the woods. She pointed out the best way down. She pointed out the deer paths. She stopped in the stick house she’s built to replace the one she built when she was 4. “Do you fit in there?” I asked. She does. It even has a spy hole, to see people. “What people do you see?” I asked. “You, when you come home,” she said.

As we made our way to the front door she said, “This house belongs to you, but this area is mine.” It’s true. She owns the place. It is her home.

So I didn’t buy a house today. I probably shouldn’t have bought a house today. But I felt like I could have bought a house today. And that’ll do, for now.

 

 

 

 

 

Breaches

You’d think you’d know what the triggers are–an image of the cause of death, an ICU room–but those things I can handle, in their odd familiarity. The triggers come from the most unexpected places, such as someone blaming me for their own problem.

Of course, this is simply “projection.” It happens. But when it’s happened to me, in various, and sometimes petty, ways in the last few weeks, I’ve felt something crumble inside. I can’t get away from the person fast enough. I know that I’m not to blame. I know that the other person is suffering in one way or another. Even if it’s just petty defensiveness, that’s a sort of pain, too. But here’s what else I know–that person is not taking responsibility for his or her pain or insecurity, and that person is willing to use their pain to hurt me. I do not feel safe around such a person.

My husband projected so much of his self-loathing onto me (and others), that after years of it, I couldn’t sort out the man from the illness or my involvement in it. But recently someone blamed me for something that was so ridiculous and such a caricature of projection that it became crystal clear to me that it was not at all my fault, and I started to recollect all the other things that weren’t my fault.

That would seem to be clarity, but then the trigger strikes again. They’ve made me an accomplice, made me feel responsible for their welfare. If I don’t play along, maybe they’ll hurt themselves. I am clearly doing some projection of my own. I’m carrying my husband’s experience everywhere, applying it to these everyday situations, as if the worst will happen if I bungle this interaction, as if I’m supposed to rescue people by absorbing their pain. People engage in everyday interpersonal relations, and they terrify me.

I’m working on this.

Despite the flight instinct, I don’t flee. I’ve established some healthy boundaries, I use some coping mechanisms, I deflect an attack that comes from a place of unreason and respond in a different way. The other person is suffering, in one way or another, and I have compassion, but I can’t help them if they’re not going to help themselves. I don’t give up on them, but I don’t give in to the manipulation, either. I wait it out. I’m there for them when they’re ready. To my great relief, I’ve actually ridden out a few of these episodes, resulting in renewed care and respect.

They’ve breached my boundaries. I’ve redrawn them, held my own, opened my heart a little while protecting it, too.  It’s hard, but it’s okay, and it may be my doorway back into the world.

Meanwhile, in the last few weeks and months, different people, in rapid succession, have shared their own turmoil about living with someone with mental illness. I guess I sent out quiet signals, and they sprung these stories onto me. I am surprisingly receptive. A person who loves a mentally ill person may bear the brunt of anger/pain/irrationality/false hopes/dashed dreams/insert your own rotten feeling here.  I can listen to the story as their story. This person is telling me how hard it is to live with and love and be loyal to someone with mental illness, and I affirm that it is. We don’t trash the sick person. We just acknowledge that it’s hard, for everybody. We remove the shame, chip away at one another’s isolation, dwell in the intractable puzzle of what is happening and what to do. This is pain, but it’s a pain that I can handle. This is a load that I can help carry. One person shared and ended with an apology for burdening me with the story, which was raw and real and heartbreaking. “What are you kidding?” I replied. “This is the most normal conversation I’ve had all day.”

My Driveway is My Teacher

One Day

I shoveled in the dark. It was hard work. It was very quiet, all around. The street had not even been plowed yet. I was the only one out there. To amuse myself, I groped for that charming Billy Collins poem about shoveling with Buddha. All I can remember is that he felt awkward because it was so cold. As I scanned my brain for more lines, I looked up, and the headlamp illuminated the tree branches, heavy with snow, making a roof over the driveway. “Now this,” I thought, “this is lovely.”

I cleared the snow and ice from the bottom of the driveway. I cleared a path to the storm drain, even. I came back inside, made a pot of coffee, ate someone’s leftover sweet potato biscuit, got dressed, walked to campus. As I neared the bottom of the driveway I saw that the snow plow had come…and dumped snow over the path I’d just cleared at the bottom of the driveway. I let it go. I walked right over the snow dump and kept letting it go, all the way to campus. School had closed that day, but I attended a lunch with a visiting scholar and got to talk to her about our shared research interests. And there, in the margins, I felt comfortable.

Another Day

A midday thaw meant that I could tackle the ice pool at the end of the driveway. It also meant that runoff poured down the street. I cleared the storm drain of leaves and snow and slush so the water could flow past the driveway instead of pooling up. I cleared a path to the storm drain from the other direction so the street wouldn’t ice up when it got cold again in a few hours. I looked across the street and saw a pool of water forming because that storm drain was blocked. I cleared it, and a waterfall of water rushed into the cleared drain.

As I cleared, I knew that the water would just keep coming. I knew that I was stemming the tide, but I couldn’t stop it. There is all this snow, a seemingly endless source of water to rush past my driveway. I thought of the Buddhist monks who’d visited the first year or two we lived here. They made a mandala of sand, and when they made a mistake, they’d clear it and start over. I remember how amazed people were by that. They’d see it, talk about it. I only now begin to understand it. The water will never stop coming. But I’ve cleared it, for now. I walked past my cleared bottom-of-driveway, up my cleared driveway underneath the tiniest, gentlest hail pellets.

Later That Day

After a few hours of work  in the house, I came back outside in late afternoon. The cold was setting in. All that runoff from the midday thaw just froze into place. The entire driveway was slick. It wasn’t ice, it was more like a sticky film. I tried to wedge a shovel underneath it, but it couldn’t penetrate. I skidded as I maneuvered across it. Slapstick! I began salting the whole driveway and ran out of salt. In texting a friend, I learned that there was no salt to be found in town.

I stood at the top of the driveway, feeling the terror return, the abandonment, the hopelessness. I was up here, and the world was down there, and the slick driveway was an impenetrable barrier.

I was supposed to go out with a group of women for a birthday outing. They all had cabin fever from the kids being out of school so much. I don’t doubt that it’s hard for them, but I can’t commiserate. Then there’s this, this slick driveway. Even if I could get down the driveway, how could I  frolic and sit with them when I all I feel is horror and incapacity?

This is when I’m supposed to reach out for help. I wonder if I should call a friend to ask her to buy some salt and leave it on the bottom of my driveway. But my road is slippery, and where would she get salt? I call a nearby gas station. They’ve got something that sounds eco-hazardous. Daughter and I bundle up, don headlamps and walk the half-mile to the gas station, return with each of us carrying a 12lb. container. We pass someone we know who remarks, “Oh are you the jolly neighborhood salt sprinklers?” We must look adorable. I am terrified. The chasm–it widens.

Daughter and I clear what the salt has melted, and we sprinkle more salt, but judiciously. As I go to sleep, I’m not even sure if I can get down the driveway the next day, by car or by foot. But we have such a good reading to discuss in class.

The salt did decent work overnight. The next morning I take my chances and as slowly as possible, glide the car down the steep driveway with minimal braking. I do not slide into the gully. I do not careen into another car in the street. I show up at big box hardware store at 6:30. They open at 7. Head to the grocery store. Out of salt. I buy a coffee, return to big box, grade papers until they open. No salt. I stop at the gas station and buy the last container of that eco-hazardous stuff. I head to retro grocery store and grade papers in the car until they open. No salt. Head to campus and get a good spot because I’m so early. The class discussion of the reading is great.

Today

The snow has melted, and the driveway is clear, for now. On this blustery day, where the wind carries faint memories of spring, I tend to the driveway, again. All that salt we used to melt the ice has done damage to the top layers. The few days of mad runoff eroded it further. I patch the worst pot holes with a gooey filler. I bought a hoe, which I use to tamp it down. Bam! Bam! Bam!

My driveway taught me so much this year. It made me afraid, and I faced the fears. It made me develop new muscles. It made me buy a new pair of boots with excellent treads, and I wear them all the time because I never know when the driveway will need tending, so now I sit in department meetings next to my well-dressed colleagues, looking like a lumberjack. That’s all to say, the driveway is a hegemon, taking over my life. It taught me that accomplishments are fleeting and will be met with more snow, more ice, more runoff, and sometimes it’ll all clear up.

But when I stood at the top of the driveway the day of the ice storm, and I didn’t know how I would melt it, and wondered if we were stuck up there for days, that’s when something clicked. That’s when I felt isolation in my bones. I am isolated, from just about everyone I know. Grief is to blame for part of it. But really, it’s not that. It’s mental illness.

For six years I lived with a husband with a wretched mental illness. For the last two I’ve been taking care of someone else with a different mental illness. It’s the thing I won’t talk about here, but that day, as the cold set in and the sheet of ice lay between me and my town, I felt the despair and isolation bubble up from inside of me. It wasn’t imposed on me; I always carry that around.  There are barriers that prevent me from knocking back a beer with friends and colleagues, from showing up at the parent meetings at schools, from chatting in the grocery store. Taking care of someone with mental illness is enervating, deflating, soul-sucking, dream-crushing. It is isolating. Few people know, and very few know how bad it gets. I try to keep myself happy and healthy, but that is undermined by….never mind, I won’t spill those details.

Only this–now I know, with perfect clarity, the damage that mental illness has done to the people I love and the years it has stolen from me. Knowledge is no solace here. The clarity of it only shows me how powerless I am to stop it, how imprisoned I am by it, and have been for so long. I have gained wisdom, but it is a terrible wisdom. The ice has melted, but I am trapped like that, with feeling of horror and incapacity, any day, and I have been for a long time.

And what are ya gonna do? Chop wood, carry water, shovel the snow, patch the holes, get some sleep.

Finding Fellow Solitudes

NPR did a round-up of recent fiction about solitude. I selected one to read because of this line, about a widow:

Celia Cassill is a young widow who has retreated from the world in the wake of her husband’s death. She rents out three apartments in her building, but other than collecting payment and addressing tenant complaints, she keeps to herself. “American life asks us to engage in an act of triumphant recovery at all times,” she says, which is her own way of saying she’s divorced herself from such social expectation.

 

What’s Real

I’m playing tag team with Jean, who just wrote about reality tv. Reality and tv have been on my mind lately.

As I’ve been painting, I’ve carted my laptop around to stream The Sopranos. It started innocently enough. With my new HBO subscription, I could watch the last season on tv. I firmly believe that Tony was not shot in the final scene of the series. The screen went black and we were shut out. The characters went to a restaurant we’d never heard of and they went on to live their lives. Without us. (Just as Sherlock Holmes fans know that Holmes is retired and tending to his bees in Sussex.)

Seriously, a colleague of mine–who didn’t even watch the whole series–argued in the mailroom a few years ago that Tony died, and I got a little hot under the collar. I can’t reasonably disagree with someone on this. I was ticked at his mansplaining, but I had a nugget of doubt that maybe I just wished that Tony was alive. In rewatching the last few episodes, I feel vindicated. The therapist, who had been a stand-in for us, disabuses herself of her fondness for Tony and acknowledges him as a sociopath. If that didn’t persuade us, then Anthony, Jr., becomes the show’s oracle, quoting Yeats and urging us to recognize that the real world is all around us. The show’s makers were letting us go, urging us to let go on our terms, and if that didn’t work, they shut us out.

As I painted, I just started the whole series over, from episode 1. That theme ran throughout the whole series. They kept reminding us that this was not real. Italian-Americans who felt out of place in Italy, mobsters who built their identity on The Godfather. There’s one plot turn involving a stolen haul of flat screen tv’s. As the series continues, you see that every mobster and his mother has that tv. Nice consistency to the show, but also a message–this is tv. Resume your critical faculties. This is not real.

Funny, though, how warm and fuzzy it felt to rewatch the series. The opening credits, with  the NJ Turnpike, put me right back onto the scratchy rug in the back of the station wagon, where the littlest kids in the family sat, peering at the smokestacks and the HESS building. When I started my job, we were so broke and couldn’t afford cable, but one of the other stay-at-home dads would loyally slip my husband a videotape of the episode on Monday or Tuesday, so we were always caught up. We were even in NJ for the last episode. We watched it with my brother and left right afterward. I was so stunned by the ending that I sat in silence through all of Pennsylvania. The Sopranos is so embedded in my past, and it evokes so much Jersey and so much of my happy early years of parenting, that it’s like a warm embrace.

There is a lot of real experience that I’ve blocked and that I’m still recovering, bit by bit. This unreal experience feels more familiar, and much safer (even with the violence and sexism and rotten characters). Maybe I’m crazy, avoiding what’s real and embracing what’s constructed. But the academic in me knows that when an Italian-American can pronounce every deli meat with an Italian accent but can’t follow a conversation, well that right there is a culture. If a tv show is woven into the experience of my lie, both reflecting it and constructing it, then that’s experience. And part of recovering from trauma is having to reread your life as a text, and realizing that you were an unreliable narrator, and the beloved main character wasn’t who you thought he was, and not being able to fix that, and getting the story right doesn’t make the story any better.  Vindication is no solace, or even a factor. You just to accept those facts, and this life.

The academic in me also knows that there are multiple interpretations of texts, so you can believe that Tony was shot. To which I will reply, “Get outa town!”

Winter Storage

I stopped kayaking this fall. It was too painful. All that beauty felt like a slap in the face. I left my boat in its berth. It rained, it snowed, it might have hailed on my neglected boat. I had a fear/secret hope that the state office that issues the permits would just cut my lock and seize my kayak. It was some passive way of just getting that reminder of my lack-of-happiness out of my life.

Then, in mid-December, I received a call. It was the state office that issues the permits. I was ready to blurt out, “Go ahead! Just take the boat!” I heard him apologizing, instead. Everybody’s boats were supposed to be gone by December 1, but there’d been some mix-up. Could I please retrieve my boat? Okay, righty-o I’d get out there right away, sir, thank you very much. By Christmas, if I could, he suggested. Um, okay. I picked up my son, dropped him off, and pulled into the grocery store. He called again. I thought that now I was really in trouble, but, no, he was just calling to inform me to apologize for the mix-up and…He sounded like Carlton the Doorman from Rhoda. I stopped him and let him know he’d just called. I started to feel sorry for him. And I needed to get that boat.

The day before Christmas Eve, Daughter and I hoisted it off the berth and onto the car. That was the day that I spent hours (and hours) trying to rig up my new cable modem. At the end of the afternoon, on the phone with the cable company once again, I suggested that I just exchange the dud modem for a new one. Their office was closing in minutes. I raced out the door and saw the boat on top of my car. I grabbed the stool, undid the straps, heaved and ho’d and hauled it to its storage rack in the basement. I was relieved it was safe in its rack instead of seized by the state office that issues the permits. It took 2, maybe 3, minutes to get the boat from the car to the rack. I chuckled at how easy it was. Things that used to be so hard aren’t as hard now.

A friend remarked that she’s been driving past my driveway and wonders how I get out of it. It has had a pool of ice at the bottom for weeks now, what with this relentless cold. I told her that I try to fend it off by clearing the storm drain and shoveling the slush and snow off the street, but when that doesn’t work and the pool of ice forms, if I keep to the right of it and stop just before the pool, I can see if any cars are coming down the street. Then I take a quick breath and careen over the ice. Since no cars are coming, I have time for a little zig or zag if I get caught on the ice.

She peered at me. “You were so scared of the driveway last year.” I was. I still am. The driveway is risky, but it’s not impassable. My fear has not gone away. I am just learning how to be steady when the danger is all around me.

This, of course, is what meditation taught me. Bad stuff, good stuff, it’s all swirling all around. Move within it, not despite it or because of it. The meditation class ended, and I haven’t been going to yoga class, but I’ve kept up my practice. I practice it everyday. I’m getting better with the fear and uncertainty and regret and dread and despair. I’m not so good with the nice things, like beauty and joy. I sound like a brat just saying it. But I know what I feel. It’s all hard to face, it’s all so real and I feel so vulnerable to it, to all of it.

A friend of mine (whom I haven’t hidden on Facebook because she rarely posts) updated her profile photo with a picture that I took of her. We were out on the lake in late summer, at the end of the day. It was the “magic hour” of the light, and I saw the light reflecting off her and her boat. I pulled out my phone and captured it. When she posted the photo on FB, she got comments such as “You’re awesome!” but I don’t think she was looking for validation. Maybe she had a yearning for late summer in the midst of winter. I don’t know why she posted it, but I know what I saw. She reflected back to me the beauty that I see. It is just a phone picture, taken hastily and off-balance–she was floating past me as I fumbled to get the phone–but it captures warmth and light and, yes, magic. She showed me that I see this beauty. I can’t bear it, but I see it, and now I sort of get it.

Our everyday life is harder than it has to be, and the simple moments (school plays, parties, Christmas) of ordinary life are heart-wrenching for us. We are deprived of life’s simple pleasures, but I’ve also been privy to extraordinary beauty–of humans, of nature, of wonder. I’m so knocked out of the ordinary world and thrust into this other one, where kayaking isn’t an act of self-validation but a movement through something, a journey I don’t even understand. I’m not learning about myself, I’m learning about all of this around me. The trick is to be still and move through it, to receive it without feeling accosted by it, to accept it.

I’ve been eyeing my kayak a lot this past month. As I search for drill bits, or store the painting supplies in between painting surges, or add to my pile of recyclables (because I don’t want to make the recycling guys have to walk over that ice pool, so I’m storing them until the ice melts), I spot the kayak there on its rack, and I sure do wonder when I can get that boat back in the water again.

I am learning to be steady through horror and fear. Now let’s see if I can do the same with beauty, maybe with joy.

Image

Busy and Bored

The home improvement phase continues. The Sherwin Williams Snowbound in the family room is crisp and clean. The Benjamin Moore White Dove in the hallway is a little softer. I’m oddly chuffed about the hall closet. Painting is the easy part, but the prep and the cleaning and the ever-present worry of spilling a bucket of paint or stepping in wet paint adds to the stress, so I’ve toned down my enthusiasm. I’ve paused the painting and spruced up the spaces I’ve painted. An abrasive sponge and some cleaner will pick up the–ahem!–paint splatters from floors and door frames. I moved a small bookcase out of the family room–which opened up the room, natch–turned it on its side, put it on the floor of the closet, and now we have cubbies for shoes. I simply moved a shoe rack from one corner to another, and the hallway seems to flow in a new direction. I used the power screwdriver to install a new hook rack in the closet and to switch the two racks in the hallway. I even used the drill function for the first time. These simple changes yield big results. I walked in the house today and exclaimed, “Well doesn’t this look sharp?” to the dogs.

I haven’t painted the upstairs hallway yet, but I moved a bookcase next to another bookcase, transforming the landing. Now I have a big empty wall that’s going to be a lovely White Dove after the next painting surge, and I’ve started to think about what to do with it. I’m keen on those German schoolhouse botanical charts:

Image

 

but they’re expensive, so I began shopping around. That led to a latent interest in mushrooms. Would it be too morbid to buy a vintage print of poisonous mushrooms?

Image

 

It could be educational and metaphorical, as if I’m teaching my children to be wary, especially of beautiful things. Then again, the poster is German, so my kids might see nothing but fungi.

This vintage German poster search somehow led to searches for vintage German home decor. And then I learned a whole lot about midcentury planters, German and otherwise, because it’s time to introduce some plants back into this house. I’m kind of digging the McCoy planter, about which I knew nothing until two days ago.

Image

 

Image

Maybe it’s occurred to you that I have too much time on my hands. Funny thing is, I don’t. I am working so hard and I’m exhausted. But I’m also so lonely and bored out of my mind. All of this online window shopping seems to be filling a need for a hobby. I need a hobby. I need to rest. I need more time for work.

At work, despite my resolve to ease up on service, I remain involved. I just finished up my second search committee, and now I’m on a third. It’s a lot of work, but I think it’s important work for the university. I am still involved in these new campus initiatives. There’s this committee, that one, that other one, and I initiated the visit of a really interesting speaker to bring to campus. This is all good stuff. I’m getting myself out there. I’m contributing. And I have nothing better to do. I mean, I do. I have to cook and clean and parent and walk the dogs and shop and teach and read and drive and shovel and exercise. But, golly, I’m looking for something else.

A well-designed poster in my building caught my eye, and then I realized that the invited speaker coming to campus next week, in an area outside my own, does the same kind of research my co-author and I are doing. I put the public lecture on my calendar, but the next thing I knew I contacted the Director of the Center that is hosting the speaker to see if I could meet with the speaker one-on-one. She set up a coffee date for us. I used my Amazon Prime to get the speaker’s book delivered, pronto. I’m going to read up, and next week I’ll talk to someone I never thought I would be talking to.

I really don’t have time for this. I came home from work today to find that both toilets were clogged. (My regular toilet paper is out of stock, and the kids seem to just unroll the new toilet paper right into the toilet.) One toilet overflowed, but that was the easy one. In the other, the dogs had taken the toilet paper out, and I found it strewn in various places in my nicely painted hallway, family room, and even on the newly carpeted stairs. I plunged, I soaked up, I mopped, I disinfected. This is what I came home to, right after I remarked on how sharp the place looks. I’m overtaxed. But, oh gosh, I’m so darn bored. I feel like I have time for anything else but this.

After that, I capitulated to boxed veggie burgers from the bakery, because it seemed wrong to chop and saute veggies after spending so much time with toilets. The owner of the bakery rang me up and I expressed embarrassment at my last-minute purchase of vegetarian junk food. “What are you kidding?” he said. “We eat these all the time!” The local producers of food are also very busy, apparently. “Do you have rolls?” he asked. I told him I was just going to use our (local) bread. He ran to the back and came back with some rolls that hadn’t risen properly and couldn’t be served. He put 4 in the bag, and then I think he felt awkward. “Four burgers. Four rolls,” he pointed out, trying not to refer to the mere three people in the family. I assured him that the hungry teenager would make good use of the fourth. “You’re the best,” I said, as I left, and he is. There are all sorts of good people and things out there. I don’t have a lot of time to discover them. But I think I need to.