Finding balance in the second half of life

Archive for 2020|Yearly archive page

Smaller but Deeper

In Fulfillment on August 3, 2020 at 8:05 pm

When I change my footwear after lunch, Bodhi starts bouncing around the kitchen. He knows it’s time for a walk in our woods, and he can hardly wait: he’s entirely optimistic that he will find something new. Today, for example, he found a well-aged leg bone, no doubt from a deer skeleton that’s been there for months and months.

FernsThe air is just cool enough today to call fall to mind, which calls to mind the change of seasons. It’s a false construct, really, this four-season model. When I walk the trail every day, I see the progression is constant, day to day, week to week. In the early spring, the trail is wide and I can see deep into the forest; now parts are claustrophobic: I have to turn sideways if the leaves are wet, or I’ll get soaked. The Bracken ferns that were roll-ended sticks forever in the spring are now waist-high and part of the crowd. The Sensitive ferns have popped up in the sections that are flooded in the fall (and will be again, too soon).

Receding water is part of the transition from spring to summer. This spring was wet enough to have flowing water in a few sections of the trail. Now the entire circuit is dry, although you can tell by the patterns of dirt and moss and leaves where the water will return first in the fall. The boardwalk that’s underwater in May is now twenty feet from the edge of the pond.

We’ve watched the blackberries leaf out and then blossom. We can pick a bowl-full every day now, which feels deserved when we watched and waited for the berries to turn from little green nuts to blushing pink and finally—finally—to black. There are patches all over, some with berries the size of your thumb, others the size of a pea. Every one of them is delicious in a pie or a clafouti or in a bowl topped with sweetened condensed milk, which is my granddaughter’s second favorite way to consume them. Her favorite way is direct from the bush.

There aren’t many flowers at this time of year, after the progression of April through June, but maybe I haven’t been paying attention (or have been scouting only for berries). I’ll look more closely tomorrow. What’s multiplying is the number of seeds that find a way to attach themselves to any passing dog, pant-leg, or princess dress; some have painful hooks, others are a more subtle kind of velcro.

I’ve walked this trail at least a few times a week for at least a decade. In our current routine, it’s rare for me to miss a day. And somehow, I’m paying more attention. What was a task—walk the dog—has become something entirely different, sometimes a social occasion, sometimes a game, most often a meditation. While my world has become smaller, it’s become deeper.

Cooking with Friends

In Fulfillment on July 26, 2020 at 6:23 pm

I rotate things. This is a longstanding habit; I’m not quite sure when I started or why. My approach might be described in business terms as “first in, first out,” or FIFO, but there’s never been a particularly business-like motivation. Lest you fear for my wellbeing, these are only habits that I’ve set, I’m aware that I’ve set them, and I can break “the rules” whenever I like without losing a wink of sleep.

I hang my clothes by category (dresses, skirts, tops, pants), and insert clean clothes to the right in each section. Items on the left are up for grabs when it’s time to get dressed. This system limits the daily dithering about what to wear, although my partner would assert, and does, that my system is not as efficient as his, which is a uniform of blue jeans and white shirt, every day, all year. This habit also highlights things that can go: If I’ve skipped that blue shirt for a month, there must be a reason. What’s been clarified in the last few weeks is that dresses without pockets are even more worthless than I’d thought (at least until it’s cool enough for pocketed layers).

I’ve allowed myself two shelves for cookbooks. When I cook from a book, I return it to the top left, shifting the books between shelves as required. If a new cookbook enters the house, I need to make room for it. Books on the bottom right are prime candidates, since I use them less often. (I recently acknowledged that formal French cooking is not so much my thing with information from this rotation.)

I’d thought a few weeks ago, when I moved The Microwave Cook’s Complete Companion from the top shelf to the second, possibly on its way to eventual exit, that it represented a pandemic lifestyle change. Although we’re cooking all the time now, we don’t need to cook quickly. In the weeks since, I’ve realized other blessings from my inventory management system.

When I’m seeking inspiration or wanting to change up our menus, I can look to the bottom right to hear from a different culinary voice, possibly a different culture. A glance tells me we could consider some Indian food, exotic pizzas, or Perfect Picnics. In the absence of ready treats at coffee shops or convenience stores, I’ve dusted off the cookie jar and am keeping it populated. Choosing from the lower right supplied us with “Grandma Jean’s Herb Cookies” with fresh mint, a complete departure from my habitual oatmeal chocolate chip. 

Cookbook shelfI have long preferred my own cookbooks and clippings to online recipes, and this season has helped me understand why. My cookbooks connect me with people, past and present; recipes I have made before can do the same. Cooking has always been a therapy, a meditative practice for me, and in this time of separation, I’m often meditating on people and the histories we share. 

This cookbook was a gift from my friend Deb, and contains a “Zucchini Soup” recipe that’s a good candidate for tonight’s dinner. She lives only a city away, and we’ve shared interests in needlework and papercrafts for decades. I own that cookbook because my brother once spent a summer in Colorado—and a son lives there now. Here’s one I bought as menu inspiration when planning a church fundraiser. This cookbook I was given as a tenth birthday present; from it I made oven-fried chicken to serve my dad while he could still eat solid food. That cookbook came to me when my mom winnowed her own cookbook shelves; when I flip through it, classics—cole slaw, potato salad—conjure full childhood images. This cookbook taught me vegetarian cooking, and from it and that tiny kitchen on Eleventh Street I fed gatherings of college friends.

All of these people and all of those times are with me in the kitchen, which is no doubt why I don’t mind mincing onions, julienning carrots, and peeling squash. For all the frustration, heartbreak, isolation, and loss associated with this pandemic, there has also been grace. And gratitude. There is, daily, the chance to remember who I am, who I love, and where we’ve been and what we’ve done together. Sometimes the kitchen is downright crowded.

Hazel and the Naughty Bear

In Survival on July 19, 2020 at 6:02 pm

This week I posted a photo of my granddaughter, Hazel, running ahead of me on our forest trail. It’s a magical photo, if I do say so myself. And social media friends agreed: “This looks like a cover for the next edition of The Secret Garden or something!” “Chasing the White Rabbit!”

The longer description, which didn’t quite fit in a social media caption, is this: When Hazel and I walk our trail, I’m assigned to play the Naughty Bear, lumber behind her, arms upraised and hands clawed, saying “Rawr” periodically and, once or twice, “I want to eat a sweet Hazelnut!” Hazel’s role is to run ahead of me, occasionally turning back to bring me a “sweet bloody stick” which I may [pretend to] gnaw on, since I’m unsuccessful [by design] in ever catching an actual sweet Hazelnut to assuage my hunger.

I’ve been thinking about this game since. First, I hope she’s not having nightmares. 

Next I think about all the ways in which we create motivation for ourselves. There have been other times on this trail when Hazel is dragging, asking for piggy-back or shoulder rides to make one circuit. When chased by a bear, she can run two or three times around—three times is a mile—without pausing even to catch her breath. I’m not sure how I feel about this motivation including faux fear, but Hazel herself is giddy, exhilarated, so I needn’t judge.

But then I think about fear. Of course there’s an enormous difference between fear we engineer ourselves—by assigning a Nana to act [sort of] like a bear—versus reacting to a genuine danger—like an actual bear. Once we get past the hard-wired fight or flight response, there’s some wisdom in considering our fear: Is it real? Or did we make it up? Do we have reason to be afraid? Or is it just Nana? 

For Hazel in the woods, fear is a toy; playing with it makes her feel brave and adventurous. I don’t want to live fearfully, especially in these disordered days. I’m going to work on clarity about which threats are imagined, and which are real. For those that are real, I’m going to do my best to look with clear eyes, to define any threat as clearly as I can, and to figure out what I can do to disarm it. And I’m going to hang on to hope. And maybe a sweet bloody stick or two.

Not Chicken to Zoom

In Fulfillment on July 12, 2020 at 8:54 pm

My office has two windows, for which I’m grateful. One faces west, and through it I can see anyone coming up the driveway, the occasional deer getting too close to the vegetable garden, and cavorting rabbits or one or twenty turkeys that explain why Bodhi is barking like a dog possessed. The windows are covered with matchstick blinds, or they could be, if I unrolled them. Mostly, I don’t. It’s not always textbook productive, but I appreciate being able to stare off into the distance.

My spouse-ish one inclines toward making things. Sometimes the things he makes are over-sized animals. In our barn’s storage racks we have a half-dozen multi-colored reindeer, three-dimensional if you slot them together. I haven’t looked recently, but we have also, at various times, had a herd of adult-sized stick horses and a small flock of musk-oxen. At some point, a four-foot-tall chicken made its way into my office, where she has stood patiently in a corner for some time. 

I don’t mind Zoom calls, really I don’t. (Neither do I love them enough to invest in that special lighting you’re apparently supposed to get so you’re not backlit or a voice from the dark void.) My issue has been with late-in-the-day calls, because the west-facing window that affords such varied entertainment is directly behind my desk. Come 6:30 or so at this time of year, I’m positively incandescent on the screen. I’m also entirely blinded by the light.

My first few attempts to problem-solve involved draping a towel or blanket over the window, more difficult than it sounds, given the climbing-on-the-desk maneuvers required. Sure there was a better solution, I started researching curtains, room-darkening drapes, blackout blinds, and light-blocking shades. I couldn’t quite see how any would work: Would it bother me to have something on one window but not both, even though it’s completely unnecessary for the north-facing? What kind of covering could make itself invisible 95 percent of the time? What wasn’t a crazy investment for a problem that occurs only occasionally and during a pandemic?

I explained all of this over dinner to my spouse-ish one. “What about your chicken?” he asked. Indeed. What about my chicken. It took me a minute. As it turns out, a four-foot-tall chicken is sufficiently rotund to block almost all of the eye-level sun. She’s easy enough to lift onto the desk, and I can still peer around her if I hear tires on the gravel drive or wonder what Bodhi’s spotted in the yard. When the call is finished (or the sun is set) she goes obediently back to her corner.

I tell you all of this so that if you have a late-in-the-day Zoom with me, and I happen to look up and seem to smirk, you’ll know it’s just me smiling at my chicken. I’m still paying attention. And being reminded that, even—especially—during these odd times, what I need is likely here, somewhere, though I may not recognize it at first.

Hot-Footing It on the Trail

In Survival on July 5, 2020 at 6:45 pm

You’d think on a 90-degree day, choosing footwear for a walk in the woods would be easy. There are the Birkenstocks, coolest and comfortable enough for all-day, every-day wear most of the summer. There are Chacos, which strap on a little more securely; a little warmer, but still a sandal. Too often, even on a day like today, I’m lingering over the tall blue wellies, which require socks for comfort and create a mobile sauna for each foot. 

The issue is snakes. I have no issue with snakes intellectually, theoretically. I know they do all the good things in the ecosystem, are part of creation, in my neck of the woods are not in the slightest bit harmful to me. But the perceptual and psychological effect of having a stick or root I”m about to step over (or on) animate and slither away is significant. Same issue with toads, who pose as clumps of dirt or dried leaves until the very last second. Instead of slithering, they pop, at least until later in the season when they tend to be larger and heavier and sort of “blop.”

Wellies are the only option from first thaw until mid-June here in the flatlands. Early in the season it’s more likely frogs, sometimes in multiples, than toads that will leap away as I step. I’ve occasionally seen tadpoles, but in those conditions I’m typically slogging, not striding. All through the spring, because of my wellies I can plash through ankle-deep water and squelch through sucking mud: In wellies, I am unstoppable.

Today I opted for the Birkenstocks, counting on other coping mechanisms. The first tactic is to avoid looking over-much at my feet or the path directly in front of me, instead focusing at least 20 feet down the trail. This is not a bad tactic for life, either: Over-attention to immediate hazards can slow us down, and certainly makes the experience small and fraught. 

Bodhi, the dog who motivates my daily walks, is my other tactic. For his first five years, he required two walks a day to gain sufficient calm to be a worthy household companion. We’re down to one mid-day the last year or so, which seems to suit him, whether or not it’s good for me. Bodhi likes to lead these walks, sometimes by a wide margin. He’ll run back to check on me, though, to be sure I’m still coming, to encourage me along, to be sure I haven’t tripped over a root in my Birkenstocks by focusing on the middle distance. In three or four gallops back and forth on the path, I’m fairly certain, he’s startled away any imposter sticks or clumps. 

Occasionally, he leaves me on my own. Off the trail, I hear a thrashing and gabbling and know he’s flushed a ticked-off turkey into the trees. Other times there’s a crashing and a snapping of branches and then a deer pops across the trail ahead of me; if I’m lucky, I see the back end, tail like a flag on a mailbox, as it disappears again into the underbrush. Fortunately, Bodhi doesn’t chase deer, like other dogs we’ve had; he runs back to me, smiling, tongue lolling, saying, “You saw that, right?” When we’re near the pond, I hear the splashing that means he’s taking a quick dip and, more likely than not, has seen a frog or two that requires investigation.

I’m tempted to judge myself for cowardice when I eye the wellies. But the truth is, there’s not one thing wrong with any of the choices. Well—more accurately, there’s a single thing wrong with each of them: The wellies don’t breathe. The tread on the Chacos can gather a half-cup of mud on each foot. The Birkenstocks can slide off, or I can slide off them, when I hit uneven terrain. There’s nothing that eliminates surprises from our walks or our lives. I’m grateful to be able to gauge—at least when it comes to snakes and toads—my appetite for astonishment each day. 

Life in the Time of Coronavirus (Week 10)

In Uncategorized on May 26, 2020 at 12:23 pm

This is how four writers pass the time (and stay connected) during their isolation. We realize we’ve slipped a bit from stories into conversation in 6-word increments; we’re giving ourselves grace given the circumstance. Join us by adding your 6-word stories in the comments.

Bodhi doesn’t get “last treat” concept.
Morels! Daily walk just got slower.
Six-word stories: are we done?
Clean hands, full mask, can’t lose!
Thinking “permeable bubble” seems like oxymoron.
Either it’s popped or it’s not.
Shaved my legs. Feel inordinately accomplished.
Coffee-making is increasingly complex ritual.
Hating: ‘uncertain times’ and ‘new normal.’
My phone: ‘you are walking less.’
Me: ‘you are talking too much.’
New family member: Perfect, blissed-out boy!
Laundry day again! Time slouches on.
Family reunion would have been today.
Bajillionth batch of quarantine granola baked.
Washed windows for sheltering in (forever?).
Friends get bees; me, a clothesline.
“Do something,” I say. Every morning.
Have just organized my cookie cutters.
In Minecraft, she creates the world.
Does it have human capital stock?

Life in the Time of Coronavirus (Week 9)

In Uncategorized on May 18, 2020 at 12:38 pm

This is how four writers pass the time (and stay connected) during their isolation. We realize we’ve slipped a bit from stories into conversation in 6-word increments; we’re giving ourselves grace given the circumstance. Join us by adding your 6-word stories in the comments.

Tear salt stubbornly sticks to glasses.
Losing some momentum on meal planning.
Appetizers tonight: potato chips and crackers.
Don’t cry for me (in) quarantina!
My attitude towards leftovers completely changed.
A watched fiddlehead doesn’t pop, apparently.
Family calendar only notes recycling pick-up.
38 steps from computer to refrigerator.
Insomnia treatment: swipe to lose consciousness.
Worry: who will nurse her son?
Pause. How do we hit ‘restart’?
Think I’ll make a cheese soufflé.
Exercise, diet apparently offer no protection.
Minecraft world: she’s built five houses.
Obama speaks. Weeping, we dare hope.
Cutting up pancakes for Bodhi. Worried?

Life in the Time of Coronavirus (Week 8)

In Uncategorized on May 11, 2020 at 12:36 pm

This is how four writers pass the time (and stay connected) during their isolation. We realize we’ve slipped a bit from stories into conversation in 6-word increments; we’re giving ourselves grace given the circumstance. Join us by adding your 6-word stories in the comments.

Trying to get through the day.
Writers are important. Just reminding us.
Bodhi’s exuberance is a daily tonic.
My husband’s good cheer saves me.
Buy eye makeup stock (masked future)!
Dwindling: senses of humor and outrage.
Actually, George, May’s the cruelest month.
I really need to hug. Everyone.
Wear same jeans how many days?
Same 20 in wallet for weeks.
Like an old woman, I reminisce.
I’d rather sit in the sun.
Why does she need these clothes?
She bakes, overnights a loaf of love.
The 24-hour tee gets open-ended extension.
Hyphens gettin’ swole from six-word workouts.
Her car: “Have I offended you?”
Lord. We’ll never get beyond this.
Gretchen gets some ink in it…
Without structure, imagination makes a home.
Her country has let her down.
On Mother’s Day, she hugs herself.
Mom’s coming to dinner. Good? Bad?
Reading: “As bombs fell, libidos soared.”
“Are you still watching?” Stop judging.

Life in the Time of Coronavirus (Week 7)

In Uncategorized on May 4, 2020 at 1:35 pm

This is how four writers pass the time (and stay connected) during their isolation. We realize we’ve slipped a bit from stories into conversation in 6-word increments; we’re giving ourselves grace given the circumstance. Join us by adding your 6-word stories in the comments.

She. Needs. To. Hug. Her. Sons.
Comfort reading: Wind in the Willows.
Pulse oximeter arrives; she inhales sharply.
Another RCA colleague/hero has died.
C helpfully researching better sleep tips.
It’s overwhelming. For a moment.
Magazines no longer come too often.
“Control the intention; allow the unfolding.”
The sky knows a weepy day.
11:45 a.m. Heading back to bed.
Young love—yet another coronavirus casualty.
As hair lengthens; tempers shorten.
Let’s not repeat this, like, *ever.*
Making the bed, she covets unconsciousness.
Searching the news for nothing viral.
Waking to same same same same.
“It’s getting kinda old.” “What is?”
Developing a new definition of “summer.”
Resigned to Michigan’s definition of “spring.”
May Day! May Day! May Day!
Tulips are sole race spectators. Polite!
Bodhi flushed bunny and turkey. Conflicted!
“The virus is rewriting our imaginations.” [from New Yorker]
“What felt impossible has become thinkable.”
Only twelve hours till coffee again.
Hazel: “When the sickness is over…”
The days drag but weeks fly…
A lovely day for snakes, sadly.
Fortunately, also for humans. Not sadly.
Her sons: possibly better off unemployed?
Wishful thinking is my new hobby.
Another zoom party; Dad turns 89.
Sister happiness tip: Make, meet, move.

Life in the Time of Coronavirus (Week 6)

In Uncategorized on April 27, 2020 at 12:37 pm

This is how four writers pass the time (and stay connected) during their isolation. We realize we’ve slipped a bit from stories into conversation in 6-word increments; we’re giving ourselves grace given the circumstance. Join us by adding your 6-word stories in the comments.

Going nowhere, more slowly than ever.
The world is in a chrysalis.
Every day’s stumper: What’s for lunch?
Awake half the night solving—nothing.
Having good days requires sheer willpower.
Coveting my kids’ weather. Also youth.
Outdated reminder: Pack for Austin trip.
“Dr. Death” distracts from real thing.
Minecraft elbow. The pain is real.
Plumb out of six-word stories.
Swapped Bogs for wellies. That’s something.
Apparently we eat lots of granola.
Finished my stash-busting corona cardigan.
Resourcefulness ceases to deliver same satisfaction.
Knitting is easier than not sleeping.
Absence makes the heart grow weary.
Puts on a dress. Doesn’t help.
Cowboy boots will make the difference.
A little sunshine would be nice.
Governor’s new guidelines: bikeshops not bookstores.
Every day, exciting to be Bodhi.
NYTimes trades “Travel” for “At Home.”
Is skinny-dipping in tub even possible?
Perhaps it’s a matter of intent?
Attitude. It’s a matter of attitude.
Today the day to stay abed?
Speaking for me: healthy, so fine.
“Happy are the kind and compassionate.”
Something interesting almost happened, then didn’t.
Meditation: sew masks while watching church.
Car battery dead. No matter. Seriously.
In the woods, everything’s all right.
Dandelions doing well. Foraging in future?
Watching spring unfurl before my eyes.
Brene, we’re all at 20 percent.
Missing everything, everyone; screens are inadequate.
Bodhi, doe pointed at each other.