A Pandemic Lesson from Grace

My dog is terrified of storms. They are debilitating for her. Her legs shake, she can’t eat, she can’t sit or lay down and she pants as if she has been running for days. She is a bundle of nerves and anxiety. A real mess. The hardest part to watch is how quickly this fear descends on her. She can be fine one minute, sprawled across the floor peacefully snoring, maybe even passing gas. Suddenly an ear perks up, she lifts her head, stands quickly and begins to shake, starting with her back legs. In only seconds her entire body is trembling and she has this look in her eye that I can only describe as a plea for immediate rescue. But there is nothing I can do to help her. We’ve tried the trendy thunder jacket and CBD chewies. Advice from friends led us to give her melatonin and slather lavender over the veins in her ears. We’ve put on music, but that only helps drown out her deep-throated panting – a moment of peace for us, but not so helpful for her. For the length of the storm, my dog is on the edge of sanity so we have learned to wait it out with her, and know that when the storm passes she will lay back down and all will be well. 

Here is the difference between my dog and me: when something causes me this level of terror, I worry about it coming. I project horrible scenarios and play out the ways that this could destroy me. My brain reminds me that I have things to fear that I should be thinking about. But my dog doesn’t do this. I’m confident she doesn’t spend her happiest moments of taking a walk, playing fetch, or getting belly rubs with a constant under-the-surface buzz of anxiety about the next storm. My dog doesn’t project doomsday scenarios and then plan how she will respond. 

And so here we are in the midst of a pandemic, racial tension, leadership crisis, and social isolation. We’re on edge as we watch numbers of the sick and dying climb, wondering if we or someone we love will becomes the next statistic. We’re not sure if there will be enough hospital beds and no one seems to be coming up with a workable solution for our children to return to school. North Korea might be building a nuclear warhead and there are murder hornets. I’m sure I’ve left something out. 

It’s becoming apparent that I have lessons to learn from my dog. This actually isn’t a new revelation. Animal experts tell us that our pets can help assuage our anxiety because they live in the moment. They don’t worry about what happened yesterday, or what might happen tomorrow. These days I’m needing more mindfulness, which means focusing on what’s happening in the present moment. This has been a lifelong struggle for me, but for the past two months I’ve been overloading on thoughts of both yesterday and tomorrow. If I’m not wishing for the days when we could throw a party and hug each other, I’m worrying about what happens if my husband’s immigration law practice doesn’t survive the crisis. I ping between the past and the future, rarely paying attention to the moment I am in. 

I’m working on this, and my dog is helping me. Her name is Grace, by the way, and she is a beautiful old woman with a gray beard, terrible teeth, and a little pudge belly. Also, her tail is crooked because she broke it years ago wagging it against our dining room wall. True story. She just turned 70 in dog years, she has never had puppies, and she eats cat poop when she gets the chance. All of this could be a source of regret or worry for Grace, but she is quite happy in the moment until the storms come. And every time the storms come, they also pass. 

Today, I spent some time thinking about all of this as a heavy rain rolled in. It feels like 2020 has been a constant storm that keeps my legs a little trembly and my breathing shallow. Should we look to the animals to help guide us a bit? I think so. Maybe their “in the moment” vibe can help guide us toward more mindfulness. As Eckhart Tolle famously said, “I have lived with several Zen Masters – all of them cats.” Grace and I spent some time in my home office listening to the rain. I tried to talk her through the momentary anxiety, and then when the rain stopped she sat down on her corduroy dog bed and stared at me like she was lovestruck. For her, the storm was forgotten as if it had never happened. I decided to spend the rest of my day without my thoughts hurtling too far back or forward; paying attention, not ignoring the current crisis, but hanging on to what I can control and doing good work here in the present. My dog returns the favor and shows me what it looks like to stay centered in the now, even though a storm could pop into my life at any moment. You’re a good teacher, Grace. I’ll keep the lavender nearby for the next clap of thunder. 

Here for the Imperfect Days

My mother died 12 years ago today. I’ve been thinking about her more than usual, which means instead of five times a day, it’s ten times. Like you, I’m in a slight state of shock that my life has been upended by quarantine, working from home, distancing from family and friends, and having no real idea where this is all going. We don’t like it, do we? Some of us are whining on Facebook and others are in the streets protesting that their second amendment rights are being violated. Wherever you fall between those two extremes, this moment requires diving deep to find patience, resolve, resilience and wisdom.

My mother lived with diabetes for 52 years. She existed in a body that could betray her at any moment and one that put her at the top of the hierarchal “at-risk” category. If she were alive right now, I would never let her step foot out of the house. After twelve years gone, however, my mother is still teaching me. She lived her life without guarantees, but with a steady peace that often rubbed up against my restless complaining. “This too shall pass,” she would say – which used to really piss me off. I thought it was far too sanguine for a life motto, but as it turns out it’s a courageous and resilient way to live. And it’s also true, which I didn’t learn until enough terrible things did indeed pass and I was still standing. My mother didn’t throw a fit about how she got stuck with a body that kept her chained to insulin shots and dialysis three days a week for the last ten years of her life. She lifted her chin, took a deep breath and did what she had to do to stay healthy and alive. I saw her do it hundreds of times in the 43 years I knew her. It wasn’t convenient, easy, or what she wanted, but she did it.

This is a time for all of us to learn how to live with the tension of “this too shall pass” and the resolve to be diligent and wise until it has passed. I’m going to wear my mask, keep distancing, learn to be content at home, help my neighbors when I can, and find a little bit of good in the imperfect days. None of this is going away soon, so it’s time to learn how to be stronger than we ever thought we could be.

Steady on, friends. 

Baking Like 1973

I’m a little edgy the week between Christmas and the New Year, trying hard to “take time off” but also feeling a looming sense that I should enter the upcoming year by sweeping out old messes. So I organize.

Today, it was our bedroom built-ins, which I have not touched since the day we moved in almost two years ago. This is where I stored most of the sentimental books, papers, letters, and photos that weren’t already organized in the plethora of basement bins. My reason for finally getting around to the bedroom shelves had more to do with how cold the house is than a desire to get the shelves organized. The high was 38 degrees and heat rises, so up the stairs I went.  

In the middle of one of the old journals I was thumbing through I found a random recipe card for Carrot Pecan Cake. It was my mother’s handwriting on one of her 3×5 lined index cards, and in the top corner, she had attributed the source of this recipe as Joy Barnes. I have never heard of Joy Barnes. I have also never eaten Carrot Pecan Cake. Mom had a slight addiction to recipe cards. She loved to collect them from people or cut recipes from magazines and copy them by hand, then file them in metal index card boxes that she labeled alphabetically. After she died, I found four of these metal boxes stuffed with recipes – most of them for desserts or dishes she never actually made. I suspect that my mother spent more time writing out the instructions for these recipes instead of actually in the kitchen making them. I get this. So in the spirit of planning things in order to avoid actually doing them, I decided to honor her and make the Carrot Pecan Cake. So much for the organizing. (Side note: holidays are hard when you miss people, so little grief projects are permissible).

It occurred to me after I made the grocery list that because I have no memory of this cake, it was possible that Mom made it once, got the thumbs down from Dad, and filed it away along with any recipe that included green peas, lima beans, blueberries or cherries. My mother was a 1960s/70s housewife. Enough said. I decided to do it anyway. I make plenty of things that my husband doesn’t like, and so just in case she was prohibited from ever making the cake again after a taste test from Dad, I was also honoring how far we women have come since my mother’s baking era.

I’ve never made a carrot cake, which is just fine with my family since most of them don’t like it – including my husband. But, of course, this didn’t stop me. We had two bags of Knight Creek Farms pecans that I’ve been popping like candy, and I wanted to use them in a baking project.

So here’s how it went:

First, when the recipe calls for “grated carrots”, that means that you actually get out your grater and not your carrot peeler. These are two different kitchen tools that produce vastly different results. I was happily distracted listening to the year-end episode of All Songs Considered, and peeling my third carrot when I realized the difference. So I pivoted and began to grate, but because I wasted three carrots by peeling them I was short one cup. So the husband who doesn’t like carrot cake went to the store and bought a bag of shredded carrots. This should have been done in the first place, but assuming there is a next time I’ve already made a note on the recipe card. If my mother had to grate three cups of carrots, I’m adding that to the list of possible reasons I have never eaten this cake. She did eventually get around to baking after all the hand-copying recipes, but I’m picturing her losing patience with that one. 

Also, a tube pan is the same as a bundt pan, oleo is butter, and salad oil is vegetable oil. These are simple but necessary translations to be aware of when reading a recipe written somewhere around the early 1970s. This cake baked 10 minutes quicker than the recipe and the cream cheese icing was strangely thick, but I finished it about an hour before our guest came for dinner. Oh, I should mention that our guest was a boy who our youngest daughter likes very much and it was our first time to meet him. I gave everyone permission to not like this cake and assured them my feelings wouldn’t be hurt. It’s freeing to be able to say that the recipe came from someone who possibly never even made the cake. My daughter gave it the thumbs down (texture issues) and my husband said that it was “actually not that bad.” I know what this means, and if I was my mother in 1973 I wouldn’t be making it again after that comment. But that boy ate every bite of that Carrot Pecan Cake, then told me he wouldn’t choose it if it was on a dessert menu. I asked him to be honest, and he was. I like him. 

Making that silly cake was just another way I’m maneuvering through the holidays – balancing the joy of being with family and new friends with some grief about missing other important people in my life. But darn if I didn’t want to call my mother at the end of this evening just to find out if she ever really did make Carrot Pecan Cake. Doesn’t matter. I made it for her, and I thought it tasted magnificent.

In case you are in the mood to make a cake from the recipe file of Betty Jackson, via Joy Barnes (wherever she may be), here’s the recipe. But please– it’s not 1973, so splurge and buy the shredded carrots. 


CARROT PECAN CAKE

  • 1 1/4 C. salad oil (canola oil)
  • 2 C. sugar
  • 2 C. sifted Flour
  • 2 tsp. baking powder
  • 1 tsp. soda
  • 2 tsp. cinnamon
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 4 eggs
  • 3 C. grated carrots
  • 1 C. chopped pecans

ICING

  • 1 stick oleo (real butter)
  • 1 8 oz. cream cheese
  • 1 lb. box powdered sugar
  • 1 C. chopped pecans

Combine oil and sugar and mix well. Add dry ingredients alternately with eggs. Mix well after each addition (add eggs one at a time). Add carrots and mix well. Add pecans. Bake in lightly oiled tube pan at 350 degrees for 1 hour, 10 minutes (my baking time was only 1 hour). Cool slightly and turn cake onto plate. Cream together icing ingredients and ice cooled cake.

Good with Imperfection

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Shims. These are little pieces of wood that you purchase when the floors in your old house slant in three different rooms. I know this because we now have them under most of our furniture in an effort to combat the “funhouse” effect. In the photo above, ignore everything except the thin leg on that piece of furniture and notice where it meets the floor. See the little squares of wood? Now you know what shims look like.

People ask how the house is coming along and I’m never sure what to say. “It’s coming,” is usually my answer. The boxes are unpacked, which is an accomplishment, but the furniture has been moved and rearranged and ultimately judged as too big to fit into most of our downstairs rooms. Our pieces have puffy arms and they are ridiculously deep and wide, so we’re in the process of downsizing most of our furniture, which wasn’t in the plan. It feels like we’re in house survival mode – troubleshooting weird problems we couldn’t have predicted and discovering strange quirks that the house has been hiding since October. These are small problems in a big world, but this is the world we happen to be living in right now on Rosedale Avenue.

This is my first go round with an old house so I’ve been looking at photos of other homes that have been renovated and resurrected. At first it was fascinating and inspiring, and then it wasn’t. After so many images of sterile, stylish, bright and white rooms, I wanted to see a little reality. I wanted to see the shims. Or at least some evidence that somewhere in the midst of the perfection, there was a little pitch in the floor. We have varying degrees of slanting floors in three rooms in our house and there is nothing we can do about it. We gutted the kitchen and the master bathroom to redo ugliness and former botched remodeling projects, but the floors are not a fix-it project.

In an earlier decade of my life, this would have been unacceptable. I don’t know if I’m a perfectionist, but in every house I’ve moved to as an adult (it’s been eight), the first month was a mad push to unpack, clean, hang pictures, and do every repair and cosmetic fix that could have been spread out over twelve months. The people who lived in the house with me were patient and gracious, biting their tongues and allowing me to be needlessly picky and worried. It was imperative that the house look like the picture I had been painting in my mind for the previous 45 days. Mostly, I wanted perfection, and I wanted it fast. This house isn’t participating in the perfection game and here are a few reasons why:

The eight-foot opening into the dining room has an obvious sag in the middle.

The garage is not fit for cars or humans, but the feral cats love it. We store our junk in it and pray that the Oklahoma wind won’t level it.

There is no grass in the backyard, but there is dirt, scattered clumps of weeds, and an overgrown Koi pond that perpetually and mysteriously holds water, even during weeks without rain.

The windows are original and drafty, and there there are no two the same size. Also, I now know the train comes through with a blaring whistle between 4 and 5 a.m.

While this may all sound like petulant whining, it’s not. This is enlightenment.

Everything that will never be fixed in this old house is part of what makes it good. This is a new concept for me, because I like perfection. But perfection is stressful. It’s also impossible to attain, and it makes us competitive and sorrowful with our sad self when we look at photos and posts of lives and houses that seem void of flaws. Perfection makes us lament what we don’t have and feel a tiny (or looming) resentment toward those who appear to have acheived it on some level. We want everything in our line of vision to be tidied up and nailed down, clean lines and sharp edges. White and bright. That’s my problem. If it’s yours, I have some news.

No one, including you, wants to hear the perfect story. It isn’t interesting. It doesn’t move us in the deep places or draw us toward one another. What we want to hear instead is a good story – the one where your husband, while digging out the Koi pond in the backyard, finds a trash can with rocks in it buried four feet deep in the ground and almost gives himself a hernia pulling it up from the depths. This is the project that doesn’t get finished in an hour, or a day. Probably not in a week. A month? It’s messy and sloppy and ugly. It’s good. It’s life being lived and humans making the best of it. In the Hebrew language, the word for this is tov. It’s the kind of good that isn’t perfect, but instead embraces the darkness and hard moments, knowing there is also joy and light as well. And then the Greeks gave us a view of perfectionism with their statues and Olympics. Perfection was striving to be the ultimate human, which actually takes us far away from our humanity, and from what feels like home. Anne Lamott says that perfectionism is when we try desperately not to leave so much mess to clean up – and yet it is the clutter and mess show that us life is being lived. This is the good story. Because we are all a bit of a mess, you and I, and we should have the freedom to live out our good story without the burden of making it a perfect story.

If you visit my house, I’m going to show you the sloping floors and the sagging doorway and the disastrous backyard. Oh, and the window seat in the dining room, which I’ll leave to your imagination. And I’ll show you the shims, beautifully stained so that they will blend in with the wood floor – our feeble attempt to clean up the mess. Come over and I’ll tell you the good story, because that’s the one that carries us home.

Owen Park’s Little Free Library

img_3015Things we haven’t done before: 1) haul a toilet around in the back of our truck for three days, 2) set off flea bombs (multiple times) in an empty house, 3) maintain a little library in our front yard.

This blog post is about the third thing.

During our first and only showing of the house before we made an offer, our wonderful realtor, Joy, ended it with an explanation about the structure on the corner of our front yard. It was a small box with a frosted glass front, a gabled roof with a tattered flag at the peak, and a floating fairy painted on the back.

“It’s a library – the neighbors can take a book and leave a book. It has shelves of books inside the box. Isn’t that cool?” she said as we stood on the front porch.

It’s possible this piece of information is what tossed us happily over the edge. We knew the house had charm peeking out from behind the long list of remodel projects, but the little front yard library made me swoon. When Joy said it had shelves filled with books, a little memory flashed across my mind of the days when I used to read books that required fingers for turning pages instead of swiping a screen. We have a fairly substantial home library with an entire wall of bookshelves in the living room and a front office with two walls of built-in bookshelves. But we started this purge thing and now we’re working to reduce our consumption, get rid of what we no longer use, and cease making purchases that take up precious space we won’t have in the new house. So our home library is being phased out. I have four small shelves of books that I will keep, but everything else is gone or is going. Hit me up for free books if you are starting your own home library.

This is hard for me because I’ve always been able to justify books. If we were cutting back on our spending, I budgeted in a monthly allowance for books. Being surrounded by them brings comfort and security, but I can’t justify keeping them in mass quantities. Rarely do I read a book more than once, except for Catcher in the Rye and anything by Anna Quindlen (look her up, please). Those are on my stay shelf, but most of my books are there because I need them near me and they look really good, which sounds like the basis for a bad relationship. I like to think of it as an unnecessary relationship. But still, I do love books.

So we have this quaint little library that we’ll maintain and freshen up, replace the flag, paint over the floating fairy, and continually weed out the religious tracts and booklets that keep showing up on the shelves. I’m considering taking it a step further and registering our library with Little Free Library, a non-profit started by creative artisan Todd Bol and youth and community development educator Rick Brooks. Their social enterprise was inspired by Andrew Carnegie (again, please look him up), social empowerment movements in developing countries, Lutie Stearn’s “traveling little libraries”, and community gift-sharing networks. These are all things that make my heart happy. It started small, with Bol building a replica of a one-room schoolhouse that he filled with books. He put the box in his front yard with a sign that read, “Free Books”.  It was a tribute to his mother, a teacher who loved to read. He made several more and gave them to friends so the little library concept could continue. The goal was to build 2,510 little libraries through a network of people who would build their own library or order one through the non-profit and place it in a public space. As of November 2016, there are 50,000 registered Free Little Libraries worldwide and additional libraries that are unregistered and unaccounted for, including ours. Bol’s small project has turned into a worldwide enterprise.

Fernando, our amazing contractor who is bringing the Rosedale house back to life, told us that he sees neighbors stopping to take and leave books, so the little library continues to give back, even though the house is empty for now.

These days, my own life and the happenings in the world leave me feeling a little overwhelmed. I’m not one to start small, but instead usually like to jump in with big ideas and ambitious projects. I don’t have the patience for slow and small. I want to change the world and do it as fast as possible. But what they say is true – change often starts with people like you and me doing their part to make the space around them kinder, brighter, more grace-filled and joyful. So while I still have my eyes focused on what is across the ocean, I’m also learning to look carefully at what is close to home. Nothing is insignificant. Even a little box filled with books for my neighbors and their children.

The Purge (Part One): The Clothes Closet

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When I was five, we took our annual Colorado vacation in the hot month of July, and my mother left my packed suitcase with all my vacation clothes on her bed. She realized this about ten minutes on this side of Amarillo, six hours into the trip, and started sobbing as we pulled into the J.C. Penney parking lot. She and I hurried through the children’s section of the store where she chose three mix and match outfits from the clearance rack for our two weeks in Estes Park. Dad says she continued to sob in between naps all the way to Colorado.

I remember none of this, but the story is lore, and the photos of me during our vacation do look repetitive: sailor suit, white t-shirt/green shorts, blue romper. We had a very good vacation, and my rotation of three outfits for two weeks was actually not a big deal.  When we returned home my mother added the three new outfits to my closet full of clothes.

Which brings me to the current closet in the house we now live in. It’s a walk-in, not oversized, but adequate. My portion of it has built-in drawers and two rods the length of the wall where my clothes hang, color-coordinated and divided into occasions and seasons. In eight weeks, we will be moving to the Rosedale house, which doesn’t have a walk-in closet. The owner, who did some of the initial remodel, took an existing wall and added some built-ins where a few clothes can hang, and a few narrow drawers for things that don’t hang. The first (and only) time we looked at the house, I opened the reach-in closet door and saw the two short clothing rods and said, I can do this. But now, my recollection is that I walked through the entire house chanting that same sentence like a mantra, with glazed eyes and a dreamy smile.

Because we will now have to adjust our wardrobes to the reach-in closet, two weeks ago I designated a Closet Purge Day. About two-thirds of my clothes, shoes, and drawer items were destined to go, which is an exercise I’ve been wanting to do for about a year. Back when we had more money and I had more time, I purchased clothes and shoes from places where they sold them cheap. This seems like a paradox, but if you have more money, you might be more likely to treat clothing as disposable without thinking about how long it will last or whether you really need it. That’s me. The lure of shopping at a place where I could pick up mouthwash, a birthday card, raspberries and a marked down sweater was irresistible. It didn’t matter whether I needed the sweater. It was cheap and oh, so convenient. Hence, the walk-in closet with far too many clothes that I rarely wore.

The first pass at purging the closet was easy, because I had enough clothes that I knew were on the “outta here” list. The next purge, a few days later forced me to be honest with myself. Do you really love it and do you use it, or do you just want to keep it because you might need it someday? This is the question that determines the criteria for everything that is is being evaluated during The Purge, not just clothes. And it’s a question that forces me into other questions about why I can’t let go of stuff. Questions about why I keep buying things I don’t need, and why doing it makes me feel happier for a few minutes. It’s an uncomfortable place to go, but on Closet Purge Day, as I kept evaluating my clothes, shoes, and accessories, I realized that the purging got easier as the closet got emptier. I felt lighter and less burdened. It was a surprising feeling, so I planned another closet purge day for the next week.

I also started to look seriously at the Capsule method of building a wardrobe, which is whittling your wardrobe down to 33 items per season – shoes, accessories and jewelry included (workout clothes and sleepwear not included). Our closet wall at the new house is about right for this amount, so I’m giving it a go. This means no more cheap clothes, because fewer items of clothing means they have to withstand more wear. So when my clothes have to be replaced, I’m looking for better alternatives even if they are pricier. In the long run, it’s more cost effective. The other night Kyle noticed a hole in the seam of my shirt, which is an item of clothing that survived two purges. I bought it last summer at Target and have worn it only a handful of times (because I have so many other clothes to choose from).

Today is the third time I will have purged my closet, and the goal is to get my fall wardrobe to the requisite 33 items (which, by the way will not include jewelry. Please ask me about this). I’m far from a legalist and don’t like to participate in gimmicky goals, but I love a worthy and necessary challenge. And the closet in the Rosedale house is just the kick in the seat I need to do the necessary thing.

Some days this purging thing feels like my mother sitting in the front seat at the start of the journey, crying over what will be left behind and worrying that I’ve let go of something I might need someday. What if I let it all go and realize I’m unhappy without it? Of course, I know this isn’t the way it will work. My five-year-old self made it through those two weeks in Colorado with three outfits and my mother stopped crying about the clothes the minute we hit the Rocky Mountains. I didn’t need the clothes we left behind to enjoy the journey, and I don’t need them now. Most of them are already gone from my closet, and I don’t even miss them. So if my wardrobe starts to look repetitive, congratulate me. Or at least remember the size of our reach-in Rosedale closet.