Almost a Lousy Day

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All the contributing factors were there; everything pointed to it being a really lousy day. My little dogs were both having allergy-fueled ear issues, which kept them up scratching wildly at the itchy places, and kept me up rubbing ears and soothing them. When we slept, we didn’t sleep well. Until morning, when I slept right through the alarm.

It was a bitter-cold day: freezing temperatures with sub-zero wind chills. Too cold for our morning walk. The dogs didn’t protest when I cancelled. Frustrated already in my lack of persistence with my exercise program, this added fuel to my negative self-criticism.

I got to work late, and cranky. I’m not sure if my work partner was also in a bad mood, or if mine was enough for both of us. Usually, we get along well, and enjoy working together. On this day, all day, it seemed like we were barely avoiding conflict.

I learned, that day, of the recent death of an old friend. Though I’d seen Elaine only rarely in the last several years, we were young together once. And now she’s gone. Sad news to add to my already miserable attitude.

After work, I had to go to the grocery store. Having just paid a big bill, my checkbook had barely thirty dollars in it. I needed dog food, coffee and milk. Going up and down the necessary aisles, I was computing the cost as I went along. That old habit made me feel even more bleak. I don’t usually have to watch pennies that closely. What a crummy day!

Walking past the meat counter, I spotted a beautiful rib-eye steak in the case. Now I enjoy a steak on rare occasions, but I have never bought a piece of meat like that from our little market on Beaver Island. I’ve bought chuck steak, when the price is right, to cook like a roast and enjoy for two or three meals. Usually, I buy their good ground beef, or chicken. On this day, without a second thought to the $12.99-per-pound, I asked for that steak.

Quickly to the counter, then, before another impulse should throw my budget completely off track. As I loaded my few purchases onto the conveyor belt, I noticed bundles of cellophane wrapped miniature roses in many colors, right beside the cash register. For Valentine’s Day, of course. “How much are the flowers?” was out of my mouth before I could stop it. The price, $9.99 per bundle, did not stop me either. I chose a bouquet of deep red-orange, and dug to the back of my wallet for a hidden twenty-dollar bill.

Home, I greeted the dogs, and took them for a short walk. They felt the extreme cold, too, and were relieved when I turned around. I unloaded the car, and unpacked my groceries. I trimmed the stems of the flowers, and arranged them in a vase. I lit all the candles: the two pillars in the bathroom, the lemon-scented jar candle in the kitchen, and a half-dozen votives on the dining room table.

While the dogs ate their dinner, I prepared my own. As I cooked, I thought of Elaine. We travelled together, many years ago, Elaine, my sister Brenda, and I, to our college classes. We discussed our children, our love-lives, and our course work. We read aloud from our papers, wanting, at that point, only positive feedback before we turned them in. We reviewed our teachers, our classmates and our partners with cruel honesty that made us laugh hysterically.

I cleaned and sliced a big mound of mushrooms, and sautéed them in butter, with one small hot pepper, sliced thin. I seasoned the steak with garlic powder and lots of pepper, and put it under the broiler. When it was nearly done, I cut a large plum tomato into wedges, and added it to the pan with the mushrooms.

I lifted the steak onto my plate, and spooned the mushroom-pepper-tomato combination over the top. I pulled out my big book of modern female artists, to page through while I ate. A perfect accompaniment to an absolutely fabulous meal!

It could have been a really lousy day. It almost was. As it turned out, though, it wasn’t half bad!

Winter Settles In

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It’s only February, and already I’m garnering quite a collection of neglected commitments.

My diet, rigorously followed for three months, has shown no weight-loss results. I get on the scale every morning, and have actually watched the numbers creep upward. One day last week, discouraged, tired, and frustrated with other things, I completely abandoned my healthy eating regimen. In a big way. Potato chips. Pot stickers. Ginger snaps. The next morning, I found I had lost two and a half pounds! In twenty-four hours! I have to admit, I thought long and hard about adapting a potato chip-pot sticker-ginger snap diet. But, no, with two warm-weather vacations coming up, I’m back to smoothies and soups and salads.

My exercise plan is often abbreviated to the tiniest fraction. A one-minute plank combined with a five minute medicine ball routine counts as weight-training. I have to push myself to continue beyond the few basic warm-up yoga moves. My morning and evening dog walks continue, though weather conditions have shortened our distance on several days.

Having cleared my studio to the point where I can work in it, I have put my ambitious reorganizing plans on hold. The up-side of that news is that I have been actually getting into the studio to make art. Still, I don’t want to abandon my original goals. Any large projects, painting or printmaking, will demand a much more orderly space. Encaustic painting, which I am determined to experiment with this winter, will not be possible until I’ve completely cleared the space. Molten wax, heat guns and propane torches do not mix with clutter!

I’ve missed two Sunday blogs in a row. I’m struggling to find something meaningful to write about. Have I already said everything I have to say? Have I told all the stories? Sometimes it feels that way. Especially in the winter, when there is little going on around here.

Winter has definitely settled in. We note every change in the weather: a few more inches of snow on the roads; an especially cold day: a little more ice forming in the harbor. We greet everyone that we see, but it’s rare to see anyone new. The faces are all the same. They all seem to wear the same expression, too. No one is too rushed, though most folks have winter projects going. Resigned to winter. Settled in. Looking toward spring.

Something from Nothing

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Social skills are not one of my strengths. Some people would scoff at that statement, if they encountered me at my workplace. It’s true, I have developed a knack for being out-going and helpful when the situation demands it.

In the restaurant, I could always greet the customers warmly, and describe the day’s luncheon specials perfectly. Now, at the hardware store, I’ve transferred that ability to where it is needed. Ask me about the merits of various types of paint or stain, and I’ll give you the run-down. If you want to discuss the properties of various caulks, I’m in. I’m even pretty good at commiserating about the weather. Beyond that, though, not so much.

I keep a half-dozen really good jokes, to bring out on rare occasions when the time seems right. The trouble is, if too much time passes between the telling, my delivery is off. Or I forget the sequence. Or the punchline. Or the humor depends on certain circumstances. One of my favorite jokes involved Nixon, Kissinger, Communism and Coca~Cola. Needless to say, time has sucked the humor right out of it!

I only know one real magic trick. It’s simple, but a good one. I showed my grandsons at Christmas-time, and they were pretty impressed. Then I showed them how to do it; I won’t be around forever, so may as well pass it on. I used to know a good card trick, too, but I’ve forgotten it.

Mostly, in social situations, I just say whatever is expected. I can honestly empathize with many positions, and nod in understanding. I respond favorably when that seems appropriate, and I laugh when laughter is called for. I murmur “I’m so sorry…” when sympathy is what is needed.

When someone tries to “draw me out,” one of two thing will usually occur. I may pull back, defensively, give answers of one or two words only, and attempt to change the subject. Or, I will tell all that is asked and more, going back to my childhood, or even to my birth, including my own “amateur psychiatrist” opinions on how this or that came to be, until I have thoroughly embarrassed both myself and the questioner. And driven myself right back into the shell.

Writing seems to be the exception to my social awkwardness. Here, I hold a – granted, mostly one-sided – conversation. I talk about myself, with humor and humility, without embarrassment. I speak of other things, without feeling the need to sound like an expert. This is just me, talking. Sometimes I have something to say; sometimes I don’t.

I think one of the best things I have going for me is the ability to sit down here and write, whether or not I have something important to say. Sometimes I choose a photo, and the photo guides the direction of the essay; sometimes I have an idea that’s been knocking around in my thoughts for a few days, and I flesh it out as I write. Sometimes, like today, I just start writing, and a theme shapes up as I go along. Something from nothing. That feels kind of like a magic trick, too!

It's Okay to Rest

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On work days, I have to stay on track. Out of bed by 6AM, start the coffee brewing, turn on the heater in the bathroom, and drink one large glass of water with two doctor-prescribed pills while checking the morning news.

With coffee in hand, I sit down to write in my journal. I always start with gratitude these days, and sometimes that’s as far as I get. On good days, I continue on with “Morning Pages,” which is simply stream-of-consciousness, no filter writing. Then, I move on to my bullet journal to plot out my “necessaries” for the day ahead.

I take my second glass of water and third cup of coffee upstairs to the exercise room. There, I listen to a short meditation tape, then do a daily yoga warm-up sequence. On odd-numbered days, I do strength training; on even-numbered days, I do a longer yoga routine, Pilates, or any other exercise I choose. Next I shower, and get ready for work. Dressed, the dogs and I head out for our morning walk.

In the warm weather, when I walk farther and faster, and often throw in a few sprints as well, I walk the dogs before I shower. In the winter, on slippery roads and paths deep with snow, our pace is slower. We walk a mile, sometimes farther, but I don’t work up a sweat.

Home, I grind up the various dog-medicines, and distribute them into their dishes. I add one tablespoon of canned food to each, and mix it up. Until this moment, the dogs all thought they’d hate to see me leave; now they wag their tails in anticipation. I pack my lunch bag with a thermos of coffee, and soup or leftovers already packaged up for that purpose. I blend my morning smoothie of greens, fiber, fat and protein, and pour it into a lidded glass.

I rinse the blender, and put the dishes down for the dogs, admonishing each of them to “Take good care of things.” I gather up my purse, lunch bag and smoothie, and leave the house. If all has gone well, I make it out the door by 9:30.

My days off are different. I don’t set the alarm, and wake up when sunlight through the window, or a dog needing to go outside, alerts me to the day. On work days, I choose my coffee cup from a selection of sturdy or chipped mugs that can withstand being knocked around in the car and the hardware store. On my day off, I use a small, delicate cup with an image of blackberries that makes me think of summer.

On days off, though I still try to fit in all of my daily habits plus a dozen other plans for personal growth, home and studio, I’m much more lax about my timetable. Today, for instance: at noon, I made oatmeal for my breakfast. I have not yet gotten in a walk or even climbed stairs to the exercise room. I checked the news, at length, then watched a Ted talk, listened to a podcast, read a couple blogs that I subscribe to, talked on the phone with a friend, and now am writing this. I have almost finished a pot of coffee, and have hardly moved from this chair. And, I don’t feel guilty! It’s okay to rest!

What About L.Y.?

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Our community lost another friend last week, with the passing of Jack Gallagher. This has been a rough winter so far, here on Beaver Island.

First Tom, who died right after Christmas of a rare disease that took him quickly and left us all shaking our heads. He was so young! Only fifty-six years old, with a memorable laugh and a ready smile, Tom did cement and masonry work, and always seemed the picture of good health.

Next Skip, who was the matriarch of a large island family and a good friend to all. Then Jean, an active and respected business woman. Both of these ladies, though in their eighties, were so full of energy one would think they would keep going for years to come. Now, Jack: the third octogenarian we have lost this year.

This I know: no matter that every single person will meet their end, no matter the age, the level of health or all the warnings, death always takes us by surprise. It always seems too soon, and that we’re not quite prepared for it. Sometimes the dying are more prepared than those of us left behind.

After work on Friday, I walked down to our Community Center, where family and friends were gathering to honor Jack’s life. We talked about his diligence and devotion, his head often bent over account books. There were several examples of his wry sense of humor, his kindness, and his devotion to family and community. There were tears, but also laughter. There was agreement that he’d lived a good life. And that he was ready to go.

The “good death” seems to come up in conversation quite a bit anymore. Maybe it was always so, and I just hadn’t paid attention. Having lost three community members all in their eighties in just a couple weeks, I mentioned a quote I’d seen recently: “When an old person dies, it’s like a library has burned down.” We commiserated a little about all the oral history that is lost, with a death.

That was on my mind after I got home, as I was walking the dogs in the near dark. When Aunt Katie, who had always been willing to answer questions and elaborate on her history, died, it seemed like there were a million questions I wished I had asked, and another million things I should have written down. If I could talk to her again, I’d pay better attention, and I’d have pen and paper ready!

If I could have another conversation with my Dad, I’d beg him to repeat all the stories he tried to tell us when we were young, as he drove us around the island. Then, we rolled our eyes and let his words flow on without notice. I’d do better now. If I had another opportunity, I’d encourage him with the names I can remember, and the portions of the tales that I can recall.

There was one about a wake. Somebody, I think it was Patsy Doney, was taking his turn sitting with the body, while others were congregating in the other rooms. There was plenty of drinking going on. Somebody had the idea to pull a joke on Patsy (or whoever it was), and somehow made the corpse move, causing Patsy (or whoever) to jump (or nearly jump) out of the second story window. By this point in the story, my Dad would be laughing so hard, he could barely get the words out. Not knowing any of the characters, none of us children cared. I’d love a another chance to hear that one, and many others!

I’m sure there is wisdom and history my mother could impart, as well. If I were given a chance to talk to her, though, I’m afraid I’d waste the visit on getting the facts about L.Y. I’ve been puzzling over that for years, and it drives me crazy that I never thought about it when Mom was around to ask!

Gladys and L.Y. Crandall were friends of my mother, but mostly friends of her mother. They lived on the lake where I grew up, and were around quite a bit while my grandmother was alive. What kind of name is L.Y., for heaven’s sake? I always thought it was Elwye, and maybe it was. I never thought about it much, or questioned it at all, until after Mom was gone, and tthere was no one to ask. Now, I think about it a lot.

If the name is Elwye, how is it spelled, and what kind of name is that? If it is initials, more likely, I have concluded, what on earth does L.Y. stand for? The L could be anything: Lloyd, Laurence, Lancelot…but what about the Y? There are few choices, and none seem very likely: Yasir, Yoel, Yanni, Yuri, Yale. With a surname like Crandall, I wouldn’t expect such exotic-sounding choices. Whatever the answer, I know there’s a story there. I just wish Mom were around to tell it!

Timeout for Art: Making Room

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Blackie Chan and Rosa Parks.
This image has nothing to do with the essay, but aren’t these dogs CUTE?!?

As I struggle to advance in the excavation-in-progress that is my studio, I encourage myself with plans for the future. There are new directions I want to explore, and old, familiar areas I want to spend time with. So, I continue the long, slow process of clearing and cleaning. It truly is an “excavation,” with layers that spark memories and reveal history.

Yesterday, I cleared shelves for a fresh and more current arrangement of supplies. Behind the watercolors, pencils and paints that I’d crowded in where they’d fit, were remnants of the sweet arrangement my granddaughter had made several years ago. Crayons, colored pencils, markers and stacks of paper strips were set up for her bookmark-making production, along with several samples. I scooped it all into an old suitcase I keep filled with art-making supplies for children. Had I allowed time for reminiscing, I’d still be standing there.

Tucked under the printing press, there was a large box filled with kitchen paraphernalia: holiday napkins, coffee filters suitable for a coffee pot I no longer own, wine corks saved for a long-forgotten project, staples, flashlight, batteries….That box was filled, I’m sure, several years ago when I cleared out a large, many-drawered apothecary cabinet that I was giving away because it took up too much space in my kitchen. The contents were loaded into that box and tucked out of the way. Until, I’m sure I told myself, I had time to go through them.

Yesterday, if I was going to continue my forward momentum, was not that time. I shifted the contents, other than a few ragged items that I was content to throw away, from the cardboard box into a sturdy lidded tote. I tucked it into an unused corner under the stairs, beside canning jars and other sorely neglected and nearly forgotten items. To further delay dealing with it, I know.

Another layer of history are the papers, drawing materials and reference books, gathered together thoughtfully each week for last summer’s drawing classes, then left in piles on any horizontal surface when the class was done. There are cans of house paint stacked behind the door, waiting for the project it was purchased for, or leftover from a completed job. Then there are the abandoned artworks, the works-in-progress and the works waiting to be framed.

Cleaning the studio is a tremendous, tedious and often overwhelming job. But I’m getting it done. Yesterday, with a marathon of old Barbra Streisand movies to keep me company, and ideas for future work to keep me inspired, there was good progress.

I Am This Old

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Many years ago, when I was in my mid-thirties, I was with a man who had a habit of announcing his age. Vehemently. With conviction. As if it meant a great deal to the conversation at hand.

“I am a forty-two year old man,” he would say, as if it gave credence to his opinion, or discredited mine. “I am forty-two years old,” he’d grumble in answer to a request. “I am forty-two years old,” he would declare in a loud voice, as if it could render void any argument or complaint presented to him.

I didn’t see the logic. He was older than me, but only by six or seven years. He was healthy and fit. I saw no reason for his age to be a part of any discussion, unless the discussion was about his birthday, or his age. I tried a couple times to respond with, “…and what does that have to do with anything?” It didn’t go over well, though. My fallback strategy was to give him a blank look, and wait for more information. Sometimes forthcoming, sometimes not.

My daughters noticed the behavior, of course. They’d find ways to try out the tactic for humorous effect. In a discussion about what program we were going to watch on television, one might state, with a grin, “I am sixteen years old!” If I called after work to let them know I’d be home soon, I might hear, “Hey, I’m fourteen years old.” Sometimes we’d catch each other’s attention and share a slight smirk or eye-roll at the poor man’s expense.

For quite a long time when I was a young adult, it seemed like every chat was remedial, with folks feeling like I needed to be told how things were, or how they should be. Perhaps it was because I was young, or small, or female, or so obviously lacking in life experience. Then, for a blessed long time, age, knowledge and experience gave me a certain credibility. Now, with advancing years, I seem to once again be relegated to the kindergarten class.

In defiance, I find myself reaching back into my memory, and starting conversations with that same idiosyncrasy that I mocked so many years ago. I don’t say it out loud, but the chatter in my head often begins with, “I am sixty-seven years old…”

The nurse practitioner at our Medical Center, in response to a question about a medicine that is no longer working, said, “Well you know, you do have to take these pills every day…” I held her gaze. Inside my head, the conversation went like this: “I am sixty-seven years old. I have been taking this medicine for almost twenty years. The prescription bottle clearly says to take it every day. What, for heaven’s sake, would make you think I don’t know that??” Out loud, I said, “Yes, I know. I take them every day.”

When a bit of well-meaning advice comes my way about how to interact with a troublesome person, or handle a personal failure, or deal with a loss, the silent dialogue begins: “I am sixty-seven years old. I have a little life experience under my belt. In addition, I am the queen of self-help books. It may not seem like I’m handling the situation well but, for the love of God, I know how to handle it!!!” Out loud, I say, “Good advise, thank you.”

A couple days ago, I stopped at the airport on my way to town, to pick up a couple deliveries for the hardware store, and a prescription for myself. I turned off the car, went in to the terminal building, gathered my packages and carried them out to the car. The car wouldn’t start. I turned off the radio and the fan that circulates the heat, so that I could hear what was going on. Nothing more than a “click” when I turned the key. I popped the hood, and stepped out of the car.

“What’s going on?” the mechanic asked. “I don’t know,” I replied, “My car won’t start.” “Did you push the clutch in all the way? Do you have it in neutral?” I greatly appreciated his willingness to help. I gave him a silent nod. Inside my brain, though, the diatribe was both long and sarcastic. And it started with the words, “I am sixty-seven years old…”