Staying Afloat

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Lists.

Long, long lists of unfinished business.

They keep me awake at night, or rouse me from a sound sleep to toss and turn with worry. Daytime, they cause me, agitated, to skitter from one activity to another, foiling the chance of any true productivity, or paralyze me with the futility of the effort.

There are the simple tasks of daily home maintenance, that seem to pile up faster than I can address them. In addition to sweeping floors, wiping down surfaces and keeping the laundry moving through it’s cycles, I have a layer of dust on top of my refrigerator and food spoiling inside of it. I have windows that advertise this home is not friendly to flies and mosquitoes. The list goes on…

Home repair needs a list all alone. There are things that have never been finished, like woodwork at floor level and trim around closets. There is the major issue of a real floor, rather than the painted particle board I have now. There are things that need maintenance: kitchen cupboards need to be replaced or at least painted; shingles are sliding down from the roof; the particle board floor – if I must live with it – really needs another coat of paint. Screen doors…if summer brings the heat…would be a nice addition.

Yard and garden has a long list this time of year. Mow, trim, pull weeds and dead-head flowers, pick fruits and vegetables…and then repeat, over and over, until the snow flies.

I always have a list of tasks to accomplish for the news magazine. At this moment, I have township news and  a couple of community events to write up. I have subscriptions to update, invoices to send out and banking to do. I have interviews to do for the next feature story, some editing…and my own writing.

Other jobs have lists of their own, varying in importance and worry-potential, depending on the activities going on at the time. I gave my aunt’s house a good going-over on Friday, so can write that off for a week or so. Phragmites treatment is coming up soon, so meetings and paperwork are demanding more time. The hardware store keeps me busy while I’m there, and I always have a running list of things I’d like to re-organize…when I have time.

Studio work, which should be a pleasure, holds its own list of “must-do”s and “should-do”s. Now, with all of the busy-ness of summer, I would usually be closing the studio door until fall…but I have deadlines, an art show, and work that needs to be finished.

There are lists of bills to be paid. I have my charge slip at the hardware store, that includes large veterinary bills and other things that I’ve purchased. Some of it is deducted from every paycheck. I feel like I might catch up, if I could just back off on the cheese crackers, pistachios and candy bars…but then I’ll do something insane – like get a lawnmower – and I’m right back in the weeds. I have my folder of bills, and I generally make enough money to pay them all regularly…except when something unforeseen happens. This month, two visits to the dentist, gravel for my driveway, a flat tire, an oil change and a wheel bearing for my car were enough, in combination, to throw my budget into a tailspin.

That leads to the list of resources. Do I have anything to sell? Do I have work I have not been paid for? A little savings account I could close? I keep a “hidden balance” in my checking account. I accumulate it by rounding up for every check I write, and rounding down every deposit. It’s just the cents, not the dollar amounts, and yet it adds up to about three hundred dollars a year. Some years, that has covered the cost of a small vacation or a special expenditure. This year, it contributed to getting me through a financial crisis.

There are other lists: letters I need to write; recipes I’d like to try; books I want to read; places I’d like to visit…and if these were the only lists running through my mind in the middle of the night, I think I could happily roll over and go back to sleep with a smile on my face.

An Assessment of My Day Off

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I got up at 4AM to respond to two Emails that had been disturbing my sleep.

I did a bit of bookkeeping, wrote a couple checks and played a game of on-line Scrabble.

At 7:30 in the morning, I decided to go back to sleep. Three phone calls came in while I dozed, but I let the machine pick up.

At 8:30 I got up and made coffee. I checked the answering machine and made a few telephone calls. An hour of writing, a bit of tidying the house, then a shower.

I pulled up some grasses from the edge of the walkway, and pruned some dead branches from the spirea bush.

I drove to town, picked up my paycheck at the hardware store, and went to the bank. One short visit with Sue, who carries my work in her sweet gallery here, and a look around at her new offerings, then back to business. I checked on my car, which is in the repair shop. He was still working on it, and told me to keep the little Tracker he’d loaned me, for now. If he got my car finished, he’d drive it out to my house and pick up the “loaner.”

Home…first inside, to greet Rosa, and to make a sandwich for lunch.

Mowing the lawn was my big plan for the day.

I was away in May, when I should, first, have mowed. I returned home to an overgrown lawn, followed by rain that soaked the long grass and made it impossible to mow every time I had a day off to do it. Then my riding mower went on the fritz. It’s an old, old Craftsman, with tires that go flat overnight and a gas tank that leaks, but it keeps on running…until it doesn’t. My neighbor and I have been talking about it, had a guy come take a look at it, but so far no firm diagnosis, and no cure.

Last weekend, I bought a new mower. It’s a cheap push mower, with pathetic little wheels for this rough lawn, but better than nothing. The mosquitoes were about to carry us away! It was like a jungle out there for poor little Rosa Parks! Something had to be done! Every night after work, I’ve been mowing a little…except the evening when it rained…and the evening when I got invited to dinner…and the evening I had company. Today, with the entire afternoon to devote to it, I could get some mowing done!

I did, too!

Not the back yard, which has such huge clumps of quack grass that I’ll have to take the trimmer to it first. Not the south side of the driveway: that got roughed-up when the guys came to set my garden shed in place, and needs to be smoothed out with rake and shovel before the grass can be tackled. Not the trim work around the house, flower beds, fire pit or trees. No time for that.

The yard on the north side of the driveway is about seventy feet wide. From the house to the stand of trees at the front, where I stop mowing, is 150 to 200 feet. That’s the area I mowed today.

From 2PM until 4:30, when I mercifully ran out of gas (which signaled time for a break), then back at it from 5PM until almost seven-thirty. The tall, tough stalks topped with yellow flowers have to be mowed over several times, and sometimes pulled by hand. Areas where the grass was especially thick…or wet…or both…had to be approached slowly, one small bite at a time, or it would cause the lawn-mower to stall out. Wild blackberry bushes had gotten a good start in the front near the wood, and crackled as the blades broke them up. As dusk came on, the insects came out in force. Several applications of insect repellent hardly slowed them down. A dampness in the air suggested impending rain; I was determined to finish that section.

I did it, then stowed the lawn mower back in the shed and came in for the night.

I count three black fly bites, and about a dozen mosquito bites. Two new bruises, with no explanation for them.

Leftovers for dinner: poached tilapia, and some vegetables and grains in a light sauce. It all seemed a bit healthy, so I re-heated it with a pat of butter. Perfect! Chocolate almond ice cream with a sliced banana for dessert.

One long, hot bath.

One large glass of plum wine.

Thunder…a storm is rolling in.

Bedtime.

Advice to Myself (if I could begin again…)

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No doubt about it, I love a good “do-over.”

My battle cry, as a child, when a game of pretend went off in a crazy direction that I didn’t like was, “Starting over…” Calling it out was like crying “dibs” or being first to claim the window seat:  to maintain order, it had to be respected. Sometimes we’d “start over” a dozen times before it seemed right.

I wish I had that option in real life. Too often, I’ve taken an extreme position, let an opportunity go by or did something really stupid…out of a temporary sense of daring, a moment of “throwing caution to the wind,” foolishness, anger, sadness, or just not thinking things through.

I don’t want to start all the way over in life, but there are certainly things I wish I could re-do. If I could, and if I could offer a few suggestions beforehand (this is assuming I would listen…), some of these pointers might come in handy.

  • Don’t be so stubborn. It’s okay to change your mind, to change your pattern of behavior, to change your entire life direction if you want to. You do not have to follow every decision to it’s end; you do not have to uphold every rule. It is okay to just relax and let it go sometimes.
  • Perennial flower beds are not always the best way to go. Perennials sound like a good way to have a permanent, established and carefree garden. You don’t have to buy plants and put them in the ground each spring. However…when weeds move in, which they undoubtedly will, perennial beds are extremely hard to manage. If birds drop seeds, if neighboring trees drop seeds…or if your neighbor gets tired of looking at your lawn with grasses so tall they have gone to seed, and comes over with his own lawn mower to do the job you have neglected, but doesn’t think to aim the discharge away from the flower beds and fills them all with millions of grass and weed seeds, perennial beds present problems. The roots of weeds can get tangled around day lily corms or iris tubers, and hold on tight. Grasses growing among the foliage of poppies are almost impossible to ferret out. Maybe, just maybe, wouldn’t it be nice to be able to churn up the soil in those beds each spring, get rid of every single weed, fertilize, and plant annuals, fresh and bright?
  • Avoid situations where your voice is recorded. Stay out of photographs. When you cannot avoid having your picture taken, avoid at all costs that wide, open-mouth laughing face that makes your mouth look like a big, gaping hole. Do not lift your chin for pictures, like a child trying to be taller. Do not lower your chin to the point that you show a double-chin. Keep your arms close to your sides! When you allow your arms to go akimbo, elbows out, you emphasize everything that is already too obviously wrong with your stature and your posture. If possible, just take a cue from your father, and avoid photographs altogether. Finally, avoid any situation where you might be caught on videotape. If you find yourself in a situation…like a township meeting, for instance…where filming is going on, do not, for heaven’s sake, sit anywhere near the person wielding the camera!
  • Whenever you get the urge to employ a stern directive, wittily handled, know that you are the only one that will think it is cute. Others will see it as bossy, condescending, rude or worse. You will hurt feelings, or offend. Long after words have been exchanged and apologies have been spoken, you’ll still be waking up in the middle of the night, cringing at things that cannot be taken back. You know that your biggest regrets in this life involve things that you said, out loud or in letters, responding to anger or frustration or rallying for a cause, without thinking it through. It might be wise, as a good rule-of-thumb, to just keep your mouth shut!
  • Never, never, never move into a house that is not completely finished…because once you’ve moved in, chances are it never will be.
  • If you ever again find yourself at one hundred pounds, with a full, thick head of hair and long, black eyelashes, don’t you dare be critical!
  • You could probably get by with a lot less books.
  • Say “I love you,” often, and with feeling, whenever you feel it. Do not hold back  Opportunities go by, never to come again. Let people know that they matter.

There’s probably more…but this is a good start. If I’d only had this advice…and followed it…always, in my life so far, how much better I would feel today! If only there were do-overs!

My Week Away…and Other Distractions

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The sun was shining yesterday, when I made my way home down the Fox Lake Road after a week away.

Today, it’s raining.

That’s fine with me, as I have work inside. I’m finding plenty of things to lead me away from the writing and other desk work I have to do; I can live without the further distractions of yard and garden.

After a day’s delay in leaving the island, several hours of waiting for the fog to clear for the flight to the mainland and a great deal of traffic and road work to make the drive a nerve-wracking one, I had a good time down-state. My sister,  Brenda, included me in her twice-a-week water aerobics class. Another sister, Cheryl, arranged for all of the sisters  – along with our friend, Joel – to play Pub Trivia one night. Another evening, we played Scrabble. I had good visits with each of my daughters. I received a beautiful hand-forged gift from Kate’s husband, my son-in-law, Jeremy. I had the opportunity to become better acquainted with Jennifer’s friend, Jamey. I met my two little great-granddaughters for the first time, and managed to get hugs and smiles from each of them. I spent a wonderful afternoon with Madeline and Tommy, wandering in and out of the galleries, bookstores and specialty shops that – along with a few good restaurants – have come to define downtown Lapeer, Michigan. I met the newest member of our family, my grand-niece Hannah, just ten days old. I had a nice visit with my brother, Ted. My brother-in-law, Keith, presented me with a pair of cowboy boots that he found for a price he couldn’t pass up. They fit me perfectly! The week was filled with walking and shopping, and lots of catching-up. There were meals out and meals in, all wonderful, and even better for the companionship and lively conversation. .It was a good week!

Now, it’s time to get back to work.

I made a pot of coffee and turned the computer on first thing, ready to get at it.

And yet…

The little dog reminds me frequently that – after a week alone in the kennel – she needs attention. Rosa Parks is a very social animal, and this was her first trip to the boarders without Clover to share her space. Dropping her off alone was traumatic for me (I saw none of the usual tail-wagging when we got there) and I’m thinking it seemed like a long, lonely week for her. When she wants attention, I indulge her; I was lonesome for her, too.

I have made several trips to the laundry room, to keep things moving there.

I’ve paused more than once to page through new reading material – books and magazines – that came home with me.

I called to check balances on each of my credit cards, to assess my spending habits while away.

I threw out a bouquet of long-dead tulips and watered my houseplants.

I went through a stack of mail, made a grocery list, answered a few Emails and returned a couple telephone calls.

I balanced my checkbook.

Then, it seemed of absolute necessity to report here, on my trip.

That’s it…I’m done! It’s time to get down to work…just as soon as I put those clothes in the dryer.

When Things Fall Apart

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April 9th was my sister Nita’s birthday. This year, the first that she is not with us, I planned to write a little tribute to her. Instead, on that day, I wrote about dealing with my old, ailing dog.

I usually write a happy birthday message to my grandchildren – at least the younger ones – on their birthdays. Before the day arrives, I have generally sent a card with a note, and money for them to choose their own gift. This year, Tommy’s birthday was here before I realized it. I had put my back out while working in the garden. Finding that I did not have my usual prescription for muscle relaxers, I called my daughter to see if I could take the pain medicine prescribed for my old dog Clover. She got out her book to look it up, while noisy chatter reigned in the background. “Excuse the chaos,” she said, “we have all the kids here for Tommy’s party.”

Oh, no!

“Oh, no!” I said, “I forgot! I’m so sorry…”

At that moment, I heard Tommy’s voice urging his mother to hurry, and she (my sweet daughter!) said, “Just a minute, Tommy, Grandma Cindy just called to wish you Happy Birthday…” I had a nice chat with him. Later, I took one-half of one of the dog’s pills. That, combined with ice packs and ibuprofen, relieved the spasm and got me back on my feet.

Last Sunday, Clover died. As I sat with her outside, three trucks drove past filled with revelers on a jaunt around the island. One friend noticed me, and shouted “Happy Mother’s Day!” The others followed suit. As I sat in the grass, tears running down my face, with my hands in Clover’s fur as she breathed her last breaths, two dozen voices shouted good wishes to me from the road.

Later that day, I received the good news that my niece and her husband had just welcomed a new baby girl.

I had planned to be on the road today, on the way down-state for a visit with my family. After a long stretch of working without a day off – while juggling many other jobs and obligations – I was ready to get away. A call this morning changed my plans. I suddenly had to make other arrangements for my little dog while I’m away, rearrange my flight, delay my travel and shorten my trip.

Things fall apart.

Habits; routines; expectations.

The best laid plans.

Once I resigned myself to the unexpected changes, I decided to enjoy this bonus day at home.

When things fall apart, it’s best to just roll with it.

I Fall To My Knees

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I’m reading a book by Norman Vincent Peale: Positive Thinking Every Day. It has a little prayer or meditation or positive message for each day of the year. I feel, most of the time, that I could use more positive thoughts in my life! Actually, the book is one I bought for my mother. It is inscribed, wishing her “Merry Christmas and much love, 1996.” When Mom died, my sisters set it aside for me.

Though it makes me feel good to think that as I  turn the pages I am following her movements, I’m not really sure she ever read it. Probably, though.

Mom was a positive-thinker, a believer in miracles, a pray-er. She had so many children, I suppose she had to be.

My most sincere prayers have been for the health and well-being of my children. Or dogs.

For the most part, I’m not much on praying, though. When friends are ill or having difficulties, I’m careful to offer “best wishes” or “good thoughts” rather than prayers. Worse than not praying, I figure, is offering to pray and then not doing it. I cut my losses.

Even so, I’ve been spending a lot of time on my knees.

These longer, warmer days provide a chance to work in the garden.

Snowdrops are wildly blooming along the edges of my flower beds. Clusters of Narcissus and Daffodils show all shades of yellow. Tulips have fat buds at the top of their stems. Iris and Day Lilies have presented their fan-shaped leaves. Through it all are layers of wet brown leaves that fell from the maple trees last fall, long bunches of pale Day Lily stalks and leaves and the remains of the fall-flowering plants. Together, they hide the progress of persistent spreading weeds.

Every day I come home from work, stash my papers and bags, let the dogs out to enjoy the sunshine, and I drop to the ground. My tools are simple: one claw tool for loosening and lifting roots, one ratcheting pruner for wayward rose, grape or wisteria branches. The creaking, wobbly and rusty wheelbarrow stands nearby.

My rule is that I’ll work at least one hour, and fill the wheelbarrow at least once with debris.

First, I pull all the dead stuff away, working with my hands around stalks, raking with my fingers though the blooms. Then I tackle the weeds.

Years ago, when I had about four fewer jobs, and much more impressive gardens, friends would ask me to come over in the springtime, to look at their gardens, and help them determine what was a desired plant, and what was a weed. I couldn’t help. I don’t recognize every good plant, and I don’t know all weeds, especially in the springtime. My advise was this: “Pull what you know: pull the grasses; pull the dandelions. If you’re not sure about it, wait until you’re sure.” Weeds show their true nature soon enough.

That’s the way I do it. One at a time, I move the rocks that border the flower beds. Roots of grasses are visible there, as they try to move into the gardens. I dig in with my fingers. I try to use gloves, but can’t get a sense for what I’m doing, so I usually set them aside. I pull roots up one by one, and follow them to the end, or until they snap. When an area is clear, I move on to the next rock, and repeat the process.

When I am working at the hardware store, I’m often thinking of things I need to accomplish for the news magazine, or for the townships. When I’m driving to and from other obligations, I’m planning art projects or remodeling projects, or plotting where I’ll find time to get groceries or do a load or two of laundry. When I’m awake in the middle of the night, I’m running through to-do lists or writing articles and doing interviews in my head.

When I’m working in the garden, I’m hardly thinking at all. One leaf, one root at a time, I am in the moment. It’s the closest thing to a meditative experience in my life.

The entry for May 1st, in my little book of positive thoughts, says this:

The secret of prayer is to find the process that will most effectively open your mind humbly to God. So experiment with fresh prayer formulas. Practice new skills and get new insights.

May 7th, I have heard, is the National Day of Prayer.

If the sun is shining, I’ll be on my knees…with my hands in the dirt.

When Everything Comes Together

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I like Goldie Hawn.

I always have.

I like her style, her laugh, her personality.

I love her hair. Whatever the length, it always comes across as purposely  tousled, a little messy. It suits her.

The thing is, I’ve always thought that style would suit me, too. I feel like that wild mane would fit my personality. The trouble is, I can’t pull it off. It’s not just that my hair is the wrong color and the wrong texture. It’s not only my small stature, short neck or round face. It’s worse than all of that.

The fact is, though I think of myself as a bit unconventional, kind of wild, somewhat bohemian, when it comes right down to it, at least as far as the hair, I just can’t stand it.

I have tried.

I would pull my hair up into a sloppy ponytail…then take it down, brush it smooth, and secure it into the meekest ponytail possible. I would pull out a few tendrils around my face and neck…and before long would be lifting each strand to tuck it back into place. I would make a loose, off-center, over-the-shoulder braid…but then redo it into a neat, centered braid, secured at both ends. I would get a daring short haircut, imagining something edgy and spiky…but by the time I walked away from the bathroom mirror, I would have tamed it into something better suited to my grandmother.

Now, with age, I have settled into a cut and styling method  – though not ideal –  that works for me. The cut is a slightly layered, long-ish bob. I dry my hair with my head hanging up-side down, then toss my head, letting the hair fall where it wants.

Then I take the brush and  smooth it all into something very conventional before going out the door.

It’s about control. It crops up in many aspects of my life.

I rarely sing or dance in public.

Though I love bright colors, my home and my wardrobe are mainly black and white.

I hold pretty firmly to the theory that there is one right way to do a thing, and I try to adhere to it.

Inside, I’m a wild bohemian artist.

Outside…something else entirely.

Cats, for their dignity and reserve, would be the pet that would suit me best. For many years cats were the only pets I had. Cats being cats…and me being me…we spent much of our days just ignoring one another. Settled in my lap if I sat down to watch a movie, curled around my feet in bed at  night, basking in the sunshine as I worked in the garden, my cats were companionable but not needy.

For several years now, I’ve had dogs instead. They like a little more interaction; they want more attention. They hate it when I leave, are thrilled when I come home and want to be near the action, always. If I’m at the kitchen sink, both dogs find excuse to be in the kitchen. If I am sitting at the desk, they lounge on the cushion beside me. When I am in the shower, Rosa Parks watches from her spot beside the heater. Clover, who hates a bath, waits just outside the bathroom door.

Dogs will not be ignored. I find myself chatting with them through the day. Sometimes I just talk to myself about them, knowing that they are listening.

“That Clover Sue is a good, good dog,” I’ll say, “We’re so lucky to have that Clover Sue!”

Her tail wags in response.

“Rosa Parks goes out the big door,” I announce to the room, “Rosa Parks does number two outside!”

She struts proudly in for her reward.

Clover sleeps on her own cushion beside my bed.

Rosa Parks starts out in the bed with me. My sleep is altered by her presence; I’m aware of her movement just as if I had a small child in the bed with me. Most nights, once she knows for sure that the time for pets and pats, ear-scratches and belly rubs is over, she curls up at the foot of the bed. Sometimes, especially on cold nights, she moves up to the “spooning” position, tucked in behind my knees as I lay on my side. Now and then she chooses to sleep on my pillow, in the space between the top of my head and the headboard.

Usually, mornings after sharing the pillow with my small dog, my hair looks like a rat’s nest.

Or maybe a dog’s nest.

But, every now and then…

Every great now and then…

I look in the mirror and think, with joy,

“I have Goldie Hawn hair!”