Category Archives: Life

Usurp

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Usurp is a verb meaning to take power or control of something by force, or without the right to do so. It’s one of those vaguely old-fashioned words that I never use, but recognize when I read it in a sentence. I looked up the definition to make sure I had it right, having only previously gleaned its meaning from the context I found it in. I don’t think I’ve ever had occasion to use the word. I’m pretty sure I’ve never said it out loud. Still, its pronunciation – yoo-serp – is exactly how I expected it would be.

That’s unlike some words that I’ve learned through reading, where my idea of how a word should be spoken is wildly different from the correct sound of it. The trouble with that is that I get in the habit of thinking of it in one way. Even after I know better, I have to do the translation in my head. “Erbs,” I think to myself, “oh, they are talking about herbs.” Even though I am wise enough, now, to know better than to pronounce the H, I still privately think of the word that way. And I get a little satisfaction from hearing Martha Stewart boldly say “herbs,” as if she has a backup group of guys, all named Herbert, waiting just off stage.

Anyway, having gone through and rejected several dozen UN words (from UN-appreciated to UN-witting, all seemed a little negative), I had pretty much decided that my “U” topic would be uniforms. Which I could manage a few paragraphs about, though, as topics go, it was not overly exciting. Then, “usurp” came to me in the middle of the night.

It was two o’clock in the morning, actually, when I woke up to notice that Rosa Parks, who usually sleeps beside me, had taken over my pillow. She was sprawled out on it just as she often is in the middle of the day when she has that space all to herself. Not at night, when my head is resting there. “What the hell,” I thought, and nudged her off. Rather than settling back in to her usual spot, she walked along the edge of the bed all the way to my feet, jumped down to the floor, and went to the door.

When I got up to let the little dog outside, I noticed that her regular spot in the bed was occupied. Sometime in the night, Blackie Chan had moved from his position behind my knees right up to shoulder level where Rosa Parks usually sleeps. Hmmm….curious. When Rosa Parks came back in, I went back to bed. That’s when I got a clearer picture of what was going on.

Each time that Rosa Parks made a move to get back up on the bed, sweet little Blackie Chan let out a long, vicious-sounding growl. “What is this?” I asked, and he gave me a little tail-wag, a tiny smile, and an offer to show me his belly. Rosa Parks ventured one paw on the bed, and Blackie Chan’s growl came back. “It’s okay,” I told the snarling boy; he quieted until his sister tried to get up again. “It’s okay,” I told Rosa Parks, but she kept her eye on her brother, and didn’t take the chance. This went on for awhile.

Finally, I got up and lifted Rosa Parks onto the bed. I gave her a position on the other side of me, with my body separating the two sparring siblings. They both went back to sleep. By that time, I was wide awake. Thinking. Rosa Parks usurped the position on my pillow that was usually reserved for my head…because Blackie Chan had usurped her position on the bed. Who could sleep with all of that power-grabbing going on? Too much usurpation!

Trouble

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Twenty letters into the alphabet in this A to Z writing challenge, and I find myself…challenged. Even after paging through the T section of the dictionary while drinking coffee this morning, I cannot seem to find a single topic! Coming up with a subject that I can write more than a sentence or two about about is proving difficult. T is not even a difficult letter. Those hard, end of the alphabet letters are still coming up!

Yes, I’m in trouble. “In the weeds,” we called it, in the restaurant business, when we found ourselves overwhelmed by circumstances beyond out control. “Buried,” I’ve called it, when I find myself in a situation I cannot find a way out of. “You’ve bitten off more than you could chew,” is how my mother would discuss the how and why of my predicament. It’s clear, I’ve run out of inspiration.

When that happens, the only way forward is step-by-step.

  • Choose a word, any word. I toyed with using “the” as my T word, opening up a word of possibilities for what followed. It seemed like a cheat, so I set it aside. I have a grandson named Tommy, my ex-husband is Terry, and my maternal grandmother was Thelma. Still nothing. Deciding to talk about my running-on-empty problem opened up several possibilities. My topic could be Talk, or Topic, or Trouble. I settled on Trouble.
  • Next, remember the basic rules of essay writing: use the first paragraph to introduce the subject; expound on it a little in the second paragraph; add a list, for filler; use the last paragraph to sum up.
  • Don’t neglect the format. When you’re in trouble, rules are your friends. Every sentence, of course, needs a noun and a verb. Throw in a few adjectives, if possible, but don’t go overboard with them. Every paragraph should have an introductory sentence, two or three sentences to go into more detail, then a sentence to sum up.
  • If you find the essay pathetically short on word count, go back step-by-step through each aspect. Could you add an amusing anecdote? Can you find another comparison to make? Is there another, better example to toss in?

Those are the rules I’ve learned to depend on. They have proved immensely helpful to me, when I’ve been trying to hammer out a term paper at the last minute, or flesh out an essay question on a test. So, now that I’ve divulged all of my secrets for putting a blog out when I actually have nothing to say, you’ll be able to see right through me. Now, I’m really in trouble!

Rest

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When my “To-Do” list is long and overwhelming, I have to remind myself to rest.

When deadlines loom, and time seems short, it’s not easy to take time out, but that’s when it is most necessary.

Sometimes a few minutes is enough. I step out the door, breathe in fresh air, and take a moment to admire what’s budding or sprouting or blossoming. Or, I sit down in the comfortable armchair, where I almost never sit, beside whichever small dog has settled there, and open a book. I might make a cup of tea and page through a magazine. Sometimes, I just allow myself a few moments of stillness.

Other days, a longer break is in order. The dogs are always up for a walk, no matter the weather, and it is a welcome break for me, too. Or, I might call a daughter, a sister or a friend for a few minutes of conversation. Or, I gather a book, a beer, my camera and my sketchbook. I load everything – plus three dogs – into the car for a run to Fox Lake. There, I’ll sit at the picnic table while the dogs enjoy the brand new smells, and change of scenery.

Sometimes, simply changing from one activity to another is enough. When I’m struggling with tax documents, writing a blog can seem restful. When I’m feeling overwhelmed by a blogging challenge, shaking out the rugs gives me a break. As a master procrastinator, I recognize these things for the diversionary tactics that they are. Still, if something productive is getting done, seriously, what the hell.

Then there are times when the only thing to do is come to a full stop, I can feel the agitation of too much to do and not enough time. Nerves are getting in the way of any progress. I know that panic, or tears, are close. No break, whether long or short, and no alternate activity will cut it. Then, I just have to respect my need for rest. I have to be bravely careless enough to let all forward motion stop. Make soup. Watch a movie. Read something mindless. Take a nap. Save shame and judgment for another day. Just rest.

Quick!

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It’s that time of year, again. Deadlines fly at me from every front. I have too much to do!

There is a narrow window, before summer’s craziness, to get things done. Soon, tourists and the summer projects of home-owners will make my job at the hardware store more exhausting then ever. In June, I add a second job. In July, there will be a third. Family and friends, who come to visit in the warm season, are a welcome but time-consuming diversion. Soon, the yard and garden will add to the number of home maintenance chores to be accomplished each week. Time is short! The time is now!

When cold weather comes, and the boat stops running, the pace is slow on Beaver Island. When the island slows, so do I. When January arrives, with all of the promise a new year brings, I look ahead at future obligations and deadlines with calm. I allow distractions; I lose sight of priorities; I am too quick to take on new commitments. It seems like I have all the time in the world. Until, without warning, I don’t. Suddenly, April is here. Our ferry boat has started it’s regular schedule of runs back and forth to the mainland, bringing supplies, and people. Memorial Day, which marks the start of our busy season, is right around the corner.

A phone call the other day reminded me of a looming deadline. I have to complete a chapter on my family history for the latest Journal of Beaver Island History before the end of May. Yikes! I’ve done a little research, and compiled some notes. I’ve had communication with several cousins who have offered to review my pages before submission, to check for accuracy. I’ve put a few sentences together in my head. Still, I have not yet put a single thing on paper. That needs to be done immediately.

I have completed a dozen new works for the Beaver Island Gallery, a half-dozen pieces for the Museum Week Art Show, and thirty new collages for my up-coming art show in October. That sounds like a big accomplishment, but I know how much is yet to be done! All of the frames for the completed works have been ordered, as have mat boards, plexiglas and backer boards where necessary. Some have arrived; some have not. When everything gets here, the studio has to be given over to “clean work,” while I mount work, assemble frames, and put everything together.

I intend to have about 75 new pieces for the October art show, to fill the gallery space provided to me. With 30 pieces completed (though not yet mounted, matted and framed!), that leaves lots more to be done! The unfinished works are collagraph prints. The printmaking process is long, multi-faceted and time-consuming. There are lots of things that can go wrong. At this point, I have left myself very little room for error. Barely enough time.

The snow is gone, opening up a world of things to do in the yard and garden. My seeds are here, and plants are ordered, yet I haven’t done a single thing to get the garden ready. The list of chores is long. Snow and ice have once again pulled down the deer fence that surrounds my garden. The compost bin needs to be emptied. The soil has to be turned over and enriched, the beds laid out and, before long, planted. The flower beds need to be cleared of leaves. Spring transplanting has to be done. Winds have left plenty of branches to be gathered throughout the yard before I can mow, and the time for mowing is coming fast.

What happened to all those long, slow days of fall and winter? How did that time, that seemed, at its start, to stretch out forever in front of me, disappear so abruptly? Where has the time gone? And where will I find the time to do everything I need to do? Swiftly, the deadlines approach. Quick, has to be my response!

Potato Soup

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My method for making potato soup has evolved drastically over the years, but it continues to be a favored recipe.

As a young adult with a husband, two young daughters, and an extremely small grocery allowance, potato soup was a weekly dinner. My recipe was simple: Combine 1 diced potato, 1 chopped onion, and 1 hotdog, sliced thin into a saucepan with 1 cup of water. Simmer until everything is tender. In a larger saucepan, make a thin white sauce with 2 tablespoons of butter, melted, 2 tablespoons of flour, salt, pepper, and 3 cups of milk. Cook and stir until the sauce just starts to boil, and thickens slightly. Add the cooked potato, onion and hotdog, as well as enough of the cooking water to give it the right consistency. Serve hot, with homemade bread.

It was simple, cheap, and filling. Not, however, the most popular meal in my household. Once, my daughter Jen, then about four years old, asked what was for dinner. When I told her “Potato Soup,” she burst into tears, cried, “I can’t stand it,” and ran to her room!

By the time my daughters were teen-agers, I was divorced. We were living on campus while I finished a degree, and we were once again on a very tight budget. Luckily, my girls had warmed to the idea of potato soup. Then, we often didn’t have meat to add to the soup, but we usually added tiny egg dumplings. We always called them “glompkies,” though I can find no evidence that this is a real word, or that they are an actual thing. “Golumpki,” though similar-sounding, is stuffed cabbage. My glomkies were more like spaetzl, though rather than pushing the noodle dough through a sieve, we just dropped it by small bits into the soup. They cooked in the milky white sauce. I don’t remember where the word, or the idea came to me from, but the little pillows of noodle dough were a lovely addition to the buttery soup.

Now, being slightly more carb-conscious, I don’t add glompkies when I make potato soup. Now, my recipe has evolved to combine many types of cream soup. I may make potato-broccoli soup or cauliflower-potato soup. Chopped kale or spinach adds interesting flavors. I have added red pepper and fresh corn kernels to my basic recipe. If I have a bit of ham or bacon, I’ll throw it in. Usually, I add cheese to my white sauce for a little extra flavor.

No matter what mixture I put together, and what recipe I end up with, potato soup is still a simple, cheap and filling meal. And it comes wrapped with lots of memories!

Off!

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Yesterday was a very bad day for Rosa Parks.

A trip to town to see the veterinarian is not a fun outing for any of my dogs, but I think it’s hardest on Rosa Parks. Though she’s a loving and loyal little dog, she is extremely selective about who she’ll make friends with. My daughters, my son-in-law, three of my grandchildren, and me. That’s it. The veterinarian is not on her list.

Another quirk my Chihuahua has is that she does not like to wear stuff. No cute hats or sweaters for Rosa Parks; she doesn’t even like a collar. Because her neck is larger than her head, she can’t be forced to wear one, either. “Off,” I imagine her thinking as she uses a paw to scrape it past her ears, over and over again.

I finally gave up on the collar, and got her a bright pink harness. It’s her favorite color (I think) and much better suited to her body-type. She will wear it when necessary, for trips when she needs to be on a leash. It doesn’t take long, though, for her to have shifted it so that she’d wearing it over only one shoulder, or around her waist, with loose ends dragging behind. Clearly, she wants it off.

My other dogs are similarly negative about any encumbrances. Blackie Chan can “Houdini” his way out of his harness in a matter of seconds, while sitting on my lap in the car! Even Darla, my most compliant dog, has managed, of late, to slide out of her collar. As they weasel their way out of any restraint, I picture Mel Gibson in Braveheart, and his battle cry, “Freedom!”

Rosa Parks is the worst, though. When the dogs go to the groomer, for bath, blow dry and a few other incidentals, they each get a seasonal, decorative bandana tied around their neck. Rosa Parks, who has to be muzzled for the treatment, wears a bitter scowl until the muzzle comes off. Then, she works that kerchief off her neck, and tramples on it. If she could spit, she’d spit on it!

A trip to the veterinarian is a nightmare on many levels. She has to be muzzled; she has bitten me twice. I know it was not intentional…she was aiming for the doctor…but it’s still unacceptable. Then, she will be poked and prodded by people she doesn’t like, and doesn’t trust. It’s always traumatic. I used to bring all three dogs in at the same time, but one dog’s terror affects all of the dog’s experience. Lately, I’ve been making them individual appointments.

Yesterday, it was Rosa Parks. She needed her annual heartworm check and heartworm preventative for the warm weather months. Since her brother, Blackie Chan, has recently been diagnosed with some pretty serious heart problems, we planned an X-ray to check on that. And, she desperately needed her nails clipped.

We started with the nails. No matter how many times I try to put a positive spin on it, Rosa Parks does not want the procedure, even when it’s called a “mani-pedi.” Regardless of how closely I hold her, assure her that it will be okay, and tell her that she’s a good girl, Rosa Parks is a maniac. She jerks and thrashes and fights. She tries every tactic she can manage to try to get away. I hold her tightly; the doctor has a steady hand. Still, we usually have at least one incident of a nail getting cut too close. Yesterday was no exception.

It was a stubborn injury, too, that refused to stop bleeding, even after several applications of the styptic powder. The doctor finally bandaged the paw with gauze, wrapped it in a bright blue ace bandage, and sealed that with a bit of adhesive tape. Next, the blood draw for the heartworm test. Then the X-ray, when she had to be handed over to the assistant, to hold her in place.

By that time, Rosa Parks had quit fighting. Her fierce glare above the muzzle assured me that she wasn’t collapsing from lack of oxygen, but had simply finally given in to her helpless position. Soon, she was back in my arms, and the muzzle was removed. A short consultation, a couple prescriptions, a bill printed out, and we were out the door.

Then, Rosa Parks started immediately working to get the bandage off. She’d loosened it by the time we got home, making it look like she had a big blue slipper on one foot. She limped melodramatically, and sat right down to continue chewing at the wrap. She kept right at it, through the day and on into the evening. I found the blue ace bandage on the laundry room floor. The gauze was not far away. Freedom!

The adhesive tape, however, has slid down to the wider part of Rosa’s foot, and is firmly stuck to the hair there. Having suffered enough indignity, she refuses to let me remove it. Having shed the bulk of it, I suppose she’s decided this much can stay on.

New

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Here is spring.

Winter started slowly this year, and was, all told, a pretty mediocre season, here on Beaver Island. Cold temperatures came late and only sporadically. Though we had a couple big snows and considerable ice, there were no records broken.

No matter. When the ground is finally clear, when the new green shoots poke out of the ground and the trees start to bud, I welcome spring. Though I’ve been present for the changing seasons for nearly seventy years now, spring comes as if it’s never happened before, and I greet it with surprise and wonder.

I’ve always lived in Michigan, and I enjoy the changing seasons. I don’t love everything about any of the seasons, but there are things to appreciate in each. I love summertime, and look forward to it. The ever lengthening and warming days make me happy. I enjoy summer’s energy. When the nights start to cool and the trees show their colors in the fall, I like the change. Simmering soups and long walks through the crackling leaves replace the busyness of summer. When the holidays get close, and first snow falls, I appreciate the beauty, and the quiet and introspection that the winter offers.

Just like all the other seasons, I know that spring is coming. Still, I am amazed. Did I doubt that winter would give way? Did I forget that spring arrives every single year? It seemed like a miracle. It opens up like a distant memory. This season always surprises me. In the spring, everything seems brand new.

Walking down the Fox Lake Road with my dogs, the smell of onions is suddenly present. Oh, the ramps! I’d forgotten! Looking down, speckled green leaves poke out of the dry ground cover. Trout lilies! Nearly obscured by the overgrown grapevines, my forsythia bursts into flower. Has it always been that bright? Have I seen that yellow before? The pale, bright green on the ends of the tree branches. Is that new? And the smell of lilac! That deeper, musty smell that reminds me about morel mushrooms. In the springtime, the regular seems extraordinary.

No matter how many times this pattern repeats, no matter how many times I’ve watched the seasons change, spring is always brand new!

Timeout for Art: Momentum

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Focus is necessary when starting a creative project. I’ve talked about narrowing my attention, putting away side projects, and clearing the space. The next major issue is momentum. Beginning is the hardest part.

Once again, just when I need it, the right advice comes to me, this time, in a newsletter that I subscribe to. Canadian artist, Ruth Maude regularly posts about her art process at http://www.allthingsencaustic.com. I’m trying to learn as much as possible about the encaustic process, and how it can be used in collage, painting and printmaking, and often gain helpful information and inspiration in her posts. In February, she wrote a piece titled “When it’s Hard to Make Art/Finding Momentum,” and it addressed the exact things I was dealing with.

For content, she referred to another artist who offers good instruction and advise. Nicholas Wilton is the founder of Art2Life Creativity workshops and classes. Maude draws from one of Wilton’s videos for his “Three Tips that Really Work to Get Your Momentum Back.”

  • The more you do, the more you do.
  • Little and often.
  • Don’t start. Play instead.

She expands on each of these pointers with quotes from Wilton, expounding on the importance of making time each day to show up, even if just for non-art-related activities like cleaning or planning, of giving it a few minutes each day, rather than waiting for a large block of time on the weekend, and – most crucial, in my mind – finding the fun in the project.

Maude also explains the importance of having an accountability partner, and making a plan for what you hope to accomplish in a given work session. All advise was very pertinent to my situation, and gave me a way to get started.

Listen!

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I always have plenty of complaints. It seems like I’m always playing “Devil’s Advocate” to whatever is going well in my life. No matter what wonderful things are going on, I can always name what’s wrong, too. I’ve learned to, mainly, keep it to myself. I know that when folks hand out a “how are you,” what they want, in return, is a “fine!” I’m happy to give it to them. It’s not hard. I usually am, in fact, fine, and happy with my life. Give me an opening, though, and I can also espouse on everything that is not going well.

My sister, Brenda, is a very good conversationalist. I’ve watched her, over the years, draw people out, encouraging them to talk. I fall into it every time. No matter how much good news I have to tell, a few minutes on the telephone with Brenda’s sympathetic encouragement, and I am reporting on everything that is frustrating me. Sometimes I hang up the phone, and wonder if I’ve even given her a chance to speak, for all the time I spent complaining!

Brenda is a good listener, too. Though she’s one of the most positive people I know, she is always willing to lend an ear to my problems. She hears, and sympathizes, but doesn’t try to “fix” me. There are those who, when they hear me complain, want to tell me how to solve the problem. Rarely am I looking for a solution.

I live alone, and often just internalize things. When I voice my feelings, it is simply to share. I’m not trying to show off, when things are going well – and, when I’m frustrated, upset or mad – I’m not looking for answers. I just want to commiserate.

Remember the feeling you get when, as a mother of a two year old, or of a teen-ager, you meet another mother with a child of the same age? Or when you’re buried in a remodeling project, overwhelmed with holiday preparation or underappreciated at work, and you run into a friend in the same situation? That feeling? It’s joyous relief. That’s what I’m looking for, when I share my complaints.

I’m hoping for assurance that I’m not alone in this world, in my situation. I want to know that there is no judgment, no feeling of superiority, no chastisement for the the problems I’ve amassed, or for my weakness for wanting to talk about them. Simple understanding. Empathy. A little righteous anger. That’s what makes a good listener.

Keeping it Fair

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Yesterday, I wrote about my oldest daughter, Jennifer, so I must, of course, today write about my second daughter, Katherine. This is not a stipulation they put upon me. They may not even notice. No, this is self-imposed craziness.

I have always been obsessed with fairness. As one small child in a very large family, I kept a close eye on the distribution of every single thing. I’d notice if someone got an extra dinner roll, or got to stay up beyond their bedtime. If one child managed to skip their turn at doing dishes, I knew it, and it rankled me. Life should be fair!

When I had children, I strove for equity in all things. Never mind that my daughters were three years apart, with decidedly different personalities, things had to be fair. If Jennifer had an eight o’clock bedtime until she was eight years old, then Kate should have to adhere to that rule, too. There was a time when I actually counted out green beans, to make sure they had equal portions! Christmas gifts were spread-sheeted and matched, taking into consideration their different ages and interests, as well as the size, cost and value of each gift. It all had to balance. It still does!

So, I worried. What if my memories of Kate’s birth are not as vivid? What if I have more to say about Kate, since she and I have, lately, had many more opportunities to chat? What if I am – accidentally – NOT FAIR?? I almost scrapped the entire idea, and went back to J being about the junk drawer! But, I love both of my daughters, and I’m so proud of each of them…and they happen to have names that begin with consecutive letters of the alphabet…so I have thrown caution to the wind.

Kate was born on a cold December night, surprising us by arriving almost two weeks early. She was the tiniest little girl, with a full head of wild, dark hair. If she had been a boy, we’d planned to use the Daniel Adrian boy’s name that we’d picked out before Jen was born. My sister-in-law had her first son one week before Kate was born. She liked the name Daniel, and asked if I was really attached to it. “Go ahead,” I told her, “I am sure this baby is going to be a girl.” I don’t know why I was so sure, but I was, and I was right.

For our second child, we needed a name that would, again, have a long, dignified version befitting a president or some other high official. It also needed to be one I could shorten. We came upon Katherine because of Katherine Hepburn, who I loved for her independent character. Katherine was also a name with some history in my family. Aunt Katie, my Dad’s sister, was very dear to me. She was named Katherine Elizabeth, after her two grandmothers. So, we went with Katherine Elizabeth, shortened to Katey.

It was important to me that there be lots of syllables in each of their names, helpful (like counting to ten) when I was angrily trying to get their attention. It was a lucky accident that both girls have the same number of syllables in their names. Also nice that the first letters of their names are side by side in the alphabet. Had I decided to have a large family, I could have continued that pattern right through to Xavier, Yolanda and Zeke! Like her older sister, Jen, my youngest daughter has reduced her name to just one syllable. Now, we call her Kate.

Kate has seemed to pick up characteristics from her namesakes, too. Though I never knew the grandmothers that Aunt Katie was named for, I have seen photographs…and I have seen that same angry glare on my daughter’s face! Aunt Katie was a lover of books, travel, kids and dogs; my Kate has similar interests. Like Katherine Hepburn, my daughter is strong-willed, feisty and determined, with a big heart and a wonderful sense of humor. She’s a blessing in my life!