2017 – The Year of Not Caring

I’ve always been a pretty optimistic person, someone who believes in love and family and that those two things will see you through any bad time that comes your way. My friends and family have seen me through a couple of harrowing years, one of a scary cancer diagnosis and another seeing me through the job from hell. I don’t know how I would have made it through either of those without the love and support of family and friends. But we all go through phases and stages, and this past year everyone’s phases coalesced into the perfect storm of children pulling away and adults revisiting their purpose in this world, all under the helpless feeling that comes with a tumultuous election of a divisive president. It was a one step in front of the other kind of year, a year of going through the motions, of waking up with a dedication to getting through the day.

And it’s taught me to care less.

Though I’m not a Buddhist, I can finally see how letting go gives peace. I have held tightly to my ties, even while the hands on the other end were slackening their grip. I have sat in the middle of a pile of photo albums that only I look at and cried over times past. I have served dinner in front of a wall of photo collages of happy times and tried to make conversation with people who were intent on showing that they were just not that into me. I have tried to communicate my needs and my desires only to be met with blank stares as I pounded my head against that brick wall. And so I let go.

It’s a lonely feeling to let go.

I have spent a lot of time this year wandering by myself, walking through nature, feeling the salt air on my face, staring at the expanse of the Pacific Ocean and marveling at the giant moon as it rose over the land. I slept in the back of my car to get my camping experience and cried as I listened to the families around me talk and laugh around their own campfires. I have wandered and traveled, all the time taking photos that don’t include the people I love. I have dammed up the feeder stream to friendships that were sustained on my little trickle alone. I have searched inward for solace.

There were islands of joy in my barren year, trips to see Smartypants in Virginia and Sunshine in Colorado, trips that filled my soul and reminded me of what I love most about life. We explored and ate and talked and laughed, and I went home revived, with a full tank to carry me through months of what has become a dry, prickly, arid existence. There was a springtime trip with Mr. A to the national parks, getting away from the roles and responsibilities that have made up our last 23 years in this same spot. But returning to knee-high grass and weeds and those same roles and responsibilities brought reality home like a blast from the furnace, and as Mr. A dove back into work, I was on my own once again.

And so I wandered.

And I stopped caring.

As I said, there’s a freedom that comes from not caring, a vagabond mentality that is always seeking out options. It’s a freedom from fear. It’s a knowledge that anything  stable could be upended without a moment’s notice, and an appreciation for what is going well in the moment. It comes with a humility that I cannot influence what I thought I could, and that being myself might not be enough to work magic in other people’s lives. It’s come with the feeling of teetering on the brink between falling back into a life I’ve always treasured and being pushed into a new existence, a chance to re-imagine myself, that square peg that will never fit into the round hole no matter how much pressure is applied.

And so I’ve wandered through the darkness of 2017 and come to the end intact, though the lessons may have been hard. In the autumn of my life, I watch my expectations change and fall like leaves, clustering at my feet, in sight, but out of reach, before blowing away on each stiff breeze.

I am learning to let go.


 “All that history, the love & laughter, is designed for youth. It is what keeps the story of who we are alive from one generation to the next. It ensures our indelible mark in the souls of generations we will never have the pleasure of holding in a warm embrace. Life is short people. Before you know it, another decade will pass, people you love will be lost to this world, and all that will be left of them is what we carry in our hearts.”
― E.B. Loan

 

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The Zen of Sanding Chairs

Summer has finally arrived in the Pacific Northwest, and summer for this teacher means time to tackle those nagging projects. Last week was a productive week, leaving my house in disarray. A not-so-simple picture rearrangement in the dining room became a much needed wall paint touch up. That led the way to finally painting naked, primed trim a rich melted vanilla ice cream shade of white. You can’t paint trim and leave the doors grimy and grungy, so off came the door handles and on went the paint. (Mouse and your cookie, you have nothing on me!)

I have a list, and things are getting checked off. When the heat wave drove me out of my non-air-conditioned house yesterday, I sat in the shade in my front yard and painstakingly sanded down a couple of chairs from a 1930s dining set that once belonged to my grandparents. The set was an antiqued-white addition to my mom’s red 70s kitchen when I was growing up. It then adorned our little 1940-era starter home when my own kids were young. It has mostly been stored for years now, with the exception of a single chair that moves from the computer desk to the piano and back again, over and over.

Being the oblivious person that I am, I have for years overlooked the yellowing polyurethane and the ripped tomato-soup colored vinyl seat. The chair is handy, lightweight, easy to move around in its ossified, porous, dry-wood way. It’s a ninja to the knights of my current cumbersome dining set, its portability helping me to reach those top shelves of my kitchen cabinets or to hang a curtain rod, which is what I was doing recently when my foot got caught in the rip and I went down on my rear end, jarring my neck and rattling some unused portion of my brain that tends to overlook things like ripped seats on vintage chairs.

I added it to my list.

The chairs and I were about to get on intimate terms. I had already painted the one that was in my house, trying a chalk paint formula from memory, circuits of which must have been jarred as well in the fall because the 1:1 ratio I thought I remembered was actually 2:1. So off came the thick, gloppy paint job. Then, so as not to leave its siblings out, because one must always be fair, even to chairs, I pulled the others out of storage and sanded them, too.

This is not a simple, straightforward set. It has a routed scroll pattern on the backs and turned legs with depressions that are either full of antiquing stain or nearly 50 years of the dirt and dust of life. As the sandpaper did its job on the polyurethane, the white my mother had painted over the wood became apparent. I remembered her dismay when she learned that because she had painted bare wood, the set could not be stripped back down to the mahogany. I sanded over the legs and noted the distressing that came from years of feet resting on the stabilizing bar at the bottom. Those feet were our feet as children, and later my own children’s feet. With a quiet meditation I sanded. The legs of the chairs were squeaky, begging for attention, and at the corners they had been mistreated and now had jagged edges. I started thinking how like life this whole process was.20170624_124105

This connecting disconnected things could be a result of the stage I’m in, a kind of grasping-at-straws reflective process. My kids are leaving home and are busy with their own lives. I’ve been thinking a lot about my own life (though my family might choose the phrase dwelling on). I was always happy with my choices, but now as I find myself alone more and more, I am not so sure I’d make the same ones if given another chance. Having my kids? Yes. But the choice to stay at home with them in their early years is exacting a heavy toll on me right now.

With each drag of the sandpaper I pondered this life that has been given to me, all of the small moments woven together to bring me to the shade of the front yard on this miserably hot day, and how my choices and the choices of the people I love that have truly impacted it. Like the chair that had sat, unnoticed in its decline, I thought how much tending my new life really needed, how much stripping away of the old might get to the somewhat ossified, but very useful core, how much sanding down the rough edges was needed to avoid breakage and the  possibility of hurting someone, and how much a new paint job in the form of a renewed focus might bring some life to an otherwise old and tired existence.

I will return to sanding down my old chairs today, and with it my old life, my old thought patterns and expectations. I will clothe my chairs in a beautiful French inspired fabric and paint them with a new and accurate formulation of chalk paint. I will revisit the points of wear that really matter and distress accordingly. Then, when I finally rub the wax into the finished product and buff it to a smooth shine, I hope to come away with an poignant reminder of all that has been and a beautiful testament to all that remains.

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Let It Go

A ten-year-old Maverick walked down the beach glaring, holding the heavy rock. After we had gone about a mile, he was walking backwards and tripped into a somewhat deep, sandy tidal pool, immersing himself in cold salt water to gales of laughter from us, his family. He hadn’t seen the humor, and now he was toting his irritation also, it weighing him down like the rock he carried.

“Maverick, just put the rock down,” I had said before the incident. “We can pick it up on the way back.” He had declined. I didn’t know why he wanted to take it back to camp, and I had thought wherever he set it we would find it when we returned. Rocks don’t tend to move around on their own.

At one point he had asked me to carry the rock for him, but motherhood has its limitations. Maybe my job was to help him know when the burden wasn’t worth carrying in the first place.

As he trudged, dripping wet, back to camp, his ire surrounded him like a thick ocean fog. We tried to distract him with familial joviality, hoping to rouse the cheery Maverick who was with us moments ago, but this Maverick carried his humiliation and irritation like that rock, refusing to put it down.

I sidled up to him again. “Maverick,” I said gently, “what you did was funny and unexpected. If any of the rest of us had done it, we would have laughed as well. You are wet, but unhurt. Please, just let it go.”

He ignored me, in true ten-year-old boy fashion, toting both burdens all the way back to camp.

DSCN6103Thankfully, he eventually let each one go. The rock has been long-since forgotten, and falling into the puddle remains a funny family story that seven years later even he can now reluctantly appreciate.

It takes a lot of energy to carry a large rock for miles. It wears you out. The same is true with a grudge.

When we choose to carry a grudge, I think we feel like it will somehow affect the people who have wronged us, that they will vicariously feel the impact and be burdened as well. They may not even know you are carrying it at all.

We lighten our load in life when we choose to put aside our grievances, to forgive a wrong done to us, to pick ourselves up after a fall and walk with our head held high, and unburdening ourselves frees us up to walk arm in arm with those we love.

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In response to the Daily Post’s prompt: “Do you hold grudges, or do you believe in forgive and forget?”

 

Wanderlust


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I blame my wanderlust on my parents.

I grew up in the late 60s, early 70s. People were hitting the road. Gas was cheap, and cars must have been affordable, judging from the way my dad cycled through them. We were always on the go, taking memorable trips to Crater Lake, Vancouver B.C.and Disneyland. When I got older, my dad got a job that involved travel, and he arranged a partially sponsored three week road trip that took us through Yellowstone, down through Denver, San Antonio, Santa Fe, then L.A., before heading back home to Oregon. Looking back, that seems painfully ambitious. I was sixteen at the time, and probably not entirely pleasant to be around for short periods, let alone trapped for hours in a car with, yet I look back on that family vacation as one of the best. I can only hope my parents feel the same. I experienced so much of the country – geysers and bison in Yellowstone, great southwestern food and culture in San Antonio and Santa Fe, and always the mountains,  plains, and deserts rolling by.

My husband and I made a point to take our kids on road trips as well. In our mind, it’s important for them to see the country, to know the expanse of the land in which we live, to develop a sense of place and geography, and to see what makes us different and, more importantly, similar. We have driven to Mexico City, through the Chihuahuan desert, a great expanse of nothingness where we came upon a group of people selling rattlesnake by the roadside. On our way back, we were able to make side trips to the Grand Canyon and Carlsbad Caverns. On a different trip to Disneyland, we swung by to check out Yosemite National Park and ended up staying and hiking up Vernal Falls. So many trips. So many memories.

Five years ago, I coaxed Maverick and Goose into going with me to take Sunshine to college in Texas. Mr. A was deep into his busy season and would fly down and meet us in Texas. It was just the kids and me, every nook and cranny of the little Kia Soul packed with Sunshine’s belongings and our bare-bones luggage.

Let me tell you, it’s a long road trip from Oregon to Texas. We had planned a stop in Arizona, where we took a couple of days to hike in the Grand Canyon and explore around Flagstaff, where we looked at the stars from Lowell Observatory and hiked through Oak Creek Canyon near Sedona. Blog RS0784
We revisited Carlsbad Caverns on the way through New Mexico so my cave-dwelling sons could be impressed by the size and grandeur of the open areas we walk above. We finally reached San Antonio at the peak of summer in a drought year and made the best of the 108 degree heat with swims in the rooftop pool at our hotel. You’d never have known it at the time, but Maverick recently shocked me with his admission that this was his favorite road trip.

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Inside Carlsbad Caverns
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Finding our way around the Riverwalk

When the kids were young, we heard the same ‘are we there yet’ every other parent hears. We played all of the car games my parents played with us to keep us stimulated. The alphabet game had us searching for words that began with the last letter of the previous word. Someone was always excited to be the one to stump the group with a word ending with x, y, or z. We played a version of car bingo. We sang songs and listened to books on tape. During those times, we were a unit, a family, relishing our togetherness and sense of adventure. We got in each other’s space and lived through it. We had to learn to work together within the confines of the car and of the experience. We didn’t watch movies. We weren’t checking out on personal devices. We shared. We did this together.

You can keep your planes, trains and buses. Give me a car and the open road any day. Road trips offer a sense of adventure and exploration. On the open road I’m free to stop and wander, to veer from the path. I can travel on a budget or in high style, camping in the back of the car or having the valet park it for me at some ritzy hotel. I’m the captain of my ship (alright, it’s a shared job), and as long as we can avoid mutiny (says the parent of teens), there are wondrous adventures in store.

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In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Trains, Planes, and Automobiles.”You’re going on a cross-country trip. Airplane, train, bus, or car? (Or something else entirely — bike? Hot air balloon?)

A Hike To Remember

Grand Canyon0214We sat on the edge of the canyon, blissfully enjoying the ever-narrowing slice of shade. Sunshine was by my side, understanding that a slightly overweight mom in her later years, though fit, might have a tough time scaling the Grand Canyon in the heat of the day. Maverick and Goose would soon leave us to run to the top and would be full of jeers when we finally got there. We really should have started earlier, but we were lucky to get a reservation in the park, and we wanted to enjoy the cozy, comfortable hotel just a little bit longer.

We were passing through on a mission. Sunshine was starting college next week in the Lone Star State. The boys and I were taking her there, making a road trip of it, seeing some of the desert southwest in the heat of summer, because who doesn’t want to do that? We had arrived at Grand Canyon National Park the day before, and I had set our agenda for the day. We would hike down into the canyon early, and then travel to our hotel in Flagstaff. Grand Canyon0210

Grand Canyon0213The cool morning beckoned us down the trail. We were loaded up with water bottles and plenty of M&Ms, but without a plan. Free for the day, we would just hike as far as we wanted before turning around and coming back up. The wide trail invited us to walk and take pictures. The rest stops along the way sheltered us and offered water. The squirrels and birds cheered our progress.

Grand Canyon0216From one vantage point, we could see the three mile house. We were getting tired, but wanted a definite destination, so we set our sights on that. Here we would stop and dig into our fuel source, the M&Ms. The day was gorgeous, sunny, with a few high clouds. The tricky thing about the canyon, however, is that the closer you get to the bottom, the hotter it becomes. A day that had started out for us in the 70s was rising with every step down into the 90s, which is not terrible if you are hiking down, but we still had to make our way back up, and now it was getting close to noon. The warning signs along the way did not give me comfort.

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We made it down! Now to go UP. (The sign that is shielded by our bodies is a danger sign.)

We refilled our water bottles and shooed the squirrels away from the candy as we rested, the boys impatient to get moving. At some point, Sunshine dropped a couple of M&Ms on the ground and a flurry of squirrel warfare ensued, causing us to jump onto the ledge and earning us the ire of the more orderly hikers on the trail. After all, the brochure said definitively not to feed the wildlife. Now we knew why.

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_sjg_ / Foter / CC BY-NC

We looked up the trail. What had been so pleasant coming down now looked daunting. I had my personal list of killer trails: Vernal Falls in Yosemite, Mount Constitution on Orcas Island, and Iron Mountain closer to home, but none came close to this one, with an elevation change of over 2,000 feet in just three miles. I steeled myself and started putting one foot in front of the other. Round a corner, rest in the shade. Round a corner, rest in the shade. Sunshine was by my side the whole way.

Which brings me to where I started this story, almost at the top and having a clear picture of which child I could count on in life. As we made our way the last few bends and turns in the trail, the temperature shed its austere cloak and became more welcoming. We found ourselves encouraging other hikers who were finding the path equally difficult. We passed people coming down in all manner of dress, but none of them looked like experienced hikers, and passed a ranger who seemed to be at a loss, questioning them and turning some back, while at the same time inquiring about the welfare of the people coming up. Not a job I would want to have. As expected, Maverick and Goose were at the top, jeering at us and begging for ice cream.

Grand Canyon0221We made it. We had hiked the canyon. (Well, part of it, but I’m counting it.) We paused for a quick victory photo and headed to the car. Ravenous, we didn’t look for a picnic spot. We unloaded the cooler and sat by the road on a downed tree, scarfing down the most delicious impromptu salami and french bread sandwiches. It was quite possibly the best food I’ve ever eaten. Hunger will do that to you.

We did finally make it to the hotel in Flagstaff, and judging from the red ring around the hot tub, were not the only people to have made this trek. For months after, I would put on my socks that retained the red smudge of the trail dust and remember our road trip. The canyon itself made an indelible mark on my heart, and I can’t wait to return, hopefully not in the heat of summer, to hike it again.

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Sometimes You Have to Lose to Win

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “The Perfect Game.”

We lined up the life size chess pieces in the brutal sun, and I thought to myself how much of life was strategy. This was just the latest of a series of many failed attempts to connect with my teenage son during our latest family camping vacation. I had picked a campsite with as many amenities as possible for the teen set – boat rentals, wi-fi (though limited), swimming, and games, like the one we were attempting now. Yet he had thwarted my attempts at conversation and had spent much of his time camped out in front of the little campground store, sucking energy and wi-fi off the campground grid. He refused to sit around the campfire and talk, preferring online chatting with his friends back home. He grudgingly hiked with us, quickly leaving us in his younger, more agile dust. Even when I suggested a game, he simply stated that his brother wouldn’t want to play. When I emphasized that I meant with me, he paused, then reluctantly accepted.

Once the pieces were laid out on the lawn. He indicated for me to begin with a somber nod of the head. I looked at my son, once a smiling, curly-headed boy who used to cuddle up on the couch with me to watch a movie, who used to lay out on a blanket under the tree as I read to him. Here he stood, tall and strong, confident in the knowledge that he would surely beat me. I half rolled, half picked up the heavy pawn and moved it two spaces forward. He quickly made his move. I scanned the board. I made another move, followed quickly by his. This pattern continued, and I managed to hold him off for a while, but soon he began to take out my key pieces. First my knight was lugged off the board, followed by a bishop. I managed to keep my king and queen safe for quite some time. At some point in the game, a preschool girl approached with her mom and started putting pieces back on the board. He was unfazed, and continued his assault as I removed them. Her mom lovingly distracted her into a new investigation, and our game continued.

I thought how odd it was to play chess with such a large board, and with such large pieces. The perspective was different, skewing the strategy. Playing on a table-top board gives you a good vantage point to see what’s coming, allowing you to plan for the next move. This life-size game was throwing me. Parenting this stranger was throwing me. Like chess, everything was much easier on a smaller scale.

My son started closing in. He lined up his bishop, but I thwarted his move. He grabbed his heavy rook and lined it up as well. I maneuvered my remaining bishop into a defensive position. I could tell my options were quickly becoming limited. I had my remaining pawns arranged to take out his key pieces should they make an attempt, but he was one step ahead of me, lining up his flanking moves. I made a misstep, he moved his rook, and with a subtle smile said, “Checkmate.”

I just smiled. For me it wasn’t about winning. It was just about playing the game.

“Ping-pong?” he asked.

I smiled again. Sometimes you have to lose to win.

Familiar campground scene

Almost Heaven

In response to The Daily Post’s writing prompt: “Always Something There to Remind Me.”

The year was 1973. In a cedar-panel lined bedroom in a middle class Oregon suburb, I would sit on my bed, my record player blaring:

Almost heaven, West Virginia
Blue ridge mountains, Shenandoah river
Life is old there, older than the trees
Younger than the mountains, growin’ like a breeze

My young voice would lift with the chorus.

Country roads, take me home
To the place I belong
West Virginia, mountain momma
Take me home, country roads

I don’t know why this song spoke to me. I’ve never been farther east than a short pass through Kansas on a long road trip.

Born in the city, I was raised in suburbs newly born, clean within the downy fuzz of farmers’ fields, an island of new split-levels and kaffeeklatsches. We roamed the safe streets in freshly washed packs of multi-age explorers, feeding horses, sneakily entering the local farmer’s field and ducking down with stifled giggles when he came out on his deck shouting at us to leave. Bikes with loose chains were our transportation, and we whizzed up and down the hilly street, racing each other, laughing, and occasionally wiping out.

We were young and invincible. And we were loved.

When the summer weekends came, my family’s blue Ford F150 took off for the mountains. The canvas tent, camp stove, propane tank, family dog, and my sister and I were all loaded in the back under the canopy. We headed to the Mt. Hood wilderness for a weekend of fishing, exploring and relaxing at our favorite campsite. During the day, the creaky rowboat and our impatient voices betrayed our presence, scaring potential dinner away from thin, yet hopeful, fishing poles. Back on land, frogs croaked their locations and were surprised to be lifted from their resting spots by inquisitive hands, though always returned, unscathed. Dusty sneakers beat down paths around the lake. Water sandals slipped and slid in the cold mountain water. At night crawdads scurried from overturned rocks and glaring flashlights, and we laughed and chased them until the glow of the campfire and the gooey goodness of s’mores drew us all together again.

The scene has changed throughout my life like a flipagram, speedy, with common backgrounds and changing humans. The fields were exchanged for more split-levels, and the wonder of childhood became the pursuit of knowledge. Even so this song has played in the background. It lingers and beckons, pointing the way to sun painted mountains and calm, clear waters. It begs to go on a journey of exploration. It never ceases to paint in my mind a picture of childhood freedom, of connection with nature, of curiosity and wonder, and of a deep desire for simplicity in life.

And it always implores – take me home, country roads.

(lyrics by John Denver)