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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Relativity

Reminiscent of so many other times, we parked the car down the road and started walking toward my brother-in-law’s house at the end of a cul de sac in a quiet residential neighborhood. Only this time as we walked toward the crowded driveway we heard a loud oomph-a-oomph-a.

“Is that a tuba?” I asked my husband. “Did they get a band, or is somebody just practicing?”

He shrugged and seemed to indicate the latter was of greater possibility.

As we walked in the front door we realized it was a band, a family of four, with the father as lead singer, his daughter somberly plucking a bass, an older son holding rhythm on a sousaphone, and the youngest, a boy of around 12, stretching and compressing an accordion while wailing along with his dad. They were joyful and loud. We later found out that the police had already been called by a number of close-set neighbors, and my brother-in-law had been warned to wrap it up by ten.

We congratulated the pair on their anniversary and made our rounds shaking hands and saying hello before sitting down at one of the many tables set up under undulating blue plastic tarps. I looked around. The San Antonio riverwalk had nothing on this festive backyard arrangement. Fluttering under the tarps were paper picado banners, not the plastic kind, but actual tissue paper, cut and strung crisscross across the yard. They spoke of love and attention to detail. The tables were festooned with colorful plastic tablecloths, and each table held a Corona bottle vase graced with a single bright flower.

We weren’t allowed to sit long before being ushered to the lean-to shed, where a man was expertly assembling street tacos. The smells of carne asada and pork al pastor made me remember why I could never become a vegetarian. I demurely ordered one of each of these, and my husband eagerly grabbed a plateful of strange looking tripe tacos. We piled the tacos with fixings of fragrant cilantro, homemade salsa, onions, lime, and then topped the whole plate off with a pile of cactus salad and went back to our seats. I would later go back with gusto for more. I’m a sucker for street tacos.

I set about taking Snapchat pictures to send to my eldest two who now live far from home as if to say, remember this? Remember your heritage? I snapped a picture of my mother-in-law, now in her mid-eighties. We lost my father-in-law a couple of years ago; we try not to take this time for granted. There was a slew of back and forth salutations with lots of love and hugs and well-wishes, but all over the distance that technology provides, a sanitized version of connection, life through a lens. I sent snaps of food and videos of dancing, a framework that made up much of their extended family experiences.

A few people asked where our other kids were. They got our standard answer, “Oh, they don’t want to hang out with us anymore.” In reality, one was off at a wedding at his girlfriend’s house. He had promised her mom he would help set up. The other had run off with his friends for the day. My husband hadn’t given me much of a heads-up about this party, otherwise I would have made sure they were there. Still, our answer stands. The older teens don’t want to have much to do with us anymore. Maybe it’s normal. Maybe.

My husband went off to talk to someone. I watched him gesticulating animatedly from across the yard. I saw that the man he was talking to was leaning in, so it must not have been about work this time. I sat with my mother-in-law in the silence that loud music brings. Conversation in my native language would have been hard; lip-reading in Spanish was nearly impossible. So I observed.

My youngest brother-in-law was twirling his girlfriend around the patio. They would come back sweaty only to hop up again immediately as the band started up with another favorite dance tune. I had picked the only brother out of nine who didn’t like to dance.

An older brother-in-law was holding his grandchildren as his wife talked animatedly across the table with her son’s young girlfriend. The son was busy. His seven-year-old niece was looking up at him with starry-eyed devotion as he led her around the dance floor.

I sat and watched the new generation repeating what we once did, tios dancing with their nieces, people laughing and holding babies, the older generation dancing, dancing, dancing. I thought back to a Christmas party long ago, of my brother-in-law twirling my daughter, then five, around and around the small kitchen. I felt time telescoping in with a crushing sensation and all of a sudden I was squinting back tears as I felt the all-encompassing lonliness of endings, of time past, of the things I held so dear slipping through my fingers. I bit my cheek. Hard. And again. It wouldn’t do to cry right now.

All of a sudden I felt my husband at my side again. He was cracking a lame joke, looking into my face, drawing me out of the abyss. I smiled and went willingly.

We chatted with his mom and brothers and ate cake during the band’s break. My mother-in-law tried to separate her youngest from his beloved beer. My teetotaler husband once again proclaimed his status as the perfect child, while his brother looked at me and said, “He has his vices.”

I nodded.

“Work. Work is his vice.”

I know.

The band started up again. It was 9:45.

“Are you ready to go?” my husband asked. “I don’t want to be here if and when the police show up again.”

I laughed. “I’m ready,” I said.

We rode home in silence, my ears ringing with the residual oomph-a of sousaphone and my heart pinging with the loneliness of solitude.

Echo Chamber

This empty nest thing is for the birds. (Pun intended.) I feel like I should enjoy this silence after years of rambunctious kids and their singing and shouting, TV blaring cartoons through the house, dancing, laughter and fighting. Now  the house is just so quiet.

On a good note, I’m getting more proficient at self-talk. I can almost carry on a whole conversation with myself while walking through the grocery store. I’m not the only one afflicted. I saw a friend in the chip aisle the other day. We were both stocking up for graduation parties. I saw her before she saw me, and didn’t recognize anyone around us she might have been talking to. I approached her and laughingly asked if she was talking to herself. She nodded semi-sheepishly. I think we’ve both come to terms with a certain amount of crazy.

They say you should live long enough to embarrass your kids. I have, but they’re not around enough to be embarrassed.

I get it. Kids need their space. My head knows this. I’ve been an independent young person aching to stretch my wings. I lived through the days of no cell phones and probably didn’t call my mom as much as I should have. (Mom, I’m sorry I put you through this.) My head is on board. My heart, however, feels like it’s being ripped out of my chest and trampled on the ground in front of me. (Okay, only slightly dramatic.)

The thing is, I saw my mom starting to teeter with empty nest syndrome, but I was the eldest and didn’t take much time to look back over my shoulder. She coped by adopting a whole new family’s worth of kids, thereby extending her motherhood years by another eighteen. I was not willing to go that route. I looked forward to the day Mr. A and I could spend some quality time together sans kids. The appeal of a $30 dinner bill loomed in the near future. We could go out to eat 3 or 4 times for what it cost to take the family, all of whom are lovers of strawberry lemonade (at $4.00 a pop). We could go to the beach on a whim and not hear anyone complain about the cold or try to figure out an activity that everyone wanted to do. We could watch documentaries without eye rolls. Yet here I am, longing for those days, for the structure of the family web and the love and support we provide each other.

Determined not to be that parent frantically trying to hold onto my kids as they perched precariously at the edge of adulthood, I went back to school and finished up my teaching degree. I wanted a life, something to fall back on after motherhood, an airbag to fill the space left by my fledglings. The thing is, motherhood doesn’t end. Those babies whose first steps you worry about become preschoolers who learn to ride bikes and teenagers who start to drive and develop relationships and head off to college, and you never stop worrying about them. It’s a mentally exhausting job. My life is inextricably intertwined with those of my kids, bonds I’m sure they’re only too eager to hack at with the machete of youth.

I know they’re busy. I was too, at their age. The days go by and my phone doesn’t ring. Texts go unanswered, and then all of a sudden they are there, cheery and wanting to talk, and for a moment, life goes back to the way it used to be. Too soon the conversation ends, and I’m surrounded by silence once more. I’ll be glad to one day reach a state of equilibrium.

In the meantime, won’t you join me in crying over this clip from Toy Story? I’m certain the song was written by an empty-nester.

Feel the Burn

Note the spelling in the title. While I’d encourage anyone to “Feel the Bern,” I am referring to the 90s, to Jane Fonda, and to dancing around the living room in my 900 square foot starter home to video taped step aerobics instruction.

(Insert Michael Jackson voice here)
Can you feel it?
Can you feel it?
Can you feel it?

If you don’t know what I’m talking about, check out the video tape table at your next garage sale. (And if you don’t know what a video tape is, this probably isn’t the post for you.)

Back in the 90s as a new mom and wife of an always-working spouse, I was limited in what fitness routines I could juggle. The jogging stroller hadn’t really become a thing yet. I did frequently pull out the collapsible umbrella stroller, walking a four mile loop with my son around my town, treks that were good for both me and baby. Fitness was the goal, but getting out of the house reaped other benefits, such as interacting with other people. I later had a child seat on the back of my bike, which worked wonders until baby number two came along. I now either had to walk at a preschooler’s pace or think up a different workout routine.

Enter Jane Fonda step aerobics.

You may know Jane for her roles in various movies that have spanned the years, such as Monster-in-Law, 9 to 5, or On Golden Pond, to name a few. Political types may know her for her vocal opposition to the Vietnam War. (Many still call her a traitor.) To me she was just an on-screen aerobics facilitator who looked remarkably like my own mom. She was my fitness guru. Along with her upbeat instructors Jeannie, Laurel and Mark, she made me feel the burn.

Onscreen step aerobics should have been a warning of things to come, of distance and increasing isolation. Working out in your own home is convenient, but when the smiling faces you see every day are the same all the time and aren’t followed by a long, cool drink of water and commiseration about those aching abs and glutes, it can leave you feeling a little lonely. A friend of mine recently told me that she had taken a Zumba class and was thinking of getting a video to do it at home. We are both in the same stage of life, watching our fledglings fly the nest as we search for ways to reinvest in ourselves. I couldn’t understand why she would choose a video over a class at this point. I mean, we’re free, right? The camaraderie of shared experience outweighed the potential for embarrassment. Back in the 90s, my new mom loneliness was assuaged to some extent by the smiling face of my then one-year-old. My newfound loneliness is a little harder to manage. The then one-year-old is living in another state, and now so is his sister. There is no turning around to see their smiling faces.

We live in a new world that is governed by text messages and Twitter posts, where we buy into the self-marketing of Facebook, but rarely pick up the phone to call one another. We have Skype, which is the next best thing to having loved ones near, but still comes in as a distant second. The isolation I felt as a young, somewhat housebound mom was nothing compared to the isolation I feel now that most of my friends have scattered and my children are developing their own lives. In those days, the burn was in my muscles at the tail end of a workout that left me feeling invigorated and ready to face the challenges of the day. Now it’s a scorching ember in my heart that doesn’t seem to want to die.

Maybe it’s time to sign up for my own Zumba class.

For you retro folks who may be feeling nostalgic to feel the burn:

(Check out those leotards! Haha.)

I Really Don’t Know Clouds at All

20140729_181821When I saw the prompt for the day, the song Both Sides Now immediately started running through my head. I wondered anew at the meaning of seeing clouds from both sides, so I looked up the lyrics. The song progresses through the idealized version of clouds and love and life to a more realistic, maybe even pessimistic vision of them and an acceptance of not really being able to grasp the complexity of existence.

How apropos.

Life has been a strange mixture of the familiar and unfamiliar lately, with kids leaving home and starting down their own paths. I often feel like I’m standing alone, scratching my head and wondering what is happening to my world. My young, idealized version of myself as a mom in a world of family dinners and camping trips and shared experiences was so all-encompassing for so long, and suddenly it is slipping from my grasp, leaving me looking at the other side of those clouds for myself. I don’t know what I see. I don’t recognize the clouds from the other side, but I’m learning. It’s hard not to be pessimistic, to see the clouds as raining and snowing on everyone, but I’m trying.

Though it may be life’s illusions I recall, and maybe I didn’t ever really know life at all, I’ll hold to the last line of the song, “something’s lost but something’s gained in living every day.”

Here’s to changes.

Contrails


Photo credit: brx0 via Foter.com / CC BY-SA

Through untamed wilds we cleared a space;
A vision shared of sweet-smelling roses
And filtered sunlight through trees,
A place that invited happiness in.

And happiness came through the open door
On toddling feet,
And in the whisper of a curious, “Why?”
Like wind over warm ocean currents
It grew and nourished,
Warmed and refreshed.

As the roses grew, so did the thorns,
And an occasional branch fell from the tree
Leaving the sting of pain
And debris,
And clean-up ahead.

But happiness came again
As we worked side by side
And tended each other’s wounds.

We built a tower and pulled them up
Encouraging and guiding small hands and feet.
Through new-found confidence,
They soon sought their own footholds,
And brushed our hands away impatiently.
Yet we remained, unbidden,
Within arm’s reach,
Ready to grab on tight
Should they start to fall.

And happiness overtook us
On its way up, up, up,
Seeking its own path.

As they reached the top
They marveled at the view,
Three-hundred-sixty degrees of possibility.
Turning and turning, overwhelmed.
Which way to go?
And we nodded our understanding
As they stretched their wings,
Balanced on the precipice of what was
And the possibilities of what could be.

And happiness blew over us like the breeze
Tossing hope like leaves through the air,
Fluttering through their outstretched wings
As it beckoned in a whisper,
“Let’s go.”

One by one they took the leap,
Turning back only briefly,
To make sure we were still there.
Then charting a course into the unknown
They flew,
One by one,
Not looking back to see us wave
A sad goodbye,
As they rode off on the currents of happiness.
Stretching their wings,
Soaring ever higher, ever farther,
Growing smaller in our view.

Then the world became still, if only for a moment,
Contrail reminders of happiness dispersing in the atmosphere,
In the pause before we climbed back down,
Alone in our togetherness.

Transitions

Brown eyes watch my stillness
As an ember glows brightly,
Fanned by the winds of change,
Fed by laughter and footfalls echoing through time
Off photo-plastered walls,
Into a blaze that threatens to engulf.

I am fueled by the fire within.

Photographs of frozen moments
Stand in for warm bear hugs and childish grins.
The jangle of a telephone subdues the flame, and time ticks off
Seconds, minutes, hours in a life of waiting.
Then again, silence – nothing but expectant thumping
Of a dog tail on hardwood floor.

I am fueled by the fire within.

Resigned to fate, I pull on my running shoes.
This race isn’t over yet.
“Ready, girl?” I ask both of us.
The thumping intensifies, a beating drum of anticipation.
I cup a burning ember in hardened hands and place it in my soul.
“Let’s go.”

I am fueled by the fire within.

Tiny Footsteps


Photo credit: Ian Agrimis via Foter.com / CC BY-NC-ND

Tiny footsteps once echoed through our cozy house, staccato taps of small feet encased in glittered jellies and flashing velcroed tennies. Those little feet bent fresh grass, but only briefly; grass springs back, erasing evidence of passing. Bare heels and toes in miniature once impressed themselves upon the sand beside much larger ones, leaving a trail of passage too soon washed away. Pink ballet slippers that once pirouetted over bare floor now rest in a cedar box alongside hiking boots sized for not-yet-walking feet.

To everything there is a season. Children grow and seek their own paths, and all too soon the footsteps are leading out the door.

The house is quiet now, but if you listen carefully, you may hear echoes of those once-small footsteps.

 

 

Retrospective

Home life is quiet now. Too quiet.

If you would have asked me five years ago if my house would ever be quiet, I would have laughed. Smartypants lived 20 miles away at college and would come home on weekends, bringing with him his boisterous laughter and penchant for conversation. B0203012003aubbly, talkative Sunshine was still at home, and we shopped, cooked, and crafted between school, dance competitions and sleepovers with friends. Goose became a trumpet player and Maverick finessed his soccer moves or basketball shots. We relished each other’s company. They fought and laughed. We nagged and teased. The family pulse was beating strongly. Quiet came when no one was home, when work and school and obligations rendered the house devoid of life

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If you would have asked me ten years ago if my house would ever be quiet, I would have rolled my eyes. Sunshine would have just entered her teen years, complete with slamming doors and shouting about parental atrocities and the unfairness of it all. Smartypants would have still been at home, and the revolving door of his life would have brought friends and a girlfriend, student journalism and robotics, and down time always brought the sound of his guitar. Goose and Maverick would have been alternating between the fantasy world of swordplay and wrestling each other to the ground, small warriors taunting each other with fighting words. Warm summer evenings found us around the fire, with lightsaber fights breaking the tranquility of the night. Remnants of Scattergories, Scrabble and Settlers littered the kitchen table, bearing witness to lively family game nights. Mario Kart challenges were heated, with trash talk and shouts of victory. The speed of life in these days was always at a run. Goose especially lived at full volume and never quite knew how to pull punch. Quiet was relative, and came late at night.

 

Dad048If you would have asked me fifteen years ago if my house would ever be quiet, I would have looked at you with wide-eyed, shell-shocked wonder. Smartypants would have been a fifth grader with too many activities on his plate, balancing them with Cat in the Hat finesse. Dinners were often on the run. Sunshine’s life revolved around dance classes and play dates, and the Goose and Maverick’s favorite activity was to strip down to their birthday suits and run laughing from one end of the house to the other. Taekwondo high kicks competed with twirling and cartwheels, creating a circus-like atmosphere, the cacophony of children’s voices shouting over
each other and laughter, always lOldShtos275aughter, ringing through the house. There was usually a pretend animal lurking somewhere, and it turns out superheroes are rarely stealthy, at least when they are young. Disney jams were on constant repeat, creating a daily dance party in the living room. Silence was to be found in a locked master bathroom, and then only when Mr. A was home.

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If you would have asked me twenty years ago if my house would ever be quiet, I would have smiled, as it would not have mattered. Smartypants and Sunshine lit up my world, their days were filled with pretend play and requests, constant requests, for those things young children can’t do for themselves. Mommy, can I have some milk? Can you tie my shoes? Can we go to the park? Can we go for a walk? Will you read me a story? In those days, Barbie shoes and Legos created a barefoot walker’s nightmare, and we skirted them as carefully as we skirt conversation topics now. Silence came at with an early bedtime and a chance for two young parents to finally reconnect.

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If you would have asked me twenty-five years ago if my house would ever be quiet, I would not have known how to answer you. We had just entered into this world of parenthood with a colicky, precious little Smartypants. I wore down the sidewalk in front of my house as I tried to soothe him, patting his back so my husband could sleep, grateful for the summer warmth. My days were spent introducing him to his new world, and rediscovering it myself through his sense of wonder. He walked at ten months and ran soon after, and he only slowed down to sleep. The music of my world was infant crying and baby giggles and babbling, then questions and observations from a knee high level. There was no need for silence.

But silence is descending, as sure as the rains come. It will be mere months before Goose and Maverick prime their wings and head off to college. Sunshine still calls frequently, but lives halfway across the country. We are lucky to hear from Smartypants once or twice a month. Very soon we will be true empty-nesters. The prospect of freedom has liberating appeal, quick and light travel, art and writing uninterrupted by small voices, a clean house, making food that is to my liking. (No more spaghetti – ever.)

But those small voices beckon from the past. “Mommy, look at me!” And as I look at them, I am overwhelmed with a sense of pride to see the people they’ve become.

Young and Beautiful

Yesterday was packing day for Sunshine. She headed out early this morning to meet up with a friend for skiing and a better New Year’s Eve celebration than we will have at home. Apparently movie and game nights are not so appealing to twenty-somethings. (When did I become my parents?)

Pandora was playing in the background – Amy Winehouse station. A familiar song came on and I asked Sunshine if it was a movie tune.

She replied, “Oh, yeah. It’s from The Great Gatsby. Have you seen the movie?”

I hadn’t, so she stopped getting ready and we lounged on the couch and watched it together, a quiet afternoon of respite from preparations for another separation, my heart aching to keep her close and hers straining to be free. A moment of togetherness.

I’m not new to Gatsby. I read it a while ago. I found the decadent, hedonistic lifestyle superficial and the story depressing. Maybe that was Fitzgerald’s intention. The movie affected me the same way, maybe more so. The difference was that now I had this song I once loved cycling through my head for the rest of the day, bringing me down, reminding me over and over of the dark, selfish side of humanity.

And my daughter was leaving from a trip home that felt more like a visit than a homecoming.

Music reinforces those emotional memories.

It might be time to revise my playlist.

 


 

Write whatever you normally write about, and weave in a book quote, film quote, or song lyric that’s been sticking with you this week.