Ferrari or jalopy?

Love.

It’s something you never think about when the gears are in motion and the machinery is chugging along. You take for granted the easy ride, but the machinery of love requires upkeep, regular tuneups in the form of outings, dates, memory-making experiences. It benefits from regular polishing with the wax of affection, carefully and deliberately applied. Smoothing oil of conversation and companionship keep the motor purring.

Neglect any one of these things and this machinery starts to break down. Gears start sticking, squeaking and squawking. The motor gets tarnished and full of gunk. Forget about the tuneups and soon you find yourself stuck by the side of the road, trying desperately to flag down help.

 

 

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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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Life as a Jenga Tower

Carefully the foundation was laid,
Criss-crossing planks reaching toward a sky
That tantalized with low-strung clouds of hope
And a vast expanse of possibility.

Life took a plank here and there,
That’s how the game is played,
Opening holes into the recesses of mind and heart,
But a Jenga tower is not easily toppled.

Illness came like the petulant child and
Swiped at the blocks, scattering a few to far reaches,
Never to be seen again,
Knocking the tower a little off kilter.
But the tower remained standing,
Shored up by many hands.

Blocks were extracted as
Building materials for towers which were
Themselves under construction
In a reach for that wide expanse of sky
In a never-ending shuffle of finite resources.
Still, the tower held firm.

Then a block was drawn from the bottom,
And the tower groaned.

Then another.

And another.

Players played on,
Wondering why the tower swayed.
Unaware of the laws of physics,
Of gravity
And of equal and opposite reactions,
They poked and prodded at the structural integrity
Of the Jenga tower.

The game is still in progress,
Though the base has become riddled with openings
Where the winds of disillusionment and melancholy
Eddy and swirl.


Photo credit: Nicola since 1972 via Foter.com / CC BY

Happy Holidays

I have to keep reminding myself that it’s the Christmas season. It could be the insanity of the past few weeks of planning, preparing, and packing, the 1,250 mile road trip, a graduation, a wedding, and/or anxiety over what I view as a disastrous election result that have stripped me of my usual Christmas cheer. Whatever the reason, I am caught off guard when someone wishes me best wishes of the season.

I’m oblivious to the lights lining the street, winding up trees and framing unfamiliar shop windows. I don’t see the happy shoppers bustling through stores on their mission to find the perfect gifts. I look back at the pictures of my son’s wedding and suddenly realize there’s a Christmas tree there.

Christmas. The season of cheer. Of generosity.

On my Facebook feed amid the sweet personal stories of grandchildren and funny memes reminding us of the bigger things in life, there was a comment related to Governor Kate Brown calling for a French revolution and bringing back the guillotine. This was yesterday. Happy Holidays. Twitter is full of vicious reminders that their guy won, that I should just get over it. Merry Christmas. Exit polls tell us that 80% of Evangelicals voted for a man thrice married, a man who has demeaned women, who has defrauded people of their hard-earned money, who lies constantly, a man who is stirring the pot of world instability before he even takes office. Have a blessed holiday season.

Don’t get me wrong. I am happy. Thrilled. Proud. My eldest graduated with honors… in science! He now holds a degree in physics and astronomy. I also have a new lovely and intelligent daughter-in-law who loves that son. At this moment my close little family surrounds me, and I am grateful for their warmth.

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But outside my little bubble the world has ominous clouds building on the horizon.

And I have to keep reminding myself that it is Christmas.

 

 

Table Talk

A table dressed
In Autumn red and gold,
Flickering tapers beckon –
Come,
Eat,
Share.

The feast awaits –
An amber bird, trussed and tied,
Overflowing with succulent stuffing,
Rests in a fragrant cloud of scent,
Next to humble mashed potatoes
And glistening candied yams,
Sensible salad and unassuming rolls.
A hush of appreciation falls
As the finely dressed are seated
Before the best china and crystal,
Spreading linen cloths across their laps.

Hand in hand,
A mumbled prayer of thanks
For goodness given,
Is all too soon
Drowned out by pungent words
As battle lines are drawn.

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.

Who Will Carry the Milk?

I’ll admit it. I was a bit of a lazy child. I was a work-averse, energy-conserving creature when it came to helping out. I would be overcome with a shift of molecular weight changing the gravitational pull of every cell of my body. Suddenly overcoming inertia required extrinsic prodding and much internal groaning.

I remember distinctly hating to carry the milk.

Did I have some strange muscular problem that prohibited me from lifting a cold gallon jug? Not unless all of the hours lounging on my yellow quilt listening to John Denver had turned my biceps to jiggly mush. Oh, how I hated that job!

Mom would pull up in the old Ford station wagon and call us to help. I can feel the urge to roll my eyes at the though of it, at the sheer lead-weight feeling of prying myself from whatever pleasurable experience I was immersed in at the time – drawing, listening to music, reading, dancing. I had to stop and help with the groceries.

As I’ve raised my own brood, I’ve often thought of this. My kids have their moments, but overall they are much more helpful than I was. If I honk when I pull in the driveway, the boys stop what they’re doing and run to help disgorge the Costco bounty from the back of the Subaru. They show their physical prowess by loading up with as many bags and boxes as they can carry. It’s not just the boys. My daughter was the same. I would head back for another load only to find the car empty, and when I headed back to the house, I would find the kids had returned to whatever pleasurable experience I had pulled them away from.

And to my surprise, they’ve never minded carrying the milk.

 

A Todo Lujo

My husband is from the highlands of Central Mexico. He grew up in a large family with busy, loving, subsistence farmer parents who tilled the dusty fields between agave and prickly pear cactus, planting corn and forage with a horse and plow, and hand tending the fields of bounty that they would save through the winter. His home growing up started as a dirt floor, one room home cinder block dwelling that was gradually built up to its current modest two-story, three bedroom block home with a new kitchen and appliances. The three roads in his tiny town were only recently paved. Yet he had freedom to roam, and friendly waves from the people of the town. He went to church and school, went to parties that hosted the entire town, and ate meals lovingly prepared by a mom who knew how to make something out of nothing. He helped his father and developed a strong sense of responsibility.

All that to say, my husband grew up poor in wealth, but rich in the things that matter.

Fast forward to the 80s. He immigrated to the U.S., where he worked hard, developed a stellar reputation, and earned a good position in a local company as a warehouse manager, showing skills and ambition that would dismiss anyone who thinks social status is static and that growing up poor relegates you to a dismal existence. We married and had a family. It became harder and harder to make trips to visit his parents between kids and school and work schedules, so we began the process to get them into the U.S. for a visit.

My in-laws got their visas in the 90s and were finally able to come visit us. As we took them on trips and showed them the sights, my father-in-law would repeat the phrase, “a todo lujo.” Well, my Spanish isn’t the greatest, and I misinterpreted that as ‘todo al ojo,’ and assumed it meant there was so much to see. I finally looked it up. It means posh, deluxe, luxurious. Towns with overflowing hanging baskets adorning lamp posts – a todo lujo. Entering a restaurant with a fountain – a todo lujo. Everywhere we went, there was something that piqued his interest, and he always noticed the details. Things I just took for granted were newly seen through the eyes of a weathered farmer, and I understood just how lucky I was to live in a place where we could focus on making small areas of our lives a todo lujo.

It makes me realize that a large part of the world doesn’t need gilded chairs or their names in great gold letters on the front of skyscrapers to feel the touch of luxury. Some flowers, conspicuously placed, a fountain, fresh paint, clean things, new things, all add to the feeling of luxury.

It’s all about perspective.


My father-in-law recently passed away, but he was always thrilled to explore and see the world, and he never forgot anything. My mother-in-law continues to make the trip back and forth on her own. She is in her 80s.