Small House Exhaling

During the cold months, our little house holds its breath. When the wind starts gusting and the chilly rain chases the last few leaves off the trees, we close its doors and windows and it stands firm, boldly bracing its wood and brick frame against the elements. For the long midwestern winters, our house wraps its arms tightly around our family, pulling us close to the core of the house where the warmth is unwavering.

When we bought this house a few years ago, we knew it would be a tight fit. Our previous home was lovely and large, but it was stretching our bank account to the point where we couldn’t keep up. This newer house is half the size of our old one; there is no “family room” or “dining room.” We basically have one large room that, besides the kitchen, serves as our primary living space. But instead of tight, it began to feel cozy. Instead of us all escaping to our own corners in the evenings, we were drawn to our living area where games, puzzles, and movie nights kept us close to each other. The shared space provided more shared experiences, which led to more conversations, more inside jokes.

When the cold begins to be chased out by crystal-blue skies and warm breezes carry the scent of damp earth, we are ready. We’ve been holding our breath and waiting, to the point of feeling restless.

This is when our house, holding its breath along with us, begins to exhale. The curtains are pushed aside to open the windows. The little porch in back, affectionately known as the “reading porch” is open for business once again after being closed off for the coldest days. Beyond the reading porch through French doors awaits our screen porch (yes, a porch off a porch—one can never have too many!), where I spend most Sunday afternoons sipping an iced tea and delving into whichever novel I’m reading; beyond that are the beloved flowers and plants in our yard. There are a couple of cardinals that frequent our back yard; I suspect they have a nest nearby.

Everything is breathing out, releasing pent-up energy and endless waiting. We are ready to fling open the doors, hop over to the other side of the welcome mat and explore past our front steps. Our garage yawns and sets the bikes free, the skateboards, the kites, and other things that “go.” Now is when we exhale, when we stretch our tired limbs. Now is when we take in all the good things that lie beyond our doorstep.

Originally published May 4, 2021 on My Huntley News

York Album Project: The Road Home

Facing the pandemic’s isolation, high school songwriters join forces to release collection of original music.

by Carol Pavlik

York Album Project: The Road Home

ELMHURST, IL—Anthony Poli knows firsthand what a demanding schedule is like at a high school like York High School in Elmhurst, Ill. But when school was disrupted by COVID-19 at the end of his junior year in 2020, Anthony found a new rhythm in his days; one that allowed more time for creating something of his own. 

Poli’s original song, “Dream,” is the second track on 2021’s York Album Project, entitled The Road Home. This marks the 7th album that musicians from York have released since 2015, made up entirely of original songs, under the guidance of Music Production teacher Chris Gemkow.

“Personally, I’m glad quarantine happened,” says Anthony, who says he shares a friendly creative rivalry with his sister, Alyssa. “I think I’m specifically lucky being a musician because I can lock myself away in my room and play for hours. I can record and perfect my craft.”

Alyssa agrees. Her song, “Take Me Back,” is the 4th track on the album. Featuring her warm vocals accompanied by piano, she sings, Your image stuck in these four walls / so I started writing these old song / you can see right through my words / I was singing at you.

“I wrote this song one day when I was just feeling confused and like my head was all clouded,” says Alyssa. “Writing this song was really therapeutic in the way that it helped me understand my emotions better. Songwriting is a really productive and effective outlet for me.”

‘Just you in the studio’

Chris Gemkow, who runs a popular Musicians Club at York, knew that with social distancing measures in place and the uncertainty of whether school would be held in-person or remotely, he couldn’t rely on recording in the school’s recording space like he’d done in the past.

“We were going to have to have something to work on independently then come together as one,” says Gemkow.

Instead of recording each song in the school’s recording space, Gemkow reached out to Grant Mitchell, a York grad who now works as a professional music producer and performer.

After 26 students submitted tunes to be considered for the project, a panel of peers narrowed it down: ultimately 13 students accepted the invitation to be part of the project. Each musician recorded at Boulevard Studios in Oak Park, with Mitchell heading up the recording process.

For Mitchell, working with the York students brought back memories of his own high school days at York.

“My social group was mostly the musicians at York,” he remembers.

Not only was it nostalgic, but Mitchell enjoyed working with artists that didn’t have previous experience in a studio. “There is a lot of talent and amazing songs,” he says. “I think part of my goal for this project was that I wanted each mix to represent what the artist wanted.”

Gemkow knew the recording experience could be an eye-opening process for the students. “It had to open up their perspectives on what the recording experience can be like when you get the support of a professional.”

“[Mr. Gemkow] told me to write what I wanted to write — not what I thought other people would want to hear.”

~ Kathryn King

Kathryn King, who recorded her song, “Seventeen,” said the thought of going into the studio scared her. “I was actually really nervous because I’ve never recorded anything in a professional studio or anything like that,” she said. “But Grant was super helpful and supportive when it came to recording in the studio and mixing the final drafts of my song.”

Anthony says Mitchell created an environment in the studio that fostered creativity. “It’s pretty rare to come across someone who really cares about the production of music that much, yet is also willing to let you just let loose in the studio,” he says. “We had a phone call beforehand to get on the same page and it was a really easy and simple process from then on.”

While King was still in the process of writing, she says Mr. Gemkow gave her advice that she took to heart: “He told me to write what I wanted to write — not what I thought other people would want to hear. I think it made the song more enjoyable.”

Gemkow says keeping the York Album Project extracurricular is key for putting out an authentic album. “It isn’t part of a class,” he says. “We’re not held to any curricular standards—we have the freedom to be creative and have the freedom to change. Those that do it are the ones who want to be part of it, committed to it without the framework of, ‘I wonder what I have to do to get an A?’” 

“Those who do [the Album Project] are the ones who want to be part of it, committed to it, without the framework of, I wonder what I have to do to get an A?

~ Chris Gemkow

Reflecting back on the years he participated in the project as a York student, Mitchell says he arrived at college with a lot of experience and knowledge that most of his peers didn’t have. “It was not only the fact that [York] allowed me to explore that side of music production, but just the community there—the ease of finding similar-minded musicians—that was great. Mr. Gemkow was huge in fostering that.”

Over the past year, Gemkow has missed the usual activity of the York Fine Arts department, curtailed by a year disrupted by the pandemic. “We get daily inspiration from everyone in our immediate circles,” he says. “There’s a palpable energy that exists every day. Whether you want it to be there or not, it’s there. It can’t help but affect you.”

“So much has been lost from our normal lives,” he says. “Having this creative project provides something to motivate you to keep going forward with something. Maybe it makes everybody realize that creative energy still exists. It’s a reminder that we can’t wait to be back in the same space together. It’s still there.”


The Road Home is available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, and all other streaming platforms under the artist name York Album Project. Since its release in January 2021, the album has already reached listeners in Australia, the UK, Mexico, Canada, and the Philippines.

On May 18, 2021, York Album Project’s 8th album, Finally Can Breathe will be available to stream on Spotify, Apple Music, and all other streaming platforms under the artist name York Album Project (cover art by sophomore Alyssa Poli). Stream or download the album from Bandcamp at yorkalbumproject.bandcamp.com.

I’ve Heard How This Story Ends

Recently, I was listening to an episode of NPR’s “Fresh Air,” in which book reviewer Maureen Corrigan proclaimed a recent book by the British author Kazuo Ishiguro, Klara and the Sun, to be a “masterpiece.” My ears perked up, because I recognized the author’s name: in fact, I had just picked up one of his previous books and was about four chapters deep.

Without warning, the reviewer compared the new novel to a previous work by the same author—the very book that I had on my nightstand! And then, without warning, the reviewer blurted out a spoiler!

Nooooooooooo.

I mean, the novel, Never Let Me Go, was written in 2005, so maybe it’s my own fault for taking so long to read it.

But.

My initial instinct was to throw up my hands: what was the use? Now I knew the mystery that I had been trying to figure out throughout the first four chapters. I would have to abandon the book. The ending was ruined.

But the more I thought about it, the more curious I became: I already knew what happened at the beginning of the story. Now I knew something about the ending, too. But how did the story get from point A to point B? What happened in the middle?

Nicholas Christenfeld, a psychology professor from University of California San Diego researched this very phenomenon: If people read a story, but the ending was “accidentally” revealed to them, they actually enjoyed the story more. So in a way, spoilers don’t ruin the story; they actually enhance them. Christenfeld likened it to driving on the scenic Highway 1 along the coast of California: if you’re already familiar with the road and know what it feels like to drive it, you will actually be able to appreciate the scenery more. I can say that about certain famous paintings like Van Gogh’s “A Starry Night,” or Monet’s Water Lily paintings, too: each time I see them, my familiarity grows; I seem to notice more details each time I look at them.

That night, I picked up Ishiguro’s book again. I read and read and read until my eyes grew heavy and I began dozing off. When I awoke the next morning, I voraciously read more chapters before I even had my coffee. 

Now I am working toward the end, the dangling carrot the book reviewer had so tantalizingly set before me. I can’t wait to unravel the story.

Photo by Zetong Li on Unsplash

Originally published April 5, 2021 on MyHuntleyNews.

Sip Slowly

Don’t make sudden moves. Be kind to yourself and others. 

It’s going to take time. It’s going to take patience.

But I’m raring to go. It’s officially spring. We have a vaccine. (Several vaccines, which is nothing short of miraculous.) Stores and restaurants are opening up, loosening restrictions. The latest question folks ask each other is, “Did you get the vaccine yet?”

This week, my kids headed back to in-person school. It felt like a momentous occasion, a celebrated return to normalcy from the “before times.” Even though I’ve loved having the kids home during remote learning, it’s been an entire year of barely going anywhere. We were all starting to get a little stir crazy. The kids missed their friends. They missed seeing their teachers face to face.

But even on their first day back, it was clear that we weren’t going to just snap back to the way things were before. Behind their excitement, I could see worry in the kids’ eyes. They’re old enough to know the virus isn’t gone. But I gently reminded them that the teachers at our schools have all had the opportunity to be fully vaccinated. It was time, I told them, to start venturing back into the world, albeit slowly and carefully. With a mask.

The kids are required to do saliva testing once a week. They don’t use lockers, and they wait until they get home at 1:30 p.m. to have their lunch. Even with a shortened day, they return home exhausted, but smiling. There’s not a lot of hanging out in the hallways or clubs after school. Once school is over, the students are encouraged to leave the building and go home. I join the throng of Moms, a virtual fleet of minivans and SUVs, picking up and dropping off—indicating that few of us seem ready to allow the kids to use a school bus yet.

It’s going to take a while. This year has been a collective trauma for all of us. We’ve all lost something or someone. We want to jump back into our old life, wash away the past year with a power washer and antimicrobial soap. 

First there were the “before times.” Then there was complete chaos until we got into the groove of the “new normal.” Now, we’re headed back, and it’s going to take some adjustment. We’re just now dipping our toes into the water. I want to dive in! But it’ll be a while to get back to hugging people or cheering on our favorite team from the bleachers or singing the lyrics along with our favorite band.  

It’s going to take all my self restraint not to burst out the door and hug everyone in sight! I never want to greet another person with an elbow bump again!

I’m going to have to take it slow. Lower my expectations. Accept that although it’s been a year, we require even more time to adjust. I’m going to stock up on soothing chamomile tea. I’m going to remind myself to take deep breaths. Sip slowly. Don’t make sudden moves. Be kind to yourself and others. 

Photo by Suzy Hazelwood from Pexels

Originally published March 22, 2021 on MyHuntleyNews.

Take Me Away!

Photo by Ricardo Dominguez on Unsplash

This week I was gifted with bath bombs, pretty little circles in springlike colors, smelling of citrus and lavender. It made me wonder about the last time I took a bath rather than a shower, and judging by the fact that I can’t remember, I can deduce it’s been a good long time. In the coming week, I’ll schedule time for a bath, filling the tub with water as hot as I can stand it, and let the aroma of orange and lemon hang on the steamy air in my tiny bathroom. I’ll savor a little respite, perhaps on a weekday, and warn the kids ahead of time not to knock on the door — no questions allowed about whether their hoodie got thrown in the wash, or what’s for dinner.

That old classic advertising campaign for Calgon bubble bath must’ve played countless times throughout my childhood, between episodes of “The Facts of Life” and “Diff’rent Strokes,” because I still remember them. In the popular commercials from the 70s and 80s, there was always a mother who needed a break from all her obligations: the crying kids, the demanding boss, the piercing phone. She’d hold her hands to her temples, brow furrowed, and plead, “Calgon, take me away!” Just like that, she’d be transported to a huge bathtub practically overflowing with luxurious bubbles. Her spacious bathroom boasted Corinthian marble columns with large, sunny windows offering a breathtaking view of what — confusingly to me — appeared to be the Italian countryside.

Judging by the “kvetch sesh” I’ve had with several friends this week, I’m not alone in feeling at the end of my rope. Something’s gotta give. We’re all tired, stressed out, and quickly approaching our breaking point.

Americans are known for their stress levels, but the American Psychological Association found, unsurprisingly, that 2020 was a banner year for stressed-out Americans. In addition to the trauma of so many lives lost as a result of the COVID-19 virus, the laundry list of disruptions to our daily lives just compounds the worry and tension we feel. The APA reports that half the adults in their survey reported increased tension in their bodies, “snapping” or getting angry very quickly, unexpected mood swings, or screaming or yelling at a loved one.

Guilty as charged, on all counts.

Even better than a bubble bath, my idea of “Take Me Away” would involve a hot air balloon. Out of the indigo sky, the wicker basket would just appear gently in front of me. I’d climb into the basket and already it would be gently lifting off, up, up, up. A warm breeze would tousle my hair and I’d look down at all my problems, shrinking in the distance. Eventually they’d be so tiny that I’d have to squint to see them, and even then, they’d be barely distinguishable from one another. No matter; I’d look out over the beautiful landscape around me. Maybe I’d try to touch a cloud. I could yell out into the void and my shout would be carried off in the wind.

I’ve never been in an actual hot air balloon. My only reference is the hot air balloon that landed in Oz to take Dorothy back to Kansas. But then it occurs to me that Dorothy never got her hot air balloon ride, either; her escape from Oz eluded her when she had to run after Toto and the Wizard accidentally launched the balloon without her.

It turns out Dorothy had what she needed the whole time: the ruby slippers. A few clicks of her heels, and she got back to where she needed to be: home.

I’m going to have to find my own way of getting back to where I need to be. With no colorful balloon and no glitzy red shoes, the thing I do have is a bathtub and a handful of sweet-smelling bath bombs, made by a friend who wanted to share a little cheer. I guess I’ll start there.

Originally published March 9, 2021 on MyHuntleyNews.

A Man and His Snowblower: A Love Story

I believe it was the hottest day in July when my husband brought the snowblower home. He’d seen it, gleaming in the hot sun beside a sign that said, “Garage Sale.” While he made a beeline to the glorious red machine of pure snow-eating power, others seemed not to notice it, more interested in the kiddie pool and the bicycles for sale in the back. My husband kept his eye on the prize. He circled it slowly, apprising its beauty. No scratches. No dents. Hardly used. He approached the seller warily, no doubt to haggle on price a bit.

I tried to match his excitement as he rolled it into our garage (“Carol!” he told me, “This is a Toro 621 QZE! It’s got a 21-inch wide 4-cycle engine. The quick-shoot blower even has an ergonomically designed handle! And—” he points down dramatically —”electric start! I only paid $100! It’s worth way more than that!”)

I weakly gave him a thumbs up. It was sweltering in the garage, and the cubes in my iced tea were shrinking by the second, threatening to disappear completely. 

As soon as he pressed start (electric start!), the motor popped right off. He didn’t have to say it: I heard his inner voice saying, “I knew it! I knew I got a deal!” His eyes sparkled.

My husband has a visceral connection to snow and snow removal that I don’t have and clearly don’t understand. But I appreciate hearing him talk about his days growing up in a small Midwestern town, where he would go up and down his block after a snowfall and offer to shovel sidewalks and driveways. 

I think it’s safe to assume that a few of those neighbors probably called him to the front door, gently pressing some cash into his gloved hands for a job well done. But it isn’t the cash that my husband remembers with fondness. No—it was the cookies. The neighborhood ladies who would invite him in for warm cookies—straight out of the oven!—with a glass of cold milk. That reward of the sweet home baked sustenance after all that hard work of shoveling was the ultimate payment. I can only imagine because even now, this grown man has never met a homemade cookie he doesn’t like.

Now that he’s a little older, apparently with 100 bucks in his pocket to burn on a July day, my husband is ready to trade in his shovel and upgrade his thrill of snow removal with all the unbridled horsepower of a 4-cycle engine that runs on gasoline and dreams.

The night before the forecast called for snow, he ran out to make sure the gas can was full and ready to go. He shined her up, and wheeled her right to the front of the garage: there she sat, poised and waiting for the shot to go off at the starting gate.

Morning light was barely peeking over the horizon the next morning. Without even stopping for a cup of coffee, he was off to the races. I could hear the hungry growl of the snowblower eating up snow and spitting it out again.

Our short driveway and sidewalk were quickly done, so he continued to the next house. And the next house. He went on and on, careful not to plow the sidewalk of any fellow snowblower owner. (He wouldn’t want to deprive anyone!)

He returned more than an hour later, his cheeks rosy, snow crusted on his hat and at the rims of his boots. I had started the kettle for some coffee—it was the least I could do, since I was still in my robe and jammies while he had been out carving straight, icy pathways in the cold.

As we sipped our coffee, he looked tired, but happy. It was a job well done. Just for good measure, he checked the weather forecast to see if he’d have to be going out again soon. The smile on his face told me we were likely in for more snow.

Our contented silence was interrupted by the doorbell. It was our neighbor, Helen. “Thank you for clearing our sidewalk,” she said gratefully. “I brought you something.”

She presented to him, in a blue-lidded tupperware container like the ones in kitchens everywhere, bringing my husband—you guessed it—chocolate chip cookies, still warm from the oven. I half expected to see a single tear fall slowly down his cheek.

You can’t put a price on that.

Originally published Feb. 9, 2021 on MyHuntleyNews.

25 Years of ‘I Do’

Photo by Marc A. Sporys on Unsplash

He proposed to me on a snowy Wednesday evening in December of 1994. I was 19, he was 21. Heavy snow and ice had caused the power to go out across our college campus, right in the middle of studying for midterms. With no lights and no electricity, students poured from the dorms, elated at this unexpected study break. On the college courtyard, scores of students engaged in an epic snowball fight. He and I laughed at the sight, but walked in the opposite direction, away from the free-for-all.

By the light of the moon, we walked hand in hand through a dazzling wonderland of ice-encrusted trees.

Being his spontaneous self, he hadn’t planned to propose that night. Later, he told me he knew he was going to ask me, but he didn’t know when. That snowy night “just felt right.” Since the proposal was off-the-cuff, he had no velvet-lined jewelry box hidden in his pocket. (I got my ring a few weeks later.)

What does a 19 year-old girl know about making a decision meant to last a lifetime? Or a 21 year-old boy?

My answer—yes—flew out of my mouth without hesitation. I had found my person. We were married a year later. My Dad, a minister, officiated at our wedding. I requested that he leave the word “obey” out of our vows, which he did.

We’re just about to celebrate our 25th wedding anniversary. In some ways, our wedding day feels like it was yesterday; at the same time, that day was a lifetime ago: when we took our vows, there were no children, mortgages, car loans, or job interviews. We didn’t know much about retirement funds or grocery budgets or how to entice a stubborn toddler to keep his shoes on. 

But for twenty-five years, we’ve just continued saying “I do.” We take on challenges one by one, as they present themselves: dirty dishes, family vacations, gray hairs, and bank statements—the big things and the small things all swirl together into the colorful collage that’s become the roadmap of our life together.

The statistic that nearly 50% of marriages end in divorce is a sobering reality. I wonder: do 50% of married couples have a lurking, uneasy feeling in the pit of their stomach from the very beginning? Or do most of us start out with blissful optimism and just hope everything works out?

All I know is that my person becomes more precious to me as the years go on. I love him for his deep commitment to what is right, and the way he never takes the easy way out to do anything. I love him for his honesty: the light he holds up to others is just as bright as the one he holds to himself. I love the way he used to start wrestling matches with the kids, getting them all riled up just before bedtime. I love the way his eyes crinkle up when he laughs, which is often. He still makes and brings me coffee each and every morning—even though he wouldn’t have to. I think I love that most of all.

Marriage isn’t easy. There is no autopilot button for when things get tough. It takes work: some days require the hard work, roll-up-your-sleeves variety, and other days only need preventative maintenance. But luck plays a big part, too. For some reason, I found my person and we grew up alongside each other. We held on and just kept saying ‘I Do’ over and over. My story could’ve just as easily gone a different way. 

My husband describes us like two trees who have grown side by side; over the years, our roots have become hopelessly entangled just beneath the soil. Our roots keep growing stronger, nourished by love and joy.

I like that. I do.

Originally published Jan. 26, 2021 on MyHuntleyNews.

Good Boy!

My dog Baxter doesn’t concern himself with pandemics. He’s oblivious to the changing landscape of masks, vaccines, stimulus checks, or social distancing.

In fact, I’m pretty sure if he was able to talk, he’d tell us the last year has been the best year ever.

Baxter is a 7 year-old German Shepherd/Yellow Lab mix. When we adopted him, his golden fur was baby soft and he had one ear that stood straight up and another ear that stuck out to the side, making him look like he was questioning everything around him.

Starting in March, my husband, myself, and our two teenagers living at home have been, well, home more. School moved to a remote format. My high schooler and middle schooler attend school from our couch or from our dining room table. I work from home most days. My husband’s teaching job has vacillated between hybrid and remote. All our evening obligations, the ones that kept us running, forcing us to eat sandwiches in the car, water or coffee in thermal cups with tightly fitting lids so they didn’t spill on the interior of our vehicle—they all vanished. Sometimes we go days without seeing humans outside our little family unit.

On the flipside, Baxter went from his routine of welcoming us back from our busy lives, tail wagging, tongue lolling — with equal excitement whether we’d been gone for hours or minutes — to having us barely leave the house at all.

I wonder what Baxter thought about this. I wondered if at first he was annoyed, that we were suddenly around all the time: causing a commotion when he was used to at least 6 hours a day of uninterrupted quiet, allowing him to sleep on the couch, or bark with reckless abandon to scare away the squirrels who visited our garden. Now, we were helping ourselves to his couch real estate, and his ferocious barks were generally frowned upon. They interrupted our Zoom calls, after all.

If we annoyed him, he didn’t let on. In fact, overall, I’d say Baxter has had a pretty good year. Baxter went on a 10-day camping trip with our family over the summer. He surprised us (and himself) by learning he is a fantastic swimmer. We discovered this when he saw our kids swimming in Lake Michigan. He took it upon himself to “rescue” them, not seeming to give it a moment’s thought that he’d never jumped in a lake before.

If I were to characterize Baxter’s place in the family before the pandemic, I’d describe him as “beloved family dog.” He’s a classic good boy. Now, however? I’d describe him as “essential.” Stroking his velvety ears when he rests his head on your lap is 100% effective in lowering stress levels. Watching my daughter do yoga in the living room over Zoom while her dog tries to lick her face is guaranteed to get a few smiles out of everyone. Baxter’s intense eagerness to perform all the tricks he knows for a tiny dog treat is something that makes me laugh every time. Asking him to simply “sit” gets you a sit-shake-jump-roll over combo. A true overachiever.

In these early days of 2021, I’m still recovering from this past year. We all are. It’s been a year of change, loss, and disappointment, with an unhealthy dose of fear thrown in. But my dog, my goofy dog with ears that stick out in all directions depending on his mood, has been the purest, most uncomplicated thing in my life. He looks up at me with absolute love in his deep brown eyes as I read a few chapters before I drift off to sleep at night. He’s there wagging his tail the first thing when I wake up. He pulls me along at the end of his leash and gets me outside, moving forward, especially on the days I really don’t want to.

How do I thank him for all he’s done to keep our family going when everything else feels like it’s been standing still? I’d like to give him the world, when all he really wants is a belly rub, a treat, and a “good boy.”

Originally published Jan. 11, 2021 at MyHuntleyNews.

Hunkering Down

Matthew Henry – Unsplash

Years ago, toward the end of each one of my pregnancies, I’d get the strong, uncontrollable urge to “nest”: I’d clean drawers, bake casseroles to keep in the freezer, wash bedding, fold blankets. Despite my bulging belly and aching back, it was an instinct to do these things. I don’t think I could’ve stopped if I tried. Something deep in my DNA was demanding that I prepare, as if my brain and my body comprehended on a cellular level how I could get ready now to help out my future self, who would be both exhausted and lovestruck with a new precious baby. These things had to happen before I headed to the hospital. Now.

This week I decided to make bone broth—chop up onion, carrot, and celery, and garlic, then boil the bones until all the flavor and marrow are extracted. Out of my stockpot came a rich, golden liquid, which I then poured into jars. I’m not sure if it was the dreamy smell or the way the afternoon sunlight made those jars glow a warm amber color, but I felt that same nesting instinct I’d felt all those years ago before the babies were born. At that moment, I felt like I was born to make bone broth. I decided right there and then that I would make more bone broth with the ardent fervor of a Prohibition-era bootlegger. I can’t help but wonder: what is the street value of bone broth sold out of the trunk of my car?

This instinct to hunker down and nest makes perfect sense. As the pandemic still rages across the country, we are being told to stay home. We are asked to forego our usual family gatherings at the holidays to curb further spread of the virus. I’m approaching the coming months with trepidation. Our traditions may have to be put on pause this year; or at least adapted.

I’m going to require a plan heading into these next few months. I need new ways to keep my spirits up and make these dark, cold months feel warm and special. But other than bone broth, I don’t have further tricks up my sleeve. I decided to ask my friends how they were preparing for this season of “hunkering down.”

The responses I got were wonderful.

Kendra has already washed her flannel sheets, and moved her cold-weather clothes to the top drawers where they are easier to reach.

Jennifer is planning outdoor adventures like visiting a tree farm and taking in light shows at the arboretum and the zoo. She’s also treated herself to some new festive pillows to create a cozy “hot cocoa zone” on her front porch.

Dulce’s family is getting matching raccoon onesies to wear, a lighthearted tradition that can continue this year, since it’s all about staying home and being cozy.

Catherine and her friends are ordering takeout food so they can all enjoy the same meal remotely. Karen is finding “Escape Rooms in a Box” that can be done at home in place of their traditional family Escape Room activity.

A few friends are using the extra time they’ll have to better themselves. Jayne and Terri are both learning Spanish. Heidi is going to focus on her mental health with medication, therapy, and joyful movement.

Ellen already has a fragrant rosemary bush at her place, decorated with tiny lights and decorations. She says it will get her through the tough days.

Liz says she’ll miss being with extended family, but she won’t miss “having to peel and mash ten pounds of potatoes.”

Terri is reminiscing about her late mother-in-law and she upcycles costume jewelry into family keepsake ornaments. Liz is sorting and organizing old pictures. When she texts a photo to a relative, they swap stories and memories, proving to be a good way to stay connected remotely.

These ideas from my dear friends give me hope. Sure, 2020 isn’t the year we bargained for, but we can prepare, get a few tricks up our sleeve to make even this season a joyful one to remember. We need light, warmth, coziness, shared memories, and definitely some fun and laughter.

Hunker down, folks. Stay cozy. Make some new memories.

Originally published November 24 on MyHuntleyNews.com

One Last Bouquet

The zinnias I planted in early summer are still holding on. Out my window, I see them reaching awkwardly up to the heavens, scraggly and too tall, like a teenager whose feet have grown too fast and are out of proportion with his body.

The zinnia is my favorite flower. It is a reliable annual, pretty easy to grow from seed, even with my less-than-stellar gardening skills. In spring, I start buying seed packets from garden shops, choosing different varieties: Sunbow Mix. Envy. Dwarf. Peppermint. The bright oranges, yellows, pinks, and reds of zinnias are pure color therapy for me—the epitome of hope. The summer of 2020, I planted twice as many zinnias as usual, nestling tiny seeds into every available square inch of soil in my garden because I knew I needed twice as much hope. I needed bright, showy colors to soldier on through what I hoped would be a brief pandemic.

Photo by Joyce McCown on Unsplash

Like a fulfilled promise, they poked through the dirt, unfurled their emerald arms, and smiled right at me with their dazzling blooms.

I share my love of zinnias with delicate monarch butterflies and shimmering hummingbirds who were drawn to the sweet nectar and visited my garden daily throughout August.

But the butterflies and hummingbirds don’t come any more. They haven’t for a while. Summer is over, and my bright, brave zinnias are holding on even as the wind grows colder and damp October rains threaten to wilt their petals. The gold and crimson maple trees nearby hover overhead and toss their leaves, the biggest show-offs on the playground. They try to outshine the beauty of my zinnias, but they can’t, really. The leaves and the zinnias can coexist peacefully; the world can’t have too much color, after all.

I know it’s just a matter of time before the frost comes, nipping at the flowers’ dazzling colors, forcing them to fade. I don’t know if I can bear the sight.

So I will gather my zinnias, arrange them in my nicest vase and make one last bouquet. They will stand bravely for a few more days, maybe a week, relying on the stores of energy remaining in their stems. Their beauty will have one last hoorah inside my warm house, the best accommodation I can give them to repay them for all they’ve given me. They’ll be at my table, where I work on my laptop, pay bills, and eat meals with my family. Perhaps I’ll even whisper thank you to my last bouquet, to honor the summer, and the good things that happened in spite of the bad.

Creating my last bouquet of the year is an act of hope, too. I will clear away the scraggly stems and smooth out the soil, in preparation for cold November rains, and the snow of winter.

Then, come spring, I will scour garden shops for even more zinnia seed packets, with even more vibrant colors and shapes and sizes. I’ll find any available square inch of soil in my garden and nestle the seeds just below the surface.

Then I will wait — and hope.

Originally published October 26 on MyHuntleyNews.com