For the Love of Autumn

Ahhh, she’s here. Can you feel it?

Although there is an official day on the calendar that tells us autumn is here, it isn’t really here until she glides effortlessly through the door, fashionably late for the party.

Autumn thumbs her nose at timeliness. Her beautiful leaves shift from emerald greens to brilliant reds and golds when she sees fit. It’s her party, and she decorates it when she’s ready.

While Autumn’s party is a formal affair—all dazzling rubies and sophisticated gold—I’ll be having my own party during my favorite season.

Autumn makes me want to wear fuzzy socks in my comfiest chair, take up my fountain pen, and write encouraging notes to friends.

Autumn is tea with ginger and chamomile and lemon, so hot that it’s necessary to wrap your hands around the mug first, taking deep breaths to feel the steam dampen your face before you dare to take the first achingly slow sip.

Autumn is thick books with handmade bookmarks of pressed flowers and ribbons. In them, mysterious strangers show up to quaint English villages to keep secrets and fall in love.

Autumn is my favorite red cardigan, wrapped around me like a warm hug.

Autumn is fresh bread from the oven; potato pancakes stacked next to homemade applesauce that’s blushed pink and kissed with cinnamon.

Autumn is a little girl wearing a vest and impossibly tiny suede boots, sliding down the slide toward her Daddy in the park, pigtails flying.

Autumn is that urge you feel to don your favorite hoodie and light up the fire pit in the backyard. It’s neighborhood block parties and burgers sizzling on the grill.

Autumn is putting the garden to bed after it’s exhausted itself of producing zucchini and tomatoes.

The natural slowdown of Autumn can feel wistful at times, bringing regrets to the surface. The earlier sunsets and longer nights toll the bell of time marching forward. But that is probably why Autumn is my season. Autumn is fleeting and a little bit temperamental, not to be ignored and definitely not to be taken for granted. Autumn demands our attention now, because she knows better than anyone that winter is waiting on the doorstep, ready to start its own party.

Autumn is here, and she has my attention. My cardigan is ready, my fountain pen is poised, and the tea kettle is on.

My word of the year

Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

As much as I love the idea of New Year’s Resolutions, I rarely make them.

Many folks choose a word of the year, and I’m one of those people. I choose a word rather than making a goal that I know, at a cellular level, that I can’t reach. Behind me, I leave a trail of unrealized New Year’s resolutions.

One year, I made the resolution to exercise. Cliché, I know. I got a gym membership, exercised a few months, then skipped the gym and kept paying the monthly fee because “I might go back.” Also, I didn’t want to face the nice lady at the gym and tell her I was a quitter — as if she already didn’t know.

One year, my New Year’s resolution was to read all the books in C.S. Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia. This was no doubt around 2005, when the movie version came out. What was I thinking? I had three children under the age of 10. When did I think I was going to have all this leisure time to read? (I read one and a half books in the series. Out of nine.)

At some point, I switched over to words of the year. “Fierce” was the word for the year I wanted to take more chances. “Ritual” was the year when I started to embrace the natural rhythms of my life — to honor my natural routines and start celebrating them as intentional rather than repetitive or boring.

But what is the word I want to choose to define 2022?

I’m starting this year feeling a little bit downtrodden. I notice I complain a lot more about things than I used to. My confidence in my own abilities has been dashed. I’m questioning my resilience as a mother, a wife, daughter, and a friend. I’m guilty of feeling sorry for myself when I have no business being anything but grateful.

The word that keeps popping in my head? Delight. Early last year, I read The Book of Delights by Ross Gay. This little book of essays is Gay’s own version of a gratitude journal. Almost every day, he wrote in his notebook about little observations of the things happening around him: he started noticing the little things, the mundane parts of our day that are so easily ignored, and started really seeing them for their beauty and their joy.

He observes nature, but also the beauty of the city, the hopeful business of humans being kind to other humans.

Delight is what I want to feel in 2022.

For me, it’s not enough to wait for delight to come to me — to hope that my eyes are open to it when it happens to pass by. For me, I need to absolutely pursue delight — make it a daily mantra, a regimen, a destination.

After the past two years of worry, outrage, illness, failure, dashed hopes, and loss, I’m going to have to do something pretty dramatic to turn this ship around.

This is going to mean sometimes shirking responsibility and doing something spontaneous. I think it’s going to involve a lot of taking off my shoes, to remind myself that I’m connected to this earth: to feel the shocking cold of snow, the squish of mud between my toes, the feel of sun-warmed grass. It’s going to mean saying no to more things so I can stop rushing, so I can spend more time with loved ones. Maybe I’ll stay up late, even if it’s Tuesday. Maybe I’ll find a park bench and just watch the contagious joy of kids at a playground after a long winter. It might mean learning something new, or going to a new place, or eating new types of food. Maybe I’ll pay for a stranger’s coffee or fly a kite. Mail a letter just to tell a friend that I love them.

I haven’t worked out all the details yet, but 2022, you’re giving me 12 glorious months to figure out what delights me. I want to reconnect with my inner child. I’d like to toss worry out the window and replace it with unabashed wonder.

I hope you’ll do that, too. Make 2022 a better year — not best, just better. Chase after what you want, and don’t stop until you’ve caught up with it, wrestled it to the ground, and given it a great big bear hug.

2022, we’re coming for you.

Originally published Jan. 13, 2022 on MyHuntleyNews.

Singing My Hallelujahs

On a whim, I signed up for a community choir audition. My voice trembled for the entire audition. I struggled to reign in my voice, which doesn’t respond the way it did in my younger days. My voice now is weaker, and sometimes even raspy. To make matters worse, I had to sing the Star Spangled Banner. Unless you have a multi-octave range with a penchant for belting, the Star Spangled Banner is very difficult to sing. Our national anthem is, in my humble opinion, one of the most unsingable songs ever written.

Trembling aside — I found myself a few weeks later in the back row of the alto section, awkwardly clutching my huge book that contained the score of Handel’s Messiah. Thankfully, the alto section is robust, populated by confident-looking women who go by reliable names like Cathy, Deborah, and Amanda.

Rehearsals happen in my old college choir room, so each Tuesday night I’m flooded with memories about college friends who have slipped my mind for the past three decades. This is the same building where I met my husband, and the ghost of his shy former self still roams these halls. When I was a freshman, that tall lanky boy tried to catch my eye as I tramped up the stairs for choir practice. Over time, I came to look forward to seeing his shy smile as I passed him by the practice rooms.

Music has always been a big part of my life. Being one in a group of many brings chills down my spine. A choir makes you feel a part of something big and grand, and the harmonies you can create with others is unlike any other feeling. But now, after nearly two years of isolation and social distancing? Singing in a group borders on something divine.

(What was the jingle to that old Coca-Cola commercial? I’d like to teach the world to sing/in perfect harmony …)

Cathy sits beside me. She has performed the Messiah many times, so I lean slightly toward her, relying heavily on her to find my entrances and starting pitches. She takes me under her wing; I don’t know a single soul, so she introduces me around.

All through this pandemic, the concept of breath carried fear and uncertainty. Each exhale could potentially unleash an unwanted virus to a loved one; inhaling could bring that unwanted virus to my own lungs.

But in the choir room, breath is the beginning and end of it all. Before we sing a single note, we loosen our shoulders and stretch our neck muscles, and the practice of stretching makes me feel as though I’m sloughing off the weight of the world I carry with me, leaving it in a heap on the floor. Then we fill our lungs with delicious air, all for the purpose of singing. The more air, the better: the Messiah has long phrases and difficult cadences that make the singing feel like an Olympic event.

Joining a choir is a tiny act of rebellion: it’s my way of reclaiming who I was before. Before the pandemic. Before I raised my children and attached my identity to their milestones, their challenges, and their passions.

I’m rejoining the world. I was afraid the world was lost to me, but here it is. I will drink in the air around me and fill my lungs unapologetically. I will attempt to hit most of the notes that Mr. Handel has written. I will sing my Hallelujahs.

Originally published Dec. 9, 2021 on My Huntley News.

We Don’t Have to Go Back to the Way Things Used to Be

Would I lie to you?
Would I lie to you honey?
Now would I say something that wasn't true?
I'm asking you sugar
Would I lie to you?
— "Lie to You," Eurythmics

The world lies to us. 

We accept these lies as truth, even when evidence points to the contrary.

This point was driven home over and over when our family moved into our little house.

  • You don’t need “as large of a house as you can afford.” 
  • You don’t always have to have a car payment.
  • Family members don’t all need their own rooms and their own bathrooms.
  • Master suites, family rooms, and spare bedrooms are nice, but they are not essential trappings of a happy life.
  • The things your neighbors and friends have aren’t necessarily things you need to have, too.

During the pandemic, more lies were exposed:

  • You don’t have to put in long hours at the office to be productive at your job.
  • Being busy isn’t the same as being productive.
  • Being productive isn’t the same as being happy.
  • Your job doesn’t define you.

Slate’s podcast, What Next, explored the changing landscape of workplaces in a post-COVID world. In the episode, So, what happens to WFH now? workers and employees are rethinking what the work week should look like after being disrupted by the pandemic. Should we all go back to the way it was? Or is it maybe time to try something different?

The financial strain my husband and I felt when we were paying for a house we could barely afford, exacerbated by a 4 year salary freeze at his job that seemed to keep us even further away from ever getting our feet planted firmly on the ground forced us to take a step back: Is this right? Does it really have to be this way? Does this make sense?

Ask yourself those questions every day. Don’t take someone else’s word for how you should be doing things. It’s okay to stop, let your brain settle, and reassess. We don’t have to go back to the way things used to be.

Originally published July 26, 2021 on My Huntley News

And So It Begins

The smell of school supplies intoxicates me.

Not the old school supplies I find at the bottom of my kids’ backpacks in June. Those are just sad-looking pencils with their eraser heads worn down to gummy shadows of their former selves, old dried-up glue sticks, and crayons that are pitifully short and stubby.

August school supplies are the ones I like. Fresh notebooks, folders with all four corners intact. Glue sticks banded together in shrink wrap, ready for sticky battle.

This year, school supply shopping for my two high school-age teenagers was pretty low-key. The mile-long school supply lists of elementary school days are a thing of the past. The kids are living in a digital world—and a nearly paperless world. Their Chromebooks have replaced the Trapper Keeper from my youth in the ‘80s. (I had one with a striped kitten on the cover, and the velcro closure gave a satisfying riiiiiip when I opened it to file away my beloved xeroxed copies of sentence diagram worksheets—thanks for asking.)

After the second day of high school this week, my daughter casually mentioned that she needed a handful of notebooks. My son requested a binder. I grabbed my purse and sprang into action. 

School supplies stir something inside me. Even though my school days are long behind me, the muscle memory kicks in: as soon as late August hits, the sunlight slants differently; the air feels heavy with anticipation. It becomes imperative to buy armloads of notebooks and pens. The urge cannot be ignored.

First things first: I toss into my cart some notebooks for my daughter. A binder for my son. Now, it’s my turn. Some of the shelves are picked over, as if a pack of hungry wolves feasted on the loose leaf. I run my hands along the colorful boxes of markers, and consider buying a brightly colored lunch tote before regretfully placing it back on the shelf. 

Forget Jan. 1st. The first day of school is New Year’s Day. Everything begins again. It’s all about the tangy scent of a freshly sharpened Ticonderoga pencil poised over a blank page. It’s the time of year to gather your supplies, speak your goals out loud, then write them down. It’s time to claim the year by scrawling your name across it in thick block letters. Set your agenda. Make it your own. 

Originally published Aug. 23, 2021 on My Huntley News

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

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.