All of these changes have been awfully tough on a certain member of the family.
And I don't mean me.
My poor Rangey has been walking an emotional tightrope.
You can see for yourself how anxious and agitated he's become.
Oh, if only there was some way to calm him down and encourage him to relax.
The truth is that Ranger is a man of strong habits, and he's not been too fond of all the changes we have endured in the past month. In fact, he's been as jumpy as a cat in a room full of rocking chairs.
Or maybe as jumpy as a dog in a room full of rocking chairs and cats. I can't be sure.
But my point is this. Now that the dust has settled, and I am home again, none the worse for wear, and settling back in our familiar routines, Ranger is ecstatic. Add to that the fact that I've been logging big chunks of down time on the family room couch, as I nurse myself back to full health. Which means that finally, FINALLY, Ranger can allow himself drift off for a blissfully long and soul-deep nap, content in the knowledge that I will remain faithfully at his side.
Until the sun sinks low in the afternoon sky.
And then he will wake up, stretch luxuriously, look at me with that mischievous Irish sparkle in his eye, and demand that I take him for a walk.
Yep, life is definitely back to normal for Ranger and me.
I was wandering through the produce department, looking for some dinner inspiration, when my eye caught ahold of this triumphant beauty.
Between the vibrant colors and the pleasing geometric shapes, I never know whether to cook with these rooties, or just whip out some watercolors and paint them instead.
I know, I know.
These are not exactly the Lamborghinis of the veggie world; the truffles and white asparagus.
They don't have the snob appeal of an up-market Audi, such as the sophisticated leek, or a hipster-friendly Prius-esque Brussels sprout.
I put back a few of the carrots and grabbed a sweet onion and set myself to chopping. The parsnips and carrots were transformed into circles, but I did my best to cube the turnips.
Because, you know, I am super fond of square roots. Ba-dum-CHING.
No, no. These underground-grown gremlins are at the humble end of the vegetable spectrum. Ain't nothing fancy about them at all. But dang, when it's time for some no-nonsense work to be getting done, they're your boys.
This sprig of rosemary was left over from our Christmas dinner. That was quite a few weeks back. But hey, it looked fine to me so into the pot it went.
So I bought 'em.
I took 'em home
And I used 'em to make me a good ol' weekday stew.
Browned stew beef. Chopped veggies.
Black pepper rosemary, and enough vegetable stock to fill in the gaps.
And before serving, I blended in about a tablespoon of flour to thicken.
Trust me. This was no fancy, fussy, midweek feast.
But it was fast and filling and chock full of good nutrition.
Not to mention flavor. The root vegetables lent a predictably earthy but surprisingly sweet vibe to the savory stew and all of my diners expressed satisfaction.
With a crusty bit of bread and my ever-present go-with of sliced apples (not pictured), this root stew was a meal sure to please everyone, just like the trusty Toyota parked in my garage.
Don't you just love having a good look around someone else's house?
I'll gladly admit it. I first perfected the art form when I was a little girl at my grandmother's house.
Whenever I got tired of playing out back with my brothers - which mostly consisted of us beating each other over the head with wooden croquet mallets, so honestly, I was done with that pretty quickly - I would go back inside by myself and explore.
Touching and examining every knick-knack within reach.
Pulling open the drawers.
Checking inside the cupboards
Inspecting the bookcases.
And if I was feeling particularly brave, opening up the closets and exploring all the way to the back.
I'll be honest. I still love going to visit people in their homes.
Not only is it interesting to see whatever is there to see, but I learn so much about the people who live there. Wandering around in a person's little slice of terra firma tells so much about who they are and what they value, and I really enjoy that intimate experience.
And you know, if I am down for noodling around other people's homes, then it's only fair that I let my visitors explore my house too.
Okay, so maybe these shapes might be the first clue that a geometry teacher lives here.
So this week has been really fun. As I am getting back on my feet after surgery, I've invited most of my students to come work here at my house for a session or two. In normal life, I meet with my students either in their homes or on neutral territory, so hosting our sessions at my house is a novelty indeed.
Now some of my students have known me for quite a while, and have already had a chance to come over and see what I'm all about.
But many of my newer students have never seen, or probably even imagined, my life outside of a math textbook.
where we work on math and get distracted by the cats who sit outside the door and stare at us.
You know how that goes. Seeing your teacher outside the classroom is always so weird. My third-grade teacher lived in my neighborhood, and I felt wildly uncomfortable whenever I rode my bike past her house. Once I saw her looking out at me. Creepy.
And since my mom was a fifth-grade teacher in our local schools, many was the time that she and I would encounter her students around town, usually at the grocery store. I found it such a fascination to watch them first adjust to the concept of "Whaaaaaaaat, my teacher eats real food??" and then stare at me in wide-eyed wonder while my mom introduced me as her actual human offspring.
Now, I'll be honest. High school math teachers are probably the bottom feeders of this phenomenon. We don't exactly stir up notions of excitement and colorful living; most of my students probably assume that in my spare time, I sharpen pencils, measure things with my protractor, and eat stale bread crumbs.
So I love to watch my students as they walk into my home for the first time, and attempt to integrate the surroundings with their existing notions of who I am.
My two darling seventh graders today were a perfect example. In the midst of our scintillating discussion about solving systems of equations by elimination, I noticed that one of the girls was distractedly staring off in the direction of my kitchen sink.
"Do you have a question?" I gently nudged.
"Yes," she tentatively began. "Are those paper boxes over your twinkle lights actually origami balloons?"
"Go see for yourself," I encouraged. "Both of you. And while you're up, go check out the paper snowflakes in the living room."
Several minutes later, the girls returned, full of questions and comments about their explorations. After a bit more conversation about the pros and cons of organizing books by color, we settled back into our routine and finished our work.
But as the girls were leaving, I noticed that something had shifted between us. Sure, I was still their boring old math teacher but now they had a glimpse of me as a person. Certainly, they had always treated me with polite respect, but now, they seemed genuinely interested in finding out maybe a little bit more about what makes me tick.
So in the interests of forging human connections and taking our partnership to the next level, I hereby offer the girls a link to my blog, where now they will be able to digitally step inside my house and explore to their hearts' content.
Huzzah! Welcome, girls.
* * * * *
If you would like to wander around my house, please be my guest.
One good thing about my stay at the hospital: more wristbands than a weekend at Coachella.
Dear John, my Gallbladder,
I'm sorry but there is only one way to say this. We are finished.
And I have to be honest. It's not my fault.
I blame you entirely for ruining our relationship.
Sure, in the beginning, we had a great time together. Soft and pliable, you were so easy to get along with. Patiently storing up your magically helpful bile and discretely secreting it into my small intestine at just the right moments, you helped me break down all the yummy fats in my diet and extract the maximum nutrients. You were the strong, silent type back then, and I fell for you right away.
But there, deep in the dark quiet of my abdomen, you betrayed me. Behind my back, you began to process that innocent bile into evil gallstones. Year after year - for decades! - you deceived me into thinking that everything was fine between us. But secretly, you stockpiled those square-sided, sickly yellow stones until there were literally hundreds and hundreds crammed into your smooth gray-green pouch.
Oh sure, looking back now, I can see the warning signs that I missed along the way. All those screaming cramps in my abdomen and ribs - accompanied by radiating pain up into my shoulders and back - repeatedly struck me down with unrelenting agony. I blamed everyone and everything else for my problems - my food choices, my touchy stomach, even my stress level. But I gave you a free pass, never suspecting that you would be the one to hurt me so cruelly.
It was early this month that I could no longer make excuses for you. After 48 hours of torment, I dragged myself to an emergency room, still breezily blaming others for your transgressions. Could be a stomach ulcer, I rationalized, or maybe my appendix. But the ER doc took one look at me and with the instincts of a practiced marriage counselor, guessed exactly what was wrong. Pressing just so on the right upper quadrant of my abdomen, he watched knowingly as I gasped in pain and suddenly realized the truth.
"That," the doctor said to me, "means that you probably have a sick gallbladder."
I was shocked.
I was speechless.
I was utterly and completely caught off guard.
Because I never suspected this treachery of you, my gall bladder. Never in my wildest dreams.
Fifteen minutes later, hopped up on oxycodone and whirling with heartbreak and confusion, I saw with my own two eyes the proof of your deception.
An ultrasound image. A wavering grey outline of your shadowy shape, apparently filled to the half-way mark with bright, gleaming stones. Far too many to count.
My unquestioning love for you changed in that moment, instantly and forever.
A week later, I sat down with a surgeon who told me, "It's time. You need to get rid of your gallbladder right away." And I knew he spoke the truth, even though his words cut me like a knife.
With the reassuring ease of a good divorce lawyer, he explained that our incompatibility most likely went back to the days of my first pregnancy, when wild waves of estrogen changed the chemical composition of my bile and influenced you to begin stone production. And when I noted that there seemed to be a family propensity for gall bladder disease, he clucked his tongue in sympathy and consoled me. "This surgery has been a long time coming. You'll feel so much better when it's done."
Deep in my heart, I knew he was right.
But on the night before my laparoscopic procedure, I mourned for the end of our relationship. I wasn't sure if I was ready to let you go. But as I fought to make my peace with your leaving, I held on to one last, comforting thought. At least, I reminded myself, the pain is finally over. After tonight, my gallbladder will never have the power to hurt me again.
Little did I know that you had more agony in store for me. During the surgery, my good doctor discovered that your cursed supply of stones not only filled the inflamed and acutely sick gallbladder to the very top, but also spilled out into my swollen and distorted cystic duct and even on into the adjoining common bile duct.
A second procedure would be required to clean out every last trace of your damage. And so, even though your diseased pouch had already been unceremoniously removed and whisked off to a pathology lab, the final remains of your treachery would remain in my body for one more afternoon and evening of torment.
In those last twelve hours of misery, I came to hate you with every fiber of my being.
Sure, enough, her dementia-fueled anger and anxiety were clearly raging, but Mom's two grievances were soundly grounded in fact.
Did I, or did I not, tell all of her good friends to go away?
Well, in a manner of speaking, that is true. The aides who have served Mom for the past thirteen months are nice ladies who ran her errands, tidied her house, cooked some of her meals and kept her company for a few hours a week. But these women have no training in how to care for people with dementia, and as Mom's disease has progressed from moderate to severe, their lack of expertise was no longer acceptable. So this was their last week for serving her, and Mom is now in the infinitely more capable hands of her qualified caregivers, whom she has also come to know and love over the last three months.
Did I know that my brother has withdrawn a very large sum of money from her savings account and is using it to pay for all these @#$%^ aides?
Hmm. Yes, it's true that my brother has had to cash out some of Mom's investments in order to pay for her home care. But that care is absolutely essential to Mom's well-being, and sadly, that's just the way life has to be.
* * * * *
Rather than argue or disagree or try to parse these fine points of logic with her, I simply sat quietly and let my mother rage at me.
And boy, did she ever let me have it.
She said that I had ruined her life.
She hoped I was happy that all her money was being wasted on aides she does not want or need.
And she told me, at least ten times, that she never, ever wants to see me again.
I know this isn't really my mother.
This is her illness.
This outburst was the work of an insidious disease, and I am not to take it to heart.
Still, these words are hard to bear.
^ Carl Allen Rex Lewis (yes, his initials spell out his first name) was a mid-century gadget guy with a special passion for Polaroid cameras. This photo was taken by the clerk at the drug store who was selling Grandpa the first of several models he would eventually own.
^ In a shockingly rare moment, Grandpa agreed to let someone else operate the camera so he could pose in the shot with me (the thumb-sucker) and my older brother. This is the only photo I have that shows my grandpa and me together.
But in the midst of this mad chaos, there is a quiet, still voice that calms me. Two voices, in fact.
This may sound trippy and weird, but they are the voices of my grandparents. My mother's parents, Clara and Carl, who have long since passed from this world into the next.
In the small spaces between my mother's hateful words, my grandparents whisper to me.
Thank you, they say. Thank you for protecting our little girl. Thank you for doing what is best for her. Thank you for taking care of her when we cannot take care of her ourselves.
Now, I can't be sure if this is truly communication from the spirit world, my active imagination, or just wishful thinking, but I can understand how a parent's love for their child might be that powerful and transformational and real.
I'll be honest. The idea that my grandparents are sending loving support not only to my mom but also to me is a source of great peace and comfort.
And on days like today, I am grateful for all the help I can get.
No one rode the extreme wave of Seattle's highs and lows more than quarterback Russell Wilson. To be blunt, he played ugly for most of the game. And then he saved the day. True, many players contributed to this mind-blowing come-from-behind, but no one outshone the tenacity and sheer determination of Wilson.
Now I always enjoy watching good football, and my heart swells with pride when my hometown teams win. But far more than game play, I'm fascinated watching the way that a winning team works.
The genuine camaraderie,
the psychology of group effort,
the essential sense of shared leadership,
the magical and mostly unknowable spark of something special that turns a group of capable individuals into a legend.
And after this legendary game, a weeping and prayerful Wilson laid out exactly what had made this day so special.
Because Russell Wilson is not just answering questions for a post-game interview. He is talking to you and to me. And what he means to say is that life is waiting for those who dare to reach out and claim it.
No matter what our dreams may be, we can achieve anything if we keep believing, refuse to doubt and simply insist on finding a way.
And that profound truth, along with this outrageous Seahawks win, is definitely something to celebrate.
Dressed in pristine pink and gaily chatting with a gardening gal pal about her deep and abiding love for begonias, Martha made the whole operation look painless and easy.
That, my friends, is both her blessing and her curse.
Because when I had confidently gathered up my supplies and settled down to compose my own little garden in glass, I found that the process tried my soul.
Okay, putting in a handful of stones for the bottom layer was pretty easy.
But even the straightforward process of pouring soil in through the tiny triangular opening at the top of my geometric globe transformed my kitchen counter into a peat bog.
Martha's chic stainless steel potting table did not show a single speck of stray soil.
And squeezing the plants, one at a time, in through the top hatch was a bit of a ship-in-a-bottle operation. I might have cussed. I definitely pinched my hand.
Martha smiled gaily as she guided her plants perfectly into place.
Gently settling the roots into the soil and filling in the spaces between the plants? Sheer and utter frustration.
Imagine my annoyance as I recalled watching Martha daintily slip slender tools between the plants and tamp each root ball firmly into place, all the while enthusing about her fondness for footed ferns.
I didn't have dainty little terrarium tools.
But I tried a chopstick.
And a table knife.
And then my fingers.
In the end, what worked best was to pick up the whole terrarium in both hands and shake it, first firmly and then somewhat aggressively, until all the elements yielded to my dominion.
That is definitely not the way Martha did it.
But in the end, I have to say, I'm pretty darn pleased with how the project turned out.
My happy little plants look adorable in their new home, and I'm glowing with that sweet sense of success that comes when I just take matters into my own hands and improvise.
So carry on, Martha, with your inhuman and unattainable levels of perfection. You are the high priestess of the domestic arts, and we mere mortals cannot compare.
As for me, I'm content to live here in the real world, where building a terrarium is a bit more challenging than you make it look, but oh, so much sweeter in the end.
Here is a thing about me. I'm really bad at relaxing.
Seems like I will just get settled down to watch TV or read a book, and suddenly my eye is distracted by some sort of mess or clutter that I cannot abide. All peace and contentment leaves my soul, and I can think of nothing but fixing what bothers me.
And in two shakes of a lamb's tail, I am up and dusting, sorting, rearranging, or doing whatever it takes to restore order and beauty to my little corner of the universe.
What can I say. I'm crazy like that.
So this week, with a stack of new books on hand and burning desire to read them, I decided to make a preemptive strike. Before cracking open the first cover, I sat myself down on the couch and took a good long look at the scenery from my designated reading spot. Then I put all my obsessive energy to work on perfecting that view so I would find nothing to distract me from the lovely leisure of my books.
I put my work to the test this morning as I sat down for my first reading session. Here is what met my eye.
The coffee table is stripped down to the bare essentials: a woodsy succulent, a watchful owl, and - for my reading pleasure - the 2014 Newberry Medal winners.
Morning sunlight warms the little nook across the room, and the ever-present twinkle lights add some sparkle. I don't even mind that cat toy down by the baseboard; it almost looks like it belongs there.
For Christmas, this round dish was full of glittery golden candles, and I loved it. But in the quiet margins of January, this simple arrangement feels rustic and natural and just right.
About four years ago, my fourth-born origami maven made this insanely complex squirrel. I have kept him all this time, knowing that sooner or later, the perfect place would appear for him to live. Finally, just a few weeks ago, I tucked him into this mod shadow box, and now whenever I see him there, I feel peace like a river.
And it was also about four years ago that I began collecting second-hand globes. I love them for their gorgeous round shapes and soft colors, and I always keep at least one of them turned so that Vietnam and Malaysia - two places near and dear to my heart - are visible.
And lest I forget, my books.
Hallelujah. My strategy worked! Each time I glanced up from the page and let my gaze flit around the room, I felt nothing but the sweet sense of satisfaction from seeing these orderly sights.
I read for well over an hour, enjoying the shifting angles of the sun as it slowly crossed the room and the gentle snores of my companionable boy, Ranger, who napped on the couch at my side.
And now I can't wait until tomorrow, when we can do all over again.
I may just get the hang of this relaxing thing after all.
I spent many hours staring at that oversize canvas as it hung over the fireplace at my husband's parents' lovely Ohio home. From my usual vantage point on the couch across the room, over the years, I took in every detail. Two quail nestled in tall grass; the airy brush strokes and muted olive palette gave it away as a classic mid-century composition.
At least, I think they were quail. Tonight, I asked my husband to confirm my recollection, and he said, "Yes, they were quail. Unless they were pheasants. They might have been pheasants. But they could have been quail."
I'm sticking with quail.
Anyway, that painting symbolized to me all that was good and true about my in-laws and the very memory of those birds stirs up a flood of happy memories that involve cousins running wild in circles around the house, babies chewing Grandpa's shoes, and a happy blur of John Wayne movies and Cleveland Browns football.
So, a few years back, when I came across a pair of mid-century quail figurines at the thrift store, I immediately thought of that iconic painting and snatched those copper-colored birdies up. Since then, I've placed them here and there around my house, as a homage to my in-laws and their warm, welcoming home.
But lately I've noticed that instead of invoking happy memories, the birds actually make me feel sad. They remind me of how much has changed since the days of the quail painting. My father-in-law passed away in 1996. After living there alone for another decade, my mother-in-law packed up and moved out of their beloved home and into a residential care facility, where she now lives in the land of eternal sunshine that is dementia. I have no idea what happened to the painting.
To be honest, I've thought about getting rid of the birds altogether.
Then, last week, I decided rather abruptly that they simply needed a change.
A revival, if you will, to bring their nostalgia and charm into the present day.
So without further ado, I grabbed my ubiquitous can of gold spray paint and went to it.
Oh my gosh, I'm so happy with the result.
Now, when I look at these figurines, I recall not just the bittersweet memories of days long gone by. I also see how the loving lives of my parents-in-law impact my home and my family to this very day. I'm so grateful for who they were and what they gave to me, and I like to think that their presence lives on in the images of these two graceful, golden quail.
Oh, we all knew it was coming. Whether we choose to call it
the post-Christmas letdown
seasonal affective disorder
or just a serious case of the January funk,
there is something about this time of year that weighs a bit heavy on the soul.
This year in particular, my case of the blahs seems to stem from massive sensory overload. Between
faraway daughters coming home for the holidays
a solid month of feasting on favorite family dinners
a house decorated to the nines and
the happy chaos of a full house,
I have been feeling particularly overstimulated and discombobulated.
So. I do what comes naturally whenever I'm stressed out.
I cleaned my kitchen
To be more precise, I stripped this baby down to bare essentials.
White dishes and wooden tools,
Baskets and knives.
the very most tried-and-true cooking ingredients,
and one string of origami twinkle lights.
Yes. Twinkle lights are essential. Especially in January.
I have to say, I'm feeling so much better. Not only was it therapeutic to put away all the colors and patterns and decorations and stuff that were overwhelming the space, but every time I walk into the room, I feel like I've taken another deep, restorative breath of fresh air.
I mean, just these stacks of white bowls alone drop my heart rate into the resting range.
I tucked just a few wooden objects in among the simple dishes to break up the glaring white: this hand-carved maple bowl satisfies my weird need for circles,
and this sleek carved bird, who's been with me since the 1970s, gives me heart.
Paring my cooking supplies down to the extreme - and arranging them triangularly - is ridiculously satisfying and makes me feel so Zen.
On the other side of the sink, I performed a radical surgery on my dish cupboards.
Six white plates. (Two are in the dishwasher)
This is enough for now.
In fact, the only extravagance I need is the grain of these new spoons and spatulas in their marble container,
and the textures of the metal tools against the wooden cutting boards.
I hid all my colored spatulas and plastic cutting boards. Sorry, guys, but I don't want to look at you right now.
However, let's be honest. I know what will eventually happen.
As much as I am enjoying my stripped down, pale and bare kitchen, I know this mood will not last long. As the low winter sun gradually climbs higher into the sky, and the drab garden beds spring back into verdant green life, my eyeballs will be ready once more to feast on colors and patterns and decorations and stuff. Then I'll deck out my kitchen like a carnival again, and revel in the exuberant energy.
But for now, in the quiet days of winter, my plain and simple kitchen is exactly what I need.
* * * * *
Some other stories about beating the January blahs: