In Praise of a Boring Life

My life isn’t what I’d call tumultuous.

I have old friends and new, and a day job I’m passionate about with retirement in sight. I pass few cars on my daily ten-minute commute through Midwest farmland. I’ve been happily married for a long time, a definite blessing during rough years. While I remember the elation of a new romance, breakups were hard. The comfort of a strong bond is more appealing than any added excitement. My kids are young adults now, but I remember the drama of their teenaged years. They survived and thrived, and I wish them the same calm I have.

Though I know many tales of grief, adventure and heartbreak, they are the stories of others. They are not mine to tell.

I’ve experienced less trauma than some but have suffered my share of tragedy. It rarely appears in my writing. I could dredge up a young heartbreak or magnify the anger I felt toward the doctor who told me that my father died, but I’ve made peace with the past. I don’t bleed much on the page.

During some difficult years, interspersed with wonderful ones, I developed a theory. When you are suffering, at some point it will get better. The reverse is also true. Life is a timeline of peaks and valleys. If things are tough, this too shall pass. If days are good, why not enjoy it? There is every indication that it will only last so long.

In All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum has an essay on problems and inconveniences. When Fulghum complains about the irritations of his job, an older man, an Auschwitz survivor, explains the difference. Issues like food scarcity and war outrank annoying coworkers and getting cut off in traffic.

Life-changing problems make for gripping fiction, but my personal essays are peppered with mere inconveniences. I live in the present, occasionally dwelling in small moments from the past, sending out ripples rather than crashing waves.

So, I write the ordinary, the odd encounter, and those moments that catch you by surprise. I have the leisure of a quiet existence to see connections between strands of time and weave them into story.  As I describe this blog, I write about the things I think about as I walk my dog and walk through life.

When I reach the top of the next hill and begin the inevitable slide back down, I’m sure that words on the page will follow. In the meantime, I’ll rejoice in the everyday moments that make up my days.

The view outside my window may be flat, but the sky is often spectacular.

 

 

Advertisements

Date

After being married for 35 years, some days we’re more life partners than lovers, more roommate than romance. We have worked out a rhythm and trust I wouldn’t trade for anything, but it’s pretty predictable.

A couple of weeks ago, I woke early on a Saturday. Two hours later my husband came down.

I greeted him with “Good morning.”

Then I hit him with “I have a ton of work to do this weekend and I have that thing tomorrow, so I won’t be much fun. But we can go out to eat if you want.”

He rolled his eyes. “Why would I expect any fun. Is it wet out? I have to mow and it’s supposed to rain in a few hours.”

I’m married to a weather watcher.

We chatted logistics. I’d move my car. He’d put gas in the mower. I’d walk the dog.

Fifteen minutes later, I came around, walking the dog into the garage. He popped through the doorway, one hand behind his back.

“Happy anniversary, honey.” He whipped out a flower from our weigela bush.

Suddenly I was exactly 36 years in the past. I glimpsed the man who had picked me up for our first date: wavy blond hair, broad shoulders, and a bud vase with a single red rose in his hand.

“Sorry I didn’t have a rose,” he said.

“I love it,” I said, right before I kissed him.

I went inside to give my pink bloom some water.

My husband the romantic started up the mower.

 I shared this honor with an amazing essay by Amuse-Douche.

A Life of Games

Five was the last time the older neighborhood girls would let me stand in the middle before they turned the rope. By six, I had to learn to jump in or be out of the game. Jump rope and jacks were the favorites through eighth grade, both on the playground and on the sidewalk in front of our friends’ houses.

The benefit of having four kids in the family was that there was usually someone who’d be willing to play a game. There was Monopoly and Sorry, and my mother’s favorite, Scrabble. At extended family get-togethers we played a hangman-like game called Probe. I once used my grandmother’s unabridged dictionary to find a word that stumped them all: quaquaversal. My uncle’s legendary game was won with flugelhorn.

At home we had a set of games that looked like books on a shelf. My favorite bookshelf game was called O-wahr-ee and involved spreading rocks around in a ring of cup holes, and collecting them based on the number left in the cup. It was something like mancala. My older sister’s favorite was Facts in Five, a trivia game that she could always win. When she headed toward her teen years, I’d play it anyway, just to get her to play with me. For years my youngest brother and I battled with Quinto, setting numbered tiles in crossword puzzle rows with multiples of five.

I learned Euchre from my husband early in our marriage. For a few years, we’d have dates with other couples to play.

When my girls were little, I’d stack the deck in Candyland to give them a chance to win, or at least let the game finally end. As they got older, we played rapid fire Uno, and never-ending Monopoly.

Now days, my games are more likely to be played alone on my phone. But on lazy Christmas days between gifts and dinner when my daughters are home, they may challenge me to Scrabble, or feeling childhood nostalgia, The Game of Life.

Sweet Notes

My mother liked to tell the story about five-year-old me at my first recital. I wore a shiny gold dress that someone had passed down to me after serving as a flower girl. Between my sissy socks, shiny black patent leather shoes and dimples, I was an adorable little lady, sauntering down for my turn at the piano. Until I reached the bench. Instead of gracefully sliding in from the side, I straddled it before swinging my other leg high and over.

This story sums up my instrumental career. On the surface, I seemed to have a certain amount of musical ability, but I couldn’t quite get up and over to doing well. To be fair, I seemed to have an allergy to practicing. Perched on our piano bench at home, I would wiggle and squirm, yank a hand from the keyboard to scratch an itch or wipe my nose, and whine. My mother was determined. She quizzed me with note flash cards and punctuated my playing with the tick of a metronome when her constant cry of “Count!” didn’t do the trick.

We took lessons at school during our lunch hour. At the end of every year our teacher, Mrs. K, held an awards assembly. My older sister won a piano pin for being best. I thought the only category I had a prayer of winning was “most improved.” In second grade, if I had made any progress, it was certainly more than in the past. I listened while all the awards were given and held my breath.

“And the award for most improved goes to – “

And she said my kindergarten brother’s name.

My eight-year-old heart sank. Even a five-year-old was better than me.

My nonmusical father was determined he would give all four of his kids a musical education. The four years of piano were nonnegotiable. After that we would choose a second instrument. My sister stuck with woodwinds, my brother with brass. My youngest brother wanted the drums. I think his plan was to be so annoying they’d let him quit. In the end, he got his way. I chose the violin. Finally, I had a chance to do something no one else in my family could do.

Mr. A, my longtime teacher, was a professional violinist who gave lessons on the side. Endlessly kind, he’d prompt and remind and demonstrate, and I did improve. When I hit a sour note, I wrinkled my nose. In a rare moment of impatience, he said, “I know you can hear it. Why don’t you play it?”

I quit violin for a six-week group guitar class my junior year. It was a lot of fun and I didn’t mind practicing. But with college looming, I was struck with an inexplicable urge to try out for my university’s general orchestra. Senior year I went back to Mr. A. The next August, I restarted the audition piece three times. They didn’t cut me, but I was the last chair. In retrospect, I realized they let anyone in this group, unlike the symphony which was by audition only. A month in, I quit. No one discouraged me.

Fast forward fifteen years. On a visit home with my kids, I told my mom about taking out my violin for the first time in ages. My baby daughter looked at me with adoration. Her three-year-old sister cried when I wouldn’t let her try it and the dog howled along. Mom and I laughed together.

“I looked through my old music,” I said. “I can’t believe I used to play that. I don’t remember being any good.”

My mother raised her eyebrows. “Of course you were good. Don’t you remember?”

I didn’t. I still don’t. She might have been biased. But the evidence of some quality is there in the music I played.

But here is what I’m left with. I have a friend who likes music and theatre as much as I do. We are each other’s culture buddy. Sometimes we go to student and faculty concerts at a nearby university. I marvel at the brass and woodwinds and picture my brother’s trombone and my sister’s flute. We go to see Time for Three and I admire the bow and fingering, hear the technique, recognize the harmonics. We attend an occasional symphony concert and I am immersed in the rich layers of sound.

Almost forty years later, all I’m left with is the love.

The Kindness of Strangers

The summer I got married, I decided to take a trip alone about a month before the wedding. It was one last spurt of independence for what I thought would be years of partnered travel.

These were the days before cell phones and GPS. I planned my journey with maps and wrote to the people I’d be visiting to get directions to their homes. My goal was a day at the beach. I planned my visits and route so that I could get to Atlantic City. I promised my mom I’d check in with my fiancé daily, although what he’d do if I disappeared I have no idea. I was a city girl and would be careful.

I set out on a sunny hot Midwest summer afternoon in my used Chevy Monza, with the windows down (no air) and the AM radio blasting. I drove until I was tired and stopped at a motel somewhere off the highway past Columbus, Ohio. The desk clerk checked me in and gave me the key to a room right off the lobby. In retrospect, I’m sure it was a gesture of chivalry, keeping the young single woman travelling alone out of harm’s way.

The following morning, I drove a few hours into Pennsylvania, taking side roads to visit the town where my grandmother lived when she first came to America, where her father had died in a coal mine accident. The modern shops and vehicles didn’t match my mental picture.

On the Pennsylvania Turnpike, my father’s voice echoed in my head when the signs by the tunnels nagged me to turn on my headlights and take off my sunglasses. I did as a I was told, driving deep into the mountain, lights flashing on the tiled walls, finally exiting on the other side into the bright sunlight.

My first visit was in Philadelphia to a friend from college, with his wife and baby daughter. We spent the following day, a Sunday, walking the historic sites of downtown Philadelphia, and I watched the baby while they sailed a small boat in a park lagoon. When I told them my plans for Atlantic City the next day, they encouraged me to come back and stay another night.

I left bright and early as my friends went off to work. In Atlantic City, I carefully locked my Monza and pinned the key to the shoulder strap on the swimsuit I wore under my clothes. I carried a beach bag with a towel. My flip flops slapped the boardwalk as I strolled to the beach. I spread my towel in the hot sand a few feet away from kids building sand castles, men in speedos and women in bikinis baking in the sun.  Whenever the sun became too warm, I headed for the ocean, swimming out till I was neck-deep and floating at the whim of the waves.

After a final night in Philadelphia, I started the long drive to my next destination. The day was even hotter. As fast as I drank water, I sweated it out. Somewhere in Indiana, steam rose from the hood of my car and the temperature gauge needle surged past high. I parked on the shoulder and opened the hood. The radiator hissed. I knew enough not to open it to check the fluid level until it cooled. I grabbed a book and sat in the grass at the side of the road to wait.

Only a few minutes later, a semi pulled up. Two men got out and walked back to me. The driver puffed out his chest, hitched up his pants and said, “What do we have here? Need some help?”

“Oh,” I said, “I think it’s my radiator. I’m just waiting for it to cool so I can check the fluid level.”

The man put his hand on the cap and let go fast. He pulled a rag from his pocket and quickly twisted the cap off.

“Looks like you have a crack. Do you have any water?”

I handed him the cup from my car and he poured it in.

“You should be okay. Just make sure you keep filling it up.”

I thanked them and drove off as they strode back to their truck.

My next stop was an Illinois farm where another friend raised champion Cheviot sheep that had paid her way through college. I added water to the radiator that evening and more in the morning. After a night visiting, I went on to see my brother at the house he rented near his university campus. Again, I filled the radiator and packed more water for the trip home.

My car limped the final miles home, a new radiator in its future.

As I tell this story, I reflect on how much life has changed. My daughters taking a similar vacation would ask Siri for directions and listen to music on their smartphones on the ride. If their car broke down, I’m sure we would get a call and keep them company while they waited for AAA to come and help. I know they have close friends and family that would come to their aid the same way I did. I only hope they, and all of us, could still depend on the kindness of strangers.

The Road Taken

There’s a park on our country road that looks like a small picnic area. We recently found out about its short trail in the woods. My daughter and I walked it about a month ago. The barren winter stillness was only broken by the persistent call of a cardinal.

We picked our way through fallen twigs, crunching leaves, and mole rippled ground, looking up occasionally to see around a bend. When we came to a fork in the road, I tried to remember where each path went.

I shrugged. “Let’s go right.”

Forty feet around a bend, the trail dead-ended at a stream. A crumbling log was the bridge.

“Come on, Mom.” My daughter walked out on the branch, effortlessly turning back to wave me on.

I stood rooted in place.

“You can do it.”

This moment is but one of many that started when she was a kid and I learned to ice skate at the age of thirty-seven because said daughter wanted us to take lessons together. Aside from a few bruises and a wrenched knee, it was a lot of fun.

Then there are the vacation adventures. My other daughter talked me into parasailing. When the guide told us the ocean was rocky and offered us an out, I didn’t want to disappoint my daughter so I, who have major motion sickness, went anyway. Turns out being high in the air isn’t as soothing as it looks. I won’t paint that picture for you, but when they tell you to put your hand on your head and they will pull you in, don’t believe them.

Then there was snorkeling. It was a bright clear day. While my daughters happily swam out in the bay, diving down to admire the colorful fish and coral, I found myself panting through the mask and turned back before I’d have to take the life preserver away from the one child in the group.

And then there was zip-lining. I zinged from tree-to-tree, only once stopping short and having to be rescued ten feet from the platform. I’d go again in a heartbeat.

Just last summer, my hiking daughter talked me into going on a six-mile hike in 85-degrees with 90% humidity. I made it, barely. A month later we did seven miles on Oregon hills. At least the weather was cooler and there were multiple waterfalls to pause and admire. I could barely walk up stairs for days after that.

In Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon, I trailed behind as my daughters scrabbled down a steep slope. When I leaned over a little farther to see where they were going, they turned in unison and yelled, “No, Mom! Don’t try it!” I had more sense than that.

Now it was forty degrees and the log looked wobbly. Balance is one of the first things to go as you age and getting wet wasn’t appealing.

“Nope.”

I turned back and she followed.

E495D5C2-D9FE-4DAB-A4A1-AB1C3F7FE4B9

We backtracked and took the other fork, passed through a clearing and ended by the biggest tree in the park, before we walked out the way we came. Dusk was approaching. I wondered aloud if the hooting we heard was from the owl who visited our yard.

She shared a story about someone being attacked by an owl for being in its territory. Hmm, maybe crossing the stream was less dangerous than the walk.

“I almost got you to do it.”

I just smiled. She almost did.

How to Fold a Blanket

To fold a blanket, it helps to have two people. Age and skill are not required as along as you are at least tall enough not to drag it on the floor. Seven or eight is old enough. If you have an older sister, chances are good she will be assigned to blanket folding with you.

With plenty of grumbling that you’ve been tasked with anything at all and some lingering animosity for something the two of you fought about earlier, begin.

First, with you at one side and your sister at the other, grab your two corners of the blanket, pulling them together to meet. Now grab both corners with your left hand while she grabs hers with her right. In sync, reach down for the fold you just created. Bring your hands to meet a second time, creating a long thin rectangle. Gently shake it to smooth it out, unless you’re still angry. Then whip it like mad till she loses her side and yells, while you primly say, “I was just trying to get out the wrinkles.”

Once she retrieves her end, walk together, arms held high, to meet in the middle. Since you made her drop her edge, she may make you walk all the way to her. Give her your corners and bend to pick up the bottom edge. Hand that to her as well. She will set the bundle down and smooth it with her hand.

Then begin again with the sheets. Fold so many so often over the years, that you both move easily in line. The task goes quickly and you smile across at each other.

Now that you have the process down, you can partner with your spouse, daughters, even friends on occasion, but you never quite achieve that synchronicity, that almost psychic sense of where she is going to move next.

Now miles and lives apart, you never lose the trust that she will hold up her end for as long as you need it.

On the Way to School

To get from home to school, you’d go out the side door, because the front door was only ever used when company came over. Your Beatles lunch box would be useful both to carry your sandwich and thermos and to swing it at the kid who’d always tease you at recess. Books in your other arm and your jacks in your pocket, you’d pass the front porch where in summer you’d sit on the bottom concrete step to strap adjustable roller skates onto your shoes. But no skating now. Not on a school day.

Depending on the year, you’d walk with your sister and one or both brothers and the friends who cut across the alley through your yard to meet you. You’d turn left right after you pick up the girl from the corner house (who was hit by a car in the alley one summer and you saw your father run, which you didn’t think he could do.)

Down just a half a block, you’d come to the house (who knows why there) where in second grade you always started to panic. After the first time just the idea of passing there set your heart racing.

But today you’d walk past fine, the older girls in front, you and your friend chattering behind, with the brothers trailing. You might pause to hike up your itchy tights, because they never stayed up and girls wouldn’t be allowed to wear pants suits to school for another couple of years.

Next, you’d turn right. The single-family homes would make way for two-flats and at the third one from the corner you’d pick up your neighbor’s cousin, who had almost the same name.

Coming up you’d pass the house of the tall blond boy, your first crush. Did he like you too? You’d never be sure.

At the end of that block you’d reach the spot where once a strange kid, a half a head taller than your little brother, tried to start a fight and you knew you couldn’t let your brother be hurt. So you wrestled the boy to the ground and pinned him. When a woman came out of her house yelling, you started to cry, and the woman wagged her finger at the boy, saying “I know you. You’re the one who causes all the trouble,” and let you go on your way.

In the fall you would scuff through crackling leaves. In spring you’d throw handfuls of maples seeds and chortle as they helicoptered down.

The street would T at the college campus, so you’d turn left and walk the final stretch to the traffic light. You’d rattle the coins in your pocket and think ahead to after school when you’d go another half block to the penny candy store to buy a paper strip of dots, Bazooka bubble gum and wax lips for a dime.

But now you’d pick up the pace as the bell rings. You’d hurry across the gravel playground, past teeter totters, high flyers, and a tall steep slide, along where the girls formed long lines to jump rope to chanting rhymes, toward the wall the boys used to play pinners where the trim met the brick.

You’d race up the steps and merge with the crowd of kids heading through the double doors to childhood’s past.

2017’s Most Popular Posts

It’s always a surprise to me which posts become the most popular. When I reached my first anniversary of blogging I re-posted my own favorites, but here are the top five with the greatest number of views.

Tied for fifth were “Questions,” an October post about the surreal state of our country, and “Marketing,” my reflections on a July visit to Portland’s Saturday Market.

In fourth was another July post, “Unhappy Camper,” a story about my mom’s one and only camping trip.

The Change” from August, about the way I’m getting through this phase of life, came in third .

In second was the June day I cleaned out my closet, “Downsizing.”

And in first place from back in May, my non-morbid look at end-of-life arrangements, “The Best Laid Plans.”

Come back in 2018 for more eclectic posts on the things I think about as I walk my dog and walk through life. Thanks for reading!

The Other Side

Her shoulders were tense and her mouth was set in a line, as she recounted the conversation she’d had with her teenager that morning.

I smiled. “Thirteen is the worst, isn’t it?”

“Yesss!” she said on a sigh.

“There’s hope,” I told her. “Seventeen was a turnaround age for my kids. I was sitting on my bed folding laundry, when my daughter came in, sat down and started telling me about her day. I thought, Who are you? And where have you been for the last few years?”

Her mouth turned up, but she still sighed.

This is what people dread when they say they never want their little ones to grow up. But every age has something we’re happy to leave behind.

Well on the opposite side of those teenage years now, I’m dwelling less on the rough conversations, late nights, and drama. I’m glad the full calendar, endless events and rides, my-needs-come-last time is over.  I do believe that kids must pull away from us to become adults, and that’s hard for everyone involved. But there were amazing moments from that time too.

Last week a coworker showed me a video of her son’s solo in the school musical. And I remembered many other recitals, plays, impromptu performances.

I recalled one daughter’s grace and speed, as she leaped through the air, legs perfectly parallel to the floor.

I thought of my other daughter’s purposeful drive down a soccer field, her powerful kick, coordinated team passes, aggressive play.

I remembered stories told from first jobs, caring for others. I reminisced about proms, lovely dresses and makeup, and where-did-my-little-girl-go?

When else in our lives are we both skillful enough and free to try on roles like hats: scholar, dancer, artist, athlete, singer, star? How many of us continue any of these identities past those tumultuous teenage years?

While you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to my own adolescence, now I can look back at my daughters’ teen years with a sense of wonder.

But for the mother of a thirteen-year-old, there’s nothing to do but wait.