Category Archives: Reflection

How Does Your Garden Grow?

All little kids know that crashing your parents’ bedroom first thing in the morning is inexplicably awesome. When I was that age, I couldn’t wait to invade my parents’ room to get my first hugs of the morning and snuggle. My mom set up a password system for me, though: she’d say, “Mary, Mary, quite contrary, how does your garden grow?” And my response: “With silver bells and cockle shells and pretty maids all in a row” — this in a certain half-singing way. If it wasn’t just right, I had to re-do it in order to get my pass to enter.

Of course, gardens are an all too familiar part of my reading life, starting with Adam and Eve, moving to The Secret Garden, and most recently in Standing at the Crossroads. But up until recently, how actual gardens grow in my life is not well; my black thumbs have killed successfully just about anything that comes from a seed, including one or two cacti (!).  The only green item that survived my care was some lucky bamboo purchased for my first apartment, and it lived on for at least seven years before our move to Alaska.  (Maybe the bamboo and I had a special Asian connection?) Continue reading

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Me Dyson You Jane

The Dyson Animal

A little over a year ago, Husband and I bit the bullet and bought a Dyson vacuum cleaner. After living with Sounder’s dog hair in our little apartment and too many blow-ups (from each of us) over the inability of our old vacuum to, you know, vacuum, we decided to see if this whole Dyson thing was really worth all the dollars. Being a prudent gal, I went to Overstock and found a refurbished model for way less than the price of a brand new one at the store. With practically a shiny tear in his eye when the carpet literally changed color with one sweep of the Dyson, Husband said we had made the right decision. I concurred.

We moved into our current home two weeks ago, and the Dyson has gotten great use, as expected. But the one thing that has been bugging me since we’ve been here is the incredibly-difficult-to-reach dog hair from the former owners’ pets that manages to get into the crack between the carpet and the wall. For anyone who has ever owned a pet and has carpet, you know exactly what I’m talking about. Last week I had taken a butter knife and worked to scrape it out so then I could vacuum it up. When I was explaining this to someone the other day, she nodded knowingly and said, “Oh, yes, you need the slim attachment thing.”

How could I have forgotten about the attachments? I have memories of my dad lugging around this crazy olive-green box masquerading as a vacuum, and all of the attachments sat on top of the box, fit in there like a jigsaw puzzle.

The right color, but not exactly the same model as we had.

It was so heavy, it was really cumbersome, and yet somehow it managed to fit just inside the narrow floor space of the upstairs laundry closet along with the washer and dryer. What a monster.

Anyway, this woman’s comment about “attachment thing” stuck in my head, so I started inspecting the Dyson more closely today. I found the attachments in a plastic bag, where I had once upon a time wisely kept them together. I pulled out the manual to see how to draw more magic out of this instrument. I realized — oh, if only I had known sooner — that our Animal is really two vacuums in one: the main one that does the floors, and then this amazing other extension piece with its own handle that reaches and takes on all the different attachment parts. Armed with this new knowledge, with the Dyson in hand, I patiently attacked the stairs.

Oddly, I found myself feeling reflective as the Dyson did its thing and the stairs started changing colors, as when we first used it in our old apartment. A few realizations came to mind:

1. Worthwhile things are expensive. I don’t mean always in a dollars and cents way, but in a time and effort kind of way. Whether the “thing” is your education, quality relationships with your family and loved ones, a job you care about, your health — these “things” demand that you spend time and attention on them and with them. But it’s worth it.

2. Quality products are durable. At first, I didn’t believe that the Dyson broke in half, essentially, because I was certain that I was going to snap something and feel remorse for ruining it. But when I jerked hard on the extension piece, it came out easily and was ready for use. The “things” I referred to up above? Part of the reason why they are so price-y is because they are built to last. The imitation, lower grade products work for a while, but then they break and need to be replaced with something better anyway. Healthy, nurturing relationships with ourselves, with our best friends, and with spouses and significant others are meant to endure anything and everything. That doesn’t excuse us from taking good care of them, but they withstand a lot more than we realize they can (if we’ve invested wisely, of course).

3. Good products have unexpected dimensions. I read all the reviews. I could write my own testimonial about the Dyson. I knew it was worth every penny. But today, even after using it happily for a while now, I learned there was more to it than meets the eye. In real life, I think we often underestimate other people and what their real potential may be… and then they surprise us with a new achievement, a new career path, a new life plateau. Worse, I think we too often underestimate ourselves and forget that with one simple shift in the way we think or one change of habit, we can discover new dimensions of ourselves.

Vacuuming has to be one of my least favorite chores because it never seems like I can do it often enough to keep the floor satisfactorily clean, especially with having a dog. However, this afternoon it turned out to be one of the most random meditation sessions of my life. I’ll never look at our Dyson — or any of our other useful household appliances — the same way again.


Real Talk

Where have two weeks gone? Since Memorial Day weekend, summer has arrived; we finally became first-time homeowners (hurrah!); I took my first writing class since college days; my parents bought their ticket to visit over the Fourth of July (hurrah again!); we made our inaugural visit to Sam’s Club… the list goes on and on. While I actually have a gazillion things to write about and think about lately, the practical part of me has been focused on the need to organize as much as is humanly possible. Thus writing quickly gets pushed to the bottom of my to-do list, ironically when I need to process the most.

Of all things to inspire me, it had to be watching an episode of The Next Food Network Star last night. This season they modified the format: the finalists are broken up into teams being coached by Alton Brown, Giada de Laurentiis, and Bobby Flay, respectively. Every week, they are faced with two-part challenges, because they are expected to cook well and be able to be themselves (budding stars) on camera, too — obviously, the latter tends to be the far more difficult part. So I’m watching this episode, and by now the finalists are expected to have a very clear sense of their individual points of view, food-wise and personality-wise. Listening to the coaches, they all had the same message for each person: Be yourself. Be authentically you and no one else. Be confident in you and the stories you have to tell. It will translate positively on camera, we promise, because people want to connect to Who You Really Are.

Last week in my 5-day writing class, we all walked in on Monday as strangers. The first sharing we had to do was read aloud an informal piece of writing that we had to bring with us: metaphors for our writing process. What floored me — and maybe what I should have expected, having been in writing workshops before — was how much we revealed about ourselves through our writing as the week went on. On Wednesday our instructors put us into workshop groups based on our chosen genres (we had three non-fiction pieces and one poem in mine). My personal essay was about three different writing experiences at various points in my life. Immediately after reading my work, the poet in our group said, “This piece is about the narrator reclaiming joy in her life that she used to feel when she was a child.” What?! That’s what I wrote about? I thought I had been taking a walk down memory lane with myself. But there I was, naked like a baby in the words on the paper, and this semi-stranger called it out.

So it was as we workshopped everyone’s piece – the “cheapest therapy” available, our instructors called it. Each of us — in our small groups and in our class overall — uncovered (re-discovered?) parts of ourselves that we didn’t realize were there. It’s a very disconcerting and simultaneously liberating experience to meet yourself on a piece of paper. Even when you want to or try to lie to yourself (or about yourself), people who are paying close attention will recognize what’s going on below the surface. Real talk. No hiding from that. By the end of the week we couldn’t help but be engaged authentically with each other, as was made apparent in the notes people shared after reading portfolios and the meaningful, no-cost gifts we exchanged (including the priceless gifts of honesty and actively listening to each other throughout the week).

If you’ve never had a Moleskine journal, I promise it’s inspiring.

The other best part of class for me was doing free writes in my  (unlined) journal for the class. I truly love seeing people’s handwriting — including my own — because there is energy and emotion there, and I like to imagine the person doing the action of writing. Again, there is an individuality and concrete-ness to ink on paper that doesn’t exist on a computer, where I can cut/paste/delete at will, even dictate words to a smart computer, and everyone turns into Times New Roman. Now, by my own hand, I have this small collection of beginnings of things, some attempts at poetry, and some reflections all in one place. I can’t say specifically why it’s more special to me to have it handwritten (it would be more practical to have them typed already); it just is.

Last week I also thought often of why we need things like art and music and writing in the world: it teaches us empathy and reminds us that we all have our human imperfection in common. For the entire week I kept thinking about the stories behind the people at the grocery store, or why the checkout girl had a certain tattoo on her arm. I was mindful in a way that I forget to be sometimes when I’m with people I love the most, like Husband and family. I want to be that way more often — to be more aware that I am living my own story and in the stories of countless other people’s lives. What will we remember about each other when we meet again in the next life?

I find that when I really need guidance, God has this way of being super didactic in my life. But I’ll remind myself one more time to be sure: Be yourself. Be authentically you and no one else. Be confident in you and the stories you have to tell.

Yes. I will.


Transition

This word and I have been getting to know each other very well over the past few years. Transition: n. The process or a period of changing from one state or condition to another. The Latin prefix trans- means “across,” “beyond,” or “on the opposite side.” When I was teaching English, one huge marker of writing maturity to note was when students were able to transition smoothly between ideas within and among paragraphs. At school right now we talk all the time about how we are helping students transition from 6th to 7th grade, or from 8th grade to high school. In classrooms, experienced educators are aware of a need to budget transition time into lessons and plan how to transition from one activity to the next.

The transition from California to Alaska has been nothing short of an adventure. Last June, when I arrived, my only goal was to get here in one piece and try to stay in one piece while I adjusted mentally to leaving life in California behind. That turned out to be about as hard as I expected it to be, as it became very clear exactly how many miles I was from my best friends (excepting Husband, of course) and my family. We had the support of Husband’s parents as we crashed on one side of their house, but last summer still felt like limbo. Going into town regularly to work out at Crossfit Fairbanks was one of the few things that kept me grounded.

As summer faded (transitioned?) into fall, I could feel myself starting to get antsy. Because I hadn’t wanted to job hunt seriously when I initially showed up in Alaska, I started to worry that I had set myself up for a miserably dark, purpose-less first winter. Over time, thankfully, things fell into place, as they have a way of doing. All it took was for me to say to Husband, “I’m afraid I’m going to be bored,” and in a matter of weeks, seemingly, I was back to being in a normal state of busy-ness (which is sometimes better known as being over-committed). Working, coaching, curling, consulting, and more.

In mid-November I thought that I might attempt to harm Husband for bringing me to a place that is so physically demanding. This seasonal transition was abrupt: from a lovely extended fall season, we fell off into a week of 40-below temperatures and rapidly extending darkness. Were it not for curling and a real reason to get out of the house and socialize in the evenings, who knows how we would have survived the looooooong winter season. By early March I thought I was going to lose my mind and promptly planned to take a vacation to see friends in California late in April.

At last it is starting to be summer. They said on the radio yesterday that the official temperature in town was above 70 — yahoo! Today was the last day of this school year, and in about ten days we should be homeowners, barring any unforeseen complications. One would think that I should be relieved and overjoyed about getting closer to this elusive idea of “home” and being more settled. Somewhere under the layers of stress, I do feel those feelings. I am proud of myself for toughing it out this past year, at times very gracefully, and at times in tears. I get that all of those moments are a part of who I am and that they just are — neither good nor bad.

When I contemplate this Next Step, there is the exhilaration of finally renewing our independence and getting to fill a space with our energy, our love, our style. Along with that comes a reality check that we are investing in this location for a little while — who knows for exactly how long — and that is an idea that is still settling with me. I always thought that I’d grow up one day and have a house of my own, though I never pictured it way up here in the 49th state. But here’s what I have come to understand in the past 11 months: me being uncomfortable does not equate to me being unhappy. Being uncomfortable, being pushed outside of the box (whether it’s imagined or real) is often a necessary part of growth. Being unhappy usually has something to do with being afraid (of making a decision, of dealing with something, of not knowing what will come next, of what others think, etc, etc.)

This current time of transition is not easy, and I am working on giving myself the space to think about why. In the meantime, I will keep the following thought in mind, from another quote from Neale Donald Walsch in Conversations with God:

“Know and understand that there will be challenges and difficult times. Don’t try to avoid them. Welcome them. Gratefully. Cultivate the technique of seeing all problems as opportunities. Opportunities to…be, and decide, Who You Really Are.”


I’m Starting to Hate Lists

In general, I am a list maker. It gives me a fleeting sense of organization and control, whether that’s making a grocery list before heading to the store, writing out an errands list to spare myself making separate mini-excursions, or even working up a to-do list for the day as soon as I get to work. To me, these lists have immediate use for a few hours, maybe a day, and then they get tossed.

The reason why I am starting to hate lists (“hate” being a relative term, of course) is because I’m starting to feel insulted that a huge percentage of writers (journalists, bloggers, you name it) continue to bombard me, a reader, with lists. 5 Ways to Be a Nice Blogger. 10 Movies That You Should Go See. 7 Reasons Why This Team Will Beat That Team in the Playoffs. 6 Things I Learned When I Went to This Conference. 50 Things You Should Never Say to a Guy. (Cosmo, of course, is one of the worst offenders of The List, though the frivolity of their lists is obvious to most… I think.) As I mentioned up above, I use lists briefly, and toss them; thus, when I read a List that is supposed to be an Article, that’s what I do to that info — toss it. It’s like throw-away writing, except it’s published. Sad.

Don’t get me wrong. In the land of creative non-fiction, list-making has its place, and I understand that. I even appreciate it. It’s the ever-growing mass of public list-making acts that are seen as articles that are starting to stress me out unnecessarily. I actually like to read things that are written out in lovely paragraphs full of solid grammar and often deliciously delightful adjectives. I appreciate the art of a writer working hard to make a transition from one idea into the next one smoothly. Lists-turned-articles are a bit of a killjoy for me… As they are being presented in my universe lately, they seem to take the thinking out of thinking; to me this underestimates the abilities of literate folks altogether.

Yes, I also understand that people have limited time these days — limited time to write and limited time to read, especially if they’re reading from a 3.5-inch diagonal screen. Lists have a way of squeezing themselves neatly into that space, and maybe that’s what lots of people want/need in their day of digesting way way too much information in the first place. I get it. Even if I had some kind of smartphone (I don’t — it’s sort of fun to be a pseudo-Luddite), that’s not my ideal means of getting any sort of reading — even casually — accomplished.

For this girl, this English major at heart, I’m going to have to have to opt for other forms of written creativity. I don’t need to read daily treatises or Bible-length articles all the time (that’s what The New Yorker is for sometimes), but I need something greater than a list to generate my interest these days. To quote the timeless sarcasm of John Bender in The Breakfast Club: “Moe-Lay really pumps my nads.” That’s how I feel about lists right now. Maybe not forever, but definitely for the time being. In the future, I will signal a change of heart when I post a list of Reasons Why I Now Like Lists Again.


Packing & Unpacking

Anyone who has ever gone anywhere on a trip — even a little kid who goes to a sleepover for the first time — knows how difficult it is to pack a suitcase. Personally, I am a notorious over-packer because I’d rather have too many choices of things to wear than not enough, which includes having shoe options as well. I find unpacking to be equally unpleasant upon returning home, because it’s the final sign that whatever trip is over, and usually there’s laundry to be done, clothes to be rehung, etc. Not to mention staring at my suitcase sitting somewhere inconvenient (in the hall, next to the bed, by the door) until the unpacking is finished.

Last week, Husband and I — with the help of his parents — semi-frantically packed up all the belongings we had brought to our winter house-sitting gig in the span of under 48 hours. Earlier in the week it had started out fine as we slowly began staging boxes in the garage, but when our timeline was compressed unexpectedly, it quickly became painful.

Painful because the packing up process reminded me of doing the exact same thing less than a year ago. A year ago the majority of the packing up of our apartment in California was a solo gig, and Husband physically couldn’t be there to help because he was already working in Alaska. In my mind I kept thinking, “How many more times will we have to do this?”

Painful because I know in the end that it’s all just stuff… that all I really “need” is Husband and Wonderpup and probably the computer, too. But my clothes and shoes and accessories and other girly stuff — all the things that are possible to do without —  actually help me feel good on the outside. Most of the time that outside dressing simply matches me on the inside, and sometimes feeling good externally can change my mood internally.   It was hard to lose track of seemingly everything last week and worry about how I was even going to find something to wear  — even pajamas. Part of me feeling like myself is getting to choose how I present myself to the world each day.

Painful because I have a strong need to control my environment when things are happening that are beyond my control. This explains, in part, my typical level of organization. Lacking control around the packing process because of its speediness led to multiple meltdowns in the space of one afternoon.

Thankfully, the packing part is over for now. With any luck, in a few weeks we’ll be moving into a home of our own and be able to savor the process of unpacking and settling in. It just never ceases to be an emotional experience for me to see life wrapped and packed into stacks and stacks of cardboard and paper or thrown into baskets and crates. The visual mini-inventory of life in this form does not even begin to capture who we are as people or how much we grow and change in the time of living in a certain place.

But this is part of the process of being a grown-up, yes? Every once in a while, to take stock of the homes we’ve created, pack up the important stuff to take with us, and purge the things that have outgrown their use or no longer matter. To prioritize — sometimes re-prioritize — how we will value the people and things that populate our lives.

While it is not likely that I will ever enjoy the process of packing or unpacking, I will try to remember that it is  the act of traveling to new places and spaces — both physical and emotional, and however temporarily — that allows me to gain perspective.


Pain in the Neck

This is not an idiom that I have thought about very much since childhood, but recently it has been on my radar. It’s a very useful phrase in May inside a school building, because I can look at most of the faculty and staff and see on their faces that singular thought: “Right now my kids are a pain in the neck.” It’s a natural part of the struggle to get to the finish line of any school year.

Witness the universal gesture for feeling a pain in the neck.

Last Friday I went in to the box early to make up a shoulder press workout before teaching the usual 6am crew. I probably should have warmed up more, but I wanted to be finished with my session prior to the arrival of the morning class folks. On my second-to-last effort, I was straining a bit to make the 5th rep in working toward a 5-rep-max, broke down in form a bit… and almost immediately afterward felt a pain. A pain in the neck. That extended over the top of my right shoulder a bit. I wasn’t happy about it, but I knew it wasn’t an injury and that I would mobilize it and recover accordingly. (That’s why I carry a lacrosse ball in my purse, as the Oakland Airport learned when I traveled.)

That same day, I was working on the computer when Husband asked me to feel around Sounder puppy’s neck. “Feel that bump, or that lump?” he asked. No, actually, I didn’t want to feel it because Sounder is a crucial part of our small family unit and I didn’t want to think about even the remote possibility of him being sick. He kept rubbing and searching until he found it, near the upper part of Sounder’s right shoulder and near his neck area. “There, right there. Feel that.” I was able to feel it then, and I wondered, fleetingly, if Sounder puppy had a cancerous lump? My gut said no, but all weekend he was lethargic and sometimes even throwing up. Apparently, I was not the only one in the family who had a pain in the neck. Literally.

Yesterday Husband took the Wonder Bassett to the vet so she could examine his lump. She drew some fluid, seemed unfazed by the appearance of the lump, and prescribed antibiotics for it accordingly. She said his lethargy and upset stomach were probably related to his body coping with the lump, but it was not a cause for concern overall. Have him take his meds this week, she said, and bring him back on Friday. We’ll sedate him to clean his teeth, do the super toenail maintenance, and deal with his bump all in one fell swoop. Whew. Sigh of relief.

As of this afternoon, Sounder has had exactly three doses of his pill, which we give him with peanut butter (does that work with humans, too?), since he’s supposed to take one pill every twelve hours. Upon entering the house today, Sounder came bounding down the stairs with his tail in high gear, as if to say, “Mommommom! I’m better! I feel better!” Even this morning before work, Husband reported that the lump felt significantly smaller than yesterday. High five to effective antibiotics.

While he cruises along the road to recovery, at this exact moment in time, I have a metaphorical pain in my neck. This week we are packing up and cleaning up to move out of our house-sitting gig — my 3rd relocation in less than a year. One of my essay benchmarking consulting gigs has become… annoying, at least to me. We are anxiously and excitedly awaiting to find out if we will close on a home here within the next few weeks. Husband and I both are working on different new work opportunities that could lead us into completely different, unexplored territory in our respective professional lives. Even though it is clear to me that these changes are slanted heavily toward the positive, they still create stress. Thus the pain in the you know what.

Seeing Sounder bounce back, however, has renewed my hope that all will be well sooner rather than later. I imagine my “antibiotics” are going to have to come in the form of some good eats (hallelujah that it’s warm enough to grill at last!), good rest, and lots of room for deep breaths and silence to clear my mind. With an extra pinch of luck, and if taken in regular doses, my antibiotics should make the pain ball shrink just as speedily as Sounder’s did.

Sounder “perching” on the deck rail last summer.