Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Deck the Halls... And Every Other Available Surface

I’m not typically a kitsch person. I like my surfaces clutter-free and have a strong aversion to dusting lots of knick-knacks. I admire the collections and tasteful decorating techniques of others, but just can’t seem to pull it off. You could say I have a minimalist approach to decorating – like the Hemingway of interior design.

However, when the holidays roll around, I haul out boxes of Christmas decorations and I become a Kitsch Queen. I think it goes back to my own childhood. I remember being so excited when my mom would decorate for the holidays. There were always favorites I forgot about from year-to-year. She’d pull out the Santa sleigh with his reindeer and set it on the table, and I gently played with it, making up pretend stories about their Christmas adventures. There were ornaments, too—the little elf (the original Elf on the Shelf) that we stuck in the tree, our crazy tree-top star with its sporadic and seemingly non-pattern blinking, the little stockings we hung on the tree that might contain a silver dollar on Christmas morning! Each unique decoration would make me feel warm and cozy inside.

We had other traditions I savored too. It seems like there was always a box of that horrible ribbon candy on the coffee table during the holidays. Arranged like pastel ribbons of jewels, I broke off a little delicate piece, sucked on it and then remembered why it remained in the box, uneaten, for the remainder of the season. Every year, my parents would pull out the old Firestone albums-- the ones they received at gas stations (back when they were full-service). We'd play them on the stereo console and listen to Bing, Sinatra or another crooner fill the air with dreams of a white Christmas and chestnuts roasting on open fires. Of course, there were the T.V. specials-- pre-DVD. Oh, the anticipation of the chosen night when Rudulph or Santa would fill our sets with stop-motion animation of pure delight.

So each year I too drag out the boxes, open them and lovingly place the collected pieces around the house. I hope my kids are building memories, admiring the old tin Santa that was Dad’s when he was a boy, or the ornate ceramic pieces a friend of mine made for me over twenty years ago. Some collections, like the snowmen, started very unintentionally. It seemed like for several years they were very popular gifts and ornaments from friends. I now have a mantel full of various shapes and forms of the white, three-tiered fellows. Over the years, I’ve collected a few decorative reminders of the manger scene. I love each one, because, for me, they are the reminders of my religion and why I celebrate the season.

Truthfully, all these kitschy decorations still fill me with warm feelings. The old-fashioned ceramic angel winds up and plays Silent Night. My great aunt painted her and gifted it to me when I was a little girl. I balk at the idea that she looks like an antique, until I remember I will be 50 in the coming year. It is an antique. My sister created a couple of my angels and snowmen—a result of her talented crafting. They are dear to me, too.

Ultimately, it’s not about the stuff, though. We pared down quite a bit, shedding almost two boxes worth of decorations a few years back. The things didn't have significance to me and it was just too much to store. It’s the decorations that remind me of a friend’s love and gifting, or the little homemade ornament my kids made in grade school that fill me with the warmth of the season. And, for me, it’s the reminder of the guiding star in the sky and the baby in the manger that makes my heart sing.

So Merry Christmas, my friends. No matter how you celebrate the season or what meaning it has for you, whether it be Christmas or Hanukkah, may all the little knick-knacks you put out, the decorations you carefully unpack with tenderness and fond memories, remind you of the warmth and love of the season.

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Our Daily Bread... and Cookies... and Pies...

Food.  So many people have a love-hate relationship with our daily sustenance. 

A few, rare souls give very little emotional or mental energy to what they put in the systems because they have the metabolism of a chipmunk on a treadmill and can eat whatever they want. I admit, I don't get these folks at all. I have a complete lack of understanding or empathy for them, and maybe in my meaner moments, even dislike them a bit. But there is another category of eaters I envy—the ones who love and celebrate food and have made a peace with the role it has in their lives. I don’t profess to understand this group any more clearly than the previous, but it’s a concept that resonates with me, and I constantly strive to achieve.

I’ve never had a peace with food or my body. Ever. There have been periods throughout my life when I seem to have triumphed over the scale, but still many more when the scale raised its numerical fist with mighty numbers and triumphed over me. I fully confess, I don’t have a friendly relationship with this adversarial and esteem-crushing instrument.

This "weighty" topic (can I have a groan, please) is fresh in my mind as I both approach the holidays--a season of celebration in the form of delectable feasting--and a trip to Florida in February where I’m hoping the weather will invite the wearing of shorts, tank tops, and bathing suits by the ocean. Oh the conflicted bliss of both events!

I believe special celebrations of feasting are a God-ordained invitation. Throughout the Bible, and in most religions and regions of the world, celebrations are manifested in the form of breaking of fasts, abundant treats, family, friends and creative expression. And what screams creativity more than a plate full of gorgeous holiday cookies decorated with care, especially the kind with colorful little sprinkles or maybe a chocolate kiss in the middle…ahem, I digress. But my point is, holidays are a legitimate time to take joy in culinary treats and delight in those we love and share life with.

The problem, of course, isn’t in the day of feasting. It’s in the season of feasting—days, weeks and in the case of Thanksgiving and Christmas so close together, months of excessive and rich noshing. It’s in the non-celebratory, over-eating that I engage in year-round. It’s in having lost the distinction between joyful nourishment of my body with foods that are tasty and healthful, and eating to stuff my emotions and satiate my every taste desire. Therein lies the cycle of binge eating and dieting I get caught up in, the very one that beats up my self-esteem and makes me cringe if a camera is directed my way. Sad.

The other day I read an online article, Eat Like A Buddhist in 10 Easy Steps. The content isn't anything startling new, but it highlighted a contemplative, grateful and disciplined approach to the act of eating that struck me anew. And it reminded me of the category of people I mentioned above—the ones I wish I could truly emulate—those who have made peace with the delights of food and their body. It suggested savoring the tastes and textures of food, recognizing treats as exactly that—rare exceptions, and entering into a mindful quiet with my eating, which is, I admit, in direct contrast to my usual hasty and distracted snarfing.

Mostly, at least for me, it reminded me that eating is a communion with family and friends, a source of enjoyment in life, not a whipping post for my emotional insecurities and fears or a way to dull my inner pain. Of course, while my head grasps the concepts and my heart longs to be among those who have made their peace, actualizing it--putting it into practice in the face of ongoing temptations like pumpkin pies, gifts of baked goods and eggnog with rum--is the crux of the matter.  

I can use Florida as a sunny, warm catalyst for my motivation, but ultimately, I need to make a new emotional, mental and spiritual relationship with my daily bread (and maybe not so much emphasis on the bread). 

May our holidays be filled with the mindful and joyful celebration of family and friends and may our day of feasting be a break-- not the norm-- in our diets, a time to rejoice and be thankful for our abundance. And may the new year, full of healthy intentions, begin today. 

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Wonder Bread and Recess

Today for lunch, I ate a peanut butter and jam sandwich. When I was a kid, my mom bought loaves of Wonder Bread. The wrapping alone-- primary colored dots covering the bag-- was enough to convince you the bread was going to be delicious. The white, soft bread was marred only by the tougher crusts around the edge. In truth, it was probably the only part that had any flavor, but I still envied the kids whose moms cut off their crusts, allowing them to savor the fluffy goodness without crusty distraction.

I remember fourth grade lunches. We’d get to play outside on the play ground for recess. At the time, we lived in Napa, California, back in the early 70s before it was the swanky community it is now. But it was at this playground, at an elementary school nestled in our small neighborhood, where I learned to play Four Square and Tetherball. Four Square was a game involving a big, red rubber playground ball, four large squares painted on the asphalt and lots of complicated rules, which somehow I managed to learn. We also played a lot of Tetherball—a game with a big pole and a long rope with a ball attached to its end. The idea was to hit the ball past your opponent until it wrapped all the way around the pole and you were the triumphant winner, all while being careful to avoid being slapped on the side of your face by the ball.

I don’t think Tetherball exists on playgrounds anymore. The long rope and potential head whomps probably were set-ups for litigating parents whose little ones were the hapless victims of an errant ball or rope. But back then we lived on the edge: riding see saws and deliberately jumping off them while our partner was still high in the air so they’d come crashing down on their bottoms with a thump, or spinning so fast on the merry-go-rounds the centrifugal force flung us off into the dirt in a laughing  heap. (We didn’t wear bike helmets back then either.)

Playgrounds were the hot bed of school fads. At recess, kids couldn’t wait to show off their latest Duncan brand yoyos, or clackers with the brightly colored glass marbles, or the latest Guinness Book of World Records. Some years, Chinese jump ropes were popular. Groups of girls would stand around forming complicated weavings with the stretchy rope and their feet. Other years, a string was all we needed to demonstrate our talent for forming cats’ cradles and other complex finger designs. We also chose partners and played ornate clapping games with each other, entertaining ourselves with our expertise for entire recesses. Miss Mary Mack, Mack Mack, all dressed in black, black, black. This little rhyme troubled meWhy did Miss Mary always wear black? Was she some strange recluse?

One year, I got the latest Guinness Book of World Records, hardback edition, for Christmas. I took it to school and for two weeks I was the glorious center of attention while we thumbed through the pages to find the world’s tallest man or the biggest rubber band ball in the world or the woman with the longest fingernails. (I still remember being particularly fascinated and simultaneously horrified viewing her winding and curling fingernails.)

Picking out each year’s lunch box was a big deal with our annual back-to-school shopping. Sometimes we’d have to reuse the previous year’s box, but if last year’s version was too dented up, (yes, they were metal back then), we’d get a new one. As big a deal as this was, I don’t remember many of my boxes except a Partridge Family one I had at some point. David Cassidy, Susan Dey and rambunctious Danny Bonaduce and their super-cool travel bus adorned its lid. The lunchbox came with a matching thermos that fit snugly inside the box, complete with a lid that could be used as a cup. Thermoses were made of glass back then and when they broke, which the inevitably did, you could shake the thermos and hear the glass—it sounded like sand stuck in the walls of the container.

By high school, lunches were reduced to a showcase of insecurity with kids vying to be at “cool” tables and the cafeteria food nondescript--a rotating menu of doughy pizza squares, iceberg salads and mushy spaghetti.

As I munch my PB&J today, I will have a glass of milk in honor of all the pints of lukewarm milk and chocolate milk I consumed over the years. Although my sandwich now is made with homemade bread and all-natural peanut butter, I’ll pretend its Wonder Bread and Jiff (the choosy mother’s peanut butter). I’ll even eat a slightly over-ripe banana just to complete the culinary flashback. And afterwards? I might just go to a playground and climb on the monkey bars and not wash away my milk mustache! 

Friday, October 18, 2013

The Tales in Crosses, Mint Juleps, and A Store That Sells Tack

Kebler Pass, CO
Glorious mountain majesty, aspens of gold, peaks reaching to the heavens glazed with a frosting of snow.  This is how I often talk about where I live.The mountain community I call home, nestled at 7700 feet in Colorado, certainly fits all this lush description. However, there is another side to our community that defines our local culture.

Gunnison was originally inhabited by the Ute Indians. During the mid-1800s, settlers came to the valley in hopes of cashing in on the rich minerals believed to be in the soil. Mining soon busted, but the community continued in a ranching tradition. Because of our climate—long, cold winters and relatively arid—successful ranching required leveling of land and irrigation systems. But the lifestyle took hold. Today, we still have a 114-year-old national rodeo tradition and 4-H thrives. 

Cattlemen's Day Rodeo

One of the things I love best about traveling across the US-- our own "homogeneous" country-- is noting how different and unique it really is. The businesses, graffiti, religious institutions, landmarks, sports, arts, billboards and traditions, the symbols and icons, all provide a visual story and breathe life and spirit into each region.

This past summer when we drove through the Midwest, I was fascinated with all the obvious religious influence. From huge crosses outside Missouri to billboards with giant Bible verses juxtaposition to warehouse-sized, highway-side, porn shops. One of my favorite signs was a billboard, no words, just Jesus in the midst of a corn field. I wished I could have got a picture of it. It wasn’t near a place we could pull off, but what a reflection of the values and culture of the area.

The  huge cross somewhere in the Midwest.

One of my favorite destinations is Santa Fe, New Mexico. Embedded in the art culture is a religion imbued with mysticism. Even the Christian religion takes on a more mystical quality. The famous Loretto Chapel and its miraculous, winding staircase is a great example. It’s as if the ancient beliefs of the Indians and Catholicism swirled and blended together.

A hand-painted cross from
Santa Fe. 
Of course, unique attributes of a region aren’t all religious. I’d never heard of a Bob Evans restaurant or biscuits and gravy until I went to college in Indiana. I grew up in Pittsburgh, which is still strongly associated with the steel mills and working class, even though the industry hasn't darkened the sky or buildings for decades.

I loved visiting Louisville, KY—an area where horse races, mint juleps and bourbon are the symbols of the city. 

I spent a long weekend, several years ago, for a work-related conference, in Memphis, TN—home of Beale Street, blues, great BBQ, and the restored Lorraine Hotel, where Martin Luther King was killed.

A sculpture in Louisville, KY

About a month ago, a new store--a chain store no less--was built in town. Now while this may not sound iconic or even vaguely startling, it was kind of a big to-do here. A huge Tractor Supply Company warehouse now sits at the end of town. I’ve never lived in an area that could support or would have use for this kind of store before. Today, my son and I went on a “field trip”, as we call our little outings, and took a gander at the new place in town. I was in awe. Plaid shirts and Wrangler jeans, overalls and Carharts, feed for livestock, pet supplies, rabbit hutches, all kinds of tools and parts for tractors, bits and bridles, and even an array of books on farming, canning, raising dogs and building cabins. An entire store devoted to the symbols, supplies and preservation of a lifestyle.

Aside from all the ranching stuff, foreign to my background and knowledge base, I realized that, in a sense, this is a part of our culture—a consumer-directed icon of our heritage in this area, as much as the fly and tackle shops, “welcome hunter” signs on sporting good and liquor stores and the various ski and snowboard rental shops.

I don’t hunt, or snowboard or ranch but I'm interested in and proud of all the bits and pieces that make up my community, its history and spirit, and that somehow we've managed to retain our unique flavor and not succumb to a mass-commercial, blase personality.

What does your area have that you would say represents its culture or heritage? Maybe I'll plan my next adventure out your way. 

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Prayer Shawl

It’s 4:30 in the morning. I ease myself out of bed, careful not to wake my husband. I get up, throw on my robe and pad out to the kitchen for my coffee. The hot liquid stimulant is as much a part of my ritual as any other aspect, and on some mornings, much more needed. At this hour the house is still and quiet. I can hear the clock tick and the refrigerator hum. This is my meditation and prayer time, before the sun rises, before the clutter of the day attacks my consciousness.

I like to open the curtains on the window so I can stare out to the sky. If it’s cloudless, I can see the stars. This week, I’ve been able to see Orion’s belt from my east-facing windows. I always hope to see a falling star, like a sign God is joining me, but I rarely do. It’s been cooler in the mornings, the chilled breath of fall seeping inside. I throw a blanket over my legs and settle in to "my chair" with my coffee mug warming my hands. Then I reach down for my prayer shawl, holding its sacred length tenderly.

When my son was first diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma, we were cruelly launched into a whirlwind of appointments with specialists and life-altering conversations and decisions. One Sunday, when I felt like I was drowning in all the medical hoopla and worry, I grudgingly showed up for church, feeling more like hiding and skulking than "fellowshipping."  Despite my furtive demeanor, a friend approached me. Catherine, dressed in a long skirt, peasant top, and sandals, walked up to me and handed me a small, brown bag, “I have to go to work, but I’m glad I caught you,” she said.

I smiled. Reaching into the bag, I pulled out a lovely crocheted scarf.

“It’s a prayer shawl,” she said.

I knew it was her creation; I’d seen her handiwork before. It was made of the softest of yarn, a lovely subtle green, like the color of lichen, with bands of purple and turquoise and mossy brown decorating it. I gasped. “Oh, it’s so lovely!”

“I hope it brings you comfort.” She smiled and gave me a hug before leaving.

Once home, I looked up the meaning and tradition of prayer shawls, sometimes called a mantle, peace or comfort shawls. Prayer shawls come from an ancient Jewish tradition, rooted in the Bible. The word tallit, the Hebrew word, is made up of two smaller words, tal meaning “tent” and ith meaning “little”.  A prayer shawl is meant to be a hiding place with God, a covering and protection while praying.

According to the Shawl Ministry, green symbolizes the earth, healing, prosperity, fertility, clarity, sympathy, hope, renewal, health, balance, confidence, abundance, growth and life. 

As I snuggle in my chair with my coffee and reading material, watching the sun awaken the sky, I finger the soft mantle, draping it carefully over my shoulders. It's leaf-like hue is appropriate for the many emotions and needs brewing in my heart and unsettled mind.

When I cover my shoulders in this shawl, I think of Catherine and all the friends who have reached out to us, and I feel wrapped, not just in yarn, but in sweet love and comfort. I feel their prayers.

As the yarn’s journey starts,
It becomes a prayer that comes from the shawl maker’s heart,
The yarn becomes a journey of silent prayer,
Through it’s twists and knots, the prayer is still there,
The quiet clicking or the swish of the yarn,
Tells you the prayer is still going on,
The Shawl maker adds on another skein,
The prayer is anew and doesn’t wane,
As time goes by and the shawl maker’s mind sometimes wanders,
The yarn goes on and prayerfully ponders,
A prayer is said and the stitching subsides,
The yarn comes to an end and is knotted and tied,
It begins a new journey and given with prayer,
It’s Hope, Faith and Love the recipient wears,
But in the silent echoes you can prayerfully hear,
The prayers, the quiet clicking, and the swish of the yarn,
The yarn never ceases and its silent prayers are still going on…
(prayer source)

Friday, September 27, 2013

Sky Moods

We crested the top of the pass and I gasped. The moon shone bright above the peak of a mountain. It was a big, full moon. A harvest moon. I asked my son to slow the car. I rolled down the window and leaned out with my camera in hand, trying to capture the scene.  I snapped a couple pictures, unsatisfied with the results.

“You like sky pictures, don’t you?” my daughter’s friend asked me from the back seat. We were on our way home from a softball game.

“Why do you think that?” I asked.

“You posted a moon picture last night on Facebook.”

“Oh. Yeah I guess I did.”

Truth is, I love the sky. Sometimes I go out on a clear night and just stare into the dark vastness. We live in the mountains and have almost no light pollution. I can see satellites gliding across the black velvet backdrop like a sailing speck of glitter. 

I relish the day sky too. I love how the clouds are like a face displaying moods. Sometimes, like me, there is a mixture, refusing to be confined to just one. Dark and angry clouds coexist with blue skies and only shadows and hints of emotions, like a pout or furrowed brow. 

With shifting hues and lights, prisms of color, it is always changing. The sky is constant, but it never rests in the same image. It is dotted with puffs of morphing cotton, or teeming with stormy potential, or even so blue it almost looks fake, like a drawing by a school child who chooses "sky blue" for her picture. In the evening, sunsets of orange and red show off with a flaming grand finale. Some mornings dazzle with purples and pinks, an early dawn greeting and sneak preview performance for those who rise with the sun. 

This is what I feel in my heart and soul. I too am changing, restless, passing moods like the intangible shades and shapes of the sky.

The sky reflects back to us what we see in ourselves. Sometimes we are flashy and bright. Other times we broil with dark, obscuring clouds, angry, sad, desolate, lonely, analytical, dramatic. Still other times our countenance is calm, peaceful, content, resting.

There are times we glow in beautiful colors, showing off  rainbows of playfulness, potential and promise.  

I believe there is always a light within us—whether the sun of the day or the moon at night. 

All these beautiful passing flavors of the omnipresent heavens remind me of our steadfastness, despite the feelings that flicker and pass. Like the firmament, we too are created to reflect and show off depths and subtleties, shimmering and roiling, moods caught on a breeze. 

The sky's beauty is the Artist's playground and shows us we too are a beautiful canvas, splashed with paint, a product of continuous creativity. 

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Wednesday, September 18, 2013

An Ankle Biter Among Us

A tough face to resist. 
I caved. For several weeks now, my son has been hinting, nay, downright asking for a puppy. He has been going through some medical stuff that’s pretty tough, and although I was resistant at first, I had to admit that a little critter to care for and love just might be the perfect distraction and therapy for what he is enduring.

I saw an ad in a local paper for little puppies, ¾ German Shepherd, ¼ Great Pyrenees, 100% huge. My son had mentioned he liked German Shepherds, so with some trepidation I placed the call and left a message. “Hi, I’m calling about the puppies you are selling, wondering if you have any left. Thanks.” 

Phew. No response. For fifteen minutes. Then I got a call back from a very nice young gal, “Oh, I’m so sorry! We just sold the last one this past weekend.”  

“No, it’s fine,” I said, secretly relieved to have that decision delayed. I then told her why I was looking for a puppy. That’s where I might have committed the Big Cosmic Mistake. Immediately, she told me how she had M.S. and how very good this breed of dog would be for my son. She then told me she had her doubts about the couple who took the last puppy. Apparently they had really debated about the decision and weren’t sure their landlord would agree to it. In short, I could tell, after hearing our situation, she was determined my son should have a puppy.

Sure enough, three days later, we received a call, “Good news!”

Maybe. Depends on your perspective.

Mr. Blue, aka Dog-Dog, has had a difficult adjustment. Puppy is a bit of an ankle biter and very rambunctious. We anticipated it would take a couple of weeks for the two to grow accustomed to each other.

But what really has surprised me was how much of a curmudgeon I am being about this new puppy in the house. Me! A self-proclaimed dog lover!

Blue and Puppy meet

I remember my mom once saying, “There’s a reason you are young when you have kids. They take a lot of energy!” 

I think the same can be said for puppies. Dog-Dog and I are used to our routines. We get up early, very early. He gets fed then goes back to sleep; I sip coffee and enjoy a couple hours of quiet time before the house gets up. Or at least that’s how it used to be. Now we get up early and puppy wants up too. And he does not go back to sleep. He chews slippers, drags shoes out to gnaw, bites at Dog-Dog and generally wreaks all kinds of disruptive havoc on my quiet morning.

Having a puppy requires a lot of vigilant attention. He is still being house trained and likes to chew. Catching him mid-piddle requires alertness and quick reflexes. My quiet mornings of writing are shot. Finally, this morning, I snapped. Puppy had a rawhide, Dog-Dog felt it should be his, after all he is the senior dog in this-here house, and much snarling and yipping ensued. In a fit of impatience, I yanked the offending bone out of the puppy’s mouth, scolded Mr. Blue, and perhaps threw around a few cuss words. My son apologized and got his puppy. I muttered, grabbed my running shoes and the leash, and Dog and I went on a much-needed quiet jog.

For the first mile and a half, I grumbled.

By the time I turned around to head back home, I had relaxed (well OK was winded and panting). I reminded myself why we had got the puppy in the first place. Both Dog and I would adjust to the new little critter and could handle the temporary disruption in our routine. I took a larger picture perspective and let the need to control and defend my time and routine go. By the time I walked through the front door, I was even looking forward to seeing the little furball and giving his nose a kiss.

The puppy has been a good reminder to me about how easily I can let the “I” in my agenda very quickly take over. He’s been a good lesson in letting go and enjoying a little playfulness.

I’m not sure Dog-Dog agrees with me yet. The verdict on the little whipper-snapper is still out, pending the biting and general mayhem and disruption to his turf. 

This is when Blue and I like Puppy best. 

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Soul Salamanders

Salamanders. That’s the sign, apparently.

The other day a friend of mine posted on Facebook that she had seen a higher number of salamanders than in years past. Specifically, she asked what people knew about “water mud dogs” and predicting the weather. This, of course, caught my attention. I’d never heard of a “water mud dog”. Fortunately, she clarified they weren't dogs at all but rather salamanders. I didn’t realize that their appearance was associated with weather patterns. Actually, I didn’t realize we had salamanders at all where we live.

Sure enough, a follow-up comment she received echoed her prediction. “They were so thick in the summer of ’07 we couldn’t open our door.” I cringed. That's nasty.

Turns out the winter of 07-08 was legendary for the amount of snow fall we received. It was so harsh the Colorado Division of Wildlife ended up dropping food for elk and deer to help them survive the winter. Even with those efforts large amounts died, unable to forage for their food beneath the huge layer of snow.

Another commenter asked if anyone else had noticed the high amount of mosquitoes towards the end of summer. They were, the responder pointed out, conspicuously absent during the early months. Surely this was yet another sign pointing towards a long winter with piles of snow.

Even the Farmer’s Almanac is predicting a snowy winter this year. But they don’t rely on just any ol’ signs, but depend on a carefully guarded secret formula, locked in a calculator, known only by one mystery person. The formula involves things like sunspots, moon phases and tidal action. 

In spring, as the winter thaws, locals point to the nearby mountain tops with their layers of snow, predicting the winds by the amount of white stuff still on the peaks. The more snow, the windier it will be. The afternoon winds die down when the snow melts, so they say. There might be some kind of scientific validity to this prediction, I'm not sure. 

I’m a big believer in signs or at least I like to think they really do exist. Sometimes, when I’m struggling with a big decision or problem, I like to treat the common objects in life like my own personal Magic 8 Ball. Like, for example, three years ago when I was struggling to make a decision about quitting my full-time career. I used to put all kinds of, what church folks call "fleece", before God. "Now God, I really want to do the right thing. If you are all right with my quitting, show me a sign. Like," I paused and looked around. "How about that traffic light turns red just as I come up to it."

Of course it stayed green. I'm pretty sure signs don't work that way.

I like to ask for falling star signs too, one streaking flash in a great, big sky dotted with sparkling and shimmering lights--  just for me. I rarely get that one either. I know. I know. The cosmos isn't a crystal ball at my command.

Mostly I think signs are more subtle, kind of like turning lights on a car, just giving us a slight hint that there's going to be a change in direction, maybe a closed door where we sought an opportunity or an open door that leads to an experience we didn't anticipate. Or maybe a flash of an idea or inspiration when we least expect it. Still, sometimes I long for something flashy, obvious and directive.

I think what I really want are a few soul salamanders.

Thursday, September 5, 2013

Image-Shopping at A Bargain

There is a distinct smell as I open the door of the shop. It’s a little off-putting to be honest. It smells like humanity and maybe old shoes. But inside the thrift shop is fantasy world, all for me to try on, at rock-bottom prices. 

Today I’m here to seek out a new outfit. Since giving up my paying career and taking on this writing gig, I’ve put myself under a strict clothing budget. Besides, for what I do, the same three pairs of capris I own and four varieties of tank tops in my drawer are really just fine.

I finger through the rack of shirts, arranged by color. Do I feel red today? No, maybe blue. My kids roll their eyes at my bland blue, tan and black wardrobe. I should look for something flashier. 

I pull out a rust-colored bohemian peasant top with colorful stitching along the neckline. I try to picture who originally owned it. Was she a hippy type? I imagine the college kids who hang out in our town. I always admire their carefree look and wish I could pull it off. I try to see myself wearing it, my hair down and mildly unkept, schlepping along in moccasins...that just might be too much, too soon. I hang it back up. 

At the end of the first aisle are the dresses. There are all kinds of styles: blacks and lavenders, a champagne colored dress and one that is emerald green. I’d like a new dress. 

One is covered in shimmery sequins that twinkle in the florescent lighting. I wonder why it was first bought and by who? I imagine a special cocktail party, exotic, the kind I never go to. The wearer has perfectly coiffed hair and her makeup is impeccable. She is elegant and working the room, holding her cocktail, laughing with her head slightly tossed back. She is flirting with a Don Draper type. I try to imagine myself dressed up in this outfit, but then I think about the heels it would require and having to keep my stomach sucked in. I grimace and put it back.

I decide to be more sensible and check out the pants rack. There are a lot of small sizes. I’m pretty sure whoever fit into these miniature pants were people I distinctly wouldn’t like. They probably don’t eat much and are obsessed with working out. Those kind of people are never to be fully trusted. Better to look in my own size. No doubt the original owner of these pants are nice, approachable and friendly folks.

Tucked in the midst of dozens of faded jeans is a black pair of Patagonia pants. I double check the label and price. Patagonia is one of those brands that make a statement about the wearer: they are outdoorsy. People who wear Patagonia make a conscious effort to look casual. The person who owned these pants probably wore Tevas too. Not the knock-offs bought at an army surplus store with the souls peeling off, like I wear, but the real thing. Now this is a look I’d like to project: the casual mountain woman, outdoorsy, yet pulled together. 

I pull the pair of pants off the rack and head to the dressing room. Feeling adventurous, I grab the little rust-colored peasant shirt too. I’m already envisioning myself sporting a mountain, hippy mama style. People will look at me and admire how casual and carefree I appear.

I pull the little flimsy curtain closed, hoping no one comes in by mistake, and try on the pants. I pull them up but can’t, for the life of me, get them buttoned. These pants must not run true to size. I should be able to fit into this size. It is the pant’s fault. Then I slip--just so I can see the effect--the little stitched peasant top over my head. I reach up and tease my hair with my fingers so I can create that studied hippy look. I glance in the mirror, forming my lips into a slightly sexy pout.

I look like a pregnant woman with bed head. 

This is not a good look for a 49-year-old woman. Then, because I need to feel better, I try buttoning the pants again, because they really should fit. But they will not quite snap over my tummy. Stupid pants.

I leave that day without purchasing anything, but there will be another time. I’ll be back and maybe this time I’ll dare myself to buy something exotic. Maybe I’ll find a pair of jeans with cool stitching that make me look ten years younger or a tunic top that says I’m a together woman comfortable with her age. Or maybe I’ll pick up a new sweater with swinging bell sleeves. After all, the weather is starting to change. Maybe I will too.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

The Tails of Two Dogs

Meet Hunter. He is the puppy from next door. Hunter is almost a year old, but in a dog's life, he's still a lanky, busy, rambunctious kid. Hunter has funky ears. He can't quite decide if he wants them both up or both down. So sometimes, to avoid the work of having to choose and to nurture his inner Zen, he does one of each and lets the decision go. 

Hunter likes to meander over from time-to-time to say hello and perhaps find a new experience for his daily constitution. Secretly, he always really hopes Dog-Dog will join him for some fun and games while he's visiting. 

This is Blue, aka, Dog-Dog. He's ten and a little grumpy in his old age. (Not that I can blame him. I'm getting kind of cranky in my old age too.) Dog-Dog was adopted when he was five. He had five whole years of multiple owners and a previous covert identity being a dog-in-training for prison convicts before he came to live with us in the mountains.He's an old and grizzled dog. Wise to the world. 

Blue came from the life of hard knocks and never learned how to play. He's mellow (mostly) and likes other dogs (for the most part), but he just isn't "into" other dogs. (Come to think of it, he's an awful lot like me.)

Sometimes Hunter walks to the very edge of his property and sits a spell to stare at Blue. Hunter is a laid-back kind of dude-dog and would never dream of just intruding without an invite. 

Blue doesn't miss a thing. He sees the kid and studies Hunter, nailing him in the spot with his steely eyes. He wants to make sure the new kid on the block understands his place. 

So Hunter sits, waits and stares and occasionally let's his attention wander to meditate on a moth, or an ant on a blade of grass. He switches the position of his ears then remembers why he's there, and begs with his little brown eyes to please, please be allowed to come over and play. 

But Blue is not one to succumb so easily. He remains on his porch, like the unflinching Clint Eastwood of dogs, and steadies his gaze. It's a stare down, a scene right out of the O.K. Corral. The wind blows, kicking up dust, and the dogs, mano-a-mano, lock eyes. Somewhere, a hawk screeches a lonely call. 

Blue cocks an eyebrow, "OK, Dog. C'mere. G'head. Make my day." 

Hunter gulps, screwing his courage to the wind, and makes his move. He stands. Blue stands. They continue... the stare. 

Hunter, sensing an opening in Blue's demeanor, takes a few tentative steps into the yard. 

Suddenly, the strain gets to Blue. He dumps his tough Clint persona and becomes the Archie Bunker of canines. "Do I have to, Mom? Do I have to play with the new kid? He's such a meathead!"

With a sigh, Blue Bunker takes pity on the kid and approaches. Tails wag and panting and mutual sniffing ensue. The skies clear. A friendship is born and all is right in the corral. Miss Kitty can come out. On second thought, perhaps she should stay hidden. Then, in an unexpected softening, miracles happen, and Dog-Dog actually plays a little. Until....

Until he decides he has had enough of this young, over-exuberant whipper-snapper. Then all bets are off. "Get off my property, kid."

"He really, really bugs me, Mom. Make him leave now."

Thursday, August 15, 2013

In The Midst of Storms

Life's been rough lately. I needed a writer's get-away. Truth is, I just needed to get-away. Escape. Change this rut of sadness I seem to be in. I packed a half of a peanut butter and jam sandwich, a cheese stick and a thermos of something to drink. I grabbed my notebook, pens and camera and off I went. Desperately seeking quenching for my soul, I headed to a river park fifteen minutes from my house.

I jumped on to the highway, accelerating to keep up with the speeds when a moving shape caught my eye. From out of the pasture along the side of the road, a young doe gingerly stepped out. I slowed the car down, hoping no one was following too closely behind. I know these gentle animals; they are skittish and nervous, and can without hesitation, fly right into an oncoming car. She started across. My windows were down and I could hear her hooves clipping along the road. As I watched, a van coming in the opposite direction headed straight towards her. I cringed. With a scratching of hooves on the road, she danced nervously, darting in random directions. Fortunately, the oncoming car slowed down in time to let our pretty lady cross, finally, in safety. I sighed with relief. She seemed to barely escape her disastrous fate. I was glad the outcome hadn't been inevitable.

Finally, I pulled in the drive to the park and got out to stroll along the path. All around the parameter of the sky dark clouds hovered, threatening, but above me it was still blue and the sun shone, warming my skin. I breathed deep trying to let my stress go and with my camera in hand, headed down the path. My senses were heightened to the sounds of robins and screeching magpies, to the buzz of the bees on white and purple thistles, and to the smells of rotting leaves and the pungent perfumes of plants. I let my eyes guide me and focused the camera and my vision on the wonders around me.

After a while, the path led me to a rocky ledge overlooking a pooled area in the river. I sat down, pulled out my notebook and lunch and stared into the slow currents of the water, gazing into the swirls and flow of its repeating patterns. As I ate, I noticed a few concentric circles forming on the water surface. I peered into the murky depths, trying to see their source. There had to be fish, probably trout of some kind, swimming beneath the surface. I stared so intently into the water, I was startled when a silvery form jumped out to snack on a bug, returning with a soft plop. I was watching for fish swimming and jumping, when I noticed an s-shaped disturbance across the water's surface. I sat still and mesmerized on my perch and spied a small nose sticking above the water, followed by an undulating rope-like body. A water snake of some kind! I watched until it disappeared into the grass on the opposite shore.

I was in awe. I had left the house so agitated and here, sitting quiet by the river, I felt opened up to miracles. I would have missed the bees and berries, smells and sounds, fish and snakes, had I not been still and quiet and watchful.

Soon, I noticed the heat was no longer on my shoulders. The dark clouds had finally grown together, choking out the sun. Sighing, I put away my wrappers and screwed the lid on my thermos. Somehow in this solitude, alone with nature, I felt cared for, a tender presence in my heart. I laughed a little at myself as I put a closing thought in my notebook: if only I had seen a deer walk out from the tall grasses of the shore to drink from the river! What a sign that would have been!

I lifted my small pack to my back and headed back towards my car. Again, for the third time that day, a movement caught my eye. On the opposite side of the river, a tawny shape walked out from the grasses--not just a deer, but a lovely buck. He stared at me as I raised my camera to snap his majestic image. Then, slowly, in no hurry, he made his way across the river. My heart felt truly felt gifted and hugged.

Later that same day, after I was home and still glowing from the beauty of my morning, my son's chemotherapy doctor called and we set up his first treatment appointment. When I turned on my computer shortly after, I received a rejection on a freelance job I had applied for. In short, life hit again.

Sometimes I feel like that sweet doe trying to skitter my way across life's highway, avoiding the onslaught of impending disaster, barely escaping collisions with fate or like my sun is being crowded out by an impending storm. But my time at the park reminded me there are gifts when we have given up hope for them and miracles in the ordinary if we are still enough to see them.

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Tuesday, August 6, 2013

Who Was Jane Lea Nixon?

I'm quite sure it's the lighting, but check out the blur at the
top right of the picture. 
The area, like most the hills and open space in Pittsburgh, is lushly green. I walked quietly through the red doors of the old building feeling a need to be silent and reverent. There is little air circulating within the stone edifice. The walls are thick with hand-cut stone. Up front there is a stained glass window and to the left, an old pipe organ from 1823 that was said to be carried over the Allegheny hills by cart.

I am standing inside Old St. Luke’s Episcopal church, a building whose roots go back to 1765. The current building isn’t quite that old, probably rebuilt in the 1800s. The land surrounding the church originally belonged to Major William Lea, as a grant for his service in the King’s army during the French Indian War. Major Lea was born in 1749 and later served in various forts during the Revolutionary War. He was married to Jane Welch, but as is typical of that time period, there is little mention of Jane’s life.

In the male-dominated history of Old St Luke’s one person stands out, not for her unique contributions, but because of her unusual birth circumstances. At the back of the church is a steep set of narrow steps. I negotiate my way down the dark, stone cellar, wondering if I will be confronted by the ghosts of people who once piled coal into a furnace or a bride in the wedding room waiting for her signal to go upstairs. Indeed, as I turn the corner into a room carefully reconstructed with time-period pieces, I am confronted by a faceless ghost wearing a cloak and bonnet. I stare at the eerie mannequin dressed in its bleak costume and read the small plaque: Jane Lea Nixon, first white child born in the Chartiers Valley.
The startling apparition of Jane Lea Nixon.

Outside in the historic graveyard, bodies are said to have been buried sometimes four-layers deep. On the far side of the small cemetery sits an old stone that reads: Jane Lea Nixon, Born 1774, Died 1859, the first white child born in Chartiers Valley.
Some of these stones are so old a special laser
process was used on them to determine the names and dates.

Other than her cloak and bonnet and the apparent point of her unique birth, very little is known about Jane. We know she was 16 when the church was initially reconstructed in 1790.  Upon her father’s death in 1827, her three brothers were left equal division of the land surrounding the church and the two daughters received 25 pounds sterling. And we know the church was a part of her life, as evidenced by the Book of Common Prayer that is still part of the possession of her descendants who remain in Pittsburgh.

Most likely she lived the life that most women lived, participating in quilting bees, gardening, sewing, but one wonders if she was allowed the company of other little girls who didn’t share her skin color. Did she have a lonely existence or one that centered on her family and siblings? We can assume there was a sometimes peaceful and sometimes tenuous relationship with the indigenous people of the area. One story tells of an Indian raid that occurred during church services. Apparently guns were immediately drawn and poked out of portholes.

Jane Lea eventually married Thomas Nixon at an unknown date, and they had three children. Thomas died at the young age of 45 and Jane remained an unmarried widow until her death at age 85.

Who was Jane Lea Nixon? What contributions did her unique birth mean for the area? Her birth may have very well signified a change in the population that inhabited the rolling hills and rushing creeks in the area. The life of the Indians soon faded from Pittsburgh as more and more white children were born, no longer significant enough to make note of, staking claim in land for farms, townships and counties. In a dubious remembrance of history, a single female “the first white child in the Chartiers Valley” became a part of the history of Old St. Luke’s church.