Archive for May, 2008

My fish was dying – again. This would make it my third fish to die in two weeks.  I grabbed the fish bowl and my coat, ran out and hailed a cab.  With icky, fishy water sloshing all over my lap, I directed the cab to the Old Town Aquarium.  I ran in the dark store panicking as my little fish gasped for breath.


“Help!!” I yelled out to no one in particular. “My fish is dying!”


A bohemian-looking guy sauntered over and peered into my bowl.


“What’s up?”


“This will be my third fish to die in the last two weeks”, I hollered, “I am doing something wrong.  Please, please help me before I kill this one, too.”


The Pet Shop Dude cleared his throat. “Ma’am,” he said, looking directly into my eyes, “It probably will die.  They all do.  You know, it’s really better if you think of a fish as an insect rather than a pet.”


He stopped me cold. Those were wise words.  I’ve recalled them often over the years, altering the nouns but maintaining the cloud-clearing sentiment. Talk about perspective.


Lately, I’ve been bouncing around, tormented by my soul-destroying need for approval.  I have this friend that I can’t figure out.  She is unpredictably open and secretive. One day we talk like great friends, the next day she’s busy and disinterested. Just when I think she’s a keeper, she distances herself. 


Somehow I seem to make this all about me, and then I walk around sad and wounded.  I view it as a personal failure. I’m doing something wrong.  I’m killing the friendship.Then I remember the sage advice of the Pet Shop Dude and I construct a new iteration of his wise words: It’s really better if I think of friendship as a source of enjoyment rather than a source of self-esteem. 


Friends make your life better; they make the road less bumpy. They are there to share in the fun and help guide through the bad, but it’s not their job to make you feel whole –that you need to do for yourself.


I force myself to think of my friend as an insect rather than a pet….and somehow, I feel better.


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When we first moved here, I didn’t know what a Hosta was.  My new neighbor, Karen, told me.  That first spring, still stunned by the loss of my career, I looked out at my new yard and felt helpless and stupid. I was lonely, bored and completely overwhelmed with all the little green shoots popping up, taunting me in their omnipresence. Karen, a serious gardener who is all about good dirt, came over in her rubber boots and started telling me what to do.


I couldn’t tell the difference between a plant and a weed, so she showed me. I went out and bought some cheap gardening gloves and started digging up weeds. I would spend hours bent over, yanking things out by the roots while my daughter, Elizabeth, serenaded me with little melodies. I started to relax.


At Karen’s urging, I watered the climbing roses regularly.  I pruned the spiraea.  I dug up old tulip bulbs that were planted in the wrong places.  I tried unsuccessfully to rescue a dying rhododendron and in the process, learned some basics on pruning, placement and site conditions.


As the weather got warmer, Karen and I would go running together.  She would point out different plants and why she liked them.  We planned our routes around gardens we wanted to show each other.  She gave me an extra copy of her favorite gardening book (Lois Hole’s “Perennial Favorites“). At the end of that first summer, I sat back and enjoyed the payoff: a few good blooms, a blossoming friendship and the beginning of a new education.  It was official: I had a hobby. 


The next spring, Karen and I sat down and planned out a whole new perennial garden by my back patio.  My husband dug up four feet of soil, an event that rivaled an Amish barn-raising.  Neighbors stopped by to watch the progress, marveling and laughing at the job we had undertaken.  We were knee deep in heavy clay and cow manure.  But in two days, we had gorgeous black soil and my new perennials oozed happily into their fertile home. We were exhausted and proud, having ceremoniously claimed the land as our own.


Each spring, I can hardly wait to get started. As soon as the first green leaves peak out from the warming earth, Karen and I begin making plans. With cups of coffee steaming in the morning air, we discuss what we have in mind for our gardens –and then we get to work. 


 With husbands and kids pitching in, we work outside for hours, stopping frequently to admire our progress.  We usually end the work day about the same time and retreat into our respective homes to shower off the mud — only to meet outside again, open a few good bottles of wine and relax on each others patios. These are among my favorite days of living here.


Three years ago, Karen was diagnosed with breast cancer.  She started chemo shortly after Christmas and finished in early June.  On days when she felt strong enough, she put on her rubber boots and headed out to her garden.  With a blanket beneath her and her daughters around her, she weeded and took naps in the sunshine, her bright, bald head resting on her outstretched arms.  It was as if she needed to absorb the life around her.


 I decided not to offer to weed or prune for her.  I thought it would be stealing pleasure, reminding her even more of what the disease had taken. Her garden looked a little sad that summer.  It seemed to be in a state of shock as well.  The growth was quiet and slow, as if waiting for her return.


 This is the third summer since her last treatment.  Her scans are clean, and her garden is flourishing wildly. It is vibrant and defiant, almost messy from the rapid growth. She keeps planting more and more things in it. With the cancer weeded out, there’s no stopping her.  


My garden is doing pretty well, too.  When I sit outside with coffee and the paper, it keeps me company and gives me perspective. I look at it and think: well, yeah– there’s progress.  I’ve done some good here.   


Dostoevsky once said “At first, art imitates life. Then life will imitate art. Then life will find its very existence from the arts.”  I think that’s the way it is with the garden.

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There’s this thing about a mother’s intuition. We’re supposed to listen to it right?  


Not too long ago, a new family moved into JCrewville. They are young with two cute kids. I’ve talked to the mother several times. She seems sweet and church-going.  I’ve been careful to watch my language around her.


Other than a little small talk however, I haven’t made the best neighborly effort.  We haven’t had them over for dinner or brought them a pie. I’ve felt guilty about this.


So when my older daughter wanted to have their son, Mason, over for a play date, it was probably the guilt that got the better of me.  Mason is a sweet four year-old with a round face, freckles and auburn hair. Whenever we walk by, he stands at the window and waves furiously. He sooo wants to hang with my daughters.


On this particular day, I was a bit more tired than usual.  I was trying to diet (again) and my blood sugar was low.  I was jittery and cranky.  Add that to my daily caffeine overdose, the upcoming dinner-making hour, and you have the beginnings of a perfect storm.  I should have said “no” more firmly, but the whining wore me down.


“Pleeeeese, Mom” she begged, “Please, can Mason come over?” 


“Honey, it’s just not a good day,” I countered, wobbly. “I don’t feel good, and I need to clean up and make dinner. I can’t really keep an eye on Mason right now.”


“Oh Mommy, I’ll watch him, I promise.You won’t have to watch him at all…pleeeeease?”  


This went back and forth for a while until I caved.  I was tired, worn down, and frankly, thought maybe this could count as a welcoming, neighborly sort of thing.


When I called to invite Mason, his mom was down-right elated. Clearly, she needed a break. “Thank you, thank you” she kept saying gratefully as she stood on my porch, “I’m just going to go for a quick run, if that’s okay – oh, thank you so much for having him”.


“No problem, take your time” I smiled back neighborly. I shut the door and turned Mason over to my daughter Elizabeth.   


All went well, for the first couple of minutes, than the “wanting” began. Mason wanted a snack.  Mason wanted to use the bathroom.  Mason wanted to watch a movie.  Elizabeth came to me for all of this and I started simmering.  I was growing increasingly shaky and behind schedule.  I needed them out of the house.  I told them to go outside even though it was a cold March day, piles of half-melted snow dotting the muddy backyard.


They went outside, and I began trying to get dinner started.  Now, seriously shaking and running behind on things, I tried to keep an eye on them, but I was scattered and distracted.  I don’t know how much time elapsed before I noticed they were missing.


Elizabeth!!!!” I yelled out.  No answer.  ELIZABETH!! Where are you???!!” I yelled out.  Nothing. I started to panic. What if I had lost the new neighbor boy?


I couldn’t see them out the back windows, so I went out the front door, unknowingly leaving it ajar.  As I turned the corner to the back yard, I spotted them.  Elizabeth had the garden hose running in the 30 degree March air.  She was squirting the icy water on Mason’s bare feet and up his pant legs.  She was trying to wash the three-inches of mud caked up to the thighs of his pants. He just stood there shivering in the foggy vapor, one little bare foot in a pile of snow.  Elizabeth had thick, dark mud up to her thighs and was barefoot as well.


I completely snapped.


ELIZABETH, What the ?????  Get inside, NOW!!!” I hissed. Mason jumped, wide-eyed and confused.  I scooped him up (gently) by the armpits, took him inside, stripped off his jeans and told him evenly to “go play, Elizabeth will be with you in a minute”. He scurried off in his Scooby Do underwear.


 I grabbed Elizabeth by the arm, yanked her inside and wrestled her long, heavy eight-year old body onto the kitchen counter.  I was incensed and out of control. She started sniveling.


“DAMMIT!!!”  I yelled as I put her muddy feet in the sink, “Do you see why I DID NOT WANT MASON OVER HERE??!!, I seethed uncontrollably.  “I told you I did NOT WANT TO BABYSIT MASON right now!!  We should NOT HAVE INVITED HIM.  I have too much to do!!  This is UNACCEPT—-“


“Hello?” I hear behind me.  Shit.


I turned around and there she was, in my kitchen.  Obviously, I hadn’t heard her knock. But there was no way she did not hear me. Her little boy was all alone in the living room in his Scooby undies, probably climbing up an un-bolted bookshelf or something.


“Oh, hiiiii.” I said.  Shit. Shit. Shit.  “Um, just having a bad mommy moment” I stuttered. “I, um, was trying to —“


“Oh that’s okay”, she cut me off swiftly and gently without looking me in the eye.  “Come on, Mason, let’s go home now!” She sang out.  She swooped up her half-naked son and in one single movement, gathered his muddy pants and wet shoes and said, “Thank you, again, for having him.” She smiled quickly and before I could say more, she ran out the door with Mason balanced on her hip, his bare feet flopping as she sprinted across the street.


Yeah, my mother’s intuition tells me a pie would have been a better call.



Postscript: Happy Mother’s Day to my Mom – who laughs with me about so many things – especially the crazy moments of motherhood.  Could it be that she’s had a few as well? 

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My daughter Caroline recently informed us she was adopted.  Apparently she used to live with her “First Family” until they were “killed and eaten by a deer”.  Now, she’s announced, she “has to live with us”.  I think she’s mostly okay with this fate, although occasionally we’ll be going somewhere and she’ll comment nostalgically “Yeah, I used to go there with my First Family.” It seems she and the First Family had a heck of a time together. 


 Poor Caroline. Those nasty, killer, family-eating deer — I guess I’ll have to spend the rest of my life trying to make it up to her.

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Peace and Quiet

We’ve started going to the pretty church in JCrewville and oy, what a scene. I had been resisting going there because it seems claustrophobic to spend time on Sunday with the very same people with whom I’ve spent Monday though Friday. Come the Sabbath, I’m looking for a break.

But here I sit, surrounded by all the locals. Totally bugged. I’ve come to open my soul, and now I’m pissed at that PTA mother who didn’t say hi to me outside even though, hello — I KNOW she saw me.

Plus looking around, I realize I’m dressed totally wrong. I’m wearing an old black suit from my working days — “Vintage Ann Taylor” as my friend Trish would say. I thought I looked pretty good when I left the house, but apparently others have bought new clothes in the last decade. Who knew?

My skin feels tight. It’s hard to smile. I need coffee. I try to read the bulletin, but I find my attention wandering over to the two people in front of me who are whispering about someone a few pews ahead of them. I was hoping for a repreive from social manuevers, but apparently not.

I do like the minister though. He lives around the corner from me. I’ve always found him warm and a bit distant at the same time (very skilled at boundaries, I suspect). He has a boyish face and curly, reddish hair that makes you want to trust him. When he stands tall at the pulpit in his black robe, I do manage to forget he’s my neighbor.

One Sunday, I sat next to this woman I sort-of know who brought a Styrofoam cup of coffee in the sanctuary with her. She was just casually sitting there legs crossed, foot bouncing, and sipping away next to me and I was totally distracted by her every movement. I was trying to pay attention, but the corner of my eye kept wandering over to her. Where did she get that coffee? Why was she drinking it in here? What was up with those shoes she was wearing? Meanwhile, while I was checking her out, I totally missed some important lesson about God that I’m sure could have made me a kinder person.

When we bowed our heads to pray the Lord’s Prayer, she poked me in the arm sometime after “Thy will be done” and stage whispered “I’m heading out. I’ll see you later.”

“Sounds good, on earth as it is in heaven” I whispered back.

Hello? Was she not listening? It was the Lord’s Prayer for Christ’s sake (literally). But then I began to wonder: Where was she going? What was so important? Couldn’t she have at least stayed for the whole prayer? Was she getting more coffee? Would she be back?

Meanwhile, a huge chunk of sermon blew right past me.

It’s funny, I thought by going to church, I would find peace. But peace doesn’t come when everyone else quiets down, it only happens when I do.

May we all find enough quiet within ourselves to hear the peace. Amen.

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