The One About Sixth Grade

A month ago, I starting writing what I imagined to be a simple, sweet piece about when I was in sixth grade. But I’m forty six years removed from sixth grade, which became apparent as I wrote a few paragraphs, erased, and tried again. The problem, if problem is the right word, is that writing about when I was eleven years old when I’m now well into my fifty-somethings is tricky because what’s coming out is an interpretation of the seconds or perhaps few minutes of the moments I’m writing about. Is what I’m writing a true representation or just what I grew up telling myself happened?

I ask this both to challenge me as a writer who often writes about the past and readers who read writers who write about the past to consider the slipperiness of truth. Our long-term memories are usually subjective, some are even biased by a subconscious wish that things had been different, and no two people remember a shared experience the same way. I’m always interested, though, in why we remember what we remember, and how, years later, our interpretation of events – what we told ourselves is true – has impacted our lives.

Anyway, that’s way heavier than this piece actually is. You won’t need an advanced degree in psychology to get through it, I promise. (But I can’t promise you won’t need a cup of coffee!)

The One About Sixth Grade

My daughter shared a video recently of my eleven-year-old grandson playing Legos with his two younger sisters. They are sitting on the floor in the girls’ bedroom, building something and singing a song. Luca’s most reliable companion, his lime green blankie, worn thin over the years, is draped over his shoulder. Luca doesn’t bring his blanket with him everywhere, but in the house, it’s always there whenever he needs its friendly, nonjudging presence.

Watching Luca singing and building, and blissfully subconscious of his blanket, I thought about when I was eleven and in sixth grade. I had a blankie, too. Like his, it was practically see-through, more of a rag, really, but it was still soft in a few places and it helped me fall asleep every night.

In sixth grade, I didn’t yet hate my hair. Baiting a fish hook was still fine to do, and a bra wouldn’t be necessary for another year. I played tetherball and skipped rope, and I didn’t care that I sweat and probably stunk. We all did. Our classroom was thick with pre-hormonal kid stink after recess.

Yet, for all its naivete, sixth grade was when my childhood starting bumping into adulthood with increasing regularity. My underdeveloped understanding of the world, informed mostly by my Lutheran upbringing, was often challenged by more adult-like issues such as “bad” words, otherwise kind people being mean, and sex.

One of my more enlightened teachers, especially regarding sexuality, was music, even though at eleven the meaning of a lot of lyrics eluded me. I bought Elton John’s album Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, and while the lyrics were printed on the inside cover, “All the Young Girls Love Alice” flew over my head. Many songs didn’t, though. When I heard “Lorelei” by Styx for the first time, I thought, People can live together without being married? and quickly decided it wasn’t a question I would ask my parents. I also knew enough about sex to turn down the radio when “Chevy Van” or “Feel Like Makin’ Love” came on. That was not a conversation I wanted to have with Mom and Dad.

Growing up in mostly protestant white bread rural Minnesota, I assumed everyone believed the same thing I did. You didn’t say “Geez” because that was short for Jesus, and “damn” was the worst four-letter word I knew. Playing “soccer” one day during recess (in 1975, our understanding of soccer was that it was like football with a kick ball), I got in my best friend’s way as she attempted to kick a goal. “Damn you, Lynn!” she yelled. I stood there, stunned. According to everything Lutheran, she was damning me to hell.

“Damn” was not a word I heard in my house, and I for sure wasn’t supposed to say it because, well, my parents said the Bible said I couldn’t. So why could my friend? Where did she hear it? Was it because her father went to the bar sometimes or that her family didn’t go to church every Sunday? Religious “rules,” as I understood them, started to feel a little unfair and not all together right. My friend hadn’t turned into a pillar of salt for saying “damn,” and in fact, her life seemed perfectly normal, if not a little more fun than mine.

I had a boyfriend named Ricky and we held hands on the bus during our sixth-grade field trip, which felt all kinds of good in all the wrong ways my mother (and the Bible) warned me about. My first kiss, though, was not with Ricky, but a boy named Todd from Anchorage who was in town visiting his grandparents. It was not at all like a Fonzie kiss, but it wasn’t awful either.

Todd’s grandmother asked me if I’d show him around town and include him in activities while he was there. I doubt she had spin the bottle in mind, but anyway, a bunch of us were playing in a little clearing of brush behind our house. When it was my turn, I hoped the bottle would land on one of the cute boys, but instead it landed on Todd. I didn’t think of Todd as cute, although maybe he was. To me, he was just someone I watched Happy Days reruns with in his grandparent’s living room. Now I had to kiss him.

I insisted we go to the garage so no one could watch. He agreed. We stepped into the dark tin building and looked at each other in awkward silence. The pressure was on him to make the first move because I had no idea what I was doing. He leaned in, I closed my eyes, and it was over in two seconds, just enough time for me to process his lips, which I could tell he’d licked right before they landed on mine .

That’s all I remember except that we didn’t kiss again and we never talked about it.

Sixth grade was, for many of us, a pivotal time when vulnerability was something we started to feel, but couldn’t yet name. There were those who offered and those who took that bite of fruit from the tree in the middle of Eden, and those of us who took notes from the sidelines. We shed our innocence, sometimes willingly, sometimes not. Either way, we discovered that the world was much bigger than we thought. I remember one boy in particular who was not academically gifted, but in music class, he would sing his heart out, every note off key. Oblivious to pitch, he sang for the pure joy of singing, whether it was “Fifteen Miles on the Erie Canal” or “Streets of Laredo.” Did he have a blankie? I hope so, because the next year, no longer within the relative safety of elementary school, he was pretty much forgotten and remained on the fringe throughout high school. I asked my cousin recently where that boy was these days and he said the last he heard he was dealing drugs in Minneapolis.

Hmmm…

Watching Luca again with his green friend wrapped over his shoulder, I thought about my old blankie. My mom threw it away one day while I was at school thinking I didn’t need it anymore. I cried myself to sleep that night, I felt so alone. But I figured it out, like we all do to some degree, how to live without the things we grew up telling ourselves we needed, when the world was still small and one-dimensional.

Reading for Sanity

My twelve-year-old granddaughter Claire (who reminds me every time we talk that she will be thirteen in October) called me yesterday, and we talked about Nerf battles, bears in Yosemite, the view of the Grand Canyon from 30,000 feet, the difference between a highway and a freeway, and how the Interstate Highway System works.

Claire knows she can talk to me about anything and yesterday, those were the things.

Claire is a voracious reader, but she’d be bored by the books I read when I was a kid. I told her how I preferred teen detective Trixie Belden over Nancy Drew, but she told me that the new Nancy Drew comics are pretty good. I had always hoped that she would like the books I did as a kid, The Wind in the Willows, The Trumpet of the Swan, Ramona the Pest or the Henry Higgins books, but she likes more angsty, futuristic books. Throw in a little dystopia and she’s all in.

In non-pandemic days, I’m always up for emotionally challenging books, one in which the ending isn’t all tied up in pretty ribbons, and intellectually challenging books that ask me to rethink some long-held (and unearthed) belief or learned prejudice. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates is an excellent example. I’ve tried reading a few more of those challenging books in the last few months, but I find that the emotional feels are exacerbated by real life. I read newspapers and news magazines and political commentary, and as part of my research for the memoir on grief, I’ve been reading academic papers on loss, bereavement, and the implications of not being able to see a loved one dead. All of that is enough of an emotional challenge right now. This makes reading for fun imperative.

Jennifer Wiener is one of my go-to writers for good endings, and by “good” endings, I mean satisfying; ones that don’t leave me in a heap of tears on the floor. I just finished Big Summer. So much fun! And Mrs. Everything is my favorite JW book to-date. It’s also recently been optioned for a TV show!

In an Instagram post, Weiner recommended books by several Black writers including Jasmine Guillory. I am currently reading her book The Wedding Date. Based on the first half, I will definitely read more Guillory books. Terry McMillan is another Black writer I love to read for that satisfying ending. Ever since How Stella Got Her Groove Back, she’s been a favorite.

Daughters of Erietown by the Pulitzer Prize columnist from Ohio, Connie Schultz, is one I didn’t want to end, and I hope Schultz has another book coming soon.

While the book, It’s OK to Laugh by Nora McInerny Purmort, is written as a series of essays about the life and death of her husband, is not the big downer you’d think a grief memoir would be. Also, Me by Elton John is a delicious piece of writing and includes some fun gossip about people in the recording industry whose names you’ll no doubt recognize.

I was in love with Elton John and Bernie Taupin when I was a kid, much to my father’s dismay. By the time I was twelve, I had bought or been given Goodbye Yellow Brick Road; Rock of the Westies; Greatest Hits Vol. 1; Don’t Shoot Me, I’m Only the Piano Player; Mad Man Across the Water; and Caribou. When I wrote a report on Elton John in sixth grade (we had to write about someone famous), Dad told me he didn’t want me buying any more Elton John albums because EJ was gay. I had no idea what that meant, so I asked Dad, “What’s ‘gay’?” He walked away and never brought it up again, and I continued to collect Elton John albums.

Our county library is open again and is offering Grab ‘n Go service. I have three books on reserve to pick up on Saturday: The Lager Queen of Minnesota by J. Ryan Stradal, Beach Town by Mary Kay Andrews, and Still Life by Louise Penny. I want to start reading the Chief Inspector Gamache Mystery series before it comes out on Amazon Prime Video. (Do you prefer to read the book first and then watch the show, or vice versa?)

Anyway…back to Claire for a moment. Whenever her name comes up on my cell, whether it’s a phone call or text, it makes my heart skip the same way it did the day she was born. I am still in awe of her, in awe that she exists and is part of my life. Sometimes, like now, when I think too hard on it, I get to crying a little. We play Battleship on Facetime, but it’s not the same as real life. What I wouldn’t give to hug her and to have her spend the weekend. But…I will take what I can get: phone calls, texts, Facetime, appropriately distanced visits.

While these days seem like forever, they will not last forever.  

In the meantime, read for your sanity, read to lift your spirits. And listen to Steve Martin play his banjo!

“Normal”

I talked to my milkman Wednesday, and I’m sure we’ll talk again tomorrow. He’s the only person I talk to in real life on a regular basis other than my partner Jim and a guy named Ben from Martin’s who puts groceries in my Jeep every other week.

Each week, the milkman, also named Jim, stands a few feet off the front stoop and I open a window and we talk through the screen, about eight feet apart. He’s a nice guy, 30ish, and married with a young daughter. He lives in the country and is wickedly sarcastic, not that the two are related. I think I’d like his mother from the stories he tells about her.

During our last conversation, he asked if I’d heard about the customer at the Johnstown Walmart who was cited and fined for spraying Lysol on lettuce. No, I said. We rolled our eyes.

He told me about the bear that startled him in the early morning as he walked out to his car to go to work. I told him about our bear and how he has figured out how to open our garbage can, despite the bungee cord.

Except for talking through a screen, our weekly chats are about the only somewhat pre-March 12th normal thing I do anymore. Our conversations are always light and ordinary, but on recent Wednesdays, for those ten or fifteen minutes, I feel the importance of ordinary. While the rest of the world feels uneasy and scary, there’s always the milkman, delivering milk and sour cream and butter. His schedule tethers me to what’s left of the rituals that ground me.

Birds are like that, too. They are predictable, rhythmic, and steadfast.

I’ve maintained at least one bird feeder everywhere I’ve lived, thinking, “Oh look, I’m helping birds,” which is silly really because they’ve managed to survive for millions of years without humans throwing out birdseed and peanuts and mealworms. This spring, though, they probably did need a bit of help. We had several nights of below-freezing temperatures the first two weeks of May and a birding friend told me that the cold meant no bugs were flying around for them to eat and that bird feeders are their emergency food pantries. So, yes, in a way I was “helping” birds, but mostly it’s for selfish reasons that I feed birds.

I need birds. I need their physical beauty and the beauty of their flight. I need their songs. Their voices fill the void of the so much quiet of these days, especially the difficult ones. Also, they behave like humans – bitchy, testy, helpful, picky – so that I don’t miss humans quite as much. A Blue Jay calls for his mate that he’s found food. She arrives and chases away the Cardinal, who doesn’t return until the coast is clear. The male Oriole chases away his mate from the orange half he’s enjoying and she flies off to the suet feeder. He decides he wants suet instead and so she goes to the orange until he decides that the orange is his favorite after all…and on and on it goes.

Some states, not mine, are opening up everything, and people are flocking to shops, restaurants, bars, and nail salons, many unmasked, because they say they want to feel “normal” again. My normal is that it will be a while before I am comfortable eating in a restaurant, getting my hair cut, or having a pedicure. I’d like to go to a baseball game, and I’d especially love to embrace my family and snuggle with my granddaughter as she sucks her thumb and fingers her blankie and chats about a friend I don’t know or the bug she found on the ceiling. But right now, normal is in my backyard. It’s chatting with the milkman once a week through a window screen. It’s watching Jeopardy at 7:00 and playing Battleship via Facetime with another granddaughter. It’s texting with my daughters and friends about their days.

This is in no way to say that my life right now is some Xanadu-like existence. Please don’t think I don’t think about the paycheck, or how to put food in the cupboard or pay the phone bill. Normal – no matter how we define it, and whether we like it or not – is fluid. It always has been, but it’s especially fluid now, and we can’t afford to seek the normal we once knew, to look the other way, as though there isn’t a presence looming over us, an invisible “what if.”

Deep breath… It’s so easy to get caught up in all the chaos, noise and chatter, right?

My hope is that, for even a few moments during your days, you can find normal and ordinary in the view of a bird, a social-distancing chat with a friend (or milkman), or even in your own breath.

I really mean this…namaste (you are divine, and don’t let anyone tell you you’re not).

Care in the Time of COVID

In a recent poll,fifty percent of Americans said that the pandemic has negatively affected their mental health. My guess is the percentage is much higher because, you know, denial. “I’m fine!” is our trained response to “How are you?” even when, or perhaps especially when, we ask ourselves.

I’ve been thinking about what it means to care about people in the abstract and people we know up-close and personal, including ourselves, and how we can’t effectively have one without the other. When I saw a recent photo of a large, white (and unmasked) man screaming in the face of a state trooper in Michigan during a protest against government mandates put in place to flatten the curve, my initial response was, Wow, what a jerk! and then, after some time to think, I wondered, What do we have in common?

Take away his disregard for the health and safety of those around him, I saw a person whose actions were motivated by fear (both rational and irrational) and not by an overarching compassion for humanity. “The government can’t tell me what to do!” is not born out of anger. Anger itself originates in fear, and in this case, fear that the government can, and will, tell people what they can do.

There will always be folks who lose their shi*t and those who keep it together no matter what crisis they’re faced with. While I am often the former, I live with the latter, one such folk who keeps it together. Even though Jim feels the underlying emotional impact of the uncertainty right now, and the fear of “What if I get it?” and the economic toll it’s having all around, he expresses his fear by caring about people, not screaming in their face.

Here’s what I mean. You know when you’ve reached the end of your rope and you can’t type another word or read another word or watch another minute of news? I reached that place on Friday. I couldn’t think anymore. I needed to talk to Jim. I slipped on my shoes, grabbed my cane, and started walking across the yard to the garage, gathering emotional steam along the way.

The dog had run out of the door ahead of me and she announced my impending arrival.  Jim appeared in the doorway and his smile quickly turned to concern.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, and all that pent-up fear disguised as anger came tumbling out.

“I miss my kids, I miss my grandkids, my knee hurts, and I’m a horrible writer!”

He wrapped his arms around me and I sobbed into his sweatshirt for what felt like an hour. When I started to pull away, he pulled me closer, and I cried even harder.

“You did the right thing coming out here.” He knows I would stew in silence, or make mountains out of mole hills that had nothing to do with what was really bothering me, kind of like the protester.

We sat down and devised a plan for a social distancing visit with my daughters and the grandkids the next day. There was nothing we could do about my knee except talk about it, but acknowledging that it’s messed up and needs to be replaced helped untangle the abstract fear I have of never walking again. As for being a horrible writer, I know this is not true, but the fear in that statement is that I’m not good enough and that I’ll never be good enough, and saying it out loud lay bare that fear, too.

Listening, saying “I hear you,” can mean so much anytime, but especially now.

It doesn’t mean fears go away just by saying them out loud. But saying them out loud to someone who cares takes them down to their bare bones and they become more manageable. Solutions become more clear. Or if there are no immediate solutions, we can better eke out a way to handle the fear rather than deflecting it on to other people.

I’m heartened to see, in contrast to protesting, so many people demonstrating their care for others through their gifts and talents, their livelihood, and through simple random acts of kindness (even wearing a mask is an act of caring). Something I look forward to almost every evening is poet Billy Collins’s twenty-minute poetry reading/mini lecture on Facebook. Instead of watching it on full screen, I like to read and sometimes participate in the comment conversation that streams up the page. I feel less isolated, even for a short time.

Statistically, half of you are in the pandemic-is-having-a-negative-impact-on-your-mental-health camp. Or as I said earlier, probably more than half. How are you taking care of yourself? That is both a rhetorical question and a genuine inquiry. I might not know you, but I care.

 

Emotional Transportation

My sister texted me last night to say she was on the struggle bus. I wrote back saying I was on the vacant train. I can’t think my way out of a bag this week, and I can’t retain the plot of a movie or TV show without referring to IMDb. To help shake these cobwebs, I’m cooking things that, unlike slapping together a grilled cheese, require thought and concentration. Even then, I follow a recipe like I’m stoned. It took me over an hour to make rice pilaf yesterday.

On Monday I made bread in the bread maker, which is simple enough to do, but I measured out the yeast like it was the last glass of wine I’d ever drink. I have one and half yeast packets left, enough for one loaf of English muffin bread and another loaf of bread maker bread, and it feels weird and waaaaay hypervigilant that I know that. I can buy bread in the store, but like many of you, I’m trying to limit where I go. It’s been nine days since I was in a physical store (Lowe’s for water softener salt) and it was the first time I’d worn a mask. I support wearing a mask in public, but wow…I didn’t realize how confining they are. Nothing like a little claustrophobia to go along with a heightened state of germaphobia.

I understand that this vacant feeling is part of my emotional response to the pandemic, and I admit that I have adopted old coping mechanisms, including self-judgement for utilizing old coping mechanisms, and I really need to stop “doomscrolling” before going to bed. But the one emotional transport my sister and I agreed we wouldn’t hop on is the guilt wagon.

I’m all for utilizing time creatively…in normal times. But right now, I’m not up to faking creativity. Sure, I would love to write something brilliant with this “extra” time on my hands, but never in a million years could I guilt myself into it. What I’m writing right here is borderline boring, or maybe it’s all-in boring, but it’s all I’ve got right now and that’s OK. And if I feel like reading a book or watching a show at 1:00 in the afternoon instead of being brilliant, I do it. Now, sometimes I do it with a glass of wine or I eat crackers and cheese in bed with the dog (*see the last paragraph about coping mechanisms), and sometimes I say to myself, “You should ____” (write, exercise, sweep the deck…), but I’ve gotten pretty good at shutting myself up.

Nesting Interrupted

We thought the snakes would work, but they only scared the tufted titmouse, who was back this year to make a nest on top of a spotlight bolted to a rafter on our back porch. I was sitting at my desk last week when she arrived, and from my window, I watched her fly around the rubber snake and fly away, never to be seen again. A sparrow, however, was not deterred, and yesterday, she went about building a nest in that precarious, fateful place where few baby birds survive. They often fall out of the nest or die from the oppressive heat coming off the tin roof.

It’s fun to watch a mama bird sitting on her nest and then feed the babies once they hatch, but I couldn’t take another year of watching them die, so before the little sparrow could go any further, Jim got up on a ladder and removed the dried grass and leaves she’d so carefully put in place, and removed the light. He also covered the small electric box with heavy duty tin foil and stapled it to the rafter.

As he worked, I watched the little bird, with a scrap of grass in her mouth, fly from the clothes line to the hemlock on the edge of the porch to the opposite corner of the porch and back to the clothes line, no doubt concerned by what she was witnessing. I said, “We’re doing this for your own good,” but you can’t reason with a bird, of course. Now, sitting here in my office, I watch her flying around the rafters, wondering where her little nest went. She circles through every few minutes, like what I do when I’m looking for something I’ve lost and I keep looking in the same place, hoping it will magically appear.

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I’m sorry, little bird. I know this is a stressful time for you. I remember “nesting,” that inexplicable urge to prepare before my babies were born. It was like I woke up one morning and a switch had gone off in my head: Get ready NOW! You need to do all the things NOW! If someone or something had stopped me, I’m sure I’d have been stressed beyond belief.

A friend of mine who knows a lot about birds (she’s who bought us the rubber snakes) assures me that sparrows are resourceful and that the little bird will soon find another place to build her nest. That is helpful, and hopeful, even though as I complete this, she’s still circling, still with a tuft of grass in her mouth. I think how she is a metaphor for these confusing times. She is stressed, and rightly so. But she’ll be alright, eventually. And so, too, will we.

The Worrying Worrier and the Worries of Worry

Never in my life have I dreamed about toilet paper…until Sunday night. I woke up in a panic at 1 a.m. wondering what would happen if we ran out, and you know how everything is 20 times worse in the middle of the night, right? It wasn’t a Xanax-worthy panic attack, but it took me a while to go back to sleep, and I woke up still wondering where I was going to buy toilet paper.

Of all the things to worry about (and believe me, I worry), toilet paper is on my mind the most, I think, because toilet paper, or the lack thereof, is an easier worry to worry about than all the other worries right now.

I remember when my worrier self fully fledged, 38 years ago today (April 2). It was the day before my wedding. I’d recently moved to the acreage where my future husband, Bruce, and I would live before taking over the family farm in a few months, and I was there waiting for my family and a few friends to drive down from Minneapolis, 200 miles away.

The temperature was a balmy 75 degrees, warm for early April, and it was humid and windy. It smelled and felt like a severe storm could form any minute, and it did, late in the afternoon, after everyone arrived safely. My family was staying with my aunt and uncle in town (Jasper, Minnesota, population – at that time – 750…give or take), and my friends, Pam and Mike, were staying in our spare room. Bruce drove out after evening chores, and the four of us hung out and drank beer. After dark, the wind picked up again and rattled the windows. Thinking another thunderstorm was on its way, I looked out a window and it was snowing, as in I-couldn’t-see-across-the-road snowing! And that, my friends, is when my worrier self was born.

I freaked.

I think I said something like (and almost certainly all in one breath): “Oh my god how can we get married tomorrow no one will be there what if our soloist can’t get here from Iowa what if the ring bearer’s family can’t drive down from Minneapolis what if we get snowed in what if…what if…what if???”

Bruce, ever the patient and calming presence, assured me that we would get married the next day, even if he had to borrow a tractor or snowmobile to get us to the church. Still…I worried, and I’ve been worrying ever since.

For the better part of the last half of my life, I’ve spent countless hours (and money) in and out of therapy to “cure” my worried self. What I learned, though, is that I won’t ever not be a worrier, it’s in my DNA, and that I cannot control much of anything except how I respond to what it is I’m worried about. And it’s the response part that I work on, or at least try to be aware of, every day.

These are unprecedented times, indeed. The other word I use a lot is “uncertain.” It’s hard not to worry in these uncertain times. But I heard something recently that stopped my worrying mind in its worried tracks. I’m paraphrasing, but it was something like, “Times are uncertain, but they’ve always been uncertain and always will be uncertain. We’ve never been able to predict the future. Be focused on now and not spend your time worried about what might happen.”

The big difference between today and a day six months ago is the devastating virus now in our midst. But that day six months ago is also no different than today because the uncertainty of six months ago is the same uncertainty now. Our response to our worry is where our strength lies. That’s the only thing we can control.

Yesterday afternoon, as I read the news, “Three Little Birds” popped into my head, insistently, like it really needed me to listen. I found the song on YouTube and I listened to it over and over (sometimes sobbing) until I started to believe that every little thing is gonna be alright, in its own way and in its own time. It always has been that way and it always will. May you, too, believe what Bob is singing, and that it helps lessen the worry in your own mind.

PS: We got married (alas, without a ring bearer), and we didn’t need a snowmobile to get to the church.

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Searching for Normal

Normally on Saturdays, Jim and I go on a breakfast adventure. We either try a restaurant we’ve not been to or try something new in the places we have. Jim is always on the lookout for the perfect sausage gravy or creamed chipped beef over home fries. I look for fresh brewed iced tea, non-instant oatmeal, and homemade hash browns. And if the place uses fresh mushrooms in their omelets, five stars on Trip Advisor! Generally we stay within 45 minutes of home, but we’ve been known to wander a bit farther on a nice day.

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Zuzu loves breakfast adventures, too, and when she’s with us, I get her a side of bacon or a slice of ham for the ride home. Today, she enjoyed looking out the window at cows and very large farm dogs who could eat her in one bite.

There’s definitely not much normal about these days. Schedules have changed, activities are greatly limited or restricted (or greatly increased if you are an essential worker, and I can’t thank you enough for what you do). As a germaphobe with anxiety, everyone and every surface is suspect to me anyway, but that sense of germs, germs everywhere(!) is heightened right now. I needed a slice of normal this morning, so Jim and I went on a breakfast adventure, sans breakfast, since the drive is always half the fun.

We took a circuitous route on back roads, across swollen rivers and past a covered bridge. I saw Canada geese floating on ponds, turkeys walking across bare corn fields, chickens free ranging, doing their chicken thing. Daffodils dotted the banks of the hills and the ditches…a sure sign of spring. Listening to the radio, the song “Roll Me Away” by Bob Seger came on and we were acutely aware of that desire for freedom within uncertainty: “Roll, roll me away, Won’t you roll me away tonight. I, too, am lost, I feel double-crossed, And I’m sick of what’s wrong and what’s right.” 

There’s a freedom in normal, and now that normal has been turned on its head, I realize how much I take my normal for granted. It’s the right thing to stay away from others as much as possible, especially in the upcoming week (although I confess I giggled when I heard a doctor say we need to take “prophylactic measures”), but my hope is that, despite it all, each of us can find a little freedom in our lives every day, either inside our homes or inside our heads or driving down the road listening to the radio.

Or…if you have some cheese and macaroni lying around… Comfort food is not always a bad thing, people 😉.

Macaroni and Cheese (Lynn’s adaptation from an Epicurious recipe)

8 Servings

6 T butter, divided

1 C Panko bread crumbs

8 C shredded cheese (I usually use 6 C extra sharp cheddar, 1 C mild cheddar or Monterey Jack, and 1 C smoked gouda – the secret ingredient 😊)

1 pound macaroni (it’s more fun with spiral pasta or medium shells)

3 ¼ C whole milk

3 T all-purpose flour

1 ½ t dry mustard

¼ to 1 t fine sea salt (I start with ¼ t and adjust later if needed)

½ t ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 350 degrees, although you can make this ahead of time and bake later. Store in the fridge sans the topping, which you make just before it goes in the oven.

Spray/grease a 9×13 baking dish, or use a 3-quart round casserole. I find that the round casserole keeps the mac and cheese more creamy.

Cook the macaroni according to the directions on the package. When done, drain without rinsing and return to the pot they were cooked in.

In a medium saucepan, melt 3 T of butter. Add the flour to make a smooth roux. Add a bit of milk and whisk until smooth. Add remaining milk and cook over medium high heat until the sauce thickens. Just be sure not to let the milk come to a boil. Turn the heat to low and add the mustard, salt, and pepper. Add the cheese and stir constantly until it is completely melted and smooth.

Pour the cheese over the macaroni and mix well. Taste and add more salt if you want. Place in casserole or baking dish.

For the topping, melt 3 T of butter and mix it with the Panko. Sprinkle on top. Bake for at least 30 minutes or until the topping is browned and crispy.

#Coronapocalypse

 

“Hope”ful New Year!

hopeI woke to a poem in my inbox this morning, January 1, a day of hope and possibility. At least that’s how it’s marketed.

I’m optimistically cautious by nature, and I don’t believe in much, especially fate, destiny or divine intervention. Each of us has the potential to act in accord with our innate goodness. Each of us is responsible for how we respond to heartache and loss. No one is responsible for making us happy, and each of us is no better than the other.

But…I do believe in hope and possibility, which is, sadly, lacking in too many people’s lives. And for those of us who can, I believe it is our responsibility to offer hope and possibility – when appropriate – to those we love, and even those we don’t know. Not pithy hope, and certainly not head-in-the-sand hope, but genuine care, be it a smile, a helping hand, or simply not expressing every opinion we have when we have it. For me, today, it’s sharing this poem that I hope will offer you…hope. In spite of everything, may you find hope to begin again. And again, if necessary. Happy “hope”ful new year!

The New Year
by Barbara Crooker

When a door bangs shut, a window doesn’t open.
Sometimes, it slams on your fingers. God often
gives us more than we can handle. A sorrow
shared is a sorrow multiplied. There’s a bottle
of Champagne waiting to be uncorked,
but it’s not for you. Nobody wants another poem.
The prize-winning envelope has someone else’s name
on it. This year you already know you’re not going
to lose those ten pounds. How can you feel hope,
when the weight of last year’s rejections is enough
to bury you? Still, the empty page craves the pen,
wants to feel the black ink unscrolling on its skin.
In spite of everything, you sit at your desk and begin.

Laid Bare By a Questionnaire

Talking to a stranger about ourselves can (sometimes) be fun at a party or on a first date; cathartic when the stranger is receptive or being paid to listen; marginally OK/not OK standing in line at the grocery store; and downright disconcerting when the inquiry is particularly personal and your life kinda sorta depends on how you answer.

In preparation for my hip replacement on Wednesday, a surgical nurse called Friday to ask me questions about my medical history. Even the blogger in me, whose “job” is to write stuff about my life and share it with strangers, is unnerved by the medical interview because who doesn’t want to bring their best to an interview?

Martha, the surgical nurse, seemed very nice. She’d had her hip replaced last year, so she was empathetic. She started with the easy questions. Well, easy questions to answer, but not so easy to feel inside. Date of birth? How tall am I? How much do I weigh…? Apparently “Not what I’d like to” isn’t the right answer. Old habits die hard, and I made an excuse for being overweight again and vowed to her (reminder, she is a complete stranger who I’ll never meet) that I would lose 50 pounds once I had a new hip.

I could hear her typing and she offered no response, so of course I thought, ‘Crap, maybe she’s overweight, too, and I’ve insulted her!’, but I didn’t go there. Apologizing would maybe have furthered an even bigger cluster f*** than I’d potentially created.

My mind was everywhere it didn’t need to be at that point.

*deep breath*

Martha moved on. She asked about what surgeries I’ve had, how my various body systems were functioning, and how I responded to anesthesia. I gave short, succinct answers. She didn’t need to know that after I had my tonsils out, when I as 17, when I woke up after surgery, I lifted up the sheet and cried, “I’m naked! I want my mom!”

Martha asked if I had children. I said I did. God love Martha, I dodged a bullet when she asked, “When were your babies born?” I answered, without hesitation and with a deep breath out, “1983 and 1984.” In prior medical interviews, the question was phrased, “How many times have you been pregnant?” That’s a red-flag question for anyone who has had a miscarriage or abortion, and the response can trigger a shit-ton of regret and sad feelings. Thank you, Martha, for not making me go there.

Any depression or anxiety issues? Well, now, that’s complicated. I blabbed on for a while, giving her way more info than she probably needed, but then, I wanted her (again, a complete stranger) to understand that I wasn’t always depressed or anxious, and that lately, things were going well and…and… and… She listened patiently, and when I was finished, she simply said, “Take an Ativan the day of your procedure.” End of convo.

There’s so much about our lives we want to keep private, and it’s in our protective nature that we don’t want to offer full disclosure about things that, to non-medical folks like me, don’t seem relevant when being interviewed for a hip replacement. Just like a job interview, you want to stay upbeat and say what you need to in order to get the job.

Was I 100 percent truthful? Not really. But I doubt that the joint(s) I smoked when I was 16 (to 24) preclude me from getting this hip. I’ve had five other surgeries since that last high and I’m alive to tell the story.

Just don’t tell Martha, OK? (Or my mom.)