on brokenness and soup

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On October 5th, I broke myself.

What happened was this: I went running.

Actually, I’d been running injury free since July, and things had been going well. Three miles turned into four, and the splits on the clock began to look promising. Everything seemed possible with my running shoes laced.

I felt good.

I felt so good that I started remembering my days of running across the state. I remembered long runs on the bike trails and how after I passed the “Happy Face Bridge”  (my father called it that) I always knew that six miles had fallen away and my brain could finally turn off.

I could relax and just be.

Maybe I could get back to those long runs, I told myself. Maybe I could do another half marathon — a goal for springtime even. Maybe I could run long and well enough to finally call myself a real runner.

An athlete.

Long ago I used to train with a lot of people faster than I. They’d say — not entirely unkindly — that it hurt their knees to run at my pace, so they’d sprint ahead and I’d push to keep them in sight. Frankly, this didn’t used to bother me, but all of a sudden it does and so this year I decided to push my pace. All at once I needed to eradicate the memory of girl outpaced, girl left behind.

I decided to run faster.

You can probably guess what happened next. My shin started to ache. I took a few days of rest paired with a few doses of Advil and then got back on track. It hurt again. I rested it again.

I ran again. It hurt again.

And then I got sick of it. I got sick of waiting and I repeated to myself what I have been told countless times over the years: Sometimes you just have to push through the pain, no matter the consequence.

Listen: They are wrong, the people who tell you such things. It turns out there are precious few times when you should push through physical pain. I once walked around with a ruptured appendix for three days before admitting I needed a doctor. This experience almost killed me, so I should know better by now.

Why does it take me so long to learn my lessons?

On Monday, I ran until I could no longer walk. On Tuesday, I limped into the doctor’s office. I hobbled out on crutches.

For an added dose of idiocy, I didn’t tell anyone I was so badly hurt because I was afraid my friends would show up at my doorstep clutching containers of autumn soup in their hands.

This secrecy makes no sense whatsoever because the good people of South Dakota make excellent soup, and why would anyone decline the opportunity to have such delicacies delivered to your door by people who care about both you and soup?

Anyway.

I am broken. Limping. Aching.

Humbled.

Healing.

This beautiful fall week has been lived mostly in bed. When I drop my daughter off at school, at orchestra, at play rehearsal, I don’t get out of the car.

I wave and I smile. Waving and smiling is enough.

The world rushes by swiftly when you can’t walk, I have noticed. During this week of mandatory rest, I have also noticed that my dog can no longer leap off the bed particularly well. Sunset fades more quickly in the fall compared with the lingering of summer. It’s been a long time since I dusted the ceramic birds perched on my windowsill that once belonged to my gram.

I have been unfocused, it seems. Distracted. I wonder what else I have missed.

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Most significantly, I noticed that my hiking shoes are beaten and worn and faded and repaired, but they held their own on the trails this summer … unfaltering. My running shoes, on the other hand, are obnoxiously bright and new-ish, but will need to be replaced in a few months all the same.

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And so I made a decision.

I put the running shoes in the closet.

I set the hiking shoes by the front door.

My shin will heal. And when it does, however long it takes, I know what my feet need this season. I know what my soul needs this season.

In the meantime, I probably ought to figure out how to make soup.

in the company of bees

First, this …

My father used to say you could tell when summer was ending because the bees were out looking for new homes.

Then, this …

A friend texted this morning to remind me:  Today is the final day of summer. Enjoy it.

And so, this …

I take my work outside and flop onto a blanket under the trees. I wish my dad was sitting beside me. I wish my friend was sitting beside me.

Instead, I find myself in the company of bees.

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We are never truly alone, are we? I lie here in the grass, sun warming the soles of my feet, because someone who cares about me turned my gaze to the gentle passage of another season. I lie here in the grass, a handful of leisurely bees hovering about (and I, hoping they find what they’re looking for) because someone who cares about me taught me how to be in the world.

They are both with me now. My father. My friend. More so because I have scribbled their names into my notebook. I close my eyes and my blanket overflows with beautiful company.

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This morning I took a walk with my dog. Her paw is infected, I’m nursing a shin splint. We explored slowly, gingerly.

The neighborhood was wrapped in fog … a parcel bundled in damp gray paper. I half expected to stumble upon a white loop of string binding us all together. Yet each time I glanced at my dog, fur graying, limping slightly, she appeared as if inside a bubble of clarity — no fog pressing upon her at all.

She stops for every smell — this dog who knows her purpose — every taste, every texture. She turns to look at me, check up on me, smell me, as if to say, “Are you still here? Are you still yourself? Are we still on this journey together?”

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This is what we do for those we love.

We walk with them. We share their stories and their sunsets and we hold their hands on the last day of summer. We love their gray hair and worn away hairs,  their slightly battered bodies, their lines and their scars.

We close our eyes and hope they are capable of knowing us this much in return —  that this unconditionality will somehow continue to make us real.

It’s been almost a year since I had to say goodbye to my father. I haven’t seen my friend in more than two decades. My dog is graying, yet I have not yet begun to gray. Sometimes I swear she notices this injustice, notices this inconsistent aging process between human and canine and it bothers her as much as it bothers me.

And so it goes.

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At my dad’s funeral, one of his friends told me: “How you feel about your dad  — the way you looked up to him, the man you knew he was — that’s how your own child feels about you.”

I replied, simply, “I find that hard to believe.”

I am not my father. I am not that resilient, that indomitable. In some ways, however, his friend was right (of course).

And so I am left to wonder. Will my own child remember, long after she is grown and living on her own terms, to sink into a blanket in the grass with a journal and an afternoon stretched before her?

Will this girl, born on the vernal equinox, remember to pause and see, really see, the nuanced changing of a Dakota season?

Will she close her eyes and wonder, “Are you still with me?”

“Are we still on this journey together?”

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for love of january

january sunset

photo by Jeffrey Paul

 

My friends think I’m crazy for loving January.

In fairness, my fondness for the month didn’t start until I lived, for a time, in California. It was the rising of a new year and I suddenly found myself staring into the Pacific, longing for a cold slap of Dakota air to keep things around me a little more honest, a little more real.

Then, after four gorgeously redundant Januaries in Hawaii, I finally knew it was time to turn homeward. I needed to live where Mother Nature lets her hair down and gives it a gentle shake now and then.

So here I am. January in South Dakota.

Sometimes, it gets so cold around here the citizens throw their hands in the air and decide to just stay home for the day. School is cancelled. Businesses close. And there it is—the curving of a perfectly fine morning and you find yourself holding a book and a blanket with no particular place to go.

Hello, couch. It’s been a while.

Of course one must, more often than not, march boldly into that glaring whiteness, wisps of danger curling beneath your tires as you squint at the road and accept, if not exactly welcome, the aching chill that haunts your bones the rest of the day.

We pat each other on the back for this, this surviving. No one pats you on the back for enduring January in Hawaii. What would be the point?

These are the mornings we appreciate our cars, our furnaces, the sturdy men and women in Carhartt overalls who repair our cars and our furnaces. These are the days we utter clumsy prayers and mantras and benedictions for the things we normally take for granted.

Bring her home safely. 

Please start, please start, please start. 

Stay warm. Be safe. 

Reality is heightened in January. The air bites and stings and reminds you of the delicacy, the fragility, of human skin. And yet, January, perhaps, is the simplest month of twelve. For one frozen moment, we neither over-plan nor over-schedule, if only because we are stunned and humbled into accepting our own limitations.

Instead, we adapt. We overcome. We check on our neighbors, jumpstart the cars of strangers, pass out extra mittens.

In January, it is enough to survive.

And, of course, we have now also entered the new year—the season for dreamers. Everything is seen afresh—how to eat, how to breathe, how to make the closets airy and sparkling by Easter.

In January we leap from the ledge of optimism, gracefully kneading a smidgen more sunshine out of each day. For we are the people of the warm socks, who stand in knee-deep snow in order to spill birdseed into our backyard feeders. We are January people, loosening our white-knuckle-grip on destiny for the momentary pleasure of imagining a life lived free and light and clean.

Perhaps one can never convince those who hate winter to appreciate how the sunset looks different—sacred, glasslike—at 30 degrees below zero. That’s all right.

A simple life isn’t one where you scream at the world to change its mind.

In January, the only mind worth changing is your own.

a simple grief

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It is two thirty in the morning and I find myself suddenly and irreversibly awake, accompanied by the aching dread of realization: Tomorrow will be exhausting if I don’t somehow fall back asleep.

Yet something feels wrong. For reasons unknown, my mind is obsessing over the fact that my refrigerator seems to be perpetually running out of milk. I buy the milk, really I do, but moments later it vanishes, leaving me with the uncomfortable inkling that perhaps I left a cold gallon in the shopping cart, or on the roof of the car.

Who is drinking all this milk, I ask the night. Is there a platoon of kittens stationed in the fridge, waiting for the door to close so they can lap up their rations?

No. This is just me, losing track of the days again, waking up on Monday and blinking to find it is already Friday night, blinking again and discovering another Monday morning.

And now we enter Advent, the season of waiting. I have cleared the kitchen table to make room for the Advent Calendar, dusting and discarding what is no longer needed in exchange for the hope of a new season.

I started the year with a longing to simplify, and believing, naively, that simplifying meant getting rid of clutter. I immediately fell short of my goals, was slammed with a flooded basement, and was rescued from the disaster, in part, by my father.

Not what I had planned.

Then my dad became ill, more so than any of us fully realized. He died in early November.

Not what anyone had planned.

One of the most difficult (and blessed) moments of grieving has been standing face-to-face with others who have, at some point, lost their own fathers as they reach out to me. I look them in the eye and see suffering reflected.

This doesn’t ever go away, their eyes reveal. The sorrow. The joy. The crushing humility. All are here to stay. Welcome them. Shake their hands.

My friends have showered me with gifts. Hugs. Vegetarian chili. Letters and cards. Memorials to my dad. All useful. All deeply appreciated. In a crisis, everyone seems to know exactly what to do, even if they didn’t believe that to be true when they got out of bed that morning. In a crisis, minutes unfold in sacred order. The patience, the kindness, the ability to mourn—all arise without summon and blanket me.

When you are wandering through a shadow season such as this, you realize how few disasters there really are in modern, American life. Most of our perceived suffering is unnecessary and absurd in comparison.

It doesn’t matter if I run out of milk or have yet to adequately cull my collection of books. Extra weight. Debt. All are laughable distractions compared to the twisting ribbon of life now unspooling before me.

In January, I will carry on. But now, it is December. I will listen to music. I will drape the hooks through the ornaments as my father did when I was small. Now, when I awake in the middle of the night, I will accept the invitation of darkness and curl up next to the Christmas tree, bathed by the moon and by the holy twinkling of lights.

One of my dad’s friends told me this: “The way you watched your father … that’s the way your own kids see you.”

If he speaks true, then my own child sees me thus: Larger. Than. Life.

So I have cleared the table for her Advent calendar and pared my schedule in December down to a few essentials. Minimal entertainment. Minimal shopping. Minimal baking. There will, however, be hot chocolate. There will be stories of Christmas past and present. There will be snuggling.

I will not lose track of the days, for the days are never so careless as to lose track of me.

I began the year wanting to live simply. I enter December knowing it is enough to simply live.

a day without planes

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It’s been almost a year since I first decided to forgo holiday shopping in order to begin simplifying my life. Now, the heady sweetness of November once again alights upon the upturned faces of the city. Have I abandoned the quest to launch my Christmas shopping yet?

Um … no. Looks like this simplicity thing is going to stick.

It’s not that I’ve “arrived,” not by any means. If you showed up at my door, you’d find a dog whose collar I removed for a good neck scratch (a week ago) and still can’t find. (I can’t find the collar. The dog, thankfully, possesses the amiable quality of always finding me.)

My plan for this evening is to remove some books from a shelf, dust, sort, reduce as many titles as palatable, and line the shelf with books that are more beloved. The beloved books, alas, are mostly in piles on my living room floor. And, in spite of good intentions, I recently found myself wondering, “How did October become so busy?” because I had, once again, over-scheduled myself.

For me, simplicity is still a process. Last week, standing upon the glossy floors of Target, I got a little further insight into why.

I only needed one thing at Target, maybe two. Household basics. And yet there I was trying on fall jackets. I don’t need a fall jacket. I already have one. So I walked away, because, you know, I’m all about self-discipline. (You know by now that’s a joke, right?)

I wandered the aisles, going over my mental list (of two items, you’ll remember) because if there is one thing I loathe it’s going to the store and having to go back again the same day to retrieve some forgotten necessity, which by the way, happens to me pretty consistently. I am the kind of person who buys the cereal and forgets to bring home the milk.

A year of simplifying has brought unexpected benefits, namely paying down a certain amount of credit card debt. All at once I realized that I had a card in my pocket with a zero balance. New fall jacket? Possible. A present for my daughter? She deserves it.

My unexpected good fortune rushed over me and, frankly, threatened to pull me under. It was smartly followed by my old friend—fear.

What if my current jacket rips and I need a new one and then I can’t find one I like? What if December arrives and I’m out of money? Hadn’t I better stock up on gifts, just in case?

Justification, slipping towards fear, cascading into panic. Soon I was wondering where the money would come from if I lost my job, the car breaks down, our decades-old furnace refuses to stumble through another winter. And, sure enough, I began feeling like I had better buy anything I (might) need right now, before it’s too late.

I don’t mind telling you, deep breathing and a sanity check were both required.

When did I start believing that there would never be enough—enough work to sustain a family, enough time to sustain relationships, enough activity to contribute to a community? When did I start believing that everything was so fragile and could somehow be made less so by squirreling away supplies, tangible and otherwise? When did I start thinking that saying yes to every request would somehow increase my value as a human being?

I’m not sure, honestly. By way of extended metaphor, however, I’d like to offer the morning of September 11, 2001. I was home with my daughter, just an infant then, with not even one year of knowing each other tucked away. I plopped her on a blanket, turned her away from the television, pushed the mute button and wept as the second tower crumbled into dust and ashes and bones.

I was alone. And, like everyone else in America, I didn’t know what was going to happen next.

But there was this child of mine, perched upon the floor, turning over the pages of a board book, oblivious to the vastness of the world into which she had been born, except for a few touchtones. Her book. Her blanket. Me.

I turned off the television and took her outside. We walked and walked; I’m not sure how long we were gone. I kept watching the sky and whispering to myself “no planes, no planes” as a reminder that my family, my city, was not under attack. Something bad was happening. But it wasn’t happening here. It wasn’t happening to me.

I could keep walking. I didn’t have to run.

Sometimes there seems to be such a heaviness of tragedy and threat in the world, we all stand moments away from toppling into panic. Panic can manifest itself in some rather silly ways. Shopping. Yelling. Obsessing. Refusing to help those in need in order to protect our own sense of security and order.

This year, more than any other, I have learned the things you think make sense don’t always stay that way. People who spend a lifetime taking care of their health tumble into disease. Relationships you thought would sustain vanish like vapor. Work becomes a twisted game of corporate Candy Land, with some colleagues swooshing up to the castle, while others swish off the board at the flip of a card.

Deep breath. Sanity check.

Today, I turn again to picking the books off of my living room floor. Why? Because it is the task in front of me, and because I can do it with love. I hug my child. Stir the soup in the pot on the stove. Call someone I love. Say thank you.

Today, I do one thing at a time. Without fear for what comes tomorrow. With only the blessing of today to sustain. It is enough.

The leaves are falling, and they are beautiful. The weather is inviting, as long as you have a good fall jacket, which I happen to have.

One is all I need.

the things we are doing take time

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photo by Jane Walsh

 

First, a confession: I woke up the other morning feeling like a thoroughly incapable human being.

It was a wretched way to start the day, I’ll admit, but I couldn’t seem to help myself. Some days dawn ripe with opportunity for self-doubt and self-pity.

On this particular morning, the realization broke that everyone I know seems to be doing more, achieving more, and generally wringing more juice from the fragile fruit of everyday than I do.

So, naturally, I wasted a perfectly equitable sunrise battering myself mentally. What on earth is wrong with me, I wondered. Am I just inherently lazy?

Over breakfast, my daughter was gentle, true to form. Pay attention to how you spend your time today, she offered. Only consider the day before you, the moment before you. Stay away from the Internet. By the end of the day, you’ll know if anything needs to be done.

I suspected my malaise could not be eased by a day minus online distraction. Still, I vowed to honor the advice with an emergency reboot of digital simplicity.

Then, after taking my wise child to school, I picked up the phone and called Harry Bliss.

I was scheduled to interview the famed cartoonist/illustrator before his presentation at the South Dakota Festival of Books. The conversation quickly turned to, for lack of a better term, his creative process—mostly because I have a long-nurtured fascination with how artists, musicians, and writers do their work in the world.

On any given day, Bliss might spend two focused hours working on a single cartoon. Then, he surfaces from this creative depth to do something physical, such as working in the yard. Then he might return to his desk. For some reason, this image made me think of a child on a summer day (no homework, no bedtime) playing with toys for hours and then dropping his plastic cow on the rug to run outside and play.

It made me remember my own childhood days, cradled in the branches and hidden by the leaves of my favorite climbing tree. Shirking chores. Writing poetry.

And then I exhaled.

All at once I felt all right … more than all right … I felt sonically aligned with the pace of my day, as if someone had rung a bell that resounded throughout every cell of my body.

That might seem like an exaggeration, but it’s not. If the description sounds a little far-fetched to you, I don’t mind. Go ahead. Roll your eyes. The fog cleared, that’s all. And I was awake enough to notice it.

I talked with Harry Bliss for a good long time. Then I put down the phone and my pen and I went outside. I never did turn my computer back on that day.

In the evening, I found there was even more to learn, this time from my dad, who has spent most of his summer visiting with doctors, rearranging his life as he deals with the shifting sands of his health. This process, as you might imagine, has altered the weight of his “daily accomplishments” considerably.

“It’s not that I’m not doing anything,” he told me. “It’s that the things I am doing take time.”

There it was. The trifecta of wisdom I needed to satisfy my hunger:

  1. Honor the minutes, turning away from the distractions of our age.
  2. Work unapologetically on your art, on doing what you love to do, then get your physical body  moving, preferably out-of-doors.
  3. Finally, above all else: The things worth doing—creative things, sacred things, things with meaning and purpose and impact—they all take time.

What did I get done that day?

Well, I spent a lot of time listening. I spent even more time hanging out in the kitchen with my teenage daughter who, not incidentally, still digs hanging out in the kitchen with her mom, chatting about books, friends, and how we spend our days.

I spent the day writing—filling blank pages with with notes and ideas, even a few sketches. I stepped outside more than once to sit in wonder at the adoration of the bees as they bid their farewell to summer.

(My dad told me, when I was younger, that you always know summer is ending when the bees are out looking for new homes. I’ve never forgotten that. It’s not over until the bees tumble over themselves saying goodbye.)

Basically, I spent the day welcoming the voices of wisdom around me as well as the voice of my own wise self, who had simply gotten out of bed a few minutes later than usual.

I don’t know how other people have time for their abundant accomplishments. Maybe they don’t. Maybe it just seems they do when I peer at their lives through the thick glass walls we install between ourselves and others.

I only know that conversation takes time. Writing takes time. Healing takes time. Love takes time.

I only know that I’ve got plenty of time for that.

 

 

clearing the clutter of toxic emotions

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You might expect a boat made of nothing but cardboard, duct tape and dreams to be a simple thing, especially when crafted by two 13-year-olds with a limited budget and even less time.

They toss a few flattened boxes onto the driveway, dappled sunlight warming them as they work. They take precursory measurements and launch their engineering process. They’ve mastered this boat-building, so they approach the task with confidence and bonds of friendship that have been strengthening since before they were born. There will be no quarreling or disagreeing. These girls know exactly what they have gathered together to do.

This was the second summer my daughter and her friend have entered the Great Cardboard Boat Race at Keuhn Park, and, I confess, this year was no less stressful for me than last year’s endeavor.

What could be stressful about a cardboard boat race? Perhaps you don’t know me well. Last year, you see, I was certain they were going to sink. I was convinced they would pour hours upon hours of work into their boat and then descend to the bottom of the pool within seconds.

Glub, glub.

So I became obsessed with enlightening these young ladies about the nature of the race, or, you know, life: You set a cardboard box into a swimming pool. You board the “boat,” wearing swimming suits, plenty of sunblock, and a life vest. You scramble for a few moments of perfunctory rowing. You sink. Everyone laughs. Game over.

Well, last year it turned out I had greatly underestimated the potential of two fiercely intelligent and determined girls. They had no intention of sinking. Their boat floated. When they rowed, it cut through the water. Fast. They raced in two heats, were awarded the creativity prize, triumphed in the bragging rights race and barely got wet.

So this year I could stop worrying, right?

Like I said, perhaps you don’t know me well.

This year, instead of decorating their boat with Sharpie markers, the artists opted for colored pencils. They were drawing the characters of author Kate DiCamillo for their boat’s theme. Each DiCamillo character has been brought to life by a different illustrator, so the girls were working in styles that ranged from sophisticated cartooning to fairy tale realism.

After hours of drawing and shading (Can you imagine?) they had created a gallery of stunning work—intricate lines, superb character expression—all in colored pencil on cardboard.

Cardboard.

Cardboard about to be chucked into a swimming pool.

You can probably see what’s coming.

“Maybe you should attach the art pieces to the boat lightly and then remove them before you set sail?” I offered.

“No. They’ll be fine.”

“Right. But, you know, you could each save your favorite drawing. Remember last year when you made those gorgeous Hogwart’s house flags? You took those off the boat before putting it in the water.”

“This is different.”

“Um. Is it?”

“Mom, Edward Tulane has already been to the bottom of the sea (you know, in the book) so he doesn’t mind getting his paws wet.”

But, to my eyes, the boat was different this year—smaller, less waterproof—and there was the mouse Despereaux, dangling off the stern looking so, so … delicate.

I admit it. Despereaux was my favorite. And, through no fault of his own, he was delicate and fragile and so very, very doomed.

We arrived at the pool for the race. It had been raining all morning and we wondered if the race would run, or if a stray streak of lightning (could I be so lucky?) would cancel the event and keep all boats in dry-dock.

Did I truly want the glory of that creative energy to be confined to merely making an artful boat for display, one that never got tested in the choppy waters of life?

Sure. I could live with that.

Lifeguards asked the girls: “Are you going to take your artwork off before you get the boat wet?” Random mothers privately approached me and suggested I encourage the girls to save their art and launch a “streamlined” boat into the regatta (as if I hadn’t already tried the “It’ll be more streamlined!” tactic).

The boat builders would not be swayed. The Ulysses 2000X would sail in its entirety, come what may.

They carried their boat to the edge of the pool. They set it in the water. Despereaux’s tiny paws eased down to the chlorinated waterline.

***

Simplicity is about more than paring down your possessions. It’s less about having “less stuff” (although that helps) and more about creating the time and space to live a life that matters.

You can simplify your emotional life too, I have learned, by boxing up the wastefulness of worry and fear and doubt, and carting their noxiousness to the curb for disposal. Although, for me, negative emotions seem to build up more quickly than possessions and therefore must be disposed of more frequently.

Are we doomed to underestimate our own children? To underestimate ourselves? When struggling in the straightjacket of doubt and fear can we pause and ask: What is possible here? What really matters?

For example, is it “worth it” to create something beautiful when you know it could be washed away? Is it worth it to spend hours in a practice room, when no one is present to hear those rare and transcendent moments when your music flows effortlessly and without flaw? Is it worth it to care for an infant who might someday turn away from your kisses? To print words in a newspaper, only to have them crumpled up and used to wipe streaks off a window or to line the bottom of a kitten’s litter box?

Stories connect us, Kate DiCamillo says. We are here, not because the beauty of life is infallible, but because paying attention to that beauty makes the journey across the pool worthwhile.

If we aren’t willing to put our very best into the water—if we aren’t willing to take the holy risk of living fully and living well—then we are not streamlined vessels; We are hollow vessels, struggling to win a race that was never designed to be a competition in the first place.

***

Despereaux, Dear Reader, lived.

The girls paddled and paddled. They focused. They made the turn. Their time in the pool had a decidedly thrilling air to it, with abundant cheers, occasional shrieks, and joyous laughter and celebration from the crowd.

They nudged the finish line, disembarked, and hoisted the Ulysses 2000X from the water. Upon inspection, not a single piece of artwork was more than a trifle damp, and the boat, if anything, had sailed a bit faster than last year’s SS. King Weasley.

The girls were awarded a prize for creativity. They were invited, once again, to display their boat at the Oak View Library, where it remains today, for all to see.

Yeah. I should have seen that coming.

 

 

 

tending to the divine

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Simplicity is a luxury, and, like all luxuries, elusive. Often you have to make the choice to power ahead without it.

For my family, June brought houseguests, a busted washing machine, two road trips and a visiting guinea pig. As it happened, also in June, the money ran out before the month did; the dishes piled up in the sink.

But a storm also blew in during June, bringing multiple visits to the hospital and the sort of news about someone you love that you never want to imagine, let alone actually hear.

All of a sudden, the clutter didn’t matter. The dishes didn’t matter. The money didn’t seem to matter.

It’s called perspective.

That’s all I’m going to write about the hospital visits. I will be keeping that time private.

Instead, I offer a story: One day, not so long ago in June, I was driving through town with my younger brother, the one who has everything figured out. I’m not being sarcastic: He is organized. His Sioux Falls home is clean and spare. He actively maintains an honest-to-goodness savings account. (With cash in it even! Not just like my “savings account” that sports a double-digit balance. How does he do that?)

It had been a spontaneous day for both of us, but not necessarily in a good way. In other words, we woke up that Saturday with reasonable plans and ended up doing something more urgent and completely off the rails. Now the day was wrapping up and we were both hungry. I turned the car toward our favorite restaurant.

Suddenly, he remembered he had laundry in the wash. He was just reminding himself, really, it wasn’t as if he wanted to skip dinner and rush home to hover over wet laundry. But still. It hit me somehow.

“It doesn’t matter, you know,” I declared. “Laundry doesn’t matter.”

I have backup for this assertion—my Gram, whose home was relentlessly spotless and artistic and infused with the luscious smells of baking and creating and entertaining. I remember sitting at her dining room table, late in the season of her life, and allowing myself to whine a little about my own home, with its strewn-about mishmash of notebooks, toys, and—let’s be honest—dog hair and dust.

Like everything I said, Gram took my words seriously. She glanced around her own home, seeing it perhaps as I saw it for the first time—perfect. A clean house doesn’t matter so much when you don’t have anyone to clean it for, she told me, or something along those lines.

This is how I took her meaning: She had spent a lifetime keeping a lovely home, not for herself, not because, as a woman, it was what she was ordained to do with her days, not because she was twisted with perfectionism. She tended her home simply because she adored the people in her life and wanted them to feel comfortable when they woke in the morning and stumbled to the kitchen to slide half a grapefruit into the breakfast china or check the morning newspapers.

She was telling me that it was the people inside the home that mattered. Everything in a home serves them, not the other way around.

Her linen tablecloths were spotless and pressed and waiting on hangers for their next turn at the table. Years later, those tablecloths are still spotless and pressed, and they take rare but significant turns at my dining room table. I think it’s fair to say no one really needs table cloths anymore. I could release them in my quest to simplify, maybe find them a home with a larger, more elegant family. I could release myself from the entire chest of drawers I keep of her linens and handkerchiefs and cloth napkins.

Why on earth would I?

I have come to realize early in this simplicity challenge that I will never be a true minimalist. I’d like to call myself a sentimental minimalist, but that probably would be an exaggeration, because there is a whole lot that I have no intention of streamlining. There are entire drawers and closets and bookshelves of my life that I have no intention of reducing or making less complicated.

What is simplicity if not a reordering of your priorities so that you are spending the currency of life on the things that matter to you … which might be drastically different from the things that matter to me?

In June, I forgot to change the sheets on my bed, but faithfully changed the bedding of the guinea pig we are pet-sitting. I ignored a messy kitchen by anyone’s standards and chose instead to play cribbage with my mother-in-law, who was visiting from Maine. I tossed more clothes than needed, more music than needed and more snacks than was responsible into the car and scooted north (for the second time in as many weeks) with my child singing along in the back seat, happy as a lark to be on the way to celebrate her Minneapolis uncles, where we would be surrounded by hundreds of thousands of other Twin Cities Pride participants.

I bought an extra outfit so I wouldn’t have to go to the laundromat as much. On credit. The opposite of simplicity, some would say.

And I ate one of the most satisfying dinners ever with my younger brother, even though he could have been finishing his laundry and I could have been cleaning one of my perpetually-overrun-with-detritus closets. We turned off our phones. We took our time. I listened to him well, something I don’t do nearly often enough. We’ll remember that meal forever. I bet he’s already forgotten that he went home and finished his laundry.

At the beginning of 2014, I was paranoid that something would happen to me, and my loved ones would struggle to clean out my cluttered house. That seems flippant and silly now. Have you heard the Ukrainian folktale about a woman who is invited to visit the Christ child at his birth, but stays behind to tidy her home? She misses the child, not because she is tending to those in need or even because of doubt. She misses the arrival of the Messiah because she has chosen to dust the mantel of her cottage—to tend to the transient rather than the divine.

Yes, we must address the details of daily living: the dust-darkened corners, the mountainous paperwork, the dog-drool-smeared window panes. And yes, the more organized and simplified you can run, the swifter and lighter your journey may be. But in June, I ignored all of that.

In June I tended only to the divine.

hanging up ~ a month of digital simplicity

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I’m not addicted to my cell phone.

Really.

Unfortunately, other people are addicted to my cell phone—as in, they expect me to answer said phone when it rings, and to respond to the various flashing and clicking of text messages that pose smoldering questions:

“Where are you?”

“Are you at home?”

“Can I call you?”

Other people expect me to receive email on this device (“Class is canceled” would have arrived 15 minutes before class was set to begin) and to keep my calendar updated electronically, mostly so I can confirm my availability without undue delay. To them, my phone is a computer … a lifestyle manager … a tracking device.

To me, my phone is … wait for it … a phone, albeit with a (Bonus!) zippy little camera.

This month, when I decided to turn my focus to simplifying my digital life, I knew where the struggle would lurk. I turned off my computer on the weekends (easy), eschewed electronic books all together (relieving), embarked on a blogging sabbatical (refreshing), and crafted all my writing by hand or on my manual typewriter before tackling revisions via word processing (time-consuming, yet awesome).

By mid-month I had also scrubbed my email inbox, my computer desktop, and the downloads folder on my laptop. For the record, I was not actually aware of the existence of a downloads folder on my laptop, so if we’re awarding points here, that should count for extra.

Chucking old computer files turned out to be much breezier than shuffling through boxes of paper. You click, you swipe, you empty the virtual trash. Whoosh! Celebrate with chocolate.

Sorting hundreds of digital photos proved more daunting, so I settled for backing those up via Dropbox and calling it good. Maybe I’ll learn to scrapbook someday. (Though I would almost certainly turn scrapbooking into a dizzying hobby of hoarding pretty paper and fancy cutters, so, best to avoid.)

Back to the cell phone. Because, as I said, no matter whatever mostly-feigned front of irresponsibility I submit to the world, my phone just keeps ringing and dinging.

Not too long ago, I didn’t even have a “mobile device.” I remember driving with my daughter when she was four or five and singing to herself in the back seat. Suddenly, she wanted to call my sister. We can’t call her, I explained. We don’t have a phone in our car. We giggled at the silliness of it all.

Today, a mere eight years later, I am expected to have a phone in the car, in the backyard, or somehow lashed to my body with elaborate cords of near-desperate connectivity—at all times. This expectation is not self-imposed. It is served with relish by a society that has come alarmingly close to perfecting instantaneous thought transfer from one human brain to another via overpriced technology.

Mostly I go along with this expectation with good enough humor. Other times I feel dangerously close to losing my mind. A few weeks after “upgrading” to my current phone, I was still frustrated by its tangles of noise and confusion. Learning how to use it made me feel snared, motivated, and inadequate at the same time.

“I don’t love it,” I admitted one day.

To which my daughter simply replied, “You’re not supposed to love it. It’s a phone.”

Wisdom. There’s no app for that.

Recently, this same child performed in her first official cello recital. I figured I’d better turn off my cell phone before the music began. The problem was, I didn’t know how to turn off my cell phone. I knew how to silence the ringer. I knew how to switch the setting to “Do Not Disturb.” But I had not yet mastered the art of making the little green and black rectangle that carries my address book, my alarm clock, and my most recent family photos actually power down into complete darkness.

Am I the only one troubled by that?

And so, I seriously considered reprogramming the thing to its factory settings and dropping it into the nearest trash receptacle or potted plant.

But, you know, my calendar is on there now, so how would I … oh wait. Maybe this addiction is mine to claim after all.

When my child started playing her cello piece, I naturally forgot all about the buzzing and blipping that is supposed to streamline my life. It turns out I don’t want to streamline my life. I want to live it.

The cello was invented in the 17th century. (For the record: I looked that up in an encyclopedia. Made of paper and cardboard and ink.)

My daughter, born at the dawning of the 21st century, coaxed such lovely and compelling music from the strings of her life that day—had one single note been interrupted by a mobile device I would have calmly ground the glass and metal and whatever-else-is-in-those-things to powder beneath my heel.

The other cellists from the school likewise blessed us with the eternal. Mozart (1756-1791). Bach (1685-1750). Boccherini (1743-1805). Shostakovich (1906-1975).

I didn’t take a single photograph or video of the cellists as they released lifetimes—centuries, really—of dedication, passion, and creativity. I was transfixed. Enchanted. Present.

I can easily describe in words the interruptions of today’s technobabble—the chimes and the blips, the dings and the beeps. I cannot, however, adequately describe the resonance of a cello. I cannot describe the surprising (and delighted?) chirping of the baby chickadee who hopped in front of my window this week trying to discern the nature of raindrops. I cannot adequately write about the rhythmic flapping of my dog’s ears as she shakes off motion itself and eases into a deep, deep rest at my feet.

These are sounds that must be settled in to with intention. These are sounds worth powering down to experience.

Perhaps the most radical act of simplicity in this culture of ours is to simply be—without recording or sharing or interrupting the unfurling of the present.

As another school year is folded away, so is my daughter’s school-district-issued Chromebook. She, as of yet, possesses no cell phone, no video games, no Facebook or Instagram account. What she does have is a bicycle and a backyard. A library. A cello. Time for the flowering of imagination. These gifts are among my best for her. She uses them abundantly, and she uses them well.

Welcome Summer. I hope you are not the last of your kind.

welcome the flood

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*the following essay appeared in the Argus Leader as part of A Simple Year

 

In 2011, an artist named Candy Chang created an outdoor exhibition with the words “Before I die I want to _______” stenciled again and again across an enormous chalkboard wall. Passersby were invited to fill in the blanks with their own aspirations.

“Before I die I want to … tell my father I love him.”

“Before I die I want to … write a book.”

“Before I die I want to … clean out my basement.”

Okay, no one really wrote that they wanted to clean out their basement, as far as I know. But, just a few weeks ago, if faced with such a wall, I would have clutched the chalk in my hand, grinding it to powder as that very thought floated in my head, crowding out anything significant or less ridiculous.

First of all, let me add here that my father knows that I love him, so telling him doesn’t need to go on a dying-wish sort of list. Plus, I’ve already written a book. (Published, no. Written, yes. It counts.) But for whatever psychological reasons I have yet to fully come to terms with, the condition of my basement had become shameful to me, and I desperately wanted to be free of that shame.

Try to understand, just a few short weeks ago, my basement housed every decision I had been unable to make, every extraneous purchase I had ever fallen into, every broken thing I had failed to fix, and every manuscript I had been too afraid to send to a publisher, for fear of a phenomenon I’ll call “monumental-rejection-and-artistic-humiliation.”

All that gunk lurking beneath the surface of an otherwise luminous life had begun to pull me under in ways I never expected. Worse yet, it was a problem I seemed unable to solve on my own.

Maybe you don’t believe in God. I do. And I believe God has a sense of humor.

He sent a flood. You know, one of those just-to-your-house kind of floods. And, since God can be pretty … um … specific … the flood arrived in my basement.

It happens like this: I walk downstairs to check my laundry and plunge into ankle-deep water. My washing machine is pumping, pumping, pumping with a maddening mechanical monotony. The floor drain stubbornly refuses to drink any more, seizing up and blocking the water’s exit.

As I dash to punch the button on the machine, stopping the madness, my daughter’s kindergarten photo drifts by in the wake of my sloshing.

(All right, I made that last part up. It only felt that dramatic.)

Everything in the basement had been stored haphazardly, and much of it on the floor. Worthless things. Priceless things. Things I had been looking for. Things I had forgotten I had been looking for.

And now, all of it was drowning.

I will spare you the details. Many who read this will have survived much worse, of course. I, in fact, have survived much worse. But still. It was a pretty crummy wakeup call.

The cleanup began immediately, first the soggy items, then the years of accumulated “other.” My husband worked by my side. My daughter worked by my side. My father drove over to lift and carry and advise, though he had no obligation to do so. (I mentioned loving my father and telling him so often, didn’t I?)

I cried. Once. For a good ten minutes, as I peeled a soaking, bleeding photograph from the inside of a cardboard box—one of those black and white photo-booth strips of me and my daughter hamming it up—I allowed myself to become thoroughly overwhelmed by the task ahead of me. I sat in my basement and wept while others walked by with dripping rugs slung over their shoulders.

When I decided to simplify my life, I imagined slowly sorting through a box or two every other Saturday, pulling some unread books off the shelf, erasing the black from a few calendar squares. I did not imagine a flood, not even for a moment. Nor did I imagine: Two pickup trucks full of garbage, six carloads of donate-able household goods, a bulging recycling bin, and weeks worth of mind-numbing, back-bending, increasingly solitary work.

As of today, I’m about halfway to my goal of a sparkling, spare, and organized basement.

Life has a way of getting your attention when you least expect it, but when you’re the most ready to actually handle it (even if you think you’re not). Problems, I have discovered, don’t tend to fly away on their own—you have to release them, no matter how painful that might be.

For me, every trip to donate perfectly-good items from my basement felt like a stabbing confession: Here are my extras, my castaways, my redundancies. I have bought and been given more than I can use, more than my share. There are people without, but I have drowned in abundance.

I am part of the problem. 

But then, on the way home, a new feeling—one of lightness, freedom, forgiveness. I am also part of the solution … the moment I choose to be.

Life is full, glorious, bustling. I was busy, so I stuffed the details into boxes and stacked them out of sight. There would always be time (later) to deal with the extra toys, the report cards, the outgrown clothing, I reasoned. I had more important things to do.

But life blossoms within those details, doesn’t it? Behold: The life insurance policies tucked into their protective plastic—a gift to our newborn child. The letters we wrote to one another, back when we wrote letters. The crayon drawing of a blonde mother and brown-haired girl holding hands, surrounded by a meadow of flowers and fairies. The hundreds of scraps of poetry—words strung together like miniature lights, twinkling with hope and gratitude.

It is slipping too far down the rainbow of hyperbole to say I have been honored to clean out my own basement—to hold in my hands, once again, my grandmother’s organ lesson notebook or the baby clothes that still (miraculously!) smell like baby?

I’ve been through the flood. I would be a fool not to bask in the rainbow.

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