Saturday, March 31, 2007

And the Greatest of These is Love

We took advantage of slightly warmer weather to take Caroline and Charlotte to the playground yesterday. The playground itself was covered in pine mulch chips, so it was not slushy, but the yard we had to cross from the parking lot to the playground was full of mud through the whole middle of it. Caroline, who, by the way, had on brand new light-colored sneakers, was so excited to get to the playground that she ran right through the mud. Rachel immediately yelled, “Oh, no, Caroline! New shoes!” and rushed down the sidewalk to get to her.

“Caroline,” she wailed, “You ran through the mud in your new shoes!” To which Caroline looked up at her solemnly and asked, “And what should I have done?”

We had another death to deal with this week. An 89-year-old friend of ours died after a long, fulfilled life, although the quality of her life in the last few years had been greatly deteriorating. We had made it a point to take her out to eat several times (when she was felt well enough to get dressed and go out). We took her to tour the model home that we chose when we decided to build our new house. We visited her by ourselves, sometimes with Matthew, sometimes with Rachel and the girls. During one blizzard, we brought her a fresh flower bouquet, because she hated snow so much. We wanted to remind her that spring was indeed coming at some point. One day in the middle of summer, I took my harp to her apartment and gave an impromptu concert on her front porch, which she seemed to enjoy very much.

But after every death of someone close to us, I always find myself asking the question that Caroline asked. “What should I have done?” Then I expand on it. This week, I asked questions again. Should I have called Winnie more? Should we have brought her food when she didn’t feel like going out? Should I have brought her more flowers to cheer her up? Visited more? In other words, did we do enough?

There are some people in this life whom we care about very much. Death comes, and with it no more opportunities to show love. We all have busy lives, and amidst the stress and scheduling, we try to find time to do the actions which demonstrate love and caring. We remember all the times we said, “Hey, we should [call, visit, take out to dinner, take for a drive, pick up some things at the grocery for, check on, mail a card to, etc.].” In looking back, some plans never materialized, or something came up, or life just took another turn. Then the death, then the door shuts on all good intentions, then the inevitable question: What should I have done?

Friday, March 23, 2007


Sometimes I sit down to blog and have some deep philosophical matter to discuss. Other times, the subject is about simple pleasures. Today it is the latter.

One of my favorite words is serendipity. I read where the term originated in 1754, coined by Horace Walpole, suggested by The Three Princes of Serendip, the title of a fairy tale in which the heroes “were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.”

On our way home today, we had a serendipitous experience. We were driving the speed limit up a hill in the right “slower” lane of a highway, when the driver of a Volkswagen Bug, of all things, raced past at a high speed. Then we watched as he tried to pass another car on the right as the road narrowed to one lane. We’re used to seeing pickup trucks and SUVs speed past us around here, but I just never thought a little Bug would be a Hare to our Tortoise.

A few seconds later, a police car, lights flashing and siren blaring, headed down the highway in the same direction. As we turned onto our street, Ed commented that the police were after the Volkswagen. I, on the other hand, got the impression that their presence was unrelated, that maybe they had been called on an emergency somewhere. Within 30 seconds of this discussion, we both decided to turn our car around, go back to the highway, head south, and see if we could see that the police had pulled the Bug over.

We drove for a couple of miles in an area that we probably haven’t seen in years, and saw nary the police car or the Bug. We did, however, come upon a wonderful local smokehouse that we had read about but never visited. Their speciality was smoked salmon and other fish. We recognized a serendipity immediately! It was a half hour before closing time, so we strode into the store with an air of excited expectancy and bought the most heavenly piece of smoked trout I ever did taste, and that’s what we had for supper tonight.

If that car hadn’t been speeding - if the police hadn’t careened by - if we hadn’t turned around - I wouldn’t be blogging about smoked trout tonight. But it did, and they did, and we did.

Sometimes serendipity surfaces to produce great life-changing moments. You're in the right place at the right time; maybe you forgot to get your gloves, and the delay put you in a place to meet your future partner, or you happened to bump into a person on the subway who could transform your career - things like that. But most of the time, it is the small, fleeting serendipity - the one whose power maybe lies only in the simple pleasure of a succulent piece of smoked fish - that is one of life's little unexpected rewards. I've found that to experience and appreciate these serendipities is one way to truly live in the moment.

Friday, March 16, 2007

Following the Rabbit

My oldest granddaughter was named after me and her other grandma - her first name, Caroline, after me, and her second name, Alice, after her paternal grandmother. I’ve always liked the name Alice, I guess because it reminds me of the adventures of Alice in Wonderland. Ah, the place where things are not what they seem to be. (Which reminds me of that Gilbert and Sullivan line my dad used to sing: “Things are seldom what they seem. Skim milk masquerades as cream.”) In Wonderland, you never know what to expect and things could turn topsy-turvy in the blink of an eye. I always imagined how it would feel to be in a setting so incongruous that you wonder if you have stepped into another dimension.

Well, I finally was able to experience that out-of-body/mind experience today. Maine is under a winter storm warning, and we are expecting loads of snow and freezing rain changing to rain to descend upon our entire state momentarily. We made a trip to the grocery for necessities, and all we had left to do was replenish our fatwood and BioBrick supply. (For the uninitiated among my readers, probably you warm-climate dwellers, fatwood is resin-treated sticks used for kindling, and a BioBricks are recycled wood byproducts shaped into bricks to be used in a wood-burning stove.) It is indeed the middle of March, but every good “Mainah” knows that we are still in the throes of winter, and tonight’s forecast emphatically reminds us of that. The highs today are in the 20s. Snow is still piled up in parking lots. Everyone is bundled up against single-digit wind chill.

We have 3 places in our little town where we can buy these items. We tried the nearest one. We walked into the corner where we knew the fatwood was prominently displayed in its burlap bags. There in front of us lay....well, basically empty shelves. That was disappointing, but not shocking. The shocking part was the apparent reason for the empty shelves - for immediately adjacent to the place where the fatwood should have been, there were shelves of - ready for this? - CHARCOAL! Yes, folks, we’ve just stumbled into Wonderland.

We made haste to get out of there, almost tripping over the GRILL and LAWN CHAIR displays. OK, so maybe we hadn’t heard the forecast right. Maybe spring came when we weren’t looking. Maybe all that white stuff outside is, uh, cotton that somehow got carried by the winds to Maine from Alabama.

So we tried the second store, a big Home Depot. We went straight to the aisle where we had previously seen fatwood and fireplace accessories. The good news is that their shelves weren’t empty. Hurray! The bad news is...they were full of LAWNMOWERS. Now why didn’t I think of that? That snow and ice in our yard has needed mowing for the longest time. The whole thing was so incredulous, it took all the control I could muster not to collar an employee and say, “DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHERE YOU ARE????” But in my gentlest, most non-accusing voice, I just approached the customer service desk and asked where the wood-stove supplies went. The lady pointed to a 2-shelf display shoved in a corner a few feet from the desk. “That’s all we have left,” she said, as she resumed her work.

Again, we walked out of the store, noticing the seed packet displays and the countless fertilizer bags stacked high. We stopped to take our bearings. We live in Maine. Check. It is still winter. Check. We are under a major winter storm warning. Check. We can’t buy kindling but we can buy a lawnmower. Check. Yes, the facts seemed evident, but obviously we were still in Wonderland, or its modern counterpart, the Twilight Zone.

The third store, our last, final, desperate attempt to restore our sanity, was closed for staff training. I hope the first thing they train their staff to do is keep the store open during staff training. I hope the second thing they train their staff to do is to be able to step outside and guess what season it is.

So that was our day. As I write this, Ed is valiantly trying to keep the fire burning without fatwood or BioBricks, and me....well, I’m deciding if it’s worth sitting out in my lawn chair while my steak sizzles on the charcoal grill. At least I’ll have a front-row seat to enjoy the blizzard. Pass the iced tea, Alice. It’s gonna be a long night.

Friday, March 09, 2007


A great number of participants in the simplicity movement call themselves followers of “voluntary simplicity.” This affirms that their lifestyle changes are based on desire, not necessity. I can’t really call our lifestyle changes exclusively voluntary. To be sure, we crave a life of peace and simplicity, so a strong desire is there, but our changes are also borne out of more practical reasons.

We got our heating oil delivery today, and the bill was $237.00 for 4-1/2 weeks. That is probably half of what it would have been in the old Victorian house. Our electricity bill has been halved, our property taxes have been halved, our house insurance has been halved. Add to these regular expenses the issue of frequent and costly old-house repairs on an ongoing basis, and you can clearly see a few reasons why we moved. As beautiful and meaningful as that big old house was, it was financially inadvisable for us to continue to live there. It was a financial drain that could not exist indefinitely.

So in a way, we have no choice for downsizing. Fortunately, it is a fulfilling way of life for us.

Some people come into downsizing kicking and screaming. The power of culture is still strong. The encouragement to “upsize” and accumulate more and more never disappears. Sometimes a decision to simplify is sidetracked by catalogs as much as a decision to diet is blown off course by our culture’s obsession with food. It's easy to assume the attitude of victim, focusing relentlessly on the injustice of it all. Part of the downsizing is necessity, but all of it is our fulfillment. It is the path we are choosing more and more frequently. It is nice, isn't it, when what life demands of you is the same thing that you most strongly desire anyway?

We’re not fighting our simplicity movement. We are choosing instead to embrace it. It forces us to continually reexamine our priorities, and that is, as Martha Stewart would say, a “good thing.” A definition of embrace is this: “To accept or support (a belief, theory, or change) willingly and enthusiastically.” Some might call it “riding the wave” or “going with the flow.”

Some of my acquaintances ask me what it’s like going from a closet the size of a room with built-in shelves, ceiling lights, and tons of space to a regular small closet with one shelf and no lights. They ask me how hard it is for us to adjust to having no garage, after we have enjoyed years of a 2-car garage with automatic doors. They ask me how we can possibly survive with only two channels on TV and painstakingly slow dial-up Internet connection.

My response has been consistent. When I can’t see my shoes on the floor of my closet, I just smile. When I have to scrape my car off in 0-degree weather at 4:30 in the morning, I smile again. When I have to move the ironing board and two boxes to access a drawer of quilt fabric - yes, again I smile. (When it takes me several hours to download a 2-minute video of Caroline reading....OK, I get quite grumpy.) The questioners are incredulous, of course. How can I smile at things that would most likely be irritating and at times totally exasperating?

Necessary simplicity, voluntary simplicity, or combination thereof - whatever you want to term it - has become integral to our lives. We could fight it, or we can embrace it. We have chosen to embrace it.

I stand in front of my closet and remember the conclusion I came to a couple of years ago - that if I had too many clothes to fit in this closet, then I just had too many clothes, period. When I watch the crazy weatherman on Channel 7, I enjoy a pleasant diversion and get to see Ed go nuts at the same time. When I move stuff around in my sewing room/office in order to access other stuff, I’m reminded how much wonderful fabric and books and tools I have. When I scrape my car before I leave for work, I take a moment to look up at the sky, rewarding myself with glimpses of an extraordinarily large moon or shining stars - a view which can put a realistic perspective on life itself. I even marvel at seeing my breath in the frosty air - appreciating the ability to see that which is ordinarily invisible but without which I wouldn't exist. Embracing simplicity tends to make one annoyingly philosophical.

Oh, I know the “honeymoon” with simplicity may not last. I know I will find mud season particularly unpleasant when our yard has no grass yet. But I sincerely hope this enjoyment of location and circumstance continues until the day we die. I believe embracing - certainly not fighting and not just accepting - the whole lot of it is the secret.

We don't want simplicity to be just an acquaintance we tolerate because we have to; we want it to be a dear friend that we have invited to live with us. And I hope that will make all the difference.

Saturday, March 03, 2007

Growing the Future

Back when my sister and her husband got married, a video was made for them at the reception which included comments and best wishes and honeymoon advice from the wedding guests. When they turned the camera on our little Matthew, the ring bearer, he came up with this: “Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do!” Of course, he had no idea what it meant, but he thought it sounded good enough to say.

From the first moment our kids are born, we have aspirations for them. Part of this process entails the search for similarities between parent and child. One of the greatest compliments you can give a new parent is to say, “Your baby looks just like you!” As the child grows, we bask in every nuance of mannerism that mirrors our own. He’s got my smile or my gait. She’s got my speech pattern or my wit. Then later, we cultivate our interests and hobbies. Chris is pleased when Caroline can pronounce some obscure character’s name in Star Wars. I’m ecstatic when Charlotte can recognize Lincoln. And, as last week revealed, I took pride when Caroline expressed a tiny bit of interest in quilting. Already I had her life planned out as being the next generation of quilters in the family.

“Don’t do what I wouldn’t do,” and its corollary, “Do what I do; like what I like; be good at what I am good at” are parental mantras, whether we actually voice them or not. These are our expectations, because part of the joy in raising children is feeling we have had some influence over their personalities and tastes and beliefs. We have passed on part of ourselves.

My dad was a philatelist. I always felt guilty that neither my sister nor I ever really carried on his love of stamp collecting. But instead, he passed on to us his love of music.

Caveats abound in parenting books on the trap of trying to live through your kids. I get a kick out of thinking that were it not for my mother, I never would have learned to play the piano. Was she a pianist? No - she couldn’t play a note. But she always wanted to learn, so instead of learning herself, she enrolled her daughters in piano lessons and played the piano vicariously from then on. That’s sort of a backwards influence - in this case, not “Do what I do,” but “Do what I always wished I could do.”

An Asian Olympic skier was in the news this week. He had become lost as a child, and when his parents couldn’t be located, he ended up being adopted by an American couple - who happened to be ski instructors. He was immersed in that pursuit at an early age, and followed it to participation in the Olympics. I wondered what would have happened if he had been adopted by violin virtuosos or artisan bread bakers. Would their influence have moved his life in a different, maybe equally successful direction?

As our children maneuver through adulthood, our roles change more to that of spectators rather than participants. We set the foundation, help with the education, then watch what turns out. Sometimes they mirror our interests; sometimes they go off in a complete different direction. Sometimes, like my friend Sally, we marvel at how on earth these talented, gifted, remarkable adults ever even came out of our bodies, because they have developed their skills to such heights that they have surpassed our wildest expectations. We watch them make decisions about careers, about finances, about where to live, about how to negotiate relationships, about how to raise their own kids, and we worry and we encourage and sometimes we just stand back in awe and wonderment.

So sometimes we find ourselves starting to say, “Don’t do what we wouldn’t do,” and other times, “Do what we do,” but in the end, all we can say to our children is this: Be your wonderful selves. Develop your potential. Have patience with us because it's hard to let go. But most important: We love you and are so proud to be your parents.