Estate Sales and Stuff Management

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Estate sales make me think of the Rapture. I imagine that each Thursday evening a deserving group is plucked from their everyday lives for good behavior, while the rest of us buy their stuff for cheap on Friday mornings.

I go to estate sales for the same reason I read obituaries. I want to believe that hidden in each narrative or among the contents of a household I will find subtle, zen-like clues about how to live well.

For those who have never been to an estate sale let me set the scene. The doors officially open on Friday morning at ten and the sale continues over the weekend. There is always a handful of professional buyers, those who resell online or at groovy vintage stores, who arrive early. These are the gamblers and wildcatters of the estate sale circle.

The dealers are usually older and look like they have been up all night. They don’t know many details about the house and its contents except for the bare facts. From behind a card table, one of the dealers lets the first group in the house at ten; others are allowed only as people leave through the checkout station.

The anticipation and underlying competition among the people in the entry line is buzzy.

There are two main reasons for estate sales – death or downsizing due to impending death. An estate sale is like a 3-D, high definition obituary. Much of the contents in the house are in the exact place where the owner had left them with the exception of jewelry, small valuables, and pocket knives, which are usually in a glass case near the entrance.

Silverware and dishes are still in the drawers and cabinets, and kitchen gadgets on the counters.  Available pictures and painting are hung on the walls.  Furniture that is for sale sits where it has always been. Collections of all sorts are put together and books are on the shelves. Most of the family photographs have been put away, but not always.

It looks like you might be visiting if it wasn’t for the fact that everything has a price tag.

Each sale has the personality of the owner. In just a few minutes I can get a sense of the broad strokes of an entire life. Evidence of travel, hobbies, marriage, family, and careers is all there if you look. I love the tiny details that support my initial impressions; the hand-written recipe cards, trinkets from trips, the art, and books.

I don’t buy big items and usually don’t arrive with any expectations. I am drawn to old domestic stuff. I like hand embroidered runners and vintage fabric, salt glaze pottery, heavy metal figurines that feel good in my hand, and old postcards with sweet notes on the back.

After all my estate sale-ing and obituary reading I have yet to find the meaning of life. I have come to know that people’s actions, not their things or even their words, reveal more of life’s instructions.

However, after every estate sale I inevitably think about my own house and what its contents say about me. I have never been good at accumulating. I’m not a shopper.  I don’t have the attention span to collect anything.

At fifty-one, I’m already at the unloading stage. I didn’t expect the urge to downsize would come so soon.  I still go to estate sales but the mountains of stuff I see makes me determined to give away more and to repurpose when I can.

My life-long anthropological curiosity with other people’s things has morphed into my 5 Step Manifesto of Stuff Management.

1.  I relentlessly purge the stuff from our house on an ongoing basis. Unless they have a latent hoarding gene that I don’t know about, my kids will not want to go through my junk after I’m dead. They will not want every art project they ever made from the time they could hold a crayon or my jeans from 1993.  If it hasn’t been worn or used in the past year then it’s on the way out the door to someone who needs it.

2.  I use my good stuff.  At estate sales I have seen tablecloths, china, unworn leather gloves, never-sprayed perfume and beautiful scarves in their original boxes. There are too many items waiting for a special time. The special time is now. If stuff breaks or I lose it, then so be it. Living is risky.

3.  If I need a storage unit for more than a month then I have too much stuff and it’s time for a garage sale, not to be confused with an estate sale.

4.  I will pass along meaningful stuff to my kids while I’m alive so I can see them enjoy it.

5.  I believe in pictures. I will keep every damn one of them. Photographs are proof that experiences are better than stuff.

Stuff is just stuff.

So You Want To Plan a Summer Trip to Iceland

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Although Iceland is the IT destination these days, visiting the country had been at the top of my bucket list since I was ten, long before I even knew what a bucket list was. It took me another forty-one years to set foot on the land that had captured my imagination while looking at National Geographic pictures as a child. Last summer, my daughter, Georgia, and I arrived in Iceland and embarked on a fourteen-day road trip following the famed Route 1 that rings the country. After the twelfth person asked me to help plan their 2016 summer trip, I decided to organize my travel notes and pictures to create a blog post. I hope you find it helpful and let me know if you have any questions.

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Days 1 – 2 (July 22-23):
We landed at the Reykjavík International Airport after what seemed like days of travel with little sleep and only two hours of darkness. The time warp enhanced the other-worldliness of Iceland. The airport was desolate and grey. I had imagined more green.

IMG_7379We arranged to have an agent from Route 1 Car Rental meet us at the airport. We set off immediately on the 90 minutes drive, southeast, to the ferry that brought us, and our car, to Vestmannaeyer Island. Across from the ferry stop is the famed Seljalandsfoss Falls which was our introduction to the waterfalls in Iceland.

We easily found the Aska Hostel.  It took my daughter a bit of time to digest the communal situation which for me was enchanting in the most Icelandic-mother-earth-kind of way. We had the best meal I had in Iceland at the Gott Restaurant which is in the same building.  The Aska is in walking distance to the pool, Eldfell Volcano, restaurants, and grocery stores.IMG_7316IMG_7321

We began our second day with hiking to the world’s largest puffin colony and then climbed Eldfell Volcano. It erupted in 1973 and created a 200-meter-high mountain where a meadow had been, and caused the island’s 5,000 inhabitants to be temporarily evacuated to the mainland. Remarkably no one was killed. There is a place at the top of Eldfell that is still too hot to touch.

Vestmannaeyer is host to the largest multi-day music festival in Iceland. It was established in 1874 to celebrate the 1.000 year anniversary of Icelandic settlement and today boasts 16,000 attendees. It is always held during the last week of July or the first week of August, so make sure you plan accordingly if you want to join or skip the party. We missed the festival by a couple of days.

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IMG_7386IMG_7400We then took the ferry back to the mainland and continued southeast, first to walk the black beaches at Vik and then northeast to Jokulsarlon and the Glacier Lagoon. Stops along the way included Skógafoss waterfall, hikes through bizarre desolate lumpy flatlands, and playing with cows.

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Tips for driving:  Iceland is an extremely safe country for women to travel alone. Everyone speaks English, Danish, and Icelandic and are very willing to help tourists with questions and suggestions. Before you leave the city, purchase gas cards. In some of the more isolated regions, gas stations do not have attendants and you are unable to use credit cards. Mind your gas gauge, as stations can be hard to find along Route 1. Food is expensive so stock up at grocery stores and bring picnic items along with you. Most guest houses provide a free breakfast and it should be a consideration when you make reservations. Take advantage of the 24 hours of daylight. I drove at all hours and always felt safe. Be careful of sheep, they are everywhere and have the right of way.  Be mindful that many of the rural bridges are one lane and drivers take turns crossing.

Links:

https://www.route1carrental.is

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seljalandsfoss

The Ferry from Landeyjahofn to Vestmannaeyjar http://eimskip.is/en/Pages/default.aspx;http://askahostel.is/aska/

http://www.visitvestmannaeyjar.is/en/product/swimming-pool

https://www.fest300.com/festivals/westman-islands-festival

http://www.officeholidays.com/countries/Iceland/commerce_day.php

http://www.visitwestmanislands.com/en/tour/puffin-and-volcano-tour

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skógafoss

Day 3 (July 24):

We stayed at the Hali Country Hotel so we could be out with the first boat at Glacier Lagoon, in IMG_1121Jokulsarlon, about 250 miles (400 km) from Reykjavík.  The Hali had a good restaurant with accomodating hours for meals and the best black-out curtains in the rooms. It was freeezing and after suiting up in protective gear our group lauched at 8am, before the crowds, in two small boats of eight people. When I say small boat, I mean an inflatable row boat with an engine and no seats. We sat on the sides and held on to a rope.  A person can only survive in the water for 30 seconds, so hold on tightly. We toured the bay for about an hour, going all the way up to the glacier. The entire time Georgia baited me with pretending to fall back overboard.  The light in Iceland is very flat and that morning it was also thickly gray which made the blue ice more pronounced. Complete silence except for the sounds of the glacier moving and the river flowing below.  Spectacular!

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We then drove to Hoffell. A local told us about a remote hot spring, a little off road, but in our general direction northeast.  The hot springs were such a highlight and they are everywhere in IMG_7459Iceland.  Invest the time to research and ask the locals where to go – add stops if possible.

After the hot springs, we began our longest driving day through the remote terrain that runs along the coast and across the gorge to Egilsstaðir. There is a short cut over the gorge that an Icelander convinced me to take and the decision finished off my adrenals. It was like driving on a balance beam on the edge of a plummeting-to-certain-death gorge. I’m terrified of heights and for much of the hour that it took to cross we were driving in the clouds, with a bus barreling down on me, and I could not see further than a few feet.

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On the other side we were greeted by the first trees I have seen in Iceland as we drove into Egilsstaðir, a town in east Iceland on the banks of the Lagarfljót River. After the Viking settlers cut the trees down throughout Iceland, the wind and harsh winter conditions have made regrowth impossible. Much like Loch Ness,  Egilsstaðir is famous for its lake monster sightings. We spent the night in Egilsstaðir at the Lyngas Hostel. Staying in hostels and guesthouses is an enjoyable way to meet other travelers and locals. If you have the time, visit the Egilsstadir swimming pool.

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Links:

http://icelagoon.is

http://hali.is

http://www.south.is/en/moya/toy/index/place/skogafoss-waterfall

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/V%C3%ADk_%C3%AD_Mýrdal

http://frugalfrolicker.com/hot-pools-iceland/

http://www.lyngas.is/en/myndir/moppur

http://www.east.is/en/what-to-see-and-do/services/egilsstadir-swimming-pool

Day 4 (July 25):

We left Lyngas Guesthouse in Egilsstaðir and headed west, toward Iceland’s most famous waterfalls, Dettifoss and Selfoss, bringing us across the lunar-like expanses of the IMG_1143eastern highlands. In 1965 and 1967 a group of Astronauts from NASA came to the area to prepared for the first moon landing. Iceland has so many waterfalls that I stopped photographing them. It’s like the entire country has sprung a leak.

I was not sure that I wanted to go off road to visit Dettifoss and Selfoss. In the end we turned off Route 1 and once again Iceland upped the wow factor. We took the 5 mile hike to the floor of the canyon below the falls.  I highly recommend this stop but add the hike to get your legs moving after quite a bit of driving.

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From the falls we continued northwest to see the bubbling hot mud pools of Hverir and hiked to the top of Mt. Namafjall.  IMG_7528The view of Lake Myvatn is fantastic.  From there we visited the Myvatn Natural Baths which are located just 65 miles from the arctic circle. They are manmade pools made from runoff water from the nearby Bjarnarflag geothermal borehole – which also runs a power station. Because of an algae that lives in the water, the pools are the color of a blue raspberry popsicle.IMG_7538

After a couple hours soaking in the pools, we headed further west to our final destination of the day, Akureyri, referred to as the second capitol of Iceland. More like a large town than a city, it has a bohemian feel with many hipsters, lots of man buns, and adventure travelers.

IMG_7550We stayed in a sweet guest house, The Hrafnin, in the center of town near pools and restaurants.  Make time to see the bonanical gardens and the Akureyrarkirkja Church which is the symbol of Akureyri. It is a Lutheran church and was designed by architect Gudjon Samuelsson and consecrated in 1940.

Links:

http://www.lyngas.is/en

http://www.zigzagonearth.com/dettifoss-selfoss-iceland/

http://www.myvatnnaturebaths.is

http://www.visitmyvatn.is/en

http://www.hrafninn.is

http://www.visitakureyri.is/en

Days 5-7 (July 26 -28):

On our first full day in Akureyri, I let Georgia sleep in and we spent the early afternoon eatingIMG_7553 donuts (lots of donuts) and drinking terrible coffee in the town square. Iceland has the best donuts I have ever tasted – now the coffee is another story. Icelanders probably do not need coffee because I have found that they’re naturally cheery and industrious – a spike in caffeine may throw off their even-keeled temperaments. The red stop lights in Akureyri are shaped like hearts – these are not people who need coffee.

From Akureyri, we headed to Husavik for a day trip, a tiny town of 3,000 IMG_7569established in 870 AD, which is touted as the whale watching capital of the world. The drive from Akureyri was about 40 minutes and was our most northern stop of this trip. We went out at 6pm with an unusually small group. They gave us astronaut-like thermal suits to keep warm but it was still so cold. The reality of the cold sea made me wonder about what possessed the Vikings to get into a their wooden boats. It takes an hour to sail to the where most sightings occur.

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I have never been on a whale watch so when I was looking out at the vast grey sea, it felt like seeing a whale was going to be a lot like looking for a needle in a haystack. Then out of no where a Hump Back whale followed our boat closely for almost an hour. At times he was 50 yards from our boat and you could see his eye. It was remarkable. I didn’t take many pictures because I didn’t want to miss the experience. A whale is much quieter than I had imagined and very graceful. I thought about one of my favorite books, She’s Come Undone, and how the novel ends with Delores seeing the whale and finding peace. One last thing – the sea does not smell fishy or salty but rather like sweet rain. IMG_7580Can’t speak more highly of North Sailing for whale watching!  I also recommend eating at Naustid next to the pier.  We drove back to our guesthouse at midnight.

The following day we were back to our usual pace. Top on Georgia’s list of things to do in Iceland was to ride the Icelandic horses. There are 320,000 people living in Iceland along with more than 80,000 horses. Brought to Iceland by the Vikings between 860 and 935 AD, the horses are short, stocky, hardy creatures and are the ONLY breed allowed in country. Icelandic law prevents horses from being imported and exported animals are not allowed to return. While other horse breeds walk, trot, canter and gallop, the Icelandic horse can tölt, which is an ambling gait known as the 5th gear. We rode for about 4 hours along the coast outside of Akureyri with a German family with two teenagers.  I highly recommend Eldhestar Stables.

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I’m drawn to the volcanic terrain around Lake Myvatn. The remote landscape is like nowhere else in Iceland so we decided  take the hour-long drive to backtrack and return to the area after our morning ride for our last day in Akureyri.
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We hiked the trails at Dimmuborgir, a large area of unusually shaped lava fields and IMG_1325hobbitesque rock formations. In Icelandic lore the place is home to the Yule Lads, 13 mischievous trolls who have morphed over the centuries from children eaters to modern day prankster Santas. We then hiked up the Leirhnjukur crater and walked around the Kraft Lava Fields. Georgia has a hard time with the intense sulfur smell that is ever present. Leirhnjukur was one of the smelliest hikes that we had taken so it was more of a sprint than a hike.

We ate dinner at the CowShed, or Vogafjos, Restaurant where the cows raised on the farmIMG_1403 produced all the milk for the dairy products. We had the most unbelievable ice creams – one was made with a local flower that tasted like clover and the other was made with pieces of the local dark, sticky, brown bread and it tasted likeIMG_1381 grape nut ice cream.We finished dinner at 10pm but the Myvatn Natural Blue Baths were calling to us and are open until midnight in the summer. The near full moon, midnight sunset, and the steam rising from the ever-lowering air temperature made the pools look like another planet. It was about 11:30pm when we headed back to Akureyri.

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We passed Lake Myvatn which had become transformed by the unique light at midnight. The skies become pink and blue like the color of the bags of cotton candy that are sold at amusement parks. It makes the water and all reflective surfaces pink and blue which then over-saturates the Irish-hillside green of the mini volcanic peaks erupting from the lake. That’s when the intense fog appeared and the scene became like a mythical city in the clouds.IMG_7633 It was magical and lovely until the sun went down further and the fog closed us in so we could not see further than 20 feet to any side. Icelandic roads are two lanes with just barely enough room for two cars, no guard rails, sheep everywhere, and 90% of all bridges allow for only one car to pass at a time. We did make it back, very slowly, but it’s not the end of the story… so when we finally get to our guesthouse, exhausted, we see a car pull up to meet another car at the end of the parking lot. We don’t think anything of it. I have never been worried about traveling as woman, alone with Georgia, in Iceland – even in the most remote areas. It honestly feels like the safest place on earth … until one of the men in the back of the second car jumped out wearing a Scream mask.  Georgia and I ran to our guesthouse, and of course fumbled for our keys like all characters in a scary movie. We made it inside and they drove off. It was probably nothing,  it’s Iceland – just another twist in a dream-like day.

Links:

http://www.northsailing.is/home/

http://beiceland.is/naustid

http://eldhestar.is

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dimmuborgir

http://www.vogafjos.is

Day 8 (July 29):

There are two kinds of people, drivers and co-pilots. I am a driver. I have five simple rules for co-pilot certification. 1) All co-pilots need to know how to read a map very quickly. Even with it’s mighty directional brain, GPS can often NOT find the remote, off the grid, place that only a true hold-in-your-hands-map can find. 2) The co-pilot needs to know your go-to beverage and snack choices and have them stocked and readily available.IMG_7483 3) They need to have trained their bladder prior to the road trip because no one wants a bathroom needy co-pilot. 4) The job includes music maintenance, first-aid, and and gas station reconnaissance. 5) Co-pilots need to be cheery when on duty and can only sleep with permission from the driver. It sounds like a easy list to master but it takes a bit of practice for driver and co-pilot to fully synch. Georgia earned her co-pilot certification as we left Akureyri. When I got in the car I immediately noticed that she had placed 2 pieces of my new favorite Icelandic Eucalyptus gum in the compartment above the stick shift, the map was on the dashboard AND folded correctly, the GPS was programed and the radio was playing a hipster Icelandic song. The synching of driver and co-pilot – now that is the meaning of a road trip.

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The day was taken up by the long drive from Akureyri to Reykjavík with a side trip to the public pool in the tiny northern village of Hofsos – it’s on THE list of must visit thermal pools. Iceland has a vibrant public pool culture. Almost every town, no matter how small, has a thermal public pool: it usually consists of two hot tubs (hot and hotter), a swimming pool, a steam room and public showers. You have to be comfortable with same-gender nudity in the locker rooms –as you are given instructions to take an Icelandic shower (translation: naked) that includes a color coded anatomical chart of essential body parts to be washed. The pool lived up to the hype. It was designed by the same architect responsible for the Blue Lagoon and built into the hillside above the sea. The pool looks out on Drang Isles that tower majestically in the midst of Skagafjörður fjord. The island is the remnant of a 700,000 year old volcano. The tiny town also is home to the Icelandic Emigration Centre, founded in 1996, and dedicated to commemorate Icelandic emigrants to Canada and the United States.

We finally made it made to Reykjavík in the evening after passing through the impressive 3.5 mile Hvalfjörður Tunnel under the Hvalfjörður fjord. Of course, Iceland even has IMG_7648spectacular tunnels. It was getting late and it took us a while to find our little apartment at Room With A View hidden in the center of town. The place was recommended to us by a friend who recently visited Iceland and it was perfect. I left Georgia to rest and walked to the grocery store to buy food for the next couple of days. After we ate, I walked around the city a bit to get a sense of the place. By then it was close to midnight and everything was quiet. I was first struck by the San Francisco-color-palette monopoly shaped houses, quirkily arranged. The city pulsated with a creative energy that felt a bit rascally in a very understated Danish way. I know that sounds like a messy scramble of images but it was my first impression.

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Links:

http://www.northwest.is/1hofsos.asp

http://roomwithaview.is

Days 9 – 14 (July 30 – August 5):

We began our 5 days in Reykjavik. If I were traveling alone, I would have continued into the Western Fjords, the most northwest peninsula of Iceland that looks like an out-stretched paw in the Sea of Denmark. The region, with the worst, most precarious roads in Iceland, is visited by only 3%of tourists and is usually skipped in most people’s Route 1 itineraries. This remote, inaccessible region deserves at least 4-5 days to appreciate its stark abandoned landscape. Instead I made the decision to rent an efficiency apartment in the center of Reykjavik. As I grow older I crave time in wild places in order to strip off the layers accumulated from 51 years of living. But this trip was for two and I wanted to respect the instinctive teenage curiosity that pushes them to seek out new stimulation so they can build and shape their budding identities. It has been my experience, over the last nine years of raising teenagers, that they need to join rather than escape.

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Reykjavik is a gentle city to discover and join. It’s the perfect reflection of its people:
Egalitarian, industrious, outdoorsy, reflective, quiet yet celebratory, balanced but quirky, traditional and yet so forward thinking, and simultaneously Viking-esque, bohemian, and  11865272_10204694233143435_27942853201276577_osophisticated. The Icelandic creativity is everywhere – in most window sills, back yards and front stoops, in the graffiti (both sanctioned and not), in each flower pot, in the communal caring of the city’s cats, in the abundant public art, in the plentiful kind helpfulness.

The Icelandic people live surrounded by the most majestic examples that nature can serve 11823138_10204694252503919_2945984601495843618_oup and yet their biggest city is created on a modest, comforting human scale – no detail or invention is too small to add to the cityscape. Like the tiny purple and yellow flowers that thrive in the cracks of the black volcanic rocks of the country’s dramatic terrain, the people of Iceland have found a way to masterfully adapt to their environment. I made a hybrid plan of day trips out into the country from our home base in Reykjavik but the focus was to live among the Icelanders. We grocery shopped, cooked meals, found favorite cafes for coffee and soup, talked about politics and favorite hot springs with locals and tourists from all over the world, did laundry and washed dishes, laughed a lot, swam in the public pools, listened to music, played and relaxed in the parks, visited art museums, and rode horses at Laxnes Stables. We walked everywhere. We were Icelandic.

We took a day to take in the Golden Circle which included the underwhelming Strokkur Geyser which shoots a column of water up to 30 meters (98 ft.) into the air every 4-8 minutes; Gullfoss waterfall, created by the Hvítá River, which tumbles and plunges into a crevice some 32 m (105 ft.) deep; and the IMG_7729historical and geological wonder that is Thingvellir National Park, where the American and Eurasian tectonic plates are pulling apart at a rate of a few centimetres per year.  IMG_7724This is where most tourists visit when in Iceland.  Having just completed our journey around the country, Georgia and I felt the Golden Circle was a bit like the Cliff Notes’ version of Iceland.  We enjoyed Thingvellir National Park the most. In addition to the natural beauty, it is the historical site of Althing – the oldest legislature in the world still existing. It was founded in 930 at Thingvellir and continued until 1798 as an open-air assembly representing the whole of Iceland. We topped off the day with an evening at the famous Blue Lagoon. It did not disappoint, even though it was very touristy.

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Over the past 500 years, Iceland’s volcanoes have erupted a third of the total global lava output. Iceland has 130 volcanic mountains, 30 of which are considered active.

IMG_8002On our final day in Iceland, we took an early morning bus, about 45 minutes outside the city, and hiked to Thrihnukagigur. Inside the Volcano is the only place in the world that you are able to be lowered down into a volcano’s magma chamber – usually volcanic chambers are plugged or sealed shut during the eruption. In 1974 the chamber was discovered by young skier who was lowered, with a rope around his waist, 440 feet to the bottom. In 2011 National Geographic did a documentary on the chamber and IMG_7973devised an elaborate method to lower people into the volcano using an open elevator, similar to that used by window washers. The elevator holds only 5-6 people at a time and it takes seven minutes to ride to the bottom. Thick cable wires move the elevator up and down. The volcano was opened up to visitors in 2012. I’m very scared of heights and a bit claustrophobic so I looked at a lot of footage and pictures of the chamber prior to our decision to go for it. I was expecting the colors but not the enormous, cathedral-like size of the chamber. The guide explained the colors as being like glaze on pottery. I read an account that described the colors as looking like spilled oil on water. Each group has about 40 minutes at the bottom. Again, it’s a place to experience and not to take a lot of pictures. I have found that Iceland just shakes it’s head at my puny attempts to capture the true power of it’s landscapes.

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We were back in the city at about 1pm and decided to go to several museums that had been closed the prior two days because of the Icelandic Labor Day weekend. That sounds daunting, but museumsIMG_7743 in Reykjavik are organized much more sanely than in the states. There are many small museums throughout the city linked under an umbrella organization. I love it because it serves up art in easily consumable portions with no underlying panic that you will run out of time or attention span – even a teenager’s attention span. Each exhibit is also muti-sensory. As you can image, the landscape is central to the country’s art. We were pleasantly surprised to find how well women artists are represented at every museum.IMG_8038
At the National Gallery of Iceland, 63% of the artists are men and 37% are women. Compare that to 5% women artists at the MoMA and 3% women artists New York’s Metropolitan Museum.11231759_10204694250863878_81848738332158420_o Our favorites: Júlíana Sveinsdóttir (1889-1966 ), Ruth Smith (1913-1958), Kathy Clark (1967-), Hulda Hakon (1956 -). Of course we loved the the most famous Icelandic painter, Kjarval (1885 – 1972). He is beloved for his fanciful style and his love affair with Iceland and its people. We first saw a sculpture of Einar Jonsson (1874-1954) on the Westman Island and were grateful to find that he donated his home and all of his work to create Iceland’s first museum, located next to the Hallgrímskirkja Church in Reykjavik.

We finished our day with a swim at Sundhollin, the oldest public pool (1937) in Reykjavik, about aIMG_8061 15 minute walk from our apartment. We swam, soaked, steamed, and Georgia did flips off the old-school diving board. We stayed until 10pm and headed back to pack.  We look the bus to the airport which was easy and much cheaper than a cab.

When we left we felt like we had just skimmed the surface of this spectacular country. We will be back!  Thank you Iceland!

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Links:

I took all of the photos that appear in this blog.

http://www.iheartreykjavik.net The best website about Reykjavik and Iceland. They have an hour long walking tour of Reykjavik which is terrific and sets you in motion for your stay.

http://www.visitreykjavik.is/hallgrimskirkja-church  There are several inexpensive concerts at the church each week so you can hear the famed organ play

http://matarkistan.is  Our favorite restaurant in Reykjavik

http://www.trip-to-iceland.com/what-to-do-and-see/reykjavik-area/sundhollin-oldest-swimming-pool-reykjavik/

https://insidethevolcano.com

http://www.laxnes.is  Loved Laxnes Stables!  They provided pickup/drop-off from Reykjavik.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Sweet Intention

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Human beings are works in progress that mistakenly think they’re finished.”

I very deliberately made homemade whipped cream to top the fresh berries I bought for our New Year’s Day dinner.  Austere food restrictions had no place at our table as we welcomed 2016.  If anything, I want to add more sweetness to the next twelve months – nothing sickeningly so, but as with perfect whipped cream, a touch of sugar goes a long way.

This year I’m making an intention rather than a resolution. In yoga, an intention is the act of bringing awareness to a quality that you wish to cultivate in your life, both on and off the mat.  It is the determination to act in a certain way.

For many, the new year brings harsh inventories of mental and physical defects that spawn Spartan-like regimens.  A resolution identifies a problem and promises an answer.  It’s an if-then statement.  If I do this then I will be fixed.

But we are humans, not math problems, and few things in life are linear or easily deconstructed. Most of us will find our ourselves looking at the same inventory list next January.

So this year I’m trying another approach. I’m visualizing 2016 as one long yoga practice.  On January first I set my intention to be willing to come from a place of kindness, more often than not.

As I climb up the decades, I’ve developed a mighty respect for kindness. I have watched it trump just about any vice or virtue as it ripples outward like rings from a pebble dropped into a smooth lake.  It brings us to the sweet spot between effort and ease, strength and weakness.

If I am kind with my thoughts I will be brave and more curious.

If I am kind to my body I will more likely choose to eat better, sleep well, and exercise. I will also unapologetically enjoy a splurge.

If I am kind to my family I will honor myself and them by holding steady and not falling prey to fear and anger.

If I am kind to my friends we will be become pillars in each other’s lives.

If I am kind to strangers I will be more open to people and new experiences.

If I am kind to my community I will lose myself in something bigger and lasting.

Contrary to New Year’s lore, none of us can completely erase our real and perceived less-delightful traits, but we can make an honest effort to befriend ourselves which will go a long way toward relief.

An intention is not inherently solution focused, it’s more of a gentle reminder of how we want to live and a guide post to get us back on the path when we forget. It’s in the failing, and the trying again and again, where the progress is made.

It’s as simple as coming back to the breath and a single thought. You can always start anew. That is why they call it a practice.

 

“I love my life, I regret my life. The lines eventually blur and it’s just my life.” ~ Tobi (Patrick Stewart) in the film Match

I took the photograph at the park next to the Palmer Event Center, Austin, TX.

The opening quote is from Dan Gilbert.

 

To Love January

Our Christmas tree slumped next to the trash can, waiting to be mulched, feels like a little victory. That used up evergreen screams, “It’s done, I made it!”

I’m a believer that when Christmas is over, it’s over. I want everything pulled down, put away and dragged to the curb by December 28th.  Any later and I get panicky and claustrophobic in the same way I feel when stuck in a too small shirt, arms trapped over head, in the dressing room at Nordstrom Rack.

My family’s holiday season is a three months long event gauntlet that includes six birthdays, Halloween, our anniversary, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s.

I promised myself I would be more celebratory this year. I lightheartedly blew through the three October birthdays, one including a team sleepover and another a weekend trip to Miami. I even sailed through hosting Thanksgiving for twenty-seven.

But as the girls opened the first day on their advent calendars, the bah humbugs took hold. I do not have a history of tortured childhood Christmases. My mom had Christmas down. The beauty she created for us was nurturing and serene.

When the kids arrived, Christmas became the vehicle for the mean girl in my head. She speaks in oughts and shoulds, through a perfectly lip-glossed mouth. Her cheerfully condescending tone swirls doubt around my resolve for a simple celebration.

I stayed the course with my holiday convictions, but it wasn’t comfortable nor relaxing. The 26th felt like one long, lovely, liberating exhale. With the tree to the street and the mean girl silenced, I can finally plan for my favorite day of the year, January 1st.

To Love January  by Davi Walders

I clasp January to me giddy
with hope for its newborn
cry that clears away the worn
out year like so much tinsel

carted off to storage. I love
January’s uncluttered room, its
freshly laundered calendar innocent
and white beneath a pure blue sky

grazed by bone-clean trees. To love
January is an acquired taste,
like learning to let the tongue
curl around the slow, sweet burn

Of Tuaca’s golden fire.
I do not want to wait for April
to fall in love, July to run with
a salty sea, October to be crowned

in color. I want to drink it all
in now when everything is possible
and I and the world are infants again
babbling, listening for birdsong.

We Wake to Find Ourselves Undone

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Our family’s tradition was to decorate the Christmas tree on my father’s birthday.  As a child, it was always one of my favorite nights.  With perfect recall, my dad would recite Robert Frost’s poem, Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening.  

My father no longer lives in a reality that marks time by the calendar.  Instead he struggles to find his way, moment to moment.  He loved Christmas.  I use the past tense because he is not able to remember his loves without my mother reminding him of himself.

It’s a gray, bleak morning in Austin as I ready myself to call my dad to wish him a happy birthday.  There is a sadness in how the dead leaves funnel at the backdoor.  I think of the last line in Jay Hopler’s poem, Meditation

We are oblivious. Then, one morning—there’s a
crack in the water glass—we wake to find ourselves undone.

Happy Birthday Dad and Merry Christmas.

Stopping by Woods on a Snowy Evening by Robert Frost

Whose woods these are I think I know.
His house is in the village though;
He will not see me stopping here
To watch his woods fill up with snow.

My little horse must think it queer
To stop without a farmhouse near
Between the woods and frozen lake
The darkest evening of the year.

He gives his harness bells a shake
To ask if there is some mistake.
The only other sound’s the sweep
Of easy wind and downy flake.

The woods are lovely, dark and deep,
But I have promises to keep,
And miles to go before I sleep,
And miles to go before I sleep.

Meditation on Ruin by Jay Hopler

It’s not the lost lover that brings us to ruin, or the barroom brawl,
or the con game gone bad, or the beating
Taken in the alleyway. But the lost car keys,
The broken shoelace,
The overcharge at the gas pump
Which we broach without comment — these are the things that
eat away at life, these constant vibrations
In the web of the unremarkable.

The death of a father — the death of the mother —
The sudden loss shocks the living flesh alive! But the broken
pair of glasses,
The tear in the trousers,
These begin an ache behind the eyes.
And it’s this ache to which we will ourselves
Oblivious. We are oblivious. Then, one morning—there’s a
crack in the water glass—we wake to find ourselves undone.

Meditation on Ruin by Jay Hopler from Green Squall. © Yale University Press, 2006.

End note:  The picture above, of me and my parents, has sat on each of my bureaus since I was sixteen years old.  July 1966 is written on the back in my grandmother Lila’s handwriting.

Middle School is but A Midsummer Night’s Dream

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I wiggle in my too-low, public school stackable chair, elbow-to-elbow with the other eighth grade parents as we wait for the classroom modified production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. I was handed the crumpled-at-the-bottom-of-the-backpack invitation early the same morning by one of my girls, Twin A.  

My heart warmed – she wanted me to come. She quickly shut that notion down by explaining that she would receive extra credit if I attended.  I then looked over at Twin B and asked if she would like me to come to her class as well. She didn’t exactly say it this way but let me translate the look – no amount of extra credit is worth the potential embarrassment of having you near me at school.

Twin B’s play was performed the week prior.  So Twin A’s invitation marks my last middle school performance of A Midsummer Night’s Dream until I have grandchildren.

I look around and wonder how we all got so old. In my twenty-two years of parenting four kids I have noticed that middle school parents look the oldest. As many of us arrive at a decade where we become invisible to much of the world, our middle schoolers see us as all too visible.  We become like a chronic cold sore on their lives. It’s a sad, tiring reality that eats away at our recent heroic status as an elementary school parent.

When you run into these same adults at high school back-to-school-nights you realize that they smile more and even though they look visibly older, their newly rediscovered lightness makes them seem younger. We give each other that knowing nod, like a salute, silently acknowledging we have survived middle school.

From the audience, all we see is a chaos of legs from behind the sheets hanging from the ceiling.  After a brief, breathless introduction from a gleefully exasperated teacher, the first kids emerge from behind the curtain.

They radiate a lovely awkwardness as they stand unnaturally in their halloween-like collage of costumes whose themes merge Little House on the Prairie with a toga party. Boys play girls and girls play boys. They switch roles mid-play so everyone has a chance to perform.  Titania, the fairy queen, is first played by a lithe blond and then, during her lovesick scene with Bottom-turned-ass, she is played by a tall gangly boy wearing wings and a tiara.

They are a bit uncomfortable with the language, some more talented than others, but I admire their memories and overall enthusiasm. The first boy cast as Lysander delivers all his lines using a rap cadence and moving his hands to the beat of his voice.  I can tell that he anchored his lines by using a physicality that makes me want to head bop along to the rhythm.

I’m softened by the random bursts of laughter and the odd wrist grabbing when the play called for the actors to hold hands. I watch the mom next to me tear up. We sometimes forget that they are still children, hovering in the fleeting sweet-spot before adolescence truly takes hold.

We know what’s ahead – events will fall in front of them, like dominoes, once pushed. I’m a person who has thoroughly enjoyed adulthood more than being a child, so I don’t mean to be gloomy, but many of the dominoes are not easy.

Being still with that awareness is one of the hardest parts of parenting.

Each of my children has been assigned A Midsummer Night’s Dream in the eighth grade. The play’s themes of identity, youth, attraction, mischief, and alliances are a natural fit.  Adolescence, like the forest for the actors, is a place where the lines blur between sleep and wakefulness and emotional turbulence and emerging sexual identity reign.

We, the parents, are like the staid adults of the play, trying our best to impose the status quo by making ultimatums in an effort to restore the peace. But like the dreams of the young actors, our efforts are an illusion. This new generation will find their own way in a future that we will never fully understand no matter how hard we try to stay current.

Youth will always takes its place in the world. We had our time in the forest. It is the way it should be.

Phantom Cigarette

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After sharing an account of a particularly intense situation, my friend Lisa will sometimes punctuate the last sentence by taking a long drag off a phantom cigarette.

Mind you, neither of us have smoked in decades, but for anyone who has ever smoked, the image reflexively brings you back to that pre-cigarette stress followed by the release that comes post-first-drag.

This morning, I realized that the sound of my three teenagers getting out of the minivan is my responsible, middle-aged mom’s version of first-drag-euphoria.

My response got me thinking about my smoking history, which through today’s lens is beyond absurd, cultivated by a permissive smoking attitude that is almost impossible to believe ever existed.

I know I’m taking a great social risk by talking about cigarettes and it goes without saying that I do not condone smoking. But I grew up in the last generation when smoking was no big deal.

When I was a child, most of the adults in my life smoked. I inhaled enough second-hand smoke to qualify as an infant, toddler, and elementary school smoker.

My first actual cigarette was given to me by the popular teenage babysitter from our neighborhood. She convinced me to steal a pack from my parents. After my little brother went to bed, she called her best friend, from our rotary phone, and invited her over to smoke the stolen cigarettes in the garage.

Although light-headed and nauseated, I was hooked on the group intrigue. I was either twelve or thirteen.

The public high school where I attended my first two years had a smoking area for teachers and students out in back of the cafeteria. Half my cross-country team and I would meet there to smoke before practice. Sometimes our coach would join us.

When I went to boarding school for junior and senior year, the smoking accommodations were upgraded. Each dorm had a smoking room in the basement so we could exercise our right to smoke Marlboro Lights and the pretentious clove cigarettes that we bought when we hitchhiked to Amherst.

In the winter, when the weather was bad, a teacher would organize a cigarette/junk food run into Greenfield – again, this was teacher sanctioned and organized.

I loved the smoke rooms. They were the most egalitarian places on campus. People freely shared cigarettes and conversation. Your social label didn’t matter. We passed around the well-used face book – that’s what it was actually called – that included each student’s ID picture along with grade and dorm information when the discussion needed a visual.

Today, Northfields Mount Hermon’s official policy on smoking reads as follows:  The use or possession of any tobacco/nicotine product by students is prohibited. Violations may result in disciplinary action and mandatory consultation with health services. Repeated use of tobacco will result in major disciplinary action.

Things have changed.

I went to college in New York City and all my friends smoked. Even non-smokers would light-up when they went out and during finals, the Olympics of Self Abuse. It was a badge of honor to log sleepless nights fueled by coffee, cigarettes, and Entenmann’s chocolate-covered donuts.

In the mid 80’s, personal computers were just beginning to be a thing but everyone still typed their own papers on typewriters. I have mild dyslexia and typing before spell check was a nightmare. I would pay my friend’s eccentric roommate, Delores, to type my papers. Along with cash, she required cigarettes, a couple of six-packs, and a listening ear to her monologues on life as payment, which meant long hours holed up in her dorm room smoking.

Unlike today, smoking was more social and every venue had a smoking area, even planes. We used to go to the Hungarian Pastry Shop on Amsterdam and 110th street, smoke too many cigarettes and drink too much coffee, spinning us off into manic laughing fits and rapid fire conversation.

There is none of that in today’s coffee tech-caves. My favorite coffee shop in Austin is chocked full of hipster guys with beards and earbudded women slumped over computers.  They all look so serious and worried.

Nobody talks.

I apologize for sounding nostalgic about smoking, but it’s less about the act and more about remembering the camaraderie of long ago and friendships lost to time and distance.

I never was a consistent smoker. My habit would rise and fall.  By the time I graduated and moved to Austin, smoking was not cool anymore and the health risks were well understood. I was fortunate to be able to quit without a struggle, which is not usually the case.

My last cigarette was at twenty-six and I’ve never picked up another.

So this morning’s surprise smoking connection had me shaking my head. As I pulled away from the school, I thought of Lisa, took a long drag off my phantom cigarette, and drove off into my day.

Twenty-four Years

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My husband, Matthew, and I married exactly two weeks after we met.

I was twenty-seven. A graduate student at the end of my degree plan. The year prior, I had purchased my first Rottweiler, Toby, after jumping on the back of my drug-dealing neighbor to prevent him from killing his wife on our shared porch. The neighbors were evicted. Toby and I stay on at the duplex near the dog park.

Toby was the man in my life. He slept on my bed, on his back, with his head on a pillow, and that was just fine with me. I didn’t want anything to do with men.

I was a year and half out from a break-up that crushed me. It drove me to cut my long bleach blonde hair short for the first time in my life. Think of a cross between Peter Pan and a Marine – it wasn’t pretty and neither was my mood. I renounced all things feminine and started lifting weights. It was the angriest, least attractive phase of my life.

My husband fondly remembers me as looking like a Russian swimmer, circa the Soviet Block era.

I was planning a move to Alaska after I earned my MSSW. When Matthew met me I was saving to buy the protective undercoating for my old-school station wagon to make it over the Alaskan Highway. I wasn’t looking for anybody to date, much less marry. I was going into the wilderness and never coming back.

Matthew was twenty-four and experiencing his quarter-life crisis. He had been one of those overachieving types in high school earning straight A’s while placing out of two years of college through correspondence courses. When he got to UT he was a business major, athletic, motivated, and pledging a fraternity.

Then he snapped.

He dropped out of school and became a waiter/massage therapist. This was back when being a massage therapist was out there, particularly for a guy. The economics of his new path tilted more toward the waiter side of the equation. When I think of this time, I remember him in a white shirt, black pants, and odd old man shoes. He had black curly hair, dark eyes, an easy laugh, and an enormous smile.

He had the sweetest little German Shepherd, Maude, and the meanest Maine Coon Cat, Echo.

We met on the stairs at the 10th street dog park as the sun was coming up. I had to get Toby exercised early so I could get to class. Matthew was taking Maude on a quick walk before the breakfast shift. Toby and I were usually the only people in the park. I remember Toby watching Matthew and Maude walk by on the sidewalk.

Matthew was in a hurry and wasn’t planning on going into the park. Maude had other plans. She ran down to where Toby was sitting. It was love at first sight.

My Rottwieller was aloof by nature. He was loyal to me and ignored all other living beings. Maude was a worrier, a bit high strung and kept to herself. This unlikely canine couple were head over heels. Matthew and I introduced ourselves and sat together on the steps watching their love affair unfold.

We decided that that we had to get them together again soon. Matthew called later that afternoon for a dog walk. We didn’t know it yet but somewhere along the Barton Creek Greenbelt all four of our fates were sealed. Mathew and Maude moved into my duplex after a couple of days. There were no dinner dates, or meet the parents. There was no fan-fare or announcements.

We were married two weeks later by a Justice of the Peace in the gazebo next to the court house.

I wore a black dress I bought at a second hand store and Matthew wore a purple and black shirt with jeans. My best friend at the time attended but Matthew’s best friend was not able to make it on such short notice. We went to dinner and then started our lives.

We grew up together, rooted and bloomed. We earned degrees, moved to Minnesota and back to Austin, started careers and businesses, bought houses and added four kids to the mix.

Every couple has a creation story. I once read that psychologists can predict the state of a couple’s marriage by the way they each describe their beginning. It’s all in the telling – changes in either partner’s tone or word choices across the years are the keys.

As any couple with a few decades under their belts will tell you, it’s not always easy. I truly believe that our story actually saved our marriage several times over the years.

Who could walk away from that kind of luck, that story.

We both still light up when we tell people we married after two weeks. The story is always the same, every telling – even during times when harsher words were spoken behind closed doors.

To this day, I cannot fully explain our beginning. Our whirlwind was not a romance with its usually giddiness. There was a seriousness about it – an earnestness. I choose to think of it as serendipity. We were two sidelined players that decided to get back in the game. We were what each other needed. Nothing more, nothing less.

Besides, the dogs loved each other.

Happy Halloween

 

Austin

“If you knew that your life was merely a phase or short, short segment of your entire existence, how would you live? Knowing nothing ‘real’ was at risk, what would you do? You’d live a gigantic, bold, fun, dazzling life. You know you would. That’s what the ghosts want us to do – all the exciting things they no longer can.”  Chuck Palahniuk

I took the picture in the Oakwood Cemetery, Austin, TX.

Santa Made Me This Way

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Last night, before bed, I overheard a commercial on TV for a lighting company reminding me that it was time to schedule an appointment for my holiday decorating needs. The suggestion sounded like a glass splintering on concrete after having been inadvertently knocked off the counter.

In my house no one is allowed to say the word Ch******s until after Thanksgiving. I don’t take before-pre-season advertisements for holiday lighting needs well. It’s not that I’m not celebratory, I am.  I don’t have a problem with any other holiday except for Ch******s.

If I’m to place blame, it was Santa’s fault.

When my first child, Leo, was born I didn’t give Santa a second thought. I happily suited up. My husband doesn’t have any strong seasonal leanings and did not harbor a secret desire to learn the Santa trade. It was a solo venture that started out with tremendous enthusiasm.

At about age five, Leo began asking questions about the man who entered our home and left presents. At first I squirmed and affirmed his existence but eventually came clean and revealed the woman behind the Ho Ho Ho.

Leo did not take it well. He didn’t care that Santa wasn’t real, he had that already figured that out. It mattered to him that I had lied.

Eli was a baby at the time and I had to choose whether or not to continue with the Santa charade. I decided to re-package Santa as a symbol of wonderment, gratitude, and generosity. I wasn’t going to lie. Instead, I was vague and confusing as I spoke of this half-man, half-symbol.

A contrary skeptic from birth, Eli never bought my Santa-Symbol-Being. As long as there were filled stockings, cookies and presents, he was good to go. Meanwhile, my holiday spirit was fading like a Santa suit in the sun.

It wasn’t until two years later when my twin girls were born that my Santa dilemma took on a new urgency. When their first Christmas came around, the feminist in me could not serve up to my daughters the notion that an old, fat, white guy came down the chimney and gave them presents because they were GOOD.

No way!

Here’s the rub. The girls really wanted to believe in Santa. They wanted the whole shebang. So very reluctantly, I kept one leg in the suit while continuing to be vague and confusing. This time, though, I was way more grumpy about the situation.

Finally, to my delight, I began hearing Santa push back from the girls in 2nd grade. There were rumors at school that the whole thing was parent run. I jumped on it and spilled the beans.

They didn’t care. They had been listening to my Santa rants since they were little so they were not surprised.

I have been living Santa-free for the better part of eight years so you’d think I would have re-embraced the holiday season.  In earnest, I’ve tried to establish new family traditions by stressing the importance of experiences over stuff and adding more volunteer time to the calendar, but my heart is just not in it. My teenagers have decided that our family’s lack of holiday cheer is my fault.

Of course, they look right past Santa, and blame the mother.

You can imagine how surprised I was when I saw my first flicker of holiday hope this past summer. Leo gave me a glimpse of a future that I never considered. His girlfriend’s mother is a holiday dream come true – better than any Santa.

And she is real!

She embraces and is successful at all things Ch******s and entertaining. She is sophisticated and creates interesting and delicious events that people admire and want to attend!

It doesn’t stop there.

She has a catering business on the side, just because she loves to cook, AND has a professional kitchen in her basement. She’s an accomplished tablescaper (a word that I didn’t even know existed until this summer) and an expert on French food and wine.

My son has been to her house in Chicago and has verified it all.

Who knew that the cure to my holiday brokenness may actually come through my children, the very people who let Santa into our house. I have four kids, so the odds are pretty good that one of them will eventually partner with someone whose mom, or dad, wants to be in charge of the holidays.

I will gladly be the in-law who gives all the holidays over to my kid’s partner’s parents. They can invite me or not, that’s their choice. Just don’t make me put up another ch******s tree.

My son and his girlfriend are both so young and are just finishing college and beginning their lives. I obviously do not want to pressure either of them, but if I had my way and willed my selfish-not-so-normal holiday fantasy into being, they would get married tomorrow  …  before the holidays

I took the picture at the Blue Santa Parade, Austin, TX.

Planting a Winter Garden

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A Texas winter garden is an odd collection of delicate leafy greens and weather-hearty root vegetables like carrots, turnips, and beets. There’s also cabbages, brussels sprouts, and broccoli, who like the more delicate salad bowl greens, do not care for the heat, but are far more capable in the cold.

Maybe it’s the New Englander in me who grew up with turnips and the like, but I think of root vegetables as my kindred spirits in the garden. I tend to be drawn to those with not so obvious treasures.

It’s not hard to be radiant rainbow chard, prolific arugula, or tender lettuce showing off in the tamed, affectionate October sun. They remind me of youth and fade fast when faced with minor fluctuations in temperature.

The root vegetables are more like the later decades of life. They soak up the same soothing sun but with practical, more industrious looking leaves.

Their business is inward as tri-colored carrots drill deep into the soil; purple collared, moonlight white turnips nestle and grow round; and beets, with their earthy redness, lay waiting, painterly, to stain finger and lips.

The picture is of the garden I planted this weekend at Sunshine Community Gardens

Note:  I haven’t written much over the last four months. Our summer was about integrating a long-awaited closure with many beginnings. My silence was a needed stillness to reboot and figure out our new operating system.

Tiger Cub in the Museum

a story that ends with everything that you need to know about parenting

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We moved from Austin to Minneapolis when I was six months pregnant with our first child, Leo, who is now a junior in college. He was born the day before Thanksgiving as the snow began to fall.  It didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to find indoor escapes to survive the dark arctic months with a new baby, and as a recent transplant, a limited friend list.

We lived in a neighborhood called the Wedge, in a second floor duplex near the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The museum immediately became my go-to place to take Leo.  I’ve always loved art museums, as much, if not more, for the building and their sublime interior spaces.

The Institute is a stunning merger of the original neoclassical building with several minimalistic expansions. All visitors pass through a huge open entrance that connects the historic with the modern.

The space is a perfect balance of clean lines, beautiful wide-stepped staircases, and an enormous wall of windows showcasing the Minneapolis skyline in the distance. Because it’s the transitional area between the galleries, there’s a collage of works from various cultures and periods. The normal museum rules don’t apply. It’s designed as a place to meet and talk.

As Leo got older and began walking we sometimes would never leave this entrance. For hours, I would follow him up and down the stairs. He would run around the protected statutes and pause to watch people across the street in the park.

Leo was like a tiger cub, cute and playful when he was baby, but then his need for stimulation became almost insatiable. By the time he was two it was becoming apparent that he needed to be out in the wild with his big paws and newfound strength and volition.

I can remember exactly what he was wearing on the day that he outgrew the museum: red thick sweatpants, a horizontally striped shirt of primary colors, and wide square-looking velcro sneakers with the same bright pattern.

Matthew and I had taken Leo to the Institute on a cranky Sunday morning. It had been snowing for days and the museum was particularly quiet. Leo was fidgety but started his usual routine of climbing the stairs while singing and talking to himself.

I noticed he had a look that I didn’t quite recognize. He wandered over toward the entrance into the modern wing. Matthew and I were leaning against the wall of windows. I looked over and immediately identified what previously I could not name. In real time, my tiger cub transformed into a bull.

This is when my memory goes into slow motion.

Leo returned my stare and I swear his nostrils flared. He started running full speed, with all the pent-up frustration that he brought with him to the museum. Hands out straight in front of him, he was heading toward the wall length canvas on the other side of the room. I don’t remember the artist but it was one of those towering Rothko-esque pieces. The visual that remains in my mind is of a candy apple red rectangle baiting the approaching bull.

Matthew and I pierced the silence with our screaming pleas for him to stop, but our feet felt paralyzed. The guard in the corner was equally stuck to the floor, his mouth open. The three of us glanced at each other and then back at Leo on his determined course.

He never slowed down, not for a moment.  He was a blur of color bolting across the room toward the perfect stillness of the equally colorful canvas. We all knew that he was going to make contact. My pulse quickened, with the certainty that our financial ruin would begin that morning.

Fear gave me magnifying vision that zoomed in on his chubby, sweaty toddler hands as they hit the painting about four inches from the bottom. I saw the canvas give and then shut my eyes. The contact was so powerful that Leo was knocked back and staggered, but the bull did not fall.

Matthew, the guard, and I had finally unglued our feet and were kneeling next to Leo, scanning the painting for damage.

Nothing.

No holes. No indentations. No grimy hand prints. I was waiting for alarms to ring and an army of museum secret service to swarm, all the while worrying that the painting might still explode or fall off the wall in an aftershock.

Nothing.

The guard half-heartedly admonished us and let us leave without filing a report or even taking our names. There was an unspoken mutual relief at our miraculous good fortune.

It’s hard to believe that moment was twenty years ago. It has become the anchoring reference point for our extensive, and growing, list of ridiculous parenting situations. What we didn’t know at the time was that the incident at museum captured everything we ever needed to know about parenting but took two decades to learn.

Each child comes into this world with a unique temperament and plan of their own.

Control is an illusion.

Your children will do and say things that that you can never prepare for or fully understand.

The best we can do as parents is to shout out directions from the sidelines–sometimes your kids will hear you, but most often not.

You have to be willing to improvise when helping to pick up the pieces, even when you’re scared.

Mercifully, most of the close calls are just that, and there’s the gift of another day with another chance to get it right.

Limbo

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On the rare occasions when I travel alone, I’m reminded of how much I love airports. I don’t mind the endless sitting and waiting. It’s not in my nature, but I actually welcome the chance to be still.

I’m most content with a full schedule, and usually found in motion or on a mission. I have never been good at resting, sleeping, or relaxing. Travel is my secret limbo where I allow myself to slow down. A place where I do not hold myself accountable to the tyrannical voice in my head that tells me to keep going.

My maternal grandparents lived just a few hours away by the ocean, and my dad’s parents had a summer place on Lake George. It made it so that every family vacation was a drive, not a flight, away.

I never went on an airplane, nor even visited an airport, until I was fourteen years old.

It’s hard to imagine these days, but I grew up in an era where most people travelled when they were old.  If you were fortunate and planned well, travel was the highlight of the last stage of life that began after the gold watch and a retirement party.

My first flight took me to St. Simons, Georgia, to visit both sets of grandparents who were wintering in the same complex. I was in eighth grade, the last year of my bleak middle school run. I was that odd kid, the one that hovered on the outside ring and was picked-on more often than not.

I was underwhelmed  that the ticket was just a piece of paper. I had envisioned a golden ticket like the one that let Charlie into the Chocolate Factory.  My disappointment was soon replaced; as the fasten seat belt sign dinged off and the smokers lit up, I remember thinking that flying was what a fresh start felt like.

It was then that I knew I could choose to go anywhere and begin again.

Big things happen on the edges of airports – lovers reunite, grandparents meet grandbabies, business people put on the hustle, and vacationers and students come and go.  But once past the ticketed-passengers-only gate we become equals, souls suspended, hovering just above real life, in travel limbo. We are not attached to anything more than what we can put in a suitcase, and for a brief respite, we’ll soon be a mile above the world’s problems.

It’s the spontaneous conversations that occur while waiting to board that I like best. If you are sitting next to me and you want to talk, I will gladly be witness to your story. I’m the person who really does wants to see the picture of your cat, the kids, or your garage remodel.  When I’m traveling alone, I have the time and I’m truly interested.

Every once in a while I’m surprised with a confessional conversation that can only happen when you travel solo. The ones that occur on long evening flights. Except for the sporadic halos of light beaming down on the crowns of a few readers’ heads, the cabin is dark and most of the passengers are asleep.

It’s then when you discover that you’re serendipitously seated next to a person who could be a best friend if they lived in your city. You and your new limbo friend have to cram a lifetime of conversation in before you land.

What’s said in travel limbo, stays in travel limbo.

Of course most of the time when I travel, I quietly read and don’t bother anyone. Even then, just the notion of sitting alone among a plane full of strangers, being served terrible coffee and tomato juice, while flying through the air in a metal tube is thrill enough. It never gets old for me.

On my most recent flight alone, our plane was the last to land that evening. We were the only people walking through the terminal gate area, transitioning through the final hushed moments of travel limbo.  I turned to take the elevator down to the curbside and was jolted by the light and all people waiting to be picked up, like baggage on the carousel.

In an instant, I was no longer in limbo.

Almost four decades separate me from my middle school misery, but I’ve never lost my initial reverence for the curative nature of a plane flight. Today travel is less escapist and more of a dive into the present, an exercise that holds the limitless potential of new people and places, the kind that gave me hope on that first flight to Georgia.


I took the photo on my most recent flight from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Austin, Texas.

https://daysinthefifities.com/2013/12/28/day-fifty-sleep/

A Life Is Like A Garden

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Leonard Nimoy’s final Twitter posting last week read, “A life is like a garden, perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.”

This morning I thought about his tweet as I pulled weeds in the cold mist, feeling the freezing mud soak through my gloves. To me it sounds like a summary statement of eighty-three years of living rather than instructions on how to live.

The day’s harvest of beets, kale, and brussels sprouts, the hardy show-offs of the winter garden, lay on my cement bench. The warm decay from the compost pile rose up, making itself visible in the light drizzle. The chickens, more vocal than usual, were complaining that they’re ready for spring.

A perfect moment.

A garden is at peace with time’s passage. Winter vegetables will bolt and wither as gardeners dream of summer tomatoes, again and again. Each cycle is unique, the victories and the disappointments, and the hard work in between.  Life will push through the soil whether a garden is tended to, or not.

Something will grow.

To plant, or not.

To cultivate, or not.

To look for and embrace those perfect moments, or not.

Something will grow.

 

DIY Lent

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I grew up wedding-and-funeral Episcopalian in a predominately Catholic small town in the northeast.  More than anything I wanted to go to catechism with my friends and get in on the mysterious spiritual goodies that I imagined being doled out every Wednesday after school. I wanted the rituals, the Friday night fish dinners, and the white confirmation dress.

Although as an adult, I’m not a practicing anything, each year I find myself designing a homemade, DIY version of Lent.  I’m drawn to the story of Jesus having to wrestling his demons, literally and figuratively, alone in the desert for forty days to find the clarity and strength to go forward with his purpose.

Most religions have a prescribed season for spiritual re-booting. Lent promises redemption if we can embrace and accept our mortality.  It’s the ultimate, no-frills, badass instruction guide on how to be human and find our best selves through our weaknesses. Jesus was not a wimp.

The season arrives on the calendar just as my lofty, good-intentioned New Year’s resolutions fade. The new year promises a quick fix while Lent is the real deal – transformation through disciplined action.

I believe that true freedom, not the mindless kind that comes with passivity or the jagged edge from defiance, can only develop with discipline. It’s about confronting duality to find balance.

Too often I’m like a fish jumping at every bait that dangles above the water – habits, teenage drama, the internet, even happiness. We all know the feeling of twisting and flailing on the line, hook-in-the-cheek caught.

Prayer, fasting, and service – the traditional pillars of Lent – provide a container to hold my wandering attention span. There’s a nurturing austerity inherent in the season that helps me filter the distractions of everyday life.  I ask myself to make changes, to look within, to try something different, to think about my purpose in the the context of my mortality.

This year my desert is the Oakwood Cemetery. Dating back to the 1850s, it sprawls out over forty acres on the east side with a view of downtown. It’s the resting place of paupers and city founders alike. It’s on my route to the kids’ school.

After drop off, I drive into the cemetery, park the car, and look out toward the capitol and at the cranes that are building new spaces for the living. I sit, usually for ten minutes or so, and think about that fine line between life and death.

I’ve been terrified of death my entire life.  Ironically my father’s dementia has made me less afraid.  When I watch him dissolve away slowly, I realize that I need to be careful about how tightly I hold on to my own story, much of which researchers tell us is distorted and fabricated in our minds.  My father has shown me that the story of the Self is an illusion, and when it fades, all that’s left is the soft animal, a human being who will die.

My prayer and meditating this DIY Lent is about learning to live fully in celebration of the finite experience of being human.  It’s a committed, day-to-day effort that requires gratitude, moderation, and insight.  My fasting takes the form of not giving in to the fearful, toxic thoughts. I want to build each day from a foundation of kindness, patience and community.  If I can manage to do so, more days than not, then my story will take care of itself.

 

I took the photo last week where I park in the Oakwood Cemetery

 

The Raison Stage

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“First you start out like a grape, small and sour, like a whiny three year old, then you get bigger and bigger, and juicier and juicier. When you are juicy enough, you start growing into the raisin stage. The raisin stage isn’t so bad. You are wrinkly but sweet and then you are made into an oatmeal cookie and it’s all over.” –  My daughter Lila’s Raison Theory of Life

Fifty-one looks like a scary number. I’ve been barreling toward my birthday with all the genuine optimism I can muster. I know I’m surrounded with so many blessings. I truly feel it.

However, with less than a month to ground zero I’m starting to lose my enthusiasm. Fifty-one. The word makes me grimace. It sounds old.

I’m having one of those days where I willingly pile a lifetime of regrets, wasted days, faded loves, squandered opportunities, and loss on my chest like heavy stones. I can’t breathe.

So much stupidity. Not enough courage. Days I can’t get back. People I can’t touch.

I will rally. But for this moment I take a certain comfort in laying under the stones. I want to hold on to them, feel their heaviness, and remember every mistake, misstep and careless gesture.

The weight is a summons to live purposefully. To have more courage. To find the acceptance to leave the stones on the ground and not burden what’s left.

To live the sweetness.

 

Another Minivan, Please

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When I was a newly minted parent, living in downtown Minneapolis, I balked at minivan ownership. I thought that it was much more hip to drive our old Tercel that didn’t have heat. During the winter, which is all year long in Minnesota, we used to dress Leo as if we were going on an arctic mission to get to his daycare. Many mornings we had ice on the inside windshield and we could see our breath as we drove to work.

Nothing says hip like frostbite.

Today I consider my minivan my mobile home. It has seen me through four kids’ activities, sports, road trips, and general family upkeep and maintenance. It’s part living room, garden shed, confessional, dressing area, study hall, storage unit and kitchen. Everyone talks about the importance of eating meal togethers; well, in our family much of that necessary togetherness takes place in the minivan.

I was expecting to own one, ONLY ONE, minivan.  I planned to drive it until the last day of my pre-college parenting duties and park it next to the empty nest. Like cinderella’s carriage, it would turn into a biodegradable pumpkin overnight, or a Volvo C30 hatchback.

The minivan had other plans.  On a return trip from Houston after celebrating my twin nieces’ third birthday the minivan sputtered at a stoplight on the feeder road. It had been showing signs of decline before the trip, but surely with a little duct tape and WD40 it would drive me across the finish line.

I’m fifty, I understand wear and tear.

We did what all non-mechanical people do – opened the hood and jiggled tubes and cables. Our low-tech placebo seemed to resolve the issue, until the next stoplight, when we saw smoke. I’ll skip over the hours of sitting on the side of I-10 while mulling over our options with the helpful people at AAA.

If you believe in divine intervention, the powers-that-be wanted us to have another minivan. We learned from the kind voice on the other end of our AAA lifeline that we were less than a half mile from the Honda dealership in Katy and, better yet,  the first mile of towing was free.

Matthew, our two daughters, and I all smushed into the cab of the tow truck and the burly talkative mechanic brought us and our broken minivan to the dealership. It only took minutes to get the scrap-heap terminal diagnosis.

Three hours had passed since the beginning of the end of our minivan. It was now six-thirty in the evening and we needed to get back to Austin to our dogs and Sunday night homework.

Matthew and I had a quick huddle. We told the salesman that we would trade in the old van and buy another if he could do it in an hour – seriously.  No bullshit, just sell us a minivan and let us get on down the road.

We were minivan refugees and didn’t care what they threw at us. We were going to be tougher.

My husband is a math genius so he quickly won the wonky financial back-room shell game. He’s barnacle stubborn and actually likes reading the fine print. I gave the girls permission to do gymnastics in the long hall of the waiting area and agreed to their request to drink the coffee in the hospitality station. We did our best to be polite and respectful but we really needed to get home.

We said please.

We were shown the only three minivans on the lot that met our specifications. The first was metallic navy blue, the second was white with same color interior and looked like a giant wheeled marshmallow, and the third was the most hideous shade of bodily fluid brown. Ninety minutes later we were driving our metallic navy blue minivan into the night toward Austin.

It wasn’t an hour but pretty darn close.  

 

The photo was taken in Galveston, years back, in our first minivan. My son is running after us as his friend, Quinlin, races me to the beach.

Just Another Morning

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3:37 am

The dogs are scratching at the back door and poised, once again, to pursue the possum family who lives under our shed. It’s a good deal for the dogs, all the challenge of a wildlife encounter and yet the game is rigged and they always win. Otis, sweetly dim, doesn’t understand his role in the ever-looping possum death-and-resurrection act. Opal, the brains of the pair, has it figured out and is still an eager participant in the nightly ritual.

I’m prepared for the predictability of their canine missions because I wake up at 3:20am more nights than not. It’s the exact time of my last night feeding when I nursed our twins. It doesn’t matter that it was twelve years ago, my body still remembers.

3:52 am

The dogs’ storming of the backyard cues our dieting orange cat to lumberingly leap up on to our bed. She begins kneading my belly while practicing for the world’s loudest purring contest. She wants food and her face rubbed.

4:20 am

My husband, Matthew, decides to come to bed. He can sleep anywhere at anytime, on command. This sleep superpower allows him to keep odd hours and often he works late into the night. It’s like a parade coming through our bedroom. His toothbrushing process is unexplainably noisy and bright. The dogs burst into our room and immediately remember the menacing possums.

Thirty seconds later, utilizing his sleep superpower, Matthew is in a deep slumber and I’m awake, waiting to let the dogs back in the house. Eventually, the dogs scratch to come in and curl up on their bed next to us. They also have Matthew’s sleep superpower.

I’m a fragile sleeper. Ideally I need blackhole-like darkness and silence, as well as a constant room temperature of sixty-eight degrees. I found my perfect sleep environment only once. It was on a cruise ship, of all places.  Surprisingly, my tiny room at the bottom of the ship hit every one of my sleep metrics and added another to the list.  A gentle hammock-like rocking is now another must have for my sleep utopia.

4:30 am

I remember that my daughter’s jeans are still wet in the washer and decide that I better get up and start the dryer so she doesn’t suffer another mother-induced fashion nightmare. Yes, she is in middle school. I make coffee and feed our ravenous dieting cat. There are a few dishes to finish from last night and I catch up on emails. It’s quiet, dark and cold so I should be sleeping but I’ve had too much coffee.

5:30 am

I continue to putter and start on my to-do list. This is the calmest, most productive part of my day and the only moment when I’m not surrounded by animals and people.

5:50 am

I’m instinctively fidgety because my body knows what’s coming. It’s time to rouse the three teenagers sleeping upstairs which begins our daily version of the Jerry Springer show. Each of my children wakes tired, argumentative, and usually mad at me for a reason yet to be discovered. One of our daughters is ridiculously organized and driven crazy by her twin sister whose optimal morning functioning hovers at feral. The feral child’s morning routine has me yelling, marine-sergeant-style, at every turn in the process.

Our fifteen-year-old son gets up eight minutes before we pile into the car. He and I argue every morning about him cutting it too close. More often than not he’s the first kid ready. He sits on the couch, the victor, waiting and gloating.

The rest is a blur of breakfast choice complaining, signing papers I don’t read, a million items lost and mostly found, and bad lunch-making reviews. It all comes to a crescendo with me hollering out the countdown to the minivan’s departure.

Matthew is up now and has words of sunshine and happiness for the kids as they finish loading their backpacks. Somehow he is always the good guy. He’s miraculously rested after his micro-nap. In contrast, my head is spinning as the kids exchange last minute barbs and we push through the front door.

6:55 am

The minivan pulls away from the curb while the automatic side door is still closing. Our organized daughter continues her lecture on my soft, ineffective parenting style. After a few merciful miles into the drive, the girls find their way to a truce and recap yesterday’s lunchroom conversation.  Eli, sitting in the passenger seat, informs me that now that he’s taken Driver’s Ed he realizes that I’m a terrible driver and that if he was a cop he would follow me around all day and give me tickets.

7:18 am

I drop off the kids and breathe deeply in the splendor of my empty minivan. I spend the drive back home thinking about ways to tweak our morning routine to go more smoothly.  All my analysis and best plans don’t have a chance. Animals, teenagers and parents of teenagers are not rational beings and time management theories do not apply to this stage of life.

My twenty-one-year-old son serves as the light at the end of the tunnel. As a teenager, he was just as surly and pushed back with as much gusto. Today he is a well-adjusted, functioning young adult who actually likes my husband and me. Resigned to five more years of morning anarchy, I remind myself that kinder, awake teenagers will return home this afternoon.

 

I took the photo at Graffiti Park, Austin, TX.

 

The Walk-In Fridge

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I visualize January 1st as a doorway with heavy vinyl strips in the entrance like the kind you see in a professional walk-in refrigerator. During my teens and early twenties I worked at a lot of restaurants. The walk-in fridge was like a sanctuary behind the chaos in the kitchen. I would push through the tentacle-like tangle of plastic and stand still, surrounded by crates of food and a perfect coolness.

It was a dramatic difference from the hustle and sweatiness of waiting tables – a rare moment to pause while getting those little creams in plastic containers for the set-up station.

My younger self envisioned a more poetic threshold to the new year, one imbued with magical powers. I fantasized that January 1st would erase all my idiosyncrasies that kept me from my long list of yet-to-be-accomplished goals. I would become a different person, my best self.

My practical, walk-in fridge version of New Year’s Day came to me in my late forties and I’ve stuck to it ever since.  Today I see January 1st as a sanctuary behind the choas in my mind.  It’s a space to pause, figure out what I need for my set-up station, and then back to hustle and sweatiness of real life.

There are three guidelines to the Walk-in Fridge New Year’s Day:

One: You’re the same person before and after the walk-in.

I use the moment to embrace my totality and not annihilate my very being. I’m never going to completely rid myself of procrastination, Peanut M&Ms, or quick boredom. Whether it’s physical or mental, I try to spend less time thinking about what I can’t fix. From this perspective it’s easier to muster my good intentions and energy to make a couple of changes that I can truly achieve. I’ve learned to work with my positive attributes and not come from a place of deficit.

Two: Pick just a few things to bring back to your set-up station.

Think of the changes that you want to make as assets that will eventually make your set-up station better. Use your time in the walk-in wisely – lovingly pick the items that you REALLY need to bring back with you. If you need more salad dressing don’t bring back lemon wedges. Choose only a couple of items. If you overload yourself, you will drop everything.

Three: Once you leave the walk-in, the work is hard.

It’s been a long reckoning for me but I have come to the conclusion that discipline and stick-to-it-ness are the keys to life. It sounds boring and punitive but I have found it liberating. Showing up for your life will get you three-fourths of the way to your goal.

The only way I can sustain focus is through simple mindfulness. Again, sounds easy but it’s hard work. When I’m being mindful about how I treat other people and how I take care of my body and emotions, my life just goes better.

Ultimately change is an inside job. If you can make one modification in 2015, have it be that you treat yourself like an ally and not an enemy. Be kind to yourself while you are working hard. And remember, it doesn’t have to be January 1st to go back into the perfect coolness of the walk-in to pause and regroup.

Progress not perfection.