Lessons Learned from Scarves and Address Books

I stumbled across a blog on minimalism this morning and fell face first into the realization that I am the antithesis of that concept.  While I have no aspirations to limit my material possessions to a tidy list of 200 essential items, I will have to admit that I sometimes fear I am one-box-of-miscellaneous-crap away from finding myself featured on an episode of Hoarders.   Looking around my house, it’s not apparent.  The house is relatively neat and organized without an abundance of knick-knacks or newspapers cluttering flat surfaces.  It’s what is crammed behind closet doors and in spare rooms and the garage that exposes my need to de-clutter.  The blog I was reading had a different term:  de-own.  Apparently, de-cluttering allows me to hide those I-have-absolutely-no-need-for-this-but-can’t-imagine-giving-it-away items in a box, a drawer, or a not yet completely stuffed closet to be dealt with later.  De-owning implies, at least to me, that it needs to go. . .NOW.  So I decided to embark on my personal de-owning adventure this morning, only to find that it isn’t as simple as the minimalist blogger suggests.

I started with something easy: scarves.  I have half a dozen of those practical, keep your face from freezing on a blustery Nor’easter kind of day scarves.  But I don’t live in the northeast anymore.  Haven’t lived there since I was 18. We don’t have those kinds of days here in my part of the world.  Why did I ever think I needed six?  Even worse, I created all but one of them.  I went through a knitting craze a few years ago.  Sadly, because of my need to knit, there are many people out there who have at least one fluffy scarf that they probably don’t need.  It was the seventh scarf that dared me to put it in the goodwill bag.  It was a gift from a student. Hand knit with all the adorable knitting blunders that a 10 year old might make.  I wore it at school several times to show my appreciation.  I’ve since learned that when a student asks you what your favorite color is, you have two choices.  The first is to say you don’t really have one in which case you’re going to end up with a scarf that is not only itchy, but in a color that could never exist in the natural world.  The second choice is to say black.  Black goes with everything.  I had to tie the goodwill bag closed so that little scarf couldn’t find its way back into my scarf basket.  I realized that I can be rather sentimental at times, especially when it comes to gifts from 10 year olds.

The scarf sorting experience went quickly and left me with a bit of a high.  I was ready to tackle another small de-owning project.  I headed for the kitchen junk drawer. Ha. An hour later, the drawer still qualifies as a junk drawer.  The mistake I made was pulling out the two address books that have been crammed in there for years.  The first was from a previous life.  It was rather ragged with far too many torn address labels stuffed inside.  So years ago, I bought a second identical one.  The thought was to reconcile the two with only the names and addresses I actually needed.  Well that never happened.  New aquaintances were added to the new book and both books continued to suffer abuse each time I’d try to shut the overstuffed drawer.  When I pulled them out today, it was difficult to tell which was which as battered as they were.  I was so sorely tempted to toss both of them away without looking in them.  In this digital age, who doesn’t have a contact list that syncs with every device you own? But I made the mistake of opening the old one.  I spent the next hour walking through my past.  There were names I barely recognized (and some not at all), addresses that sparked memories shared with long forgotten friends, and phone numbers of geographically distant relatives with whom I’ve lost contact.  Each turn of the page brought along with it a host of emotions and memories that have collected dust over the years.  Then came the task of deciding which names would make the cut as I entered them into the newer book.  The easy ones were the names I no longer recognized.  As harsh as it sounds, there were relatives who were not logged into the new book either.  I know more about the bag boy at our local grocery store than I do about them. If I haven’t seen or talked to them in the last 30 years, it’s a good bet we have little in common other than some shared genes.  Others demanded more consideration.  A few childhood friends I’ve only seen once since high school made the cut.  My mother’s address, my childhood home, is written carefully under the W tab.  I’m thinking ahead.  In my golden years, I may need little reminders of my past.  I used to sit with my mother’s address book in hand and ask her about the people she had obviously cared enough about to include in it.  Her short term memory had been long gone, but mention an old friend’s name or address and she had a story to tell.  Maybe someday someone will sit with me and do the same.

So what have I learned from my first foray into de-owning?  First, I have no aquaintances who have a last name beginning with the letters I or X.  The more important lesson I learned is that letting go isn’t so easy.

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Gus and I headed out for an early morning walk.

Gus and I headed out for an early morning walk.

I’m not sure why I dislike the word resolution so much.  I don’t make resolutions for the New Year.  I’m sure there was a time that I did, but I can’t remember ever sticking with a single one.  So I don’t bother going through the motions any more.  I refuse to cave to peer pressure.  The other day, someone asked me what my resolutions were for 2013.  “Surely you have something you’d like to change?”  Well, yeah, there are plenty of things I’d like to change.  But making a resolution to change is not the same thing as changing.  A resolution is merely an expression of intent right?  Change is an action.  Actions speak louder than words, so this coming year I’m making some changes.  One of them will be to drop by my blog more often.

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Merry Christmas

Merry Christmas

A Christmas Eve stroll down First Street.

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Listening to My Mother

I never knew my mother with long hair.  A peek into my childhood photo album proves this to be true.  In all the photos, all the memories, my mother had carefully coiffed hair.

Her Thursday ritual was always the same:  a 4:00 appointment at the Jon-Robert Beauty Salon (pronounced ‘jzon-ro-bear’, not because they were French, but because one only needed to meet these two men to know that they were a far cry from anyone who might pronounce their names “John” and “Robert”).  Each Thursday, my mother would disappear for a few hours, leaving us in my father’s care.  As kids, we loved Thursdays.  We could tell what day of the week it was by what my mother was cooking for dinner.  Sunday was always a formal dinner with a roast of some sort.  Monday was meatloaf. If we were eating porkchops, it must be Tuesday.   Wednesday was always spaghetti day.  Etc.  But Thursdays were special.  Thursdays were Dad’s choice since he was cooking dinner in Mom’s absence.  Most Thursdays we’d sit down to breakfast for dinner.  Stacks of pancakes and bacon. Plates filled with french toast and bacon.  Western omelets and bacon.  Every once in a while, Dad had a craving for liver.  It was not a craving that any of us shared.  Even smothered in catsup, we couldn’t be enticed.  Those nights we were given the option of a bowl of Frosted Flakes or Sugar Smacks which we gladly accepted.  But this post isn’t about Thursdays, or liver, or  my mother’s perfect hair.  This is a post about listening to my mother. Or not listening to her as it turns out.

My mother despised my long hair.  I recognized early on that I did not have custodial rights to my hair.  This was made very clear to me one night when my mother was brushing the ‘rat’s nest’ out of the back of my hair.  I refused to sit still as she tugged gobs of my golden locks from my scalp.  Squirming and twisting with all my might to escape each dreaded brush stroke, I never saw the scissors coming.   My mother cut off most my hair and proclaimed my new pixie cut ‘adorable’.   I think my father actually cried, but was too afraid to actually step in to stop her.  My mother spent the next few months trying to convince everyone that it was the cutest hair cut ever. I hated it of course and dreamt of the day when I had control of my own hair.

The dreaded Pixie cut.

Eventually my mother relinquished her custody of my hair.  But still, she sought every opportunity to give me good reasons why I should maintain a shorter style.  When the first baby came along, she suggested life would be much easier with shorter hair.  New moms apparently didn’t have time to deal with long hair.  The first time my son burped up half a bottle of formula in my hair, my mother smiled and said, “Maybe you should listen to your mother.”  So I started wearing it in a ponytail 90% of the time.

When my second son was born, my first son constantly campaigned for attention.  He had just learned how to blow bubbles with his Bazooka bubble gum.  In a desperate attempt to distract me from his new brother, he blew an enormous bubble.  The bubble was impressive until it popped in my hair.  A newborn in my arm, a toddler screaming uncontrollably because my hair ‘stole his gum’, and my mother laughing on the other end of the phone, “Maybe you should listen to your mother.”  I banished gum for years, but kept my long hair.

Over the span of the next 20 years, my mother’s words would ring in my ears from time to time.  Sometimes in person, sometimes via AT&T.  “When you hit 40, you should cut your hair.  Long hair isn’t flattering on older women.”  She obviously didn’t read the latest magazines during her weekly visits to Jon-Robert’s Beauty Salon.  Forty + women have long hair.  And they wear it well.  At least some of them do!  Through the years I managed to keep both my stand and my long hair.

In her final years, Mom suffered from severe macular degeneration. Her vision was minimal at best.  Still she’d check in with me when I’d come to visit.  “Is your hair still long?”  I suppose I could have lied and said no.  I could have given her some small taste of victory. But the emotional trauma of that first unexpected pixie cut ran deep.  I couldn’t lie any more than I could cut my hair.  Which brings me to today. Today I was close to giving in to Mom.

I had shoulder surgery a few days ago so I’m sporting a sling for the next few weeks.  This is my third shoulder surgery in a year and a half, so I know what to expect. I have figured out what I can and can’t do with the use of only one good arm. Putting my hair up in a ponytail is something that falls under the ‘can’t do’ category.  The morning started off cool enough so there was no grave concern about asking my husband to put my hair up before leaving me stranded for the day.  Then noon came around and the thermometer skyrocketed. I found myself weighed down with the oppressive heat and this damned long hair.  I did a search on the internet to see if there was some magical trick to putting one’s hair up in a ponytail with only one arm. There were suggestions.  Plenty of them. Some included having a residual arm to help or a special tool for one armed ponytail wearers.  I had neither the residual arm nor the special tool.  I looked at the dogs with their tongues drooping out of their mouths.  They offered neither advice nor assistance.   I tried everything I could and nothing worked.  The more I failed at getting the hair off my neck, the more agitated I became.  The more agitated I became, the hotter I got.  I finally plopped down on the couch and my mother’s words came tumbling out of nowhere.  “Maybe you should listen to your mother.”  Her words echoed in the stillness of the afternoon heat. Had there been a pair of scissors handy, I might have fallen victim to a self-inflicted pixie cut.  Luckily, there were none to be seen. I was at a loss.  I sensed defeat. During a much needed cooling down period, I found myself browsing through old photos and came across this one.  I think I’m about 10 in the picture.  (Black and white polaroid…I’m dating myself by posting this one.)

Hmmmm…. pigtails?

This was obviously taken during the period when I had custody of my hair.  My mother NEVER would have let my hair look like that.  Pigtails?  Hadn’t even thought of that. After a few last sweaty attempts,  I am 10 again and sporting a set of rather crude pigtails.  Pigtails fall under the ‘can-do’ category apparently.    I’ll listen to my mother another time. For now I’m keeping the long hair.

Not listening to my mother….yet.

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May 5th

I have always viewed birthdays as a bit odd, perhaps contrived.  Why is it that we feel obligated to shower someone with gifts and well wishes on the day that they were born?  The honoree did little more than allow themselves to be squeezed out into the bright light of the world on that particular day.  In my mind, mothers deserve the recognition on the day of their child’s birth.  Afterall, they did all the work.

My parents hadn’t planned on child #3, so my conception was more of an ‘oops’ than a deliberate attempt to create a life.  Still, I’m grateful that a receptive egg and a determined swimmer met.  Without their union, I wouldn’t be here.  Without them, there’d be no birthday to even comtemplate.  So, I owe them thanks for yesterday.  My birthday.

It went the way birthdays are supposed to go, at least in my mind.  No presents to unwrap, no off key chorus of “Happy Birthday”, no flaming cake to make a wish upon.  Instead, I was able to celebrate the best gift of all.  Life.  We loaded up the dogs (there are now three) and headed up to the lake for the day.

Lake Berryessa

I spent the morning watching my wild pups as they romped in the water, wrestled over tossed sticks, and rolled in the sand.  When they were sufficiently worn out, we took a leisurely hike along the shoreline.

Tucker, Aggie, and Angus

The world is still rather green here, though it won’t last for long with the last of the rains now gone.  But yesterday there was life of all kinds: bees dancing above the wildflowers, an osprey with its kill soaring overhead, ground squirrels scurrying about, and lizards sunning themselves along the trail.  The youngest of the pups, Angus, didn’t miss a single thing as he constantly zigzagged across my path.  It was the perfect day.

The view from the trail.

And it ended with this . . .

The view of the rising moon from my deck.

Birthdays give me the opportunity to say ‘thanks’ for the life I’ve been given.  I’m never quite sure where to direct my gratitude.  My parents?  The egg and the sperm? A god? Whomever, or whatever, is responsible for my being here, just know that I take none of it for granted.

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Blame it on the Wind

It was an easy mission.  Or so I thought.  I sent a capable child.  Or so I thought. All he had to do was walk outside to the next building, knock on the door of Room 16, introduce himself, ask for the ball of yarn, and retrace his steps back to the classroom.  He can be a antsy kid and the change of scenery would be good for him. Expected elapsed time would be no more than 3 or 4 minutes.  Or so I thought.

He left at 1:37.  Five minutes later, still no courier.  I reasoned that he must have stopped in the boys’ room on his return trip and silently prayed that the ball of yarn wasn’t set on the floor while he conducted his affairs.  1:47 and concern starts to rise.  I am about to send out a few reconnaisance scouts when there’s a knock at the door.  He’s back.  I’m relieved.  I hate losing kids.

I notice he lingers in the doorway.  I also notice he is empty-handed.  “Do you have the yarn?”  “No.”  I made what I thought was a logical assumption, “So Mrs. Ross wasn’t in her room?”  He fidgets, “Yes, she was.”  “But she didn’t have the yarn afterall?” I questioned.  “She gave me the yarn,” replies the door-lingerer.  “Great, so where’s the yarn now?”  “I don’t have it,” murmurs the empty-handed one as he restates the obvious.  “You had it, but now you don’t?  Then what happened to it?”  “It’s gone.”  So we have clearly established that the yarn is missing, but the mystery remains unresolved.

I dig a little deeper, “Do you know where it is?”  “Yes.”  “Are you going to tell me where it is?” “Only if I have to.”  “You do.” “Okay, sondaroo,” he slurs softly.  “It’s where?” “ifrooitondaroo,” he blurts out unintelligibly.   I visually survey my class to see if anyone has managed to decipher this alien language.  No such luck.  I’m on my own.

I’m good at deciphering.  For instance, I know that the phrase ‘da mill key way gal luck see’ translates into ‘the Milky Way Galaxy”.  That ‘da braid heap hunch’ is really ‘The Brady Bunch’.  Surely I can figure out what ‘ifrooitondaroo’ means.  I run it through my brain and roll it over my tongue a few times, subtly changing the syllabication with each attempt.  On the fourth try, I’ve got it!

“You threw it on the roof?”  A sheepish nod leads into a confession, “But it wasn’t really my fault.  I was throwing it up in the air while I was walking.  I kept throwing it higher and higher and then the last time I threw it, a big gust of wind came and it never came back down. I think it’s on the roof.”

Fortunately there is a back-up ball of yarn waiting to be borrowed in Room 37.  I scan the eager volunteers and this time I choose the least athletic child in the bunch.

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Lessons: Playing God and Puppies

I learned a lot this past summer and it has taken me months to even try to put those lessons down in words.  Despite several attempts, I find that I still can’t do it.  Words are always accompanied by memories and the memories always seem to have tears tagging along.  So here’s the abbreviated version:

I’ve learned that there is no easy way, no right time to say goodbye.  Though friends and family reassure you that you’ll know when the time is ‘right’, you never really do.  You pretend to know because pretending makes you feel better.  I’ve learned that, when ‘playing God’, there is no way to avoid feeling as though you’ve betrayed the unconditional bond between pet and owner.  I’ve learned just how painful regret can be.


I’ve learned that the loss of a 110 pound Doberman leaves a hole in your heart and your life at least 100 times that size.  Luckily, there are two new pups that are doing their best to fill that empty space.

Tucker and Aggie

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Train Wreck Ahead

As I sit here drinking my coffee this morning, a train clatters down the tracks on the other side of the strait.  I watch its stream of lights as it slows through what pretends to be a town, a handful or two of houses scattered on the hillside. The whistle, hardly warranted at this hour of the morning, nudges me closer towards dawn.  Shaking the sleep from my brain, I realize there’s a train wreck coming.  I’ll just start off by claiming full responsibility for the impending chaos.

I set the wheels in motion a few weeks ago.  It was innocent at first.  My mind was filled with ‘what ifs’ as I imagined the possibilities.  My silence was intentional.  I shared my thoughts with no one. Those closest to me would surely attempt to dissuade me. I didn’t need anyone to point out my faulty logic, to tell me that my idea was harebrained at best. By the time I realized what was happening, it was too late.  Now there’s no slowing this train down, no last minute diversion to an alternate, safer track.  What’s done is done. So I’ve done what I can to prepare and have made preemptive apologies to those who will be affected by my rather selfish decisions.  And now I wait for chaos.

This planned chaos will bound into our lives in the form of a puppy.  He’ll be here in 9 days.  On that same day, sleep patterns will be interrupted, morning routines changed, carpets potentially soiled, shoes chewed, a layer of complexity will be added to summer vacation plans, and the noses of the elder pets will likely be a bit tweaked out of shape.  When the time comes, I will do what I can to mitigate the inevitable disruptions to our lives.  For now, I just smile with an awkward and sometimes unconvincing confidence, pretending that everything is going to be just fine and I have it all under control.   A cloud of apprehension has settled over the house, all eyes are on me, and I can sense the pointing “I  told you so” fingers ready at the draw.  It’s just a puppy, a little ball of fluff.  How bad can it be?

This newest addition to our family remains nameless at the moment.  Chaos suddenly seems like an appropriate name.  I think I’ll add it to my list.

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364 Other Possibilities

April 20, 1971.  A Tuesday like any other.  About as ordinary as a Tuesday could be except for the early morning dentist appointment that kept this 11 year old from going to school.  I remember being upset because I hated missing school.  I begged to be dropped off as soon as my appointment was over.  My grandparents argued that it might be better to go home and let the numbness wear off first.  They promised they’d have me back at school in time for lunch recess.  We were oblivious to the fact that true numbness was about to set in for all of us.

My father passed away that morning, shortly after we arrived home.  I remember sitting in my bedroom, marveling at my novocaine induced crooked smile in the mirror.  I was listening to Elton John’s “Your Song”, when my mother quietly knocked on my door.  Words weren’t necessary.  One look and I knew.  I stumbled through the rest of the day, the week, the next few months, and through years to follow.

April 20, 2005.  My daughter and I had been at the rehabilitation center for hours, sitting in my mother’s room.  The night nurse, a woman I found rather cold, had poked her head in and simply said, “Don’t leave tonight.  Sleep in the empty bed if you need to.  Just don’t leave.”  So we stayed.  We serenaded Mom with her favorite Frank Sinatra tunes and desperately tried to weave together as many happy memories for her as we could.  Her face was expressionless and her body still, but I’m sure she could hear us. Hours passed.  I remember looking at my watch just after midnight, it was now April 20th.  I knew it was time.  I climbed into bed with this fragile woman and wrapped my arms around her.  I remember thinking how fortunate I was to be there with her as she passed from this life.  She held me when I came into this world and now I held her as she was leaving.  I listened to her ragged shallow breaths as I caressed her head.  When her breathing stopped, I didn’t move for quite some time.  I’m not sure I knew how to let go.   It’s been six years and I’m not sure that I have figured that out yet, the letting go.

April 20, 2011.  I dug through many old memories as I planted flowers in my garden today.  Some made me laugh, some made me cry.  I am grateful for every one of them.  They are what I have left.

There are some things that are simple coincidence and others that seem to defy explanation.  I prefer to think that my parents dying on the same day, thirty-four years apart was more than just coincidence.  Afterall, there were 364 other possibilities.

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Of Buck Knives and Boys

He’s changed his name to Javier.  It surprised me at first, and then I realized that along with this new name comes a new persona.  Like a new jacket, he’s trying them both on for size to see how they fit.  So far the new identity seems to fit like a glove.

His new leaf includes more than just a desire to please his teacher (the daily notes about my incredible teaching abilities continue to be neatly folded and somewhat conspicuously left on my desk). Suddenly he’s an achiever.  He’s raising his hand to offer responses to questions, usually with correct answers.  He is an engaged learner.  Two weeks ago, as “Fraisco”,  he refused to work in a group on a persuasive advertisement project.  Last week, he begged to be assigned to a group.  Not long ago he refused to participate in his assigned reading group, today he asked to take another struggling reader under his tutelage.  He seems more confident and less boastful.  There are moments when I barely recognize him.  Throughout the year, this tough little guy has continued to amaze me.

An incident that occurred last week put Javier’s transformation to the test.  It was lunchtime and I was in the teachers’ lounge enjoying the few minutes of peace I have in my normally crazy day.  Having finished their lunch, Javier and another boy from my class were doing what boys seem to do best, poking and prodding each other, with the occasional noogie tossed in.  Somewhere along the way, one of them upped the ante and the playful posturing ended with the other boy pulling a buck knife on Javier.  The knife was just inches from Javier’s stomach.  For an instant, no one moved, not Javier, not the boy with the blade, not the bystanders with mouths agape.

Ten year olds with knives are unpredictable at best.  They don’t yet have a sense of mortality and are often caught up in their video game fantasies.  The line between reality and fiction is often blurred for these want-to-be action heroes.  The stand-off was brief as the custodian noticed the glint of the blade and the sudden change in the dispositions of the two boys.  Still, enough time had passed that the worst case scenario could have played out.  We were lucky this time.

We were also lucky that the knife was pulled on the new Javier.  The old Javier (formerly know as ‘Fraisco’) would not have backed down, would not have put up his hands and said, “Whoa, whoa, whoa bud, chill alright?  It’s okay man, we’re just playing, right?”  The old Javier would have simply reacted to the threat which could have led to tragic consequences.  But the newer improved version took a breath and analyzed the situation.  He realized that he was in over his head on this one, that being on the wrong end of the knife was a dangerous place to be.  He tried to de-escalate the tense situation with a bit of humor.  He backed down, something my old ‘Fraisco’ could never have done, not even if his life depended on it.

The knife wielding boy was suspended for possession of a weapon.  Had the charge been brandishing a weapon, he wouldn’t be coming back to my classroom tomorrow.  Tomorrow will be yet another test for Javier.  I left nothing to chance though.  Before he left today, we talked about how maturely, how rationally he handled the situation last week.  I know my boys well.  For boys in this poverty-stricken neighborhood, the currency is respect. Javier is no different in that regard.  I told him that he earned a great deal of  respect from his classmates simply through his actions.  He smiled, “Really?  That’s cool.”

I’m curious, and I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t a bit anxious, to see how the morning unfolds.

P.S.  The lobster is still on the ceiling.  It is interesting to note that Javier is the only person, other than me, who seems to care about the crustacean’s condition.


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