Compact, Chaotic Contemplations

I only have compact, chaotic contemplations this week…

Last week my dad was hauling shit, this week I’m buying it from Home Depot for my flower gardens.  Country mouse vs city mouse.  Weirdly unsettling.

Six years after our house addition, the earth has settled around our house.  The flower gardens are begging for real dirt.  Four bags of purchased cow manure aren’t cutting it.  I’ve ordered a load of black dirt and cedar mulch to liven the place up and make the flowers grow and bloom. 

The Writers Institute I’m attending is July 1st – 13th at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs.  Manuscripts are due June 1st.  On Tuesday, I compiled 65 pages of essays to submit – 90 more pages to go.  (I would gladly accept any suggestions from past Hump Day Shorts/Musings that spoke to you in any way.  Perhaps write your suggestion in the comment section below?)  

There are a quintillion new, ugly, unidentified weeds popping up all over our property.  Their root structure is so intense that I can’t pull them out even after a good soaking rain.  I’m surprised at how gratifying it was to spray poison all over them last week – oh, the power and control in the poisonous wand of death!  Who the heck am I?

To enlarge my front flower garden, I laid thick layers of newspaper on the ground over the weeds then spread a couple bags of dirt and manure over the top of them.  Another bizarrely satisfying spring act of covering headlines and opinions with… well, shit on shit.  

The warming of the earth is bringing Grandma Murphy’s temperament out in me as I fight to control what's coming up from the soil.  I don’t recall Grandma ever using the “f” word.  But she could effectively string together a series of “SOBs” and “SOBs” and “SOBs” to get her point across.  Fortunately, I’m cussing at weeds, not people.  And, like Grandma, I’m not using the “f” word.  

I’m the queen of double and triple bookings this spring.  Fortunately, many of my friends are operating in the same chaotic frenzy.  Years ago, my Sunday school teacher said to me, “Aren’t friends just the best?”  Yes, Marge, especially in May when I have to make apology calls and send apology texts to explain my calendar mistakes.  My friends understand.   

However, I nearly came fist to cuffs with one business who said I was a half-hour late for an appointment.  They most definitely had it wrong on their books because I had written the correct time down on the side of the Kleenex box in my van and had verified it with one of my sons who was in the front seat during the piped in phone call.  Alas, I’ll give them this one, for 'tis the season of spring blossoms, Mother’s Day… and weeds. 

After a 40-minute cardio circuit with Liam at the YMCA a couple weeks ago, we were heading into the house and Liam said, “Mom, I’m so glad you adopted me.  I don’t think any other parents could take care of me as well as you and Dad do.” 

Thankfully, the transition to spring is filled with more blossoms than weeds.  To all of my mom friends and family… have a wonderful Mother’s Day weekend.

(P.S. Hop over to my New England Gallery for a few more spring blossoms in Massachusetts!)

Intentionality of Friendship

It’s spring.  Just barely according to the weather, but in the cadence of life, I feel it.  The predictable schedule of fall and winter was like a dormant volcano: lots of activity but under control.  With spring, active lava flies out at will and spews new opportunities.  I’ve given up thinking I’m inside controlling the trajectory; I’m outside chasing the hot ash.  

I know where I am without confirming the date on the calendar: Mere weeks before the end of the school year.  Will has added track practice and track meets to his schedule, not in place of anything but on top of everything.  The end of Liam’s chess club is overlapping with the beginning of his cooking class and golf league, on top of guitar lessons.  Somewhere in the mix are Will’s spring concert and spring recital, and Liam’s trips to the YMCA to burn some energy off in the pool.

To Bill’s delight, perfectly manicured green grass has an open sign on it.  He can once again chase a little white dimpled ball over grass, through woods, onto sand, and into water.  Plus there’s soccer, Formula 1 racing, and golf Friday through Sunday on the tube. He’s in heaven.  

As activities flux in the Malcolms' lives, I’m working like heck to keep me on the schedule.  Over the winter months, I carved out a pretty good exercise routine throughout the weeks, and I’m looking forward to holding onto it through June 13th; Liam’s last day of school when all semblance of the current schedule disappears. I’m confident I can manage this: it’s an existing machine.  The where and when already pre-determined by habit.  

What’s more challenging lays in the land of community.  I’m the social coordinator for the family, and there is danger in this: booking for everyone else, but me.  On Thursday mornings every week, a friend and I are committed to walking 5k around a local lake.  Two other mornings I do Pilates to keep this post-cancer body limber and strong.  Those are the only weekly social interactions on my calendar.  I feel grateful that they are routinely scheduled to happen.  No, not even scheduled, they just are.  

Occasionally, I have a lonely week.  Bleak even.  This is a bit confusing because I’m rarely alone and always out and about.  Looking at a week’s view of my calendar, I could see that while it was jam-packed, I had no intentional, personal social interactions of my own, outside of these three hours of exercise.  Mind you, a hello, a wave, and a five-minute conversation on the fly do not count.  Nor do texts, emails, or social posts.  Call me old-fashioned, but for me to feel socially connected requires more intentionality.  To sit across from a friend and talk for an hour.  To have an equally long phone conversation with long-distance friends.  To spend a weekend together with out-of-state friends.  

A 47-year-old friendship... Vicki, my friend since kindergarten.

And the funny thing is, the more intentional time I spend with friends, the more I want to see them.  The intensity and quality of time in one another’s company doesn’t quench the need but only intensifies the want for more.  

So, as hard as it is to mesh Saturday morning schedules for a breakfast, pull off a mid-week dinner, or connect at the right time of day by phone, I’m going to keep plugging away at my social calendar, for the payoff is indescribable and immeasurable.  

Enjoying the journey…

Heat on the Annisquam

It's spring break week in Massachusetts.  We aren't traveling this year, rather choosing to stay close to home this week.  We have a couple day trips planned to Boston, and I'm taking Will and Liam on a two-night trip to New Hampshire late in the week.  It will be mostly unplugged.  A stressful proposition for me to plan, but I'm hoping once in the remote, non-WiFi locale, we'll assimilate rather quickly.  

Today we have plans to go bowling with friends then head to the Institute of Contemporary Art this afternoon, so my normal Tuesday morning writing in the library is now compressed into forty minutes or so.  And that's OK, first and foremost I'm Mom... the writer can have her day back next week.  

Given that we are still experiencing winter weather, I dug through my journal entries looking for a nugget from a warm summer day.  I think I've found just the thing.  When we renovated our house in 2012, we had to move out for a good portion of the summer.  We found a big, old house to rent in Annisquam, MA, overlooking the tidal river of the same name.  The river connected the Annisquam Harbor to the north and the Gloucester Harbor to the south.  Both ends of the river lead to open waters of the Atlantic.  I hope this warms up those of you still entrapped by winter on this mid-April day.

August 2012
The house on the Annisquam had the shore’s pulse.  A lifetime of that pulse.  The vinyled kitchen and dining room floors reflected the hardiness needed to live by the sea.  Sand from the river’s beach.  Water from a lobster pot.  Dirt from the paved street.  All of the residue from summer days digging for clams, dining with friends, and walking uphill back from the dock.  

That aura sunk into us. Through and through.

We kept the old windows open wide, upstairs and down.  The near-ocean breeze was the only coolant in the house.  A fact that nearly broke the deal for me.  I’m an AC worshipper on hot summer days.  Light woolen blankets were on each of the 10 beds.  I immediately removed all of those.  This was summer in the Northeast!  

We ventilated sun-soaked rooms by leaving ceiling fans on every day and throughout every night.  I like ceiling fans about as much as I like the heat.  But this was the only choice for any comfort.  I describe the air in these rooms as if it were always heavy and heated.  And that was the norm in that dreaded noon to four portion of the days.  But after that, the evenings were capable of great variety.  

At the going-to-bed hours when the house held the heat, I surrendered to it.  Sheets off.  Fan on.  Windows open.  Our bedroom at the corner of the house faced the river and benefitted from a set of windows on both exterior walls.  We kept the bedroom door across the hall from us open, so we had a third source of airflow through that room’s open windows on a third exterior well.  
All doors had heavy door weights: seashells.  Big and heavy.  At first, we kicked them aside; it made opening and closing the doors quicker.  Within the first couple days, we had experienced enough gunshots ricocheting through our flesh – created by slamming doors – that we fell into the habit of using the weights.  

From my bed, I could see Annisquam Lighthouse.  The lighthouse was on a little belly that jutted out into the river, so I was seeing the light from about two miles away from my bedroom window, as the crow flies.  On hot, humid nights, I lay still on my right side and watched the light.  Lying motionless was more effective than continually tossing to find a cool spot of cotton sheet.  The light held my gaze, and I found myself counting seconds between the flash of light.  Beacon.  Two, three, four, five, six, seven.  Beacon on eight.  I didn’t lose myself counting innumerable sheep.  My eyes drifted shut watching and counting to eight, time after time.  I shared my system with Bill.  At the end of summer, we were going to miss having that light lull us to sleep. 

By morning, the air cooled and was pleasant.  The sun woke us and soft breezes blew away the sleep.  The house was chipper in the morning.  I felt like a cotton sheet that had been aired out overnight on a clothesline.  That kind of freshness.

One night, Bill and I flew out of bed with bangs and cracks of a storm that had blown up in the middle of the night.  Blowing rain into the windows, the wind was whipping through the bedrooms making the curtains flap with the intensity of a midwestern tornado.  With six bedrooms, twenty bedroom windows needed to be dropped to keep the inside dry.  The old wooden sash windows fought with us a bit.  Original to the house, most raged with character but some had simply given up the fight, forgetting how the weight system worked.  This resulted in an occasional slam as accosting as the doors slamming.

One early morning while it was still dark, we woke up to a horrible stench.  Something dead outside our window.  Despite the heat, we made our way around to the windows and lowered them down.  It didn’t help the indoor air much as the odor was thoroughly inside and had the strength of a skunk spraying under an open window: the times you think the skunk MUST have gotten into the house because the scent is so strong.  I envisioned a whale – or, most likely, a very large dead fish -- washing up on the shore, but in fact, there were no waves on our little piece of water.  It was a river.  So it wouldn’t have washed up.  More aptly, it would have been left behind with the outgoing tide.  By morning, the smell was gone and the tide was high.  We would never know what decaying creature, or group of creatures, created that smell of rot.

Another night, we were tucked into our hot, humid beds when a cooling breeze came through.  It was gradual at first and felt comfortable, then it was downright cold!  The need for those thin woolen blankets suddenly become very apparent.

End of entry.

I'm ready for the heat of the summer sun.

Book Places

A couple weeks ago, the four of us went to a bookstore for the first time together in a very long time.  It was a box store, not a small independent.  I’m partial to the latter but we’re content in either.  Very, very content.  

Bill and I were shopping at a store next door, and the boys went ahead to the bookstore on their own.  When we arrived at the bookstore, I walked toward the children’s section at the back to make sure they were both there. 

At the entrance of that section, I heard a dad call out, “Max, where are you?”

Max replied, “My normal spot!!”  

So, we aren’t the only ones.  I think Will and Liam have had these spots since they were preschoolers.

To get my boys back into reading, I only need to take them to the library or to the bookstore.  I’m finally realizing that, like it is for me, there are many distractions in our house for them.  But if you walk into a building of books, the options are limited – even though there are thousands.  

And if your sensory system is on high alert after a day in school, or around people, or amidst noise, I feel a building full of books strips away the crazy, over-excitables and mellows out the soul. 

In all the times I purchase a book on these trips, the little two-hundred-page memento that goes home with me does not calm the soul the way physically being in the building does.  Once home that book becomes another book to read.  It moves from opportunity at the store to “to-do list” on the book stack. That purchase feels like the right thing to do at the store.  But it’s a little like shopping at Pottery Barn: just because you buy a giant sage green pillar candle doesn’t mean your dining room table will look like a designer’s masterpiece the way the candle did on the table in the store. 

A few years ago, when we were waiting for friends at a train station in Boston, we took the boys to the bookstore in the middle of the station.  They found little pieces of real estate to crouch down and read books they had pulled off the shelves.  The store manager caught them and said they couldn’t read in the store.  They were appalled to know that there were book places where reading on site was prohibited!

A couple years ago, I went north to Maine for a writing weekend on my own, and Bill took the boys on a Boy Scout trip to southern Massachusetts.  On Saturday afternoon, Bill and I texted one another photos: we were both in independent bookstores at the exact same time – wishing the other could see what we had individually discovered.

I’ve been going through photos the last few days.  I’m struck again and again by the Zen oozing from the pores of my kids when they are in bookstores.  When they were much younger and in small bookstores, I would find the two of them, side by side, squatting in identical positions, heads down, reading books.  

In this world of screens, my heart bulges at the sight of them sinking into words on bound paper. 


English Daffodils

Yesterday was Bill’s mum’s funeral in England. So bittersweet. Saying “good-bye” brings so many people together for the service to honor a loved one.  Funerals are one of those rare  life events, like weddings, that pull family, friends, and acquaintances together. I met so many of my mother-in-laws friends who I’d heard stories about but had never met. I felt like I was being introduced to characters from a book. People approached me saying, “You don’t know me but....”. And I smiled, for I felt I actually did know them through Bill’s mum’s vivid memories that she shared with us. 

And, like the conversations at my grandparents’ funerals, many of us said, “Why do we wait for occasions like this to get together?” Life. It’s movement pulls us into our own grooves. Then that tug of a life event pulls us together in times of great happiness or great sorrow. 

We do not usually visit England this time of year. While the days have been wet and dreary, I’ve been surprised by hosts of daffodils that are absolutely everywhere!  Rather than continuing to peck away on my iPhone, I want to share this with you from 2011:

Norton Anthology of Poetry. Spring. Daffodils. Wordsworth poem. Memorized. Not. It's an annual tradition. Unsure if I found the poem first or the daffs first. But this year, I know exactly where to find the 26-year-old anthology, so I can try yet again to memorize it. The chemo shelves in the basement.

Armed with an empty laundry basket, I head to the basement for a double-errand: dry towels & swim trunks and the big book. At the bottom of the stairs, I'm delighted. I remember both the bag and the book. I open the anthology and briefly glance at the poem. It was still there. I would fold laundry upstairs, then sit for five minutes and read the poem.

Two hours, or two days later, I got the basket to the second floor. And with a few minutes at hand went to pick up the book I had laid on top of the towels. Gone. And so much time had passed since pulling it off the shelf, I have no recollection of where it went.

Call it what you like: multi-tasking; distraction; motherhood; age; chemo brain -- my short-term memory has blown a fuse.

"I wandered lonely as a cloud that floats o'er hills and vales, when all at once I saw a crowd, a host of golden daffodils. I gazed and gazed but little thought what wealth to me this sight had brought. For oft when in pensive mood... inner peace and solitude... sprightly dance." And there is my jumbled favorite poem. I extract its meaning even though I've lost the exact wording.

No appearance of the anthology. But thanks to modern technology, I found the poem. The character of the poem is very different on a clean computer screen. No smell of paper and dust. No notes in the sides. No dog-eared page marking the spot. Wordsworth wrote this in 1804; I think he meant for it to be read from paper. Eternally read from paper.

Easter Eggs

I never know what I’m going to write until I sit at the computer and hover my fingers over the keys.  I’ve learned not to fret about that.  Throughout high school and college, I operated the same way, not knowing how I got the grades I did in some cases.  What I know now is that power of the back burner, the power of the subconscious slogging away while I’m at the edge of the present, focusing on the future, reflecting more than I would like to on the past.  However, I work hard to find times within each day to be present only.  And it is work.  To feel my fingers on the keyboard, my butt anchored in a library chair, my breath evening out the longer I am still.

On the way to the library today, my sister called me.  We hadn’t spoken in a few weeks so we brought one another up to date on bits and pieces of our lives, our families, our worries.  She was on her way to spend time with our sister-in-law who had surgery yesterday to reconnect her colon after several months of treatment for colon cancer.  It has been a kind of “Hallelujah” inspired surgery; the last major medical step in putting that year and the disease to rest.  

We talked about a friend of mine who is undergoing significant medical procedures for a rare disease.  With her husband by her side, Mary is in the hospital in Madison, Wisconsin.  From here, I can only funnel prayers up and positive thoughts over to them.  I have dug a pipeline between us.  And truly, that is the best and only thing I could do whether living 1,600 miles away or just around the corner from them.  The expertise of medicine and doctors is what she needs close at hand.  From here, I keep the pipeline full.

I wind up the conversation with my sister telling her I only have a brief window to write since I have an appointment at 11:30, only a couple hours after the library opens.  “What are you writing about?” she wonders.  I explain that I never know until I sit down at the computer.  “You know, I think you need to write about something bright and beautiful – like Easter eggs!  Do you remember how Grandma Murphy used to dye them with onion skins?  I need to work out how to do that!!... Hey, I just drove by a sign that said ‘Malcolm’ – that’s a sign: you really need to write about dying Easter eggs.”

Indeed.  For I’ve been in a conundrum about dying eggs most of the week.  I grew up living near our cousins, and often times for Easter dinner, we would go to Grandpa and Grandma Mill’s house.  On my mom’s side I am the oldest of twenty-one grandchildren, so of those living locally, there would be at least thirty people that could make it for Easter dinner.  Bottom line: We could decorate a few dozen eggs and all of them would get eaten.  Celebrating on a smaller scale, I cannot justify coloring two dozen eggs for the two adults who eat them in our house.  (Sidebar: I laughed about this on Skype with my mom.  Can I not waste a few dollars on hard-boiled eggs that will not get eaten?  It goes against my waste-not-want-not genes, shared with me from both Mom and Dad’s sides of the family.)

My sister and I both wondered when was the last time we dyed eggs with our kids?  Weeks ago, I saw the beautiful Pinterest idea of rolling eggs in aftershave tinted with food coloring.  However, our conversation about the way Grandma Murphy used onion skins made me shun the idea of leafing through screen after screen on Pinterest.  Even away from a Google search.  Instead, I searched the library's inventory for a book on “how to dye eggs with onion skins.”  I didn’t want the computer to tell me how my grandma did this forty years ago.  I found a book with step-by-step directions.

My house is going to stink today, for I’m going to boil eggs in some natural ingredients – perhaps three batches… red onions, purple cabbage, and coffee.  It will be a little science experience with Liam and a couple of his buddies after school.  I’ll march through it with them, knowing full well that I may enjoy it more than they will.  We’ll stew the white eggs in pots of water with a couple teaspoons of vinegar and a cup of “natural dye ingredients” for 20 minutes, then let them set to cool for an hour in the dye.  Coloring Easter eggs this way will leave them with a tangible memory like my sister and I have for Grandma’s eggs, for it will appeal to their sense of sight as well as smell, plus the weirdness of it all.  A triple whammy.  

Next year, Liam and his buddies will be thirteen.  Perhaps then I will coach them through making Ukrainian eggs the way my friend Mary did with me many years ago. We sat in her cold garage with her Ukrainian friend and worked over a table covered in newspaper.  First, he had us dunk the fresh eggs in a light yellow dye.  Then, where we wanted the yellow to remain, we painted on wax before the egg went for another dip in perhaps pink.   Then, where we wanted the pink to remain, we painted on wax… And so it went for over two hours.  The final dunk was in deep purple.  Black?  At the end of the session, our cold fingers had created the ugliest, globby eggs I’d ever seen.  Completely covered in bumpy, black wax.  Her Ukrainian friend gently packed our wax-coated eggs and took them with him to process: he blew the eggs out then melted the wax off by baking the eggshells.  What he returned to us were spectacular pieces of art.  

Sadly, my egg didn't fare too well in the semi-truck from Illinois to Massachusetts.  Still, I don't need the egg.  That early spring afternoon with my friend etched a vivid memory, and this year it keeps my heart full, despite distance and time.


At 8:10 Monday and Wednesday mornings, the treadmill at the Y – in the second row from the window and third one down from the end – is mine.  Before I start my work out, I grab a disinfectant wipe and give the treadmill a sponge bath.  I watch others do the same after they work out, and I see their cleaning is not as thorough as mine.  Some of them barely run the cloth over the hand rests in front and on the side.  They are the ones who barely come into physical contact with the machine.

That’s not me.  By the end of 45 minutes or 5k, whichever I can last through, I’m clamoring onto the side rails of the treadmill.  If I kick the speed up to do a forty second “run,” I feel the sweat pouring.  Certainly, some of it is splashing onto the machine.  I symmetrically wipe the sweat from my brow with the back of my hand.  If I wipe one eyebrow and not the other, I have basically wiped one penciled eyebrow completely off my face. 
Playing basketball in high school, I had a similar issue only with baby blue eyeshadow.  I remember a girl who played forward pointing at me and laughing.  I hadn’t a clue why until after practice I saw one of my eyelids was baby blue and the other was not.  Her baby blue eyeshadow never smudged, for she never seemed to sweat.  The complex has stayed with me reminding me to either wipe above or below the brow.  And in the event I think I wiped one eyebrow pencil marking completely off, I try to do it evenly.  I’m OCD when it comes to sweat and my eyebrows.
I play solitaire when I’m walking on the machine.  So the same sweaty mitts that are wiping my brow move the cards on the treadmill’s screen.  With all this hands-on activity during my walk, I give the treadmill another good sponge bath when I’m done.

With 45 minutes of walking to nowhere, I do a bit of people watching as the usual crowd shuffles in.  Same woman always reads.  Same woman always walks.  Same man always breathes in a heavy rhythm as he runs.  Even if I can’t see him, I know he’s somewhere in the gym by his breathing.  I note the defibrillators on the wall and am confident someone other than me has the know-how to use them should the need arise. Same two women run side by side and are able to talk non-stop.  Mid-way through my walk, two gentlemen come in and find neighboring treadmills.  There is a generation between them: one must be in his 80s and the other in his late 60s.  The elder of the two approaches his treadmill, hangs his cane on the side rail, and gets the machine in motion.  No muscle-clad person in this entire place awes me as much as this gentleman.  What do I want to be when I grow up?  The 80-year-old who hangs my cane on the treadmill before I walk on that belt to nowhere.  

Twice in my life, I shook the hand of Captain James Lovell.  The first time was just over a decade ago, and I didn’t know he was going to be at the restaurant where we were celebrating a friend’s 40th birthday.  Captain Lovell’s son owned the restaurant in a Chicago suburb, and it was filled with space memorabilia.  The second time, I called his personal assistant to schedule a lunch with Captain Lovell so that my 6-year-old space enthusiast Will could meet him.  Captain Lovell was the commander of Apollo 13, a failed mission to the moon with an end mission of safely returning the three astronauts onboard back to earth.  They succeeded by zipping around the dark side of the moon and using the moon’s gravity to catapult them back to earth.  Both times, I greeted him like a star-struck teen.  What does one say to someone like Captain James Lovell?  

Simmering feelings of the same amazement strike me at the Y when this older gentleman prepares to board the treadmill next to me.  I want to say something, but “Holy cow!  You’re amazing!” doesn’t seem right.  “You are my hero!” also seems a bit trite.  Finally, one day we acknowledge one another with a nod, a smile, and a “good morning.”  The greeting didn’t convey all the words that were bubbling in my head, but it didn’t need to.  I’ll take the quiet strength of heart this man gives me as a kind of mentoring for my potential cane-bearing future. 

Inspiring skiers give me the same kind of goosebumps.  In Utah, we skied all day then watched the Olympics at night.  The triumphs of Shaun, Chloe, and Lindsey gave me energy and inspiration to take a sore body back to the slopes the next morning.  Some stretches and a little Advil was my prep each morning.  

The second day in Utah, Will and Liam took day-long ski lessons.  Bill and I met them around 3:00 p.m. at the ski-school base camp.  With the lifts closing at 4:00, we watched many ski instructors returning with their students.  From tiny three-year-olds with two-foot-long skis and no fear to stiff adults who appeared to be trying to control the slick boards by curling their toes into their skis.  

Then, seated skiers – paraplegic skiers, returning confidently skiing alongside the crowds.  They were led by paraplegic instructors as well as instructors on traditional skis.  Some of these skiers were harnessed to the instructor who was skiing behind them, and some were on their own.  No safety net.  Comfortable in their ski gear, a seat on a ski and a ski fit on the end of poles held in either hand.  

In the distance, a group of four skiers with yellow signs on their fronts made their way down the hill.  As they got closer, I could read the sign of the person skiing in the middle of the group “Blind Skier.”  That skier was accompanied by an instructor and one person in front and one in the rear with matching signs: “Volunteer: Blind Skier.”  My gaze followed them as they skied past me in the same direction as the seated skiers.  The back of the instructor’s jacket read “Park City - Ability Center.”

These latter groups of skiers left me in quiet wonder.  Whatever the catalyst had been for their disability, it was in the past.  They had moved through the dark, burning moments of a life-changing event or perhaps challenges that they were born with.  My brain churns to find words to explain the inspiration and the peacefulness I felt watching these skiers.  Fortitude in overcoming physical challenges and motivated by their physical abilities.  From past chaos to present calm, a state of admirable grace. 

Wintering in a Storage Unit

For the second Tuesday in a row, the library is closed due to a Nor’Easter – the third Nor’Easter within three weeks -- two weeks?  Tuesdays are the days I spend in my office, the Quiet Room at the library, writing.  I liken that gorgeous spot to a hotel room when you first open the door: There is nothing started that needs to be finished and everything is in its place.  Long tables with lamps and chairs slid under the tables await like soldiers at attention for the morning’s direction.  

Determined not to let the day go by unwritten, I chisel a space in the corner of my home office.  From a side table, I gather pages and pages of travel documents that need to be collated and stapled.  I move piles of scout paperwork to the back corner of the office.  I stack books into a tidy pile on the end table next to me. And now, I need to move them – they beckon to me as a reminder of things that need to be done.  I pivot on my stool and place them on the table behind me.  Out of sight out of mind.  My backpack sits at my feet like a loyal dog.

Now, I think I’m ready.  Ahh, the last item on the table is a yellow sticky pad with a new password.  I move it to a shelf out of my line of vision.  Only my computer and coffee cup fit on the table I sit at.  It faces the corner at a diagonal. And in my peripheral slightly to the right in front of me is a metal basket filled with solid summer memories: rocks from the beach in Kingston, shells from Cape Ann, a desert rose from South Dakota, and one baleen whale tooth from last summer.

After a long winter, the shelves and drawers are full.  It’s no surprise.  It happens every year.  Will was unloading the dishwasher a couple days ago, and after a lot of heavy mug clinking, he was defeated, “There’s no room!”  Indeed, the summer mugs started us off in early September; the fall mugs soon joined; the Christmas mugs followed; the snowmen mugs crept in; the red winter mugs are still hanging on.  Not to mention Bill’s year-round mugs.  I dare not introduce a spring mug until I’ve had a giant reshuffling.  

In the basement room that has had many dubious names: guest room, storage room, craft room, and finally “the room where all the magic happens” – a sprinkling of summer, Halloween, and Christmas decorations lurk having missed the last boat to the garage loft where all the seasonal tubs spend their off-season.  

The mug shelf and kitchen drawers will soon be sorted out because we live in the kitchen and those contents constantly remind me of the need for reorganization.  However, the rooms upstairs… ugh.  Getting ready in the morning, I see the jumble of drawers and cupboards, then I race down the stairs to get the day moving.  Getting ready for bed, I see the jumble of drawers and cupboards, then I do the nightly routine and use what little energy that remains to climb into bed.  The upstairs is like an itch that never gets scratched.

Since Christmas, I have thought of the cupboard under my sink as one of those arcade coin slot machines – the ones where all the coins and prizes are laid out and a little bulldozer constantly pushes from behind.  And if a coin rolls down the slot to just the right place, and the bulldozer doesn’t push it up and over the back row of coins, coins and prizes dump into the tray!  So it was when I was packing to travel at Christmas time.

I needed a new deodorant, so I opened the door under my bathroom sink, and plop!  A new deodorant felt out at my feet!  I was also in search of shampoo and conditioner, so I took one of six baby powders from the top front and tossed it to the back.  Voila! Out from the front came a shampoo -- and a conditioner was stuck right behind it, half visible.  I pulled it out and that’s where the magic ended.  A whole slew of bottles toppled onto the floor.  I shoveled them into the rear of the cupboard and quickly closed the door before the bulldozer had a chance to push the pile again.  I held the door closed for a few seconds, waiting for the last of the thumps on the inside from falling objects.  That cavernous space is good for nothing other than 24 rolls of toilet paper.

At storage overload times like these, I think of my friend and one particular closet in her house.  If her husband is looking for something and she tells him it’s in that closet, his reply is that he would rather go buy it than open that closet door.  That has most definitely become the philosophy with my bathroom cabinet.  Although for the fun of it, I occasionally toss something to the back just to see what falls out the front. 

Here’s to my fellow New Englanders stranded in their storage unit by two feet of blowing snow today!

Comfort in a Bagel

Mercury is not in retrograde.  I checked.  It will not be in retrograde until March 23rd.  So, be thankful: it’s just the Malcolm house spinning at a different pace than the rest of the world.

A rep from our wireless carrier called Bill and me while we were on top of a mountain in Park City.  It was extremely important that the individual knew how we would rate our service as improvements were being planned in our area.  I only answered the call because it wasn’t a number I recognized; I needed to be sure it wasn’t the ski patrol trying to reach me to set up a rendezvous point to meet one of those injury sleds being ushered down the mountain. 

Cell coverage at our house is a sore point with Bill and me.  We have anything but “mobile” phones when at home.  Remember the commercials asking “Can you hear me now?” as a person is swinging from a tree outside their home?  Bingo.  We did get a little gizmo to plug into an outlet in the living room; it’s supposed to throw the signal a bit farther within our house, but I still find that anchored by a window is the best place to get coverage on my mobile device.  Given this, we both paused longer than reasonable in the middle of our vacation to give the rep a piece of our mind.  Then came a texted pin number that the person wanted us to enter onto our phones.  Ugh... Scam.  The momentary relief of venting disappeared when I realized that.  We ignored the pins.

Over the last several days, more calls and more hang-ups from our carrier.  Then yesterday morning, the carrier sent emails and texts prompting me to click a link to check on an order I had placed.  I ignored them thinking the link would take me to a dark place.  With a congratulatory email last night saying that my account had been charged over $1,000 and that my new iPhone 10 was on its way, I decided to investigate. 

A half hour wait on the line resulted in a rep finally confirming that someone had accessed my account and ordered the upgrade – to be delivered to Union City, NJ.  She transferred me to the fraud department.  A 45-minute wait on the line.  I hung up.  I called the fraud number I found online.  Ten minutes later an international rep confirmed I needed to talk to the fraud department; she happily transferred me.  While waiting for twenty minutes, I called FedEx on the landline to stop the shipment. The next international carrier rep confirmed I needed to talk to the fraud department; she gladly transferred me.  Both asked if there was anything else they could help me with.  Obviously not.

I looked up the fraud number again.  Zip, bang, “Fraud department.”  The order was canceled.  Suggestions were made: change your passwords on all emails; update your pins on all accounts; set-up 2-step security where possible. 

This was at 9:45 p.m.  For those of you who don’t know me, I am not a night person.  However, what more could these yahoos do if I didn’t get some security in place immediately?  Mm-hmm.  I needed to be a night person last night.  That’s how I arrived at four different passwords as easy to remember as yabbadabbad00z1e44. Ah, but I needed caps: YaBBaDaBBaD00z1e44.  And a character.  YaBBaDaBBaD00z1e%44.  Bill will scream when he asks for the password to any monetary or email account.  Which reminds me, Amazon…

I cleared cookies and erased a login and a password that auto-filled on one email; I didn’t have those memorized.  My 2-step set up locked me out of my personal email on my phone.  My 4-digit pin numbers of years and random favorite numbers swam in my head.   My Google calendar app crashed on my phone.  (I seem to have  lot of free time today!)  Would I remember my third-grade teacher’s dog’s name? 

As I went along, love and respect for my carrier dwindled.  “Have you called FedEx to cancel your order?” prompted me to make that call.  But first I told him that it was his problem as someone had broken into their system to order under my name.  Then, it finally dawned on me.  I was experiencing identity theft.  I’m a slow thinker after 10 p.m.

I wanted to get the exact address of the anticipated delivery and send the police to arrest the guy.  Then, in court, I wanted to pull the guy’s ear and ask him if his mom knew what he was doing?  And ask him if he was this flipping smart, why didn’t he get a job?  I settled for FedEx intercepting the order and the carrier reversing the charges.  I can’t save the world after 11 p.m.

I woke up this morning to find an email from an online retailer telling me strange activity was found on my account.  I can’t remember when I last used that account.  This weasel will take some chasing.

Earlier in the day, the darnedest thing happened when I was parking at the mall.  I opened the door and a remnant gust from last week’s storm yanked the door open, whacking it against the rearview mirror of the car beside me.  I heard plastic break, but the other car had no damage.  The collision had broken my door handle.  If I pull the right hand broken piece, I can still get the door open.  I'm doing this very carefully so as to avoid stitches in my fingers.

The broken plastic on the left matches that on the right where I clipped the rear-view while reversing out of our garage to take Will to school a couple weeks ago.  Normally, I can maneuver that two-inch space between the mirror and garage frame quite nimbly, but I think I was talking to Will as I reversed that morning. That’s the weird story I thought I would be writing today.  Comparing my van to my phone, I can problem-solve fixing the van much easier than I can work out how to resolve black hole mysteries.

Early this morning, I pulled out the bread drawer and smiled when I saw this:

Finally, something predictable.  I found great comfort in that moldy bagel, much like a consistent mountain of laundry centers my being.

Remembering Bill's Mum

A week ago Saturday, we had two hours before leaving for the airport to fly to Utah when Bill’s phone rang.  He was in the shower so I answered it. 

It was that call you know will one day come.  Words that cross thousands of miles, making you retrace your life’s journey that took you so far away from home. 

Pam, Bill’s mum, had passed away.  After being bed-ridden for two years and in the care home for five years.  Following a stroke ten years ago and debilitating blindness and dementia that worsened over the last decade.  We had been losing Bill’s mum over many years. 

At Grandma Murphy’s funeral in 2006, many friends of our family shared their memories of Grandma.  How she worked harder on the farm than most men.  How she always had the coffee on and a cake on the counter.  I had forgotten those details.  While Grandma was absolutely lucid at the end of her life, her physical struggles over those last few years were our most vivid memories.  The sadness of slowly, heartrendingly losing someone casts a shadow over the days and years of splendor. 

A half-hour after we received the call from our brother-in-law, my phone rang.  It was the owner of the condo in Utah where we would be staying.  He had been thinking about our arrival and knew how late we would be getting in.  He reminded me that no liquor stores would be open Sunday.  And because of President’s Day, they would also be closed Monday.  He offered to stock the condo for us.  That’s when tears rolled down my cheeks into a laughing smile as I thanked him.  Pam, the daughter of a London pub owner, had surely reached the pearly gates, for how else could we account for this timely call?

Through this emotional, tumultuous day, we continued with our plans to go to Utah for winter break.  It would be at least two or three weeks before Pam’s funeral.  Bill’s sister encouraged us to keep our holiday intact.  We left our house at 1:30 p.m. Saturday afternoon and finally put our heads on pillows in Utah at 5:00 a.m. Utah time, Sunday morning. 

Of all the family photos pulled out over the 29 years I’ve known Bill, a good many were from his family’s travels when he was growing up.  Many more were of Pam traveling with friends after Bill’s dad, Frank, had passed away in 1984.  Pam readily engaged new acquaintances wherever she went.  On this side of the pond, whether in Iowa, Illinois, or Massachusetts, Bill’s mum made good memories for many.  As I soaked in the view from the mountaintops and watched the boys skiing, I thought of Pam and how she would’ve loved this view and seeing her grandsons’ delight in skiing with Bill.

We will be going to England over Easter for Pam’s funeral on April 3rd.  There will be a traditional church service, a short service at the crematorium, followed by a wake at a local hotel.  Back home from Utah on Sunday night, we were talking with our sons about the plans.  Bill talked about the crematorium and the choices people make for what happens to their bodies after they die.  He said that while Grandma had chosen to be cremated, some people donate their bodies to science.  I told the boys that’s what Will’s godmother, Marge, did when she passed away several years ago.  Marge had been my Sunday school teacher in high school.  Two generations older than me, she was my mentor; our lives paralleled through adoption and breast cancer.  To my comment, Will replied, “Who?  I don’t remember Marge.”

My heart lurched.  I fought the cracking in my voice.  The welling of tears in my eyes.  From the time we brought Will home from Korea, we visited Marge every trip back to Iowa.  When she was still mobile, we would pick her up and take her out for potato pancakes.  Then when she wasn’t able to go out anymore, we would visit and spend a couple hours with her in the nursing home.  Her eyes would light up at the sight of my boys coming into her room. Those eyes danced the whole time we were there.  Five-year-old Will would sit on her lap, and toddling Liam would play with all of her stuffed animals - mostly cats.  Now, Marge is gone; Will doesn’t remember her; I am the one left holding that memory.  The bond I thought would be cemented like glue weighs heavily on me.  Where I thought – albeit naively it seems now – that Marge and Will were connected with gorilla glue, washable kids’ glue dissolves with a teardrop.

For Pam, like my grandparents who have passed on, I choose to focus on memories of her when she was vibrant.  Pam loved Andrew Lloyd Weber and Frank Sinatra.  My love of musical theater in the West End of London and my habit of crooners keeping the kitchen alive while I cook undoubtedly come from my mother-in-law’s passions that she shared with me.  When Pam had a cup of tea or coffee, she sat down and talked with you.  I remember how strange that seemed given our on-the-go cadence in the States.  Strange and absolutely wonderful.

Each of us becomes the connective tissue between generations.  For as many stories as I’ve heard about Bill’s dad over 29 years, I feel like I knew him when he was alive.  Our sons never knew the vivacious, dog-walking Grandma that Pam was before the stroke.  They didn’t see her dressed to the nines for the theater nor did they walk with her across fields in the rain to have a cream tea in a pub.  They won’t remember her bright yellow raincoat or the dog that more often than not was off his lead running ahead of her.

A few days ago, Frank Sinatra’s “I’ll Be Seeing You” was playing in the van.  (Yes, the kids who ride in my carpool have been introduced to crooners.)  To me, these lyrics speak to how daily life is touched by those who have passed on:

“I’ll be seeing you in all the old, familiar places
That this heart of mine embraces all day through
In that small café, the park across the way
The children’s carousel, the chestnut tree, the wishing well

I’ll be seeing you in ev’ry lovely summer’s day
In everything that’s light and gay
I’ll always think of you that way
I’ll find you in the morning sun and when the night is new
I’ll be looking at the moon but I’ll be seeing you.”

And when experiences in our everyday lives evoke your vibrancy, Pam, we will remember you to our sons through stories, music, and laughter. 

And now, “let’s get that kettle on” for a nice cup of tea. 

Oh, my goodness!!  Bill just walked by me as I typed that last line and said, “Who wants a cup of tea?” 

Marge would have called this a “God thing.”

A Moment in Time

Liam turned twelve in January.  His humor and personality have bloomed over the last six months.  Liam rarely spends money, particularly when it's his own.  So when we are out and about and he sees something he wants, I only need to say, "Did you bring your money?" and the want disappears.

"Oh, well, I don't need it if I have to buy it," he affirms.

Liam knows I'm working on publishing a book and recently asked if I would make any money on it.  I told him that I hoped so but wasn't sure how much.  He suggested that I start walking to the library to write, that way I would save money on gas that contributed to the expense of publishing.  I told him my time was also valuable.  He nodded with, "That's true, I guess."

His favorite story is the one I wrote about him when he was three and pretending to be a seal -- by sticking rocks up his nose.  "That one is HILARIOUS, Mom!  I know you'll make money on that one!"  I'm not including that story in my book, but for Liam's sake, here's the link to that one.

Liam and I have different negotiating styles.  Every time I ask him to unload the dishwasher, it begins.  "I'm just going to unload the top rack.  Wait, why do I have to unload the dishwasher?  I'm always unloading the dishwasher."  The chat over not unloading takes longer than just unloading it.  I generally try to avoid confrontation and stay quiet as he mumbles his way through this revolting chore.  

Then last week, when he decided he would leave half the top rack for me to do, I told him that I was only going to wash two pairs of his underwear for that week.  He finished the whole rack.  I told him he's part of the family so needs to help with chores, or something to that effect.  I told him it was good practice for when he grew up and lived on his own.  He told me he would have a maid to load his dishwasher.  Every spoon?

The conservation lessons Liam learned in science from last year -- or maybe the year before -- have parked firmly in his frontal lobe.  Doing laundry on a drab day, the Laundry Maven had lights on in the two rooms adjoining the laundry room.  She watched as shadows approached the laundry room with each downward flip of the light switches.  When Liam reached the laundry room, he flicked that light off too.  Then looked right at the Laundry Maven and said, "Is that OK?" The Laundry Maven needed not to speak a word.  "Oops, sorry, guess not!"  Coming into the house at dusk from taking Will to gymnastics, I can only see a silhouette of Liam created by glowing from the light of the computer screen.  He flicks lights off and sits in complete darkness just like my dad does.  

Yet when Liam sees someone upset, he thinks of his wallet first.  What can he get for them that will make them feel a bit better?  That caring charm appeared this week when I crashed on the couch a couple times worn down by this silly cold.  Liam immediately left his computer, grabbed a fleece blanket and tucked me in, then brought me a glass of water to calm my cough.  All without me asking for any of it. 

As for the lessons on social grace that I spew forth daily, Liam hit maximum capacity a few days ago.  In the middle of one such lesson from me, he replied very calmly, "I don't need a moral story, Mom."  There wasn't even an eyeball roll with this comment.  It was just a calm, affirmative "I got it" moment.

The weekend I went away to write, I dropped into a quiet jewelry store to have a look around.  The owner was the only person in the store, and we started to chat.  During my four days of solitude, this was my longest conversation with another person.  Through our pleasantries, we soon found that we had a few things in common. 

The shop owner, who was maybe a few years older than me, loves Bill Bryson, the non-fiction writer who was born in Iowa.  We talked about Jewish customs and Korean customs; this was a conversation spawned by a stack of beautiful Mazuzahs in his store.  He explained how they were hung on doorways.  Having studied Judaism in college, we talked about the richness of Jewish culture.  And that led to a discussion of Korean culture, which in turn revealed that my husband and I had adopted our children from South Korea.  The store owner shared an adoption story: he was adopted.  

It was then that things got a little intense.  It was an argument that I've had before but with people in the general public -- never with an adoptee.  With other people, I end it with complete confidence that I win.  I don't have his exact words, but they were to the effect that we have given our sons such a gift by adopting them.  My counter, as it always is, is that Bill and I are the ones who have received an amazing gift of family through adoption.  We are the ones that will be forever grateful and honored to be parents of our sons.   But the shop owner didn't acquiesce, saying we may think that, but really, it's the other way; they are the ones...

It was clear that neither of us would back down.  I was definitely teary-eyed and he may have been too behind his glasses.  I bought my Mazuzah and left the store knowing that each of us was just a hair more right than the other.

Welcome to My New Website!

Today, rather than original thoughts, I share with you original art! 

Just before the holidays, I started working with a designer on a new website.  Our goal was to have it up and running by January 31st.  And, Voila!  Here it is!!

Writing is most often a solitary enterprise, so when I have an opportunity to connect with other creative people, it's very exciting, particularly when we are on the same wave-length.  It doesn't feel like work.  Like my writing critique groups, there is a passion for the job at hand, so it's hard to label it as "work."  It's time-consuming but oh-so exhilarating -- both the process and the end product.

So, here you are... I introduce to you Linda Malcolm's newly designed website!  Let me give you a little tour. 

Musings, where you are now, is the home of my most current writing.  Yes, as Linda Malcolm looks at gathering more readers from the world-at-large, "Hump Day Shorts," will be renamed. "Musings" will take their place.  For those of you who have been around for awhile, you and I both know what Hump Day Shorts are, and in the foreseeable future, you'll get word of a new "Musing," most likely still on Wednesdays - or whenever Hump Day lands that particular week!

My Home page is a little like the Table of Contents in a book.  On this page, before I scroll down, I get caught up in the video footage at the top of the page and imagine that I'm flying over the cornfields near the Cedar Rapids, Iowa, airport on my way home.  I highly recommend just hanging out here for a bit, particularly if you live out-of-state and miss those perfect corn rows.  

Staying Strong is now a very visible section on my site.  While I don't want to daily relive the year of breast cancer, my hope is that a greater good will be served by that year if other people connected to breast cancer can read my raw, unedited journal and glean something from it.  I don't revisit the writing often... and I sit near tears telling you to take a look.  I've shared it with a few women underground and it has seemed to help in some way, so here it is.  Don't miss the "Chemo Camo" photo gallery: photos of bald me applying "camouflage" and becoming a nearly unrecognizable chemo patient.  These photos were taken eight years ago this week.

Photography is straightforward: Photos from my travels and my life.

Subscribe will open a page for new readers to sign-up and receive my weekly emails.  So, please if you aren't a subscriber, join me!  If you already receive my notes, feel free to share this link liberally with your friends!  

Finally, About Linda is meant for newbies to my writing who wonder what the heck this site is all about.  It's a good place for new readers to get a taste of my slice of life writing. 

Now, until next week, you'll have a little something to read!  Feel free to leave comments on any posts.  I'm happy to chat with you along the way on this new adventure!

Hiking in the Berkshires

A couple weeks ago, I went away for a long weekend: a solo writing retreat from Friday through Tuesday.  Late Sunday morning, my reward for four hours of early morning work was a snowy hike.  Around 11 a.m., I pulled on my boots and briefly looked at a trail map of Beartown Forest State Park.  I had seen road signs for the park near where I was staying in South Lee, Massachusetts.  On the map, I found a short loop trail around Benedict Pond near the entrance to the park.

The bubbling anxiety of walking by myself was making me grumpy as I drove three miles on a narrow backroad to get to the park entrance.  I regularly walk in a state park near our house, more often than not I go by myself and take the same route every time.  For most of that local walk, I stay on the main trail where, time and again, I see many of the same runners, dog walkers, women, and men.  I’m comfortable there on the 45-minute loop I make through the woods. However, I’ve found myself in many conversations with other women who would never walk alone in my park at any time of day, and they look at me as if I have three heads with not one complete brain between them.  

Here, I ponder my recent reading of The Year of Living Danishly: Uncovering the Secrets of the World’s Happiest Country.  The English author, Helen Russell, and her husband moved to Jutland, Denmark, so he could take a year-long assignment at LEGO’s headquarters.  She made it her mission to research why Danes were so happy – despite paying high taxes and living through cold winters with only ten hours of sunlight a week.  

Russell found that high on the list of factors affecting their happiness is trust.  As much as our American culture relies on lawsuits, Danes rely on trust.  They trust the government to provide services with tax money.  They leave babies in their prams outside coffee shops while having lunch.  They have a high degree of trust in people, unfathomable to many Americans.  They even trust… strangers.  

I want to have trust in my immediate world around me.  I want to believe that people who cross my path are good.  I want to see the world from the perspective that everyone is making the best decision they are capable of at any given time.  Yet, what I had done with this whole walking-alone thing was slung every woman’s words of fear into a bag and flung it over my shoulder to take with me on this winter wonderland walk. Ugh.  My mood grayed to match the winter sky.

When I pulled into the snowy parking lot, I saw four other cars already parked.  Trying to shake the anxiousness, I thought, “This is good; there are other people here!”  And then my self-talk flicked the other direction. “But are they good people?”

Cussing to myself at this ridiculousness, I leaned against the van and pulled on my snow-gripping Yaktrax over the bottom of my boots.  At the trailhead, I saw that the sign for Benedict Pond Road was pointing in either direction, so I knew I was on the loop trail.  The path looked straight for about 200 yards before it bent slightly.   It was a narrow, snowy version of Highway 20, that straight, paved road that runs from border to border across Iowa.  Only the path ahead of me was on a 20-degree incline.  

I heard a stream rushing to my right before I even started on the upward hike. I went twenty feet off-trail to see the water up close.  Half the width of the 20-foot wide stream was still iced over, but the flowing water had hollowed out ice under the surface.  In some places, there was a foot of open air between the inch-thick surface ice and the water running underneath it, leaving spectacular frozen formations.  I soaked up the scene for a few minutes and then returned to the path. I already felt happier about being alone.

Hiking is as broad a term as beach.  When we have visitors and they want to go to the beach, I feel like handing them a questionnaire:  Big surfing waves or wide tidal beach?  Straight sandy beach or rocky bay? Lots of people or lots of space?  Surfing or wading?  Shell or sea glass seeking? 

With hiking, I don’t mind going up hills, as long as there is a little reprieve with a flat path or downhill after the uphill.  I like going on steep hikes if I’m climbing up rocks, scrambling over tree roots, and grabbing onto trees to make my way.  However, this endless walk on a 20-degree incline to the heavens was not my cup of tea. 

Huffing and puffing, I kept going, visualizing the map that indicated the pond would be just around the next bend, but only another upward slant was around each bend.  Finally, an hour into the walk, I came to a sign marking “Beebe Trail,” a trail that I saw marked near the trailhead where I started.  I decided to give up on the pond loop trail as I knew Beebe Trail would loop around and come back out on the main road I’d been climbing.  I noticed that the anxiety and shallow breathing I had experienced at the trailhead had now been replaced with deep, heavy breathing as I tackled the hill.  

On Beebe Trail, I was only a few yards in when I headed up a steeper incline and found my left foot wouldn’t hold on the snow and ice.  Wondering if this steeper trail was such a good idea, I looked down to see that the Yaktrax on my left foot was missing.  It had silently fallen off somewhere along the way.  I shrugged and thought, that’s the answer: I wasn’t going up Beebe Trail.  I was going to backtrack the way I came to find my brand new snow gripper.  A half mile back down the trail, I saw the curled up piece of rubber and metal springs in the distance.  I scooped it up and leaned against a tree to put it back on.  I pulled the rubber front high over the toes of my boots, hoping that would keep them from falling off again. 

With only fifteen minutes left in the hike back down, I heard people and dogs behind me.  At first glance, I saw the people had poles, so I thought they were cross-country skiing, but they weren’t moving at a gliding pace.  They were hikers decked out with spiky versions of my snow grippers on their feet, backpacks filled with water, and hiking poles.  We all exchanged “hellos” as we fell into step.  I asked one of the men if he was familiar with Benedict Pond as that’s where I thought I had been heading.  He thought a minute then told me that the pond was near the main entrance about eight miles from here.  Lost in thought over the idea of hiking alone, I had neglected to notice that the main entrance was not where I entered the park.  I was on “Benedict Pond Road” not “Benedict Pond Loop Trail.”

I could tell by their chatting back and forth that these hikers, four men and two women, knew one another pretty well.  I asked the same man if the group hiked together often.  In fact, he told me, they hiked every Monday and Thursday year-round.  Starting in 1993, a group of retired men decided to hike together on Mondays; they had originally dubbed themselves the “Monday Mountain Hiking Boys.”  Literally, an old boys’ club, which now included women in the mix.  The hiking group’s founder was one of the founders of Kay Bee Toys – a Kaufman Brother who lived in Pittsfield.  Every week they hiked a different mountain in the Berkshires and enjoyed it so much that they added Thursdays to their schedule.  

Again, I’m reminded of another thing Danes have in their lives that make them happy: belonging to groups that meet regularly, often weekly, throughout the year.  When you belong to a group of people with common interests, you don’t spend a whole lot of time planning to meet or searching for “your people.”  The plan is in place and your people are there.  I think about the groups that have popped up around me and how much I look forward to being with them.  From writing and reading to cooking and Pilates, being with people who share a common personal interest is refreshing.  Rather than looking for cookie cutter replicas of ourselves, we see one facet that we can delve into with energy, as do the Monday Mountain Hiking Boys.  No one mentioned their previous careers, their families, or their medical history.  They’re retired and they like to hike.  

And one more thing the Danes regularly do: get out in nature – no matter the weather.  They say there is no bad weather in Denmark, just bad clothing.  Bill says something similar about the weather in England, if you wait for a warm, sunny day to golf in England, you’d only go golfing a few times a year.  So layers and rain gear are key for golfing in England.  You just need the right gear for the climate. 

That morning, I walked alone on a snowy path.  I got my heart rate up.  I met a bunch of friendly strangers.  I breathed in fresh air.  I had sturdy boots and snow grippers.  I felt like a Dane.  Happy.

Memories in the Hall

As the New Year starts, I look around me and see that much in my house reflects the past. The comfort of familiar nostalgia just may be beginning to bog me down. The longest hallway in our house reaches from the doorway to the kitchen near the back door and runs the length of the mudroom and the laundry room. It’s eighteen feet long and filled with photos in black and white frames of our family, both Bill’s side and mine.

Since 2012, the photos haven’t changed too much. With no family in town, I wanted a hallway filled with family photos to remind our sons Will and Liam of their connections to their people who are hundreds of miles east and west.

There are only three rows of photos and the bottom row is at the height of a 7-year-old as that’s how old Liam was in 2012. Walking through the hall one day, Will asked, “These are so old. Why don’t you put newer pictures up?”

The answer is not so much that I don’t have space; there is plenty of room to make another row above the current grouping. Most of these photos are touch points in the past marking good times with family in Iowa and England throughout the boys’ childhood. Plus, pictures of their great-grandparents, who hold such a big space in my memory that I wanted the boys to at least know the faces of their grandparents’ stories. The boys have sufficient personal memories now to have a clear feeling of “place” in a family that isn’t down the street or in the next town over.

Recently, Liam stopped to look at a photo of Bill’s family and said, “Mom, can we take a new photo and put up here?” In the photo on the wall, Bill’s mom is sitting in a chair in her living room and her family, all seven of us, are sitting around her. It was taken five years ago when Liam had decided that smiling for photos was a bit boring. His pose that day, bulging cheeks and eyes, resembled a puffer fish. And now, at 12 years old, he sees that and wants a retake. Sadly for this photo, there is no retake. Grandma is in a nursing home now and her illness has taken away her livelihood and her physical being of “Grandma.” I hesitate to remove that one from the wall. The same is true of the early 80’s portrait photo of Bill’s dad that anchors the far end of the photo gallery. He passed away in 1984.

I wonder in our house who lingers in this hallway all that much. It’s a straight shot from the bedrooms upstairs, to the bottom of the stairs, through the office and down this hall to the back door. I know it’s heavily trafficked but few linger. Alas, there is the Laundry Maven who regularly chats with Frank, Bill’s dad, as his picture is right across from the washer and dryer.

For Christmas, Bill’s sister gave us a framed black and white photo of our nephew playing guitar on stage. It’s in a 10”x10” black 3D frame. I saw the photo on their living room wall when we arrived a couple days before Christmas. I wanted to ask her for a copy of it, and there it was under the tree. If ever there was a photo that summed up a beautiful journey from child to adult, this was it. He’s looking down intensely at his guitar as he’s playing. In black and white, his t-shirt is gray and his black leather vest pops with stage-like presence. There is the true grit in the photo: He’s not looking outward to the world or to his parents for guidance, he’s truly come into his own passion and his confidence exudes from the photo. That photo had to find a place on the wall, so one of him as a young teen, with guitar in hand, came off the wall.

In a vein of honesty, since this photo was a gift, it was easier to replace the old with the new. To look through photos to find more current ones to blow-up and frame? That’s a rabbit hole I could fall into for weeks. I would pull-up the most current on my iPhone, do a small scroll back through fall, hit summer in Iowa and find twenty photos by the time I reached the beginning of last year. And, my inclination would be to keep going. Ah, boundaries… I could set the limit of going only to the beginning of the previous year – yet that would eliminate the Christmas in the previous year where I see so many adorable photos at the tiniest flick of my fingertip. I’m already overwhelmed. I’m not confident that I could abide by such time constraint.

However, it’s doable. If the kids are noticing these aging framed photos, then the prints inside need a re-do. They’ve seen them often enough for the moment to have become a memory. Will sitting on a rock with Grandpa in Marblehead, Massachusetts, with the ocean behind them. Will standing next to Grandma in the butterfly exhibit at the Museum of Science in Boston. In that picture, the top of his head is at her waist; today, Will is slightly taller than Grandma. These photos are from Grandpa and Grandma’s first trip out to see us. And from that same trip, a photo of Liam pulling a pen out of a pocket in Grandpa’s striped bib overalls, the same type of bibs he wears every day in Iowa. Liam doesn’t need to be reminded of that pen, for over the last ten years, he and Grandpa have regularly held contests of who-can-hold-the-pencil-under-his-nose-the-longest on Skype. Yes, those photos can come down.

I’m moving in the direction of updating and I think I know how to do it – the same way Mom does. I’ll put the new photos in and leave the old photos behind the new in the frame. Mind games.

Happy Hump Day!


Update on the Laundry Maven

Early in December, I had stories bumbling around in my head about Christmas cookies. Having perused one grandmother’s metal recipe box and another’s hand-written recipes, I felt the stories were ripe for telling. A theme was coming together for December Hump Day Shorts.

Then the ranting and raving Laundry Maven appeared. She had been so quiet over the last few months, systematically sorting light and heavy darks, whites, and towels that I had forgotten how riled up she could get. She had been in a confident pattern of doing laundry such that there was never a worry about a uniform shirt being ready or clean underwear in the family’s drawers.

All changed when she was taking a dark load of clothes out of the dryer, and she noticed rainbow-colored spots on Will’s blue sweatshirt. While Will’s fourteen and a little old to be getting this much paint on his clothing, she was happy to see evidence of creativity. With a casual shrug, she set the sweatshirt aside to spray with stain remover and to send through the washer and dryer again. The other pieces of laundry were black, and it wasn’t until she looked at her own new pair of pants up close that she realized the rainbow colorization had happened within the confines of the dryer, not the artistic setting she had originally visualized. Red, yellow, and blue. This load held the most expensive and favorite heavy dark clothing owned by the family – with the exception of one item: 12-year-old Liam’s school uniform trousers.

The Laundry Maven does not check pockets – never has, never will. Well, actually, she does give Will’s trousers a squeeze around the pockets. Over the last four years, she has put two black pens and a four-way, red, green, blue and black pen through the washer and dryer. However, Liam doesn’t pocket his writing utensils; instead, the Laundry Maven keeps a running score of candy consumed by this kid based on the number of wrappers remaining in the dryer after every load of school uniforms.

With the dark load of laundry out of the dryer, the Laundry Maven peered inside to see three Crayola crayon wrappers with bits of wax still stuck to them. Their shapes showed no signs of being crayons pre-dryer cycle. Judy Garland’s “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” played in the back of her mind upon seeing the rainbow dots scattered on the surface of the dryer drum.

I was torn away from my sister-in-law’s recipe and writing a grocery list to make her “Almond Sugar Cookies” to search up “how to remove crayon from dried laundry.” There was a major hit on Google when I pushed enter. It’s always comforting to know you aren’t the first, and you can bet money you won’t be the last.

The first direction sounded like that given to a soon-to-be-father when his wife will be giving birth at home: “Fill a few large pots with water and boil them.” Then, put the clothes in the machine, add laundry detergent, and all the boiling water. Add ½ cup vinegar and 5 tablespoons blue Dawn. Of course, vinegar and Dawn. The cleansers of cleansers and miracle workers of miracle workers.

The Laundry Maven heard a ring of laughter in her ear – that of her mother’s, the Vinegar Maven. The number of ways the Vinegar Maven uses vinegar… innumerable. “Just run some white vinegar through the coffee brewer, it will clean it out!” No. “Put white vinegar on your cloth to clean your windows.” No. (Actually, that “no” might have been directed more toward cleaning windows than using vinegar.) “Take a little white vinegar and…” No.

Per the Laundry Maven’s request, I purchased a gallon of white vinegar to start her down the road to erasing rainbows from the clothing. Once the Maven had added all ingredients through the boiling water, vinegar, and blue Dawn, she let the cauldron set and soak for 15 minutes. Unbelievable: The rainbow spots disappeared from the clothing!

Thinking the same concoction would remove the stains in the dryer, she ran beach towels through the dryer then took them out and immediately went into the drum with a cloth doused in vinegar and blue Dawn. The fumes of acidic vinegar hitting hot metal sent her reeling backward. Damned vinegar. She re-washed and re-dried the beach towels five times so that they would soak up any crayon wax from the dryer.

I’m reminded of this story now because the two loads of dark clothes the Laundry Maven did last week also called for hauling water to the washer. The cold water would not fill, so she carried three-gallon pails full of cold water to the washer from the bathroom around the corner. One pail was filling in the bathtub while she sloshed the other one to the washer – for two wash cycles and two rinse cycles. I walked stocking-footed through the pond left in her path.

Yesterday, we had a new washer delivered. I haven’t seen the Laundry Maven this happy in months. She spent a lot of time in the laundry room yesterday, aside from catching up on the mounds of laundry. The Laundry Maven lovingly stared at the cleanliness and listened to the quietness of this new and mighty machine.

New York State Summer Writers Institute

A couple weeks ago, I printed out the “ABCs” of writing that a friend and loyal reader sent to me many months ago. I pick up this list from a shelf and read it every morning before I write.  It ranges from “Dream of success” and “Focus on your writing career” to “Prepare and be positive” and “X-out all negativity.”  The “Y” advice made me giggle: “Yodel and yell over every accomplishment.”  The thought of a yodeler yodeling tickles my funny bone.

Events over the last three days – good stuff that I want to share – have left me without humble words.  Thus, you have been warned, so if you choose to continue reading, be prepared for a primal yodel!

The back story…  I’ve never been able to fit my writing into an easily defined genre.  Since college, I have hung with fiction writers and journalists and taken a swing at freelance working for pay.  When I started writing in 2009, it felt different – I was writing about topics I wanted to and sending these “stories” to you in a letter.  If you’ve been in this for the long-haul, do you know you’ve received 415 letters from me?

Around letter 300, I wondered, “What am I doing?  What exactly am I writing?  What do I want to do with this for the next ten years?”  I dug out old “short stories” from college by authors whose names stuck in my memory; they were written by people like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, John Updike, Joyce Carol Oates, and Joan Didion.  Didion’s work struck a chord; her voice spoke to me, not via fictional characters but through a narration expressing direct thought and opinion.  I googled her to see how she was labeled.  Down the rabbit hole I went for a week of self-analysis of my own writing style.  And through a steep offshoot tunnel, I slid face first and hit my forehead on this book:  To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, written by Phillip Lopate.  Lo and behold, he tells me through ink on the page that I write personal essays.

Have you ever been to a family reunion and an uncle who you’ve only met once and who lives half-way across the country appears? And in talking with him, you realize you are kindred spirits in this diverse gathering of family members?  That’s as close an approximation I can make to how I feel about reading words from Phillip Lopate’s hand.

And for three years, I’ve had an unspoken goal: to be his student – not through reading his work but in real life.  Lopate directs the non-fiction MFA program at Columbia University in New York City – too far to travel for a class.  With a little more research, I see he’s on the faculty at the New York State Summer Writers Institute at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York.  This fact has stayed on my radar, but I’ve been more “Mom” than “writer” to be away for two weeks during summer vacation.  However, over the last six months, I see more independence in Will and Liam.  One evening last month before leaving for a writers’ meeting, I was rattling on about dinner for them, and Liam said – probably with an eyeball roll, “I won’t starve, Mom.  I can find food.”  Liberating and truthful words.

On January 8th, applications opened for this year’s Institute.  On January 12th, I submitted my application; only 16 applicants are accepted into this workshop, so I gave myself credence for the bravery of actually pushing “Submit” on the application, fully prepared to apply again next year.  Then last night, January 14th, I read an email from the director of the program, Robert Boyers:

“I’m delighted to accept your application to the NY State Summer Writers Institute and will move at once to enroll you in the workshop you requested: the non-fiction workshop taught by Phillip Lopate. Your experience indicates that you are an ideal student for this workshop, and I look forward to meeting you in July.” 

My throat is dry from yodeling, but I wanted you to know.  And, I want to thank you for opening my letters every week and for your emails over the years.  You have kept alive my “Dream of success.”

(Follow the path of my most recent writing through "Musings.")


Winter Adventures

Winter adventures settled in over the New Year. A week’s worth of sub-freezing temperatures was followed by a whopping Nor’easter blizzard to swath us in white. That thing blew like a Midwestern snow storm. It mounded up snow drifts like I’ve never seen out here; they were the kinds of winds that I remember from Iowa – those that blew forcefully across the plains with very few structures to break their powerful gust. Then post-blizzard, more frigid temperatures.

I wish I could say that those winter adventures thus far have been the snow-filled fun of skiing and sledding followed by hot cocoa. That’s what my little Polly-Anna-self expects in the Normal Rockwell scheme of things. However, I’m a grown-up. Damn it.

On December 30th, when our plane landed at Logan after a seven-hour flight from England, the pilot welcomed us to the artic. It was only a couple degrees above zero. My lips turned just imagining that wait for the bus to take us to the parking lot where our van had been all week. We hadn’t taken heavy winter coats to England because they have milder winters. Will and I glanced at one another while we waiting for the bus. “This feels better than England,” he said.

Blustery wind and rain made for damp, cold outings in England. Our winter coats would’ve been welcome. However, there on the curb at the airport, we stood in the crisp, still air; it felt peaceful and considerably warmer than England. The arctic chill’s ferocity wasn’t coming at us.

As much as I like to travel, it’s always wonderful to open the door to our own house after being away. The warmth and quiet of the house quickly gave way to a barn smell. As Bill brought the bags into the house, I cut up citrus fruit and chucked the pieces down the garbage disposal. Better. Liam headed to his little nest: the computer hutch next to the Christmas tree. “It’s the tree! The tree stinks!” Yup, it was a little ripe. Having been in the house since December 1st, on the 30th the tree no longer pulled enough water through its trunk to keep it alive. Not willing to give up the lights of the holidays just yet, I cracked some windows. Three days later, the morning of the blizzard I pulled all the ornaments off and hauled the stink bomb to the curb, spilling ripe water all the way across the living room floor.

Shift back in time to the morning after we got home from England… I threw my foot to the floor next to my warm bed and felt cold wood. I pranced on my toes to my closet to grab warm clothes. Then I went to each bedroom and bathroom to touch the baseboards – where hot water should be coursing through to heat the rooms. Each baseboard was ice cold. Frozen pipes.

We didn’t panic as this has happened with the new addition every time it gets this cold for a couple days. Somewhere in these outer three walls of our new bedroom, the pipes sit too close to the outer wall or simply don’t have enough insulation on that side to protect the heating pipes. We set up space heaters and turned on the gas fireplace in our bedroom. We didn’t call the plumber; we knew the drill. The pipes are new and not copper, so they shouldn’t break. We placed the heaters where we guessed the pipes were frozen. It was a roaring 85 degrees in our bedroom and still no heat. For the record seven days in Boston with temperatures below freezing, we waited. And, we are still waiting.

Let me back up, Sunday morning I saw two four-foot long water spots on the living room ceiling, and water was dripping through a light fixture. I went into Lucy-getting-kissed-by-a-dog mode: “Move the furniture! Roll up the carpet! Roll up the padding! Cover the bookcases with cut up garbage bags!”

Bill turned the water off in the house, and we waited an hour for the plumber to arrive. Our plumbing company is owned by two brothers who are like CSI pros; they’re calm and think methodically through the situation. John was on call for the weekend. He was incredibly apologetic that he had to be there. I thought he would bring in a hatchet to break open the ceiling; that’s what I was ready for – let’s just get to the bottom of this. Instead, he thoughtfully said, “I think you have an ice dam causing this leak. I really don’t think it’s a broken pipe.”

I’ve run out of steam to tell this story. I just need my Normal Rockwell winter. Candles burning on the mantle. Red noses from sledding and skiing outside. Sitting by the fire drinking hot cocoa after a day outside. Warm stew shared with friends on a winter’s night. Seeing snowflakes swirling in the outdoor lights.

With Christmas decorations tucked away, I was well on my way to creating a more simply decorated living space for the rest of the winter. My idyllic winter visions are marred by these winter adventures. The couch is shoved against the island in the kitchen. The rug and foam pad are rolled up and in the middle of the dining room. There’s still no heat upstairs; during the week we aren’t home long enough to turn the water back on to the heating system to see if the leak originates from burst pipes. Today it’s supposed to get above freezing, so if it freezes again tonight and the ceiling leaks, we’ll lean toward an ice dam causing the yellow watermarks.

Yet through all of this, we are making wonderful memories for our children. From the couch in the kitchen, Liam looked in awe at the expanse of bare hardwood floor in the living room. “Mom, this is so cool! Can we leave it this way for a while?”

Knock yourself out, Liam. The date that the rug returns to the living room is not in the immediately foreseeable future.

Happy Wintry Hump Day!

English Lumps of Sugar

My mornings in England over Christmas started with dark coffee at the Rump & Wade. I am the early riser in our family, so each night before I went to bed, I laid out my clothes and packed a book and a journal for my morning excursion.

We stayed at the Cromwell Hotel in Stevenage, named after Oliver Cromwell. Not because he lived there in the early to mid-1,600s, but rather John Thurloe, his secretary, owned the then farmhouse. I interpret secretary to be like a cabinet member; Thurloe was Crowell’s head of intelligence. It seemed strange to me that I awoke every morning to Cromwell’s portrait on the wall of Thurloe’s home. I wrote that off to modern day marketing.

The Rump & Wade is the bar and restaurant connected by a long hallway to the Cromwell. We Malcolms had a little giggle at the name. During the English Civil War in the mid-1600s, Cromwell led the English Parliament after the death of Charles I. Within a government torn apart by war, Cromwell led the remnant group that remained, the “rump.”

As for Wade, well, honestly, the origins of Rump was a bigger fascinator to me than Wade. Perhaps it refers to George Wade, who was born in the generation following Cromwell and served in four wars throughout his lifetime? Just an educated guess at that one, based on a little poking around at the history of “Wade” in England. Naturally, most references were to walking through shallow water. I would hope that the name Rump & Wade has a deeper meaning than that.

The Cromwell is fitted out with beautiful dark wood paneling, and the hallway to the Rump & Wade is painted bright Caribbean blue. It opens into a brightly lit brasserie with a bar and tables for breakfast in the morning or lounging in the evening. The connected restaurant seating is reserved for more formal lunches and dinners. A small table near the window was my morning retreat, not for breakfast, just quiet coffee.

The tables were fully set, including a little pitcher of milk for English breakfast tea and a bowl of sugar cubes. My table was set for breakfast; however, I wanted elevensies: coffee, not tea. It’s customary to take a short break and have coffee, or tea, around 11 in the morning, with a little something to go with it, like a biscuit (cookie) or bun (sweet roll). I was asking for elevensies at sevensies.

However, coffee was readily available in the hotel restaurant with freshly brewed American-style pots waiting on the sidelines next to the bar. When the waitress served coffee to me the first day, I asked for cream. She took my request in stride and brought a small pitcher of cream to the table. I didn’t bother asking for sweetener instead of sugar. I had sent the bar into a bit of a shuffle asking for sweetener the night before. It would be a sugar-filled week with two lumps of sugar in each cup of coffee.

In my childhood, lumps of sugar in sweet little bowls were not prolific. Lumps of sugar were used infrequently and out of the context of a fresh linen-covered breakfast table. My uncle occasionally took my sister and I horse-back riding, and after riding, we would feed the horses lumps of white sugar from our flat out-stretched hands. Flat like a table so the horses’ lips would tickle them and their teeth wouldn’t nibble them. I can’t help but think these little lumps are horse treats served up as posh on the English table. Don’t get me wrong, we have sugar cubes in the states too – but not at the pub, Fuddruckers, or our other local kid-friendly haunts.

Lumps of sugar slow the consumption of coffee. Not once in England did I pour coffee into a travel mug with a dash of sweetener and a splash of half & half to gulp on the way to somewhere. When I ordered coffee the first morning, I smiled and put on my best American accent to ask for a little pot of cream to go with it. The smile was an apologetic “I’m-so-sorry-I’m-an-American-drinking-coffee-at-7-a.m.-asking-for-cream.”

However, the first six days, the same waitress was there every morning, and she knew my routine by day three. Then on Day Seven, a new waitress… and complete confusion.

“You can just help yourself to coffee over by the bar,” she replied as I wandered around with an empty coffee cup.

“Oh, I’m so sorry, I didn’t realize it was self-service!” Why hadn’t the Day One through Six waitress said something?

“Oh, it’s not, but I assumed since you were right there…”

“May I have a little bit of cream too, please?” I asked as she poured the coffee into the cup in my hand.

“If we have any,” was her reply as she walked behind the bar. “How much do you want?” She was going to glug it into my cup directly from the gallon jug. Yes, in England, gallons of cream.

I couldn’t say tablespoon; that’s American. I want more than an English teaspoon. “Just a little splash,” I decided, thinking the translation would be easier if she just poured a little pot for me.

I took my cup back to the table and found no sugar bowl. I borrowed the one from the next table over. And, this being the seventh day, let the thought fully develop: How many other people’s fingers had reached into this sugar bowl to grab a lump of sugar? There were no sugar tongs nor a spoon in the sugar bowl. I was sure that many, just like me, reached in for a lump or two with their fingers. I saw rows of sugar bowls full and stacked up behind the bar. This was not a disposable set of cubes. The bowl was moved from table to table and refilled as needed. I wondered how often they were cleaned.

Conflicted thoughts between packeted sweeteners and bowls of sugar cubes bounced around in my brain. How many trees do we chop down in order to individually package truckloads of quarter teaspoons of sugar? And the accompanying three different sweeteners in the “sugar bowl”? How many kids, including my own, create wasteful games out of these packets? The stateside health department’s intolerance of germs seems to have swung the sugar pendulum ridiculously far from simply serving sugar cubes. Or is it easier for restaurants to receive shipments of tiny packets that lumps of sugar? I was in full sugar spin.

The lunacy over sugar ended when – after dropping two cubes of sugar into my morning coffee – I opened my journal to write. The memory of horse lips tickling my palm 40 years ago reminded me of swimming with stingrays, for the underside of a stingray ranks number one as the softest object I’ve ever touched — second only to those horse lips taking sugar cubes off of my then 10-year-old hand. Yes, sugar cubes over Christmas riled a memory that pushed velvety horse lips to second, outranking the silkiness of my boys’ cheeks as babies.

Merrily We Roll

Like many of you, Malcolms are in the final push to Christmas! We fly to England Saturday morning to spend the holiday with Bill’s family. Our family’s December schedule is flip-flopping around like a fish freshly pulled to shore. My mind is carrying me along in the same fashion of fits and bursts…

Last night on my way out to a writers’ meeting, I asked Liam what he had to do as Secret Santa today. “Oh, it’s the last day, so I need a gift under $15 to give him,” he oh-so-casually explained. Liam is in 6th grade, so I’ve had many years of experience with this kind of last-minute information. We gathered six doo-dads I had picked up from Target’s party favor shelves earlier in December. Then, I looked at the four dozen Snickerdoodles I had made that morning. Do I want to part with a few of these for a Secret Santa gift? Yes, a dozen cookies would elevate the value of this gift, particularly if I assigned a dollar amount to the 6 a.m. labor that went into these cinnamon & sugar lovlies.

As something a little different for Christmas treats, I made almond crackers and breadsticks with a batch of hummus early Sunday morning. I put a package together to give to my neighbors who have four little children; they weren’t home so I left the box on the front seat of their pick-up truck. That afternoon we four Malcolms went to a Christmas concert in Boston. In the middle of the Hallelujah chorus, it hit me: Nuts! Oh my God, nuts! Do any of the kids have a nut allergy?!?! Holding my phone under the table, I quickly dimmed the screen light and texted my neighbor. Later, I learned there were no nut allergies. Hallelujah.

Earlier this month, we went out to dinner, and I took the Christmas Chat Pack with us to prime conversation before dinner. I love these cards; in fact, it would’ve been nice to give these to Liam’s Secret Santa buddy. But I digress… One of the questions was “what is your favorite part of Christmas decorations?” Both Will and Liam agreed: lights. That nugget channeled my decorating energy; I didn’t need every single tub of Christmas decorations opened and distributed — I needed some basics, plus a whole bunch of lights. I bought eight new strings of white lights to cheer up the living room and kitchen; I’m averaging hanging two strings each week of December. The string that I hung in 10 minutes yesterday lights garland in the kitchen, plus an empty high shelf. The glow is sweet enough; I don’t feel a real need to add a bauble to that shelf.

Will and Liam are 14 and 11, respectively; they are old enough to sit through Christmas concerts and musicals. Of course, there is a bit of negotiation involved with Liam. “Will there be popcorn?” “Can I have Skittles?” I acquiesce in order to sit through live entertainment with my family at Christmas time. Last Sunday at the concert, Liam proclaimed, “This is food heaven with great music! Good fun!” At 51 years old, I’m no longer above bribery. On the way home, we cinched the seatbelt around Liam extra tight to keep his sugar-bounce in check.

At the end of November, I purchased some small peppermint bath bombs as gifts — and as I write this, I wonder where I hid them. But I digress… Late one evening, I decided to try one out in a foot bath. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I had never used one before. I filled my foot tub with warm water, placed it at the foot of my recliner, and dropped a bath bomb in. I slid my feet in and watched and waited. For being a bath “bomb,” very little was happening; it was just bouncing around on the surface of the water and I smelled no peppermint. I had expected it to dissolve more quickly. A couple minutes later, I plucked it out of the water to inspect it. Did you know that bath bombs are wrapped in plastic which must be removed for them to fizz and add happiness to a tub and aroma to the room?!?!

Hoping you are merrily rolling along this holiday season! Happy Hump Day!

Yankee Living

I started off the morning with a brisk hour-long walk around a lake. It was 22 degrees, and with the windchill, it felt like 12 degrees. I spent the next two hours coaxing my thighs and cheeks back to life. Those were the coldest parts; I think fat draws the cold in and holds onto it longer than other areas, like hands and lower legs.

Winter has finally suggested it is in the vicinity of New England. Saturday I joined three friends, new and old, on an early morning drive to King Arthur Flour in Vermont. A winter storm was in the forecast for that afternoon, but never was the suggestion made that we cancel our plans.

One friend suggested we take cutters to collect winterberries along the way. Another said that those branches break easy enough, so we wouldn’t need cutters. As for me, I wondered to myself, “What exactly are winterberries?”

We headed two hours northwest, through New Hampshire then just over the border of Vermont to Norwich. “Winterberries grow where it’s swampy, so watch for wet areas,” suggested the breaker of winterberry branches.

We were on four-lane interstate roads the whole trip, doing 65 miles an hour. The weather was clear and the traffic was light. Nevertheless, whenever bare bushes with bright red berries were spotted on the side of the road, there was too much traffic behind us to slow down and gather branches. And true to the forecast, all of the bushes were in low-lying wet areas.

As we drove along, my Midwestern brain said not to trespass on other people’s property. God knows, I never went looking for morel mushroom on a stranger’s property. Of course, Iowans may be more protective of their morel patches than New Englanders are of there boggy winterberry bushes.

Thinking about it, I remember Dad and neighbors being very protective of their land. No trespassers. Period. Why? Because it’s a major asset? Land in Massachusetts is rocky and seems unfriendly to plowing and sowing. With the ocean, on the other hand, no one dares pull up a lobster pot marked by a buoy that’s not their own. Each of those beautifully colored buoys is an identifier to the lobsterman who set out the cage.

As a kid, while I was dropping handfuls of protein on small piles of corn in the manger and then holding the cows’ tails so they wouldn’t switch Mom in the face as she milked, a little girl in New England was helping her lobsterman dad repaint hundreds of buoys to put out. First jobs for both of us, very different, hundreds of miles apart. While old milk cans provide decorative nostalgia in the Midwest, old buoys do the same in New England. And, I wouldn’t hesitate to bet that some farmers and some lobsterman find nothing nostalgic in those reminders of hard-earned livings.

Back to Vermont. At King Arthur, we donned aprons and claimed our spots in the front row of the kitchen classroom. One of my new friends mumbled something about attention issues and the front row. I felt a bonding moment with her over that acknowledgment.

We made three different kinds of crackers, not my first choice of baking class, but the words “Saturday, baking class, and Vermont,” plus the thought of an outing with friends, nudged me toward signing up. I went with an open mind and was awed by the three recipes we cranked out in three hours. Grissini, lavash, and almond flour crackers.


Becca, the woman who taught the class, seemed to have had a cup of zen before she started the day. We all followed suit, gently rolling the various doughs until they came together. Working out frustrations while kneading dough can lead to tough bread. She seemed to barely touch the dough; her hands glided over the surface and formed soft balls of yeasty goodness.

Incidentally, Becca grew up on a wheat farm in Kansas, approximately six hours southeast of Mom and Dad’s dairy and grain farm in northeast Iowa. And now, we two farmgirls live 1,600-plus miles from our homes. Some of her father’s wheat goes to a processing plant that supplies King Arthur Flour. Perhaps that’s why she had such a soft touch when she worked the dough.

After the crackers had baked, we proudly carried them to the car, along with our purchases from the King Arthur on-site store. That was when we felt the first flurry of snow. At 2:30 in the afternoon, the sky was already darkening to dusk. I took the wheel for the return trip to Massachusetts. And voila: enter snowstorm. At 45 mph, I kept an eye out for wetland and spotted a group of winterberry bushes within the first half hour of the drive. No one was behind me on the snowy road, so I slowed and pulled over at the next bright patch. Only one bush. Our lone winterberry gatherer exited the car; she was the only one with boots on. The snow was falling at a steady clip, and from the warm van, we watched her break and collect oodles of branches. “Now, she is a true Yankee!” declared one of the other women in the car.

And that made me think, what is a true Yankee? While there are many meanings, and not all positive, what constitutes a Yankee culture? A Yankee has a certain grit and get-to-it-tiveness, very similar to a cliche Midwesterner. However, I certainly didn’t feel like a Midwesterner that day: I had traveled from one state through two others to go to a baking class. From northeast Iowa, no one plans to travel two states over to Colorado to bake for a day.

The want or need to live somewhere with four seasons certainly has something to do with being a Yankee. Here, when school is canceled on a Friday for a snowstorm, it’s not uncommon for Massachusetts residents to pack up and head north to the mountains. If a vehicle can maneuver up ski mountains in New Hampshire, Vermont, or Maine, it can surely move through a snowstorm in Massachusetts. In Iowa, I remember hunkering down as blizzard winds blew across the prairie. However, my immediate family here seeks deeper snow on steep inclines. We hailed from different parts of the world and dropped anchor in Massachusetts. So we follow suit in heading north/northwest during snowstorms…

No matter that I’ve woken up every day for the last 13 years feeling like a Midwesterner living in New England, I am getting closer to claiming to be part of the Yankee culture.  And now… I have been the driver of a winterberry expedition van.  That must count for something.  I’ll pack boots next time I head north; my first successful breaking of a winterberry branch should cinch my inclusion in the New England Yankee culture.

Until then, I’ll identify more closely as a daughter of the Midwest.

To you, wherever and whoever you are, Happy Hump Day!