Spring: Rebirth, Renewal, and Transformation

I’ll be the first to admit spring is not my favorite season. Mostly because these days, spring is heralded by weeks of high winds and heavy mud, and when we finally get them, those mild, pleasant days segues all too quickly into the oppressive heat of summer.

The one thing that makes up for it here in the South is how pretty it is.

After weeks of cold, soaking rain interspersed with occasional sleet and snow, the first buds popping through the ground have me grabbing my camera for a quick macro shot. Robins appear in the yard. Mockingbirds trill their heart-breakingly beautiful spring mating songs. Spring peepers optimistically begin chirping even while frost still limes the ground at night. The grass comes in with the bright emerald green of Ireland. Leaves unfurl, and the forsythia begins to bloom.

The Appalachian mountains always strike me as a kindly grandmother, as opposed to the rocky grandeur of the mountains out west. Our mountains are rounder, softer. We don’t get the spectacular color change in autumn the way they do in New England, either. But what we do get is gorgeous springs. Starting in March, the mountains begin to green up, and redbud and dogwood dot the hills with their pink and white blooms. Mountain laurel peeks out of forests still dark with the deadfall of winter. Our Appalachian Grandmother wears a crocheted shawl done in delicate pastels.

Crocus burst through the soil, sometimes even when there is still snow on the ground. They aren’t alone, however, and are followed shortly by daffodils and irises. My personal favorite is hyacinth–there is something heavenly about their waxy blossoms and their rich scent. Phlox and periwinkle blanket banks and flowerbeds. Bradford pears lining driveways shower white petals like snowflakes whenever the wind blows. Azaleas and crepe myrtle come into flower. Lilacs and hydrangeas send out their siren call to bees, who bumble around them with a lazy drone in the balmy air. Honeysuckle fills the air with the promise of summer.

I take pictures of them all–and every year, too–as though I hadn’t taken pictures of the same emerging flowers spring after spring. There’s something heartening and encouraging about these first signs of spring. The promise of rebirth. The hope of renewal. The encouragement of transformation.

I can’t imagine living in a place without distinct seasons. The older I get, the more I appreciate the signs of spring. My mind turns toward outdoor projects and plans to go hiking, camping, and horseback riding. I need that connection to the earth in such a very real way, it’s hard to explain.

I scrape back the bark on a tree I thought was dead, and see the bright, green quick of life that tells me, no, it was just dormant. It gives me hope that I too will come out of hibernation. Something inside me unfurls with the warming rays of the sun, and I turn my face toward it with a smile, eyes closed.

So while spring is not my favorite season, it’s a close second. Because we all need to be renewed each year.

Fighting “Productivity” Culture

I work weekends, and my husband doesn’t, which frequently leads to me coming home on Saturdays and asking how his day went and what did he do? Often, he sheepishly tells me he didn’t do anything, and then he apologizes.

“What are you sorry for?” My asking about his day isn’t meant to make him feel bad. I’m just showing interest in how he spent his time while I was gone.

Invariably, he says, “I feel like I should be doing something productive.”

I know what he means.

I work 10-12 hour days. My “free” time is so constrained that I feel I must get the most out of it. The dogs have to get some exercise every day, and if I don’t ride the horse enough each week, it’s not safe for either of us. I want to finish my current WIP (and I’m so close! Nearly there!) but I also need to write blog posts, work on my newsletter, schedule social media postings, write some Bookbub reviews, and read or watch all those marketing posts and videos jamming my inbox. Weekends are when I try to do a little meal prep for the coming week, which usually means a grocery run, and then there’s trying to cram in yoga and meditation to manage my stress levels. I have so much to do on any given day, I feel as though I can’t waste any of it, especially if that means just sitting around watching TV or reading a book, or God forbid, taking a nap.

Too often I come home from work completely fried, unable to make healthy dinner choices because my decision-making capacity is used up for the day. Sometimes I can barely muster enough energy to watch TV or read a book. Because of my tight schedule, I have to plan everything pretty far in advance, and sometimes I resent the hell out of that. Most days I have to pick and choose what I’m not going to get done, and I feel resentment and guilt over that, too. 

This morning I was scheduled to meet friends to go horseback riding, but I’d slept badly the night before, and had only just dropped off to sleep when the alarm went off. The day dawned in the upper 20s with the threat of light snow–and it would still be close to freezing by the time we mounted. Normally I love riding in brisk weather, but I couldn’t make myself get out of bed. I texted my friends and weenied out. I just didn’t want to go.

More and more, this is becoming a default choice for me, even for things I love doing. I realize it isn’t necessarily a good thing–I’m missing out on activities I enjoy and spending time with people I like–but the truth of the matter is many of the things I do for fun don’t feel like fun right now. They feel like another obligation, another task that Must Be Done. Sundays can be the worst because I’m all-too conscious of the coming work week ahead and am already dreading it.

I’m reminded of the article I read about a Search and Rescue dog whose handler inadvertently burned him out by taking him to the golf course every weekend and letting the dog search for missing golf balls. The handler thought he was giving his dog a little fun, but the dog took searching for the missing balls as seriously as his ‘day job.’ In short, the handler never let his dog take a break and just be a dog.

That’s how I’m starting to feel about the things I do for fun. It’s my cue that I’m overbooked, over-committed, and completely exhausted.

This past weekend, a friend of mine confessed she was feeling guilty for not doing anything except sitting on the couch watching TV. The thing is, I know (like me) life has thrown her a series of hard blows in a row, finishing up with a debilitating illness. That sort of thing takes it out of you, and yet we live and work in a culture that expects us to shake off everything and keep going. This is so ingrained that we expect it of ourselves as well. We expect to be doing something “productive” at all times and feel bad when we don’t.

Especially here in the US, we burn the candles at both ends, scrape up the wax, slap it back on the wick, and burn it some more. We’re penalized at work if we take sick days and we’re weirdly proud of how little vacation time we take. You’d think if anyone understood the value of keeping the staff healthy and minimizing the spread of disease, it would be medical professionals, but I once had a conversation with a nurse at my doctor’s office about the fact there was an employee’s notice on the wall about staying home if they had a fever–and yet she pointed out to me they got written up if they missed too much time off work.

We’re a culture of do more with less means and yet we don’t understand why our bricks are substandard because we ran out of straw a long time ago.

This weekend, my friend needed to sit on the couch and veg out with some comfort-level movie-watching. Mentally, emotionally, physically, that was exactly what she needed to do. Know what happens to fields that constantly bear the same crops without letting the soil go through fallow periods? The dirt becomes depleted of nutrients, the quality of the crops goes down, and eventually, nothing grows.

So stop beating yourself up for those “lazy” Sundays. Doze on the couch with the cat. Read a book. Take a long walk or lie in a hammock and do nothing. It’s not a sin. It’s allowed. More importantly–it’s necessary to your mental and creative health.

Sometimes you climb the mountain. Sometimes you admire the view.

 

The Right Dog for the Wrong Reasons

A friend of mine lost his dog a while back. After a prolonged search for the ‘right’ pup to replace his beloved Max, he finally brought home a gorgeous little Aussie female a few weeks ago.

And has been bending my ear with complaints about her ever since.

She’s too energetic. She’s mouthy. She’s being difficult to housebreak. She’s not cuddly. Max was never this bad.

I get it–I do. It’s hard when everyone you see on social media with a new puppy seems totally besotted with it–and you’re not feeling that same joy. It’s hard to get back into puppy mode when you’ve had 14 years of not-puppy mode. Time tends to blur your memory of how difficult the last puppy was and grief over your loss places the previous dog on a pedestal.

But after constant texts and phone calls from my friend, my stock of patience is used up.

Probably because I’m annoyed with myself as much as I am with my friend.

See, I did the same thing. My beloved Sampson was diagnosed with cancer less than a month after my mother died of a heart attack. I had to say goodbye less than a month after that. And though I knew better, I made an emotional decision to get another puppy right away rather than waiting until I was ready.

After telling everyone I’d never have another big, energetic dog again–that it was time to downsize–that’s exactly what I got. I found myself impulse-buying a puppy after I’d brought my husband with me to look at the litter for the sole purpose of preventing me from doing just that. And it probably would have been okay, only the cycle of loss in my life wasn’t done. I took hit after hit that year and into the next.

I didn’t neglect the puppy. I worked hard at socializing him–both with people and other dogs. He met over 100 people by the time he was four months old, and I set up scores of play dates with appropriate dogs to teach him the skill set he needed to get along. We went through Basic Obedience 1 and 2, and when he was old enough, I started him in agility classes. He even passed his Canine Good Citizenship test (admittedly by the skin of his teeth).

I love him. How can you not love that face? But with all my grieving, and then the subsequent depression, I withheld the one thing he needed the most: me.

I didn’t give him my whole heart. I was still protecting that.

It took listening to my friend gripe about his Not-Max puppy for me to fully realize what I’d done. Remington turned two recently, and I’m only now recognizing that for all the dogs I’ve had, he’s one of the calmest, most “adult” puppies I’ve ever raised.

I don’t think I could have dealt with anything more energetic than he is. He is extraordinarily gentle in nature. I’m so very lucky to have him.

I don’t deserve him.

He came into my life when I was mentally, physically, and emotionally unable to connect. I based my decision to get him on a gut feeling without giving it the full commitment to make the choice a good one.

But as I said in the previous post about Sampson, I believe specific dogs come into our lives to teach us specific lessons. While Sampson’s final lesson seemed to be to teach me how to live in the moment, Remington’s lesson right now is about commitment. That you only get out what you put in. It doesn’t matter if you’re talking about puppies, or relationships, or that story you’ve been working on.

I told my friend he needed to commit 100% to his new puppy. Right now. And don’t look back. Because sometimes you get the right dog for the wrong reasons.

Finding Joy in Loss

We’re nearing the end of the extensive renovations, but the work just keeps going on. It’s like one of those house flipping shows where they start in with a tight budget and big plans but discover rot in the walls, and one thing leads to another. Sometimes the unexpected expense is a delightful revelation—like when we discovered that hooking up to town water was an option—and now was the time to do it. After living with impossibly hard water for the ten years we’ve been in the house, along with the low water pressure, bad taste and odor of the well water, and the fact the water turned brown when it rained too hard, investing in the hookup to town water was a no-brainer. In addition to adding to the resale value of the property should we ever sell, I now enjoy showers with the water pressure of a luxury hotel. And like Goldilocks, this water is just right. Not so hard it limes up the coffee maker and not so soft it feels slimy—like you can never completely rinse clean. Just blissfully right.

One of the unhappy expected expenses was is the realization that the heavy construction has chewed up the yard around the house, creating huge ruts that weeks of rain have left with standing water. We have built a walkway out of plywood, plastic tarps, straw, and cardboard, but the sea of mud surrounding the house is steadily working its way inside. We hadn’t factored landscaping, or the need to rebuild the concrete patio, into our remodel plans.

As much as I’ve been looking forward to the desperately needed remodel (honestly, it’s a wonder the house passed inspection when we bought it, and a miracle it didn’t collapse or burn down around us), coming on top of everything else in the last year, it’s been stressful. Even good stress is tough to deal with at times.

I was already struggling a bit emotionally. One of the remodeling decisions we made was to take out a wall, and while it made for a lovely open space where the living room used to be dark, small, and cramped, it severely cut down on my space to hang pictures. I love pictures. Be they photographs I’ve taken myself, images of my various fandoms, or reminders of some place I’ve traveled, I tend to collect and post images that—to borrow Marie Kondo’s phrase—bring me joy. Only during the unpacking process, I’d found myself tearing off protective paper to stare down at a beloved image and have no earthly idea where it should go—or if it should even go back up again.

The remodeling process has definitely triggered my desire to go Marie Kondo on my life (I should point out this is not something new since the Netflix show but something I’ve been considering for some time now—ever since I first read her book and resisted its tenets). Both when packing things for storage and unpacking them now, I’ve been taking a hard look at everything and trying to decide if it still brings me joy or not.

So when I was unwrapping our photographs and prints, trying to decide which to put where, I was devastated to discover the glass on one of my oldest prints was cracked.

I was already in a fragile state of mind when I discovered the damage to my print. Worse, the print was something my mother had picked up at an antique store when I was a child and I’d been carting around from house to house ever since. It has literally been a part of my life as long as I can remember. See, I identified with that beaming little girl and her gentle giant of a dog. It could have been a portrait of me at the same age.

Behind the glass, you could see the ravages of time. One of the reasons I’d never reframed it was that the print was coming to pieces in places, and that removal from the frame would likely cause the whole thing to disintegrate. Now I had no choice. I couldn’t hang a picture with broken glass. So I held my damaged print in my hands and wept. One more thing to add to the things I’ve lost in the past year. And this time, it felt like I was losing me as well.

My husband, quick to respond to my distress, suggested taking it to a framing shop to see what they could do. I didn’t see the point at first—in my mind it was already a total loss as any attempt to remove it from the frame would result in the final destruction. But we went to the framing store anyway, and an incredibly empathetic woman there not only appreciated the degree to which the damage upset me, but she treated my print with the care one would bestow on a living thing. She managed to get it out of the frame without destroying it, a painstaking process that made both of us sweat just a little, as she had to remove the backing in pieces warped by age and neglect.

In doing so, for the first time, I was able to see the name of the artist, previously hidden by the frame.

In the meantime, my husband did a reverse image search on the print, just in case my fears were realized and the whole thing turned to dust like Ayeshea on stepping into the Spirit of Life the second time and reverting to her true age. Not only did he find out the print is still available, though replacing it would have cost a pretty penny, he did a little research on the artist as well. Arthur John Elsley was an English painter of the late Victorian and Edwardian periods, famous for his depictions of children and dogs. He was very popular in his day, with his works appearing in magazines and calendars. His style was so distinctive, I suspect I’d recognize it if I came across another of his paintings. I checked the prices on his original paintings still available–some go for as high as $100,000!

The story has a happy ending, though. Not only was the framer able to remove the print largely intact, but she was able to clean and repair it for the most part. We made the decision to reuse the original frame (being of stout oak, of the likes it would be hard to replace without spending a lot of money) and use acrylic instead of glass to decrease the chance of future breakage. The end result is better than what I had before the glass broke.

Not only do I have an improved print to hang on my wall, but I also now know the name and history of the artist, which brings me a little extra fillip of pleasure when I look at the smiling little girl and her tolerant dog. I have something even more valuable as well—more affirmation that my guy has my back. I have no doubt that had the restoration proved terminal, he’d have seen to it I got another copy of that print.

And that, my dear Marie Kondo fans, brings me joy.

A Resolution I Must Keep

At this time of year, there are a lot of blog posts about getting fit, losing weight, joining a gym, etc. Especially after several solid weeks of overindulgence over the holidays, and the prospect of starting clean with the New Year, many of us formulate grandiose resolutions about reclaiming the bodies of our youth–even if we never had the ‘best’ body before. Even if we never share these resolutions out loud. It’s a promise we make to ourselves. This time, this year will be better than the last. And part of being better means looking our best, right?

For years I’ve been muttering about needing to clean up my diet. Yes, I need to lose some weight–my BMI has crept up into the ‘overweight’ category–but because that weight is evenly distributed and because I am a relatively active person, I didn’t give it much thought unless I needed to get into a swimsuit–and I could find lots of reasons to avoid doing that. Heartburn and digestive issues were annoyances that made me consider changing my eating habits more than once, but my hectic work schedule made it more important for me to to grab something fast and portable than to choose a more healthy meal. The critical thing was to keep going, keep moving. Work at the pace demanded of me.

I wasn’t going to give up an entire afternoon a week of my precious time toward meal prep. I’m a terribly picky eater, so meal services tend to be a waste of money for me. My weight wasn’t keeping me from doing the things I needed to do–in fact, most people looked askance at me when I said I needed to drop some weight, and so I kept putting off doing anything about my health and eating habits until my body said, “No more.”

First it was caffeine. I had to stop drinking any caffeinated drinks about 5 years ago. A cup of tea would send my BP through the roof. Now I’m at the point where I can’t even have a piece of chocolate without a corresponding rise in BP. Are you weeping in sympathy? Because giving up caffeine was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

Until I had to give up wine. Yep. One glass of my favorite red makes my BP skyrocket now. I said goodbye to all alcohol recently because it’s just not worth it: feeling as though the beast from Alien is going to burst through your chest at any moment for at least 24 hours after a single glass.

I’ve had workups out the whazoo–including a stress test I passed with flying colors. I’m on medication, and it was working at first. But now the BP is creeping up even on meds. I know that BP can be controlled with diet and exercise, as well as meditation and stress management–and I am working on those things. But I’m resistant to change when it comes to food.

Most of my research indicates that I’m not alone in my struggles with blood pressure–more than 33% of Americans over the age of 40 have hypertension. And though no one in my family has had a stroke or heart attack until they were in their late seventies or eighties, having hypertension definitely increases that risk for me.

I’m also suspicious I could be sliding toward metabolic syndrome. I don’t fit all the parameters, but some of them are there, and honestly, I think given the typical American diet, more of us are at risk than you’d think.

I’ve spent the last few weeks examining the salt content of most packaged foods, and it’s enough to curl your hair. Rice is pretty healthy, right? Salmon, kale, and rice–not a bad dinner by any means. Only that flavored rice packet my husband loves so much contains 45% of the daily recommended allowance of salt. And that whole grain oat cereal that’s gluten free, high in fiber, and comes in those tasty little “o” shapes? 6% of your RDA.8% if you add milk.

Many people believe that it is just as important to restrict sugar as salt when it comes to BP, and if you factor in insulin resistance and metabolic syndrome, it makes sense.

Then there is stress. I figure my adrenal glands–which produce the “flight or fight” hormone cortisol–are probably the size of cantelopes right now. My work environment is incredibly stressful, and I’ve had a lot of personal loss over the past couple of years, so I recently made the decision to seek counseling. The first session was productive, if for no other reason than to have someone outside your family blink and say, “What the hell, man?” when they hear your story.

But all these measures have failed to maintain my BP in the normal range and my anxiety about it isn’t helping. So now it is time to finally get serious about changing my diet. No more grabbing cookies or donuts from the break room when the workload gets too hectic. No more fast food lunches. No more relying on prepacked meals or frozen pizza because I’m too damned tired to cook anything (and am a terrible cook to boot) when I get home at night. I’ve got to go clean, which means fresh, non-processed, made-from-scratch, low salt, low carb, low sugar.

I gotta tell you–when you’ve lost so much, when you’re dealing with chronic pain and high stress, you come to rely on your damned rewards. Snagging a cookie from the break room is a reward for surviving a bad encounter with a client or an energy boost to get you through the next five hours of work. A glass of wine when you finally get to sit down to watch some television is a pat on the head for a fulfilling another long day of responsibilities and very little credit for doing so. Popping a pizza in the oven that will present you with hot bread, melted cheese, and spicy sauce in less than 17 minutes is a lifesaver when you’ve hit maximum decision fatigue. Recently, I mentioned to my husband that giving up chocolate, wine, cookies, and bread wasn’t going to make me live longer. It would just seem like it.

At the time, I thought of this as a funny take on a crappy situation. “Oh look, she still has her sense of humor!”

The thing is, I’ve been resenting like hell having to make these changes. I think I’ve been taking the wrong attitude about this, though. The fact I can tell when my BP is up (even if I don’t know why) means I’m in tune with my body. That’s a good thing. I can use that to my advantage. Hypertension won’t be a silent killer in my case because I know it’s there and can take steps to manage it.

And I’m determined to do just that.

So relax–this blog won’t turn into a series of before and after images, with constant updates on my miraculous weight loss or stats on my progress. I probably will share my adventures in cooking because I really am a horrible cook–and I can use any advice or tips you guys see fit to offer. I’m seriously considering getting an Instant Pot, though I’m hesitant because I hear there is a learning curve. What I intend to post here is about baby steps into a healthier me.

Because part of loving who we are is accepting what we cannot change and changing what we can. There may be quite a few things in my life I can’t change right now, but my eating habits aren’t among them. That I can fix.

The Obligatory End-of-2018 Post

I missed a golden opportunity to post last week about my favorite day of the year: Christmas Eve. While Halloween is fun (I love dressing up, and who doesn’t love candy?) Christmas Eve has long held the number one spot for me as far as favorite days of the year. There’s all the lead up to it: the decorations, the shopping, the Christmas songs on the radio, the holiday baking, watching the holiday-themed movies, wrapping presents… I love Christmas Eve because of all the days of the year, it has the most potential, the most expectant hope and joy for the future. I think I love the promise of Christmas Eve more than I love Christmas Day itself.

But Christmas Eve came and went without me commenting on it this year. No big deal. I made cookies, watched movies, and opened presents with the family. It was good.

Now we are entering the time period I like the least of the entire year–the run up to New Year’s Eve.

I dislike New Year’s Eve for many reasons–I’m noise-sensitive and dislike loud holidays in general. I don’t enjoy crowds, I’m not a party-girl, and I have dogs–who also cower during noisy holidays. Shield me from the fireworks and blaring horns. If I do stay up past midnight, it’s because I’m engrossed in a good book and don’t want to put it down just yet.

But I also dislike the year-end retrospectives. Guess what, you’re about to turn another year older. Here’s who died in the past year. Here’s what happened in the world. Here’s what I accomplished in 2018. Cheers to 2019. Rah, rah.

I guess I dislike these kinds of posts because they place such emphasis on the posts we’re already making: trips we’ve taken, achievements in our careers, heck, what we had for lunch today. The end-of-year period has frequently been disappointing to me because I didn’t lose 30 pounds, win the lottery, travel extensively, get nominated for a major award or hit the bestseller list. Somehow, sitting down to figure out what I did achieve stresses how little I got done besides get up, work ten hours, and come home. Day after day.

So yeah, New Year’s Eve doesn’t make the top ten list of favorite holidays. Not even close.

Only this year, as I was answering emails from various people, one of my friends shared a New Year’s Eve tradition that beats the heck out of partying too hard or sitting in front of the TV waiting for the ball to drop. She said she gets together with friends and everyone writes down something they want to leave behind from 2018–as well as what they wish for themselves in 2019–and burn the paper in a bonfire.

I love this idea.

I’ve been spending some time considering what I’d leave behind. Fear, certainly. Depression. A feeling of hopelessness, the sense that it is all downhill from here and that the best of my life is behind me. Sorrow and grief, twin anchors that have been crippling me these past few years. Self-doubt, a silent killer that has been sabotaging dreams and plans as long as I can remember.

What I wish for is a little harder. I’m not used to picturing what I want–I’ve become too good at imagining worst-case scenarios instead. But I’d definitely wish for a return of health–both mental and physical–even it it means having to work at it. Laugh at myself and with others. Put worry behind me–never once has it made a positive difference in my life, it has only done damage. Refill my creative well and dip from its clear, cold water every day. Shut the door on envy and resentment.

Not just merely exist, but actually live.

For the first time in memory, I’m actually looking forward to New Year’s Eve.

How about you? How do you celebrate the end of one year and the beginning of the next?

Thanksgiving on a Small Scale

The holidays were a Big Deal when I was a kid. My grandparents went all out–baking and cooking a giant feast for the entire family–and we’d come from all over, driving hours or flying in just to spend a few hours gathered around that table groaning with food.

A Thanksgiving turkey, roasted to perfection. A choice between mashed potatoes and sweet potatoes (so naturally you had to do a little of both). Sausage balls and something my grandmother called “dressing”, which was a sort of fried stuffing. Yeast rolls fresh from the oven and dripping with butter. Green beans cooked for hours with bacon and onion until they melted in your mouth. Succotash. Creamed corn. Streamed ‘greens’, which might be spinach one year and mustard greens the next. Cornbread made with buttermilk and fried in an iron skillet until the edges turned crispy. Ham biscuits (both regular and country) on sweet Hawaiian rolls.

And the desserts! At least two cakes–usually a pound cake or sour cream cake and a coconut one, too. Three pies–either pecan or lemon chess and a French silk chocolate pie. Sweet potato pie was another common choice, though I preferred pumpkin myself.

We’d stuff ourselves to bursting, and then the kids would play games (or go see a movie when we were older) while the men watched football and the women packed the food so that everyone could take some with them and sat in the kitchen talking. When the sun began to sink in the sky, we’d load up the car and drive home, replete with food and taking enough leftovers with us to last us at least another week.

We’d repeat the entire cycle again in December, only there would be the added excitement of Christmas gifts and my grandmother’s much-loved decorations to look forward to as well. The magic of pulling up to her house and seeing the brightly lit tree glowing in the window is the hallmark of my Christmases Past.

I loved these visits–they stand out as bright memories in my childhood.

I found out many years later that my mother loathed these gatherings with the power of a thousand burning suns and resented the family tradition that insisted we go every year. When my grandparents died, the huge family gatherings died with them. My mother hated cooking and was of the opinion that holidays shouldn’t be about food or giving gifts. Holiday gatherings became stilted affairs in which we either ate out (which caused a chorus of complaints) or I attempted to make my grandmother’s traditional dishes (which also caused a chorus of complaints). My grandmother’s cooking was a hard act to follow. I tried to hang on to the old recipes, but my mother gave away the cookbook that contained most of them.

After my father’s death, all pretense of gathering for Thanksgiving stopped. My mother began taking part in a big community feast operated by her church each Thanksgiving. They opened the doors to the town and invited everyone to come. The church ladies outdid themselves preparing their very best desserts, and the church paid a caterer to bring in platters of turkey and all the fixings. For three years I went down to the church with my mother to help serve the community–and for three years, my mother forbade me to fix a plate and sit down with everyone else. It didn’t matter that every other member of the congregation, including the minister and his family, was taking part in the feast. As far as my mother was concerned, the food was for the ‘poor people’ and I didn’t need to eat any of it. 

Finally, I quoted 1 Timothy 5:18 at her: For the scripture saith, Thou shalt not muzzle the ox that treadeth out the corn.

After that, she snippily informed me I no longer had to come down to the church on Thanksgiving Day.

As a single person, it was hard to get excited about the holidays. I frequently was expected to work anyway. I stopped cooking the family favorites, especially after the loss of the cookbook. Thanksgiving (and to a certain degree, Christmas as well) became just another day.

When I first got married, I made an effort to go back to lavish Thanksgiving meals, but truth be told, I’m not that great a cook. Work remained unforgiving when it came to scheduling, and the thought of all that preparation for a meal that would be eaten in less than twenty minutes seemed too much. My husband’s kids were teenagers when we met–now they’ve gone off to college and have their own plans. So why bother, right?

The truth of the matter, for the first time in a long time, I find myself thinking differently about the coming holiday. The last couple of years have been rough, but our family seems to be moving into a better place right now. Maybe I’m being too optimistic, but I find myself wanting to make a little more effort than usual for Thanksgiving this week. Because the truth is, I am thankful. I’m thankful our family has reached a kind of resting spot on a steep uphill climb. I’m thankful for a roof over our heads and jobs that (mostly) pay the bills. Everyone is in reasonably good health at the moment, and life is pretty darn okay. My life partner is also my best friend, and I am thankful every day for that.

And that seems worth honoring by baking a few pies.

I Dream of Strong Heroines

Let me start off this post by saying you know what I mean when I say “strong heroines”. I realize it’s not the best term: a heroine, by definition, is someone we look up to and seek to emulate. “Strong” as a descriptor seems both redundant and lazy somehow. When I say I’ve always been attracted to strong heroines–I mean the female characters that star in their own stories, who pull me into their adventures and make me long for their strength, their no-nonsense attitudes, their ability to Get The Job Done. 

They are smart, tough, and competent. They are all beautiful in their own way, as varied as their own backgrounds. They kick-ass. They make me want to be better than I am, to reach my full potential and more.

Growing up, it wasn’t always easy to find heroines in my preferred books and stories. Women frequently played a secondary–sometimes even tertiary–role in murder mysteries or sci-fiction. They were often love interests at best, and victims at worst. Television programs frequently featured a Heroine of the Week, a guest actress to play the part of the woman who is placed in jeopardy (all too-often by refusing the advice and help of the male hero) so that she can be conveniently rescued by said hero. I confess, I ate up these shows in the eighties. Not because I identified with the female characters in them, but because I identified with the men. Many of the shows I adored back then, I find uncomfortable to re-watch today. Men had the best roles, the best lines, got to do the fun things. I accepted that it was men who went on adventures and the women largely stayed home. Eowyn aside, the Fellowship of the Ring was a boys club.

But when I found a heroine I could admire, I grabbed on with both hands, even if the source material was a little problematic. Lessa from Dragonflight. Princess Leia. Harriet Vane from the Lord Peter Wimsey books. I wanted to be Laura Holt from Remington Steele. I devoured the Honor Harrington books by David Weber. Sam Carter in Stargate might have been ‘one of the boys’ but she was the scientist that was smarter than everyone else on team SG-1.

I cheered when Drew Barrymore’s Cinderella outsmarted the gypsies in this scene from Ever After.

 

It was simply brilliant–as was the scene at the end when the Prince rushes up as she’s leaving the castle. When she asks him why he’s there, he confesses he’s come to rescue her–only she’s already rescued herself.

This trend of loving powerful heroines continues today. I fell hard for Elsa in Frozen. I am a HUGE Peggy Carter fan (hence the T-shirt above). I love Phryne Fisher so much that I supported the crowdfunding for Miss Fisher and the Crypt of Tears. I love these ladies for their strength, their beauty, their abilities. I wish I had their confidence, their competence, their resilience. 

I am sadly aware I fall far short of their standards.

Recently, I’ve had a bit of a health scare. It’s rattled me hard, and while my condition is imminently treatable, I’m still in adjusting to both the medication and the notion that I need medication. More than anything, there is a disconnect between accepting that this is my new normal when it doesn’t fit with my mental image of who I am. It’s not part of a kick-ass heroine’s backstory.

Or is it?

Perhaps my definition of what makes a kick-ass heroine needs to evolve. Maybe she isn’t the woman who takes out the bad guys with a single punch, or patches a Stargate on the fly, or delivers a snappy one-liner while saving the world.

Maybe she’s the woman who works ten to twelve hour shifts, only to come home and take care of her family. Maybe she’s the cornerstone in a multi-generational household, the one that everyone looks to in order to make things right. Perhaps the very fact she’s still here, still trying, and still alive is a major achievement in itself.

Maybe she’s the one who speaks up even though her voice is shaking. The one who says, “No, that isn’t right.”

Being a kick-ass heroine isn’t just looking good in a catsuit, or solving multi-dimensional math equations while piloting a starship, or discussing with wit and erudition the dead body in the library. It’s both harder and easier than that.

It’s standing up for what you believe in, even when the rest of the world thinks you’re stupid for doing so.

There are more of us out there than you think. You’re more kick-ass than you think. Be your own hero.

Too Much of a Good Thing

Those of you who follow me on Instagram know I have a thing for mushrooms. Not to eat (I think I read too many murder mysteries where the victims were taken out with the local mushrooms) but to photograph. There is something magical about them–not only their variety and color, but also how rapidly they can grow–seemingly overnight!

My mushroom photo collection is extensive, and I delight in spying some delicate fungal growth hiding beneath fallen leaves or nestled in pine needles during my morning dog walks.

Just the other day, I took these side by side images–both probably Aminita species, which contain some of the most toxic mushrooms known. My fingers are in the frame for scale. The first image is of a typical mushroom growing in my yard right now. The second is one I found growing beneath the horse trailer. I’ve never seen one so large before! And I swear, it wasn’t there a few days ago…

I can’t do justice to the second mushroom, as it was hidden up under the horse trailer. But trust me when I say it was bigger than a NERF football!

 

 

 

But while I admire mushrooms in the wild, I confess I am less enthralled with them when they are continually popping up in my fenced yard. It goes back to reading all those British murder mysteries as an impressionable teenager and the likelihood these particular shrumes are Aminita species. Mushrooms in that family account for 50% of all mushroom-related deaths in people and most of them in dogs.

With all the heavy rains we’ve had here, the mushrooms are literally growing overnight. For the last couple of days, I’ve been pulling up mushrooms as I find them in the area where the dogs play, and I’ve been getting at least five pounds a day, I kid you not.

I’ve also had to induce vomiting in one of my dogs, after catching him gnoshing on a mushroom before I could stop him. So under the principle of better safe than sorry, I pull them up.

But their prolific nature has me paranoid now. Every afternoon I head out to the yard with a garbage bag and a set of plastic gloves to pull up mushrooms. They hide under leaf litter. They prefer shade and wet mulchy dirt. They love rotten logs and deep grass. And so I scan the area, digging them up as I go, trying to get as much of the root as possible. Just when I’m convinced I’ve located all the ones there are to find that day, I spy another one: sometimes a bright button of color mimicking the fallen leaves, sometimes a dull brown nearly impossible to distinguish from the surrounding soil.

I love autumn. October is my absolute favorite time of year. I love how the light changes in spectrum from white to gold as it slants through the trees on an autumn afternoon. I love how it lights up the grass from within, making it glow. I love the first hint of frost in the morning air, and that whiff of wood smoke, too. I love the sound of dead leaves scurrying across a sidewalk or crunching underfoot. Nothing makes me happier than pulling out my chunky sweaters in maroon and gold, or pulling on my favorite pair of boots. Give me a book, a blanket, and a cup of hot cocoa, and I’m a happy camper. Autumn is a gallop across fields of drying grass while the mountains all around burst into color. It’s watching the dogs frisk with glee on the morning walk because of the nip in the air. It’s smiling as you hear the honk of migrating geese, and look up to see them fly in V formation overhead.

But darn it, it’s also when the mushrooms proliferate like mad. And until we get a hard frost, I’m going to be removing them from the yard.

(T-Rex for scale…)

Celebrate ALL the Wins–Especially the Little Ones

Last year I planted a crepe myrtle tree in my yard. For those unfamiliar with them, this is what they look like in bloom, coming in a wide assortment of colors. I thought it would make a nice splash of color in the the spring.

It died.

Now, I’m not all that surprised. Not because my gardening skills are on par with my cooking skills, which is to say the smoke detector gets a workout in our house. Not because trees and bushes have a high mortality rate in the first year. Not because it was a hot,dry summer.

No. I wasn’t surprised because there was so much death in my life in 2017, I began to feel like a trainee for the Grim Reaper. I lost a lot: three human family members, three furry family members, and my very first horse–the one I bought as a teenager and hid his existence from my parents until I could prove I was capable of paying for him. The one I’d had for thirty years.

Most of these deaths were not unexpected. Old age and cancer both tend to give you lots of warning. It was just bad luck that the timing made all of them come together in the same year.

It was more than just the deaths, though that was bad enough. I also lost my belief that we as Americans were, for the most part, decent, honest people who stood up for the little guy and did the right thing. A belief fostered in part by such comics as this one, where Superman encourages students to embrace diversity. (There’s another, more modern image somewhere of Captain America supporting the same–only the crowd he’s depicted with is actually diverse–sadly, I can’t find it right now. I suspect it was fan art) I lost my faith in our government as an agent for the commonwealth. I lost hope that we’d ever have fair elections again, or that we’d be able to stop a breathtakingly corrupt administration from converting our democracy to an autocracy. Sure, corruption existed in politics before now. But the sheer scale of what’s happening now worldwide is all too reminiscent of the rise of fascism in the 1930s. And we all know how that turned out.

Somewhere along the way, I lost myself to depression. I found it challenging to go on social media. I didn’t have the mental energy to comment on people’s posts. Every day, the news continues to be terrifying and disheartening, which didn’t help. I developed unhealthy coping mechanisms. I gained weight. I was still functional, but just barely. So no, losing one crepe myrtle among all of this wasn’t even a blip on the radar. The only reason I share any of this for background to the point of this post.

Recently, a thing has been going around my Twitter timeline in which someone posted something to the effect of “we’re nine months in to 2018–what have you accomplished?” People RT the original tweet, adding what they’ve achieved as part of the sharing.

I have very mixed feelings about this sort of thing. I am not trying to disparage the person who posted it–I just can’t help but feel on some level, subconsciously or not, by the very nature of social media, this kind of thing turns into a brag/competition thread. There is nothing wrong with bragging, mind you. Hell, I think far too often most of us diminish rather than celebrate our victories. But this kind of post falls into the the same category of year-end retrospective posts for me: a means of comparing yourself to others and finding, once again, you’ve fallen short.

In part because if you haven’t lost 50 pounds, gotten married, won the lottery, run a marathon, taken a dream vacation, landed an agent, had a NYT bestseller, won a major literary award, etc. etc. then you haven’t accomplished enough. And I have to tell you, when I look back over the past nine months and look at what I’ve achieved, compared to everyone else out there, I DO come up short.

But I came across one comment on the Twitter thread, which said, “I’m still alive.” And you know what? That is a mighty accomplishment indeed. It made me think about the things I’ve done in the last nine months a little differently.

So here’s my list of achievements for 2018:

  1. I’m still alive.
  2. I learned to make and like green smoothies, the thought of which used to make me gag.
  3. I’ve come to appreciate my body as is, with all its flaws, and know I need to take better care of it.
  4. I’m starting to reconnect with the things I love, things I’d shut out during my depression. I’d lost so much I was afraid to love anything else–and the scary thing is this wasn’t a conscious decision–I just withdrew my engagement. Even when I needed it the most.
  5. I recognize I probably need professional help to manage my depression. 
  6. I’ve started meditating.
  7. I’ve started playing brain games on Luminosity.
  8. I wrote and published a book. People are leaving enthusiastic reviews, which is nice.
  9. I’m playing around with fanfiction again because it makes me happy and life is too damn short not to take your happiness where you can find it.
  10. I’m still alive.

Some of these may not seem like very big accomplishments, but they are bigger than you know, especially the self-acceptance part. And I repeated “I’m still alive” twice because we don’t often give ourselves enough credit for toughing it out through bad times.

This past week, while preparing for some major renovations at the house, I discovered a small determined leafing of what I thought was a dead tree.

What do you know? That crepe myrtle is still alive.

I’m moving to a safer, better place so it can grow. Where I can keep a eye on it, and shelter it from bugs, storms, and the relentless heat. Where it can thrive. Perhaps that’s my biggest accomplishment for 2018 so far.