Pay Attention. Hurry Up. Slow Down.

No use thinking of the past for its gone, don’t think of the future because it has to come, think of the present because thats where you are. 

Kazi Shams
Photo courtesy of Pixabay
Edited

The recipe called for one half cup of butter, softened. My butter was rock hard, but it was a warm day and the sun would speed this process along, so I put a stick of butter on the railing of the deck. I returned to the recipe and began to chop the nuts and maraschino cherries. I measured out the coconut, chocolate chips and mandarin oranges setting them all aside ready to be added in turn to the mixture. Finally, in another bowl I added the flour, salt, and, oh dear, I was out of baking powder. It would only take me a minute to run to the neighborhood store to buy a new container, so I slipped out of my wear-these-only-around-the-house clothes, washed my hair because it was sticking up all over the place, and headed off to Quality Market. But wait, if I was going out, I might as well take the mail down to the mailbox. I had several items in envelopes ready to go, but one needed to be printed. I got my laptop and opened it to the letter. The printer hasn’t been working properly for awhile, so it was necessary to hand-feed each sheet of paper into the machine. I’m getting rather skilled at this task and it was quickly accomplished. One of the letters needed special attention, so instead of the mailbox I’d stop at the post office on my way to the grocery store. Arriving at the post office I waited as two cars cleared the parking lot, leaving the space closest to the door available. I smiled as I went inside and discovered that there was no one inline ahead of me. How lucky. I ordered my stamps and requested that the last letter be sent via certified mail. I needed to fill out the label which would be affixed to the envelope. As I completed the questions on the attachment another woman approached the counter. She was hard-of-hearing which slowed the exchange somewhat, but the clerk was patient with her and realizing that she was obviously hungry for conversation listened to her tales and added one of her own. I was happy to wait and was moved by the kindness and caring of the clerk. I’m a fan of the postal service. I reached the store without complication and was in and out in no time. I returned home to find the ingredients still on the counter waiting for me. I’d get back to making the bread in a minute, but first I’d hang the sheets on the line. Carrying the wet fabric to the porch I was just about to rest the sheets on the deck rail only to remember…THE BUTTER. It was definitely softened.

Funny How the Package Kept It’s Shape Even Thought the Butter Didn’t
July 2019

I always thought I was fairly good at multitasking. As a mother and elementary school teacher it was a necessary skill, but it’s not one that I have maintained. Maybe no one is ever really good at it. Multitasking is such a misnomer, an illusion. It is impossible to focus on even two projects at once. In actuality we split our attention between them not giving our full consideration or effort to either.

How often have I walked into a room only to discover that I have no clue what prompted me to go there in the first place? I can lose my focus from one room to the next! Who knew that walking and remembering would be taking multi-tasking to the outer limits of my ability? The older I get the less often I’m able to hold two ideas in my head at the same time. My brain is slowing down like an old computer that needs to be taken to the Apple Store and swept for duplicate, unnecessary, and obsolete files. After all, do I really need to have the procedure for threading a reel to reel projector or the lyrics to The Monster Mash still taking up memory.

I’ve also begun to realize that there are two competing and mutually exclusive philosophies at work in my life these days.

Speed up! The clock is ticking!

“Unfortunately, the clock is ticking, the hours are going by. The past increases, the future recedes. Possibilities decreasing, regrets mounting.” 

Haruki Murakami, Dance, Dance, Dance

Slow down. Smell the flowers.

“Slow down and enjoy life. It’s not only the scenery you miss by going to fast – you also miss the sense of where you are going and why.”   

Eddie Cantor

At this end of life, and especially since Dave died, people are constantly telling me to do what I want to do. “This is your time,” they say. But what do I want to do? Yes, the road is wide open and while I hope the end is far off in the distance I know it’s out there and I’m not sure how long the tread is going to last on my tires. Do I hurry and fit in as much as I can or do I relax and simply be? Do I move along the coast collecting lighthouses or do I sit quietly in the sand and contemplate the way the waves lap the shore? I’m still searching for the answer.

Lighthouses on Prince Edward Island, August 2018
Lido Beach, Sarasota, Florida 2016

Back to the melted butter. Do you suppose it was the result of the overstuffed files with their loose bits of minutiae scattered across my hippocampus or was it the result of simultaneously trying to bake, do the laundry, and sing along with the cast of Hamilton? It was probably a combination of the two if the truth be told.

I can still hear my mother’s voice admonishing me to “Pay attention. Watch what you’re doing.” It used to be about spilling my milk, but now I think she’s telling me that whatever speed I choose going forward and whether I’m off bagging lighthouses or getting sun on my face and sand in my undies I should be present wherever I am. “Keep adventuring,” I hear her say, “but remember to stop the car at the scenic overlooks, get out, and stand in awe at the wonder of life.”

Hurry up, slow down, and… by all means pay attention to the butter.

Someone Move the Cookies!

“You don’t stop laughing because you grow older. You grow older because you stop laughing.”

Maurice Chevlier

Dave and I both enjoyed playing cards although he played more often than I did. Throughout our married life he played in a weekly poker group. In retirement he added weekly cribbage matches and the occasional pop-up Texas Hold ‘Em extravaganza to the list. Together, we played Spades, Hearts, Do Dirt to Your Neighbor, Ninety Nine, and lots of Euchre. Euchre is very popular in the Midwest where we grew up. If you played cards and you lived in Michigan chances are you played Euchre.

Rank of cards in a game of Euchre

When I decided it was time for me to reach out to friends and add some fun back into my life, playing cards, Euchre in particular, seemed like the perfect way to begin. We’d start a women’s card group. There are lots of expats from Michigan living in central Vermont, so it wasn’t difficult lining up friends who knew the game, were excited by the idea, and willing to play. We’d just need to find a night that worked and get started. That should be easy.

Remember when Friday and Saturday nights were reserved for nighttime fun? In retirement every night is Saturday night. One problem…there’s a twenty year age spread between the four of us so although technically, by the local senior center standards, we’re all senior citizens, half the group is still employed. We’d have to plan around their work schedules. Then of course our calendars are also filled with volunteer commitments, family obligations, and previously planned fun of various kinds, but we eventually found a date that suited us all.

As the hostess, I had certain responsibilities. I had to be sure to clear a path through my house to the kitchen table where we’d play, but these were good friends who wouldn’t mind a little dust and since I’d had workmen in my house the previous week …stripping wallpaper and painting…there was a fair amount of dust to be found. Have you ever noticed that when you dust it just all comes back? I think that’s God’s way of letting us know she wants it there. Who am I to question divine wisdom?

OK, dust or no, I’d concentrate on the snacks. The days of popcorn and soda or pizza and beer appear to be over. I’d have to put some thought into this. I settled on wine…red and white, lemon-ginger ice tea and I had the handy Keurig as backup if someone wanted coffee, but we’d need finger food too. Something easy to hold along with a handful of cards. Between us we had…vegetarian, no dairy, no gluten, no eggs, no soy, and one who was game for anything. Bless her heart. The spread was an interesting combination to be sure including olives, peanuts, carrots, cookies, chocolate of course, hummus, and corn chips. Seemed about right…and besides there was wine.

Finally, we were ready to bring on the cards and get the game underway. Euchre has many variations, so our first order of business was clarifying which rules we would follow and how we’d keep score. The game is played using only the cards from nine and above. That leaves the fives as the perfect counters for score keeping…a talent in itself. The bottom five pips…suit symbols…would count for the first five points. Then the top card would be turned over exposing the final five. We’d just need to remember to actually take our points.

“We use the twos to keep track of trump.” I’d never heard of that, but it sounded like a good idea. When trump was called the two from that suit would be on top of a stack of four. What a clever idea.

“Do you play that the dealer can steal the deal?” Having the deal is a great advantage and you have to be sneaky, quick, and clever to be able to pull it off.

“Of course, ” we agreed. With all that decided, it was time to let the games begin.

Finding the rhythm and refreshing the rules took a bit of time but soon we were all playing like Las Vegas card sharps. As the game progressed it became evident that I was sneaky, clever, and an accomplished deal-stealer, much to the annoyance of the more trusting players. “OK. I have an idea. Let’s put the cookies on the left side of whoever is supposed to be the dealer.” Of course, that plan depends on someone actually moving the cookies.

“Wait. Who called trump? We need a little figurine to put in front of the person who made trump.”

“Nothing compares to the stomach aches you get from laughing too hard with your best friends.”

Unknown

Picture it. We now had glasses of wine, small plates for our snacks, fives for counters, twos for keeping track of trump, and a rotating bowl of cookies as well as the actual cards for each hand all vying for space at the table.

Playing Euchre as senior citizens is more complicated than those games we played in our youth. In addition to remembering whose turn it is, which card was led and how many tricks were needed we also have to flip the trump-tracking-twos, remember who called it, and of course… move the cookies. More of a challenge to be sure, but with an even greater reward…joy. Oh, we all wanted to win, but that wasn’t necessarily our final objective. Levity, laughter, and hilarity were the order of the day…not competition. We just wanted to have fun! Our laughter was unrestrained, genuine and bountiful. My tummy hurt and my cheeks ached by the end of the evening, but my spirits were lifted and I felt lighter than I had in quite awhile.

Anne Lamott says that “laughter is carbonated holiness”. That seems like the perfect definition to me. I am so blessed to walk my path in the sacred effervescence of laughter. We’re playing again next month. I have the perfect figurine to help us keep track of who called trump. Her name is Remembrance.

Her name is Remembrance
A gift from Kathy, 2019

Feeling All the Feels

Ice Cream with Papa…Chocolate

One Spring day my first grade class walked all the way from the elementary school to the ice cream stand several long blocks away. It seemed like miles for my short little legs. I walked to the window, paid my money, and took two quick licks.

Ice Cream with Papa

Then watched as the ice cream fell from my cone to the middle of the street. As I watched the vanilla deliciousness melt away I was heartbroken. I still remember the pain of that loss. The ice cream had sprinkles.

Throughout our lives we all encounter sadness, disappointment and loss. Grief is the natural response to losing what is important to us. When a loved one dies, a relationship ends, a job is lost, we suffer chronic illness, our plans are dashed…or we simply watch ice cream melt on the pavement…we can be assured that some degree of sorrow, despair, and grief will soon follow.

I knew that anger was one of the stages of grief, but I thought that meant that I would be angry with my husband for not taking better care of himself or angry with the universe for placing me in this unwelcome and unwanted position. Nope, I could have had those feelings, but in all honesty, I didn’t. Instead, I find that I have a very short fuse with just about everything else. This reaction has taken me completely by surprise.

Inferno
Based on sculpture by Brian Jungen, AGO, July 2019

I’m angry about things that make sense. I’m also angry about things that only, maybe, kinda make sense and I’m angry too, about things that rationally, make no sense whatsoever. It’s as though I’ve been blowing all my emotions into a balloon that’s stretched taut and just about to burst. It’s the finality and the frustration of loss that has been filling that balloon. Once the ice cream is on the blacktop there’s no way it’s going back in the cone. The exasperation of that moment has to go somewhere, so it is transmuted into anger. There’s a fair amount of jealousy that’s trying to find release too. A six year old watching her classmates blissfully licking ice cream is a case in point. Sadness, frustration and jealousy are all swirling around together pushing at the sides of that expanding latex sphere.

Recently, I saw Billy Elliott The Musical in Stratford, Ontario. In one scene, Billy is consumed with anger and frustration. He channels his distress into dance as a way to…as my mom used to say…get the mad out.

Billy Elliot, The Musical…Angry Dance Live at the 2009 Tony Awards with Elton John

Just as everyone experiences loss and grief, no one escapes feelings of anger. Even Jesus was filled with righteous indignation. We’ve been taught to keep our emotions under control, but it is important that wherever they originate…the deep despair of death, the myriad minor daily exasperations, or watching ice cream puddle at your feet…to feel all the feels. It’s not healthy to deny or suppress anger. Bottled anger often destroys the vessel that contains it. Might as well look it in the eye and name it. Don’t be afraid to feel the heat and energy of it. Let it wash over you and wallow in it for a spell. Know it for what it is. Then find a way to let the air out of the balloon. Channel that power into a form of positive expression and find a way to get the mad out that doesn’t involve kicking the cat, breaking the dishes, or giving yourself another reason to be angry.

“We’ve all got both light and dark inside us. What matters is the part we choose to act on. That’s who we really are.” 

JK Rowling, Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

My short fuse won’t last forever, but it will probably come again. When it does I’ll be ready for it, recognize it, and then like Billy, maybe I can transform it into something creative, beautiful and perhaps…after a satisfyingly inappropriate gesticulation or two… it will lead me back to wholeness.

Tossing Out the Feathers

“Much of what we acquire in life isn’t worth dragging to the next leg of our journey. Travel light. You will be better equipped to travel far.” 

Gina Greenlee, Postcards and Pearls: Life Lessons for Solo Moment

Twice this week I encountered friends who were crying softly as they sorted through the accumulation of their lives. Each of them was preparing to move from their long-time home to something smaller. One was moving across town and the other half way across the country. The distance in miles was really inconsequential. It was the emotional distance that was making the journey…even though chosen and happily anticipated…challenging.

Watching Birds Through Penny’s Window. Spring 2018

Many in my generation of Baby Boomers are beginning to pitch unwanted and unneeded feathers from our nests. We spent years gathering those feathers to create a soft, comfortable place for our chicks, but while we were busy building a life and tending to their needs, they grew up. Now that they have fledged we are left with more room and more everything else than we need. Ah, but there’s the rub. Our children want none of the beautiful plumes we’ve accumulated and we struggle to rid ourselves of them, because they link us to another place and time. It’s not really the feather it’s the memory of the flight that is so hard to give up.

Following the death of my husband and after helping to empty my mother’s condo and then her assisted living apartment, I find myself eagerly wanting to simplify my life and…in my opinion…ruthlessly purging the flotsam and jetsam of my existence. Sending the bits and pieces that hold the memories of my childhood to the Restore hasn’t been easy, but then it occurred to me that I’m also holding on to the memories of others as well. I have child size Depression Glass plates that were my mothers, a collection of report cards and boy scout badges that were my husband’s, and my father’s fraternity paddle from college in the 1940s . Each of those is now destined for some form of recycling. I will still carry my memories of my parents and spouse, but I realize I am not required to continue to provide safe harbor for their memorabilia.

Another Visitor at Penny’s Window. Spring 2018

Tidying is the act of confronting yourself. The process of discarding and organizing confronts your emotions about the past, as well as your fears about the future. Your stuff (things that bring you joy and things that don’t) will show you what you value most in life.

Marie Kondo The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

During the process of assessing, sorting, and purging, we often find ourselves confronting people and places from our past that we had forgotten. Memories rise to the surface bringing with them the joy of remembrance as well as the reminder of pain and regret. It’s not an easy process. In the end, we realize that things are only things. Freeing ourselves from the physical debris that no longer fits into the life we have or serve us as the people we have become, though challenging, is a very liberating experience. Once we pare down our possessions we find that assessing and sorting our activities, relationships, and obligations and purging those that no longer bring us pleasure, joy or meaning expands our options and provides the space and time in which to enjoy and develop those that enrich us. Keeping those negative memories also serves no purpose. Let’s ditch them too while we’re at it.

More Fun Out the Window, Spring 2018

Find what you truly cherish in life.  Cherish who you are and what brings you the most joy and fulfillment.  Don’t let stuff, or worries, get in the way or distract you from the life you want

Marie Kondo The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up

With less feathers in our nest we can use this time to hunker down and luxuriate in peace and simplicity or perch on the edge, take a deep breath, flex our wings, and fly.

Stork in Flight, Hunawihr, France 2019

A Sign?

“I keep stars in my pockets wear daisies in my hair but I tuck you tenderly in the folds of my heart and take you everywhere.” 

Melody Lee, Vine: Book of Poetry

My husband, Dave, absolutely loved to mow the lawn. He began as a young teen mowing the lawn at St. Mary’s Catholic Church, the rectory, and eventually the cemetery. When we bought our first home, much to his delight, it had a three acre lawn that required, or so he said, a riding mower. He’d spend hours in a meditative state, going back and forth, back and forth alone with his private thoughts, but more likely just enjoying the ride in a state of bliss. He especially liked to be out on his tiny tractor, ball cap on his head, when the neighboring farmers were out plowing the surrounding bean fields. He prided himself on being able to greet them across the steering wheel with the forefinger and thumb farmer wave and have them return the gesture. Simple pleasures.

It seemed that every home we ever owned was blessed with a large lawn for him to mow. Hmmm. I wonder how that happened? If the lawn wasn’t large enough, he’d gradually increase it…reclaiming area that had been devoured by the wild grasses and weeds that grew along its edge.

When he died one of my many decisions was what to do about the lawn. Over the decades his mowers had, like the lawns themselves, gradually increased in size to the point that there was no way that I’d be riding it. I’d have to hire someone, but how much should I have them mow? Dave mowed just because he loved mowing. Did I really need to keep the lawn the size he had created or could I let nature gradually take back her claim?

I decided on the latter. The first few weeks would bring tears as I watched the grass grow beyond anything he would have allowed. I remembered the joy he had with his weekly ride and the satisfaction he felt at the end. As the grass grew and the weeds returned it was a constant reminder that he was gone.

Weeks went by before I ventured out into what was now a meadow. When I finally summoned the courage, instead of the weeds and grass I had expected, it had become a field of Daisies, Buttercups, Hawkweed, Clover, Fleabane and yellow, purple and tiny white flowers for which I haven’t a name.

In nature everything is valuable, everything has its place. The rose, the daisy, the lark, the squirrel, each is different but beautiful. Each has its own expression. Each flower its’ own fragrance. Each bird its’ own song. So you too have your own unique melody.

Diane Dreher

People often talk about receiving signs or messages from those who have died. White butterflies, bright red cardinals, and delicate winged dragonflies have become reoccurring motifs for many of my friends. I was never blessed with a unique sign from either of my parents and didn’t expect to receive one from Dave either, but perhaps this field of wildflowers was indeed a message from beyond. Oh, I know that when we are looking for meaning we can easily assign the profound to the most mundane…a butterfly lands on our hand, a dragonfly swoops through a party or a cardinal keeps appearing at the window…but perhaps signs become such merely because we say they are and if they give us comfort, bring a smile, or give us courage, who’s to say they aren’t sent from those we love?

Walking among the daisies I found where a deer had spent the night. Perhaps small mammals are also making this their home; insects of all kinds for certain; and I’m sure a snake or two has slithered in as well. I didn’t expect to find a field of wildflowers, but I did. If I listen maybe they are telling me that life does go on and it can be abundant life at that. No, I wasn’t looking for it, and I’m not sure who sent it, but I’m taking this glorious field of flowers as a sign.

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