(Just by way of background: about a month ago, I was running a routine errand on a quiet Friday evening, and while I was at a red light waiting for it to change, an inattentive driver plowed into the back of my little Corolla. I was sore, but OK, but the car had extensive frame damage and is gone.)
The other day I was going through a bag of stuff that we took out of the little blue car before it went to the body shop, and the stuff I pulled from the glove compartment before it went off to the salvage yard when it was declared totaled. Among the stuff: a spiffy, shiny maintenance record. Barely used. I’d also saved the all the receipts from oil changes, and the nice tires I got not too terribly long ago.
None of which matters now. It doesn’t matter that the tires had a good warranty. It doesn’t matter that the engine and transmission and brakes were all in great shape.
Likewise, it doesn’t matter that I never got around to cleaning up those few drops of dried coffee in the cup holder, or wiping the dust off the dashboard.
In his homily on Sunday, Father said that “all analogies limp.” And I’m not sure there’s really one I can draw from this anyway.
I’m just thrown off balance still, I guess. It makes you realize that doing the right things is no guarantee of anything, whether it’s a car’s existence or your pet’s well-being or a person’s life. You can do everything right, you can be the sort of person who (like my little Toyota) generally enjoys perfect health, and you can still die in a freak accident or end up with a sudden catastrophic illness or cancer. Being careful is no guarantee. Being “successful” is no guarantee. We’re all still totally vulnerable. There’s no magic bullet.
This past week was also the anniversary of Mom’s passing, so those emotions are in the mix, too. I remember that after she died, it took me a long time to get over a frightening, paralyzing awareness of the fragility of life. We take for granted that each day we’ll get up, go to work or school or church or the grocery, come home, go to bed. Day after day, year after year. Mostly, we do. And yet, at any given moment, that could come to an end. When Mom died, it was the first time I was really struck by how easily and quickly someone could go from being here to not being here.
At the moment, I’m back to that awareness, and I know it is partly an opportunity to find trust and to think about what truly matters in this life and the next, but mostly it feels like living on the edge of a precipice, and it’s taking a long while to fade.
If there is one bit of worldly wisdom I wish I could convey to my younger self, it is this: don’t be afraid to spend your time and money on experiences.
It’s something it has taken me far too long to learn. It just seemed almost wrong to spend money on trips or concerts or other intangibles that left you with nothing–nothing, that is, except memories.
There is a paradox there, however: it may seem that experiences are fleeting while objects endure, but in our memories, it’s just the opposite.
On top of that, things can weigh heavily on our homes and minds, especially as the years go on and despite our best efforts, they accumulate.
I’m at a point now where I’m concentrating on letting go. Part of this is yet another attempt to work on my poor organizing skills. But another part is realizing there’s a certain peace, a certain freedom in only having what you need, only buying and using things you really want.
I’m not really a materialistic person, I swear. Yes, I like beautiful instruments and other objects. I appreciate good tools. There are things worth having.
But as I pass into another phase of life, I want to pare down, concentrate on what matters, spend more time and money on making memories, not on gathering things.
Unfortunately I can’t go back in time to straighten myself out:
I can’t tell myself to buy fewer instruments/guitars (except that one, because man…) and spend more time and money on camps and festivals and lessons.
Take the younger siblings camping.
Take more road trips, just to explore and appreciate.
Take a cooking class, just for the fun of it.
Take lots of classes just for fun of it.
Find ways to take trips, even if I have to go alone.
Try that restaurant, even if I have to go alone.
Buy flowers once in awhile, even if they’ll fade away.
I’m a little late to the ball game. But I’m trying to embrace experiences a bit more. Don’t let week after week after week slip by unlived in. Call people more. Spend more time with family and friends. Observe the seasons. Check out nearby places. Do things. Learn, even if what I’m learning isn’t “useful.” Stay curious.
I don’t know if I’ve ever told the story of how Halvah came to me.
It was the year 2000, and I had my first grown-up civilian job, doing PC support for a small company in Lyndonville, VT, not too terribly far from the town where I grew up. I got a full hour for lunch, so sometimes Mom would come by and pick me up and we’d go out to eat.
One day at getting-toward-lunch-time, one of the gals at the front desk called me and told me Mom was there. She hadn’t said she was coming, but I still wasn’t terribly surprised. But when I went up to the front to meet her, I found her practically wringing her hands, very agitated. “I did a bad thing,” she told me furtively. “Can you get away for a few minutes?”
Of course I said “of course,” but I was amused and bemused. I followed her out to the car, where she showed me the “bad thing” in the form of a cardboard cat carrier containing a little ball of beige and brown fluff that cried and cried in a gravelly voice.
It turned out Mom had wandered into the pet store in Littleton, NH, which back then occasionally had puppies and kittens–often local “oops” litters. There was a single Himalayan/Siamese kitten all alone in a cage there, crying and crying, and it broke Mom’s heart. She (the kitten) cost $250–a crazy sum of money for Mom–but she shelled it out and fled with the kitten, hoping against hope that I’d bail her out and keep the poor baby.
I mean, really, what else *could* I do? I named her Halvah, because her coloring resembled the sesame candy, and because she was so sweet.A few days later her voice changed to a more normal cry–she’d apparently cried herself hoarse.
In the long run, she turned out to be more sassy than sweet. She is her own cat, sets her own rules, gives affection under her own terms. She doesn’t mind a warm lap now and again, and she’ll greet me at the door, but woe to anyone who might try to pick her up, or pet her an instant longer than she prefers. MAJOR woe to anyone who tries to get her to take a pill or eat a food not of her choosing or deign to allow her nails to be cut. She knows how to strike like a snake, claw like a cougar, and wail like a banshee.
Select Halvah adventures include the time she somehow found a way to get from under the sink to under the floorboards at an apartment in a not-terribly-well-maintained old house, and then got stuck because she insisted on going forward and wouldn’t back up. My brother and I spent what felt like hours huddled on the floor in the middle of the night, calling and pleading with her, while Tam yowled frantically and wanted SO MUCH to go in after her. I imagined having to call my landlord at 2AM to explain that he was going to need to cut the house apart because my cat was too stubborn for words. (She finally grudgingly backed her pudgy behind to the starting point, and Jim and I hauled her out by the legs).
Then there was the time I moved across country. My sister Margaret rode along in the minivan as we transported all my belongings and the two cats from Vermont to Colorado. We discovered pretty quickly that Halvah would cry loudly if we didn’t have music playing, and we further discovered just how much of this country has almost no radio stations. I’d foolishly packed all my music away in an inaccessible box, so we were left playing two CDs my sister had on hand, over and over and over and over for thousands of miles: Clint Black’s Greatest Hits, and an Everly Brothers collection. I will forever think of Halvah and that trip when I hear those songs.
Age is starting to catch up to her now, and she’s showing some symptoms of the kidney disease that took Tam last year. In her case, I know treatment options will be limited: she eats only the food she wants to eat, you can’t trick her or force her when it comes to pills, there’s no way in the universe I could give her fluids. She has very definite opinions, and at her age, I guess I can only respect those opinions and hope she has some good times left.
She’s one of the more interesting cats I’ve known. And she’s still Mom’s little “bad thing,” and I love her for it.
Kids are so awesome and so scary. Everything is new and everything is meaningful, and *that* is awesome and scary.
I mean, you and I can’t remember what we had for breakfast last Sunday, but kids…kids, you never know if that bagel you buy them, the bagel you only buy them because you’re in a hurry and don’t have time to sit down for breakfast at the house, that bagel could become The Bagel, the one bagel to which all future bagels will be compared, the bagel they will remember to their dying day as The Bagel of All Bagels.
Or, alternatively, you don’t know if you’re going to blurt something impatiently and, likewise, they’ll remember those words for the rest of their lives, in all their darkest moments.
I love my nieces and nephews, and I hope some of the experiences we have together are good memories they carry forever. At the same time, I feel like any time spent with kids is such a huge responsibility. I love it, and I’m awed by it, and I am slightly terrified, too.
Maybe that’s a teeny slice of what parents experience. I can hardly imagine. Whew.
For a brief time when I was about 13, I had a contact lens.
Yes, that’s singular. As in one lens.
I have very poor vision in my left eye–unaugmented, I see a matter of inches. As it turns out, I’m actually nearsighted in my right eye as well, and eventually I got glasses. I still don’t see with both eyes together, but whatever.
But at the time, the doctor just wanted to see whether it was possible for me to use my eyes together and actually have depth perception. So they just corrected the left to bring it up to the same strength as the right.
It didn’t work. I saw double, or saw things shifted to one side so I’d go to touch something or pick something up and find it had disconcertingly dodged me. I ended up closing one eye or the other a lot of the time just so I could function. The whole thing rather put me off contacts.
BUT! There was one really cool thing. And I’m never sure why this isn’t talked about more. Am I the only one who experienced this? Is it supposed to be a secret kept by contact lens users? Do I risk being hunted down and silenced? I don’t know.
But here’s what I found: soft contact lenses protect your eyes from onion vapors. Usually I turn into a teary, snotty, miserable mess when cutting onions. I love them, but oh, they hurt. However, I could close my non-contacted eye and slice away.
For a few short months, whenever Mom needed help in the kitchen, I was an invincible onion-chopping cyclops. And that was SO VERY COOL.
I have a tendency to obsess over two or three albums or artists at a time. I’ll spend a month listening to almost nothing but Bach Cello Suites, for example, or play a particular 90s band’s albums on repeat for days at a time until I know what song is coming up next before it starts.
And then sometimes those albums get lost. I have music I’ve not listened to in years. It is the joy and the challenge of the modern world, I guess: gone are the days when someone might have just half a dozen records they know by heart.
As I was setting up a new device the other day, I started scanning through the list of albums in my digital library–so many old friends, so many brief but passionate flings, so many that brought back so many memories. And I decided it might be fun to take a weird little piecemeal stroll down memory lane. (Ain’t it funny how a melody can bring back a memory?)
I’m working my way through them, in alphabetical order, at least the complete albums, and skipping over a few of the Giant Box o’ Bach types. There are some odd juxtapositions (Ray Charles to monastic chant?!), and admittedly my tastes have evolved (and devolved) through the years, so not everything is going to appeal as much or in the same way as it did at one time, but I’m still enjoying the trip.
• 12 Greatest Hits – Patsy Cline (An auspicious start. Love me some Patsy.)
• 25 – Harry Connick Jr.
• Abigail Washburn & The Sparrow Quartet
• About Time – Don Stiernberg (swing mando!)
• Achtung Baby – U2
• Acoustic Phenomenon – Patrick Ross (GREAT Vermont fiddler)
• Advent at Ephesus – Benedictines of Mary Queen of Apostles
• Afternoon in Paris – Stephane Grappelli (Spent a LOT of time with this one back in the day!)
• Alive Again – Matt Maher (which I tend to sing along to and scare the dog)
• All The Good ‘Uns – Ian Tyson (man knows how to paint a word picture…)
• Amahl and The Night Visitors
• An Enchanted Evening With Jose Carreras (which makes me miss Mom, his biggest fan…)
• An Evening in the Village: The Music of Béla Bartók – Jake Schepps (banjo!)
• An Spealadóir – Bua
• Anam – Clannad
• And I Feel Fine: The Best of the I.R.S. Years – R.E.M (how to feel drunk without drinking–hefty doses of R.E.M. over tinny speakers)
• Angelina Carberry & Martin Quinn (Irish tenor banjo!)
• Anthology – Ray Charles
• Anthology: Chants & Polyphany from St. Michael’s Abbey
• Armchair Apocrypha – Andrew Bird
At some point in the past, one of the members of the typosphere coined the acronym UTJU: Update Just To Update. Sometimes you don’t have profound thoughts or an important topic on which to enlighten folks, but here you are anyway. So it is.
Had a very busy weekend, with more ups than downs, so that’s cool. Saturday afternoon I went to a craft fair/bazaar in the retirement community of Ryderwood, WA–a proper craft fair this time, with nothing but handmade goods of all sorts, plus a bake sale. A few of the more captivating things I didn’t buy: wind-chimes made out of bizarre conglomerations of found objects like colanders and cheese graters and flower pots all welded or glued together (I may have one of those someday), and a quilted hanging of a Christmas tree with lights woven into it. That’s probably the only kind of Christmas tree I could really get away with considering the cats, and I wanted it, but at $100 I couldn’t buy it. Would have been a lot of work to make, so I don’t question the price, but I couldn’t. Would be neat for someone, though–something you could bring out every year for years, and the kids would remember it for ages and no one else would have one quite like it.
I did buy a small assortment of items, and not all of them for me. Though, admittedly, two of them were for the cats, which I guess counts as me. There was a lady selling all sorts of felted things–hats and bowls and stuffed animals–and she had catnip stuffed felted mice. I also bought a little knotted braid of scrap material from a lady that made fleece dog beds and blankets–intended as a tug toy for dogs, but Timo thought it was pretty great. Cassia absconded with the mouse, and as of this writing, it is MIA.
Saturday evening, I saw Sierra Hull in concert at Traditions in Olympia, WA–a very small venue, probably only on their itinerary because her bass player (Ethan Jodziewicz) is a local boy. Speaking of Ethan, MAN, he’s good. I hate to say anyone is “the next so-and-so” because that implies they’re not a standout in their own right, so I won’t say he’s the next Edgar Meyer, but… Just a phenomenal musician. Used the bow quite a bit, too, and oh, bowed bass makes me weak in the knees when done right. He did it right.
Sierra has superb mandolin/octave mandolin chops (and is just so doggoned cute and endearing), and her other band member aside from Ethan (Justin Moses) can apparently play the heck out of anything with strings. And they all sing. It was a very good show. Tough in parts, for me–a lot of her recent album is about growing up and moving on and while in her case, this applies to being in her early twenties and dealing with being an adult, I’m kind of in a place like that again/still, and it almost hurt. Plus she did a song about missing your mother, and I bawled and didn’t have Kleenex and felt like a goober.
But yeah, it was a wonderful concert. And we were close enough to the stage that I could just about have kicked it. I don’t think they play places that small much these days, so that was pretty special.
Afterwards, some friends and I went out to eat at La Gitana. If you like thin crust, very fresh and flavorful Southern Italian style pizza, you must go here if you’re in town. Must. It was a little chaotic, though, being Saturday night, and a guitarist and singer were providing live music there (old jazz standards, mostly), which was great, but made it a bit loud for casual conversation.
The server was pretty patient amidst all the commotion, I thought, and made sure to check on us and was apologetic when things took awhile due to the crowd. I meant to leave a decent tip, but when I got home and started getting ready for bed, I discovered the tip money in my pocket. Apparently I absentmindedly stuffed it back in my pocket as we were picking up to go. Leaving her thinking and feeling…I don’t know what.
I felt so bad about it, I tossed and turned Saturday night, and had an odd dream in which I was a settler on a new planet, helping my brother and sister-in-law farm the land, but strangely the new town on this planet had several pizza parlors and I kept doing things that made the managers of all of them think I was an unpleasant nut case.
(Speaking of nuts, pecans grew WONDERFULLY on this new planet, and people there pronounced them peh-KAHN, as is Right and Good.)
So there was that.
After discussion with a friend, I decided to bring the accidental non-tip down to the restaurant when they opened with a note, so I spent Sunday morning writing and rewriting that note. Also drawing margins in the notebook I plan to use for NaNoWriMo. I’d planned to use some smaller notebooks, but I kept eyeing these giant notebooks I had made a few years ago, before all the office stores in town went out of business in spite of all my efforts to keep them afloat.
Seriously, this side of town lost a Staples, an Office Max, and an Office Depot, all within the span of a few years. It makes me sad.
But I do still have several of these notebooks. They’re heavy and a bit awkward to lug around, but the paper is so, so very nice for fountain pen. The one issue I ran into with them for NaNo is that, although I’m pretty good at writing in straight lines on unlined paper, I tend to write almost to the edges, and (especially for fiction), I like to have space to add notes and corrections in the margin. So I’m trying something a bit like law ruling in these, with the help of a few penciled lines, giving myself a generous space on the left to doodle or add notes.
I’ve only treated the first fifty pages, so if I find myself hating this setup, I can go back to using the full page, or experiment with different margins.
Sunday afternoon, I went up to an October festival at the parish where my nieces and nephews go to school. They had half German food and half Mexican food, and my oldest niece decided it would be a very fine thing indeed to have one parent from each country for the sake of the food. And I decided I really need to make another batch of sauerkraut.
There was also a little bit of a bazaar there, with crafts and food and some second hand items. My sister-in-law bought me a late birthday present: a Russian (?) plate with an icon of Christ calming/walking on the sea. I need to find a hanger for it so I can put it up without Cassia experimenting.
The kids got to paint pumpkins and play games and make sticky messes with caramel apples, so a highly successful day, all told!
More random kitten pictures from the weekend, just because. Though they’re almost not kittens anymore! Eight months old now, probably almost as big as they’ll get. Little Cassia is still little Cassia–she’s still under seven pounds. Timo is just about ten now.
Last night I dreamed I held a sleeping newborn baby in my arms. I don’t remember anything else about the dream: only the sleepy warmth of that baby, and that she was not mine, and the pleasure and pain of looking into her face, and the love on her mother’s face as I gently returned her and walked away.
I am not where I thought I would be.
Life rarely turns out how we expect it to. No one has the life they imagined at 20. Lives are far more complicated than we can possibly dream, good and bad.
And I realize there is a lot of good in my life. I have a home. I have a job, if not my dream job. I have a good parish, and at least some connections there–people to pray for, people who pray for me. I have some pretty amazing pets who are great little companions. I have objects and instruments–musical instruments, pens and pencils and paper, cooking and baking tools, bicycles–that bring me enjoyment. I have friends and family, even if I’m separated from them a lot of the time.
But I am not where I thought I would be.
Up until recently, some part of me still half expected to be dealt an abbreviated version of just about every little girl’s dream life: meeting someone, falling in love, building a home, having children. The usual path, with variations.
Now I feel like I’m passing a point of no return, into uncharted waters.
As always this time of year, I want to call Mom so much, and yet, it occurs to me that even if I could, she couldn’t really have Big Life advice for me anymore. By the time she was my age, she’d been married for what, sixteen years? She had a big family. She was a homemaker. She had plenty of concerns and challenges, but totally different. I have sailed beyond her reckoning.
Likewise, many of my siblings have families of their own, very different circumstances. They have entered a world I can’t completely understand.
I don’t know of anyone quite like me.
I guess what I worry about above all is that I’m not where I’m supposed to be. What if I took a wrong turn at Albuquerque? What if I got lost in the fog for awhile and then headed toward the wrong star?
What if I’m outside of God’s will somehow, and have been for years?
I know that’s not how it works. But I also don’t think there’s an actual vocation to the single life. So where does that leave me? What am I? Where am I going? How do I keep going without the graces that come with an actual state, like marriage or holy orders? And, on a more practical level, what’s going to become of me as I age, alone?
At some points in our lives, we can’t really ask “what does God want me to do with my life?” We have to be content with “what does God want me to do in this moment?” But a) it’s really hard not to look up sometimes, and b) the first question still matters, and sometimes, it crushes me.
In any case, 40 is coming at me like a storm across the waters. I can’t avoid it, and I don’t think any sort of Pollyanna grin can prevent it from tossing me around for a period. It’s going to hurt. I’m going to feel regrets and anger and confusion. I’m going to feel doubt and loneliness.
But it won’t last forever. There will be rough days, I’m sure, but this isn’t the end of the story.
I’m not where I thought I’d be. I’m not really sure where I’m going. I feel like I’m forging my own path, now more than ever, and there’s no map for where I’m headed. I’m not very good at accepting that unknowing. But who knows, maybe at 60 I’ll look back at 40 and laugh.
The kittens are eight months old today! Getting all grown up, but still very much kittens in all sorts of ways. They both do a lot of knocking things to the floor and breaking them, for one, though their methods are very different.
Little Cassia is scientifically minded. She will navigate her way up onto a high shelf and push something very slowly to the edge (even as I scramble across the room saying “No, don’t, please!”) and then she watches curiously as it crashes to the ground. You half expect her to take out a pencil and notepad at the end to jot down notes on the results of the latest experiment.
Timo, on the other hand, is basically anti scientific in his methods, in that the boy does not understand physics. For example, he’ll jump up and try to grab hold of something that might have held him when he weighed four pounds but does not now that he’s approaching ten, so he brings a whole shelf of stuff down on top of himself as he tries desperately to prevent gravity from taking hold. Frequently I’ll hear a HUGE crash from another room and walk in to find him sitting wide-eyed amidst the rubble, like “why did that happen?”
Either way, I’m down a lot of picture frames and bowls at this point. Le sigh.
2002 was not, shall we say, a very pleasant year for me.
For starters, the country was still reeling with grief and uncertainty over 9/11, and the economy was struggling. Tensions ran high at work even early in the year. At our sister company, employees who had worked the factory floor for decades were laid off, with no real hope of finding new jobs in the local area.
In February my mother–who was truly my best friend, for better or worse–finally went to see a doctor about feeling tired and sick, and that funny feeling in her throat. By April, she’d been diagnosed with Stage 4 esophageal cancer that had already metastasized to her liver. It was too far along for chemo or surgery. It was too far along for anything but attempting to say goodbye, really. She passed away on May 22nd, my brother Ben’s 20th birthday.
The summer went by in a sort of blur. I went to World Youth Day in Toronto, with three of my siblings and a small group from our parish. There were enjoyable, enlightening moments to be sure, but I also spent a certain amount of time hiding in bathroom stalls or facing into a window on the bus, crying because I couldn’t call Mom and tell her about the places we were seeing, the people we’d met, how much I was coming to love hanging out with my little sister now that she was getting all grown up.
For years, especially when I was overseas, everywhere I went, I tucked away facts and anecdotes to discuss with Mom. Now she was out of reach of even expensive long-distance phone calls. I couldn’t even write in my journal as a substitute–writing about real life brought me face to face with too many strong feelings. It was still too raw. It would be nearly a year before I started keeping a journal again.
And in October, I lost my job. There was a company draw-down and I was one of the group that was cut.
Just to add to the stress level, I had purchased a house less than a year before, with all the expense and responsibility that goes with that. The winter heat bills were starting up. And Christmas was just around the corner. And now here I was, in a rural area with a very limited job market, jobless and broke and with who knew how many weeks to sit alone contemplating my own dark thoughts.
And that was when a friend of mine told me about this crazy challenge to write a 50,000 word novel in the course of the thirty days of November. “You have to do it,” she told me. “It’ll be fun!” I wasn’t so sure, but I was intrigued, nonetheless. Could I actually pull it off? I was curious. And at least it seemed more positive than spending the month counting flowers on the wall and crying. So I agreed to join her (and other recruited friends) in the madness of NaNoWriMo.
And you know, it was a surprisingly wonderful experience. My plot that year was a sort of sci-fi / fantasy thing involving time travel and a sinister secret society bent on fixing history to their advantage. My main character that year was a guy who had recently lost his wife, and into that poor character I poured all my own sorrow and pain and guilt and anger. And I brought him through it. I gave him a happy ending. It was cathartic. The story? Eh. It was probably too big for me. It was most definitely not the Great American Novel.
But I finished the challenge. And, in a way, it pulled me through what could have been a much worse time than it was. By the end of the year, I’d had two job offers out of three interviews, I’d been able to go to a midnight opening of “The Two Towers” halfway across the state on account of not having to work the next day (coldest line party EVER at at least -20F, but we prevailed), and we’d managed to live through the first holiday season without Mom with more laughter than tears. And I could say I’d written my first novel. Life was looking up.
NaNoWriMo will never again be for me what it was that first year, but it’s largely because of that year that I keep coming back.
I really don’t know what I’m going to write about this year, but I think I’m in. I’ve signed up at the website, I have pens and notebooks ready. What I don’t have is a plot. Or a setting. Or any characters whatsoever. But hey, there are twenty one whole days left to figure that out, right?