The Train Case

When I tell people my mother’s ashes have been in my closet for seven years, they always look a little shocked.

Some might think it’s sacrilegious, or even downright creepy. But you have to know my mother to know why.

My mother passed away from cancer at 67—she had fought it for 10 years, outlasting the doctor’s prognosis of stage IV uterine cancer by five years. But by the time it was finished with her, she was ready. She was weak, nauseous all the time, in a lot of pain, and wasting away to nothing. She said, “I can’t do this anymore.” And told us, “Take good care of your father.”

At the time, we knew we would not hold a funeral or wake for her—she thought such services were morbid. Her father had died when she was nine, and that traumatic experience left such a pit of anxiety in her stomach she never got over it. She only attended a handful of funerals in her lifetime—she avoided them as much as possible.

So we honored her wishes, and did not discuss the idea of a funeral or hold any services for her. Friends said to me, “Yes, but the service is for you, the family!” But the truth was, losing her was so devastating that none of us could handle it at the time anyway.

We talked about burying her at the family plot in California—we’re 6th generation natives, and so her mother and father and grandparents and a few other generations are buried there. But we didn’t like the idea of her being so far away. We discussed spreading her ashes on Stinson Beach in California, but technically, that’s not legal, and none of us have been out that way anyway. We thought about creating a memorial garden for her, with an engraved rock as a headstone. Our father even bought a brightly colored glass vase to put her ashes in, but he could never figure out how to make a lid to seal it, so her ashes just stayed in my closet.

When our dad died at the end of March, it was an easy decision to bury him at the New Hampshire Veteran’s Cemetery. He was enlisted during the Korean War, and he could have his deserved place in this peaceful spot among the other heroes. So we asked about burying our mother there at the same time. They said, “Of course you can!” It was only $350 to add her, they could share same headstone—his information on one side and hers on the other.

It was serendipitous—we loved the idea of the two of them being buried together at the same time. They could even share the same urn—while we were at the funeral home planning everything out, the director told my sister and I that we could find unique box to put them in if we wanted to, rather than a traditional urn. So we had plans to search something out.

Before we left, I went to get my mother’s ashes out of my car. They were in her old train case—a small, hard suitcase for her cosmetics that she took with her when she went on La Liberté to France at 17 years old. The case still had old paper LAX tags on the handle from her several different journeys, and stickers from all of the places she had been. When we cleaned out our parents’ house, we couldn’t bear to part with the case, but what else were we going to do with it? It was as heavy as a rock. So it sat in my closet with her ashes inside for seven years.

After we gave the funeral home director her ashes, my sister and I stood in the parking lot, next to the open case, talking, and a thought suddenly occurred to me.

“What about if we use this as their urn?” I said to my sister, pointing to the case.

“Oh, that’s a great idea!” she said.

We rushed inside with the train case to talk to the funeral home director, and he said the case would work just fine. It was just the right size for the two of them, and would be buried at their internment ceremony.

Our parents had loved to travel together—some of their happiest times were on cruises to Alaska, Iceland, Scandinavia, Australia, New Zealand, Hong Kong and Japan. They learned to ballroom dance on board, played bingo and shared high tea, went to fascinating lectures about culture, history, and people. My mother always took a thousand pictures to share with us afterwards.

It’s comforting to think about them being together again, ashes touching, in a tiny suitcase for their final journey.


He Wasn't Religious, But He Went American Gospel

After my mother died, my father, who had never used a cell phone in his life, decided he wanted to use the new phone we had just given her for Christmas.

We were fine with that—the phone was just sitting abandoned on the kitchen counter, battery draining.

When we had given her the phone on Christmas Day, her grandchildren had huddled around her, playing with the voice activation. They recorded each of their names in high-pitched voices. They wanted her to be able to call them anytime, on a whim, even if she were driving.

But she would never end up using it in that way. Even under lipstick and a brave face, her bones were tired. We weren’t surprised on February 1, 2007 when she slipped away.

When my father decided he wanted to start using the phone, I told him I’d show him how. I deleted two messages my mother had saved: one of her grandchildren singing “Happy Birthday” from the May before, and a more recent one from my sister, where she said, “Hi Mom, just calling to check on you.”

I helped him record a new voicemail message on it, although I hesitated having to delete what the last recording of our mother’s voice.

Dad was a music aficionado—he loved classical, jazz and blues. He had a hundred CDs of Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington. So he wanted to change the ringtone to something more musically sophisticated. I played all of the options for him in order: “Bach Fugue in D Minor,” “Calypso,” “The Entertainer.” He listened carefully, as if it mattered, as if he would be taking a flurry of calls.

In the end, he made his choice:

Oh, when the saints go marching in

Oh, when the saints go marching in

Lord I want to be in that number

When the saints go marching in. 


Don't Write What Makes You Cry

Grace is what helps you actually write around something.

Sometimes, there is a peace in finding a happy diversion, something to distract that part of your brain that feels.

The last few blog pieces have been dancing about in this way—I’ve written about dueling cats, a neighbor who wanted to raise 20,000 egg-laying chickens, this very long winter we’ve had. But I knew when I found myself writing about the weather that it had to be to not write about something else.

I’ve been writing all of these things so I don’t have to write about the fact that my father is dying.

Some days, you know how you just need to keep that part of your mind dormant? It’s that part that remembers how my dad used to cheerfully wake me up Saturday mornings collecting the garbage out of my room. He’d say, rustling the wastebasket, “Wake up, sleepyhead! It’s 8:00 am!” He’d try to get me to go to the dump with him. I outgrew all that by the time I was 12.

My dad was always a morning person. That was terribly annoying when I was a teenager. Now, I’m the morning person, I’m the one waking up my own teenager. And I’m the one waking my father up when I visit him at his nursing home. He opens his dark brown eyes, and they start to smile sleepily before the rest of him does—but then I see that familiar crooked grin.

He’s been in a nursing home a while because of a head injury he had six years ago. But even though he is borderline diabetic and has high blood pressure, he’s been strong, and stoic, and other than a little dementia, it seemed like he’d go on forever.

We just learned a few weeks ago that he is dying. My less-than-favorite doctor said, “N., do you understand that you are going to die?”  And he added, “I am going to repeat myself because Daughter #1 tells me that you don’t always remember everything.”

He then did just that, sharing a few more details about my dad’s organs shutting down. And then he said, “Questions?” He offered to give me, Daughter #2, a hug, which I declined.

After the doctor left the room, I started to cry. And then my dad started to cry. He never cries. The only time I ever saw him cry is when my mother died.

He whispered, “I don’t want to die! I’m only 80!”

I laughed.

“Dad, you’re almost 85,” I said.

And he said, “But I wanted to live to be 100!”

He won’t see 100, and maybe not even 85. He is going into renal failure. The good thing is he’s not in any pain—he’s just sleeping more, slowly weakening, and drifting away.

Most days, we find him with the TV on. Although he is asleep so much, it’s more like the TV is watching himSaturday, he slept through part of a Rocky marathon. When I arrived on Sunday to visit him, Rocky II was on again. So together, we watched the moment when Rocky pulls himself up on the ropes to become heavyweight champion of the world.

Why do you wanna fight, Rocky?

Because I can’t sing or dance.

I remember the smell of fresh-cut sawdust off my dad’s table saw in our basement. How he could take any antique scrap of something  and convert it into something useful—a wheel into a glass-top table; an old Ivory box into a sign; a guitar into a knick-knack shelf. He made me a bunk bed when I was in college for our too-small-to-be-a-double apartment.

He was an engineer—he understood how the world worked. He could rebuild cars. He could identify almost any aircraft since WWII. And he gave us everything he could, everything we needed. He wanted his children to have the most magnificent lives. He wanted us to do something remarkable.

When we were driving somewhere in the car, he would often say, “What do you know for sure?”

And I’d always say, “I don’t know.”

Now, after we’ve been sitting there in silence for a while, with him drifting in and out of sleep, when he opens his eyes, I say to him, “What do you know for sure?”

And he just smiles.

If he asks me that today, I will say, I’m going to miss you, Dad.


No More Nine Lives Here

About six months ago, my son D. and I decided we wanted to get a second cat.

Actually, the original idea was that we wanted a dog, a nice yellow Labrador that we could walk down our country back roads, that would rush to the door to greet us when we get home, and that would curl up by our feet when we watched Modern Family.

My boyfriend D. squelched that idea, however, because he works from home and insisted that he would end up being up the one who would have to take care of a dog. (You might ask, “So what’s wrong with that?” and I don’t have a good answer to that either).

But little D. and I saw our opening—we told big D. that we would stop harassing him about getting a dog if we got a second cat. So in some weak moment, big D., the animal lover, agreed.

It took us a good six months to find the right one—we wanted to adopt a cat that was already declawed because we have a significant number of screen windows and wooden doorjambs, and because declawing cats is mean.

We picked out a name for this cat before we searched Petfinder. We were going to call him Fish—our other cat was named Tuna, and so a cat named Fish would be perfect. (It was either Fish or Helper, and Fish sounded better.)

But the name-story doesn’t end there. Little D. always wanted to have a pet named Kevin (I can’t explain that one). And I had told him if he had no missing assignments between December and January that he could name the cat Kevin. (I never thought he would do it, but lo and behold!)

So the cat’s name would be Kevin Fish.

Finally, we found the perfect cat. First, fortunately for him, he was a boy.

He was almost six years old, 11 pounds, and part Siamese. He was huge compared to Tuna—he was 11 pounds. Kevin was also a complete love—he came right to the door of his cage at the Animal Rescue Shelter and clearly wanted us to take him home.

Kevin was brought to the shelter because a second cat in his household was reportedly being aggressive toward him—and because Kevin had no claws and the other cat did, it was not a pretty situation. At the shelter, they told us they kept him separated because other cats stressed him out. They did say he should not be with any dogs or small children, and they weren’t sure how he’d do with another cat.

We were sure he’d be fine. So we brought him home, glad to rescue him from that kind of terrible place where he lived his days all stressed out. We gathered some detailed advice from the shelter about how to introduce Kevin to Tuna, namely, keep him in a safe room until they get used to each other’s smells and then as soon as he seemed ready and wanting to go out into the house, gradually expose them to each other, supervised.

Sounds easy, right?

We kept them separate for a week, but then gradually showed them to each other, holding each of them tightly, listening to them growl and watching their fur stand on end. We took it very slowly, because I read online that it can sometimes take up to 4-6 weeks for adult cats to get to know each other, so we had to be patient.

Something the vet said shortly after we got Kevin should have made me suspicious. I told her how Kevin was so loving toward us, and yet also growling and a bit aggressive when we showed Tuna to him. She said, “Well, hopefully he’s not just a people-cat but is also a cat-cat.”

A people-cat versus a cat-cat? Never heard of such a thing.

She also told me that one time when she introduced a second cat to her home, the first cat lost all of her fur due to anxiety. At first, she thought the cat had cancer or something, but then it turned out it just had PTSD and needed anti-anxiety medication.

The first time we let the two cats loose, Kevin immediately made a violent sprint after Tuna, and then chased her in circles around our downstairs, both of them hissing and growling, and until finally we captured him. This happened a few more times. So, we kept them in separate spaces, rotating them into the full house throughout the day. We tried everything to get them used to each other—we changed their litter boxes so they’d adjust to each other; we put their food and water by the door so they would associate each other’s smell with a pleasant experience. We patted and comforted them as we showed them each other for a minute or two at a time. But Tuna continued to hide under the bed in our bedroom and Kevin just sat outside the bedroom door, staring, just waiting for the opportunity to attack.

One day, we left the house for about four hours, and by accident, we locked Tuna out of her safe room. We thought she was locked in our bedroom, but she had snuck out at some point so she was actually locked out. I don’t know how long it took for Kevin to find her.  Probably 30 seconds. But when we got home later that day, Tuna was perched on a bathroom windowsill, looking terrified, and there was cat poop on the floor and tufts of hair throughout the house. She had some kind of tiny cuts on her back.

Remember the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp? “We are Siamese if you please  / We are Siamese if you don’t please / Now we’re looking over our new domicile / If we like we stay for maybe quite a while…” The owner, Aunt Sarah, thinks they are the sweetest, most docile cats, but the minute she leaves the house, they terrorize Lady and the Tramp.

Well, that’s Kevin Fish.

After about a month of this, we decided they couldn’t live together anymore. Tuna was living on the edge of a nervous breakdown and Kevin was in a constant aggressive, hunting state. We decided we had to split them up. Fortunately, my ex was willing to take Tuna at his house—so D. could still keep both of his cats, one at each house. They just had a small dog, Kyle, at their house—and when Tuna hissed at Kyle, he ran the other way. So I think Tuna’s pretty safe there.

Kevin is clearly very pleased with himself. He spends the days sitting in our laps or lying in the sun, and nights curled up on our bed, next to our legs. A friend of mine said, “Well, of course Kevin loves you! He’s thinking, Geez, I didn’t like that other cat, and they got rid of her! Cool!”

I feel guilty about introducing such a terrorist into our home.

In the meantime, my boyfriend D. has renamed Kevin. He no longer goes by Kevin Fish.

D. now calls him Katniss Everdeen.

*The picture above shows Kevin Katniss Everdeen Fish, basking in the warmth of our pellet stove. Doesn’t he look sweet?


Plight of the Would-Be Snowbird

My sister and brother-in-law just got back a brief vacation in Florida. They said that whenever they were asked where they were from and they responded, “New Hampshire,” the other people, subtly flaunting their bronzed shoulders and flip flops, would pause and say, “Ooooohhh,” as if it was the most terrible thing to imagine.

The northeast has just been pounded by snow and cold this winter. Just when we think each major storm might be our last, we get another anticipated 4-6 inches that turns into 14. Even the deer who had been venturing out of the deep woods to the edge of our house to find the holly bushes, their last food standing, have not been seen nor heard from in weeks.

As we slide into March, it looks a bit promising—the  coming week’s forecast shows a minor winter weather advisory tomorrow—freezing rain—but then almost six straight “partly cloudy” days. But it’s all a tease. When I carefully studied the daily temperature, I saw that after Saturday’s high of 43 degrees Fahrenheit, it will drop daily to 37, 27, 25, 17, and 13 degrees, with a grand conclusion next Saturday, March 1: 17 degrees, 80 percent chance of snow.

It’s like sinking into a deep depression. All you can do is vaguely remember being poolside with an umbrella drink.

If nothing else, it gives us something to talk about. A friend said when she first moved here from Canada, she was amazed at how the media could take a simple day-long winter storm and turn it into a dramatic story for a week. “In Canada,” she said, “nobody talks about these things—it’s no big deal.” Here in the U.S., they’ve started naming our storms—and that’s just so we have someone to blame.

This is a big deal to a native Californian like me who can’t get up my New Hampshire driveway because of complex layering of ice and snow. Sure, sand can periodically be helpful, but it’s difficult to actually spread it because the sand is frozen in the trash barrels at those key points next to the driveway (the worse the storm, the more frozen it is). I have had to return a rental car or two for work because I actually couldn’t get up my driveway, and I refused to rent a car for a week if it means trudging down the long, snow-filled path every day with my laptop bag, projector bag, easels, and flip charts. (I don’t want to end up in the hospital!)

And, it was traumatic last weekend when one of our cars ended up completely off that driveway, parallel to the road, stuck in a snowbank-ditch leaning against a tree (yes, that car was driven by an anonymous member in our family under the age of 20, but do I really blame him or her based on the conditions?). AAA had to come out not just once or twice, but three times before they could actually get it out because of the shape and slope of the driveway and the angle of the car. In the end, they needed two trucks to get it out—one for the front and one for the back (fortunately, I didn’t have to have two memberships to cover that).

Some people, mostly those die-hard skiers and snowmobilers, love the snow. Not me—I’m a tennis player who happens to like warmth. I lose feeling in my fingers and toes if I am out in freezing temperatures too long and I get cold-induced hives on my face. And I don’t like having to take heavy duty Vitamin D in the winter because the only sun we get filters through snow-lined branches and most of us just don’t hang out on the sidewalk in these conditions.

I enjoy sitting on our front patio with a glass of Pinot Grigio at dusk, dipping baby carrots in hummus, and enjoying the feel of the sun on my skin. Right now, I’d have to be in snow pants to do that (not to mention that our patio furniture has been tucked away in the shed for winter for months, so I’d have to sit on the ground, which we already determined is frozen).

Yesterday, my brother-in-law showed me a YouTube video of his model John Deere tractor with its 59-inch snow blower (yes, he actually showed me such a video, saying “There’s nothing like that sound of snow churning—look at how fast that thing moves! We can do our road in three passes!”).

This is the kind of thing we are left to talk about. I said to a friend the other day, “I said I was finished with winter but apparently I did not tell the right person!”

Mother Nature, God, Buddha, Oh Supreme Weather Being in the Sky, here’s my final plea: Help us. Soon. Or I really will have to become a snowbird.

And I’m still too young for that.


Now That He's a High School Junior

Parenting a teenager is a learning experience—the experience is a lot of fun for both my son D. and I, but the learning is mostly for me.

D. does all the expected any verifiable teen male should do. He never listens to me. He says, “I knooooow, Mom,” to everything I say, even if I tell him that the square root of 24,336 is 156. He has close to a half case of empty water bottles under his bed and seems to have an aversion to putting dirty clothes in a laundry basket. He doesn’t understand the value of doing all of his homework assignments, so he picks and chooses what appeals to him. And wants to buy expensive things when he has little source of income. The perfect teenage boy!

The most frustrating part about D. is that he is very, very clear about who he is, what he wants, and what he doesn’t want to do. He doesn’t do anything to impress anyone. (“Why would I go to a semi-formal dance, Mom? I hate those things.”) If it weren’t important to his girlfriend, he would even skip the prom. (The prom? I went three times in high school, and still remember every dress I wore and where we went to eat beforehand.)

When I was in high school, I did what was acceptable, responsible, practical. I ricocheted along a college-application-building path (ballet, piano, clarinet, chorus, Girl Scouts, student council, emerging leader, honors program, BA, MFA, small job, bigger job, biggest job, oh my is this job too big for my soul?). But daily, I was left full of angst about being productive enough and about what I was not doing. (Oh yeah, I still do some of that last part.)

D., on the other hand, has refused to follow my perfect agenda. I wanted him to be a Boy Scout, because my brother was, and my sister and I were both Girl Scouts, and my mother was president of the Girl Scout council. But D. lasted only two meetings as a Tiger Cub: “Who wants to sit around in a circle and talk, and make houses out of popsicle sticks?” He wasn’t even impressed when they went on a field trip to the local police station, or about the idea of going camping. I encouraged him to go to sleep away camp because it would help shape him into a young leader. “Nope,” he insisted. “No interest.”

He was very athletic, so after one Little League season, I asked, “Don’t you want to try out for All-Star baseball?” and he’d say “Nah, I don’t think so. I think I need a break.” And after three years of intense travel hockey, as I was saying, “I know you don’t want to play 3 on 3, but you have to keep your edge as a goalie,” he was hanging up his skates, saying, “It’s just not fun anymore, Mom.”

I have tried my best to get him to be a joiner, but he’s not. Join the yearbook club, join INTERACT, volunteer at Back to School night, do something that will make people realize you are well-rounded. But to him, being seen as well-rounded was not on his agenda. Why would he want to do that?

He does play football every fall, and loves that—he knows his job, and he does it, blending in with the pack. And, he just got his first job, teaching tennis—so that’s good—he’s becoming a productive member of society, which is what I tell him is his only requirement after he finishes high school next year. When I say, “You won’t be able to just sit around and play Xbox all day,” he said, “I told you I am going to sell my Xbox and buy a high-powered computer for PC games.”

While I had a lot of angst for many years about him getting into a good college, I’ve been thinking lately that heading off into the great beyond might not be the best plan a year from now. D. isn’t quite sure what he wants to do or where he wants to be yet (if you need any good articles about why boys aren’t ready at 18 to go off to college, let me know—I’m your girl!). We’ve been talking to him about options for a gap year, or that he could always work and take some classes to figure out what he is interested in, and then go to a college that is a good match for his interests.

But I think he’s also trying to figure out what is possible, what he is capable of. He said to me yesterday, “Want to know something weird? In my Driver’s Ed class, I was considered the smartest kid there.”

And I said, “Why is that weird?”  

He said, “I just didn’t expect it, that’s all.”

(And, of course, I used this opening to point out that if he chose to do all his homework assignments and pay attention in all of his classes, he just might be the smartest kid in every class. To which he responded, “I like all of my classes now except Spanish, so that’s a no-go.”)

Someone told me recently that D. is like a lotus flower. Lotus flowers can live for a thousand years, and revive into activity after years of being in stasis. While I am fretting over his quarterly report card, he’s just being who he is. D. is not worried about his college applications—not because he doesn’t plan to go—but because he is not worried about it.

He is busy taking in the world, quietly getting the nutrients that he needs from this great lake. It may not look like much now because his roots are all under the surface of the water. But he is already bending toward the sun.

And when he blossoms, probably even he won’t even recognize himself.


Counting Your Chickens Before They Move in Across the Road

For the past six months, our farmer-neighbor has been plotting to build a new chicken barn across the street from our house. As we live in a rural town in New Hampshire and in an area considered low density/light agricultural, his vision was not that unusual. There are a number of horse barns, riding rings, and farms near where we live, and more than once have the same neighbor’s cows ended up in the woods by our house. But we do live on a residential road, with most houses on 5 or 6-acre plots, so it’s not Iowa.

If you go on Google Earth and actually view the section of his 90 acres that he already cleared for this chicken coop, it is very, very big. He was planning to build a 46’ x 588’ building, enough to house 20,000 egg-laying chickens.

And this was not just any farmer. This was a socially conscious farmer. Not only did he want to have 20,000 chickens, but he wanted to have 20,000 free range chickens. He was in talks with Pete & Gerry’s Eggs about a potential contract. (To think I used to like Pete & Gerry’s Eggs!)

My sister and brother-in-law have a dozen chickens, and they are constantly telling stories of what it takes them to manage a dozen birds. And that’s a dozen. This would be that, times 1666. And it’s bad enough for someone to have 20,000 chickens, but to let them run around in the yard across from our house? What would they do all day long? The smell! The groundwater pollution! The constant clucking! Imagine not just one rooster waking us up, but however many roosters he’d have to have with 20,000 chickens (do I even want to think about how many that would be?).

One of my friends, who is a CEO of a YMCA, was telling me when there used to be a chicken farm across from his Y building, every morning he’d have to sweep the steps because they’d be covered in chicken feathers.

About 100 neighbors who live near this looming chicken disaster have been up at arms, emailing each other PDF documentation of town meetings and calculating the loss to property values (which someone estimated at $3 million for 119 homes within a half mile of the barn). We hypothesized about what point the neighbor would run out of money, as each planning board meeting apparently was costing him $10,000 in legal fees. Some people even talked about buying him out. Not necessarily buying the land, but paying him off to let go of his chicken vision.

The town had a more official approach. They required documentation on economic impact, surveying, groundwater, screening and buffer strips, HVAC, waste management, road construction standards.  They were drowning him in requirements.

My boyfriend D. and I had better chicken abatement ideas. We thought each neighbor should install different signs on our lawns, saying, “Coming Soon! Free-Range Fox Farm!” Or “Opening June 2014: Free-Range Weasel Farm!” Our best idea was driving golf balls of our roof and seeing how many we could hit with one ball. Or installing telephone poles topped with sturdy platforms to encourage hawk and eagle nests, just like one might put up bat houses to combat mosquitoes.

In one of my weaker moments, I said to my son D., “Maybe we could instill some kind of virus to make them all go away!”

And D. said, “How about chicken pox?”

In the end, what became the noose around the chickens’ neck was that in order for them to be considered “free range,” his birds had to be outside from noon to dusk. The neighbor could manage what they would be doing and where when they were inside this gigantic barn, but once they went outside, all bets were off.

We could have told them that without six months of painful late-night town meetings.

Our neighbor still claims he could house thousands of chickens in his existing barn. We hope he won’t do that just to spite us all—it is attached to his house, so that might not be appealing to him anyway. He now plans to subdivide the 90 acres into multiple house lots and sell them off.

That’s fine with us. Any new neighbors, even if they are big partiers, could never be as loud as 20,000 chickens. Or nearly as smelly.


'Twas the Night Before New Year's, and All Through the House

I was in the garage, looking on the gardening shelves for potting soil. I had grand plans to repot two plants that needed new homes. It was cold outside—only 16 degrees Fahrenheit, so the doors were closed, water from snow packed under our tires was puddling on the floor, and our gardening stuff was apparently hidden behind shovels and salt and everything winter.

Suddenly, I heard rustling over near my car. I stopped, quiet, to listen. Then I heard it again. What was that? I walked toward the noise, paused. Heard it again: a rustling, scratching, something.

I gingerly moved toward the sound—it was near the garbage cans. Grumpppph, and then swissshhhh. Grumpppph, swissshhhh. Grumpppph, swissshhhh. I carefully leaned over the open trash can that I knew had just one white, lumpy Hefty bag in the bottom. There he was, a little mouse. He was mustering up all of his strength to try to jump out, and then falling back onto the full bag. Over and over again. Grumpppph, swisssshhhh.

It made me laugh—I felt for the little guy. How many hours had he been doing this futile leaping? He was never going to escape. He was like Aron Ralston in 172 Hours, canyoneering in Moab. He should have never gone out alone. Eventually, he’d have to gnaw off his own leg.

I considered my options:

1)  Go upstairs and tell my boyfriend D., who would come down and take care of it. But last time that happened, it involved a bunch of baby mice and his sneaker, and I was left feeling like he needed to expand his lovingkindness.

2)  Clearly, it was way too late for a mousetrap. The mouse was already trapped. In college, my roommate Kara once claimed you could trap a mouse with a stack of books and some peanut butter—surprisingly, it never worked. Plus, the angle inside the can was way too steep for a book ramp.

3)  My last option: Do what always do when I find something inside that belongs outside—open the garage door and let him out.

I opened the garage door, and brought the trash can out into the driveway, carefully tipping it onto its side. I was thinking how happy the little guy was going to be to be free again. This is what the Buddhists would do. Love all things, no matter how tiny and destructive they are.

The mouse carefully poked his nose and whiskers out the edge of the can, looked both ways, and then jumped. It wasn’t far—he landed with all four feet in the snow. And then, at precisely the same moment, an identical thought occurred to both of us: Whoa, it’s cold out here. Much warmer in there. And we both looked toward the garage, and he made a mad dash back inside and disappeared.

I had to laugh at myself. Clearly I hadn’t thought through the consequences of this great liberation. Even if I had put him out 500 feet away, he still would have found his way back to our spacious, glowing, warm building. He just would have had to work a little harder to get back in, maybe through a drainpipe or a tiny hole in some trim.

As far as mouse chances go, he will likely end up meeting some fateful end anyway, like the rodent that died somewhere in the wall by our guest bedroom and is currently stinking up our hallway. Or, maybe he will happily live in the camping gear in the basement for the winter. My first home was a farmhouse built in the early 1700s, and mice were always eating our food—there are a lot of holes in that kind of house. I remember the time they ate an entire Tostitos bag of chips. When we found it, the bag was still was puffed out and sealed at the top like new, but there was a small hole at the bottom, and every last tortilla chip was gone. They did the same thing with a bag of Hershey’s kisses, only that time, they left behind the silver wrappers.

I guess for 2014, I better make sure every bit of food we have in the cellar is canned.


Chasing Christmas

This time of year is a kaleidoscope of intensity: way too much food and festivity, twinkling shops and bustling craziness, precious time with family. I’ve always loved Christmas—it was the time of year everyone in my family knew, with profound clarity, how much we loved each other.

It’s not that we didn’t believe in that love the rest of the year. We just didn’t express it as openly as during the holidays, through what we did for each other and the gifts we shared. It was easy to show how much we knew each other and truly saw each other, through the careful attention we paid to what we thought each other might need or want.

Gary Chapman describes in The Five Love Languages that some people feel most loved through receiving gifts, versus others who appreciate more words of affirmation, acts of service, physical touch, etc. My mother was the most amazing gift giver—she had an incredible ability to put together the perfect outfit for you, find just the right unique toy, or wrap just the right book. Her gifts—down to a particular beanie baby she would put in each of the top of her grandchildren’s stockings—showed how much she truly cared for them.

(Of course, there was that time when I was about 10 when my mother gave me a large wrapped box that I thought was the electronic Simon memory game, but instead was a small pottery wheel. I still remember it—it was orange. But I forgave her for this faux pas/bait-and-switch—she had my educational interests at heart.)

Her special gift giving came in many forms. In the toe of our stockings on Christmas morning, my brother and sister and I would each find large balls of yarn—we’d have to unwind them to find out what was inside. As we pulled on the brightly colored red or green string, tiny presents would fall out—a glass animal, a pin, a magnet. When we had it completely unraveled, one last gift, such as a pair of earrings or a mini action figure, would be tied to the end.

Over the years, our string-unwinding improved—we had to get better at working with the yarn ball as we unrolled it because winding the knotted and crumpled mass afterwards was a drag if you were a kid impatient for moving on to open presents. She probably got the idea for the yarn balls from Family Circle—that was her Pinterest.

Our mother had a very strong aesthetic sense, and was very artistic—she made advent calendars for each of us from strips of felt, with silver bells attached with yarn—one to untie each day of December. One year, she decided that from that point on, she would only wrap her gifts in red and green. No other colors allowed. The final result was simply stunning underneath the tree. To this day, I have trouble wrapping in Christmas paper with any other colors. Blue is simply a travesty.

Just decorating our Christmas tree was a production. It was always my mother’s job to put the lights on. Sometimes it would take her a week to get them just right. She would never just throw strings on and circle them around—she had to run a light string up and down each branch, attaching at strategic points. One tree could take thousands of lights. Sometimes, she would hang a string every few days, and so the tree would slowly light up over two weeks’ time.

In 2006, which ended up being my mother’s last Christmas, I put the lights on the tree for her. She was very ill, but still she managed to drag herself off the couch to help us decorate. She hung the ornaments she had collected from around the world—tiny fur mittens from Nordkapp, straw donkeys from Mexico, Japanese dolls in kimonos. We hung red, wooden gingerbread men that had our baby faces glued on them, and ornaments of dolls, rocking horses, and teddy bears my father had cut with a bandsaw and that she had painted. There were wise men her granddaughters had made with clothespins and felt clothes. We hummed to Bing Crosby and Nat King Cole.

Since that time, my brother and sister and I have been chasing this magic she brought into Christmas each year. We try to find just the right long-sleeved shirts and PBS DVD sets for our dad. We might give our kids new pajamas to open on Christmas Eve, just like we did every year growing up. My brother bought his wife a gingerbread cookie cutter off eBay this year, the exact same cutter my mother used to have, and he got instructions from my sister on how to decorate them: white zig-zagged frosting for trim, half or quarter candy cherries for buttons, half raisins for eyes. He also put yarn balls in the toes of his kids’ stockings, hiding mini Lego people parts that they could assemble once they found all the pieces.

What did I do this year? I tried to bake a batch of Swedish Butter Balls, one of my mother’s many special Christmas cookie recipes. She used to bake eight or so different kinds and package them up for friends and neighbors. But when I taste-tested one of my cookies afterward, it tasted musty. How does a cookie taste musty? I now know the answer to that. If your walnuts are stale, because you only remember to bake something with walnuts once a year, the result will be musty cookies. Yeah, that’s me, the less skilled holiday baker.

I still love Christmas. It’s an amazing time. I love spending it with the next generations of our family, finding just the right gifts, celebrating together, remembering the simple joys. But my sister and brother and I always feel that there is something always missing. 

Brian Andreas, one of my favorite artists, sums this up perfectly. One of his drawings reads: I still remember the day the world took you back….and there was never time to thank you for the thousand scattered moments you left behind to watch us while we slept.

Those scattered moments are loosely tied to this Christmas yarn we’re holding tight in our fingers. 


Life Lessons from Bikram Yoga

One of my Bikram yoga teachers once said, “I love Bikram because it’s the hardest yoga I could find.” She said this as we were pausing for a 5-second Savasana between postures. In this corpse pose, you lie in complete relaxation, which makes it one of the hardest poses in Bikram. Our chests are usually heaving, our hearts pounding, so the most we can do is breathe and try to recover.

Her comment made me laugh. Bikram challenges me more than any other kind of yoga, too, more than almost any other physical activity. Bikram Yoga has a lot to teach you about life.

Imagine a 105-degree heated room filled with sweaty bodies. There are only a few inches between each mat, so you can feel the body heat from the person next to you. In fact, if the class is packed enough, you periodically bump into each other when moving into different postures, or the person next to you literally flings their sweat on to you.

You can sometimes be stuck next to someone who is a bit smelly. It’s almost unavoidable, and it can be even worse if they don’t have a shirt on. Or sometimes the person next to you seems to cough throughout the entire practice, and all you can think about is how long those germs are surviving in the humid air. My yoga on days like that is to not let those things bother me—to focus instead of my own practice of being in the moment, and practicing loving kindness to the person next to me.

The hot room can be a bit stressful, though, just like life. Sometimes we can get a bit rigid about the ideal conditions of our environment. A student once said to one of my teachers, “I can only do Camel Pose when the fans are on.” Camel pose is the deepest back bend of Bikram Yoga—once you get through that posture, you feel like you can sail through the rest of the 26-posture series. But having such a rule in and of itself defeats the whole purpose of doing Camel (even though we all love those ceiling fans). Camel is about opening your heart, your throat chakra, allowing what comes up to emerge. The instructors always say beforehand something like: “When doing Camel, you may feel anxious, nauseous, sad, giddy. Whatever you feel, just allow the feeling to rise.” How can you truly do that if you’re focused on a rule about the fan needing to be on?

And then there are those really packed classes, during the end of a 30-day challenge, or after the New Year. You get to class early, pick out your perfect spot centered on a mirror with no posts in front of you, with a perfect margin of a foot and a half on either side of your mat, and a latecomer comes in three minutes after the class was supposed to start. Of all the options in the room, they roll out their mat in the 18 inches right next to you, forcing you to shift to the left, so you now are square in the middle of the seam in the mirror and look a bit distorted as you have to stare at yourself for the next 90 minutes. All of that’s about allowing too.

Sharing your yoga space is just like those times when you have an A or B boarding ticket to get on a Southwest flight, and you find just the perfect window seat, and you know the flight won’t be totally booked so you put your briefcase in the middle and spread out your newspaper to make the seat next to you look the least desirable. You know this is going to be a long flight and you need the elbow room to work on your presentation for later in the day, which you really wanted to finish last night and yet were too exhausted and had to go to bed, and you just don’t want that mother with a baby that you saw in the gate to sit next to you because you really need to focus.

It’s about remembering in that moment that those other human beings who look so tired as they board the plane are individuals just like you, with hopes and dreams and needs and their family at home and their stressful job during the day and their parents who are ailing in a nursing home. So you really should just move your newspaper and briefcase and smile at them, and welcome them to the seat next to you. Even if they have a big, very sad-looking baby with them.

We all need that yoga love once in a while.