Outbuildings

The property was maybe a forty-five minute drive from my grandparents’ house in the St. Louis city limits, but the contrast between the expansive country acreage and the tidy urban parcel led me to believe that we must have circled the moon and stars to get there. I can’t even remember the color of the outside of my dad’s Aunt Joan and Uncle Dave’s massive Victorian home, but I clearly remember the musty smell that filled me with wonder each time we entered through the parlor (no one else that I knew or even have known since has had a parlor). I remember the secret TV room where the teenagers hung out and where my sister and I spied on them from an even more secret closet that led somewhere that we dared not explore. I remember the velvet couches and the fancy swirling armchairs, the ceilings that nearly rose to the heavens, and Aunt Joan’s homemade dinner rolls that tasted just like the ones that pop out of a can. The best part, though, was the swing: a board suspended from somewhere above the clouds, attached to sturdy ropes that took me far beyond that patch of Eden.

I don’t even cry anymore when the chickens die; at least, I haven’t in a while. This morning, one of the young hens was lying in the roost with her neck twisted. I wondered what had happened as I carried her to the compost pile where she will be returned to the earth. I will never know. Disregard was probably not a very good name for a chicken, anyway. This year has hardened me in so many ways.

“I love outbuildings.” My son’s comment jarred me, mostly because I didn’t realize that he knew what an outbuilding even was, but also because I wondered if I had been thinking out loud. What is it about the sight of a tiny barn wood or rusty iron structure that compels me…and, clearly, my son…to want to know more, to want to venture inside, to want to be part of something that had been meaningful to someone else, however long ago?

If I could get in your soul, and you in mine, the mystery might cease to be. It must be fear of really knowing that keeps us from opening the smallest door.

A few years ago, a treasured childhood friend sent me a kitchen towel printed with a whimsical design, a map of Cape Cod, where her family has a cottage, along with an invitation to visit one day, when the time seemed right. I don’t think she would mind that the towel is now worn and some of the threads have loosened. A mirror to our days, time has weathered us. I hold her in my hands, though, with every dish I dry.

Uncle Dave had a shed on that Missouri property; it had probably been a garage at one time. I don’t remember him ever letting any of us in there with him, but from time to time, he would emerge from that shed, usually with a contraption of wood or wires or something else and there would be a softness about his face and an indiscernible music to his presence. He had been to his place, the place that filled him up.

The grandeur and mystery of that old house will forever be with me. Aunt Joan and Uncle Dave have been gone for years, and I can’t go back there anymore, at least not physically. Perhaps if I did, the magnitude of my memory would disappoint.

It has been hard for any of us to go anywhere this year. The safety of the issued stay-at-home orders brought some relief to me in those early days of the pandemic; I couldn’t go anywhere even if I wanted to. And I didn’t want to.

There has been sadness, loneliness, and loss. What has pulled us down, though, has left a wake of gratitude for simplicity and normalcy: for the rhythm of our earth’s seasons, for the little memories that beckon at every turn, for the everyday chores of tending chickens and drying dishes.

Perhaps we don’t need to go places to know that we have been somewhere. Maybe outbuildings look different to each of us. Maybe if we never bring ourselves to look inside, we’ll miss part of who we are.

Someday, though, I’m going to Cape Cod, and I think I’ll take my son along for the memories.

xoxo

The Most Beautiful Place on Earth

I always think of my college roommate on Valentine’s Day.  Today, she must have thought of me, because she sent me a little message about heart-shaped pizza.  We shared a heart-shaped pizza at a restaurant on Greek Row as college freshman on what, to many, is a day of great romance and candlelight.

Underneath the candles, I have found the real light.

Lynne and I were seated at a cozy table with love-struck couples at every angle.  The pizza was perfect; the company, somehow, even better.  The stars aligned to deliver me the perfect roommate (with whom over the years, I indulged in many more pizzas) when I was an innocent and vulnerable just-turned-eighteen-year-old.   My perfect roommate had come to the university just days after suffering an unthinkable loss, one that made her among the most courageous people I have ever met.  I am pretty sure that in my selfish oblivion, I had no idea the depth of her grief, and how she would comfort me over the years as she carried around her heavy suitcase, one that nobody could actually see.  Those were such formative years for me; great blessings, indeed.

I want to fly, away from the part that hurts, but still into what I am now, never changing or passing with time.

Dan and I moved our young family back to DeKalb in 2000.

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From my journal, dated 1-22-01: “As I was walking past the river on an afternoon…, I again realized that DeKalb is the most  beautiful place on earth.  The Kish(waukee River), yet to be frozen, was running northerly, broken up in some spots by very white balls of smooth, snowy ice. All was still, and the university very, very quiet.  Never, ever will there…be any regret for choosing this place.  This is our home.  The smallest reasons are the strongest confirmations.”

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I have always loved cookies.  Lynne and I shared our passion for antiques: we would visit the dusty back rooms of whatever doors were open, it seemed, in search of Fiesta ware and vintage cookie jars.

I had ordered a plate of decorated cookies from the student catering building.  On Valentine’s Day, 2008, I ventured onto campus for the first time in perhaps over a year.  With my three-month-old foster baby in tow, I collected the sparkly heart-shaped gems and stopped at Record Revolution to share some with an old friend.  The baby was safely in his seat (I think he was actually sleeping, which did not happen often in those early days) as I crossed the alley at the back of the parking lot which edges the campus.  I was taken aback by a student running, cell phone in hand, from the direction of the theater building and Cole Hall.  As a wild animal runs to escape its hunter, so perhaps a dozen frantic-looking students followed suit of the first. Curious, I thought, as I pulled through the alley and drove down the street to get a coffee before picking up the elementary school set.   Was this some sort of scavenger race?  Maybe an acting class?  It was, after all, near the Stevens Building.

As I left the drive-through, latte in hand, my ears were flooded with sirens.  First one police car, then many.  Rescue vehicles and frenzy filled my usually peaceful university.  Reports were coming across the radio by now.  I just needed to pick up my kids.

It wasn’t until I was safely home that I realized how close I had been to the horrific, the absolutely unthinkable.  Innocent people were breathing their last breaths as I passed by, as I was enjoying what may have been the most decadent butter cookie imaginable.

We are these people.

Clear the thoughts…rub your eyes…it’s almost time to fly, fly.

Today, I am eternally grateful for my rich and deep blessings: my dear husband, my beloved children; my extended family; my deep and sustained friendships; my spirituality; my precious kitty, Juliet; my cookie jars; and, of course, pizza, heart-shaped or not.

A Badass Pollyanna of Sorts

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She’s a vision of a cat.  That’s not a real cat, is it?  Yes, yes, it is.  How can that actually be a cat?  She is so… perfect.  And up on the counter, actually up on the toaster, she sits.  As quickly as she is redirected from the forbidden spot, up jumps Juliet, back to her berth.  Oblivious even to the squirt bottle, she pokes her pug nose skyward and cozies up as close as she can to the crock pot, likely unaware of the cream cheese tortellini within.  Juliet, our dear Himalayan Persian, is uncivilized.  Sweet as pie, and rebellious as Johnny Rotten.

When I let baby Elliott loose to crawl about his uncle’s college apartment floor, he ate a glow-in-the-dark star.  Though it worried me at the time, that incident may have had some impact on his developing mind.  Most people have not eaten glow-in-the-dark stars.  And most people are not as bright as Elliott.

From a place deep within, we are all bursting toward our true selves.  And try as we might, it seems we cannot really alter the soul essence of who someone is.  I’m never going to like pimentos; I am never going to learn to ballroom dance; I will never not be awkward speaking in front of people; and I am most certainly not going to change the minds of my children by imposing my views upon them. Though what I say or do might possibly have an influence on another person’s thoughts or actions, the heart of another being is independent of my perceptions and projections.  I will forever be burdened with trying to do what I think is the right thing (though actually it may not be), and with the feelings of guilt and anxiety that make me wonder whether my actions were justified.

I believe in people.  I have witnessed true, course-changing, life-altering, behavior in others.  Many times I have reached out, and a good number of those times I have been shamed, rejected, or made to feel less than whole.  And I wonder if I am perceived, to those people, as I feel inside…as I am inside.

There was a doll that I wanted with a fervor as a little girl: Joey, the anatomically correct likeness of Archie Bunker’s grandson.  When I finally opened the box and disrobed the baby, I felt a sense of regret.  I felt like I shouldn’t have that doll at all.  As my little son would say, I felt like it was inappropriate.  I wonder why I wanted it so badly.

A game of telephone at a grade school sleepover: a circle made of a dozen wide-eyed, giggly girls, whispering “the message” in turn to the person to the left.  I vividly remember pretending that I didn’t understand and eventually lost my turn; I was pretty sure I wasn’t allowed to say those bad words!

There is an unsung splendor, a mystic wonder in the forbidden.  It is up to us to sort out the feelings borne from our choices.  Some seem worth the risk.

I was sent home for wearing navy blue corduroy walking shorts (clad with mini green whales); this resulted in the only detention I remember from high school.  I wanted to wear my new shorts, and I knew it was against the rules.   Chewing gum was strictly forbidden at the Catholic high school.  A devil among angels, I found a way to hide my Wrigley’s Spearmint in my cheek so no one suspected a thing.

The rebellion was in full swing in college.  I was gifted (honestly) a fake ID by a sorority sister that had been mugged.   Not once did I have to grovel to gain entry to The Jungle on New Wave Night; I was handed my golden ticket by someone who had recovered her stolen identification.  I mastered her signature and flashed my prize with confidence on those Tuesday nights.  When the police raided the bar (looking for underage entrants), we scurried  to stack ourselves in the bathroom stall until the coast was clear.  Always with great relief, I would return to my club soda.  I was not about to order alcohol from the bar, but I am pretty sure I did not consider the idea that possessing a fake ID was likely a higher crime.

I had a rare college job that was more of a haven than a place of employment.  I worked at Record Revolution; the smell of Gonesh incense ($1.87/pack) still lingers in my soul, to be sure.  I sat up on the counter, with no shoes on, and ate croissant sandwiches with muenster cheese and mustard (from The Dill Pickle next door) while selling records to people.    I’m not sure if I sat on the counter in front of the Chief; I wonder what, if anything, he would have had to say about that.  Doing what you truly love is liberating to the soul.

Most of my days are spent in jeans and nondescript shirts, probably because my primary job is to wipe stuff.  I do, though, have a long-standing love for vintage clothing and well-worn, comfortable pink things.  On one of my trips home from college, my dad eyed me quizzically and referred to me as “Laura Ashley to ashpit.”  But it was still me on the inside, just the same.

I woke a few mornings ago to a collaboration of snoring and wheezing in the bed beside me.  The wheezing, at least, came from the four-year-old bedfellow who, until his adoption was finalized, was not supposed to sleep in our bed.  So many nights in his young life, this rule was broken as we, his foster parents, kept vigil and shifted him in his dreams to open his airway, so he would not breathe his last breath. Sometimes, we have to make choices that hardly seem like choices at all.

As the song goes, I have been encouraging my girls to speak bravely and honestly.  This has, on occasion, backfired into a license for tongue whipping episodes of talking back, certainly not what I had intended with my plea.  I hope, though, that they understand that they have voices which deserve to be heard.  As I have approached middle age and as my passions dictate, I have begun to practice saying what is on my mind.  Though a quiet voice can speak volumes, there is a place for words; words that, when spoken, reveal some level of injustice.  I walked away from a job when the ethical issues overshadowed my purpose as a teacher.  If you cannot make it right with yourself, then perhaps it is not right for you.

When the time comes that you meet your one true love, you fall deeply for how that person lives his or her life.  We fall again, with each of our children, and all of their differences.  My babies come to me from many different places.  I cannot be sure if any of them, with the exception of Elliott, has a glow-in-the-dark star burning within.  I am trying to embrace the choices and the behaviors, no matter how bright or nonsensical they seem.  We are all here, shoes or not, pop music or punk rock, jumping onto the kitchen counter to bask in the warmth of the crock pot (or parking oneself on the counter of Record Rev back in the day) baring our vulnerable souls, standing for what we believe.

I wonder if Juliet will ever learn her boundaries.  And I wonder if she did, would part of her unique charm be lost in the compliance? And through our struggles, confusion, embarrassment, and rebellion, the little bits of magic that shine through bring us to realize that allowing ourselves to be who we are…who we always have been…is, after all, the right thing to do.