Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Cottage Weekend

Everyone knows the cottage is my happy place. Grant's grandfather built it with his own hands and the hands of his daughters and their husbands in the 1970's. By the time I started making the drive to the Allegheny River nirvana, Grant already had a lifetime of memories there. At the cottage, internet is so sketchy it's just better to leave your computer and phone turned off, there is a clock on the kitchen wall over the stove but last summer it ran out of batteries and I don't think anyone noticed. Time is measured by the empty feeling in your gut after you have hiked to the waterfall and swam in the natural pool for hours and are finally noticing you haven't eaten since breakfast. Night runs into early morning while we sit by the campfire and talk politics and music and grass fed beef until the bar 5 miles up the road is having last call.

Before we had kids, the cottage meant sleeping until 10 and drinking too much whiskey, getting lost on trail runs because it didn't matter what time I came back. Grant would still be sitting by the fire with a book or napping on the sofa. The cottage is the first place I remember seeing him completely relax.

Now with Knox and Purslane, the cottage is about waking up with the sun and watching the fog hang out over the surface of the river. It means triple checking to make sure our food supplies include coffee and graham crackers. (did we really forget beer??) It means constant activity, or at least constant vigilance. Conversation around the fire includes pulling up photos on my phone of burn victims to supplement my warnings about not respecting the ring of stones that form a border between my impulsive son and a firey disaster. It means loading the bikes off and on the back of the Jeep because since they discovered the Rails to Trails across the river, it must be part of the agenda.

It means breakfast sandwiches at sunrise in their underpants (because as far as Knox is concerned, being out of the city means clothing optional) and exploring the overgrown hill behind the cottage with flashlights and plastic bags for nature treasures. Instead of stretching out lazily in front of us, a day is barely enough time for throwing stones in the river, a bike ride on the trail, creek hiking and talking ourselves into trying out a rope we found tied to a tree branch over a river pool (it was awesome), a canoe trip that answered the age old question of what would happen when you have a 4 year old and a 6 year old in the middle of the river and they discover an enormous spider is in the canoe with them, swimming in the river reeds, steaks over an open fire, and juice boxes all day long.

We have been going to the cottage for 13 years, and over those years have taken many friends up with us. One of my favorite weekends of my entire life happened in 2009 over Memorial Day weekend with 6-7 other couples, a handmade wooden lawn game called Viking Cube, and all the time in the world for eating, drinking, talking, laughing, sleeping, playing. It was the season of life for most of us pre-kids, at least one person in each couple in grad school, and that weekend still holds some of my favorite memories.

As the years pass, babies are born, folks come and go, and our trips to the cottage take the family train. So the activities have changed, but the magic has just increased as we introduce our children to our favorite place. The nights by the fire when all the babes have been put to bed and we sit and drink High Life takes on a communal feeling of well deserved relaxation that we just didn't know before our days were dictated by busy little people. And they are sweeter. The deep conversations we miss having when our kids want our attention at parties and after church and during dinner happens at the cabin after dark. The kids are hopefully so exhausted that they fall asleep when their heads hit the pillow (except for H.S. who gave an award worthy performance as a toddler deprived of fire and beer and sentenced to watch out the window of his bedroom).

This time I thought about weekends when our friends have joined us. That time Kirsten went for a trail run and fell into the creek pool. Sitting on the back porch with Allie drinking coffee and pretending we couldn't hear the kids looking for us. Playing Clue until midnight with Matt and Sara, inventing new gin drinks and new motives for offing Professor Plum. The first time we took Pursy to the cottage and passed her around our group of friends who were just starting or just thinking about having kids of their own. Sweet, sweet memories.

Grant and I did find time to read on this trip. While the babes explored the back hill, Grant and I sat  by the fire and tried to hold hands and hold books, a cozy idea that never really works out. For 36 hours at the cottage with all the activities the babes wanted to do, we of course packed a small library. Our mixed marriage involves fiction, theology, biography, and economics. Somehow we make it work. And as Grant fell asleep on my shoulder because I had to find out what happens to the Jewish orphans in Paris during the German occupation, I felt so lucky. Lucky that Grant and I find the same place to be one of the greatest places in the world. Grateful that our children aren't afraid of getting dirty and wet and tired and cold. Thankful that before my arm behind his head fell completely asleep that I had thought to grab a cold High Life...

Friday, September 2, 2016

Need a Friend

I have been finding it harder of late to be inspired by...anything, really.

My dayplanner (2016 Moleskine Week to a Page with Red cover) is full. Particularly the week in August that reminds me I need to keep my thinline rainbow Sharpies out of reach of my daughter. She drew me a "design" across the entire week, leaving no room for my black pen appointments, meetings, work schedule, family plans, etc. Days that are planned out with good things, just a LOT of good things. And when I looked at it, even though it is swirls and hearts and patterns, it reflects more accurately how I feel about my schedule. It's beautiful, but a mess. And she made it a piece of artwork. Days connected by rainbow dashes and circles, stick figures with really big heads and tiny hands all in a row, and off in the upper right corner, what looks like a bunny riding a unicorn. Possibly eating a hot dog.

This morning while Knox and I were driving home from the grocery store where we grabbed foodstuffs for a spontaneous overnite at the cottage, we were listening to El Vy. With one hand steadying the bag of groceries in the passenger seat and one ear listening to Knox explain how scratch and sniff stickers work, the lyrics to the song Need a Friend made a straight shot to a dusty room in my gut that had been needing light to shine in.

I just need a friend to guard the door
I just need a couple minutes on the floor
I just need to talk to you for a second
I just need a break from the sound, cause it's killing me.

Maybe the way was paved by a simple text from my friend earlier this week asking if I kept a journal. She was sharing a new medium she found to chase down her thoughts daily and preserve them. And I remembered the feeling of putting pen to paper and letting my thoughts go. I have stacks of journals from my years in Colorado filled with nothing more then daily inspiration. Runs in the foothills of the Rocky Mountains. Vegan carrot pancakes at Sunrise Café. Beers and pool tables with a guy I knew could never love me. Kids with cancer who were stronger then I will ever be. Finding a purple flower. A quote from a random Bulgarian activist.

Just about the time my journals started to thin out is when my inspiration was coming from time spent with a guy who was asking me to hang out more. I kept writing about our early years together, but was letting days and eventually weeks go by without writing it down. Too busy living, I guess. At least that is what I wrote down in my journal.

Too often I tell myself that the girl who found inspiration so easily has been buried alive by daily life. That my life tumbling over itself from the moment I open my eyes (earlier then I want) and doesn't grow quiet until I put the last person to bed (takes longer then I hoped) is what prevents me from looking around for the random beauty. That if I just had large spaces of being alone I could find that appreciation for life which is no less amazing to me, just seems out of reach. My lack of time to myself is surely what keeps me from having my mind blown.

But that's not the truth, right? The loudest space can be peaceful when the people who are meant to be there are making the ruckus. I don't need to escape, I need to look around. I already invited the best person to come in and create a life with me. And we invited a shit ton of other folks in as well.

And when I tell myself that I can't breathe until I am alone again, I miss the inspiration that happens when my life and the people who share it ask a million things of me.How much of myself is up for grabs. All I need, every once in a while, is the door to close on the sound and my friend to sit on the floor with me for a minute. I need him to guard the door and let the wildness stay outside. To remind me that it started with us, this bizarre life that never made it the pages of a journal. Because it all changed when he invited me out for a beer.

(babe, I am inspired by YOU)

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Nothin From Me

A song lyric I heard several years ago became my mantra for beautiful stolen quiet moments. "I love the mornings cause nobody needs nothing from me"- Kelly McCrae

For a very happily married mother of two young children, it is not often that nobody needs nothing from me. I often remark to Grant that Knox's favorite time to have a book read to him is the moment he hears the bathroom door close. We are a family of extroverts, and alone time is to be avoided at all costs. Both of my children prefer to be with us at all times and we have learned to embrace it. When Grant jumps into the shower in the morning, Pursy considers it a perfect time to sit on the edge of the tub for a chat about where cereal comes from. Maybe because she knows he can't go anywhere. Maybe because she knows her Daddy adores her and will answer all her questions. Nothing makes Knox want a snuggle more then watching me get out all the ingredients to chop and prep for dinner. There are very few sacred spaces in our house where being together is discouraged. We even survived a season of family bed where our exhaustion surpassed our staunch belief that "children should sleep securely and singly, each in their own bed"- St Benedict.

I have learned (or am reminding myself constantly) that this season of togetherness does not last forever. Pursy's favorite person to have a date with will not always be Grant. Knox's idea of a perfect afternoon will not always be hanging out with me, doing whatever I am doing.

Maybe because they are rare. Or maybe because I am an extrovert until I'm not, but small spaces of solitude are lovely to me. Perhaps it is the fact that they are usually unplanned.

Like this morning, when my 3 favorite people were upstairs watching cartoon and eating breakfast cereal. Knox and Pursy by intention, Grant by desire to sleep longer and knowing that our tiny humans needed his body to be closer then the downstairs bedroom. He catches a bit more sleep with both babes sitting on his stomach. Saturday morning cartoons are a deliberately planned activity, born out of my lifelong desire to be just like all of my friends who spent Saturday morning in front of CareBears and GI Joes. My family did not have a television when I was growing up, and Saturday mornings for us were very much empty of the 1980's cartoons that are now coming back into vogue. Although the "new" old shows are far inferior to the low tech animation of my childhood. (All the original TMNT episodes can be found on YouTube, by the way, under "TMNT 1987").

So I bring bowls of cereal and blueberries upstairs to the playroom and leave my husband and children to Saturday morning. Because mornings come early when you are 4 and 6, it is still chilly, just risen sun morning air that greets me when I step on the back porch. And I make a French press of Zeke's coffee, toss some blueberries in a bowl, and grab my book.

Nobody needs nothing from me.

Everyone is content and happy and full. And I, as the homemaker and chef and nurturer and wife and parent, have done all I can for the moment. My people are fed and tucked in to something that I don't need to provide. And I relish the whimsical vision of childhood that involves cartoons and pajamas and cereal bowls and their Dad. My children are learning how to work and entertain themselves and 6 mornings a week do their morning chores and get dressed. So Saturday mornings can be enjoyed for the lazy slower pace they offer.

And me? I sit on the back porch and watch the sun rise higher in the sky. I read Wendell Berry and dream about unearthing the potatoes out of the garden in a few weeks. My coffee wakes me up and I linger over the plans for the summer that Table magazine helps me imagine. I count my blessings and dream my dreams and breathe deeply. It is only when you know how to be with people that alone time is sweet. For me anyway.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Wendell Berry Messed Me Up

I am a devoted urbanite. I love my house in the city, I love that until our babes started school we were a one car family, I love that I can bike to work, I love the corner market where I can walk away with Canadian bacon and trash bags, I love sitting on our front steps in the summer and waving at neighborhood kids riding 3 to a bike, I love the pubs and restaurants that are within blocks, I even love that I can listen to my next door neighbor's music when both of our doors and windows are closed.

When we bought our house, I appreciated the backyard that was fenced and larger then most you see in the city limits but I didn't describe myself as someone who needs land. I can handle not gazing at the stars at night, it makes them more magical when we occasionally go camping.

From May to November our end of the city has one of the best farmer's markets I have ever been to. Two blocks from my house. I walk the babes up in the double stroller and fill the lower basket with corn and lettuce and tomatoes and cheese and sourdough baguettes and squash and watermelon (I only did that once and next time will bring the car...2 kids and a watermelon in a stroller don't jive with city sidewalks).

I am self aware enough to recognize that roots have never been important to me. I started moving when I was 15 and am not convinced I am finished. I love change and sparkly things and, as Schmidt poetically said "have the focus of a large Italian on a hot day". I am not Italian and I don't know exactly what that means...does heat make Italians distracted? I don't know, and I hope it's not poor form to use that quote. I just love Schmidt. My favorite has to be "I am a phoenix. I need ashes to rise from. Otherwise I'm just a bird getting up".

The point is, I love the city. Living in it, playing in it, raising children in it, going on dates with Grant in it, serving it, supporting it's educational system, and frequenting it's local parks. The city is alive in a way that makes me feel okay anthropomorphizing it. It is another member of our family.

Then I started reading Wendell Berry. It all started with Jayber Crow. The story of a barber who settles in Port William. For those of you not familiar with Wendell Berry, he is the godfather of PLACE. The story of where you came from, knowing yourself best when you are known by those around you, commitment and loyalty to a place not because you chose it but because that it where your story is. Berry's characters are connected and intertwined both to each other and to the land on which they build their lives. The soil and waters of Port William. He writes about leaving and returning, always with the beauty lingering on the returning. His most interesting and developed characters are the homemakers and the farmers. The richness and fulfillment found in simply doing your life. He makes plowing a field sound like poetry. Falling in love and getting married like the cornerstone of all human history. Baking bread with wheat from your own fields like the apex of all human achievement.

And I find myself longing to be Hannah Coulter. A widow of WWII who gives birth to the child of her dead husband and raises her in the community of his family. Who falls in love with the son of a neighbor but wrestles deeply with the reality that she became a daughter to her deceased husband's parents and cannot tell them that she has a desire to marry again. She describes the decision not to meet the gaze of Nathan because she knows what it will tell him if she looks directly into his eyes. What Berry doesn't need to explicitly describe about restraint in longing is more erotic then many romance novels I read in my teens while I was trying to figure out what it would feel like to fall in love. I want Pursy and Knox to read Wendell Berry first before they get some notion about romance.

And how he describes the life of those whose story cannot be told apart from the land they work and the people they share life with. The roots, the history, the beauty of purposefully limiting oneself to what is in front of you and what has already been chosen. The simplicity of PLACE and PERSON.

Wendell Berry has made me ponder deeply what I want for my children. And myself. And Grant and I after Knox and Pursy leave the house. If they choose to...Berry's characters mourn when their children leave home and settle elsewhere. Our culture prefers to give our children wings, but what if we encouraged them to come back home and be our neighbors? To be part of their lives and our grandchildren's lives. To become their friends and their social circle, along with cousins and nieces and uncles. To be unashamed to expect and hope for care when we age. To die with dignity and at peace in the family home.

Where I used to want the freedom to work and learn and live wherever our wheels stopped, that space in my brain is now flirting with homesteading and communal living.

Wendell Berry, you messed me up, sir. I expect I'm not the first.

Saturday, April 16, 2016

Urban Trail Running

I have been a runner for a long time. It started in junior high when I realized that team sports were never going to work out for me, I had a nasty habit of overconfidence in my ability which usually ended up in the ball going past me. I broke my thumb when I was a freshman at the batting cages because I wasn't exactly sure where my hands were supposed to be on the bat. I played volleyball for a year or two but my favorite part was rotating out. I tried out floor hockey but was asked to leave the team for being too aggressive. Southern private school rules. I finally settled on cheerleading because my best friend was doing it, and my boyfriend was on the soccer team.

I am not really what you would call an athlete.

But I discovered running and have been lacing up for over 20 years. I love the solitude, the scenery, and the fact that no one else depends on my abilities. When I lived in Ohio I ran around the suburban neighborhoods where I grew up. In New Orleans I ran in the Garden District and on the neutral ground where the St Charles streetcar ran. I have almost died multiple times by not paying attention to the streetcar bell. Those things can't stop on a dime because you got lost in G Love and Special Sauce. In Washington DC my route was a loop from our capital hill brownstone apartment down the hill to the Capital Building and around the Washington Monument. When we lived in State College I ran around campus and some various routes through our bourough neighborhoods.

But my favorite runs will always be the foothills of the Rockies. These trail runs were impossible to do with headphones in so I ran for miles with only the sounds of my strides and whatever nature was offering that day. This attention to surrounding is important, particularly when trail running alone. One run in particular crossed my path with what I am pretty sure was a mountain lion but I only heard the growls. I did make great time running back to my car, on the upside. Another memorable run had me frozen on the trail for several minutes while I listened to a rattling on the right side and then made my peace with God before hurtling over and continuing my run.

Most trail runs weren't so dramatic. I lived in Westminster, which is halfway between Denver where I was going to school at CU and working at the Children's Hospital, and Boulder where I spent all the rest of my time and money. It took 15 minutes to drive to the trailhead and I usually timed it perfectly so I was coming over the hill into Boulder as the sun was rising. If you have never seen a Colorado sunrise, you are missing out on the biggest show off in the universe.

I would get to the trailhead, tie my car keys to my shoelaces, and take off. I never knew exactly how far I ran because I could run forever. The trail was always changing, the scenery always different, and other trail runners were always good for some short lived company. Trail running is a completely embodied experience. Every fiber in your body is ready for a rock or an animal or a drop off or a flash rainstorm. Very few other activities in life force you to hone your attention to that ONE thing. Maybe sex.

I live in the city now. A very gritty and legit city, originally built up around commerce and the steel industry, and now a hub of health care and education. For the past 4 years I have been running neighborhoods and local parks, my running career taking a back seat to my current professions of raising 2 feral children and cardiac nursing. I also had some post partum issues that made running complicated and too difficult to really enjoy for it's simple catharsis. A year ago I decided to make some changes, and with the help of a fabulous surgeon and a very supportive husband, have been focusing on running again.

And I remembered, I freaking love it.

And very recently I discovered a large urban park where trails wind around far enough away from the road that the sounds of the city fade away. There aren't mountains to scale, but if I get off the running trail and find the mountain bike trails, I am embodied again. My Spotify playlist gets clicked off and I am tuned in to the rocks and the branches and the fallen trees. It's just me and my feet and my legs and my lungs. You have to forgive me if I don't invite you to join me...I don't do team sports.

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

And All I Really Want..

Grant is usually the primary driver on family road trips. I suspect it has to do with two particular things. The first is that in our family, driving the vehicle automatically puts you in charge of music. No one else in the car can dictate what comes out of the radio, and while suggestions and requests are entertained, the final decision rests with the person in the drivers seat. This rule has kept us from auditory disasters, such as the season when Pursy became obsessed with They Might be Giants. I had put Flood on Spotify one day while cleaning the house (Birdhouse in Your Soul makes me clean faster, I can't explain it) and she LOVED it. For weeks she requested nothing but TMBG in the car, while doing homework, and as soon as she opened her eyes in the morning. It was cute for about 7 minutes. Then I remembered why children of the 90's were more influenced by Nirvana.

The second perk is more of a logistical one, which is that if you are driving you cannot mediate interactions between children in the backseat. You cannot retrieve fallen books, refill water bottles, break up pinching fights, or pay close attention to Knox counting to 10 in Spanish. The driver's seat is a magical no-parenting seat, and for the duration of the car ride, you are an individual with singular responsibility which is to get the car and its inhabitants from point A to point B. The crisis of who got more Goldfish crackers in their paper coffee cup is not yours to manage.

I do think that Grant inherently does enjoy driving, and while I don't mind it, my natural gift of falling asleep as soon as the cruise control is activated and my very unnatural lack of directional sense does seem to indicate that my place is shotgun.

On the way home from Philadelphia last weekend, our late nights with Mark and Kim and our early risings with children who failed to respect those late nights, resulted in Grant needing to take a nap halfway into the drive. We stopped at a gas station so I could grab some lemon infused Perrier (highbrow) and Lifesaver Gummies (lowbrow). I was standing in line and Jagged Little Pill started playing overhead. Immediately I began to feel angry at this guy I dated for a few months in college who broke things off with me after the 3rd time I left his apartment in the middle of the night so confused as to why he thought we were going to sleep together. Boys are so dumb.

And Alanis got that. She ranted me through many a relationship and didn't require any logic or rationale for how and why it ended. Just raw and poetic rage.

I got back in the car and immediately downloaded Jagged Little Pill the Collectors Edition on Spotify. And while I eased the car from the parking lot and back on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, All I Really Want began. Every word, every note, every feeling. Grant's head rose up from the pillow he had just rested it against and he turned to me with disbelief in his beautiful hazel eyes.

I put a hand on his shoulder and a finger on my lips, and turned it up. Rule one of being in the Martsolf car drivers seat, no one gets to change the music.

I have never seen a man try to fall asleep so fast.

Monday, February 1, 2016

I Only Eat Cucumbers for the Hydration

On Saturday I found myself sitting at a small table with a carafe of water, two books and three magazines, and a bottle of Brooklyn Sarachi Ace. The table was in my favorite Belgian pub called Park Brugue, and I was there as an excommunicated person . From my own house.

Three days prior to this lovely solo date with myself, I had put on a one woman show my husband very graciously called an Adult Tantrum. Two of my three roommates were actively participating in an activity I call "stalling" or, when I am particularly hot about it, thoughtless and selfish behavior. As in, we all needed to get out of the door within the next 3 minutes in order for everyone to get to their school/work/Bible study on time and the urgency was obviously felt by no one but me.

I ask, I remind, I chide. Then I bristle and raise my voice. When the increased volume falls on deaf ears and I realize that it isn't a hearing problem, but a lack of desire to respond, I as they say in Jane Austin novels, became undone. On this particular Wednesday, after seeing my son empty an entire laundry basket of folded clothes on the floor in an attempt to find a pair of feetie pajamas that he wouldn't be wearing to school anyway, the exhibition of my feelings was to announce that he would never be allowed to wear pajamas again in his life. Which of course, dissolved him into tears. The proof of the good life at age 4 is a pair of pajamas covered in reindeer that show no skin from neck to toe.

When Grant took me aside and reminded me that not only was my consequence unreasonable, but hugely inconvenient, he asked if I needed some alone time. Usually I can tell when I am reaching my thin ice point and send myself off with a book and a beer, but this time caught me off guard. I didn't realize how tired I was. We made a plan, and I went back to apologize and resolve things with my son.

Saturday. So I am seated at a table cozily inbetween two other tables with couples eating brunch and chatting. Once my beer glass is full and I am tucked into The Other Journal, everything becomes white noise around me. I am as good as alone. Sometimes you just need people around you that don't know you. Then as I finish up one essay and turn the page to begin the next, I hear it.

"I didn't eat the honeydew from this fruit salad. Melons are just sweet cucumbers, mostly just water. I don't like eating cucumbers because they don't taste like anything. But I eat them for their hydrating abilities."

I am a shameless eavesdropper when I am exposed to conversations worth listening to, and sitting practically at the same table to two people having a conversation like this in my ear is like a dream come true for me. My Anthropology background comes alive, and I grab my Moleskine journal from my purse and begin documenting an ethnography of the two guys I am observing. I literally cannot write fast enough.

"Did you like this omelette? I could tell it was a good one, but I am in more of the hearty cabin food mode right now."

"Modest Mouse plays State College a lot. Probably because they are from New Jersey."

"I'm pretty sure I have worms. I ate raw bacon 5 years ago in Korea and they have worms everywhere."

"What are we doing now? I want to do something outside. Like work for Habitat for Humanity."

"You tipped 8 bucks? You are making me look bad. Now I have to redo mine."

By the time these two guys finish brunch, one of them takes a phone call from a poor person who he didn't want to answer the call from but answered it he told her because "I just wanted to let you know I couldn't talk" (??), and left the pub, I was furious at having a few minutes of my precious exile taken up by their unbelievable stream of consciousness brunch conversation. I was also hysterically laughing with a completely straight face.

These two decided to leave their homes, pay a good amount of money for brunch and beer, just to talk like this to one another. And I wonder if they would have chosen to talk about any other subjects if they had known I was shorthandedly writing down as much as I could so I wouldn't forget. Like when you have a fantastic idea in the middle of the night and write nonsense on a napkin so your memory can be sparked by the few words and the entire idea can be rekindled. Right now, looking at the sentences I did manage to write down, I remember much of the conversation that flowed inbetween and connected them. I remember the way the two of them kept leaning back away from their plates like they were giving up, then returning to eating position to try a bit more omelette. I remember how one of them kept offering his hash browns to his friend.

It was the very definition of comfortable, uncomplicated, beautiful friendship that exists between human beings after a substantial amount of life has been lived in each other's company. They didn't make brunch plans to discuss anything significant or exciting. Neither of them had just broken up with a girlfriend and needed to process in sympathetic company. No one had been fired or just taken an epic trip or gotten accepted to law school or even signed up for art classes.They just wanted to have some eggs together. And my inner Margaret Mead gleefully witnessed and documented my etic perspective.

I love humankind. And while my beer and my books slowly made their way through my body, these two colorful tablemates had a Saturday brunch like they had probably had a thousand times before. But that day, they said something new. At least it was new to the girl at the next table.

Monday, January 18, 2016

Dissapointed in my Neighbors

One of my last blog posts on my Mommy blog More Than A Weed was about a man named Bill who washed windows for donations at the gas station near our house. That post here. Bill was a soft spoken man who would not take handouts, only whatever wage he earned by doing an exceptional job washing car windows. He never seemed to remember me, as he was always surprised when I called him by name and asked how he was doing.

He stood out front of the gas station, and when cars pulled in he would amble over with squeegee in hand and ask if he could wash the windows to earn "money for a little something to eat". At the rare time I didn't have any cash on me, he would take my decline with a polite nod of his head and move on to the next motorist. He was hard working, persistent, and unobtrusive.

Which is why my heart hurt when I heard the news on Sunday that he was no longer permitted to work at the gas station. Apparently, the owners of the place had received too many complaints from the community about Bill and his requests to earn money to feed himself by providing a basic service. He made people uncomfortable and they wanted their right to fill their gas tanks without being asked to help a hard working fellow man. Who, by the way, gave no guilty or angry rebuttal when his request to earn his wage was declined.

I am not a saint and there are many ways in which I fail to use my resources to serve those around me. But I could always count on Bill to remind me that my life is not the only one I need to care for. He blessed me every time I stopped for gas by asking me to write his paycheck, even just for his next meal. He answered the prayer that we pray before every meal in our home: Give us grateful hearts our Father for all thy gifts, and make us mindful of the needs of others, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

As the weather turns cold and I drive past that corner gas station, I find myself looking for Bill. And in the empty spot where he used to stand, I think of him and pray that wherever he is finding shelter and doing other work to earn his wage, that he is safe and warm. I send those thoughts through my car windows that are not as clean as they were when Bill blessed our family with his excellent service.

Friday, January 15, 2016

The Life-Changing Magic

I just recently and spontaneously purchased the popular Marie Kondo book, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up.


I'm not sure...my present season of life involves quite a few things outside of my control or time constraints, most of which are quite untidy and even border on unsanitary, in the case of my small children. I just can't be at every bathroom trip to make sure the final steps are done to my satisfaction. Being tidy is low on my list of daily goals, and even lower on my list of magical things. At the end of the day, my magic is found in a day where everyone made it to where they needed to be and back again. Where bellies were filled and bodies were clothed and we all connected around the dinner table to talk about our days. Being the parent of young children, my goals for the day sometimes don't include laundry or cut grass or oil changes or other necessities of life in the 21st century first world.

Literally there are some days where my magical goal is that no one dies.

Basic human needs. Food, clothing, shelter, school, other humans. This is all I can do some days. Of course it's not always that way...some days we find extra hours to play at the park before dinner, or grab a coffee with a friend before preschool pickup, or fold a drier full of underpants, or have sex before we fall asleep. In this season of life, magic is in the extras.

So I bought this book, perhaps because the fingers of Amazon Prime reached into my brain and scrolled down the list of Recommended Reading? Or perhaps there is something in every human soul that longs for their embodied life to be tidy. Living in the city, there are resources available to me that I like to take advantage of. There are big trucks that thunder down my street every Monday morning to take away trash and recycling from the front sidewalk. This is amazing. As are the sanitation workers who do this essential service- before Pursy was in school every Monday morning we used to sit on the front steps and wait for the garbage truck to come so the kids could yell "Thank You!" from the porch. The guys would give us a wave and a friendly chat while they disposed of our trash, and both of my kids at one point wanted to be garbage men when they grew up. I told them if that's the case then they should watch the guys who work our street because they do their job with excellence.

I also have a Target a few blocks from my house, with endless aisles of tubs, crates, barrels, bags, shelves, etc. to help me organize anything in any room. I can create a place for anything I don't want lying about on the floor. We have small lidded boxes for individual Lego sets, large cloth bins for gloves and hats, big plastic tubs for Christmas decorations and outgrown baby clothes and power tools. If I wanted to, I literally would never have to actually look at anything we possess. Just a stack of containers with a lid that snaps tight.

It does (and is) begging the question in my head and heart, why do I keep all the things I put away? If I am not using it and don't want it within arms reach, why do I need to hang on to it? I believe this is the questions Ms Kondo raises in her book, and her answer is to pass along things to others who might benefit from having that particular item within arms reach. That magic is found not in acquiring, but appreciating. This is all from reading the description on the back of the book and chatting with other people who have read it. Maybe I can save myself some time?... but I've already purchased it (acquiring fail already).

Of course, this is not a new concept from Ms Kondo nor is it a revolutionary idea for me. I have a habit of purchasing things spontaneously and there is a stack of books on my bedside table bearing witness to my love of buying books. Is a beautiful but unread book in a pile better then one lonely book with a bookmark in it?

Knox comes home from wherever his travels take him and immediately runs upstairs to put on his feetie pajamas. And this habit annoys me to death, especially when we weren't done doing things that require clothing, but the look of joy on his face when he runs into the kitchen in those damn feetie pajamas is better for him than a pile of Octonauts toys. He knows what magic is. And he knows where to find it. At immediate arms reach.

Saturday, January 9, 2016

The Welfare of my City

Urban Sunrise. Not exactly the Rockies...

I grew up in the suburbs of Columbus, Ohio. My parents still live in the same type of home, quiet neighborhood, driving distance to grocery store and movie theatre and mall. We moved exactly twice during my time living in my parents house and I have happy memories of playing with neighborhood kids, taking the bus to my private school, mowing the grass on the weekends, going for dinner at places like Bob Evans and Applebees. It was nice. Suburban living has its own charms.

When I moved away for college, I began living urban and have never looked back. Four years ago we settled in a neighborhood in Pittsburgh's East End, and we have put down roots literally and figuratively (our backyard raised bed gardens are a work in progress, but I am optimistic). Although I drive more then I would like, I am within walking distance of just about anything I need to sustain life: food, work, bookstore, hospital, Target. My neighborhood coffee shop is Zeke's, and the owner is a single Dad named Chris who named the place after his grandfather. I am still trying to figure out the baking schedule so I can write in my Moleskin day planner the day they have the cream scones. I would rearrange my life for those scones. A new oyster bar just opened 4 blocks away from us and mixed me a fairly decent sazerac when Grant and I tried out the place for our anniversary last week.

I throw my glass milk jug in the front seat when I need to run up to Bryant Street market, and I hate paying the $2 jug fee when I forget to bring mine in to trade. The dairy farm that sells me my hormone free, roughly homogenized whole milk also provides me with free range eggs that sometimes still have bits of chicken stuff on the shells. I try not to think about what that stuff is...I live in the city because I prefer to be a bit removed from whatever lines the inside of a chicken's egg chute. In the months when Pittsburgh is not a frozen tundra, I can walk to several neighborhood parks and the city pool, ride my bike to work, and map my run to the reservoir at Highland Park for an exactly 4.1 mile loop.

I know my neighbors. When we first moved into East Liberty, the house on the right was rented by a small time drug dealer and his girlfriend, their 3 girls, and several rotating house guests. They were the nicest people you could ever want to live beside, and my kids enjoyed greeting their clients as they came through the backyard on their way to a bag of weed. Across the street live a college professor and her computer engineer husband, down the street is the owner of one of our favorite restaurants for Sunday brunch, and our neighbors on the left encourage us to borrow their gas powered lawn mower every time Ernie sees me outside push mowing our tiny front yard. It really bugs him that I mow the grass at our place, and usually after I have waved at him while mowing, his 15 year old son Tyrese casually wanders over and offers to mow the grass for me. I always decline and he always makes sure I know that his Dad made him come over.

Living in the city isn't always charming and sometimes the excitement is not the sort that makes you want to invite your parents to move next door. The year we moved in there were 3 murders of young kids in quick succession, revenge killings, that rocked the neighborhood pretty hard and led a group of local pastors and city advocates to have Friday evening prayer gatherings for a few months after. Some evenings we sit on the couch in the living room with our heads cocked trying to figure out if that sound we heard was gunshots or fireworks. We have picked endless pieces of litter out of our front yard, my purse was stolen off of the front seat of our car while I carried groceries up the steps of the house, and my parking tickets for forgetting to move my car on street sweeping day are paying for some renovations on a wing of the courthouse.

The verse from Jeremiah talks about seeking the welfare of the city. The prophet was speaking to the Israelites who were in exile from their homeland. Jeremiah was encouraging them to build homes, marry locals, work hard, and be successful. Because as the city prospered, they would prosper. It would do them no good to cloister themselves off and wait to be returned to Israel and the promised land. They were living NOW in the city God had placed them in, and their charge was to seek the welfare of that city.

Grant and I take this call as our own, and want to seek the welfare of Pittsburgh, this city God has placed us in. We are sending our daughter to Pittsburgh Public Schools, we are going to an urban Anglican church, we buy our food from the local farmers co-op, have our neighbors around for G&Ts on the back porch, and I drive a particular way home to get gas from the place where a homeless guy named Bill does a bang up job washing my windows while we chat about the weather.

We live here. We want this city and the inhabitants of it to thrive because our welfare is tied to the welfare of the city. Statistically, 80% of my daughters classmates will be below proficiency reading level by the 3rd grade. So I spend a few hours every Friday morning in her classroom hanging out with these kids, because Pursy's welfare is tied to theirs. I have a network of working Mamas in my neighborhood that I can call when my babysitter has an emergency and I need help with my kids so I can get to the hospital for my shift. Their kids are in our homes, and ours are in theirs. We have to balance work and family so we need each other. Because as their welfare goes, so does ours.

Knox and Pursy take gymnastics classes and swimming lessons at the local Boys and Girls Club. Their coaches are dedicated and wonderful, and I regularly have a random kid ask me if he can use my phone to watch YouTube videos while I sit in the cafeteria waiting for the end of class. Not sure if I am contributing to productive welfare for that kid, but I have seen lots of Silento music videos I would never otherwise have seen. We have a group of Christians in the East End who get together on regular Tuesday evenings for happy hour because not many of us have family in the area and community is essential for health and life. Our welfare is tied to the heartbeat of this beautiful City of Bridges. So I want to write about life here, and how we keep deciding it's worth it to give up a bigger backyard and a garage and a premier school system and a quiet street and a view of the night sky for a life in the city where our vectors intersect in the most beautiful chaos we could ever want for our selves and our kids.

Thanks for reading.