Chickadee

Mark is a pretty talented handyman, and I can always rely on him to know the best way to manage anything that needs fixing around the house and yard. He prides himself on his ability to do quality work, and rightfully so. When friends or family need help with a project, they often call on him.

Every once in a great while, Mark uses his craftsman abilities for fun. There are several birdhouses in the backyard as proof. There are two bluebird houses on the east side of our yard, mounted on the chain link fence. Although, they’ve at times been home to families of bluebirds, the sparrows like them too. This frustrates Mark, but I think that if the sparrows like them, why not let them be?

Last year, he built a couple of smallish bird houses. Kacey thought it would be fun to paint one. Mark thought this was strange.

“Why would you paint a birdhouse?” He asked.

Kacey and I laughed. “What’s strange about it?”

“Birdhouses just shouldn’t be painted,” he said. I don’t know where he gets his ideas sometimes. I argued that colorful birdhouses are artsy and fun. I don’t think my argument won him over, but he ultimately gave in and told Kacey to have at it. So she rounded up some paint and went to work, creating a miniature barn for birds. When it was finished, she asked Mark to mount it somewhere in the yard. It might have gone in the big pine tree, or on the back wooden fence, but moving it to an appealing location for birds is not something that ever got done last summer.

And so the little birdhouse sat on the deck, on a shelf in the corner of the canopy’s frame. And being in such close proximity to humans and a very energetic dog, I imagine the birds just weren’t interested. The birdhouse remained empty and became patio decor. When we retrieved our patio furniture from the shed a few weeks ago, Kacey found the birdhouse and returned it to its position on the shelf. A shame, I thought. Maybe this year we’ll find a more suitable location for it.

2015-04-23One morning this week, while making my lunch before going to work, Mark told me to have a look out on the deck. Imagine my surprise when I saw a little chickadee getting comfortable with our “strange” barn-birdhouse so near to our people-house.

When I woke up this morning, I fed Lucy, then plunked a coffee mug under the Keurig and fetched the hazelnut creamer from the fridge. While waiting for my coffee to finish brewing, I stood in front of the patio door, looking absently out into the neighborhood. I stretched my arms up over my head and yawned, and just as I finished, noticed our bird friend perched on a patio chair just across from me on the other side of the glass. It had a beak full of dried grass and didn’t seem the least alarmed at the sight of me. In one quick motion, it hopped from the chair and flew the short distance to the bird-barn, disappearing inside. Looks like moving the birdhouse to a more suitable location is not necessary for now.

I realized that the bird was my simple pleasure this morning. While the world went on around us last week, it held its usual share of ups and downs. And I am grateful that my ups and downs are manageable enough at the moment to allow a spontaneous smile at the presence of such a tiny and common creature. 2015-04-25

Hanging with Logan

It’s that time of year when we start to hear the familiar whir-whir-whir of Logan’s battery-operated tractor. Lately, I’ll often find myself looking out the front window to see him cruising a wide circle between his yard and ours. He drives round and round the trees out front, and I understand from what his mom tells me, that he’s been busy chasing imaginary stray cats out of our Maple tree.

I worried last fall that Logan would grow up too much over the winter, during the long, cold months when we tend not to see much of our neighbors. I wondered if he would outgrow that sense of trust and excitement he had last summer whenever he’d catch sight of us. But spring arrived, and although Logan is taller and talking more, he’s still cute as a bug and full of wonder, and still thinks we’re some of the coolest people around.

Friday night, I wandered next door to hang out with Logan’s parents and a couple of other neighbors who were sitting around enjoying the beautiful weather. I chatted with the adults for a while, but eventually ended up blowing bubbles with Logan. He handed me his extra wand and we competed to blow the biggest and the most bubbles. Then he wanted me to blow all of the bubbles. He waited for them to land in the grass and then stomped on them, making himself giggle. The more bubbles I blew, the faster he stomped them, and the harder he laughed.

When he got bored with stomping on the bubbles, he began to chase them around as they floated in the air and tried catching them with his own bubble wand. Finally, we ended up in a “sword fight” with our wands. He was giggling so hard by then, he could barely catch his breath.

Afterwards, he asked his daddy if he would build a bonfire in the back yard. When his dad said that he would, Logan turned excitedly to me. Jumping up and down and swatting his thighs with his hands, he shouted, “Tee, you come-a bonfire?”

I had some things to do at home, but I promised Logan I’d come back for the bonfire if I could get my chores done before it got too late. I left him as he continued making the rounds with his invitations. “Jo, you come-a bonfire? Erbody come-a bonfire!”

We’ve been insanely busy here at home this weekend, tearing carpet out of the three upstairs bedrooms so the new carpet can be installed tomorrow. As I was working yesterday, I heard the high-pitched whirring of Logan’s wheels again and went to the front door to see if I could catch a moment with him. We’d found an old Fisher Price multi-tool in Jake’s closet while cleaning things out. Jake used to love pretending to build and fix things with it. I thought Logan might like to have it.

Just as soon as I could get to the front door, Logan had disappeared already. His dad was busy doing yard work on the side of their garage and I could see the tractor parked in their driveway, but no sign of Logan. No worries. I knew he’d be back around again soon enough.

I went back to working in the bedrooms. It was a beautiful day and all of the windows were wide open. It wasn’t long before I heard the hum again. This time I followed the sound to our back yard. I walked outside onto our deck and saw that Mark had opened up the big double gates so that Logan could drive in and out. I rested my elbows on the deck railing and looked down to see Mark strolling the yard with a shovel, and Logan wheeling around, pointing out spots of doggie doo for Mark to pick up.

Logan

I asked Logan if he was being Mark’s helper, and he responded in his little toddler voice, “Yeah.” But before he could say anything more, his attention turned to battling the barrage of kisses Lucy was laying on him. He hit the “gas” pedal to escape her wet, slobbery affection and was off once again to his own yard to help his dad. I never did manage to give him the toy tool I meant for him to have, but I’m sure I’ll have another chance again soon.

On thankfulness and prayer and starting to get it

Friday seemed a long time coming, and I woke up feeling relieved that the weekend was close at hand. The past seven days seemed endless, and yet there never seemed to be enough hours in any one day. I seem to feel this way a lot lately. Still, I’m not unhappy about it. It’s just surprising. I tend to generally view this period of  my life as a time when things should be slowing down. My kids are adults. My time is mine again (in theory.) Instead, there’s always something happening, projects to tackle, family or friends seeking help. There are plenty of social opportunities, and I participated in a volunteer project with some of my work mates recently. Every day I get more deeply involved in the business at work. Ultimately, I’m glad that my life is not boring. And I’m happy to see myself being less selfish with my time. Sometimes I just feel the need to stop a moment and take a breather.

I’m working every day on viewing my circumstances from a different perspective. While I used to be so quick to jump to a place of frustration when things didn’t go as planned, I’m now working on being grateful. For all of it. The difficult coworker doesn’t seem nearly as difficult when I consider that her constant presence in my work-life might be meant to teach me something about myself. I’m able to slough her off a lot quicker these days, and even … dare I say it? Appreciate her at times. Challenges that don’t go my way feel less defeating when I see them as a chance to tackle something from an angle I hadn’t considered. And success feels so much sweeter! If and when I remember to relax and let go of my knee-jerk reactions, everything can be an opportunity to better myself, to stop letting the things of this world have such an iron grip on my state of mind.

In just the past week, I’ve learned that my best friend’s cancer has returned. A neighbor’s young daughter is unexpectedly pregnant. A coworker’s mom suffered a massive stroke and the outlook is grim. A friend is in his eighth month of a medical leave from his job and desperately wanting to get back to feeling productive. Others are in a brighter season. Everywhere I turn, there seem to be joyfully anticipated babies on their way. (One of them is the first grandbaby for my friend with cancer!) Two unemployed neighbors found new jobs. I could go on, but you get it. We’ll all have a turn. Life is filled with good and bad. It’s not how much luck, fun or fortune you have. It’s how you manage to face the difficulties, and all of it, that determines whether or not you’ll be happy day in and day out.

I’ve heard it my whole life – that feeling sorry for yourself gets you nowhere. But it’s a concept that never really sunk in for me until I got “old.” When I woke up yesterday morning, it was with a slight sense of reluctance. There was a lot awaiting me not only at work, but in the weekend ahead. I had no concept of how to rein it all in. But there was also a voice reminding me to stop worrying. I didn’t have to have all the answers at that very moment. And somehow by the end of the work day, I’d made some real progress. I didn’t even feel that I’d had to fight that hard to get where I needed to be. The weight on my shoulders seemed to have lifted.

I find myself praying a lot more these days, asking for help for those who are struggling. But I also ask that I will see ways I can help. What words can I offer? What can I physically do to help someone else? I ask for help in getting out of that selfish state that makes it so easy to think that either I can’t help, or someone else will cover things. I remind myself to be thankful for the good stuff, and even for the things I’d rather not have to deal with. And in doing so, I’m better able to see how fortunate I am, and have been in my own life. I look back on things I’ve always wished I could change about my life, and from this distance, I can see that they held a purpose.

This weekend doesn’t hold any hope for slowing down. We somehow have to empty three bedrooms worth of furniture and belongings into some other place in the house, and then rip out the old carpeting in those rooms before the installer comes on Monday to put in the new carpet. I’m running Fun Night for our couples bowling league tonight. And since my parents have suddenly decided they’re ready to sell their house … tomorrow, my sis and I will be helping clean and purge in preparation for the showings they hope to start having within a couple of weeks. I’d kind of rather be doing anything else on an early spring Sunday that promises to be warm and beautiful. But whatever! We’ll figure out how to make it good.

I’m in a pretty good place.

A History Lesson at the Carpet Store

So many experiences these days remind me that time is passing. I’m frequently reminded that I’m growing older, but not in a way that bothers me. It’s more like … I don’t know … a gradual acceptance.

I remember right after Mark and I were married, we lived in the upper level of a duplex his parents owned on Reaney Street on the East Side of St. Paul. It was located in the very inner edge of the city, where our grandparents had built their lives so many years ago. Mark’s sister, her husband, and their two kids at the time lived in the larger, lower level. It had been Mark’s grandparents’ home years ago, before it was divided into multiple residences. The Reaney house had beautiful, dark, ornate woodwork, and solid six-panel doors. Our upper level bathroom had an old-fashioned claw foot bathtub. The basement was dark and dank. Only a portion of the floor had been cemented. The rest was dirt. The place had history, and possibly a few ghosts!

I didn’t appreciate any of it at the time. To me, it was all old and dusty. It belonged to someone else and I didn’t feel at home there. I wanted to live in a new place. I wanted to be in a young neighborhood, in a house with bigger rooms, and a yard with more space. I wanted my house to be more than an arm’s reach away from the ones next door. I wanted to invent my own history, not fit myself into the spaces someone else had created. Most of all, I wanted to separate myself from the changes of an aging neighborhood. All I could see back then was the decline and I wanted to get away.

Mark and I were very fortunate to be able to build our own home in a brand new neighborhood within our first year of marriage. We settled in a suburb not all that far from the old place in St. Paul, and still close to our parents and families. Our house was simple, and by no means a mansion. But it was ours. Over the years, we made changes and improvements. We made it truly ours. And looking back over the ups and downs of life, I know we’ve been blessed.

But … the desire to separate myself from the East Side has mellowed. I grew up on the far edge of that area and a part of me will always consider it home. Not that I want to pack up my things and move back there. The sad reality is that many of those neighborhoods are in serious decline. A lot of the homes have become rentals, with absentee landlords. There is a lot of crime. But the history of that place still shines through. I still look at the old homes and wish I could live inside a place so beautifully designed as many of those houses were.

We’re planning to put new carpet in the three bedrooms in our upper level. One of Mark’s sisters and one of his brothers have recently carpeted spaces in their homes. Both made their purchases at Deluxe Carpet, which happens to be on the east side of St. Paul, just a few blocks from the old duplex where we lived during our first months of married life. In fact, we purchased our original carpet from Deluxe when we built our house. When we learned from Mark’s siblings that the owner at Deluxe guaranteed he could beat any other retailer’s prices, it only made sense to go back there.

Deluxe Carpet is located in a pretty ugly section of St. Paul, in my opinion. But looking out the wide front window of the store, you can see a few old houses. One of them was restored in the not so distant past. It has the wide, open front porch that used to be a standard on almost all of the East Side’s homes. I’ve always wished for a porch like my grandparents had. There’s a building across the street from Deluxe that used to be a meat market. The brick side of the building stills displays large, painted, peeling letters advertising the now defunct business.

Inside the store, it was quiet. Mark and I were the only customers there on Thursday evening. Phil, the owner, gave us his immediate and full attention. I’d forgotten what it was like to have a store representative come to us, one who was passionate about his business and who knew the answers to every question. Phil’s enthusiasm to help us find the exact, perfect carpet was impressive. He asked questions. He talked a mile a minute. He led us to various rolls of carpet and extolled each of their qualities.

I could almost see the light bulb go on over his head when he raised a finger and said, “I want to show you something. It’s new and different, but I just want to see what you think. You might hate it, but you might love it.”

“It” was a unique style of carpet, of which Phil had been able to purchase a roll at an unbelievable price. There was plenty of it to carpet all three of our bedrooms and he said it was all the up-and-coming rage on the east and west coasts. We learned that here in the midwest, our trends tend to follow just behind the coasts. If we decided to purchase this trendy carpet, we’d get in on the front end of the trend for a price much lower than it will be in the coming months.

Phil led us to a back storage area where more rolls of carpets were stacked on high shelves. He needed to rearrange some things in order to get to the one he wanted us to see. While he drove a little forklift around, rearranging, Mark and I stood and looked around the old building. I pointed out a painted design on one of the walls above a set of doors.

Deluxe 2015-04-09 a

“Lookit that,” I said to Mark, pointing. “I wonder what this place used to be.”

We looked along the upper portion of the walls and saw more evidence that something once existed before this was a flooring store.

Deluxe 2015-04-09 b

Mark pointed to the right of the painted design I’d first pointed out. Above supplies and more carpet rolls, we could just see a wooden arch with more design surrounding it. “I’ll bet this was a theater at one time,” he said.

When Phil had extracted the carpet roll, Mark asked him about the history of the building.

“Oh, yeah,” Phil confirmed. “This place was built in the early 1900s. They used to do vaudeville here.” He pointed out the doors below the design I’d first noticed and explained that they led to “back stage.” He went on to tell us all kinds of history about the place and I was momentarily transported back to the heyday of the East Side.

We ended up spending a lot more time with Phil, observing samples of my carpet choices in different lights, and eventually with Mark and Phil swapping stories of people they had in common, and the way it used to be in the neighborhood back in the day. I’m guessing it was near closing time (8 pm) when we finally said goodbye to Phil. I’ve since decided against the trendy carpet that he was so anxious to show me. One of the other choices won out, and we are definitely buying from Phil!

Well, who’d-a-thought?

Last weekend found us hosting yet another family holiday at our house. A couple of years ago, I swore I would never do it again. I did do it again, but not without a lot of stress beforehand and resentment afterwards. And last weekend, we were doing it yet again. I decided not to get crazy about certain things this time around.

Our family gatherings are supposed to be a group effort. The host family always tends to incur the largest share of the expense, cooking the main course, and purchasing beverages and incidentals like condiments and such. Other family members are supposed to contribute side dishes or desserts. Since my parents have stopped being able to do it, my sister and I take turns hosting the family gatherings.

I’ve attempted to orchestrate a nice meal in years past, and this was often met with a lack of commitment from some other family members as to their food contributions, if any. Seems some people don’t take well to suggestions as to what they might contribute. There was that Christmas when one family member showed up with spouse, a bunch of kids, and a 12 pack of Pepsi. (I’m not still bitter! Really.)

This time, I chose to let go. I decided to cook what I was cooking, and if everyone else showed up with pickles, cheese and crackers, then so be it. At least we would all be together. Who knows how much longer we’ll have the luxury of all of us together. I also decided to use flattery when trying to determine who was bringing what. I told one brother that I remembered he made a mean pecan pie. And would he consider baking something for our Easter brunch? I asked the other brother if he was bringing his famous quiches again and he said he might, but if not, something equally tasty.

I’ve come to realize that all those times I allowed myself to stress out over whether others were cooperating with my plans for the family gathering, I was only punishing myself. No one else was tying themselves in knots over whether or not the meal would be well coordinated, or if everyone was contributing equally. Just me.

I decided not to get crazy this time over things like the carpet needing a good cleaning. (There are a few family members who don’t bother to remove their shoes anyway. And food was bound to get spilled.) I refused to worry about whether Mark had really dusted the family room to my satisfaction. Brad and Kacey were home for the holiday weekend and the whole family pitched in with cleaning, shopping and setting up our little house to somehow seat and serve twenty-one people.

I was so relaxed that I happily left the house to go bowling in our league on Saturday night. And I bowled the biggest game of my life!

2015-04-04b

Yeah, that was fun!

I woke up early on Easter morning to take care of the finishing touches. When family started showing up, I was blown away. The 12-pack of Pepsi brother brought two big pans of sweet rolls, two coffee cakes, two homemade pecan pies, and a homemade turtle cheesecake. And the quiche brother brought, instead of quiche, two huge, homemade breakfast pizzas. All this accompanied our traditional Easter egg bake, ham, polish sausage, specialty breads, hard-boiled eggs and fresh fruit. We were not lacking for things to eat!

I’d also let myself off the hook with dishes. I’ve spent too much time on previous holidays, in the kitchen with my sister, washing the good china and silver while everyone else gets to kick back and visit with my parents. I bought party plates this year. Instead of washing china, we just threw ’em away. And no one cared.

Dad led a nice Easter prayer before we ate, and I was rather enjoying it, until I heard him add, “… and Lord, may we each reach out to another family member today. Someone maybe we don’t feel so close to or happy with…” I know my Dad had a good point, but … My siblings and I looked around at each other. We think we were getting scolded via the Easter prayer. It wasn’t necessary. We all played nice and Easter brunch was a great success.

I think the biggest reward, for me, came from the 12-pack of Pepsi brother, the one with whom I’ve experienced some incredible lows the past few years. It was early evening, and I was just settling down after being on the move all day long. I was exhausted and had curled up in my favorite living room chair and was channel surfing when I heard my phone buzz. It was a text message from the brother to both my sister and me.

2015-04-05bI was speechless. I think that’s all I ever wanted. To be thanked. If my brothers never host a family holiday, I don’t care. I would just like to feel a little bit appreciated when I do. And with this message, I did.

Women behaving badly

I went to the state bowling tournament last weekend with a bunch of women. I’m the friend-of-a-friend member of this team. A few years ago, one of my Monday league teammates got asked by one of her friends to bowl at state. The next year they needed another bowler and she asked me if I wanted to fill the spot. This was my third year with this group.

The first year is a blur to me now, but I distinctly remember that it wasn’t fun last year. That was partially because I ended up getting sick with a killer headache. Ironically, I bowled one of the best games of my life, all the while wishing for it to be over and done with. All I wanted was to pop some Tylenol and crawl into bed. And I did just that while the rest of the group went off to party for the night.

But the bigger issue was that I was surrounded by a bunch of women behaving really badly. They demonstrated the kind of juvenile behavior that at first was mildly amusing, but the more it continued, the less funny it became. I’m up for a good time as much as the next person, but I draw the line when things become disrespectful. I remember thinking after last year’s tournament that I needed to let the others know I wouldn’t be back again. But it was made clear that I was expected to join the “fun” again and my reluctance to hurt feelings ended up winning out over my desire not to go.

So last Friday, I was packing a bag once again to spend a weekend with this group and trying to talk myself into believing it could be fun. Almost from the start, things turned sour. Several of the “girls” demonstrated a complete lack of self-control when it came to alcohol, food, manners or common courtesy. Oh, and let’s not forget … the law!  Letting loose, for these women, ranged from belching loudly … in restaurants and other public places, to drinking alcohol in the van during the two and a half hour drive to the tournament. The passenger drinking continued throughout the weekend, whenever we were driving anywhere. A couple of us voiced concerns about drinking in a moving vehicle, but we were quickly dismissed. To be honest, I spent most of the weekend feeling embarrassed, nervous, or as if I needed to apologize for my teammates’ behavior.

To top it all off, I spent a good chunk of money on the tournament fee and hotel costs, and didn’t even bowl well. I was never so happy to get back home as I was last Sunday. I think I’ll have no problem saying no thanks to next year. I think I’ll just stick to my league bowling from now on.

On the bright side, our team shirts were kind of amusing!

2015-03-27

Leap of Faith

I was raised Catholic, (strictly Catholic,) and still spent most of my life not really getting it. I’ve known people who seemed almost on fire for God. And I never really understood that, although I found it rather fascinating and always thought it would be pretty cool to be that passionate about your faith. But I was never, ever anywhere near having a faith so deep.

I looked for it. I really thought I did. I thought if I put myself out there enough, in the right situations, I would find ways to experience God. When we were regular attendees at church, I got involved. I volunteered to be a Eucharistic minister. Ultimately, I just felt uncomfortable standing in front of the church serving Communion.

I joined a Bible study once. Lamentations. Bad place to start your first Bible study. I was confused and not the least inspired. And the woman who lead the group was deeply knowledgeable about all things biblical. She looked down her nose on newcomers. She left a bad taste in my mouth and I stopped attending when there were still a couple of classes left to go.

I was an RCIA sponsor once. (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults – a process  in which a person spends time learning and studying in order to become a member of the Catholic community.) I spent … I don’t know … six months or so supporting a friend who wanted to become Catholic. I attended weekly classes with her and stood beside her as she was confirmed at the Easter Vigil that year. I remember expecting to feel something really spiritual during that mass. It was the culmination of months of preparation and prayer. I expected to feel something tangible as all of the RCIA candidates were baptised and confirmed. But … nothing. I went home that night feeling disappointed. I don’t know exactly what I was expecting to see or feel. I just thought I might feel something really amazing deep down inside.

My friend gave me a woman’s study Bible as a thank you gift for sponsoring her. I tried reading it now and then with little success. Being raised Catholic, I was never required to read the Bible. Don’t laugh! That’s true. My favorite joke was made by a priest I once knew. He told the story of a woman who was going to read one of the gospel readings at mass. She asked him how to pronounce a name in the reading because she didn’t want to say it wrong in front of the whole church. He said to her, “It doesn’t matter how you pronounce it. No one will know the difference. We’re Catholic. We don’t actually read the Bible!”

Eventually I stopped attending church. I was burned out. Part of that had to do with the fact that when you get really involved in church, behind the scenes, you see and experience a lot of not-so religious people and behavior. Our church didn’t feel like a place I wanted to be and that in itself was a problem. I was merely going through the motions, and all of the ritual of the mass just made me feel distracted. No offense intended to anyone who finds God in this setting. I just felt blind to Him there. So I stopped going. It’s not that I stopped believing. I just didn’t see what good church was doing me.

For years, I was in limbo, doing little, but periodically thinking, “I should get back to church … somewhere.”

And then last summer, a coworker shared a book about faith and religion with me. And I felt a spark, which actually felt like hope, and also like happy, and often it meant being able to stop worrying, which I’d become pretty good at. Reading that book led to wanting to and actually reading more books, seeking more information, and a sense that I might finally be starting to know and understand God. I often marvel to myself that it took this long for me to begin to grasp this, but it’s also amazing enough that I’ll finally allow myself to keep finding God where I feel Him, not just where I’ve always thought I was supposed to find Him.

Most of the time this feels like an evolution to me. I find myself attempting to be more positive, more understanding, and more forgiving. Or at least striving to be those things, even while I continue to fail at them fairly often. Every day, I remind myself to be grateful, for everything, even the really challenging stuff. And I’m mellowing out in a lot of ways, I think. Sometimes it feels like a light bulb finally went on. But every once in a while a part of me wonders when all of the wonder and optimism might start to fizzle away again and I will go back to the feeling that stale way I often used to feel.

Then yesterday on lunch break at work, the conversation turned somewhat morbid. My lunch mates were talking about what kinds of personal tragedies they were sure they could never endure. Two of them mentioned friends and relatives who had endured more heartache than any one person should have to in a single lifetime. One of them said, “Doesn’t it just make you wonder if there’s really a God?”

It actually kind of hurt to hear him say that. Which is ironic because not long ago, I don’t think I would have been all that bothered. I didn’t offer a response, mainly because I just didn’t know how to respond to that. (I suppose a simple “no” might have done it.) But it was enough to realize that it bothered me. That’s when I knew, I’ve made a leap.