More Worms

In my next life I will be the inventor of the toddler-proof makeup tube.  Do you think they'll sell?  Oh, shoot, probably not as well as the non-toddler-proof ones.

13-y.-o., on Greenville's weather patterns: "So, it rains, like, ten days a week here?"

"When we traded homemaking for careers, we were implicitly promised economic independence and worldly influence. But a devil of a bargain it has turned out to be in terms of daily life. We gave up the aroma of warm bread rising, the measured pace of nurturing routines, the creative task of molding our families' tastes and zest for life; we received in exchange the minivan and the Lunchable. (Or worse, convenience-mart hot dogs and latchkey kids.) I consider it the great hoodwink of my generation." (Barbara Kingsolver, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle)

You know, if you turn the tail on the "q" around when you're writing out your to-do list hazily in the morning, you'll be ordering guilt fabric instead of quilt fabric.  No, no, I think I will not order any of that guilt fabric.

11-y.o. daughter on history's lessons:  "If there's one thing I've learned, it's never trust anybody who isn't in your...well, just never trust anybody."

"The Mayor was a little, fat, breathless, beetle-shaped man, who hastened with difficulty owing to his robe of office being trodden on by the Constable, who ran close behind him in order to finish eating a banana in secret.  He had some more bananas in a paper bag, and his face was one of those feeble faces that make one think of eggs and carrots and feathers, if you take my meaning." (Norman Lindsay, The Magic Pudding)

Newest creation from my husband, the king of apropos portmanteau words: side-trapped.  As in, "I can't come help now, you sent me this link and totally side-trapped me!"

"Don't mistake your child's caution in new situations for an inability to relate to others.  He's recoiling from novelty or overstimulation, not human contact."  (Susan Cain, Quiet...) 

What you say: "Kids, be quiet for a few minutes, please.  Daddy has a business call."  What they hear: "A dull roar is no longer suitable.  Let's peel the roof off this place!"

Is it really necessary to disabuse my children of the notion that those black dots in the middles of our eyes are called "peepholes"?

Was hemming jeans with ruined knees into shorts.  "Broke another needle!" said I, exasperated with that thick side seam.  "Why are you breaking so many needles?" my 12yo asked.  "Ugh.  Jeans." "Why?" he said, "Does your mother break a lot of needles?"

12-year-old, defiant, fist in air, "I will not be subject to the feudal system!"  We like to keep the bar low.

My 10-year-old daughter's three-word review of Duolingo Spanish: "Hard, but fun."

The baby came down the hall, crying.  She was completely backlit, the rays of late-afternoon sun gilding the edges of her buck naked self, everything else dark.  Poor baby, I thought, she thinks she's alone in the house.  I can fix this one, easy.  I swept her up, dispelled her fear, held her close, and discovered...that she was completely covered in potato soup.  And, now, so was I.

Dreamed that I met Martin Scorsese and found out that he'd never been to a Wal-Mart.  Spent the rest of the dream asking him deep, pithy questions like, "You mean, not even for a...a...toothbrush?  Or a can of spray paint?"

Turns out that in Turkish, there are two separate words for "Turkification", depending on whether your Turkification was intentional or not.  This means that accidental Turkification happens often enough for there to be a word for it.  Just to add another worry to your life.


halfway there

I've been silent for a while, as some of you have gently pointed out.  Thank you for looking for me, wondering where I've gone, missing my voice.  Someday, when I'm able to begin writing in earnest, it'll be you that I think of when I first take up my shaky, frightened pen. 

When we left our heroine, she had just blasted across the country and was living in a hotel, scouring the countryside for an appropriate home for her family.  She had kept her hopes and her camera up, found stories everywhere she went, and posted them to you episode after riveting episode.  And just when we were about to reach the stunning conclusion...

she stopped.  It was a cliffhanger.  Where did she go?  What will happen next?

Well, I'll tell you.  But it isn't stunning, and it isn't a conclusion.  We moved into a house in a neighborhood to wait.  And along with the waiting for the house in California to sell, and the waiting for the right house or land-to-build to come up here, I waited for what to say to you about all of this to come to me.  

Because I didn't want, on the one hand, to complain and be ungrateful.  We have a beautiful, friendly neighborhood, very manageable rent with flexible terms, good location, and a nice house that became available precisely when we needed it.  On the other hand, I didn't want to be unrealistic and gloss over the parts of this that are difficult.  We are country people in a lot of ways now, and this is not the country or a country home, by far.  So I wanted to wait until I could offer you a philosophical point of view instead of whining, glossing, or even just facts.  But philosophy is a capricious muse.  Sometimes she comes willingly, other times she makes us wait. 

We spend a lot of time in our lives wishing for something else.  I think this is human nature, and probably rather helpful to us.  It keeps us improving.  I wonder sometimes whether I spend more or less time wishing for something else than other people, but I suppose that comparison is as pointless as most others.  Maybe that's why the times when I've been able to say, yes, thisand nothing else, please are so clear in my memory.  Because they're so few.  

I stopped beneath the red oak tree in my front yard in Georgia one early-autumn day, on the way to the garden to gather vegetables and eggs.  A breeze blew, not a hot summer breeze, but one of the first really cool ones of fall.  I had goats, a garden, chickens, and a fenced acre of green grass that represented my goal of buying a milk cow in the near future.  I was writing a novel in the afternoons while my little boys napped and my older children played together.  I was beginning to make entire meals from what we grew on our land.  We had built friendships for ourselves and our children.  Our home was a retreat, out of town, far back off the road, tucked in among the trees.

I had spent so much time striving and trying and reaching that I was stunned to feel that if my life went on indefinitely exactly as it was going at that moment, I would be happy forever.  

When that life came apart, I felt that I'd been foolish.  I was embarrassed to have been so simple, and not to have been wiser instead.  We moved to California, and I tried with everything I had to create that life again.  But California has proven herself, twice now, to be a hard mistress for us.  We had to live very far from my husband's work in order to afford "the country".  The price of water and the onslaught of pests made it phenomenally difficult to achieve any degree of the self-sufficiency that's always been one of my goals.  There was a list of reasons that we left, but these were at the top.

Now we're here, where it's safe, and relatively inexpensive, where there's rain and possibility.  We're waiting for things to play out, wondering where we'll be in six months or a year.  I'm wondering just how much of each box to unpack, which pictures to bother hanging on the wall.  And at the same time, I'm wondering what all of this can teach me.  Inside, I have this struggle.  In my hands, and in my mind, are the skills to grow what we need to feed us.  But this beautiful, shady, grassy yard doesn't belong to us to dig up or cover over as we would.  Farm animals, needless to say, are not welcome here.  And yet, here is where I've got to be for now, and it's my choice, as it always is, to open up and gain something useful from this part of my life, or close down and be forever sorry for the lost opportunity.  I'm determined to do all I can to bloom here instead of wither.

So here are the questions that Philosophy has finally given me:  How can we keep moving toward goals that we feel are worthy and attainable, but we can't reach right now, while remaining grateful for and willing to learn from what's available today?  It's so easy to lose sight of one while straining to keep our focus on the other.  If what we thought was the finish line moves, can we square our shoulders and continue to plod onward without giving up, or becoming blind to the beauty of the landscape that is around us?  When we find ourselves on an apparent detour, can we step back and realize that there is no detour at all, just the loopy, zigzaggy, adventuresome road of life?  

Not so grateful that we become complacent and let our goals fall to the wayside.  Not so wrapped up in them that the journey toward them becomes flat and colorless.  It's a delicate balance, I think.

This little flowerpot on the front step makes me smile every time I go by it.  It was left here by the owner of the house, and it contained one struggling petunia.  Over the next few days, between rain showers, my three-year-old dug up the petunia, mixed black beans in with the soil, and scattered the mess all over the steps.  We swept it up and dumped it all back in the pot, and I was astonished to walk by a week or so later and discover these beautiful bean plants happily shooting up out of their container. 

And why, I wonder now, does this seem to fit?  Why do these bean plants make me so ridiculously happy?  They remind me of us in some strange way.  Country plants in a tidy neighborhood flowerpot, growing like mad where they happened to fall.  

Maybe they're a reminder that although we're not where we're going yet, we might be halfway there. 



the man I met at the coin laundry

When you have a house, and one set of laundry machines, you can do your laundry one of two ways, I've discovered.  You can wash and dry it in a series of back-to back cycles and try to get it done all in one crazy day, or you can wash a load or two every day and just keep it constantly cycling through.  Unless, I guess, you have 7 or more people and/or the amount of clothing we seem to have, in which case the laundry plan pretty much devolves into running the washer and dryer from dawn to dusk all week and hoping nobody throws up on anything. 

This week, as I may have mentioned, we're living in a hotel.  Which means we don't have access to our usual hardworking laundry facilities.  Instead, we pile up our dirty clothes in a closet somewhere until nobody has clean underwear anymore, and then we pack it all up and head off to one of man's most brilliant creations: the coin laundry.

The beautiful thing about the coin laundry is all those machines lined up side by side, waiting to take your week's laundry all at the same time.  Half an hour or so through the washers, 40 minutes in the gigantic drum dryer, and you're done until next week.  Done.  Until next week.  I will have a hard time going back to the old way, having seen the light. 

But the obvious tradeoff is that you have to haul all your dirty laundry down there, and sit around while it washes.  And feed quarters into the machines, of course.  But the laundry we've been using has a few compensations to help you make it through.  Two English-speaking TVs (and one Spanish), a children's toy area, a couple of ancient exercise machines, an arcade game or two, and a little short bookshelf full of books.  

I skimmed the bookshelf the first time we went to the coin laundry, and was impressed with the selection there.  There was a string of battered paperbacks, but many of them bore the silver seal of the Newberry Award.  Between these venerable titles, I found a book covered with Quentin Blake's unmistakable illustrations, and found I was holding the second half of Roald Dahl's autobiography, Going Solo in my hands. 

I had read The Wonderful Story of Henry Sugar, a collection of short stories by Dahl, a couple of which are autobiographical, and had been charmed by his story of how he discovered himself to be a writer.  I didn't know there was more autobiography to be had.  I'm not one of those who looks up every published work by an author I've enjoyed reading, so this type of surprise isn't unusual to me.  I operated that way once.  But then I made the mistake of reading Jude the Obscure back-to-back with Tess of the D'urbervilles and was so depressed that I decided a little airspace between works by any one author might be best.  

So I opened Going Solo and began to read about Dahl's trip to Africa to work for Shell Company, about the barmy empire-builders he met on the way, about deadly snakes and learning to speak Swahili...and the clothes were finished drying. So we folded them and left.  

My usual reaction to finding a book I've enjoyed part of is to buy it and have it sent to me, or at least check it out of the library.  But I have no library card.  I have no address.  I have got a Kindle, but I've about decided to throw that baby out in favor of the irreplaceable sensory experience of paper, and that book isn't available in Kindle format anyway.  There was no way for me to continue to read about Roald Dahl except to return to the blue plastic seats at the coin laundry and take their crumbling copy off the shelf. 

And, well, I liked him.  I know that I'm one of millions who have loved his easy storytelling style and bizarre sense of humor, but somehow when you're reading a book it feels like you're alone with the author, hearing a story that's never been told to anyone else.  So I was sad to leave him, cut off in mid-story, on the shelf at the laundromat.  

But the clothes piled up, and we were still hotel-dwellers, so a week later, I found myself in front of the laundromat bookshelf again.  Another few chapters' worth of flight training, snake-hunting, and amused easy grace, and I was completely smitten.  I looked Dahl up on my phone.  He'd been dead for 24 years.  Good.  I could be in love with him all I wanted. 

But there remains the problem of getting my hands on his book, and the first half of his autobiography, Boy.  By the end of the week I'll have an address and the slow-style laundry to go with it.  There will certainly be a measurable loss in the speed-laundry department.  But there are compensations there as well.  Who cares about all the other perks of having a house?  If I have an address, it means I can order my book.



the house of my dreams


Ever notice how life overlaps sometimes?  We like to think of time as being on a straight line, drawn on a big piece of butcher paper taped to the wall, covered with photos and dates. The past is over there on the left, and it marches on down this line toward the right.  All tidy and straightforward, right?

But in my experience it's...wigglier...than that.  It doesn't move at even intervals like it should, leaping forward or dragging instead of just ticking away a second at a time.  Sometimes it folds right around and touches back on itself so the ink bleeds through in unsettling ways.   Like when we move back to a city where we've lived before but didn't expect to live again, and find ourselves in our old haunts, using our old mental maps, almost seeing the ghost of our former selves sitting at the tables in the restaurants or driving along the streets doing errands.  I was here before, we think, and there was no way for me to give a thought to my future-self then, but now I remember my past-self standing over there, and it's really, really weird. 

My family lived in the Greenville area about thirty years ago.  We moved away before I started kindergarten, so I remember very little about that time or where we lived.  Most of my childhood took place in North Carolina, which was my family's destination when we left here.  But a friend of my parents who is still here mentioned to me that our house from that time is still around, so I looked it up.  It's currently for sale, so there were more pictures of it available than you can usually find of a house.  For nostalgia's sake, (and to see if I remembered the place at all) I began to click through them. 

I clicked through the front yard, (vaguely familiar) the kitchen (looked like too many kitchens I've seen since to remember), the dining room (just a dining room), the foyer...

and froze.

Looks like a normal living room and foyer to you, right?  But for me, it's like someone crawled deep into my brain and held up a mirror.  This living room.  The way it opens into the foyer.  I had no idea, but this is the house that shows up in every one of my dreams where a stock house is needed.  When I read something where the house is mentioned but undefined, or where the characters have to come in a front door, or sit down in the living room, my mind defaults to these rooms.  So that, over the years, I've had a ton of people living in this house in my mind.  Everyone from books.  Everyone in dreams.  Anybody that needs a normal house in a normal neighborhood lives here.  Now that I think of it, every time I read one of Orson Scott Card's articles wherein he mentions his house, I imagine him living here too.      

All this makes it sound like I obsess over this house, but it's not that conscious.  It's simply one of the backdrops that I use to fill in behind a story that's going on.  And I didn't even realize it until I saw this picture.  Which seems completely strange, since this isn't the house I spent the most time in as a child.  After we left Greenville, we rented for a year or two, then moved into a house I lived in until I graduated from high school.  We lived in this house for maybe two years, probably less.  The house of my dreams, the house all my stories live in, wasn't the house where I spent the most time, it was the first house I can remember. 

So I want to ask you about this fascinating, weird discovery.  Do you have a house that you use when one is suggested but not described?  Do you have other stock backdrops?  Why do we do this?  Did the first things we understood make such an impression on us that we never forgot them, or are our brains just lazy, figuring that the first ones were the only ones we'd ever need?

At any rate, this is a seriously bizarre feeling.  I know you're going to ask me whether I'm going to buy this house and and the answer is heck no.  Not with all those people living in it.



{chortles with glee}

5 pound bag of grits.  Not available in Southern California grocery stores.  Which I get, because why would they be, but do you know how long a 1.5 pound box lasts around my house?  5 pounds means business.  5 pounds means we're getting our grits on.



country mouse, city mouse

The Upstate Shakespeare Festival's Antony and Cleopatra. Everybody died.

I grew up in a rural place.  Not on a farm, so much.  By the time I came along my parents had already burned out on growing a garden, even.  But in a rural setting, where the woods for a wide distance around were my playground.  I spent hours alone chasing the creek to its source halfway up the side of a mountain or building a boat out of an avocado shell to float down it.  I played Indians among the trees with my siblings and friends.  We spent autumn afternoons raking leaves off our huge yard and then burning the pile of leaves and sticks in the edge of the woods in the evening.

I knew where the columbines and trilliums grew in the woods, where the poison ivy was, where huckleberries and blackberries flourished.  I knew how to make a flower crown with nothing but flowers and grass, and which vines I could pull down off trees to make little wreaths.  I ran away to the woods when I got fed up with my family.  My Side of the Mountain was like a wish-fulfillment fantasy for me.

I thought that this was the kind of childhood that everyone had.  Further, I thought this was the kind of childhood everyone was supposed to have.  So when I began to have children, and we began to choose places to live, I began to try to recreate what I loved best about my childhood for children of my own. 

And reality, that old bugbear, said not so fast.

What I learned very quickly was that in order to raise your children in a bucolic countryside paradise, you have to have a) a job that lends itself to living rurally, b) a long commute or c) enough money to live on acreage close to the city.  And I married myself a software engineer.  While that doesn't necessarily mean one must work in a city, it seems to be where the jobs are.   

So, during the time we've been raising our family, there's been this tension: city or country?  How far into the country can we get and still see Daddy a reasonable amount of time?  How badly do we need what "the country" can offer us anyway?  What are we willing to give up in order to be closer to work?  These questions cut close to the core of what makes a family work, the time balance, the philosophy on raising children.  

Now we've come to the point where we're having to make this choice again.  I am an incorrigible country mouse, I'm afraid.  When we stand in houses on lots with no land, and I feel a little claustrophobic, I think two things.  First, I think, oh, you greedy woman.  This is simply the way people do things, and you are being high maintenance.  Second, I wonder whether raising my children in a place like I want, where they have all kinds of land to run around on, makes it less possible for them to enjoy living in places like these.  Am I perpetuating this cycle, and is that helpful or handicapping?

Two nights this week we've gone to downtown Greenville and enjoyed events at Falls Park.  We left the van in little alleyway parking lots and walked down Main Street.  We looked in the windows of shops and passed people sitting on restaurant patios enjoying evening in the city.  It was nice to be right there where things were happening, where there was evening entertainment that was educational and fun, and for a moment I wondered whether I could enjoy being a city mouse.  I could walk to everything, have everyone and everything close, choose from a million different options of anything I needed or wanted.

I would love to tie this up and say that I have this one figured out, but I don't.  Fortunately, this time, "country living" isn't as far from work as it has been.  There's not such a devil's choice to be made.  And yet a choice must be made, because we can only live in between for so long.  The strain begins to tell on all of us, and we have to pick a place and begin to grow roots again.  So what would you do?  I hear the siren call of the city, but I know the country's quiet comfort too.  

Are you a country mouse or a city mouse?