Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Appreciating November

This is the part of the year when I always want to stop time.

Where’s the pause button?, I find myself asking as I look out the window at the bare gray tree branches and the lawn carpeted with brown leaves.

This isn’t about apprehension over the oncoming holidays. I like all the oncoming holidays, and I like most of the rituals and festivities associated with them, and the ones I don’t like, I try to avoid.

No, my wish to stand still, right in this one spot in mid-November, is just about needing a little more time to savor one of the very best parts of the year. The air is dry and cool: perfect for long runs.  The frigid temperatures haven’t yet descended; nor have the snow and ice.  Cold weather in the forecast means merely to turn the heat up a little, not to expect another blizzard.

And the natural world around us is just so beautiful at this time of year. The golden hayfields. The blue sky. The variegated browns and whites of the tree trunks and branches. It’s not magnificent, like the October foliage colors, nor breathtaking, like a new snowfall. Its beauty comes from its simplicity.

True, the air is growing steadily colder and the sunlight hours ever shorter. I don’t mean to suggest I’d want to live in this exact season all year round. I’d miss both the intense heat of summer and the intense cold of winter. I’d miss the smell of damp earth from the spring and the warm Indian summer afternoons of October.

But this part goes by too quickly. Once Thanksgiving is past, it starts to feel like winter and like the holiday season, both of which are appealing in their own way but also busy and noisy and demanding.

November is such a quiet time. The earth is so still and quiet and seems to demand so little right now, as the ground freezes over and growing ceases.

It’s time for cocooning and preparing for winter. Then after that, more beautiful seasons. But for now, it’s November, and nothing could be more beautiful than this.

Tuesday, November 18, 2014

Keeping busy, staying happy

Initially, it seemed like such a good idea. Since Holly was off to spend the weekend with her cousins, it was the perfect time for Rick and me to bring Tim and three of his friends up to Maine for Tim’s belated birthday celebration.  Both kids would have something special to do; neither one would feel left out of the fun.

But as the weekend approached, I began to suspect I’d taken on a little bit too much at one time. My mind was a jumble of details. Had I submitted the paperwork to the airlines for Holly to fly as an Unaccompanied Minor? Had I researched the ferry schedule in case Tim and his friends wanted to go biking on one of the Casco Bay islands? What time would we need to leave for the airport to get Holly checked in for her Friday morning flight? How many quarts of milk and orange juice would four 16-year-old boys consume in 48 hours? Did I have the two forms of ID I’d need for expedited airport security? Did Rick have the access card to the Portland garage?

By Friday morning, I thought my head would burst open and all the details would come rolling out. Just get through this weekend, I coached myself. Just get Holly safely off to DC; just keep the boys well-fed and reasonably supervised; and then you can de-stress.

And whether because of, or in spite of, my stressing over all the details, everything went beautifully. Holly had a wonderful time visiting her cousins. Tim and his friends were boisterous and cheerful, and much to my surprise, there was still food left in the pantry when their weekend in Maine ended.

Okay, I told myself when I woke on Monday morning. Now you can stop worrying about the weekend. It’s behind you and it was a success.

And then I remembered that Thanksgiving is in ten days and I still haven’t ordered our turkey (or the chicken or duck that we’ll need to make Tim’s beloved Turducken). Also the annual gathering Rick and I host every year for my high school crowd is next Monday and I should start planning for that. Also we need to choose a date for the annual holiday cookie exchange, which usually falls the first week in December. Also I should start working on our Christmas card.

It’s the nature of life as we currently live it that there aren’t really days when nothing needs to be planned or assessed or overseen. And sometimes it’s stressful. Especially at this time of year. I try to remind myself it’s all supposed to be fun, and if the stress of any individual undertaking outweighs the fun, I shouldn’t do it.  After all, we don’t have to host the annual high school gathering. We don’t even have to host Thanksgiving. And we certainly don’t have to send out Christmas cards.

But we will do all of those things, because ultimately, the fun does outweigh the stress, or the traditions wouldn’t exist.

In this morning’s paper, I read an article about homeless women in Boston who are now sleeping in parks and under bridges because the shelter in which they were living abruptly closed due to infrastructural problems.

That’s what stress looks like,” I reminded myself. “Carrying around your belongings in a cardboard box because you have no place else to put them. Trips to visit cousins….belated birthday celebrations….holiday parties….holiday poems….those are not stress. Those are recreation.”

Of course they are, and of course any one of the women in the article would happily (and probably quite capably) take on any one of my sources of anxiety.

Have fun, I reminded myself. The holiday season is beginning.

And I will. I’ll remember that the stress and anxiety are trivial compared to the joy of getting together with family and friends. And it will all be wonderful, just as it is every year. 

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

The Anti-Murphy's Law: When things can go wrong, but don't

Bad luck calls attention to itself. Good luck can be easier to overlook. We just take it for granted when things go well. But we grumble all too easily when things go badly.

So I make it a practice to try to look on the bright side of what seems like bad luck. I try to acknowledge examples of the anti-Murphy’s Law: sometimes, lots of things could go wrong, but don’t.

Yesterday, for example, I had to admit that my flat tire occurred under the best circumstances possible. Doesn't it seem like car trouble always happens when you're running behind schedule, heading to somewhere you urgently need to be, and it's dark or freezing cold or raining or ninety degrees in the shade, and there's no one available to help?

Not yesterday, and that was what I kept reminding myself as I waited for hours in the tire repair shop. My flat tire happened just after noon as I was heading to the office for an afternoon shift that could go on just as efficiently without me. It was about 55 degrees out and sunny, and my husband was working from home for the day. I had a jacket and sensible shoes on; I didn't need to go to the bathroom, and I had neither children nor dog in the car with me.

Car trouble doesn't get much better than that.

I tried to keep this in mind as I waited impatiently for my husband to meet me on the highway shoulder, and as I waited impatiently for him to put on the spare tire, and as I waited some more at the tire shop for the original tire to be replaced. By all rights, this should have been much worse, I reminded myself. Truly, the biggest thing I could complain about was that I had packed myself a delicious lunch to eat in the office and it was sitting in my car in the service bay, so as I sat in the comfortably appointed waiting area, I was growing increasingly hungry.

But even that seemed trivial. So many factors could have made the situation so much worse. Just a day earlier, having attended a late-afternoon wake for a friend's father, I'd been driving through the dark streets of an unfamiliar city. And then I met Rick and the kids for dinner, and Rick left early in his own car and I let Tim drive home so that he could get some nighttime highway practice. We could have had our flat tire after dark, with Tim at the wheel.

Or it could have been cold or hot or rainy, or Rick could have been out of town, or I could have been driving to the airport to catch a flight. I could have been in a tunnel, on a bridge, in a construction zone.

But none of these was the case. It was midafternoon on a warm sunny autumn day when I heard the rackety-rack sound characteristic of a flat tire. I pulled onto an extra-wide shoulder on a stretch of highway fifteen minutes from home and waited for Rick to bail me out.

And bail me out he did. Sure, I should know how to change my own tire. But I don't. Roadside assistance is good; a willing husband is better. And yesterday, with all the circumstances in my favor, was the best of all. Bad luck happens. But this was about as good as bad luck gets.

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Writing versus cleaning: My eternal struggle

It’s another one of those weeks when the housework has gone largely undone.

And I try not to let that bother me. I remind myself that housework goes undone when I have interesting writing projects under way. When nothing much is on the docket workwise, I have plenty of time for vacuuming and dusting. An unswept kitchen floor shouldn’t signify lack of sanitation to me; it should signify creative endeavors taking place.

But I have trouble being that sanguine about it. It preoccupies me, knowing that I’ve let my usual weekly housekeeping tasks slide.

But slide they have, because this week I have four different writing projects at four different stages of completion, each one as engaging as the next, and I just can’t seem to step away from my computer long enough to pick up a broom.

I know that this shouldn’t get under my skin the way it does. I remind myself that in the grand scheme of things – what the corporate folks I worked with years ago called the fifty thousand foot view – I won’t want to be remembered for the cleanliness of my kitchen floors but rather for the fine writing I produced.

But really, I want people to associate me with both. A clean house and a creative mind. And I don’t think the two need to be mutually exclusive.

Except that this week they are, because I’m just too busy to scrub. Yesterday I managed to clean some of the bathrooms, but not all of the bathrooms. That’s a small improvement, but since I didn’t get to all of them, I can’t cross “Clean the bathrooms” off my To Do list, so it feels as worthless as not cleaning any of them.

Perspective, I try to tell myself. No one would walk into this house and say “Ugh, dust on the bookshelf.” And even if they did, isn’t it more important to have books on the bookshelf than dust not on the bookshelf? Better still, books that I wrote?

Yes, true, all true. And I should mention that the reason all of these conversations happen inside my head is that no one else in my family cares a whit whether and when I clean. To them, the only outcome of my having cleaned the bathrooms is that they have to search in drawers for all the toiletries that were previously littering the countertop and therefore effortlessly accessible.

Soon, these four current projects will all be at press, I reassure myself. And then I can go on a cleaning blitz. A siege. A binge of cleaning.

Or I can hope for more projects. Because ultimately, I really would rather be a good writer than a good housekeeper. Although being both is still my ideal.