Monthly Archives: November 2013

the shoulds

2012 India Trip #3 025

My feet and hands, a little rough and scarred with the miles, are evidence of my wonky pursuits.

Being pampered doesn’t often rank as a way to spend time, but last summer I tagged along with a friend to a salon so we could soak our feet, have the skin on our heels scrubbed with a cheese grater, get our nails painted.  Above the sound of the motorized massage chair and the bubbles in the foot bath, we chatted, catching up while flipping through smutty magazines.  On a stool below me, a very small woman set to work on my feet, clucking about the dead toenails and calluses (thank you, running).  Ill at ease with the perch on my vibrating throne, I tried to engage her in conversation, made difficult by my general discomfort in salons, and also by the language barrier.

When I asked her about her day, she smiled and shook her head and pointed to the bottle of polish I’d picked.  “Empty,” she said, and then went to find another.

After that, I gave myself over to the experience of having my lower legs rubbed with exfoliating scrub and the pedicurist’s deft hands loosening up a tight calf muscle.

Next to us in the bank of chairs sat another woman, older by twenty years or so, who greeted us when we arrived and then sat reading a magazine while her feet were worked over.  Her long, white hair was tied back in a loose ponytail.

A half hour later, we all sat around the drying table together, cotton wedged between our toes, our flip flops on.  It was June.  The kids were about to be out of school, a busy time for families.  My friend and I were lamenting our long list of things to accomplish before summer officially began.

At a lull in our conversation, the white-haired woman leaned toward us and said, “I used to talk the same way.”

We assumed she was referring to our kavetching about kids, summer, or the eighty-seven end-of-year projects and parties.

“But one day,” she went on, “this wonderful friend of mine said to me, ‘Why do you do that?’”

In the pause that followed, I filled in the blanks for what she meant by that. Why did we make ourselves so busy?  Why did we bitch about our kids in public?  Why were we talking about Hollywood stars as if we knew them?

She leaned down and disentangled the cotton from her purple toes, then sat back up.  “Think about it this way,” she said, “there is what you need to do, and there is what you want to do.  But should?  This is a word you can take out of your vocabulary.”

“It sounds good,” my friend said, “but I have a big-ass list of things I should do today.  I definitely don’t want to do them.”

“Yeah,” I chimed in.  “I don’t know if I could break up with should.  I mean, what would I complain about?”

I considered her perspective, doubting its merit.  My life was full of what I should be doing instead of getting a pedicure.  Like playing hooky, escaping from the shoulds was part of the thrill.  In truth, the weight of my obligations felt heavy.  I’d been thinking for months about how to disconnect gracefully from several commitments, which involved going head to head with my guilt-lined Lutheran upbringing.  It’s an ugly, ongoing skirmish.  Also, I was kind of pissed.  I mean, I went to the shop with my friend to relax and not feel shitty, and here was this woman life-coaching me.  Who did she think she was anyway?

The white-haired woman nodded.  She reached into her purse and took out her wallet.  “Those are probably things you need to do. Go to work, clean the house, pick up your kids, make dinner.  Right?”

“But I should do them,” my friend said.

Gathering her things together, the woman shook her head.   “Try it, girls.  It’s very freeing.  Now I think of the world in a totally different way.  Before, I spent a lot of my time fulfilling the obligation of should.  It takes practice not to, because we’ve all been at this kind of thinking for, well, our whole lives.”  She paid the gal who’d worked up her feet, waved a goodbye to us, and left the shop.

My friend and I sat looking at each other for a moment.  “I bet she cruises the nail shop circuit,” she said. “She’s like a salon prophet or something.”

“Or full of shit,” I said.  “And also clearly has no relentlessly hungry kids to feed.  Probably gets her toilets cleaned by someone else.”

After we left the shop, I filed this encounter away, chocking the white-haired woman’s advice up to a world view of someone who didn’t pressure herself too much.  The bored rich.  A woman who read a lot of self-help stuff and hired out for every last thing.

Except I didn’t really believe that.  I kind of liked her calm, self-assured way of being, and also that she hadn’t dyed her hair or cut it super short to tame the wire out of it.  She seemed like someone I might be friends with.  We’d only had a few minutes’ exchange with her, but her words worm-holed within me all summer and into fall.  I couldn’t say should without thinking of her, without pausing to reframe my sentiment and edit out the shoulds.

Lately, John and I have been talking with Owen about choosing a college, about what he’d like to do in the world.  Our advice to him has always been to seek a path of joy and fulfillment, as well as one that will make him a living.  Every time we have this conversation with Owen, though, I can’t help but think to myself about the similar, parallel path of partnering need and want.

At the risk of seeming like a white-haired lady groupie, it occurs to me that fulfillment comes when want and need intersect in a singular pursuit or practice, and that this is a rare, precious thing.

Of course, it’s hard to hit the right groove all the time.  The dailyness of life isn’t all rainbow brilliant, shot full of light and unicorns and feel-goodery and self-worth.  My kids make me crazy. The state of the world is scary.  Fully in touch with my inner bitch, I’m not nearly as patient, loving or kind as I aim to be.

But living with purpose serves me well most of the time.  I need and want to raise thinking, compassionate kids in the world.  I need and want to write.  I need and want to garden, to know how to do things for myself, to be a good friend, to travel and know the world, to go outside and teach kids how to do the same.  There’s little room for should in any of these passions.

I haven’t quite been able to get to the same level of bliss about cleaning, driving or laundry, but it could come for me someday.

Meanwhile, in this season of thanks, I’ll sit down to the table with my family, enjoy a meal we’ve all pitched in to prepare, and know as certainly as I know anything that I both need and want to be spending my time this way.

2013 November 067

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Categories: community, family, girls, parenting, writing | Tags: , , , , | 4 Comments

arturo

what yearning looks like

what yearning looks like

For our dog Zora, spring and fall are full of yearning.  Each cusp season, she becomes a quivering, drooling, yowling mass of desire. She desires cats.  She desires birds.  She desires the mail carrier.  But what she desires most is squirrels.  Whatever constellation of breeds she’s sprung from has programmed her to believe  she will actually win a squirrel.  Any day now.

Training for the big day involves a regimen of smearing the glass with her nose to track squirrels in the backyard, whine-singing a song that will lure them to her, hurling herself at the fence they like to traverse, and going in and out twenty times a day to monitor the premises.  There are also hours of daintily gumming a stuffed chipmunk she’s had since we got her five years ago.  Other toys roughly approximating real animals have died quick deaths in a blaze of stuffing and plastic parts.  But Chippy is very precious –she would never fully ingest it.  Chippy’s squeaker is broken.  Chippy is also missing an eye and part of an ear, and looks a little an object used to foreshadow murder in a bad horror film.  It makes me wonder what she’d actually do if she managed to catch the real thing.

Zora spent the first month she came to live with us wearing a muddy track from the mimosa tree to the telephone pole to the gate to the garden in the backyard.  We’d just redone the landscaping, which she destroyed.  Her sole quest was chasing gray squirrels, especially a pair that came to play every morning about the same time.  One day I came home to find the three of them faced off, Zora crouched at the base of the telephone pole, the squirrels immobile, noses touching, fifteen feet up.  No one moved for three hours.

At our new house we also have squirrels, red ones, who make their gray cousins seem lazy and stupid.

It wasn’t long after we moved in that we met the new object of desire.  Arturo.  He’d come calling mid-morning, squatting by the back door while eating a sunflower head from our garden and looking at us through the glass.  Which is to say he was very close to the glass.  So close he used the window as leverage to extract seeds, never taking his eyes off our lives inside.  This, of course, was a thrilling new development for Zora, who could somehow hear him no matter where she was in the house.  Arturo would stay an extra beat, watching her smash herself into the glass, frothing at the mouth, just on the other side of his nuts, before he’d scamper off the deck and up into the oak tree.

Although I do often name things when I get the itch (We have a lamp called Celeste, I’m not sure why.  My truck’s name is Stella.  John’s mountain bike’s name is Jolene, as in please don’t steal my man…), I’ve never named a squirrel before.  I don’t know why Arturo is this creature’s name, except that he is VERY distinct.  He is easily the largest squirrel I’ve ever seen.  I mean, almost the size of a small house cat.  Despite his girth, he’s fast enough to still be alive, savvy enough to dodge all my attempts at taking his photo, and very decidedly the boss of this territory.

Arturo still comes calling every day, to the delight and crazed desire of Zora.  On the deck we’ve left an acorn squash that fell out of a shopping bag, one he quickly helped himself to, so he’s got extra inducement to make an appearance.  He’s clearly getting enough to eat.  He’s bigger than ever, even for a squirrel preparing for winter.  I’m a little worried about how much more weight he can gain and still get the job of squirreling done.

arturo's snack bar

arturo’s snack bar

Lately, he’s taken to sitting up on the fence near the deck.  Other squirrels in Arturo’s posse hang out there too, though not when he’s there.  In pairs usually, they run along the fence, making a chittering racket, doing a snake-charmer thing with their tales, dancing squirrel hip-hop with their back feet.

Arturo is always alone.  And he never does any hoorahing.  He just sits.  His posture is much the same as the sunflower seed window squatting, but his safer vantage point gives him extra time to taunt Zora.  Seemingly unperturbed, he eats, unblinking, languorously, while Zora throws herself against the fence beneath him, begging him to come down.

From the kitchen window the other day, I watched Arturo sitting on the fence, surveying the yard like some kind of mob boss while he consumed an entire chestnut.  It was a long squat, even for Arturo.  Maybe he’s got henchmen to deal with the Red-tails and Cooper’s hawks that troll the yards around here.  Maybe he thinks he can take out any house cat that crosses him.  It’s hard to say.

But he was clearly feeling very comfortable, because hanging down and resting against the fence was his massive nut sack.  I had no idea male squirrels could possess such impressive jewels.  But they there were, huge and hairy and disproportionate to his frame, on display as if was a rodent porn star.

I’m not going to contact Guinness Book of World Records or anything, though a quick online search tells me I’m not the first to be stunned by squirrel genitalia.  Arturo’s junk puts every photo I saw on the interwebs to shame, though.  Also, according to Uncle Google, red squirrels are supposed to be smaller than gray squirrels, and they’re more territorial than most species.  They store their booty in caches crammed with nuts, called middens, which are usually in the middle of their territory.  I’ve seen Arturo win some impressive arboreal battles against smaller squirrels.  It seems safe to say that our yard is Midden-landia for him, and if it’s true that he can live up to 10 years or more, Arturo’s here to stay, nut sack and all.

I don’t know how old Arturo is.  This season could be his swan song.  And it’s not all about love and admiration.  Days when I know he’s been mucking in my garden, gleefully digging up garlic bulbs when there’s plenty of food if he’d just climb a damn tree, I’m tempted to get a bb gun.  Not that I’d be able to hit him.  He’s far too crafty to get taken down by the likes of me.

Still, out of love and respect, Zora and I could help him lose a little weight by both chasing him, maybe help prolong his life.  After all, we are in his territory, and until one of his minions can figure out how to arm wrestle him out of it, Arturo’s the boss.

Categories: dogs, fiction, gardening, writing | Tags: , , , | 2 Comments

it’ll keep you up at night, and it’s worth it

At our house, buying a hardback book is a big event.  We splurge when authors we adore publish something new and we can’t possibly wait our turn at the library or for the paperback.  We’ll also get our wallets out for the promise of a read we can’t resist.  Not being able to resist was the impulse behind acquiring Elizabeth Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things.

Signature of all Things

In full disclosure, I never read Eat, Pray, Love.  Then and now, I rankle at the gimmick of it, at the way Gilbert pitched to her publisher a trip for healing from divorce; in three countries she’d search for love and spirituality and then write a book about it.  What really chapped my hide, in truth, was the notion that a pre-planned and pre-paid guide to healing was a self-helpish story to tell rather than a private journey.  I’m pretty sure enlightenment isn’t something you can decide to acquire, nor a thing you can pay for.  Probably I’m jealous and kind of a bitch and resistant to popular things. Divorce is shitty, to be sure, and Gilbert likely wanted to crawl in a hole and hide but resisted, but it’s been my experience that both love and spirituality are quests you can’t engage in with a head and heart full of lists and expectations.  Love and enlightenment come winging at you when you’re NOT questing, when you’re vulnerable and off-guard and open to the great mystery of being alive.

That almost every woman I knew was in a hot lather over how amazing and life-changing the book was, one they felt made them more thoughtful and stronger as a woman (a comment I heard repeatedly), only made me want to read it less.  And then even less during Gilbert’s 187 week stint on the New York Times Bestseller List.  And then even less when her story of love and spirituality became a movie (also pre-paid, I’d imagine).

Still, I was intrigued by the mission of Gilbert’s The Signature of All Things, by its ambitious romp through more than a century and across the globe, and also worried that she had “gotten” to the idea of my own novel, at least a little, before I’m finished with it.  She didn’t, I’m safe there, not that we’d be allowed in the same literary room anyway, honestly, unless I’m asking for her autograph.  But this much I believe to be true:  Elizabeth Gilbert’s book will, or should be, on the list to win the Pulitzer this year.

Gilbert’s Henry Whittaker is a plant thief in 18th century England, grifting the plants and clients of his father’s employer at Kew Gardens, making his mark in the world one small exotic cutting at a time, and then transplanting himself to Philadephia to build his own botanical pharmaceutical dynasty.  Henry’s daughter Alma inherits this vast network of wealth and her father’s love of plants. A polyglot, a seeker of wild places, a solitary child, Alma gets her mother’s sharp intelligence and curiosity, and also a reserve that renders her emotionally daft in the world.  And then there’s Alma’s figure, big and strong as a man’s, and her face, tragically plain, anything but feminine, next to the stunning beauty of her adopted sister Prudence.  Such is the stage upon which Gilbert sets her tale.

And what a stage it is.  What rises to the surface, above every disappointment heaped upon heartbreak for every character, not just for Alma, is the utter loneliness braiding these characters together, and the way they soldier on in the name of survival.  For, of course, their fates are as connected as those of any Dickensian tale.  Also, pinging around the edges of the narrative are Darwin’s theories, after all.  Alma attempts to understand the human condition inside science, seeking to crack the code of what makes mosses, a microcosm of the natural world, work in order to understand people and the way they love.  There’s scientific genius in her, which a reader believes because Gilbert’s clearly done her homework, but Alma’s quest is also driven by her own aching heart.

It’s not a flawless tale, especially toward the end when we see where Gilbert’s headed with Alma, but the choices the writer makes for her are true to the story, or more to the point, true to the Alma with whom we’ve spent so many years.

For a few days now, I’ve been unable to pick up another book.  I’m still steeping in the delicious sting of Gilbert’s story, which I took my time to read because I knew I’d be sad when it was over.  I am.

Buy it in hardback.  Read it, but not too fast.  Alma’s yearning interior and lush exterior worlds will keep you up at night.

A few reviews are here if you still don’t believe me.

Barbara Kingsolver in The New York Times

Elizabeth Day in The Guardian

Categories: book review, books, fiction, publishing, writing | Tags: , , , , , , | 4 Comments

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