Walking the Cemetery

I have a friend who often goes for walks in the Salt Lake City cemetery. I’ve seen her posts and it piqued my curiosity about the place, so I asked if I could walk with her one day. She said “Of course.” So we set forth one evening. The weather was a beautiful summer evening with a storm blowing in to cool the air. We had both rumbles of thunder and a rainbow.

I felt a tremendous peace the entire time I was in the cemetery. I could feel that it was sacred ground on which I was a welcome visitor. I loved seeing all the various styles of tombstones and grave markers. Even more, I loved that everything was jumbled around and lumpy. This was a place on the hillside and things moved after they were placed.

Stones were askew and sometimes completely knocked over. Many of them were so old it was hard to read them.

Some stones were damaged. Some had obviously been repaired.

Some were completely gone.

My friend assured me that there is a record of exactly who is buried in what plot whether or not there is a marker. This is good because there were several swathes where the graves were so old they didn’t have markers or where the residents were too poor to afford them.

I loved observing the different materials used and how they weathered over time. Sandstone, though readily available locally, does not make for a very permanent head stone.

Wood is not an ideal choice either, particularly not when there are sprinklers running constantly to keep the grass green. This family solved the problem by shellacking the wood to protect it. The technique seems to have worked since the marker was put up in 1850.

This other wooden marker is about the same age. It is sheltered by a tree, which may be why it continues to stand.

The one exception to the haphazardness of the graves was in a military section, which was in appropriate order.

We stumbled on an area labelled “Chinese Plat” whose stones charmed me.

There was even a brick oven nearby, which I believe was used to burn offerings to ancestors. It may still be used. It was in good condition.

Towards the end of the walk I began to be tired and wished for a bench so that we could sit for awhile. We spotted one and walked over to it, but carved onto the seat were two names, one with death information and one without. I knew I could not sit on that bench. It belonged to her, the woman who was still living though her husband had gone.

There was another bench not too far away and it welcomed me, delighted me even. Many of the graves, even the oldest ones, had flowers. This one was obviously the bench of a grandmother. Her grandchildren had brought her the usual assortment of treasures that children often bestow on their loved ones.

We sat for awhile with Grandma Johansen and then the sky began to rumble in earnest, so we left for home. I’m so glad I had those peaceful hours walking among the graves. Cemeteries are so often depicted as frightful places to be avoided, but this one was friendly. It was full of people coming to visit and people just out walking as we were. I hope to go back and visit again someday.

Summarizing the Vacation

“So how was your vacation?”
It is a question to which I really should have an answer. I usually start by saying “Good.” because on the whole that is true. When everything is averaged out it was a good trip. If I’m feeling more honest or whimsical I’ll say “Hard to summarize.” This is also true, because the trip had three distinct stages and each one could fill an entire conversation. Often I’ll follow up with a few highlights, things I think will interest the other person. Because I’m almost always in a small-talk sort of conversation and if I try to really unpack my trip experiences I’ll be like that person who sits down and makes everyone look at slides until they’re bored to tears. I don’t want to be that person, so I keep it short and bright.

Yes parts of my vacation were dark and difficult, but only because of the emotional baggage I packed along with me. Leaving my house, Howard, my responsibilities, for two weeks was deeply unsettling to parts of my psyche. As a result I had odd anxiety reactions on the drive, frequent difficulty sleeping, and restless dreams. Of the many benefits from this vacation I think the biggest is that I have just demonstrated to that piece of my brain that I can leave for an extended period of time and it will not result in disaster. Howard is fine. Comics got made. Kiki shipped the packages. Nothing else turned into a crisis. This is good. Had there been a crisis, I’m sure we would have managed it. Instead I had to manage that part of my brain which was certain that crisis must be imminent and kept randomly flooding me with jolts of adrenaline which I then had to calm down from.

The only reason I planned this extended trip was because of my parent’s fiftieth anniversary and giving them space to go on a trip was the best gift I could think of. I would never have scheduled things this way otherwise. Now the experience is giving back to me, because I can picture an extended trip not ending in disaster. I couldn’t before. Any thing of the sort was auto-filed in the “not possible” bin. And perhaps in years previous it truly wasn’t possible. The emotional work I’ve done to sort out my anxiety is reaping benefits. Add in Howard’s anti-depressants and the work we’ve done together to identify and recalibrate family patterns, and many things become possible which would have been miserable before.

Of course we have so many things scheduled for the rest of the year that this new knowledge will have to lay idle for a while. Next year is not quite so full. Yet.

My vacation was good. I learned things about myself. I got to see beauty. I put my toes in the ocean and wore out my legs with walking. I went wallowing in nostalgia. I spent time with my Grandma. I gave time to my parents so they could vacation. I reconnected with family and friends. I spent time with my kids. It was a good trip. I’m glad to be home.

Over the River and Through The Woods

Over the river and through the woods to Grandmother’s house we go.
I sang the phrase to my kids as we headed east from Marysville, California on I-70. The road still feels familiar to me, though I haven’t seen it in a decade. I traveled it multiple times each summer throughout my childhood as our family went to visit Grandma’s house. The words really fit our journey as the road winds up a canyon complete with trestle bridges over the river,

three tunnels,

and lots of woods.

Sometimes the woods are broken up by impressive rocks.

It is a stunning drive. I highly recommend it, but be prepared for winding roads next to precipitous drops. Also pick a day with nice weather. In bad weather the road can be downright terrifying.

As we drove I subjected my kids to nostalgic stories. I think they half listened, but speaking the stories mattered to me, so I talked. We were adding two hours of driving to our trip home in order to stop by and see my Grandma’s house. I’ve felt a longing to see it in the past few years.
It is a strange little house tucked into a tall pine forest.

Who ever built it, used local materials and much love in it’s construction. It is created with a combination of local rock, pine logs, concrete, and clapboards. The roof is made out of sheets of airplane metal. There isn’t anything standard about this house.

I can see the love that went into creating it. There are small details everywhere. I know the love that went into maintaining it. Grandpa was always fixing things and making things better. It was their shared project and they had many a lively argument about how things ought to be done. Or rather, Grandma filled the air with words while Grandpa pretended he couldn’t hear her because he’d “lost” his hearing aid again. Then Grandpa would fix things how he thought they ought to be done.

Right now nobody lives in the house. It is watched over by a neighbor except during the times when my parents bring Grandma up to stay for a bit. Grandma can’t stay by herself anymore, not safely. I’m sad to see the place empty. Grandma loves it still. My siblings and I love it too. It is a place of memories. I remember the giant garden they used to grow.

That high in the mountains there is only a short growing season, but Grandma and Grandpa managed. They even coaxed a peach tree into bearing fruit though their neighbors said it couldn’t be done.
Here is that same garden plot today.

I was pleased to see that Grandpa’s rock wall was still standing.

It’s been there for a very long time.

We didn’t get to go inside. Grandma has the only key and she doesn’t like people going inside when she is not there. Part of me felt strange driving two hours out of my way just so I could spend thirty minutes crunching through dried leaves to look at the exterior of a house and take pictures. Stories spilled out of my mouth as I walked with my kids. I would point to things and tell them how those things used to be. In my eye “how it used to be” is so clear.

Pretty sure my kids just saw the things as they are.

Grandma keeps talking about selling the house and land. She knows she’s not taking care of it, but letting go is hard and the effort necessary to make it ready for sale is beyond her. My parents will sell it after she’s gone and we will all grieve. We all love the house, but none of us want to live there. It is in a tiny town with few jobs available and the house itself is problematic in a dozen ways. The rooms are oddly shaped. It is all constructed under the assumption that the primary heat source would be a wood burning chimney in the center. That never worked well, so now there is a wood burning stove and a smattering of built-in electric heaters.

One year my parents brought Grandma up in the spring to discover mushrooms growing in the front room carpet from a leak in the roof. They called a guy to come fix it, he took a look and quoted a really high number. My parents gulped and agreed to pay it. Then the guy started working for an hour and said “never mind. It can’t be done.” and left. They finally found someone else willing to do a completely non-standard patch job. I doubt a single thing in that house is up to current safety codes. Yet there is a piece of my heart that looks around and says “surely this can be saved and made beautiful again.”

It will likely be purchased by someone who wants the land and who will tear down the house and the garage behind it. So I took pictures, many pictures. When the time comes, I’ll help clear out the contents and I’ll take even more pictures. Because someday when I drive over the river and through the woods, Grandmother’s house won’t be there anymore.

My California

I imagine that people who have never visited California picture it as beaches and palm trees. California = beaches and palm trees. It is true that the state has an abundance of both when compared to most of the rest of the world, but for me those are not the things which make the place feel like California. I suspect that every person who has visited there will have their own list and those lists will vary greatly depending on which part of the state they went to and what interests them. I lived in California for the first eighteen years of my life and this is a photo tour of my California.

The first thing I wish I could share is not photographable. It is the feeling of the air. I can sense the ocean in the humidity and mildness of the air even in the parts which are hot and dry. It is like a blanket, mostly comforting though occasionally stifling. When you get within a few miles of the ocean you can smell it and taste it in the air too, but further inland it just gives a feel to the air that is gone once you cross the Sierra Nevada mountains. That air makes me want to wear light clothes and put on sandals, even if I’m there in January.

Of course we must start with a palm tree. They definitely feature in my California.

But for me palm trees probably mean something different than most of the world. This particular palm sits in the middle of the next-door neighbor’s lawn. It used to be much shorter and there used to be two of them. They were constantly full of the sound of cooing pigeons, burbling, nesting, flapping as they flew in and out. I know my neighbor thought of them as a huge nuisance, but I liked them. There were other birds too. Sometimes we’d find baby birds that had fallen out of the nest and attempt to save them. It never worked well, but we tried. One year a pair of kestrals decided that the palm was a good nesting place. We got to watch them teaching the fledglings. The neighbor kids caught some of the fledglings and kept them in a cage for a few days before they were informed that holding birds of prey is illegal. The parents came and retrieved the fledgelings as soon as they were freed. But the coolest of all was the pair of barn owls who lived up there, one per tree. We’d see them fly out in the evenings and sometimes heard them. We sometimes searched for, and found, their owl pellets on the ground. I loved knowing that owls lived in the palm next door.

So for me a palm tree is a bird sanctuary. I love them for that, though they are, sadly, not easy to climb. Some time in the past fifteen years squirrels moved into the neighborhood and took over the palm tree. This did not please my neighbor, who put a metal sheath around the trunk to keep them out. So now the squirrels nest everywhere else instead. Once chased out, the pigeons have not come back. The palm tree is quiet now.

While I’m talking about trees, this is a pepper tree.

You see them all around the bay area (surrounding San Francisco bay.) They’re like willow trees in that the branches droop and trail. This one has been trimmed. By preference the branches will trail all the way to the ground. We had two of these next door as well. I loved the spicy smell of the leaves, it was particularly sharp when they were crushed. This meant that pepper tree leaves were part of many childhood potions. As pepper trees age, they hollow out in the middle. Old ones become something of a hazard because they split open or branches fall off. We knew that one of them was hollow because it was filled with a beehive. We called it the Bee Tree and stayed away from it. I have many bee tree stories, but that would be too long a digression for this tour.

This same neighbor (she had all the interesting plants) had cactus.

There were century plants, prickly pear, and that tall one. We used to go pick spines off the cactus for part of our games and she used to scold us and tell us not to. About four years ago one of her century plants finally sent up a tall spike and bloomed. Supposedly they only do that once per century, so I guess the cacti had been there for a while.

Further out than my neighbors yard, I have fond memories of these juniper bushes.

They have the weirdest looking berries.

People always complained when we picked things off their decorative plants. So we only picked a very few when they weren’t looking.

In our front yard we had a bed full of ivy just like this.

I think someone planted it picturing it climbing up the brick of the house. Instead it wanted to take over the ground. We didn’t like the ivy much, but the big snails who lived in it were pretty cool. We liked them. I think my parents finally got rid of the ivy on their third major eradication effort. The stuff was hard to kill.

The neighbor across the street had a bottlebrush plant.

She was a second mother to me and didn’t mind when we picked stuff in her yard.

So now it sounds like I spent my entire childhood filching plant matter from the neighbors and making potions with it, which is possibly true. Also I can see that this tour perpetuates the idea that California is filled with green and growing things. It is, so long as humans are willing to throw water around. The untended areas all look like this.

Rolling hills of yellow dry grass. (That row of trees in front is human planted.) It is lovely when seen from a distance, particularly when the wind makes the grass wave. It is also a significant fire risk, so most of the hills have fire breaks mown across them. There are also scraggly trees.

Here is an example of more natural landscape.

The trees in this photo are big because there is an aroyo right behind them. Aroyo = stream, many things in California have Spanish-based names because of the settlement history of the state.

You can see some of that influence in the architecture.

There are lots of buildings featuring stucco and slate roofs. Those clay tiles work great for managing rain, they’re awful anywhere it freezes.

This next building I have always loved. It is a feature of my home town.

I don’t know the history of the building. I’ve never even been inside. I’m not Catholic and I feel shy about asking to tour someone else’s sacred space. Maybe someday. I understand they have beautiful stained glass windows. Sometimes I got to glimpse them from outside if the interior was lit after dark.

While I’m touring man made things:

Yes it is a mailbox, but this one is my neighborhood mailbox. I walked past it every day as I walked home from elementary school. I remember the day one kid put a dead mouse inside it and hid to see if the mail lady would scream. Then he was told he’d committed a federal crime. He was terrified the police would get him so he ran away. I’ve noticed that California has lot of neighborhood mailboxes. Utah does not and I miss them. I know I can leave letters out in my personal mailbox at the end of my driveway, but somehow that feels less official than taking a short walk and dropping a letter into a tardis-blue box. (Are they bigger on the inside? Do the letters travel through time and space to reach their destination? I like mailboxes.)

I suspect the difference has to do with the fact that most California houses have mail slots on the house rather than mailboxes near the street. It is a solution to a problem. I see other solutions to other problems everywhere, the landscaping of houses for instance.

Those rocks are not a gravel drive. They are small river stones in place of a lawn. Many yards do this, have spot plants with decorative rocks or pavement. Utah is all lawns, which is somewhat silly in a high desert, but we have a huge watershed to support them I guess. Also that round tree, they are everywhere. I don’t know what they are, but the round shape is created by periodically shearing off all of the branches until you have a trunk with two or three large branches off of it. Then the tree freaks out and grows long whippy branches off of the branch stumps. It is not my favorite treatment of trees. Though the leaves turn a beautiful golden yellow in autumn and they’re great for leaf jumping.

Here is another example of California landscaping.

This yard has looked exactly the same since I was seven years old. Sadly the yard across the street removed their little decorative wishing well. They probably got tired of kids sneaking into their yard to toss things in it. Not that I know anyone who would do that. Ahem.

This landscaping was new to me, but I really like it.

They put some effort into creating a lovely scene rather than just throwing down rocks and calling it good. They’re going to spend the next 10-15 years trying to keep kids from wandering off with all those lovely blue rocks.

I could probably keep going describing the California I knew growing up. Each memory I write trails a dozen more in its wake. Instead I leave you this.

It’s a bird on a telephone wire. There are poles and wires everywhere, at least in my home neighborhood. In more modern developments they probably buried the wires. Or maybe they can’t due to earthquakes. I just know that as a teenage birdwatcher I spent a lot of time staring at birds sitting on wires. This one is a mockingbird. They don’t live in Utah and I miss them. California has lots more birds in more varieties than Utah. I miss that too. But I particularly miss listening to mockingbirds outside my window. I wish I could convince them that Utah is a nice place to live.

I visited with a friend while I was in California. She caught me looking up at a palm tree and swinging my be-sandaled foot.
“You miss California! You should move back here.”
I do miss some of it, but not all of it. I’m glad to visit, but it isn’t home anymore. I can tell, because I go to California and write a tourist-type post pointing out all the interesting things. I’m not sure I could do the same for Utah. We have interesting things, they feel normal for me and I hardly notice them anymore. California is nice to visit, but Utah is home.

BYU Special Collections Tour

If you are ever offered the opportunity to tour a university library’s special collections department, say yes. Howard and I got just such a tour today deep in the basement of the Harold B. Lee Library on BYU campus. On our way in, they gave us bright red visitors badges and our very own security guard. Though really his job was to protect all the things from us, so I guess he wasn’t really our guard. We also had three librarian archivists leading us on the tour to show us the coolest things. It was part sales pitch “See, we’ll take good care of the things that you give us.” But mostly they were excited to showcase their collection and genuinely thrilled at the history that they’ve collected, restored, and preserved. Justifiably so. I came away filled with awe, not just for the things they showed me, but for the dedication and love that goes into making sure that generations to come will be able to see the same things.

The first thing we noticed were the shelves themselves.

They looked like a wall when we first entered the vault room. But they move to create aisles so that librarians can find the materials they are seeking.

It was impressive to see these massive rows slide around noiselessly. We were cautioned to be wary about being between them if they began to move. They have sensors that are supposed to prevent motion if something is there, but the casual way that they mentioned sensors failing made me sure it is a thing that has happened more than once. Fortunately only some metal stools have thus far been sacrificed to the gods of mechanical shelving.

Our first stop was where they keep the first printings of The Book of Mormon. I was startled when the librarian pulled one out of its box and let us hold it.

I’ve seen one before, but not to touch. I was awed to be in contact with a piece of my religious history. I was also impressed with the array of first editions in different languages that they had.

The early Mormon people were not wealthy. It speaks of how much they reverenced this book that the constructions and bindings are all so beautiful.

I spent a lot of time in general looking at the bindings and details of books. I noticed how many of the older volumes had ridges on their spines.

I asked if those ridges were decorative or structural. It turns out to be a result of the binding methods that were used.

They showed us one of the oldest “books” in existence. A cuneiform tablet.

There we all were, six of us staring in awe at this evidence of the first writing of humanity. It was thousands of years old. It is also a receipt for beer.

We didn’t have a chance to see the most elaborate illuminated manuscripts, but this lesser one was still amazing.

The gold shined across the pages and we could see that all the letters were hand drawn. I could have stared at that for a very long time. But there was a different wonder to see. For a time it was popular to create hidden paintings on the edge of book pages. My photo does not do this justice. Fortunately the internet can show you more clearly.

Seeing this one kind of makes me want to take some of my One Cobble books, the really thick ones, and paint something on the edges.

I’d mentioned Jane Austen, so they took me to where the Austen books were. A librarian took this first edition copy of Emma and put it into my hands.

I’d seen this pattern on endpapers of books before, but figured that it was some sort of 70’s thing. Instead it appears to be authentic to the era when Austen was publishing.

I would have loved more time to look at each of these things, to sit with them and really comprehend each one individually. The immensity of what they have down there is staggering. There are fifteen miles of shelving and they’ve just been given five more miles. More than once I was glad of our guides, because I would have had to wander to find a way out.

Books are not the only things they have. This is the Oscar for the movie Camelot.

These days Oscars are not allowed to be sold or donated. They are supposed to go back to the academy. This one was acquired by special collections before those rules were created. I love that you could see the place around Oscar’s legs where he’d been picked up and carried, or perhaps held aloft in triumph.

We got to peek at the cold vault, though we didn’t go inside.

Instead week peeked at it through a window while standing in the yellow lit ante chamber. Film has to be kept cold. It also has to sit in the ante room and come slowly up to temperature before it can be manipulated. The yellow light did strange things to vision. We didn’t stay there long.

The library is making massive efforts to digitize as much of the collection as they can and to make it available online. This set up is for exactly that purpose.

It allows for simultaneous photography of both pages while protecting the book and the spine. All a human has to do is raise the glass, turn a page, lower the glass and photograph again.

They’ve lots of books yet to do.

I walked out of the building with a renewed respect for librarians. They were as excited to show us the amazing things as we were to see them. I could hear in their voices how much they value history, which was why it felt so strange that they’d like to have some of our papers. This is why we got the tour, they want to create a Howard and Sandra Tayler collection into their massive archive. They reach out to alumni who are creators with this sort of request and they found us. This leaves me feeling honored and…with an odd feeling I don’t quite have a name for.

To be remembered is the dream, isn’t it? I’ve read essays from scholars who create treatises on the correspondence of Jane Austen. In daydream moments, I’ve looked at letters and journals of my own and wondered if someday there would be a researcher glad to have them, or at least my great grandchildren might be interested in family stories. Now a library actually wants these things. They are things which have been taking up space in my house because of that daydream. Yet I’ve seen the preservation infrastructure that they have. I know how much all that effort must cost and I can’t imagine anything that I produce being worth the expense to preserve it for generations. Then I think of all six of us hovering in amazement around a little stone beer receipt. None of us have any way of knowing what future generations will want to reference.

So, yes there will be a Howard and Sandra Tayler collection in the Special Collections of the BYU Library. We don’t know yet what will be in it, nor how much will be public during our lifetimes. But if nothing else I can stop having to decide to throw out things which might be interesting for future generations, but which I haven’t the space to store.

Special collections is well worth your time to visit and if you are so lucky as to be offered a tour. Say yes.

Things and Thoughts That Happen Because of Road Trip

In order to have Kiki home for Thanksgiving, I had to fetch her from college. That’s a three hour trip each way for a total of 12 hours of driving split between Tuesday and today. Driving time is excellent for my brain to wander and often it latches on to various thoughts and tells me that I really should flesh them out into full blog posts. Then I get home and realize that they’re really only interesting enough for snippets, not a full post. Except I collected enough snippets that I can make an entire post about them.

I spent a good hour of driving time thinking about how traffic patters on a two lane (each way) interstate are changed by holiday traffic. I developed an elaborate if-then driving strategy which I was going to detail in full. Of course that sort of thing is not actually interesting unless one is bored because she has to drive for two more hours and needs to occupy her brain somehow. So, I’ll spare you all from a thousand word screed about driving tactics. You’re welcome.

At one point on the drive I rode along side a tall cattle fence. Something about the design of the fence and the landscape made me think back to when I was in South Africa. We drove along roads similar to the one I traveled, but the fences were far more impressive. They were elephant fences, three times taller than the tallest cattle fence. My guide informed me that they only served as guidelines to encourage the elephants to pick a different path. Very few fences were able to withstand an elephant who really wanted to get through. So I pictured elephants wandering across the landscape. Then I pictured dinosaurs, because Jurrasic Park had animal containment fences too. Those worked about as well as the elephant fences really. Then I drove over the hill, left the fence behind, and found new thoughts to think.

I recently re-watched The Abyss because I wanted to see if it was still as good as I remembered. It was and it wasn’t. I watched the director’s cut, because that is the only version where the ending makes sense. The first two thirds of the film were excellent. I really engaged with the characters and their situation. I remember the final third being good, but this time it was very unsatisfying. On one of the drives, I figured out why. The ending speaks directly to people of the cold war era in 1989. Everyone felt pretty much powerless in the face of possible nuclear desolation and the average person really longed for some greater being (or aliens) to show up and demand world peace. That is what the aliens do. I think the fact that this ending was deemed satisfying in 1989 says something about the collective desires of many people. I find it interesting that the zeitgeist of the time was already tempering and ending the cold war. Some movies teach us a lot about the society that created them.

When I got a new journal, I got one with a plain cover. On the back I’ve started writing quotations that strike a chord with me right now. I find it interesting that four out of the five have to do with courage. I’d no idea that courage in the face of fear was so resonant for me right now. I’ll be pondering why.

Possibly because all the driving shook so much loose in my head, but church was a full pack of tissues event. It was a day where my heart was cracked open a little and it all leaked out my eyes. As I walked home, which is not technically part of any of the road trips, but was still a transit, so I’m putting the thought here. That sentence got away from me. Start over. As I walked home, I was thinking about my recently funded Kickstarter and the things I’ll need to do in the next few days before it closes. I was also thinking of all the other things I had to do, including six hours of driving (see, it relates.) The thoughts chased themselves around my head, then between one step and the next, I had a very clear impression. This year has been rough and wonderful in a hundred small ways. Most of the things that happened were ultimately good, but that doesn’t make going through them easy. I have been the shepherd of all these processes. I have guided my children, Howard, and myself through a dozen different transitions. I have worked long hours days upon end, switching from business work to family support, and back again. I saw all of that as a gestalt encapsulated with the feeling You have worked very hard, Strength of Wild Horses is a gift. I don’t get to have this project because of that work. The two are mostly separate. But it is more like a loving father who sees a hard working child and says “Well done. This is for you.” It has been a long, long year. We’re almost through with many of the transitions. I have just as much work ahead as behind, but right here–today–I get to have a project. It is one I longed to have for a long time. It has already given me so much, and it will continue to give to others. Strength of Wild Horses is a gift.

The phone rang when I was five minutes from home (we’re back to road trip stories now). “Mom! What is wrong with the microwave!” Gleek asked urgently. I’d been away from the house for seven hours. I’d no idea what may have occurred to make the microwave not-normal. I pointed this out to Gleek, while also mentioning that perhaps she should go inquire of the parent who was at home with her. It turns out that the turn table had been removed for washing.

I came home to Christmas lights in our front yard. I put them up yesterday and made sure to plug them in before I left, so I could see them when I came home. The tree is pretty, the lone strand around the doorway looks like our house was decorated by someone who only had a step ladder. Which is the case. We own a much taller ladder, I just didn’t want to climb it. The cost of falling is too high. Perhaps some other year we’ll spring for professionally strung lights put up by someone with proper equipment. I came inside to see that Gleek and Patch had assembled the tree. They’d also pulled out the Lego advent calendar. For the last three years I’ve bought one on clearance during the last days of December and then put it away for the next year. Patch opened the first door and assembled the little speeder. I’d only been in the door for a few minutes when Gleek asked where our advent candle is. I took a taper and quickly painted numbers on it. It is always interesting to note which of the family traditions matter to the kids. They’re not always the ones I work hardest on. The best traditions are the ones that spontaneously continue because they make everyone happy.

In two weeks I’ll get to road trip to fetch Kiki again. That time we’ll have her home for a month.

Doing the Job that Needs to be Done

When Brandon, Dan, Mary, and Howard first started talking about doing a Writing Excuses retreat, I loved the idea. I wanted to be an integral part of all the planning. I wanted to be useful and essential. But much of the retreat discussion took place during recording sessions when I was not there. Task after task was handled and there was little for me to do other than to listen to the plans and make suggestions about implementation. I was of great help during the crazy days of registration and customer support. I’m good at answering emails and helping people. So I did that.

Then I figured that I would be most useful during the actual week of the retreat. I would arrive early and help with the hundred preparatory tasks both expected and not expected. I would stay late and help evaluate how everything went. Everyone thought this was a fantastic plan. But then responsible parenting required me to choose. It was no longer a matter of just finding someone to care for the kids in my absence, that someone would have to coordinate sending a girl off to camp and then dealing with her coming home. I checked and all the people in my life who I felt would handle that without being too stressed were unavailable. So the plan changed. I would come late to the retreat and I would leave early. This made me sad, because I’d wanted to be useful and essential. Instead they would arrange it without me and I would be a visitor at the retreat instead of integral.

I expected to arrive and be at loose ends. I expected to fill the odd task. Instead I got there and all the staff breathed relief. I spent most of my days working, helping, arranging, facilitating. It was obvious that I was needed. There were a hundred invisible jobs, the kind of thing that I do at home without thinking, but which enable all the other things. I did far more dish washing than writing and I’m okay with that because I was helping create something larger. I was doing the jobs that needed to be done so that the retreat could exist. Thins like retreats are always a group creation and my role was quiet but critical. Then, before I was done, my time was up. My early departure arrived.

I wanted to stay, so very much. There were needs at home and needs at the retreat. I pondered changing my ticket and figuring out child care via long distance. I weighed my choices. And I didn’t know the right answer. Perhaps there was no right answer, nor wrong one. I conferred with Howard and with the kids at home. Brandon, Dan, and Mary all understood and supported whatever choice I made. I left. I am sad that I had to choose between these things, that there was not some way to rearrange and allow me to be the professional, reliable, helper that I wanted to be. I’m even sadder because it seems like I always have to choose because things land on top of each other. It feels arbitrary and unfair, because everything would fit just fine if only they would land in different weeks.

So my role this past week both was and was not what I had hoped for. The retreat was excellent and exhausting. I was just beginning to feel part of it when I had to leave. Most of it can be summed up by me doing the job that was in front of me because it was the job that needed doing, even if there was a different job I would have preferred.

I’ll be home soon doing more of the same, only different.


I saw the first on out of the corner of my eye, like a spark rising from a fire which then went out. I watched where I’d seen it until it flashed again. A firefly, two actually, had begun their evening dance. They surprised me because I thought I’d have to go walking by the creek to see them. Instead they hovered in open spaces all around the house, flapping almost invisibly until deciding to light and rise up five or six inches. I know that such sights are common to those who live in the Eastern US. They’re like cardinals, which are common here and do not exist in the Western states where I’ve always lived. I sat while one fly hovered a mere five inches from my elbow. His wings were a blur of effort to keep him airborne, his legs dangled above his abdomen which pointed at the ground. He was a tiny, quiet bug and then he lit and I began to understand why people might believe in fairies.

I don’t really know what I expected of fireflies. I suppose I thought they would be in the bushes and trees, like twinkle lights from Christmas decorations. Even though I’ve heard the phrase “fireflies dancing” I somehow still pictured them lighting up from hiding places. They did not hide, instead they shone from wherever they were, for all the world to see. Then the light would go out and the quiet little bug would move to another spot to shine again. I think these fireflies are among my favorite things. I wish I had the photography skills to capture one of these little flies. I would love to capture, not just the beauty of the light, but also the hovering diligence of the bug who is only bright occasionally. The fireflies work so hard to create this beauty and they will never know that I am inspired by it.


My flight was delayed, and delayed again, and thrice delayed. The first two delays came before I left for the airport, so I waited an extra two hours at home. It was a strange mental space that waiting. I’d already settled the kids for my absence. It would have made sense to use the time for extra work, but I had packed away all of my work thoughts. They were folded neatly to wait until I returned from my trip. I did not want to open them up. It would have made sense to begin unfolding my writer thoughts, to start musing on story elements and what I would write during the retreat. Yet somehow my brain would not do that either. It was as if that cupboard had a time release lock which would not open until after I had boarded the plane. Besides, my laptop was packed already. So I waited, opening myself to the sensation of waiting, pondering those Dr. Seuss verses about The Waiting Place, and swinging in a hammock, because hammocks invite one to be present in now rather than rushing toward something else. Eventually I opened the book which was supposed to be my in-flight reading. I read while I waited.

Life frequently offers us pauses, places of waiting because we can’t move forward in the ways that we want or expect. I do not like them, they feel like time wasted. I get grouchy when I have to wait for my computer to restart, or the light to change, or someone to respond to a query, let alone an additional three hour wait to board a plane. These imposed waits feel like time stolen from me. I had to wait hours until the airline was prepared to take me to my destination. Even boarding the plane was the end of one wait only to begin another one. I thought about waiting as I drove to the airport, because I expected eight hours of traveling and during most of it my job was to wait patiently. I wished that I could skip the travels and just arrive. But then I remembered my last retreat and the way that the journey quieted my thoughts, slowed me down, and let me begin to shift my thinking into a different gear. Sometimes an imposed wait can be a gift, though often I don’t see that gift until later when I see the fruits of it. Waiting changes me, particularly when I accept and embrace it.

I could spend all my life rushing toward destinations and being frustrated by everything in between. Instead I need to remember the times spent swinging gently in a hammock swing, when waiting becomes its own reward.

Something So Small Shouldn’t Require Courage

Strange that the simple click of a button takes fifteen minutes to accomplish. I’d already gone through all the steps to select a flight, debating about convenience and cost, arguing with myself about whether I should go at all. It is a luxury to be able to go. I know this. The writing retreat will be fine without me. I am not needed there. In contrast I will be missed every single day at home. Yet, the kids are anticipating what I’ve arranged for them while I am gone. They’ll miss me, but they won’t be uncomfortable, neglected, or bereft. All the pieces were in place. All the players had agreed that this was the right action. Except some deep part of me wanted to abort, call the whole thing off, stay safe at home. Ah. The pause before clicking is not about logic, it is fear. I am afraid because the last retreat was difficult, because this one has unknowns, because my brain can fabricate worlds of what-if flavored regrets. If I let fear determine my actions my life will grow ever smaller. I will become smaller. I clicked.