Picking Paint

Right now there are pieces of poster board painted in varying shades of gray lying all over our kitchen. On the floor, against the countertop, beside the cabinets. There are stacks of  tiny paint swatches  everywhere I look. We’ve been to the Sherwin-Williams store more frequently than the grocery store, carrying in our floor sample, a piece of granite and a drawer from the cabinets. This has been going on for close to three weeks, because I can’t decide what color to paint the walls of our kitchen and sunroom. Repose Gray or Agreeable Gray or possibly Requisite Gray lightened by 25%. Or Malabar, but that looks too much like the tired beige that’s on the walls now. The sunroom should be a lighter color but not too light or it will wash out. And then at night, all the samples look completely different. I found a nice Benjamin Moore color, but our painter doesn’t like that brand of paint, and it’s hard to get locally. On our last visit to Sherwin Williams, we were told they can create another company’s colors, so then that color is still in the game.

Arggghhh!!! I am normally not so angst-driven about decisions, but I despise picking paint colors. This color thing simply escapes me. I tend to choose too cautiously and then wonder why my room doesn’t look like the pictures on Houzz or Pinterest. We’ve been through this before without any major fails although there is a bedroom at our beach place with walls that look more like lime sherbet instead of the intended golf course green.

This project started because we needed to replace a kitchen floor gone buckled and limp from fifteen years of absorbing dog pee. Now that a new floor is going down, I thought it would be nice to freshen the walls and put in a backsplash behind the counters. Home projects never have clear margins. They tend to metastasize and grow into financial and logistical malignancies.

Oven out pictures

The paint trend these days is toward gray neutrals but there are literally hundreds from which to choose. (And does gray really go with cherry cabinets? Oh yes, say all the Pinterest queens.) We have painted visual pictures on Sherwin Williams handy little color snap visualizer, but I don’t know that what you see on the computer screen accurately shows the color.

I invite my friends with good visual sense to come over and we hold the samples against the granite, the wood trim, and the flooring sample. We take them over to the windows, fretting about undertones and light reflection, carefully weighing one greige against the other. I even got a color analysis from an online decorator. She was wonderful but almost gave me too much information in her perky little online voice. “Now that floor would prefer just a tinge more purple and at night, I see just a wink of green in those undertones.” Huh? Purple? Who said anything about purple? Isn’t gray just gray? No, apparently not.

Paint sample 2

I don’t know how this is all going to end up. Right now a plumber is here attempting to disconnect our downdraft range so that the floor can be installed, and I hear grunting and muttered curses from both he and my husband who just announced that this is the last project we’re ever going to do that involves moving that stove. Meanwhile the paint swatches remain on the counter, staring back at me, daring me to pick the wrong one. “Thought I was neutral? Gotcha’. I’ll look blue once you get me on the wall.” I haven’t even started to think about the backsplash.
Oven open space

 

New York State of Mind

My husband and I just returned from a wonderful (albeit, cold) winter getaway in New York City. We heard a glorious Carmen at The Met and saw Network and Come from Away on Broadway. I have a special affinity for Manhattan because nine years ago, a brilliant surgeon there rebuilt my back and gave me a new life. Ever since, small-town dweller that I am, I occasionally need to ride the subways and walk on streets surrounded by tall buildings and by people who don’t look or sound like me, dine in interesting restaurants and feel part of a bigger world than the one I live in most of the time. Aside from being a Yankees fan, (which would not be welcomed in our house), I love New York.

NY subway

This was an entertainment-driven visit and I didn’t expect to be so moved by things that we saw and did. We visited the Tenement Museum on the Lower East Side which is a collection of buildings once inhabited by immigrants who came to this country in the 1800’s. This is not a “famous place” museum but one that immerses visitors in the culture of the times, that opens a window into the lives of our intrepid forbears who did the jobs no one else wanted to do. Who were subjected to hardship and discrimination because of what they looked like or how they spoke or how they worshipped.

NY tenement museum

The individually guided tours here are slow-paced and invite conversation and thought. A gentleman on the tour with us who was a civic leader in Louisville, Kentucky shared that he had just received a text that a Hindu temple there had been graffitied and defaced, but he was confident the people of his city would come together immediately to undo the damage. I couldn’t help but think that nearly two centuries later, sadly, we’re still at it.

tenement museum 2

That afternoon we watched Brian Cranston in Network, a Broadway remake of the 1970’s movie about the decaying values of television. The famous line from this show occurs when Howard Beale, the aging anchorman played by Cranston, has a full-blown meltdown about the state of the world and screams, “I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it anymore.” Some days, I feel exactly the same way. The problems and frustrations of that era seem almost quaint compared to what we’re living with now, and I think many of us are madder than ever, but like Howard, we feel thwarted at every turn.

NY Network

And then there’s Come from Away. Wow. The story takes place on 9/11 when planes headed for the United States were forced to land in Gander Newfoundland, a sleepy little town on the far eastern tip of Canada. Played on a sparse stage with twelve actors who effortlessly switch roles to portray different characters, it is a story of ordinary people coming together to deal with an extraordinary situation. 7000 people housed and fed for several days by a town a little over twice that size in population—loaves and fishes 2001. The night we were there, the Canadian ambassador to the United Nations gave a gracious introduction at the beginning of the show. He received a standing ovation.

When I visit New York, I remember my experiences there as a patient. Listening to the many different languages and accents spoken by the nurses and staff in the hallway outside my room. The two lovely eastern European nurses who hugged me the day I left and told me I was just “the best patient.”  The delightful Hispanic gentleman who cleaned my room, complaining to me about a patient who yelled at everyone. “I no’ go in there anymore. She batshit, man.” The African-American nurse who said, when I looked at my post-op face in the mirror one morning, “Don’t worry honey, you’re still beautiful. That man of yours is still going to love you.”

NY Empire State Bldg. (2)

 

When are we ever going to figure out that we’re in this together? That we are connected, no matter how much we try to pretend otherwise. As I have grown older, I have developed a profound respect for other ways of looking at the world and living in the world. A trip to New York reminds me, once again, that we are all “from away.”

 

Libraries and Real Books

A few weeks ago, I drove past my hometown library which has recently undergone extensive renovations. In a town that’s seen its share of struggles, this library is a stunning jewel, a symbol of hope, education, and an opportunity for a better life. Like many of today’s libraries, it offers everything from knitting classes to career counseling and has become the hub of the community. As the friend I was visiting at the time said, “Sometimes I go there just to sit and read and catch my breath.”

My grandmother introduced me to the wonders of that library. We started with Saturday morning story hour, presided over by a rather intimidating librarian named Mrs. Eisele. When Mrs. Eisele said “Shh!” she meant it, and no one made a peep. I moved on to getting my own library card and going every other week to pick out two books, shyly handing them over the counter as my card was stamped with a satisfying, metallic click. The library smelled of fresh wood and paper and was gently quiet—the only sound the murmur of whispered voices and the crinkling of those plastic covers that protected the books from sticky fingers and spilled drinks. Later, I would come to the library to do research for school, using the card catalog, encyclopedias and actual books and magazines, the only options available in those pre-internet days.

I grew up listening to, and subsequently reading, good stories. My mother would read Uncle Wiggly and little Golden Books to me, but my dad was more likely to read Dr. Seuss and occasionally, Edward Lear limericks, not all of which were appropriate for young ears. (I loved them and would laugh hysterically.) My grandmother would read from The Book House, an exquisite six-volume set of children’s stories that had belonged to my dad and which still graces a bookshelf in my living room. No electronic means of communication can ever replace wonderful tales read by the voices of people who love you.

Mrs. Cleland, an elderly woman who lived across the street from us, was a retired English teacher whose family owned the local newspaper. I would dutifully take a small poinsettia and plate of cookies to her at Christmas and she would gift me with whatever book had won the Newberry Award or Caldecott medal that year. She would say, “I know this one’s a little advanced, dear, but you’re ready for it. Let me hear you read the first few pages.” I would rip off the wrapping paper to reveal the cover with its shiny gold embossed seal, crack open the spine and in the fading light of a December late afternoon, begin to read to Mrs. Cleland.

When our second-grade teacher started reading The Secret Garden to us, I couldn’t wait to get to school each day to discover what was going to happen to Mary. The Secret Garden inspired my lifelong passion for literature set in Great Britain. Always an animal-lover, I wept over Lassie, Come Home and Albert Terhune’s Lad, A Dog, and read every book in the Black Stallion series. I read biographies of Helen Keller and FDR. I read classics like Heidi, Little Women and Black Beauty in versions with shiny covers and pulpy pages that in those days, you could buy at almost any five-and-ten. When our Scholastic Book orders arrived, I would rush home with a stack of fresh paperbacks, anxious to dig into the latest and greatest “young adult” mysteries and novels. I developed a taste for books filled with beautiful language, interesting characters and a dramatic storyline. Trite and hackneyed didn’t do it for me, (even then, and nothing’s changed) so I was not a Nancy Drew or Bobbsey Twins fan.

Today I enjoy the convenience of my e-reader, but I still occasionally like to hold a real, hard-copy book in my hands. I love the sensory experience of breathing in the smell, feeling the texture of the pages, and using a cardboard bookmark. I love when a good story takes hold of you to the point that everything else falls away and that seems to happen more frequently with a real book—maybe because it evokes memories of reading with a flashlight under the covers. I’ve noticed that I occasionally forget the titles of books I read on my e-reader and I think that’s because I don’t see the cover looking back at me when I put it down. Holding a real book takes me back to my hometown library, to Mrs. Cleland’s living room, to the magic of The Secret Garden. To the places and people who introduced me to the love of words.

 

 

The Thirteenth Month

When the department stores were in their heyday, the week between Christmas and New Year’s was promoted as the “thirteenth month” as in “Shop our thirteenth month sale for all the gifts you didn’t get under the tree.” It is an odd week for those of us with vacation at this time of year. Every day feels like Sunday, we tend to over-indulge a bit in food and drink, but we also permit ourselves more Netflix time or uninterrupted reading time or even just a snuggle with the pets on the sofa. We actually see family and friends instead of texting them, we go out to lunch or host dinners in and maybe do a little post-holiday retail therapy. When I was teaching, it all came to a screeching halt on New Year’s Night with the realization that MY GOD, I HAVE TO GO BACK TO WORK TOMORROW.

A friend of mine told me recently that she has come to appreciate the word “allow.” As she put it, “reluctantly removing my super-woman cape and allowing things to take their course without constantly feeling as though I have to intervene or control.” She was recovering from a knee surgery where she had to allow her body to heal on its own time schedule, not hers. I think that idea of “allowing” and giving ourselves permission to ease up a little is what makes the thirteenth month so enjoyable.

Even though I am no longer working, I still savored recent evenings when I simply sat in the chair next to the Christmas tree and read a good book or watched a favorite television show without feeling as though I should have been doing something more productive. There are more desserts and cookies in my house now than at any other time of the year and I’m flat-out enjoying them just as I do my annual Christmas Eve glass of high-test eggnog spiked with a shot of rum. I tell myself it’s ok because it’s Christmas, but it really is ok.

I’m not suggesting that we throw all of our healthy habits out the window or become couch-dwelling sloths, but I think sometimes we need a respite from the constant pressure to achieve– whether it’s a slimmer body from carb-free eating or becoming more intentional (a buzzword I have come to detest) about some aspect of our life. I love social media, but the posts showing off kale soufflés made in an instant pot or testimonials about new-found serenity resulting from an hour of 4 am meditation can send waves of guilt through those of us happily watching Homeland while nibbling on a chocolate chip cookie. We who thrive on to-do lists and structure, on responsibility and taking care of business, (yes, even after we’re retired) have a hard-enough time extricating ourselves from the hamster wheel and when we do, give us a break already!

Today I made a wonderful butternut squash soup, watched the Penn State game, ate unhealthy kielbasa, sauerkraut , and mashed potatoes laced with butter and half-and- half, laughed and cried through the 2018 Call the Midwife Christmas special and topped off the evening with a piece of leftover gingerbread. I thought about starting to clean up some of the Christmas decorations and I have a pile of essays and pieces under construction that need to be polished and submitted and I probably should have at least gone out for a walk. But I didn’t. I allowed myself a perfect thirteenth month day.

Stella on chair 4

 

 

 

Small Things

I spent a few hours in recent weeks stuffing hundreds of donation request letters into envelopes and placing surveys into concert programs. A busy clerk at CVS said to me, “I know you buy a lot of medication for your dog. Here’s the name of a website where you can get discount coupons for some of the meds.” A friend who knows I’ve been struggling with some issues at my church reached out with a kind and uplifting email. A spontaneous lunch with an old and dear friend (in a trendy bistro that was once our childhood shoe store) made the annual trip to place wreaths on beloved family members’ graves just a little easier.

All trivial, seemingly insignificant things. And yet, I find in this season of excess, that’s it’s those small things that buoy us up. We become overwhelmed with the idea that all of our holiday preparations should be Pinterest-worthy and find ourselves entangled in the web of “gotta’ get ‘er done.” Granted, I do enjoy my over-the-top Christmas trees and I love to plan special holiday meals, but this year, I have been especially cognizant of the small things that make the big things possible and the small things that remind us to, well, simply love each other.

I was blessed this year to sing beautiful Christmas music with incredibly talented musicians in truly spectacular choral concerts. But it was the stuffing of envelopes, the loading of risers and percussion equipment on trucks, (in the rain), the umpteenth rehearsal of the processional, the fine tuning of every musical nuance —those little things that can frustrate us and make us crazy—that’s where the magic happens. That’s what brings the audience to its feet and tears to the eyes. It’s the old analogy of the beautiful swan gliding gracefully on the surface while underneath there is frantic paddling. You can’t have one without the other.

Lately, I feel as though I am rubbed raw from  abrasiveness, not just in the greater world, but sadly, even with people and places that are close to my heart. It seems we have become so driven by personal agendas that we’ve lost sight of common sense, of humility and of the greater good. So when there is a kind gesture, a word of encouragement—even a scribbled note handed to me by a drugstore clerk, I am so grateful. Watching former President Obama in a Santa hat distributing gifts in a children’s hospital. Reading words from a wise friend’s email that gave me a glimmer of, if not hope, at least perspective in a painful situation. Another friend coming to our concert after a long day of work and then reassuring me that I did not mess up the steps in the choreographed piece (even though I did.)

Our bishop, Michael Curry, is right. It all comes to down to love and for most of us, it’s the small things that get us there. Not the Hallmark card or the extravagant gift but the unexpected kindness from a stranger. The extra effort made by a loved one or family member. Making time to talk and more importantly, to listen to each other’s stories. Pushing past the surface, past the political correctness, past all the internet noise and simply saying and doing what’s going to help another person instead of tearing them down. Shining a light instead of cowering in the darkness.

Wishing you a Christmas filled with small things.

row of candles

 

Hamburg Barbecue

I pulled the recipe out again this morning and wondered how many times I’ve made hamburg barbecue. 100? 500? It is my go-to comfort food. I’ve made it whenever there is a need for a warm meal on short notice. I’ve made it after the death of a close relative when hungry family members descended, exhausted and travel-worn. I’ve made it on Monday nights when I am not motivated to cook and there isn’t anything remotely edible in the refrigerator. I made it today when I found out at the last minute we were hosting a lunch meeting of the power-brokers for my husband’s drum corps. A pound of ground beef, an onion and some pantry staples stepping in once again as the cavalry of food rescue.

As a child, I remember being served sloppy joes on those pink plastic cafeteria trays with the little indentations for each measured portion, usually accompanied by tater-tots or canned corn. I remember looking at that pale orange mass of  ground something-or-other meat and thinking there was no way I could eat that. I usually ate whatever was put in front of me, but I drew the line on school-produced sloppy joes.

Then my mother came home from her bridge club one day with a recipe for barbecue that contained brown sugar. I was converted. This was dark and rich and slightly sweet and tasted like Friday night football games and Sunday afternoon sledding parties. It was kitchen-table-paper-napkin food. Oddly, my mother had it filed under “party food” in her little tin box of recipes right along with a recipe for an alcoholic punch that could leave you in a stupor after the second cup and one for those lovely molded butter mints so popular at the time.

I still use that same typed and spattered file card, although I have the ingredients memorized. It calls for one-third of a bottle of “catsup” which in those days was always packaged in a glass bottle that you had to pound on the bottom to get started. There were no plastic squeeze bottles of organic ketchup, or, heaven help us, pre-packaged containers of ketchup and mayonnaise already mixed together. It was just plain ketchup for just plain hamburg barbecue. I still make the recipe the same way except that I now add a little Montreal Steak seasoning and back off on the Worcestershire. It works every single time.

Sometimes it feels good to go back to the basics. To not be so concerned with how something will play on social media or whether Joanna Gaines would approve. There is something visceral in comfort food, and I think occasionally it feels good to fuel our bodies with meals that have sustained us for years, even if they’re not what we now consider nutritionally correct.

Lately, I’ve found myself in a situation that’s caused me to question my own thought processes. I’ve been overwhelmed by too many voices and too much rhetoric to the point that I haven’t listened to the voice inside myself struggling to be heard. It’s how I feel when reading cooking blogs where people show off complicated recipes made with obscure ingredients and I think I should be doing that, too. That maybe I’m missing the boat and not staying current. But today I was reminded that often the simplest recipe is the best one. That the humblest ingredients can come together to create exactly what we need, even if it’s not trendy. And that sometimes nothing tastes better than a plain pot of barbecue.

 

A Holy Moment on Veterans Day

At times, this fall has felt like a relentless barrage of sadness. People I know have lost loved ones at way too young an age or are fighting terrible battles with illness. Somber music from the morning news show this week told me there had been yet another mass shooting. Part of our country is burning from wildfires and part of it is still trying to recover from devastating hurricanes. Hatred has wrapped its tentacles around many of us so tightly, we can’t breathe, let alone speak to each other.  When so much of what we consider sacred—human decency,  truth and dignity in government, acceptance of those who are different from us, lies in the street like broken shards of glass after a night of rioting, it’s easy to lose your perspective.

But in the midst of the chaos, there are occasionally, what our rector calls, “holy moments.” I’ve experienced some of those recently in situations where I wouldn’t necessarily expect them, and when they happen, they provide a whispery sigh of relief, something to cling to in the midst of this hot mess we’re making of the world right now. A couple of silvery stars poking their heads through the darkness.

This morning, I watched an elderly parishioner, clinging to his walker, shuffle up the aisle to take communion. He now waits at the chancel steps for communion to be brought to him, but he’s still not ready to succumb to pew communion. He’s a delightfully feisty character and always happy to share his opinion. Today, in honor of Veterans Day, he wore his overseas cap with the words “Purple Heart” inscribed along the side, tilted jauntily on his white hair. After he received the bread and wine, he turned and faced the congregation and gave a crisp salute. As he made his way back to his seat, the congregation spontaneously rose and gave him a standing ovation, something that rarely happens in the context of our worship service. Before he sat down, he said, “Thank you. I love you all.” There were very few dry eyes in the sanctuary.

Most of us have no concept of what those who fought (and continue to fight) for our freedom and served our country endured. I grew up in the Viet Nam era and can remember wearing a silver POW bracelet in fourth grade with the name of a soldier captured or missing in action. My uncles fought in World War II and I think my mother lost the first love of her life in that war, but that was never part of their conversation at the holiday dinner table. They did what they had to do and, perhaps to their own detriment, never talked about it.

Now we take so much for granted. We yammer on about our wants and needs and how we may be damaged from this or that perceived slight, and yet, most of us have no clue what it means to serve, to willingly give up one’s life for the greater good. I don’t think we can begin to understand what it means to be damaged until we walk the halls of a veterans hospital.

I wanted to not only thank that lovely gentleman for his service but also for providing a poignant  reminder of what truly matters. That the rest of us wouldn’t be sitting there today, smug and complacent and free to worship in whatever manner we choose, were it not for his bravery and that of thousands of others just like him. And that through that simple salute, he offered us all a much-needed holy moment.