Compliments

complimentWhen Lucy was at Tufts, some students started an organization called “Tufts Free Compliments.” The members went around campus scattering compliments like dandelion seeds:  “you look great!,”  “I really like your hair,” “What you said in class was so smart,” the idea being that we all can benefit from some unsolicited positivity.  Fox News would likely decry such sweetness as another example of snowflake-y delicacy on the part of today’s pampered elite youth.  Mia and her friends had a similar impulse in middle school.  They would sit in a circle, and each person would say something they liked about Rachel, then Caleb, then Emmy, and so forth.  They’d work their way around the circle until each one of them had collected a bouquet of compliments from their friends.  I always thought it was such a healthy and wise practice, to build each other up this way.

The universe has been generous with me these past few days, offering me compliments that I didn’t see coming, but appreciated very much.  Free support from the collective unconscious is a boon, so I’ve always tried to be a generous giver of genuine compliments myself; I believe in the healing power of words when spoken from the heart.  Paying someone a sincere compliment seems to me the simplest random act of human kindness I can make.  Yet I am not adept at receiving praise graciously, without a reflex of WASPy deferral that holds someone’s gift to me at a distance.  It’s a defense mechanism I have when I’m touched: I minimize.

Paying someone an authentic compliment is a vulnerable thing to do. In essence, you are saying “I love you, I love this thing about you.”  There’s an intimacy that’s quite precious.  And also risky, in a world where appearance is everything and genuine moments of connection are hard to come by.  I so often want to float under the radar, to go unseen, to stay out of the fray.  And yet, I have an intense desire to be seen for who I truly am—a yearning I believe lies at the heart of much of human striving, at least after your basic needs for food, water, shelter, safety have been met.  John and I were talking about it a few weeks ago:  there’s the fear of being seen at your most vulnerable, and also the thrill of being seen and known for who you truly are, warts and all.

So if you are one of those folks who in the past few days said something really nice to me about my class, or my writing, my blog images, or my general-all-round wonderfulness (thanks Dad and Mom), I will try to stand tall and receive it without self-consciousness.  Thank you for being brave and kind enough to show me your appreciation.  Your open heart has lifted me up.

I promise I’ll pay it forward.

Gratitude #24

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Wireless Mouse

mouse-3194768__340We would not be conversing at all today, dear readers, were it not for the humble wireless mouse.  The trackpad on my Mac laptop suffered an inexplicable and sudden nervous breakdown yesterday afternoon, whether through a software conflict (I had just cried “Uncle!” in the face of OS High Sierra’s incessant reminders that I install updates) or hardware exhaustion (my MacBook pro is six years old and well-loved), I cannot say.  But the curser decided either to skitter around my desktop willy-nilly, like kids playing tag, or to disappear from the desktop entirely.  Either way, the trackpad flatly refused to respond.

You know what this means, right?  A trip down the black hole of tech support.  Online chats and discussion forums directed me to restart in safe boot, in recovery mode, to reset something called PRAM, which has nothing to do with British babies.  All to no avail. Aubrianna was the name of the virtual assistant who chatted with me online late last night, coaching me through an SMC reset.  This achieved precisely nothing.  She said she wouldn’t leave me without making sure her proposed solution worked for me, but the girl was COLD.  She was on to the next complainant before the beachball even began spinning on my desktop.  My Apple case number lead only to an error message.  It used to be a matter of a click or two to book an appointment at the nearby Genius bar, but now you have to claw through about seven screens to get to the list of available times.  It’s like the obstacle course at bootcamp; one false move and you’re off the wall and down in the mud.  The earliest appointment I could find is Thursday at 5:00 p.m., which when you are a writer, designer and web solutions consultant, is basically as a good as “never.”

Thankfully, for just $12.99 and a ten-minute drive to my local Staples, I was able to pick up this adorable little pink wireless mouse gizmo.  It’s been years since I’ve used a mouse.  We have a picture of Mia at age three sitting by the old desktop tower, holding the cabled mouse up to her ear as if it were a phone.  That mouse was replaced by a snappy-looking red wireless version, but this was years ago, and with all our de-cluttering over the past few days, we couldn’t find it anywhere. Reacquainting myself with mouse technique was a little irritating at first. I kept swiping two fingers around the trackpad, looking in vain for the cursor, or wondering why the screen wouldn’t scroll.  But it’s like riding a bike, the muscle memory comes right back. Using a mouse is like driving a little sports car.  No more slouching in overstuffed, upholstered chairs while I write, or fanning myself outside on the patio. Until I meet my Genius, I am writing properly, at the kitchen desk, back straight and feet on the floor.  It feels very businesslike.  I like it.

Everything old is new again.

Gratitude #23

 

 

De-cluttering

690358116-612x612Ok, so I don’t actually believe that my life will change just because yesterday John and I KonMaried all the books in the house, packing 14 boxes of tomes that once captivated us, but through the years have lost their luster in our hearts.  Using the Japanese de-cluttering principles set forth in Marie Kondo’s book “The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up,” we went room by room through all the bookshelves (and stacks, piles, bins, and baskets–also a few boxes of books we had previously packed to give away, but forgot to drop off at the library book sale.)  We held each book in our hands and tried to observe whether it brought us a sensation of joy.  The results surprised me, in some cases:  all the Irish poetry collections from my year at Trinity College in Dublin, Patrick Kavanaugh and Seamus Heaney, those loamy, boozy, sainted laureates:  gone, without a backward glance.  Yeats’ poetry stayed, but his dramas, which were the subject of my senior thesis?  Slán leat, which is gaelic for goodbye.  Billy Collins, Adrienne Rich, Mary Oliver and Rilke got to stay, but poor Wallace Stevens got thrown in the give-away box in duplicate, once by me from the poetry section in the bookcase next to the bed, and once by John, who had a different edition on his bedside table. I may never again read To Kill A Mockingbird, A Visit from the Goon Squad, Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close, Beloved, but they made the cut without a second thought. Among my books about writing, I kept Annie Lamott’s Bird by Bird, Robert McKee’s Story, Elizabeth Berg’s Escaping into the Open and Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones — I stole some of Goldberg’s prompts when I taught high school essay writing; I still use Berg’s thought-starters when I’m stuck.  I couldn’t do without Elizabeth Gilbert’s wonderful Big Magic, about the divinity that feeds all creative endeavors, but easily parted ways with her novels and the memoir Eat, Pray, Love, even though I loved it when I read it.  I’ll admit that I gave away Anna Karenina, but kept every single volume of Harry Potter.

Today, we took on closets and clothes. I thought I’d be relieved to donate my grandmother’s Galliano mink coat:  It’s too small for me; it used to be alive; I don’t have the right lifestyle for mink; it’s supposed to be cold-stored in summer (oops). But then I touched it, my heart opening like a camera shutter, letting in light.  We weren’t super close, but she gave it to me. It still smells of her New York apartment, dusty, airless, a hint of her perfume, Shalimar.

“When are you ever going to wear it,” asked John, when I rescued it from the give-away pile.

“Never,” I said. “Not in a million years.”

“Then why are you keeping it?”

I had no explanation, except that, just like Kondo says in her book, it sparked joy.  So back in the closet it went.

We are now leaner by dozens of cubic feet of books, coats, sweaters, boots and bed linens.  Tomorrow we move on to miscellaneous cabinets: the CD, VHS and DVD collections, knitting and needlepoint yarn from unfinished projects, the basement closet chockful of board games.

It feels good to pare down to the essentials.  We are realizing that having so much random stuff distracts us from the good stuff, how easy it is to excise things that don’t matter to us.  The extra space is lovely.

Gratitude #22

Today’s Youth

Screen Shot 2018-07-22 at 11.43.11 AMIt’s a rainy morning, affording the luxury of a guilt-free deep dive into the pages of the Sunday New York Times, something I eschew in favor of the word puzzles when I have limited time —“Spelling Bee” has become a particular obsession since Nate and Annie introduced me to it two years ago. This morning, an article caught my eye:  Teenagers Fight Climate Change, From the Front. The piece profiles six 16 year-olds who collaborated in founding the not-for-profit climate change and environmental justice organization “Zero Hour.” They are like any teens you might know: passionate, impatient, persistent. This weekend, they organized a protest on the National Mall; on Thursday, they met with forty federal lawmakers to discuss their platform. Their argument is essentially this: We adults have failed to protect them, so they are taking matters into their own hands.

It’s inspiring, and it’s heart-breaking.

Like the youth of Parkland, Florida, these children are stepping into the void of civic-minded leadership in our country created by an adult narrative that insists in promoting individual wants and needs over the civic or collective good. Even though I sometimes fret that growing up in the social media era may reduce kids’ relational skills by filtering their interactions through the performative lens of insta-snap-book, it’s clear that the young people of today know how to leverage their digital skills in order to create community and organize for change. Sure, they can be naive, they will make mistakes, misspeak, suffer blind spots.  Yet, the idealism of youth is not misspent in these efforts: adults have a lot to learn from our kids’ passionate advocacy, from their clear-eyed perspective that we “grown-ups” are fiddling while the planet is burning.

It’s an issue I have with the entire posture of today’s far-right agitators, and in particular their new demagogue, DJT, whose views exalt constructs and successes of the past, seemingly indifferent to long-term consequences:  driving up the national debt, rejecting common-sense climate-friendly policies or broadly-supported gun control measures like universal background checks, gutting access to health care–the list goes on and on and on. I’m nostalgic for past norms, too, times when manners mattered, when we respected expertise and trusted authority, when TV news was more than a constant partisan shouting match, and you could listen to radio hits without being bombarded by f-bombs.  But you gotta change with the times or be lost in the wake of history. I’m grateful to these young people, awed by their energy and inspired by their determination, when so many adults like me feel enervated, bemused, impotent.

I’m a fifty-eight year old white woman. According to the actuarial table published by Social Security in 2015, my life expectancy predicts I have another 26.17 years on this earth. (This data needs updating, btw.  It was published annually through 2015, so someone’s asleep at the switch.) The kids are right:  it’s their resources we plunder, their mortgage we are defaulting on.

They are doing us a favor not letting us forget: Their future is our legacy.

Here are some links in case you’re interested in learning more:

Gratitude #21

Trees

beech-370554_960_720I am literally a tree-hugger. My childhood home on the Gold Coast of Long Island was landscaped with beautiful old maples, birch trees and an apple orchard.  Our property abutted an undeveloped tract of land that was wooded and cool, with a small grove of white pines that as a very little girl I would skip off to visit, back in the days when a mom would simply open the screen door and gesture outside: Be home in time for lunch. Early one spring morning, one of those late-May days when the buds uncoil and the air buzzes with energy—bugs and birds awakening, plant life percolating– I went out to the grove to visit my favorite pine tree, one with a thick trunk and low hanging branches drooping down to touch the earth.  The air was cool and piney in my tree-tent, and the tall tree stood silent and calm. I was so bursting with love for it, I took off all my clothes and hugged the trunk, loving the feel of the soft pine needles under my feet, the spring breeze on my skin, the touch of the scratchy bark in my arms. I must have been four or five. I never told a soul  (not from shame, but reverence), although the experience showed up in the draft of young adult novel languishing in my drawer of unfinished projects, so it’s stuck with me.

Trees are among my favorite planetary life forms, along with dogs, young children, and songbirds. Although I no longer strip naked to embrace them (sorry to give you that mental image of me), I do often stop when I’m out walking the trails and touch my hand to the trunk of a tree, splaying out my fingers to fit the deep grooves, matching my handprint to patterns in the bark. It’s a form of greeting, I suppose, my way of saying “thank you,” for the air I breathe, for giving me shade, for teaching me about stillness and patience, and a host of other kindnesses that I’m usually too preoccupied to notice. Walking today, I spotted a beech tree I hadn’t seen before in the woods—it’s not a species I often see, although apparently it is indigenous to New England forests.  The trunk was maybe four or five feet in diameter, the bark a leathery taupe, like elephant skin.  How had I not noticed it before, when I’ve walked this trail almost daily for over twenty-five years?  I reached out to place my palm on the bark, and noticed a couple of letters carved about six feet up the trunk, some kid, probably, leaving his mark, the great beech graciously accepting this human tattoo.  Shel Silverstein’s “The Giving Tree” sprang to mind.  It was a favorite read-aloud book when my children were little. On the surface, it looks funny and sweet, but it’s a cautionary tale, isn’t it, about Nature’s selfless generosity in the face of human self-absorption and greed.

Another favorite: “I am the Lorax. I speak for the trees.” Seuss’ Lorax is such a grouch, but I get it.  No one is listening to him.  As the dogs and I continued on our way home, I thought about how patiently the trees regard us humans, about how many people they’ve witnessed over the years passing under their boughs, hopeful and broken, joyful or mourning, sleepwalking our way through the woods.

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Gratitude #20

PS:  Now you know one of the reasons why I chose this image as the logo for my web design business:

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Summer grilling

Grilled-Swordfish-Skewers-from-heatherChristo.com_I remember my first-ever grilling season.  It was my freshman year at Princeton, and the food services union went on strike.  My roommate Margie and I lived in a first-floor dorm room, with lovely, Gothic leaded-casement windows opening on to one of the quads that make Princeton so picturesque. Margie’s mom and dad drove a little Hibachi charcoal grill up to campus, and we plopped it on the ground outside our window. We kept the charcoal, lighter fluid and matches in our room, and most evenings, we’d have an impromptu cookout.  You’d probably get expelled for less now. But it sure was a great way to meet people. We would lean out the window and drop a burger on the grill, chatting with whoever was drawn across the quad by the siren song of sizzling ground beef.  Most of our classmates were surviving on Lucky Charms, Pop tarts and take-out pizza.

When John and I bought the house in Lincoln (our first and only home purchase to date – we call it the “little house that could” because it’s adapted so well to our needs over the years), one of our first purchases after moving in was a classic Weber charcoal kettle grill. Our landlords in Chicago and later Cambridge wouldn’t allow us to grill, even though our apartments in both cities were in two-family homes with leafy yards. We kept the Weber over by the garage because there was an outlet we could use for an electric fire starter, which felt grown-up and high tech compared to dropping lit matches out my dorm window onto the Hibachi. John was a master at building briquette teepees around the electric coil so the charcoal would catch. Every so often, we’d need to add a splash of lighter fluid, and the flames would burst upwards towards the overhanging hemlock branches with a whoosh. The kids found this highly entertaining, but our neighbor Ruth worried we might set the trees on fire. She loved those hemlocks—they created a wall of green between our driveway and her back deck. One year when our tree guy went gonzo and over-pruned them, she nearly wept with frustration at the lost privacy screen.  Thankfully, we never burned them down entirely with our overzealous grilling.

We probably converted to our gas grill later than most of our fellow-suburbanites, because John is old-school when it comes to embracing new technologies. But it is such a breeze, to press the starter button and wait for the click-click-click-WUMP! of the grill lighting up. Last year, we traded our decrepit, non-functioning two-burner model for a sleek new three-burner set-up. It’s so much hotter than the old grill that we’ve seared a few steaks to a fare-thee-well while mastering its powerful ways.  Tonight, we’re having our friends Cathy and Bob over – swordfish and vegetable kabobs are on the menu, and I might try grilling the corn cobs in the husks, which I’ve never done before.  It always looks pretty in the magazines at the grocery checkout line.

I need to wrap things up now because I’ve got to run out to Ace hardware and grab a new propane canister so we can fire up in a few hours.  It’s a beautiful afternoon – clear and dry –  perfect weather for Gin & Tonics and a grilled supper on the screened porch with good friends.

Gratitude #19

 

 

 

Parking Karma

Screen-Shot-2014-07-10-at-11.34.56-PMWe joke in our family about “parking karma,” specifically my mother’s supernatural knack for pulling into a newly vacated space right near the entrance to the store, or doctor’s office, or mall.  Other drivers will have trolled the aisles for ages waiting for something to open up, but Mom will be the one to come along just as a car pulls out. It’s become our shorthand for cosmic generosity, an almost-superpower of ease—sometimes earned, but often just kismet– in a specific corner of one’s life.  Mia, for example, has great waitlist karma.  She doesn’t always get what she’s going for on the first pass: a fellowship, a class she wants to take that’s closed, admission to a program, or college. But she has been waitlisted a few times, and then effortlessly prevails. Lucy seems to have good job-finding karma, which is a pretty sweet gift from the universe. Although this could simply be that she’s crazy competent and talented and people recognize that about her.  Either way, she’s about to move to Los Angeles to pursue her fortune as a costume designer, so I’m grateful for it.

My own karmic blessing is that I’m adept at recognizing moments of grace or universal abundance that others may miss.  John had a nice one yesterday: For his upcoming sabbatical, he’s been casting around for experiences that will profoundly refresh him before he begins a new venture in September. We’d been talking about taking weekend trips here or there, but that didn’t seem bold enough for this opportunity:  What can he do with these six weeks that he really couldn’t manage any other time?  He’ll be in New Mexico at a conference about Contemplation and Action, so that’s something. But it isn’t quite gutsy enough, it doesn’t have teeth, a sense of adventure. Then Tuesday, a trusted counselor suggested he go on a Vision Quest. John’s eyes lit up. A colleague of his had been on such an adventure led by a renowned Shaman, John Milton.  Perhaps Milton would be offering something in August?  Indeed. Not only that, but it’s in southern Colorado, not far from Albuquerque, the site of the conference.  The Vision Quest begins the next day after the conference closes.  Yes, there’s space.  Yes, it’s within our budget. Yes, there are nonstop flights from Albuquerque to Crestone, Colorado.

Sometimes, you can hear the universe clicking into place like tumblers in a lock.

Today, I got a taste of Mom’s parking karma. I had to pick up a package from the Amazon Locker in Cambridge’s Central Square – a 25-pound box of pool chemicals that would have taken a week to arrive at the house, but came overnight to the locker.  Street parking in that area is harder to find than a clean t-shirt on laundry day. I was resigned to parking a half mile away, trudging back and forth to the car in the midday heat with my heavy box of chemicals.  But on my very first pass around the neighborhood, there was a nice, shady metered spot open on Green Street, just about a block from the Amazon Locker.  They were super nice in there, by the way – an attendant explained everything before I could even think to ask. “Man in the Mirror” was playing on the sound system, and she and I both bopped to it while I waited to for my package to be loaded in to the locker, but a guy came out from the back carrying it because it was heavy, and he wanted to be sure I could get it to my car.

“That’s okay,” I said.  “I got a spot right across the street.”

Gratitude #18