Nothing but a Number

Lately I’ve been more aware of my age. My body creaks when I bend down to pick something up. There are strands of gray in my hair. My eyesight isn’t what it used to be. At 42, I notice these things.

In the middle of a sweaty yoga class, one of my favorite teachers gave this advice: When thoughts come to mind, don’t dwell on them and don’t drive them away. Just notice them. So that’s what I’ve been doing with signs of age: just noticing them — like slow-drifting clouds in the sky.

Several weeks ago I sat around my friend’s dining table with our Bible study group. Next to me sat a sharp-dressed, sharp-minded woman in her nineties. Across the table, an equally sharp woman in her eighties. As twelve individuals, we span the decades. One of the things I appreciate most about these women is the wide range of ages – and the wealth of wisdom and experience that comes with it.

Recently a friend who’s about a decade younger invited me to lunch out of the blue. As we caught up over soup and sandwiches, she described herself as “over-caffeinated.” Maybe so, but she also radiates the energy of youth. I’ve been meaning to tell her it meant a lot that she reached out to me. She wasn’t even selling lip gloss or vitamins or energy drinks — just a lovely friend connection.

Differences in age shouldn’t set barriers between people. Once I was twenty-seven; someday I hope to be seventy-two. God, please give me the memory and imagination to relate to youngsters when I am a bona fide oldster.

The latest season of my favorite reality TV show – The Real Housewives of NYC – opens with this unexpected nugget of wisdom:

“Age is an issue of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter!”

All truth is God’s truth – and isn’t that the truth?

Our days are numbered, but let’s not make too much of the number. If you don’t mind, age doesn’t matter.

youth-and-experience.jpg

Hey there — thanks so much for reading! If you’re on Facebook, find me here! -Em

 

 

The Loafers and the Fishes

By the time the calendar turns to August, I am over summer. Over it.

Summer is fun, summer is freedom, but summer is way too long. As an introvert, I go crazy after two months of family togetherness.

Crazy is how I was feeling the week before school started. Since Phil found a great travel deal, we took a quick weekend trip to the gulf coast of Florida, one last hurrah before school. We soon discovered why the hotel and airfare were such a great deal: the red tide, a toxic algae bloom in the ocean.

Arriving in Florida in the afternoon, we put on swimsuits, slathered on SPF, and headed out for the beach, only to find the beach closed. The hotel worker explained that the red tide had left hundreds of dead fish on the beach, and it can cause respiratory problems.

“Maybe tomorrow,” he said, giving us Midwesterners hope for a beach day.

However, the red tide is persistent. Although we didn’t get our day in the ocean, we were happy at the hotel pool. And we took the opportunity to walk on the beach, at least.

The moment I left my sandals behind on a shallow sand dune I felt much closer to sanity. The sun’s rays beat down on our shoulders and on the decaying fish scattered on the beach. Still, the beach is my happy place.

There were very few people on the sand and none in the water. We ignored the smell of decay and searched for cool shells, stepping around bloated fish. I couldn’t help but feel sad for all the dead sea creatures as we quietly loafed among the fishes.

Waiting for the flight home, I wanted to learn about what causes the red tide. Some sources claim it’s a normal, natural occurrence, documented on the gulf coast every year for the past century and a half – but this year just happened to be worse than usual. An opinion piece by Erin Brockovich, the environmental activist, placed the blame on pollution.

I don’t purport to be an expert on the environment; a month ago I thought red tide was something related to Alabama football. Walking along the beach that day, I sensed the mess signified not only destruction of a marine habitat but desecration of God’s green earth. The fault likely lies with some combination of nature and culture.

Whatever the reason for the devastation, seeing it compelled me to do something in our little household to help the environment. We recycle, we try not to waste energy, we walk or bike whenever possible, we use stainless steel straws – efforts that seem tiny in proportion to threats to our environment. Anyway, the step I took was to use cloth napkins instead of paper in our house. Honestly, it seems like such a piddling thing.

As we walked the beach that day, sidestepping dead fish, I remembered the story of the loaves and fishes, when Jesus used just a couple loaves of bread and fish to feed thousands of people. This is the kind of miracle I hope for: that my puny efforts – and the efforts of countless others who care – would be multiplied many times over.

sarasota dead fish

Thanks for reading! If you like, find me on Facebook. -Em

Ferdinand Jasper, a Pigeon Parable

In our house, we love animals. Caroline and I constantly dote on our Charlie-cat, we get excited when a hummingbird hovers at the window, and we give way too much attention to the caterpillars devouring our parsley plant.

We also tend to anthropomorphize every creature we meet.

We make up elaborate back-stories about squirrels, like one Dr. Paul J. Crumb who knows in his heart that chicken nuggets are bad for him but just can’t say no. The pigeons that hang out in our driveway we’ve named The Pigeon Brothers; they sell home appliances to local birds. And don’t even get me started on Stormie and Gloria, cats that roam the neighborhood.

***

Our summer vacation to visit friends in Hawaii required a night in an airport hotel. We checked in early in the evening and braced ourselves for a very early flight the next morning. Since this hotel is right across the street from LAX, we could look out the window and see planes landing and taking off, one after another.

Before the sun went down, Caroline spotted a white pigeon on the ledge of the seventeenth floor. He sat there with his little bird’s eye view of the airport, apparently absorbed in the non-stop action of take-offs and landings.

Suddenly, another pigeon had the nerve to land on his ledge. The white pigeon appeared to tolerate it for a brief moment, then squawked and shooed it away. Alone again, the pigeon sat there eyeing the giant flying beasts.

***

We couldn’t resist. And so, this pigeon quickly became Ferdinand Jasper who began to speak in a high, lispy voice about his longing to fly in an airplane.

“Oh, how I wish I could fly,” he said to no one in particular, having fended his ledge from every friend or foe.

Of course, none of his winged colleagues were there to remind him he actually could fly.

Maybe not as far as an airplane,

maybe not as fast as an airplane,

but more gracefully,

with more spontaneity.

After watching the others, comparing his wing span to theirs, dreaming of their faraway destinations—like Honolulu and Boston and Akron—he failed to remember what he was capable of.

All the hours spent watching the enormous aluminum birds—with fancy names like Southwest and Delta and United—had diminished his view of what he could do.

Ferdinand Jasper was a bird

who forgot his birthright.

His birthright was flight.

 

And what, my friend,

were you born to do?

pigeon 2 looking away

Safe Keeping

My parents cleaned out their storage areas last week—attic, garage, nooks, crannies—a time-consuming ordeal. They got rid of stuff that had accumulated over the thirty years they’ve lived there. Although it’s been twenty years since I lived there, Mom and Dad uncovered some old treasures of mine, including:

a faded Mickey Mouse Pez dispenser,

an artificial flower lei from my friend Leslie,

a sock monkey, made with love by our neighbor Mrs. Wheeler,

and much, much more.

Mom also spent an entire day laundering our old Cabbage Patch Kids, doll clothes, a Prayer Bear, and a Sparta High School cheerleading doll. She handed them over with the stipulation that I keep them until she’s dead.

Ummmm, okay.

Since Caroline has never been interested in dolls, she doesn’t want to play with them, so I plan to pack them away in the basement for some unknown future. They now hang in limbo, sprawled on the floor behind my desk chair, dead eyes staring at the ceiling.

(Poor Sock Monkey’s eyes fell off. He lies blindly on the floor.)

There’s already quite a stash in the basement – school yearbooks, dolls from my grandma, and many other things I can neither recall nor bear to part with. Soon I’ll add my Cabbage Patch Kid (little Hortense) and sock monkey to the stash for safe keeping.

These are the days I wish I were a minimalist. When I read about people who live in tiny houses with one cooking pot and seven items in their wardrobe, I think: that sounds intriguing. Then I remember how much perverse joy I get from decorative items that serve no other purpose than pleasing the eye.

My parents did the big clean-out for us – my sister and me. They are healthy, but they know the challenge of sorting through your parents’ belongings and making hard decisions about what’s worth keeping, what goes in the yard sale pile, what should be donated. I appreciate their foresight.

But as I contemplate adding another box to the basement, I’ve started cleaning out nooks and crannies in my own house, starting with the file cabinet. Goodbye, “Teaching Composition,” “Literacy Training,” and “PR Portfolio” files. Even the act of tossing you out bores me. If ever I teach composition again (held at gunpoint, perhaps), I’ll just have to do it without my old notes. With every leaf of paper that falls in the recycle bin, I feel lighter.

Some things are meant for safe keeping – for a time, for a reason. Safe keeping is for the things that help us remember the people we’ve loved and the ones who loved us even before we were born. Some things are lost – to moths, to rust, to death, to decay – and these are kept in the safest place, wrapped in memory. That is, the heart.

prayer bear

Best Wurst Day Ever

Order the Sausage Tower and a side of potato pancakes. It’s good stuff.

This past weekend, we finally made it to Hofbräuhaus on the west side of Belleville. The wait was less than thirty minutes, a band played bouncy German music, and a St. Louis FC soccer game was showing on a nearby TV—all in all, a barrel of fun.

Caroline ate mostly applesauce and a few tiny nibbles of potato pancake, but Phil and I sampled extensively from the three-tier “tower” of wursts, sauerkraut, potato salad, and pretzels. The dining room, with long, picnic-style tables, feels airy, its high arched ceilings adorned with Bavarian-blue checks. For a couple hours it seemed like we’d taken the world’s quickest flight to Munich.

A dozen summers ago, Phil and I, with his brother Jay, had visited Hofbräuhaus in Munich when we were there for the World Cup. While there, I remember being struck by how much the local people looked like my relatives, like my people who came to America from Germany in the 1880s. Back then, long before my mom took the deep dive into genealogy research, I had little interest in my German heritage. We were there for the sightseeing and soccer.

At the original Hofbräuhaus, I ordered the Hefe Weizen. (When in Rome . . .) I drank only a few sips, since I’d never really liked beer and thought it tasted like hair spray. (I’ve never tasted hair spray, but I thought it might taste like beer.) We snapped a picture of Jay holding two beers and checked Hofbräuhaus off our places-to-see-in-Munich list.

A couple of long years later, I was pregnant with Caroline, and while I never craved ice cream with pickles or canned peas with powdered sugar, I craved one thing: beer. It was like my German DNA suddenly woke up and started making unreasonable demands. Imagine a fetus in lederhosen; I did.

Funny thing is, people frown on pregnant women chugging beer, so I quenched my thirst with root beer. Mug, IBC, Fitz’s root beer—I liked it all. But my favorite was the strong stuff, Barq’s. Then after Caroline was born, when the coast was clear, I ordered beer. It was everything my pregnant self had dreamed of (and it didn’t taste like hair spray).

At Hofbräuhaus on Saturday night, we drank Coke. Maybe beer next time. We did have a lot of fun watching little kids dance to “Roll Out the Barrel.” Caroline is too mature these days to get on the dance floor (especially if the music is not covered by Kidz Bop), so we sang and laughed in our seats.

In my opinion, the food at Saint Augustine’s Wurstmarkt, held every fall, rivals that of Hofbräuhaus. But German oom-pah-pah music is good for the soul in June, too. All I need sometimes is to sit across from Phil and Caroline at a long wooden table where it’s too loud to have a conversation.

Because love is devouring a tower of sausage—with my people.

liney and me hofbrauhaus

Caroline liked the pretzels most of all.

Somehow Familiar

Last week we returned from a beautiful place in the Pacific Ocean where our neighbors now live. Hawaii has been on my to-see list since childhood, probably because my favorite sitcom families traveled there. George and Weezy Jefferson (and their neighbors Tom and Helen), the Mama’s Family bunch, and even Saved by the Bell had memorable Hawaiian vacations.

aloha-mcdonalds.jpg

Aloha, McDonald’s

It’s a wonderful and strange place, the fiftieth state. Since it’s part of the US it feels familiar, but its remote location and tropical setting and strong native culture give it a foreign, glamorous quality. While there we visited Target and McDonald’s, which are pretty similar to those places in Illinois, except for the Spam items on McDonald’s menu—right next to the common Hotcakes & Sausage. The unfamiliar alongside the familiar.

Our hotel’s logo was a single arch—almost the shape of the St. Louis Arch—but with a peak at the top like a gothic window. Whenever I caught a glimpse of it from the corner of my eye, my brain would say, “What? A St. Louis Arch?” The mind works unbidden to find the familiar in the unfamiliar.

 

Aloha evil twin

Charlie’s Evil Twin

While we were away, my sister Amanda looked after Charlie-Cat. We knew he was well cared for but missed him still. When we spotted a cat that looked just like our Charlie at a restaurant, I bent down to meet him. He sneered at me, a common tourist. We named the kitty Charlie’s Evil Twin, alluring yet aloof, unsettling in his familiarity and unfamiliarity.

Of course, the highlight of the trip was hanging out with our old neighbors who now call Hawaii home. Meeting up with Kim and Brandon and the girls at a restaurant near the hotel felt as normal as hanging out in the front yard back in Illinois. We also got to see former neighbors Nick and Paula and their girls. (Why must our much-loved neighbors move to Hawaii?) It felt like old times, like chatting in the driveway, but on the beach in paradise on Memorial Day. It was a neighborhood reunion in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. Familiar folks in an unfamiliar place: in a word, it was lovely.

Aloha noodle factor

BFFs at Chun Wah Kam Noodle Factory

Toward the end of the trip, we stayed at Kim and Brandon’s house, Caroline playing with their girls and all of us enjoying their sweet hospitality. Caroline is a few years older than the girls—a sort of honorary big sister to them. And while we are not family, Kim and Brandon treated us as if we were, the familiar (literally) in the unfamiliar.

Part of traveling is finding ways to feel at home away from home—finding the familiar in the unfamiliar. And the dearest friends are the ones who’ve become somehow familiar—strangely familiar—like family.

Aloha group photo

Dear Neighbors, Sweet Friends, Like Family

 

A Blanket Named Lello

Friday night. Caroline left Lello on her unmade bed.

Tonight she’s going to her first sleepover – the birthday party of a friend that she’s known since Kindergarten. She’s been super-excited since she got the invitation. This morning before school, she carefully packed her overnight bag, asking if we had any travel-size toothpaste that’s “not gross.” I found some not-gross toothpaste for her.

She also packed PJs, a diary, a photo of her friend Vivien, a hairbrush, and an emoji-print sleeping bag. The essentials. I made a mental note to have her pack a pillow before we leave the house this evening. When I glanced at her bed – that’s when I noticed Lello.

Lello was a baby shower gift before Caroline was born, a soft, fleece blanket. I can’t remember which sweet friend gave us the gift of Lello, but her name is listed somewhere in Caroline’s baby book. It’s probably described as “cute fuzzy animal blanket” because that’s what I would have called it before it was named Lello Blanket.

The blanket’s white background is scattered with zoo animals – elephants, lions, giraffes – but the animal that Caroline loved the most is a yellow tiger. By the time she began to talk, she would point at the tiger and try to say “yellow,” which sounded more like “leyo,” which eventually became a real, proper blanket name: Lello.

Lello Blanket has been on every overnight trip she’s taken, from Disney World to Tiki’s house, always packed on top for on-demand comfort at a moment’s notice. The white part is more a dingy, pale gray from being washed in a load of jeans years ago. The animals are faded, and the tag is frayed. Lello looks exactly like what it is: a well-loved blanket.

This could be Lello’s first night alone. I’m feeling sorry for Lello.

***

My Facebook feed lately has been filled with graduation photos – friends’ kids who’ll be off to college in August or even sooner. The ones that tug at my tear ducts are the side-by-side pics of the same kid in kindergarten and a cap and gown. It happens in a blink, the growing up.

Caroline is nine, more than halfway to high school graduation. Makes me want to keep her home from all sleepovers and miscellaneous fun activities. Also makes me wonder: will Lello make the cut as dorm-room bedding? Or will it fade to obsolescence long before that?

I don’t know how Lello will fare in the future. Maybe I’m projecting my own fears of obsolescence onto Lello Blanket?

Nah . . .

***

Tuesday morning. Caroline reminded me to pack Lello Blanket in the suitcase for vacation. Maybe there’s still a future for Lello after all.  ; )

lello yellow blanket

Lello, a well-loved blanket