Free Fashion Advice

As I stood at the front door ready to take my daily walk, I thought of Coco Chanel’s famous advice: “Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off.” I’ve acted on this bit of advice many times, since I love all the accessories.

But here’s the thing: I couldn’t take off anything for my walk because everything is necessary. Whereas I used to take long summer walks with nary a hat or sunscreen, I now wear a super-cautious wide-brim hat with a hole in back for my ponytail. Not only that, it has a chin strap to keep from blowing off my head with the slightest gust of wind. Wide brims love to catch air, you see.

I resisted the chin strap, due to an aversion to the elastic chin straps of my childhood Easter bonnets slicing across my throat. Those things were deadly serious about keeping the straw hat on your head until the final Amen. I now yield to the chin strap because I hate chasing this hat down the sidewalk.

Draped across my chin strap is another eyesore, the cord to my earbuds. When I bought a new cell phone, it turns out my old phone trade-in was only worth a cheap pair of earbuds, not the fancy wireless kind. These earbuds work just fine, though, as I rock out to National Public Radio whilst on my daily rounds.

The only downside is they won’t stay in my ears, so I clipped the cord together—right in front of my chin strap—with a metal binder clip. I’m pretty sure this is the kind of thing Coco had in mind when she advised taking one thing off. But I need my earbuds to stay in my ears, so the binder clip is here to stay. Office supplies are so versatile.

This all sounds tragic (is probably what you’re thinking), but maybe I could compensate with some cool shoes. Well, that’s not gonna happen. After years of wearing poorly fitting shoes and toe-pinching heels, my feet desperately need a comfy pair, and the brand that best fits the ol’ water skis is a venerable sneaker beloved by boomer dads. I buy the cheapest ones in my size, which means I rarely have cool colors on my feet.

Lastly, there’s the accessory that brought Coco Chanel’s advice to mind: my elbow brace. The doctor says my chronic pain is tennis elbow, although I’ve never played tennis in my life. Still, the pain is real, so I wear a fancy black Velcro band around my left arm. Standing at the front door, I seriously considered taking this off because I’m just vain enough to fear it’ll give me some deeply weird tan lines. However, elbow pain edged out vanity, so I kept it on.

Donning my prescription sunglasses, I turned to Phil and said, “I feel like my walking outfit just gets weirder and weirder.”

“It’s not just a feeling,” he said, without looking up from the computer. “Tomorrow, you’ll put on a tutu.”          

Little does he know, I have no reason to add a tutu to my ensemble. Knee socks and ankle weights, maybe. We’ll see. Getting older is truly liberating.

Strutting out into the glorious sunshine, I tighten my chin strap, adjust my binder clip, and crank NPR like a real, live twenty-first century Coco Chanel.

Creatures and Other Comforts

This past year has shown me that I need creatures. While Charlie Parker, feline, doesn’t require as much attention as our dog did, he requires a lot of presence (and belly rubs). Wherever we gather, he is in the midst. When Phil and I are in the living room and Caroline is in her bedroom, he sits equidistant from us. Maybe it’s a magnetic force. Maybe it’s love.

Creatures, wild and tame, have meant a lot to me during the pandemic. Last fall, after a long stretch of staying close to home, we ventured to Arizona. The desert landscape was magical, and even the freezing hotel pool was a high point. However, the most amazing part of that weekend for me was meeting a hawk.

The hawk’s job was to deter pesky birds from bothering people who were dining on the patio. I was in awe of this majestic bird, so after we ate, I went over to talk to his handler. The bird towered over me with piercing yellow-green eyes and a beak that could take my finger off. The curved talons gripping his handler’s glove unnerved me. Then the handler asked, “Would you like to pet him?” Honestly, the thought of petting an apex predator hadn’t crossed my mind.

But okay.

I reached out slowly and smoothed his chest feathers with the back of my hand thinking only please don’t hurt me. I was awed and relieved that he ignored me.

Throughout the winter, we took note of the creatures outside. Birds and squirrels, rabbits and stray cats, all made their way through our yard in the course of their quest for survival. Early in the year, I started leaving birdseed for the squirrels and cardinals right outside the window, prime space for wildlife viewing. Charlie da Cat and I loved watching the squirrels grow fatter day after day. On the bitterest days of February, we watched a rabbit crouch under our deck, the wind shivering its fur.

When it gradually warmed into spring, I let the birdseed bowl run dry. The squirrels found other ways to survive, and the shivering rabbit gave birth to a brood that quickly learned to mooch from Phil’s garden full of Chinese cabbage and radishes.

Finally, this spring we headed to Florida for a couple days of warm sunshine. On our last morning at the beach, we came upon the most alluring creature. A glassy blue blob shaped sort of like a Chinese dumpling. Phil saw it first as it hung out on the wet sand, just out of the tides’ reach. “Should we help it back into the water?” he said. As the creature’s pointy end seemed to probe blindly at the sand, I nudged it with the toe of my sandal into the next wave.  

Later I learned that my right foot had been thisclose to a world of hurt. A quick internet search revealed the blue blob was likely a Portuguese Man o’ War, an animal with a painfully venomous sting.

This creature, I see now, signifies the polar opposite of comforting. Still, I’ve studied its picture on my phone many times since returning from Florida, awed by its pearly-blue surface and mysterious blue blobs lurking underneath.

In times like these, perhaps amazement passes for comfort — the comfort of knowing there’s still a big world out there and we’ll get back to exploring it soon. As I hang a hummingbird feeder outside the window, I give thanks for the comfort of creatures.  

-Em : )

Strangers and Other Creatures

Right after the mask restrictions were eased recently, I noticed something strange. A woman seemed to be following me at Schnucks. At first, I assumed she happened to be shopping for the same things in the same order: celery, snow peas, avocados. But when she spoke, it broke my vegetable reverie.

Stranger danger. Maybe she was stalking me.

“I am just striking out today,” she hollered through her mask.

“Oh?” I said, wary of appearing too interested in case she wanted to sell me on a healthy new lifestyle or the divine lordship of Krishna.

“I can’t find fresh ginger anywhere! Already been to Walmart and Dierbergs and now here!” Still wary, I felt obligated to help her find it, since she’d hollered at me and all. I had to pick up Caroline from dance class, but this cry for help would not let me off the hook.

The ginger root was piled next to the avocados I’d just been picking through, so I said, “Oh, here’s some ginger – looks like you hit the jackpot!”

She thanked me a bit too much — she’d have found it herself in two seconds — and I headed on to other things on my list.

But she wasn’t done with me. It was her husband’s birthday, she said, and she wanted to make his favorite dish, which is Korean but not too spicy, and you definitely need fresh ginger, not this powdered stuff that some people think is ginger. Right, ha ha ha?

“Ha ha, right!” I laughed along. Cooking with ginger is a joyous occasion indeed.

Now, I’ve been grocery shopping in the off hours the entire pandemic and haven’t made small talk with a single person. This stranger, determined to include me in her ginger mission, gave me pause.

Then, the same thing happened the next day as I shopped for laundry detergent! A stranger asked what detergent I like, and I told her all about the pods that smell amazing.

The next day, it happened again. Browsing in Marshalls, I was stopped by a woman trying on shoes. “Aren’t these the cutest?” she asked. I looked around, unsure if she was talking to me. Emboldened by the ginger and detergent convos, I told her they were the cutest, and she should buy both colors.

So, three days, three chats with strangers. Is it just me, or have we turned a corner? We are so tired of bad news, so eager to feel normal, and so lonely for the oddest things, like small talk in the store.

When the pandemic first started, I’d hold my breath when I passed a stranger. I also avoided eye contact just in case droplets could be transmitted by gaze. (Can’t be too safe nowadays.) Shockingly, this wasn’t conducive to friendly interaction. But now that maybe, just maybe, we are on the other side, it feels okay to engage with others again.

A couple months earlier, my family had ventured out among strangers in Florida. After spending the past year only with people in our circle of work and family, the spring break beach experience was weird and overstimulating.

One morning at breakfast, we were seated six feet from a table of people for whom nothing was right. One complained that her coffee was too hot. Another felt slighted for having to sit in a patio chair while all the other chairs at the table were indoor chairs. Yet another complained that her egg whites were “too wobbly” and inedible. My blood began to boil hotter than the offending coffee. I hadn’t been around strangers for so long that I could not abide their grievances. I left our nice breakfast shaky with caffeinated rage.

I think the problem is I had turned inward — even more than before the pandemic — and had come to see strangers as threatening at worst and irrelevant at best. I was a grouchy hermit crab.

Yet the interactions in the grocery store and shoe department were oddly delightful. They stayed with me for days after.

I mean, the word isn’t wrong: strangers can be strange. But I’ve enjoyed peeking out of my shell. Who knows? Maybe the next time I’m shopping in the frozen section, I’ll spark a conversation about imitation crab.

-Em : )

Hope Springs Eternal (in the Library)

It’s been quite a year in the library – a very quiet year, since students haven’t been able to visit. Because of COVID, I deliver books to the students’ classrooms. Some days, they greet me like I’m the ice cream man. “Hey, it’s Mrs. Chemical with library books!” No doubt, from time to time my visit has helped to break up the monotony of sitting masked and staring at screens. And whether they get my name right or not, I truly appreciate the appreciation.

I spend about ten minutes on each visit, unloading my cart of books like an itinerant peddler and letting each student have a look-see at my wares. Most of the time, they decide quickly, especially if I’m well stocked with Wimpy Kid and Dork Diaries, perennial favorites of many third, fourth, and fifth graders. For first graders, I bring at least two copies each of Berenstain Bears, Arthur and Friends, Clifford the Big Red Dog, and Fly Guy. I give the people what they want.     

Some students are terribly indecisive. They look and look, but nothing strikes their fancy. I get it – I’ve been known to browse a bookshelf myself – but COVID times call for quick decisions and a whole lot of hand sanitizer.

I try to hurry things along, based on what other kids their age like. For third grade boys, my first hurry-up question is, “Do you like dinosaurs?” Nine times out of ten, I sell them on a solid prehistoric nonfiction read. Say they don’t like dinosaurs? I try outer space. Astronauts and dinosaurs are a surprisingly easy sale for such boys.

However, one little boy proved to be a tough customer. Doesn’t give a flip about dinosaurs, and outer space is beyond meh. I eyed the clock and offered a few more suggestions. Magic Tree House? Nope. Bad Guys? Not really. A really nice selection on caring for Siamese cats? Nah.

At that moment he stared past me, a faraway look in his eye as he asked, “Do you have any books about . . .” Here he paused for what felt like eternity as I searched his little masked face for some hint. “About . . .” he repeated, “about concrete?” I blinked. Never in a million years could I have predicted that.

The crazy part is, I did have a book about concrete. Well, it was about cement mixer trucks, but it was just about perfect for him.

Although I couldn’t sell my little friend on a Siamese cat book, books about animals are immensely popular with the K-5 set. When a student chooses a book about chinchillas, chances are very good they want me to know that their cousin has a chinchilla, and it’s soooooo cute, and they love reading about furry animals, but they hate snakes and love snacks. I love these conversations.

Many kids who have pets at home like to read about those animals. If they don’t tell me when checking out an animal book, I always ask, “Do you have any pets?” Some do, some don’t. I just feel that it’s important to show interest in their interests. One thing is consistent with all young readers who don’t have pets. They all tell me, “No, but I’m going to get a puppy real soon.”

I say, “Wow, that’ll be so exciting to have a puppy!” Maybe they’re right; maybe half the families in our district are in the process of getting a puppy. I think it’s more likely a statement of hope. Saying it makes it a little bit more true.

So I’ll go ahead and say this: we’re getting back to normal, daily life really soon! Probably by autumn.

There. Maybe I’m right.

I know I’m right about one thing: hope springs eternal, especially in the library.  

-Em : )

The Lost Year

As he changed our clocks to Daylight Savings Time, Phil hummed the graduation song. I’m not sure if springing forward is an occasion worthy of pomp or circumstance, but it felt oddly appropriate. At last, we’re graduating.

We wore the masks. We washed our hands. We ordered takeout. And we got our shots.

There I go, using past tense. I should say that we’re not graduating quite yet – the band is just tuning up. We’re still getting into caps and gowns. I’m dubious of anyone who tries to make a coherent, past-tense story of the pandemic right now – rising action, turning point, denouement, and whatnot. We’re still in it. Even so, I can feel it, that glimmer of moving on.     

Moving the clocks forward means we lost an hour; it feels like something similar happened to the past year. Sure, if you can read this you’ve lived through it, which is no small feat, but it feels like time lost, somehow. Movement without progress.

We lost connections. We lost loved ones. We lost a sense of security. We lost that feeling of anticipation that gets us out of bed in the morning.

But it’s not as though the past year has been a total bust. I mean, I cleaned out the basement and read some good books. We ate together as a family about every night, took plenty of walks.

Phil and I watched all 15 seasons of E.R. It began as a trip down memory lane – the series started back in ye olden days of 1994 when George Clooney and Noah Wyle were mere infants. Many months later, by the time we got into season 11 or 12, Phil and I felt as though the end of the pandemic was somehow tied up, nay, somehow mystically dependent on us finishing the entire series. We sensed that the daily bread of E.R. episodes would sustain us until the world opened back up.

In other words, we lost our minds just a smidge.

But what a great TV show. And you know what happened a few days after we finished the final episode? I got a vaccine appointment at Walgreens. (Coincidence? Probably.) The only side effects were fatigue and achy shoulders. At the same time, a weight had been lifted and light flickered at the end of the tunnel.

In springing forward, we sacrifice an hour of sleep to gain an hour of sunlight. Makes me wonder what we might gain from the troubles of the past year.

I hope that the people who’ve made great sacrifices – healthcare workers, small business owners, bone-tired educators, and all those who didn’t make the six o’clock news – will be greatly rewarded.

I hope that the arc of the moral universe takes a really sharp turn toward justice.    

I hope that the weary find rest, the traumatized find health, the humble find their reward. And I hope the arrogant fall off their high horses.

Just being honest.

If I may continue to stretch the graduation metaphor far beyond its capacity, where’s my diploma? And to what will we matriculate? The new normal? No. Please, let’s stop saying “the new normal.”

I know the normal will be strange and new. But I also know that God’s got the whole world in his hands. And throughout this extended holding pattern we’ve been held by those hands. Even when we feel frayed at the edges, those hands are hemming us in with cosmic needle and thread.

Making small talk lately, I’ve noticed a phrase coming up a lot: “It is what it is.” It’s effective when things are out of your hands. And if it is what it is, all I can do is leave it in God’s hands.

Meanwhile, I continue to sing the timeless words of “Pomp and Circumstance” that my friend taught me right before our graduation:

My camel flies sideways; your camel flies upside-down.

My camel flies sideways; your camel is dead. (Dum dum dum.)  

No year is truly lost, even so-called lost years. When we move on, let’s make the next one a year of wonder.

-Love, Em : )

Ghosts of Christmas Past (Part 5 of 5)

If you missed it, start at Part 1.

Over the years since that night, I’ve tried to conjure the pinball feeling of anticipation that runs through the body like the best warm shiver. It can’t be summoned at will, and entire years can pass without that silver ricochet of wonder that Christmas lights once brought. But some experiences have come close.

Riding in a taxi along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive with my future husband, glittering lights of the big-shouldered city on one side and the vast nighttime shimmer of Lake Michigan on the other. Catching a glimpse of Cinderella’s castle through my daughter’s eyes, its lavender spires rising in glory from the navel of Disney’s Magic Kingdom. Reading a poem, or even a finely-wrought sentence, that sparks a memory that travels through my eyes, down my throat, and oddly kindles my heart.

And, to a milder degree, the lights of our own family tree stationed in the front window of our house will do the trick now and then.

Driving my daughter home from dance class one evening, I take the long way around and stop right in front of the window from which our Christmas tree peeks out. “Wow,” I say to the girl in the back seat, “I wonder who lives in this little house—and who put that tree in the front window? Must be a small family, maybe just two or three people?” I feel a bit like Gramps, awkwardly narrating levity into life. She plays along with Mom’s silly game and agrees, “Hmmmm. Must be.” She humors me less every day, this almost-teenager.

I wonder what she will remember about these Christmas days in the decades to come. Truthfully, I’ve made no great effort to manufacture memories with spying elves or baking traditions. Magic will emerge naturally, I trust. She won’t remember the thrill of a brown bag full of nuts and citrus or a cold walk home from Grandma’s house. God forbid she hear the ringtone of bad news early on Christmas morning. I cannot know which ghosts will travel into her future.

Of course, the ghosts of Christmas past aren’t really of the past. They are always present. These ghosts, after all, aren’t really ghosts. If they haunt us at all, it’s a quiet lurking, bittersweet like sugared coffee, like a yellow glow from a window, like cold relatives coming through a warm front door.

For the truth is that memories are indistinguishable from matter in that they can neither be created (despite the claims of vacation brochures) nor destroyed.

From Synthesizing Gravity by Kay Ryan

-Merry Christmas to all! ~Em