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A Summer Morning in New Hampshire

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A SUMMER MORNING IN NEW HAMPSHIRE

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know that I live in the crazed and chaotic D.C. area most of the time, but steal away for a few precious months each year to my family’s old farmhouse in New Hampshire. Here I shed my usual roles and responsibilities and am able to simply be — a human being rather than a human doing, as they say.

While I’m usually alone, my nephew and his four teenagers come each summer for one of my favorite times of the year — a month of jigsaw puzzles and art projects, early-morning ice cream and late-night board games, swims in the river and croquet on the lawn. And piles: piles of dirty clothes on the floor, piles of shoes by the door, piles of dishes in the sink, and piles of books everywhere. Kind of like my place at home, come to think of it, but on a smaller scale.

Quality Time

Midway through their visit, I’ve been gifted with a rare quiet morning. All the kids are upstairs reading books, of all things.

My first order of business was to relocate three house mice that I caught in live traps overnight. I’ve read that you must put three to five miles between the critters and your house or they might somehow find their way back. This is hard to believe, but I’m not going to question it. We have an all-out invasion this year, and I’ve only begun to fight.

I drove the wide-eyed traumatized mice three miles up a narrow winding road on the far side of the Ashuelot River (can they swim across rivers?) and found what looks like a good spot to begin my resettlement project, featuring lots of brush and a seed-rich meadow on one side of the road, and the river on the other. After I had introduced the migrants to their new home and left them a hearty breakfast of birdseed, I went wading in the river and perched on a sun-warmed boulder to contemplate my blessings.

Once home, I fed the wild birds, boiled some sugar water for the hummers, and scattered sunflower seeds on the deck for the chipmunks. (And I wonder why I have mice!!)

Chipmunk Investigates Mouse Prison

Once the outside creatures were taken care of, I cut up four perfectly ripe mangos and made a jug of iced tea for the inside creatures when they emerge. Now for some quality deck time with my bird book and journal, binoculars, and Father Richard Rohr’s book, Simplicity: The Freedom of Letting Go. After a week of spotty internet coverage, I am indeed learning to let go and just breathe. I have no idea what that man donald trump is tweeting, and I don’t care.

Peace.

Deck Time

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Love Flowers

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LOVE FLOWERS

Tomorrow when I walk into work, I will be greeted by the smell of roses and fresh greenery and the laid-back reggae beats of Bob Marley. I’ll spend the day reading encouraging, funny, sweet sentiments while chatting with friendly people.

I can’t believe somebody is paying me to do this.

If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you’ll know I’m a substitute teacher and a writer and a pastor. Also an office assistant for my housing cooperative. I also have ADD, which helps explain why I’m perfectly happy to be working at half a dozen different pursuits. This keeps my brain bathed in feel-good chemicals. To me, boredom is the ultimate terror.

But this job — this job.

When a friend of mine posted on Linked-In that her florist shop would need extra help during the Valentine’s Day rush, I messaged her right back. I have always thought that working in a flower shop would be the bee’s knees.

(I just had to know, and now you will, too: Turns out, “the bee’s knees” was part of a bizarre slang fashion in 1920s America which consisted of animal/attribute pairings, including elephant’s adenoids, cat’s meow, ant’s pants, tiger’s spots, bullfrog’s beard, and eel’s ankle. So there you have it.)

As I was saying, flowers. 

Being surrounded by flowers is just as wonderful as I’d imagined — it’s a big warehouse bursting with every kind of bloom you could name and a lot you couldn’t.

But even more wonderful are the loving messages that accompany each flower order. I get to print out each one and slip it into an envelope that will be received with love and gratitude. My day is infused with positive, caring sentiments. Congratulations, sympathy, encouragement, apology, new house, new job, new baby, new school, and of course declarations of love for Valentine’s Day.

I love reading people’s pet names for each other. (So far, “Poop” is my fave.) What makes it all even sweeter is the number of messages from husband to husband and wife to wife. Love is love.

I suppose part of what makes this job the eel’s ankle (I just wanted to use that one) is that it’s temporary. Knowing I’ll only be there for one week, albeit working ten to twelve-hour days, makes me appreciate it all the more.

I am grateful to the Higher Power that aligns my stars for me.

Happy Valentine’s week!

 

Teaching. Or Not.

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“You still like the teaching job?” friends often ask.

I’m stymied by the question because I don’t recall ever telling anyone that I liked teaching. I don’t actually know if I like it or not. Do I even teach?

The other day a little blonde girl flounced past me on her way to hang up her jacket, which I had asked her to do. “You’re not a *real* teacher,” she said in a challenging but slightly uncertain tone, like you might say, “There’s no Santa Claus, right?” hoping against hope you didn’t just jeopardize your Christmas Eve visit. She wasn’t sure, but she had a hunch that I did not have the authority of her real teacher.

I sighed. She had a point. I mean, is a substitute a “real teacher ?” I usually feel more like a glorified babysitter with a seating chart.

Every once in a while I get to act like a real teacher — to stand up and say stuff to the class that is more than just “Quiet down” or “Sit down” or “Clean up.” But I’m usually spending so much time trying to control the 2 or 3 wildest kids that I have no time to do more than give cursory instructions to the rest of the class. It doesn’t seem to be getting better as I approach my one-year anniversary of being a substitute teacher.

The little blonde girl’s teacher said to me, “You are a real teacher and don’t ever let anyone tell you otherwise.” I appreciated the support, but that same teacher has told me in so many words, “Our standards for subs are really just to make sure nobody gets seriously hurt.” So much for teaching.

I don’t know if I’m a good substitute; I do know I could get better. I also know that another sub at my school fled the building in tears in the middle of the school day and was never seen again. At least I haven’t done that. Yet.

Thing is, I don’t feel like a “real pastor” or a “real writer” either. I have multidimensional Imposter’s Syndrome or whatever it’s called. So who knows? Maybe I am a real teacher. I wonder if I’ll ever get good enough at classroom management so that I can teach a lesson.

Here’s the truth, though, and why my friends probably assume I like teaching. I love the children. I really love them. Even the misbehaving ones, the ones who test me and flounce by me — even the little boy who peed on a stuffed animal the other day.

When I zig-zag down the hall, dodging streams of rambunctious knee-high kindergartners and carelessly nonchalant middle schoolers, I feel . . . joy. There’s no other word for it.

So you tell me: do I like teaching?

Am I Too Liberal to Live in the “Real World?”

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AM I TOO LIBERAL TO LIVE IN THE “REAL WORLD?”

I just returned from a holiday party at an organization for which I occasionally work. The whole experience made me uncomfortable, and I’m not entirely sure why. I felt I couldn’t be my real self there. I couldn’t connect. As a result, I had a moment of standing outside myself, perhaps seeing Melanie as others do. And it was alarming.

Have I become a caricature? Am I so out of the mainstream? Do I expect everyone to share my values? Are my expectations too high? Am I too liberal to live in “the real world?”

Tell me what you think:

Bless this Food, Jesus

First of all, the boss blessed the food in the name of Jesus and said a long Christian prayer. All the music was Christmas music, and we played a Christmas trivia game. This is a group of 30+ employees, including many African-Americans and Africans. It’s highly likely there were at least a couple of Muslims in the mix. Certainly there were no Jewish people — they would have quit after the last party. Perhaps a few agnostics or atheists.

I joked to the man next to me, “Heaven forbid a Jewish person should ever start working here.” He looked at me as if I was mad. (He probably thinks I’m anti-semitic now.)

If you know me at all, you’ll know I’m a Jesus-person. I’m a lay pastor, in fact. But this is a place of work. I just found it all so inappropriate. Is it me?

Is this 1950?

After our Christmas trivia game came lunch. There was nothing for a non-meat eater to dine upon, other than veggies and dip and cheese and crackers. Platter after platter of wings and crab balls and beef and lobster dip, etc, etc. Even the potato salad had bacon in it. I’m not grousing about that, it’s just kind of unusual to go someplace these days where there isn’t at least something for a vegetarian.

Everyone stuffed all their trash into the recycling containers, of course. I did not bother rifling through the garbage to pull out the recycling as I often do. It was all covered with meat juice.

Locker Room Talk

OK, so here’s the final kicker. There were gifts given out and one guy got some electric thing that looked to someone else like a dildo. Six or seven guys were roaring with laughter, making all kinds of crude jokes such as, “That’s a power tool right there” and pretending to use a jack hammer. During this time, they caught no women’s eyes, and they carried on as if we weren’t even there. (We were far outnumbered.) I *think* the guys thought they were being subtle or clever, as if we didn’t know what they were talking about.

I was astounded. It’s been so long since I’ve been in a group of men like that, I had forgotten the intense discomfort. And a big part of the discomfort lies in not speaking up myself, even just to say, “How old are you?” in a joking manner.

I have a bad cold. I have next-to-no voice this week. If I’d had any voice, I’m pretty sure I would have at least said something like that.

In the age of #MeToo, perhaps somewhere in the back of their testerone-addled brains they would think, “Oh yeah, I guess heard something about sexual harassment on the news,” or maybe, just maybe, “Wow, that might make my female colleagues uncomfortable.”

I hate that I literally could not speak. There’s remarkable symbolism in that, now that I think about it.

“Why Didn’t Those Women Speak Up Before Now??”

My muteness seemed to magnify what was going on internally, all those old familiar feelings. “I don’t want to get fired. Since I’m a temp, they will just stop calling me . . . I don’t want them to think I can’t take a joke . . . I don’t want to be ostracized . . . I want to be able to get along with my co-workers.”

And yes, “I want them to like me.”

Those are the very feelings that kept me from speaking up every time I was sexually harassed and/or assaulted in the workplace: at a theater, a hardware store, the CIA, a non-profit. Pretty much everywhere I’ve ever worked.

I thought things had changed. I thought the conversation was further along. I thought . . . I guess I thought it was safer.

The real question for me now is should I talk to the H.R. director? Should I point out that their office is not friendly to people who don’t share the boss’s religion? Should I tell her about the sexual harassment I’ve often witnessed there and use the jack-hammer guy as an example? Or should I just say, “Life is too short, I only work here sporadically, it’s not my problem?”

I could file a discrimination complaint on behalf of all vegetarians, but that probably wouldn’t be too constructive. I do need the job.

So — just a rambling holiday blog, 2017-style. I’m not going to bother to edit this, so I’m sorry if it’s not up to my usual standards. I’m tired & sick and really just wanted to process these feelings and see what you thought. Well?

When I Was a Liar

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WHEN I WAS A LIAR

I lied a lot when I was young, but I never thought of myself as a liar. The first time I spoke any particular lie, I generally felt a twinge of uneasiness, nervous that someone might question me. Usually, though, by the second or third telling, I fully believed what I was saying and I’d vociferously defend my lie as truth.

I lied so often that it became the norm. Exaggerations, made up conversations or events, rationalizations. All kinds of lies. It never occurred to me that I was lying, because that’s just the way my mind worked. It went there automatically.

The goal of my lies was always to draw attention to myself, to get people to think more highly of me and/or to like me. I wanted to be smarter and braver and kinder and funnier and more interesting than I believed I was. So I just made myself all those things in my head.

It wasn’t until I was almost thirty years old that I came face-to-face with my own dishonesty. It must have been winter because I remember there were coats hanging on the backs of our folding metal chairs in the church basement where our support group met weekly. Together, we wrestled with the effects of growing up in alcoholic homes.

A young blond guy who didn’t often speak sat across the circle from me, squirming. Finally he said tearfully, “I’m feeling a lot of confusion and shame. I lie a lot. I make stuff up. I’m not sure why I do that and I don’t know how to stop.”

The harsh neon lights seemed to dim, and I actually felt as if time had stopped. 

“Oh my God. Oh my God, that’s me,” I said to myself. I’d had no idea.

God has graciously taken away this shortcoming over the years. Once in a blue moon I’ll find myself exaggerating, but I recognize it right away and chuckle fondly at my silly inner child who still wants attention any way she can get it.

It’s so wonderful to know that I will never again have that sinking feeling when someone says, “Wait a minute, I thought you said…”

The President’s Pathology

All this to say that I understand the man in the Oval Office. He is not well. While his disorder is clearly way more complex than mine was, I understand his desperate need for attention.

Sadly, there’s not much chance of the man getting help for his issues. He thinks that psychotherapy is “a crutch” and has said, “I don’t like to analyze myself because I might not like what I see.” Trump is trapped behind a one-way mirror: he sees everything in the world through his own distortions, but he can’t look back inside at himself. It seems that until he’s driven from office one way or another, we are stuck with his pathology.

I just thought you might want to know that I’m pretty sure he believes all his lies. He has to believe them in order to feel OK about himself because underneath, I imagine his self-esteem is about as low as a human being’s could be.

 

Thanks for the WordPress word prompt, one-way. 

On Meeting Jesse & Margaret

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I run into Jesse and Margaret at the spring, or “down to the spring,” as they would say here in the Granite State. And a more perfect New Hampshire couple I have yet to meet.

Jesse is tall and lean, wearing well-worn blue jeans and a dingy white knit cap. His shirt is even more worn than his jeans. It’s one of those generic green shirts with his name over the pocket that he probably wore back when he worked at a garage or service station.

At eighty-three, he’s not working anymore. “Me and Margaret, we like to go for drives,” he says. “We went up to the Weathervane in Lebanon yesterday — had our Thanksgivin’ dinner there. Ayup. That’s almost an hour away,” he informs me.

Margaret nods her bundled-up head. Her blue eyes are clear and shining with delight at the prospect of befriending a new person. “We get out as much as we can,” she says enthusiastically.

She is a particular type of older woman that you meet up here, the kind that exudes health. Her skin’s as deeply wrinkled as a peach pit from the sun, but it’s got a fresh glow to it and her cherubic cheeks are rosy pink from the cold. She is beautiful, actually.

We chat as Jesse helps me fill my water bottles from the spring. It turns out that they used to live on the same back road that my grandmother’s house is on. In 1955 —  the year I was born and started spending summers here — they moved to the next town over, but they know my house and call it “the old Tainton place,”** as all the old-timers do.

We share stories about long-gone neighbors and agree that Hattie Bunker was the sweetest woman we ever knew.

Hattie and her husband Arthur lived in a little tar-paper shack down the road and were a big part of my childhood. Hattie was twelve years old when she got married, and she carried a childlike simplicity well into old age. Arthur always looked like he was at least a hundred years old. He was struck by lightening multiple times while riding his tractor in the fields. One bolt stole his power of speech. I never heard him utter a word in my whole life.

I tell Jesse and Margaret how I spent hours listening to Hattie’s stories while we milked her cows and harvested veggies from her garden. I ask if they have a garden.

“Not anymore. Our daughter liked to garden, but she’s gone now,” Jesse says.

“Cancer, like my mother,” Margaret says. “You probably knew Carolyn. Didn’t you? Carolyn Wheeler — she was at Prudential for thirty-two years.”

“Thirty-two years,” Jesse confirms.

I nod and say yes, I think the name does ring a bell, which of course it doesn’t but they really need it to, and so I give them this small gift.

“I’m so sorry about that. I’m really glad you have each other,” I say.

“Married sixty-one years,” Jesse proudly tells me. He hoists my crate of filled water bottles into my car and invites me to stop by if I’m in their neighborhood. He shakes his head and laughs because for a minute he can’t remember the name of the street they’ve lived on for sixty-two years. Margaret doesn’t remind him; she lets him remember for himself.

“Center street!” he finally declares. “That’s it. Right across from the old saddle shop. Come by anytime, we’re always there unless we’re out for a drive.”

Down to the Spring

** Not wanting to broadcast the most common security query, my mother’s maiden name, I have substituted my grandmother’s maiden name.

 

A Writing Conundrum

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A WRITING CONUNDRUM

Today I wrote for three hours. it was tortuous. The whole time I heard a voice in my head saying, “You have no idea what you’re doing, you have no idea what you’re doing.”

And I replied, “I’m writing. I’m writing.” At this point, that is all that matters.

It’s crap. It makes no sense. It probably does not even meet author Anne Lamott’s idea of a “shitty first draft.” But it is written. Fifteen hundred words in some sort of order.

The problem is that I do not know what this book is about. It is a memoir, so it is about me. (Yawning already? Me, too.)

The issue, I think, is parameters, boundaries. What’s in the story frame, what’s out? Why am I writing this anyway?

What belongs inside the frame?

Some things are in, for sure, like this old house in New Hampshire. Quiet Hills is my muse. It seems most integral threads of my story pass through this sacred space. She belongs.

My dearly departed brother probably belongs, although whenever he shows himself, the narrative starts to become about him, which if you knew him you’d agree was par for the course. Only it’s not about him. At certain times in my life, my story did become about him. Not anymore.

They say that the human brain tries to make meaning, tries to find patterns, and that’s never more true for me than when I attempt memoir. “What was all that about anyway? What did it MEAN?”

The story is really about a particular woman becoming herself and the life events that contributed to her evolution. But the older I get, the more I agree with Franciscan author Father Richard Rohr when he says “everything belongs.”

This does not solve my conundrum.

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