Sunday, April 27, 2008

Let This Be My Prayer Today

This is probably a stupid question, but it's bugging me. It's Sunday, so it's time for Andrea to fret about Catholicism and religiosity and faith... Big, deep questions.

Except not so much today.

A few weeks ago, I went to church. It happened to be the feast day of St. Vincent de Paul. The short version is that he was a French peasant in the late 1500s. He became a priest, and had a special heart for poor people. Other priests came to work with him, an order of priests formed itself, and today there are Vincent de Paul ministries in many parishes around the world. Mostly it's true (but not required) that these Vincent de Paul ministries are led by lay people rather than priests or nuns, which makes me inclined to like them just on the face of it.

So, I'm at Mass on this feast day. There's a commissioning ceremony for the Vincent de Paul volunteers -pretty standard stuff. By accident, though, I was sitting in the pew with them. They are good people. They are dedicated people. The few that I actually know are interesting and wonderful people. But mostly they were people I don't know.

And I have to tell you that they looked like no fun at all. They were mostly old (and you thought I was as old as a human can be. Apparently not.) and grumpy-looking. The woman next to me read her missal throughout the whole Mass. The woman next to her said the rosary throughout the service. Blech. What that behavior tells me is that there's a very old-school theology attending this ministry to the poor.

That inclination makes me worry about what their service to poor people looks like. Is it similarly conservative and old-fashioned? I don't know. But mostly I was wondering why only old grumpy people are attracted to this ministry in the church. It wasn't always like this. Why would anyone want to join them??? They didn't seem terribly welcoming. What do they do at their meetings? Why would I give up an evening to join them?

I couldn't think of a single reason, and that's just a shame. And I'm sort of predisposed to think that the work is important. What's it going to take to persuade young, comparatively hip people that this kind of work is fun and important and the mission of their lives?

So, my prayer today is that people I like will come join me in these ministries to the poor and oppressed. Fairly lame, as prayers go, but it's all I've got today.

Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Making a Little Mark

It's a day of unimaginable spring beauty AND it's my day off. Could a girl ask for more? I could ask for a little more, as it happens. And here's where, if you listen carefully, you can hear my siblings start to shout warnings.

Step away from the home improvement project. It only seems small.

I ignore them. I went to the garden store and bought some baskets of flowers. How much trouble can this cause, for heaven's sake? But I want these flowers -at least some of them- to hang. The baskets come with hooks, but the eaves of the house don't come with hooks. No matter. The nice young man at Menard's will tell me how to do this. The answer seems to involve a drill and a screw and a prongy thing. This could go very badly indeed, but he assures me I can handle it.

I know my limitations, so I also stop by the liquor store. If I can't get the flowers to hang, I can at least drown my sorrows. Or, I suppose, I could offer whomever I con into helping me a fortifying glass of Pinot Grigio.

The morning's haul:

But it turns out that, by climbing on a dining room chair and balancing on the porch rail (thank heavens for yoga and balancing postures), I can drill a hole and hang one of my plants. Here's what we have so far.

I honestly thought I'd bought enough plants, but it's not quite the look of abundance that I wanted. It's a nice start, though. And the congratulatory glass of Pinot is all for me.

Now I'm off on my bicycle. Laundry can wait.

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

The Dance of Everyday Life

I don't want to start a nutty rhapsody about the Zen-like beauty of home-making and housework. Some days it's scrubbing diapers and cleaning up spit-up, and there's just no poetry in that -and no sense pretending otherwise. But there are days and tasks that are opportunities to see it as something else, even if just for a moment.

I've probably mentioned this; I say it frequently in real life. I have the world's stupidest kitchen. It was designed by a man, back when men didn't use kitchens. They were just magic rooms that food came out of, and certainly didn't merit the serious planning attention that a man's study, for example, might deserve. Even a man's garage probably got more attention that the kitchen.

But it's MY stupid kitchen. Tonight I was making dinner -just for me, so nothing special. But I had Vivaldi playing on the iPod; the kitchen windows are finally open so there was a breeze. I could smell the onion cooking. And I was doing this thing that cooks who know their kitchens can do... stirring one pot, reaching behind me without looking to open the drawer and reaching for the cheese grater, kicking the cupboard door closed with my foot so I can open the oven door... that thing. It was a strange, but oddly fun, dance.

Yes, it's entirely ridiculous that you have to close the cupboard before you open the oven, but you get used to it. Yes, if I had a jillion dollars I'd remodel the kitchen. I don't and I won't -at least not any time soon. But I've cooked in other kitchens. I cooked in Swarthmore. I wasn't there long enough to really get into a rhythm. I cooked in Becky's kitchen when she so generously offered me shelter when I needed it. Her kitchen IS remodeled, and it's stunning. But it's not mine.

This is MY stupid kitchen. We've been together a long time now, and we understand each other. It may be that I decide that I don't want the house, or that it's just too much room for me, or that I can't maintain it. But you know what? That's going to be MY decision. This kitchen and I are attached. We're both a mess. But we know each other's quirks. I can dance in this kitchen. I'll leave it when and if I'm ready, and not one second before.

Monday, April 21, 2008

Welcome to the World, Baby Girl


Doesn't her cuteness just make you melt? Don't you just want to kiss the place where one day there will be a neck? Don't you think that, perhaps, Auntie Andrea should get a grip?? ;)

Well, perhaps she has a slightly dotty aunt (more than one, truth be told). But she's here and the world is improved by her presence. Pleased to meet you, dear one!!!

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Joyous Abundance

You have to picture 17-year-old Andrea, heading off to college. I weighed 84 pounds (why this is relevant I don't know -just picture a tiny little innocent). I had spent most of my educational life at a convent girls' school in Arkansas. And now I was at a world-class urban university in Chicago. Cognitive dissonance, anyone? I was protected mostly by the sad truth that I was SO in over my head I couldn't even realize how precarious my situation was. When you don't know you can't do something, you just do it.

The day I bought books for my first quarter of classes I almost hyperventilated from excitement. Wandering the corridors of the bookstore, I glimpsed all the things that I could learn. There was Russian literature, calculus, French history, Chinese language and history, art, germ theory, international development, organic chemistry.... There was no end to it. That alone delighted me. People get to know all this stuff? Where should I sign up? I want to learn things forEVER!!!!

I've settled down somewhat, I suppose, but not about that. Even now when I sit with someone who's an expert in a field not my own, and that person explains something about her field elegantly and succinctly, it blows my head apart. How amazing! Now I want to go learn more about that!! I reject entirely the idea that it's dilettantism to want to know lots of things. Sure, I want to be really good at a small set of things. But mostly I want to hang around in a world where ideas float around as part of the everyday environment.

At my launch party in December, a dear friend challenged a bunch of professors to explain why they had earned PhDs. (Truth be told, they had had too much to drink and were acting a tad pompous.) I didn't hear their answers, but I know what mine would be. There's this gorgeous world that hangs together so elegantly. There are God's people in amazing variety and similarity. There are the things people build; there are the principles that hold the whole thing together. I can't stand not knowing this stuff.

And that's why people get PhDs and hang out at universities. Or, at any rate, why I want to again. So I'm going to. That's part of my new news. One piece of my "things that take courage" worked out and I'll be connected to the university again-teaching and learning and, I fervently hope, figuring out how to make things better for poor people around the world.

Friday, April 18, 2008

I Felt the Earth Move

At about 4:30 this morning, I woke up and my bed was shaking. Now, I would like to tell you a tale about why that was happening, but the truth is, I had no clue. I convinced myself it was a train going by; the tracks are just a few blocks away. Of course, I heard no train, but at 4:30 in the morning, I'm easily persuaded by slightly weak arguments.

An hour later, the clock went off and the charming NPR commentator was talking about the earthquake that rumbled through the Midwest. Oh!!!!

So there we are -the second earthquake of my whole life. It's a strange feeling!

Monday, April 14, 2008

What Courage is Required of Me?

I'm contemplating the next right moves in my life. Worse, I'm contemplating the risks that have to be taken in order to take the next steps. I'm bloody sick of risk taking. (Picture me, shaking my fist at the sky, like Scarlett O'Hara. As God as my witness, I'll never be frightened again.) But there are changes brewing in at least two areas of my life. It's too soon to name them publicly, but they're both weighing heavily on my mind.

Etymologically, courage is just acting in consonance with what's in your heart. It's not so much not being afraid, or even "feeling the fear and doing it anyway". It's just being authentic. And that's plenty scary enough, thank you very much. It's like when you're a teenager and people tell you "just be yourself" and you think "Terrific. What the heck does THAT mean???" I'm not used to looking into my heart and seeing what's there.

Nor do I have long experience being brave. I'd never really needed to be brave until recently. So, I may be drawing conclusions from too little data, but it seems to me that the pattern is that I limp (or maybe crawl, and sometimes desperately broken) toward something that looks like a healthy outcome. Then, much later, I can walk, run and possibly even fly. I said I wouldn't ignore the signs life offers, and I'm trying to honor that intention. Nor do I want this post to be just another bemoaning of the truth that every day requires courage. It does, and I wish it were otherwise. The thing I wanted to know is WHAT courage is required of me.

I have to look at my goals and dreams for myself. Might these new opportunities bring me closer to them? Yes, it seems clear that they might. But, I'm afraid that if I pursue these opportunities, I might not get them. I might not be skilled enough or smart enough or nice enough... or whatever. Then my feelings will be hurt, and my battered self esteem will take another hit. Seriously, how many can it sustain? On the other hand, NOT pursuing them guarantees the outcome. Things stay the way they are, until I work up the courage to change them.

I've survived rejection. It hurts. Oh my lord how it hurts. But on the face of it, if I pursue these opportunities and nothing good happens, I'm no worse off than I am now. The water could be muddied a bit, but I think I could survive that.

So the courage I need to find is the courage to put myself out there and take some chances. It could turn out that I AM smart enough and skilled enough. Maybe one opportunity comes through and not the other. Maybe I get both of them to come through for me. I need to step forward rather than back. That's the courage I need right this minute.

Christopher Robin tells Pooh:
Pooh, Promise me you’ll always remember: You’re braver than you believe, and stronger than you seem, and smarter than you think.”
Jill and my sibs and others regularly remind me that my experiences, choices, perspectives, and needs have value. Acting as though I believe them will have to do for now ;) Perhaps actual belief will follow. But I think my heart is telling me that I could both blossom and make some meaningful contributions in these potential new opportunities. So... suck it up and put yourself out there.

I guess that's the conclusion.


Friday, April 11, 2008

Disregarding Stitch Markers

I'm developing -quite by accident- a list of aphorisms that I tell knitters. At the absolute top of the list is my belief that our knitting tells a story about who we are and how we interact with the world. We reveal ourselves as who we fundamentally are all day every day; all it takes to read the signs is a careful observer.

One of the best parts of my week is helping people improve at knitting. I love teaching. I love knitting. I love empowering people to confront the challenges that face them. So there's this knitter who is becoming quite accomplished. What she isn't yet is confident, but that's not really today's story. She's working on a sock, and she'd made a little mistake. She could have fixed it herself -or ignored it, since the evidence is going to be inside her shoe- but she wanted me to fix it.

The first step to fixing someone's knitting (or any other) problem is figuring out what's going on. The knitter almost always wants to talk in my ear, pointing out the tragedy. They of course know because they have an intimate familiarity with the fabric they've created. I have to get that familiarity fairly quickly, and the talking really doesn't help much. It's more a matter of quietly looking. Really looking. It's not usually a big deal. One of the painfully true things I tell knitters is that it's impossible for them to make a mistake that I haven't made -and way more than once.

This knitter was creating the heel of the sock, which is where accidents will happen if they're going to, and there were two stitch markers just sort of hanging in the middle of nowhere. I saw the mistake well enough, but I couldn't figure out what the stitch markers were for. Maybe they were marking other mistakes? Maybe she was making a sock in some new way that I don't understand? What's happening here?

She told me that they were just leftover from when she had done the decreasing for the gusset. (For the non-knitters among us, the details aren't terribly important. She had needed the stitch markers. Then she didn't. That's all you need to know.) She just hadn't dropped the stitch markers back into her knitting bag when she was finished with them.

My comment was "Don't train yourself to disregard stitch markers." Ask me how I know. I'm probably more inclined not to use markers when I should, rather than using them when I shouldn't. But the effect is the same -a lack of credible information that would have been easy to obtain if I had just done the simple things: pay attention and make a little effort.

You don't need to beat me over the head with this. I've been disregarding bigger signs than stitch markers. I get it that there was something of a failure of mindfulness, to put it mildly, in my life over the past few years. Had I been paying attention, at the very least I wouldn't have been blind-sided by my husband's betrayals and lack of commitment. I might even (although probably not) have caught it in time to be able to make an effective effort to save the marriage.

But he's not even really the story. I missed lots of other signs along the way -small places where there were alarms ringing quietly and I just breezed on past them. Places where I gave up autonomy, accepted too little, accepted stories that made no sense at all, truncated my own life, skipped opportunities because I was afraid.... I disregarded the stitch markers in a big way.

Another truism that falls out of my mouth is "do something different. Do ANYthing different." If you want things to change and you're not quite sure how to make that happen -or even exactly how you want it to look on the other end- do something different. Do anything different. The hope is that the entire system will adjust itself in accommodation to your new behavior. So, my "anything different" is to pay attention to the stitch markers. Which is just another way of saying that I'll try to be mindful and aware of the signs in my life.

All we need to know, we learned at knitting group ;)

Wednesday, April 09, 2008

Girls' Day Out

For Christmas, I gave Victoria the gift of a girls' day out in Chicago. She figured pedicures and a glass of white wine. Not quite, but she had the theme right. We finally arranged our schedules so that we were off on the same day and didn't each have 4 jillion other things to do.

We headed for the train at 7:15. This is a day off????

Then off to Intimacy where, you will be glad to know I did NOT take pictures. Several hundred dollars lighter in the pocket book, we've been fitted, disturbed at the size we discovered that we both are, amazed at the comfort that wearing the right undergarments brings, and we each have some new underwear. Girl stuff, in a big way. Seriously, go to this place. We've developed, I'm sad to say, another expensive habit :(

Then we needed sustenance. Coffee was essential to the recovery process: L'Appetito. But chocolate was the real key.

Then, we walk. We see the sculpture that is supposed to be called The Cloud Gate, but everyone just calls "The Bean": We check out the Pavilion. This isn't a great picture; the real thing reminds me of the Sidney Opera House.

We check out the faces. There's only one today.

A glass of Grand Marnier at Bennigan's, and back to the train we go. Tomorrow, it's back to work, but our new undergarments will remind us of our the girls' day out.

Sunday, April 06, 2008

Conquering Small Challenges

In social work, we talk about the "but first" tasks. I can't do THAT, because first I have to do THIS. And I can't do THIS, because there's this impossible thing in the way that requires THE OTHER THING..... On and on and on. Life can become a snarl of but-first tasks for all of us.

In my life, those snarls of impossible tasks holding everything else up are frequently mechanical. I got nothin' when it comes to mechanical skills. I've got less than nothing. I've reduced car mechanics to tears and begging me, please, never to attempt another thing on my car. Unless of course I have some weird fascination with being stranded on the interstate.

The challenge lately has been the digital camera. I got one for Christmas. I took pictures with it (after a certain amount of thrashing around and taking pictures of my own thumbs). And then the memory card was full. So, clever girl that I am, I knew I had to move the pictures from the card to the computer -where they will eventually fill up all the available space. But Scarlett O'Hara has nothing on me; I will think about THAT tomorrow.

"They" invented digital cameras to be easier than film cameras. "They" did not include me in the focus group, that's for sure. I could not for the life of me figure out how to get the pictures moved. I e-mailed computer-whiz-boy and his helpful text message in reply was "plug it in and turn it on, Mom". Can you hear the sarcasm? I could. Yeah, sweet pea. I thought of THAT.

But today, I made some progress towards figuring it out. It turns out that I'm not stupid. (assuming for a moment that the only evidence supporting the "Andrea is stupid" hypothesis was the camera. Work with me here.) The USB port I was using doesn't work. By plugging the camera into another port, I've actually made some progress.

So now, I can take pictures of my knitting projects for ravelry. Then I can mail the knitted items to the recipient (who isn't born yet) before she heads off to college. Having done THAT, I can move Dave's desk down to the basement so that I can use the office in ways I find more congenial. Having done THAT, I will have made yet another stride toward claiming the house as my own.

And all of this has been waiting for me to discover that the USB port I was using was faulty. Not me. The USB port.

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Growing a Life

It might actually -finally- be spring. (She whispers, lest the goddess of weather hear and inject a freak April blizzard into the mix. It's happened before.) You can't actually tell that it's spring in the gardens yet. But I know it's here because the interstate is under construction (a surer sign than the daffodils), and my across-the-street neighbor has undertaken a home improvement project. This one seems to involve a jackhammer, which is a little irritating. But he'll be done eventually, and then I can open the windows.

So, this morning I took my coffee out into the backyard. I dusted off a fabulously dirty lawn chair, located my sunglasses and a book, and plopped down. I quickly abandoned the book. It's a tragedy of another knitting-group tale. I don't think it's supposed to be a tragedy; it's just that the writing is so very bad. Too lazy to get up, and enjoying the sun on my shoulders, I just started looking around.

Why did I put my lawn chair here, when all it gave me a view of is the garbage can? Rotate my chair a little, and I see the driveway. That's no better. Rotate a little more and I get the sump pump. Oh, that's elegant. Rotate a little more, and it's the neighbor's trashcan. Houston, we have a problem.

Dave has always taken care of the gardens. And really, when they are in bloom, they're lovely. But I think I have a handle on why I never wanted to hang out and enjoy them. They don't invite anyone in, except to do chores. That's no good.

There's nowhere to sit, nowhere to sleep, nowhere to walk, and the views are kind of icky. Nothing says "come have a glass of tea with me" or even "keep me company while I weed this flower bed". We didn't have a garden; we had a flower laboratory.

I have a tendency lately, which I really have to keep in check, to feel that I have to do everything all at once, RIGHT THIS VERY MINUTE. I have this new opportunity in my life to organize things my way, to fulfill my dreams at long last -and I don't have to defend that to a single person. But being me, I could easily throw away all the old furniture to begin the house redecorating project, tear up all the sod in the yard to begin a landscaping project, buy a plane ticket to heaven-knows-where to begin the travel project, and then get on my bike and not come home for 8 hours.

When I did come home, it would be to an empty house, a destroyed yard, an empty bank account, and a sore body. I would then melt completely down -and then I would have to go to work. This strikes me as a bad plan.

The gardens are actually a nice metaphor for the way I should undertake this new life of mine. I know there are a few things I want to change right now. I need some decent chairs in the backyard. (I bought two white Adirondack chairs this morning.) Those chairs need a little table and a foot stool for at least one of them. I'm just going to move them around until the right place for a seating area reveals itself to me.

And from that vantage point, I'll watch the gardens. Dave wanted blues and purples in the gardens. I like that idea a lot -except he was a little wrong there, too. Blues and purples alone look gloomy. There need to be accents of pink and white, I think. So I'm going to watch what comes up and looks a little lonely. Pink and white annuals will go right there. I need giant pots of geraniums on the front steps. I need ferns hanging on the front porch. I have a little fantasy of an herb garden, but no clear sense of where it belongs yet. So, really, all I might get done in the gardens this year -other than maintaining them- is the furniture, the annuals, the pots of geraniums and a few hanging plants.

But I will have started. I will have made a little mark. I will have honored what's come before, without being bound by it. Even these little changes are, to my mind, about welcoming people in and offering something peaceful, or possibly even joyful, to see. And I'm waiting for the next right move to reveal itself. I'm not a good wait-er. Maybe that's what the garden has to teach me this year.