Priorities: Summer Edition

Today is the societal end of summer. The gray haze of Canadian wildfires hang over our town, and the pools are all officially closed. In past years, I have made lists of things to get done during the summer. You know: plant certain flowers, clean out the garage, organize the closets. I didn’t do that this year, and so because I am prone to thinking and reflecting, I sit here wondering how we spent our summer. What did we do with our extra daylight, with the arguably slower pace, with vacation time?

A beautiful early summer day on Macbride Lake brought us out to the water about three months ago. As youngest son and I paddled, we noted the large homes on the water – docks, pontoon boats, motor boats, paddle boards – were all going unused. There was no excuse for the waste of the day; we posited that everyone who owned lakefront property should be making the most of the day: they should be on the water, on their decks, with their friends and family.

Many of us are terrible at using our time well. Not only are we not as productive as we could be, we also waste time in a way that we don’t even enjoy. We get stuck in routines that don’t bring us joy; we spend time with people we complain about; we engage in hobbies that are more chore than cheer. Perhaps some of that was true of your summer; perhaps you are feeling such pressures as the academic year looms.

I dubbed the past three months the summer of friends. Our summer started off with middle son being home, and we had a weekend at my aunt’s and uncle’s house with extended family and pets. We even took a dip in their pool; a chilly proposition in early June in the Midwest. Later that month, my dear friend and her daughters included our house on a road trip they were taking, and we got to show off our corner of the world and reminisce. Youngest son and I spent a beautiful day with another wonderful person one early July, a friend who is from Iowa but whom we met in Georgia and was back home for several weeks, and we spent the day talking, laughing, eating, and surveying her place near Pella.

Later that month, I traveled to Seattle for work and in doing so, not only had the opportunity to learn with several excellent colleagues, I also got to visit with a writer-friend, a professor-friend, and a former student-friend. While I was there, youngest son got to spend time with his grandma and grandpa. As soon as I got back from Seattle, one of my cousins and his family came over and spent the weekend, treating us to a Jim Gaffigan show. We also enjoyed a whiskey/wine/beer tour of our area. Right after that, youngest son and I were off to the lake with college friends and their sons; then, as soon as we got back from there, two dear friends were coming through town, and we were lucky enough to be able to dine with them before they continued on their trip. We snuck over to Des Moines to see my dad and mom in August.  I haven’t even mentioned our local outings to Pride events, concerts, and restaurants with friends in the area. Those were sprinkled into every summer week. Summer wrapped up with middle son home again for a month before going off to London.

And, now the summer is, for all intents and purposes, over. My summer flowers are fading; my garage is not cleaned out; carpets have gone unwashed, and the cobwebs around the doorframe might just stay until Halloween. And, no, I still don’t have a kayak, much less a lake home.

What we do have are memories with so many beautiful and wonderful people. So now, as we head into what society would have us believe are the hectic days of fall which will be followed up by the madness of the holidays, I find myself wanting more summer. That is, more time with friends, family, more time with the people that matter. And, if I can create that, then I will be making the most of the days in any season – no list needed.


Springing Time

“Would you like a refund? You know…this is a hard medium…and you really don’t have any talent here.”

Years ago I signed up for and started a watercolor class. I’ve always wanted to learn to paint, and I enjoy the softness of watercolor. But, two classes in, the refund offer – in front of the whole class – was more than I could bear. I took my money and ran.

This past July a moment happened in my poetic life that had the same effect – I ran away. I quit. I stopped.

Well, it’s spring, and spring is a time of renewal and rebirth, according to the ancients. In the 14th century this time of year was called Springing Time, in reference to the plants springing from the ground. A new round of life. Another chance.

I drive a great deal in my job – all over Eastern Iowa. Because podcasts and music only do so much, I enjoy looking at other drivers. And, you know what I see? Bovine stares. Boredom. (They’re probably listening to local radio stations – you do know they still regularly play Duran Duran and Paula Abdul, right?) But, the stare. It’s death. It’s the I-have-to-do-this-to-make-money-to-pay-the-bills-to-go-to-the-grocery-store-to-buy-food-to-make-even-though-I-do-not-want-it-and-those-ingrates-at-home-will-complain stare. You know the one? It’s the stare that tells you about a life constructed without enough thought; legos, mortgage payments, and repeat episodes of shows that weren’t that good the first time around.

Well, folks – it’s spring time. And, I know it’s spring time because the schools I work with are beginning reflections on this past year and planning for next year. I know it’s spring time because daylight savings time has made early morning rising a chore. I know it’s spring time because I slept with the windows open last night.  I know it’s spring time because even here in Iowa we have a few daffodils up. I know it’s spring time because it’s the end of Masters’ Week in Augusta.

And, since it is spring time, perhaps it’s time to cast off the resignations of the past; time to find a non-bovine facial expression. Maybe you have some springing you’d like to do? I don’t mean the things you see as the usual requirements of spring; I mean some activity, hobby, habit of mind that you’d like to grow into?

Let’s go obvious: flowers. Have you always wanted some great flowers around the house or in a pot on the deck? Get them! Plant them! Start some seeds so you have cucumbers in July. Cleaning out the garage? Well, okay. Probably needs to be done, if it’s anything like mine.

How about an activity? It’s cliche to say it’s time for running or biking. It could be that. Or go for the less obvious: learn to play Call of Duty with your son; figure out how to bake bread from scratch; choose a new sex technique to try with your lover. Maybe something as simple as smiling more – even and especially in line at the grocery store?

Really, it can be anything. It’s time to spring; whatever your thing is, get out from behind the bovine stare, and embrace the spring. Sign up for the class. Put the festivals on your calendar, and actually go to them. Scoot down the the lake and rent a kayak. Adopt the pet you’ve always wanted; learn a yard game; read more; get out your old guitar and tune up; take painting lessons.

It really doesn’t matter – there are myriads of things you can try or do no matter where you live. Open up your world and jump in!

And, no matter what you choose to spring into, don’t let anyone try to force a refund on you.

In a Fetal Position

So, did you know that you can actually sleep comfortably in a tightly curled fetal position? I did not. I have always spread out to sleep. Sprawl is the word that leaps to mind.

fetalBut, needing to sleep tightly curled up: this was news to me. This is the only way I can sleep now. Because, let’s be honest with: one son who announces he is moving to Peru; two graduate classes that I resent having to take; three new work assignments; four upcoming writers’ events; and at least five friends/family who I really want to spend time with – it’s all a bit much.

I have never really had insomnia. I’m a good sleeper. I like sleep. Not this week. I woke up almost every hour – wondering, pondering, thinking, crying. It’s been rough.

You have probably been there. Someone died. Or broke your heart. Or moved away. Or, maybe, just maybe, some shit went down that you didn’t even really engage with but it had an effect on you. That happens. Shit happens. You will survive. I will survive.

That’s the message: with or without sleep, you will carry on. You may have to find a way to sleeping that is new and awful: crunched fetal position qualifies. You may have to find new friends. A new job. A bizarre new way of being to carry you through.

You can do it. We all can.

Hang in there. Hang on to your friends. Curl up. Eat chocolate. Drink water. Drink wine. But, remember, this will pass. You can and will survive.

Onward. Together.

Join me.

All the Things

all the thingsOn the eve of the start of my fiftieth year, I will tell you all the things.

Adding age is good in almost every respect. It is easier to take care of oneself because the main opinion I value is my own. Whether I do kettlebells, wear make-up, listen Phil Collins, choose skirts instead of pants, eat potato chips depends on what I want to do. Not what my friends are doing – what Oprah suggests – or if my mom likes it.

Friends mean something. Friends are not just people to party with; they are the people who have similar hobbies, are free for a chat, make time in schedules. Sure, this can happen at any age; however, it feels a little deeper now than it did in my younger years. Maybe I just value this more now that work, children, car maintenance, yard work, and laundry can get in the way.

Things count. But not everything counts. Stupid or serious mistakes – from a bad haircut to a job you hated to an ill-advised marriage – all can be forgiven. Decide what counts for you and hold on to that until it doesn’t serve you any more – then re-decide.

Heartbreaks are real and can crack pretty deeply. The depth of emotion that I feel now is something I either denied myself ordying.morrie was incapable of previously. My biggest heartbreaks have had nothing to do with romance. Everyone’s heart breaks differently; be gentle with each other and with yourself.

Everybody gets to do their own thing. Debating politics, publishing writing, watching sports, making wine, hiking canyons, investing stocks, growing flowers, reading books, racing cars, playing music, fly fishing, stage acting, shooting skeet, watching birds: whatever. Everyone gets to do their own thing, and nothing is better or worse than anything else  – it’s just different. Respect.

Sharing joy is better than being jealous. In younger years I was envious sometimes, and it was hard to be not jealous when friends had things I didn’t have: a marriage; a bigger house; a vacation. Some years ago it was the fashion to say, “I’m so jealous” when someone had something good happened. Seeking contentment allows more graciousness and shared joy.

Maybe that’s not all the things – but, it’s some of them. Anyone who – at any age-  claims to know stuff for sure or have all the things under control might be a little delusional – fun to listen to perhaps –  but probably a little nuts. In any case, we all make our own way together.

Join me.





Playin’ With My Heart

Remember the last time you ran down a hill, balls-to-the-wall, no holds barred fast? No thought of the end of the run, your feet, your knees, your jiggly boobs, or bouncing ass – or – most horrifically – what others would think? Remember?

Yeah, me neither.

Show choir competitions show me more than dance and music: they show me kids who are all-in. I try to watch the whole stage, but in every group my eye is invariably drawn to the girl or guy who is leaving it all on the stage. All smiles, all choreography, all singing: they perform as if the whole show rests on their shoulders.

sledOn New Year’s Day a dear friend of mine had a sledding accident in which more than one bone was broken. Lying in a ditch, she had to call out to a nearby child to go find an adult. She was hospitalized  for several days. When I talked to her recently, she mentioned she was still going to go sledding. Many people would hang up their flexible flyer after such an accident – I probably would.

How about the one where you meet a new person, and you think, “Damn, this is a cool person.” You want to hang out, get to know him or her, but you must moderate your desire. It doesn’t matter if it’s a friendly relationship or a more romantic one: you have to hold back. Time your calls. Pace your texts. Any time after about first grade, it’s just not cool or acceptable to be really excited about a person.

How did we learn these restraints? Why do we brake ourselves? What has led us to the idea that if we get scared we should give up? Answers: life, pain, rejection, fear.

So many of us can remember when a counselor or parent told us, “You can’t do that – you’ll never make a living at it.” Just yesterday at the aforementioned show choir competition, I was working concessions with another mom. She mentioned her middle school daughter wants to go to college for make-up design. “Very cool,” was my reply. The mom went on to say that the daughter would need to have to have a back-up in case “Hollywood didn’t work out.” The now-defunct college counselor inside of me silently agreed, but the real me said, “Kids have a cool way of putting things together and creating the jobs they want. It’s no longer a be-a-doctor-lawyer-accountant-or-teacher world.”

My friend’s broken bones do not call me to the sledding hills any time soon, but I have taken up boxing. Hitting that bag with hand-wraps and gloves on: I love it. I’m all in. I’m a badass. But still, I balked when a colleague burst into incredulous chortles, “Really? Huh, well, okay.” Why do we rain on each other’s parades? If you’re lucky enough to find an activity you love – then do it. Don’t let anyone cast a shadow on you.

This past September I attended a wedding. The bride and groom were my age, and this wasn’t the first time around for either of them. The thing really struck me about this gathering – and continues to inspire me still – is that these two people are really into each other. And, they weren’t afraid to show it.  I saw it at the wedding and in their Christmas card: they have the kind of I’m-crazy-about-you-and-I-want-everyone-to know love that one doesn’t often see.heart.2

Society tells us not to phone. Echos tells us we are losers and shouldn’t try. Friends advise us to decline the once too often invitation. Our pasts whisper that we don’t have the talent to take up something new. Our bodies hide from the possible laughter of others. The siren call of the you are not enoughs lure many to shipwreck against the rocks of premature old age and resignation.

We cannot let that happen. Not to ourselves. Not to our friends. So, do your thing. Make that call. Take up that sport. Join that group.  Get excited! And, when you do, ignore all naysayers (most especially those inside your head) and instead think of the response a friend of mine had when I told him about a goal of mine: “That’s so fucking cool!”

It is. He’s right.

Join me.




Frowns All Around

Everyone looks unhappy.

Every little person I drew with a job attached to them is not smiling.

This is not a conscious artistic choice.

Look. FullSizeRender (13)

Well, okay, the cashier is smiling – but she looks evil. Nobody looks truly happy here. They are all working. Working is hard work. These people – not unlike the rest of us – want to do real things like garden and hold babies and write poems and bake pies, but they have to work because doing small loveable things rarely buys meat or potatoes or even bread.

My grandfather – who, in my living memory was always retired – said, “Working gets in the way of living.” I agree. Now, before I go any further, I must clarify: I have a great job. It is interesting and flexible; I have great benefits, and I work with talented, dedicated people. I still agree.

Last week I was talking with a friend about a couple new creative and personal practices I am striving to develop into habits. As she listened, I realized that if I want to keep up these activities after the holiday vacation, I will need to quit work. Sigh – not an option for me. So, a balancing act must be found.

Some writers/life coaches/talking heads postulate about passions and purposes – visions and talent. The thing is: most of us are required and willing to work in order to engage in our avocations, but it’s all about time.  I don’t know about you, but I have to work a good deal. I struggle to balance what I have to do against what I want to do.

How do we do that without becoming embittered? Cynical? Hateful? It’s hard. Perhaps it’s in the pockets of our days when we find half an hour to read a few pages before making dinner. Maybe it’s taking one of those small loveable things and marketing it just so as to make it a lifestyle. Sometimes it’s getting up an hour earlier and staying up two hours later.

That’s all well and good, but life doesn’t come with training sequences scored by John Williams that lead to ultimate happiness and riches – it should be so, but it isn’t. So, what are we to do? Read some memes on Facebook, be inspired occasionally, and muddle through?

Well, how about we choose an intention for a day –  a week –  a month – or more. Ask yourself: what do I intend for this upcoming time period? Write that word on your calendar – make it your phone background, and conduct yourself accordingly. Health? Creativity? Pet training? New home? Biking? Focus your spare moments – your lunch break – your toilet-phone time (don’t pretend: we all do it) on that intention. Make lists. Pursue. Find an app. Address your intention in mini ways. Then, create blocks of time to engage with your intention.

My father, who now lives with a debilitating disease, had numerous hobbies throughout his life. From hiking to motorcycling to music listening to model aircraft to ham radio to skydiving, my dad did a bit of a lot of things that interested him. He was – in many respects – living his intentions.  While I would not presume to speak for my dad, I do hope that the avocations he enjoyed still live within him.

The road to hell may be paved with good intentions, but the path of a happy life is dotted with pleasant pursuits.

Let’s smile more this year.

Join me.