Scratches and Dents

As an online instructor, I spend an inordinate amount of time staring at a computer screen every week.  During this endless winter, I have stared out at the same white landscape since, let’s see, October?  When I’m not grading, I’m prepping for the coming week.  And when I’m not prepping for the coming week, I’m writing.  My fingers get a workout.  The rest of me? Not so much.

And so, every Thursday morning, I volunteer at the ReStore in Grand Rapids refurbishing donated furniture that needs a little TLC before it is placed on the sales floor.  This gets me  out of my head and onto the floor as I scrape and paint and stain furniture.  Each Thursday when I start a project, my clothes are clean.  By the time I pound the covers back on the paint cans, I’m a mess with sanding dust in my nostrils and a slight buzz from the polyurethane.  I head home with  creaky joints and that “good tired” feeling that only comes with physical labor.  It is pure bliss for a person who has had a hard time sitting still most of her life.  Each time I see a piece of furniture I’ve resurrected leave the store with a happy customer, it makes me happy.  All proceeds from the ReStore go to Habitat for Humanity in Itasca County to help with the cost of building homes for families who need them.

Last week when I arrived at the store there was a buffet about the size of an elephant waiting for me in my work space.  Keep in mind that I had intended to paint a child’s rocking chair that day, so finding this behemoth blocking my work bench was a bit of a surprise.  The first thing I noticed was that one of the drawers had been “decorated” with small stickers that needed to be removed.  To say that the piece had seen its better days is an understatement.  However, as I cleaned and sanded the buffet I was struck by its solid construction and lovely Art Deco lines.  Later that morning, as I re-stained it, I saw the piece of furniture coming back to life and imagined the young bride in the 1930’s who would have chosen the piece for her dining room so long ago.  How proud this nameless, faceless person must have been to own such a fine piece of furniture during the Depression! As I worked, I noticed several spots on the top where hot serving platters or casseroles had more than likely been set through the years as well as the water rings and scratches acquired through decades of use.  When it was new, it must have been a thing of beauty.  Each mark made through the years of feeding family and guests made it no less so.  Some scratches were too deep to remove.  I hope the new owner of the piece will understand and love it, despite this.

After all,  doesn’t time  leave scratches and dents disguised as memories in, and on, us all?

(For more information on ReStore of Itasca County, go to







Driving with Miss Audrey

It began innocently enough, as most arguments between women and inanimate objects do.

I was heading back from a meeting in the Twin Cities and was trying to decide whether to use the GPS map app on my phone or try to rely on my often sketchy ability as a big homing pigeon to find my way north.  It was evening rush hour and taking a meandering scenic route didn’t sound very appealing to this old Bird, so I typed in Anoka and waited a moment for the teensy lady who lives in GPS land to wake up.  I like her a lot.  She has a nice, calm voice.  I think of her as a really smart little librarian who wears green cardigan sweaters and bifocals on a silver chain around her neck.  I call her Audrey.  Whenever I ask her for directions, I imagine her pulling out a big old map and searching for the route to wherever it is I need to go, her glasses perched on the end of her nose.

As usual, Audrey began giving me advice before I even backed out of my parking spot.  “Go north 100 feet and turn left.  At the next intersection, turn right.”  I imagined patient, kind, Audrey smiling…waiting.  I obeyed her directions and the two of us traveled for a few blocks in a comfortable silence.  I’d nearly forgotten she was with me when suddenly she piped up.  “In half a mile, turn right on Highway 169 North.”   Usually, when actual people try to give other, actual people directions, it ends badly.  Not so with my little friend!  She was actually giving me plenty of time to change lanes! Amazing!

When I saw the signs for 169 North and 169 South, I chose the first exit and merged into bumper to bumper traffic just fine.  That Audrey definitely knew what she was doing!   She was calm and reassuring all the way to a long bridge over the Mississippi River that I recognized and before I knew it, there was a sign welcoming me to Anoka.  What a team we were!  I gave Audrey a little mental high-five on her tiny hand.  We’d done it!

“At the next intersection, turn right on 8th street.”  She said.   Right? That couldn’t be right, I thought. I know where  I am. And I know where I’m going.  You are sending me on a fool’s errand, Audrey.   I stayed in the left turn lane.  Then I did the unthinkable. I turned without her permission. She was NOT pleased. Not one bit.

“Go to the next available stop light and turn left.  Then go south…..”

South?  No way, Audrey!   I might not be as smart as you are, but I know I am supposed to be heading north!

I stubbornly drove on and at each intersection, she tried to get me to turn around, go back, do things her way.   She became more and more insistent.  I sensed a slight crack in her serene façade.   In fact, at one point, I swear I heard her utter a bad word in my general direction.

Finally, in Elk River, we’d had enough of each other.  I pulled off the highway and turned off my phone and headed the rest of the way home in blissful silence.  Most of the time, Audrey and I get along great because I know she’s smarter than I am.  After all, she’s the one living in a Smartphone.   But I’m smart enough to know when to stop arguing with her.

I think it’s time for me to start reading road maps again.

The good stuff….

I have been lightening my load.

There is something about springtime that always makes me want to de-clutter and de-junkify my surroundings.  By early March, I always feel claustrophobic enough without excess stuff around to make things seem even more crowded. I’ve been on a mission to figure out what to keep and what to toss or give away. Maybe you have, too.

After all, there’s nothing like a good, old-fashioned purge to make a woman feel ten pounds lighter in the soul.  Last week, I picked up a glossy magazine that drew me in with a cover story about getting organized.  In fact, I think the actual title of the story was “Get Organized!!” in big red letters.  Hey, I thought, this is just what you need! A step by step process for clearing things out! So naturally, I bought the magazine.

I started with my closet.  The magazine told me to get rid of anything I hadn’t worn in the past two years so I started by making piles.  Then, I rearranged the piles.  I argued with myself about the author’s two-year rule, rationalizing that just because I hadn’t worn something in two years, it didn’t mean that I might not NEED that something as soon as I put it in the Goodwill bag and took it to town. After all, that’s happened to me more than once.   I came up with rules I could live with instead. First, if it wasn’t comfortable, it was history.  Life is too short to wear uncomfortable clothing, after all.  This made sticking things in the bag a whole lot easier.  Next, I decided that if I didn’t like the color or pattern of an item, it was going in the bag. Piece of cake. Finally, I had to go back to my first rule about comfort and make peace with the fact that if something was shot, no matter how comfortable it is, it had to go.  I gave myself a little wiggle room with this rule and kept a few old sweatshirts and t-shirts to take up to the lake.

Once I was done, I put all the things that had passed the comfort and color test back in the closet and discovered that there was actually space around the hangers!  Progress!  Then, because I was feeling particularly optimistic, I packed away every single wool sweater and pair of long johns I own.   It is the middle of March, after all.

I have to say that getting rid of the stuff I don’t need feels pretty darn good.  I figure that by the time I’m done going through each room and closet in the house, I’ll have exactly one month to enjoy it before we start moving both of our college kids back home for the summer.  Since September, we’ve  had a leaning tower of empty bins stacked against the back wall of the garage.  By the end of May those bins will be stuffed full of you guessed it, more stuff.  THEIR stuff.

But that’s just fine with me.  When you’re a mom of a certain age, it’s a good feeling to get your stuff in order even if you know that the order won’t last.  We have one more summer with both of our kids and their stuff coming home.  There will be more cooking, and cleaning and chaos around here. More noise and late nights and love.

And looking forward to that?  Well, that’s the best stuff of all.

Mr. Sweetie Pie

I am a small-bag-of-dogfood type of person.   There.  I’ve admitted it.

I have bought the small bags for a couple of years because our dog, who is rapidly approaching the age of seventeen, is really, REALLY old.  There were days this past winter when, having begged to go out every fifteen minutes to do NOTHING but stand in sub-zero temps with her ears blowing straight out on both sides of her head that  I was convinced that she was hanging on just to spite me.  Then, because I do have a conscience, I’d get little pangs of guilt for thinking this because she has been such a good dog and I will miss her when her time comes. Her other humans feel I should be a just a titch more optimistic and buy the jumbo bags but really, what could be more depressing than a full bin of kibble and nobody to eat it?  When they aren’t monitoring my dog food purchases,  they are phoning home to remind me not to let their dog outside off her leash for fear that she’ll wander off into the woods, never to be seen or heard from again.  In my version of this scenario,  the magical thinking one, she would find a soft spot under a tree to take an eternal nap.  I tell them that there are worse ways for an old hound to go than to be on the last rabbit trail of your life when it happens.  However, they are young and not yet able to take the long view  about dogs and death so at least for now, we remain a family divided where dog food purchases and eternal dog naps are concerned.

But back to the dog food…..

Last week,  cursing the cold and I admit, even the dog a little,  I stood in the pet food aisle of the grocery store pondering the size of bag I would buy when I suddenly remembered that she also needed dog cookies and dog chewies.  After the long, cold winter, she also needs a bath like no dog has ever needed a bath in March.  I thought about having to bathe her and picked up dry shampoo for her instead.  As a mom, the only thing worse that living with a dog who needs a bath in March is giving a dog a bath in March and then being accused of intentionally giving the dog pneumonia by your children JUST so that you can be right about the small bags of dogfood you buy.

Trudging to the checkout with my cart full of dog purchases, I noticed an older gentleman in line in front of me checking out my cart. I generally like older men and was taught to be polite to strangers so, despite the fact that I was in a mood, I met his gaze and forced a smile.  He took this as a chance to start a conversation.

“Looks like you have a dog”, he said, peering into my cart.

“Yes. A really old one,” I said.

“I have a cat.  He’s a good one.  Cats are a lot easier than dogs.  You can leave them alone overnight if you have to.  Just give ’em a sandbox and they take care of things themselves.  You can even leave ’em for two days if you need to.  He’s a good cat.  You know what I call him?  I call him Sweetie Pie.  He’s good company. Don’t know what I’d do without him.”

At this point, the cashier tried to redirect the conversation from pets to groceries. “I see you came for your potatoes and gravy! I can  always count on seeing you on dark gravy days!” she said, as she began to ring up the two small Styrofoam containers in his red, plastic basket.   “Yup!  Had to get my dark gravy!  Thursday is dark gravy day.  Best gravy I’ve ever had!” he replied, as he took  a five dollar bill out of the scuffed leather wallet he held to pay for his purchases.

“Hey Ladies!” he said, looking first at the cashier and then at me, ” I just realized something! Do you know what day it is?  It’s March 3rd! We all made it through another winter, didn’t we?  And the first day of spring is March 20th!  Do you know that this means that we only have….wait….17 more days before the first day of spring?  We can make it!  Only 17 more days!”   The cashier smiled.  “Yup, you’re right. We made it. We sure did.” She said, smiling.

Such optimism on a cold March day from an old man buying dinner for one. A man with a cat named Sweetie Pie and a penchant for dark gravy and conversation.

We are, all of us, connected in the most amazingly gentle ways.

Thanks for that reminder, Mr. Sweetie Pie.

Happy Spring.

In like a lion….

It’s March. This was going to be a column about jelly beans.   But then, I looked out my office window and saw the four-foot high snow drift covering  the bird feeder and thought to myself, “No.  No jelly bean column THIS week. I cannot stand the idea of writing about jelly beans in March with all that SNOW out there in the yard.”  It seems sacrilegious to wax all poetic about jelly beans and March snowdrifts in the same column.  Easter, today at least, seems a lifetime away.

Then, since jelly beans were, um, off the table, so to speak, I thought that this column would be about how, most of my life, the first day of March has always been the official first day of spring for me mentally,  even in years when we still have a lot of snow.  But I checked the outside temp and realized that even someone who is Governor of the Great State of Denial can’t deny that we have a long, LONG way to go this year.  A governor, who, most March Firsts usually smiles and says to anyone who’ll listen, “Oh, I know there’s snow…but it won’t last! We made it through January and February! It’s MARCH!  It’s SPRING!!!!”  Not even someone like that, no matter how hard they try, can put a positive spin on a March First with a -44 below windchill.  Trust me, I’ve tried.  Because here’s what happens. People who formerly thought you were sane start stealing worried glances in your direction and whispering about you in hushed tones,  convinced that you’ve finally snapped.  So, there’s that.

Then, since jelly beans and March Firsts were no longer options, I thought I’d write about something that is going on in the world, since so much is, or about which of the films up for an Oscar I’ve seen, or that I’d write about how our Girl came home to visit her mom and dad over the weekend and instead of going out with her friends, stayed home and watched two movies with us.  However, none of those things seemed like enough to fill a column.

So then, I decided that what has been on my mind most, when I’m not griping about the endless winter, is how lucky I am to have all the people in my life that I do.  How lucky that, at least today, I can say that I’m healthy, that my two children are happy and whole, that I  have a job and a marriage and parents and aunts and uncles, cousins, siblings, and friends in my life.  Today.  Today I have all of this, all of them.  If my luck holds, I’ll be able to say the same thing again tomorrow, and then the day after that.

But today, I know that nothing is guaranteed for tomorrow.  Not health,  nor wealth,  nor the people we hold most dear.   I’m conscious of this and am trying hard to do a better job of remembering it. Every day, but especially today.  Because I know other people woke up this morning facing a different, painful truth about Loss.  How it may sometimes sneak in through an open window, taking small parts away and may, at other times, barge in rudely, invading the life of a person or a family.  How we should never take a day for granted when Loss passes our doorway and instead, knocks on a door down the street.  Because we never know. And tomorrow? It could be us.

We are at our best when we keep this in mind, I suppose.  Maybe we are our most alive, most loving, most present  in our own lives and the lives of those we love when it happens.  Maybe it takes the howling of the winter winds for us to appreciate the warmth and light of what comes afterward.  Maybe.

If there is a lesson, maybe this is it.