Fill-in-the-blank Thanksgiving

I’m looking forward to an uneventful Thanksgiving this year. Thanksgiving was our main holiday when I was a kid. Christmas was exciting for the gifts (which Santa left on our dining room table, since we had no tree), and we had a meal for each holiday – roast beef for Christmas, ham for Easter – but it was usually just my parents and us three sisters. I get to make up my own stories about why, since I didn’t ask when my parents were alive and now there’s no one to ask. I assume it had to do with religious holidays being a loaded topic in a family of mixed religious background where no one in fact practiced any religion. Plus both my parents came from small families, and neither of my parents much enjoyed spending time with their own (or each others’) parents.

My mother worked at one of the Smithsonian galleries from the time I was in first grade, and the Smithsonian is open every day of the year but Christmas. This was something my mother often objected to – “The Smithsonian is an American institution so if it is going to be closed on just one day per year it should be an American holiday like Thanksgiving or the Fourth of July, and not a religious holiday like Christmas” – but I don’t recall her actually objecting to working on the day. Maybe because when she did, my father had to do most of the holiday cooking.

We had very traditional foods when we were all still living at home. Turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, canned cranberry jelly, Pepperidge Farm bread stuffing from a bag. Probably green beans – it seems the vegetables have not stayed in my mind. Something green, for sure. Not sweet potatoes; I think I was in my twenties before I ever tasted a sweet potato. My favorite things to do to prepare the meal were making the roux for the gravy and ricing the potatoes for the mashed potatoes with the already ancient potato ricer which lives on in my kitchen today, discolored metal, chipped orange paint on the handles and all.

We were more likely to have friends of my parents over for Thanksgiving than other holidays. At some point when I was not much older than ten, we started having all holidays with my father’s friend Stan, after his wife died in her early forties. The holidays I remember more specifically tended to involve Stanley (I wrote about one of my favorite Stanley Thanksgivings in The Pack – it was Rose’s first holiday with my family and I’m still amazed she didn’t run screaming into the night).

We also started to drift from the more traditional elements of the Thanksgiving meal. My oldest sister married a vegetarian, my middle sister moved to the other side of the country and then to the other side of the ocean, Rose and I started to develop our own traditions at our own house. A fairly common Thanksgiving meal at my parents’ house became a chicken, mashed potatoes and cranberry sauce from Boston Market, several tofu and vegetable options from a Chinese restaurant, and pumpkin pie made by my brother-in-law.

Rose and I have gone back and forth with the traditions. More often than not, we have made the traditional meal, though not always on the traditional day. Our kids often had the actual Thanksgiving meal with their father’s family, and then we’d have our celebration with them on Friday or Saturday. Rose makes the world’s best stuffing, and I think any of us would be just as happy eating only that. One year we were all fed up with holidays and we ordered Thai food from a local restaurant. The restaurant was closed on the holiday but the owner insisted that the spring rolls would not be good the next day. He and his wife came in on Thanksgiving just to make our food despite our best efforts to talk them out of it.

By the time both of my sisters and I were doing our own Thanksgiving things, my parents started going to my mother’s sister’s house for Thanksgiving weekend. It was during these events that the individual years began to earn names. There was the Ten Cat Thanksgiving, when my aunt was fostering seven tiny kittens in her jacuzzi tub, in addition to her regular three full grown cats. There was the Appendicitis Thanksgiving, when my cousin’s husband had to have an emergency appendectomy. We unwittingly continued this tradition three years ago with the Home from the Hospital Thanksgiving, when my middle son (then 29) had a stroke four days before the holiday, and thankfully recovered brilliantly and was released on Thanksgiving day.

So yes, I’m looking forward to an uneventful day. I know it will be the Pandemic Thanksgiving just by definition, but I’m hoping for a low drama day. It will just be me and Rose. Our kids are now doing their own things, too, though in a normal year we would see at least one of them. We are going to have a scaled down traditional meal. Well, at least the turkey will be scaled down to a breast. I look forward to doing something called spatchcocking it, which sounds far more entertaining than it is. Rose will, I sincerely hope, make enough stuffing for the whole family. And if we need a little excitement, maybe I will cook another spaghetti squash whole. The Exploding Squash Thanksgiving has kind of a nice ring to it.

Home Comforts

Fans and contestants of the Great British Bake Off seemed equally horrified by this week’s technical challenge, Sussex Pond Pudding, but I was delighted. I’ve never eaten it and there’s a good chance I never will, but I will always remember my introduction to it via the late, great, Laurie Colwin in her wonderful book Home Cooking.

Laurie includes Sussex Pond Pudding (as Suffolk Pond Pudding) in her chapter called Kitchen Horrors. It has very few ingredients – a suet pastry crust, a whole lemon, sugar, and butter. She uses this particular recipe to show that a kitchen horror can be in the eye of the beholder. She was thrilled with it – she described the interior as “lemon-scented buttery toffee,” but the friends she was visiting for dinner were less thrilled. Her host said “This tastes like lemon-flavored bacon fat,” while her hostess said “I’m sure it tastes wonderful. I mean, in England.” Judging from the Bake Off constestants and viewers, I’m not sure the English would agree.

My mother introduced me to Laurie Colwin, first with Home Cooking and later with her novels and short stories, as she introduced me to so many authors and books. Reading was our main family activity all through my childhood, and my mother gave us books for just about every gift-giving occasion. When we were kids, she always seemed to know the kind of books we would each like. She would never have given me Ballet Shoes, or given Darcy All Creatures Great and Small, but we had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on two walls in the living room of the house we grew up in, and plenty of books if we wanted to branch out of our regular interests.

We moved to a different house when I was sixteen and both my sisters had gone off to college. It was a house my father had owned and rented out for many years: a townhouse converted into seven efficiency apartments, so it was me and my parents and two cats rattling around on four floors with seven kitchens and seven bathrooms. The apartment we used as the living room also had floor-to-ceiling bookshelves – as did the apartment my parents moved to after that, as does the house Rose and I live in now, come to think of it. Even after having to dispose of dozens of boxes of books after my father’s death, I am still horrified when I hear people suggest downsizing their book collections.

At some point my mother’s book gifts changed from books she thought I would like in a general way to her using books like I used mix tapes. Books that told me she saw something about me that I hadn’t found the words to tell her. Books that told me things about her that she didn’t have the words to say. Books that told me she understood me, or that helped me understand her. I can only remember one time where the message went completely awry – a book about a woman whose son came out to her, and her journey from all the very wrong things she said at first to becoming an activist. It was hard for me to hear past the son’s pain to realize that she was probably trying to tell me the mother’s side of the story. It wouldn’t be till my own child came out to me that I realized all the completely wrong things to say come out of fear for your child, and out of wanting your child’s life to be easier.

The last two years I lived in my parents’ house, my senior year in high school and the year I took off before college, I wasn’t home very much. When I came home late in the evening, usually my father was in the living room, watching TV, reading, listening to music, falling asleep in his chair, or once, memorably, doing a midnight dance with an invisible partner, clad in his ratty old brown terry bathrobe, as light on his feet as Gene Kelly. My mother was usually in bed reading, and as I climbed up to the apartment on the top floor that served as my bedroom, I would look in to say goodnight to each of them.

Sometimes I would sit on the edge of the bed and my mother would read to me from whatever book she was reading at the time. I still hear whole chapters from Sue Hubbell’s A Country Year in my mother’s voice. I think it was a book that really touched something in her, and it would become the same for me a few years later when I left college feeling like the wheels were coming off my mind. Two books from my mother, A Country Year and Mary Morris’ Nothing to Declare, helped me put the puzzle pieces back together in something resembling order.

It was also in this post-college time that my mother began giving me cookbooks. Some classics from her own kitchen: The Joy of Cooking, Fannie Farmer, The Silver Palate. Some funny and useful: The I Hate to Cook Book, good for the days I just didn’t feel like it but still needed to eat. And some that are wonderful books for reading about food, and that also contain some good (and some odd) recipes: Laurie Colwin’s Home Cooking and John Thorne’s Simple Things.

I have always both cooked and read for comfort. I don’t really understand people who just read a book once, and I have many books that I have read the covers off of. Home Cooking and Simple Things have stood up to my many readings, though both are a bit food-splattered from being too close to the mixing bowl while I made something from their pages. I will always draw comfort from rereading certain favorite childhood books – A Little Princess, The Secret Garden, Red Sky at Morning, Dandelion Wine. But nothing will ever quite soothe me like reading Laurie Colwin’s words about the good (curried broccoli soup, lemon rice pudding), the bad (starry gazy pie made with squid, scrambled eggs with mace), and the weird (Sussex pond pudding), hearing my mother’s voice repeating the words, with the soft sounds of music and my father’s dancing feet drifting up from the floor below.

Dream On

I have a very active dream life. Some dreams I remember as if they really happened to me, and some I wake up from feeling like I lived a whole lifetime during the dream but I don’t remember any of the details. When I was too young to be worrying about such things – maybe nine or ten – I used to worry either that I would wake up and find that I was still an infant and my whole life so far had been a dream, or that I was alive only in someone else’s dream and when they woke up I would die, or disappear.

I don’t have recurring dreams, but I do dream of recurring places. There is one house that is my grandmother’s house, though it is nothing like her house or any other house I’ve been to. There’s another house that is my aunt’s, though it is also not like anywhere she lived or that I have been. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen either my grandmother or my aunt in their dream house; I just know where I am when I am there. There are several recurring farms, though those tend to be at least loosely based on farms where I worked in the past.

A few nights ago, I almost had a dream about my mother. I was driving to have dinner with her, though I did not get that far from my house before I woke up. I have friends whose mothers have died who have dreams about them with some regularity, or they have something special happen every year on their mother’s birthday. Though I am torn between thinking dreams or signs from dead loved ones are just that – something from them – or things my mind makes up to make me feel better, I am always a little envious of these friends. I think it’s possible I have had dreams that featured my mother in the past fifteen years, but I can’t say that I have had a dream that feels like any kind of message.

My first experience with death and my first experience of dreams like this involved my grandmother, my mother’s mother, who died when I was in college. Several years after her death, I dreamed that I was with my family at the beach – my parents, my sisters, and my grandmother. Everyone else was distracted but I was watching my grandmother swim. I was worried that she was getting knocked down by the waves, but she looked back at me and dove into a wave, and I saw her mermaid tail flash as she swam out to sea. My family was furious at me because I was supposed to be watching her and they all thought she drowned. I was trying to explain that she was fine, she had just turned into a mermaid, when I woke up crying.

Eight years ago my aunt and my father died within two weeks of each other. Eight years ago and twelve days, to be precise, for my aunt, and eight years less two days for my father. I have had one dream about my father in those eight years. He appeared at some kind of gathering or party I was attending, and he was completely silent (a good way to tell he was dead – we have that in common). He pointed at himself, and then he pointed at me, and then he pointed to a mirror. He did not say, but I clearly understood: if you want to see me, just look at yourself. I am always there. I found this both comforting and disturbing, as I have always found my similarities to him.

I have had two dreams about my aunt since she died. The first one was very soon after she died. She called me on the phone, and I started crying when I heard her voice, and she asked why I was crying. I told her it was because I was sad that she was dead, and she laughed and said “You can talk to me any time you want! Just pick up the phone.” This is partly literally true – at least I can hear her voice, because I still have a message from a few weeks before she died. I also do always feel like she is nearby, though I also miss her tremendously. In the other dream I had about her, two of her closest friends were driving an enormous SUV unlike anything either of them would actually drive, one in the driver’s seat and one riding shotgun, and my aunt was looking between them from the back seat. I exclaimed “Becca! Becca is in the back seat!” and they said “Of course she is, honey.”

I’m not surprised that my mother has been on my mind recently, in election season. It used to drive me crazy that she was the most neutral person I ever met. When I was upset about something and I wanted her to take my side, I very much did not want to hear about how the situation might look to the other person. My father used say “There are two sides to every story, and the truth is somewhere in the middle,” but he only believed this if they were two other people. If he was one of the sides, there was only one true side to the story, and it was his. Most of the time I can see that there are two sides, or rather, most of the time I don’t see in terms of sides. But when I do see sides, and when I take a side, there’s not much chance of moving me off my position, or even making me hear or see anything else.

I’ve been thinking that my mother has been on my mind because I could use her perspective, and because now is a time when I would find it really helpful to hear about the other side. But the more I write, the more I realize it’s been a really long and anxiety-ridden and exhausting year, and I just want my mom.

Signal Lights

Dia de los Muertos is not a thing I knew about until I read about it in a Barbara Kingsolver book in my 20s. Over the years, as beloved animals and people died, Rose and I began to celebrate it as our main fall holiday. I’ve never been much of a Halloween person – I think I wore my last costume when I was ten. But I like the process of connecting with the dead, and of deliberately remembering them and celebrating their lives.

When we started our Dia de los Muertos traditions, we did the candle-in-a-brown-paper-bag version of luminaria. I love the way they look, but even stabilized and weighted with sand, they are a bit of a hazard in windy weather (which we almost always have at this time of year), and they are a fiasco in the rain. A few years ago, Rose started making ceramic luminaria, and we keep adding to the collection. We have over twenty of them now, and they make a beatiful display whether we put them at individual graves, group them by species, or line them all up around the edge of the patio. We have photos of each animal and human, and we take a moment to remember something about each of them as we light their candle.

I’ve heard a lot of people this year saying that the only reason they are glad their father, mother, sister, brother is dead is that they don’t want them to see the shitshow that our goverment, society, or political process have become. I get this. For me, it’s the newspaper industry. My parents met when they were both working at the Washington Post in the 1950s, and I can’t imagine what they would have to say about so-called news stories that involve quotes taken entirely from Twitter. My father has been dead for eight years, and he still had plenty of occasion to say “This isn’t NEWS!” in response to much of what he read in the papers or saw on TV.

When I think about it, though – and I’ve been thinking about it a lot with the election coming up tomorrow – I believe they had a long view that we don’t have. My grandparents were born before World War I. Both of my parents were born and raised around the Depression. My father fought in World War II when he was a teenager. Both of my parents were journalists during the McCarthy era, and during the Cold War, and my father stayed on at the Post into the Vietnam War years. I don’t doubt that they’d see a lot of what is going on now as a shitshow, but I wonder if they might not see it as the End Times so many of us feel are looming over our heads.

In the absence of my parents, or for that matter any of my elder relatives, I have gotten a lot of my perspective in the last four years from my colleagues in different countries. I was in Nairobi during the 2016 U.S. presidential election. When we stumbled into the office that Wednesday after staying up all night watching election returns, dazed and incoherent with disbelief, our Kenyan colleagues told us to get over it (that’s a direct quote), which still seems like pretty decent advice. They reminded us that it’s not everywhere that gets to protest the results of an election, or to know that there will be another one in a set number of years. They have a sign in their lunch area that says “What you take for granted, someone else is praying for” and I try to remember that.

We’ll be lighting our luminaria again this evening, and looking through our photos, and remembering. I’ll take a little time to think about what I take for granted, and I’ll take a little time to think about what I pray for, and I’ll hope for just a little bit of perspective.

Boundaries

I haven’t seen many of my friends or family for most of this year, and I’m feeling hug-deprived. I am also one of those people who is only half jokingly saying “Let’s keep on wearing masks and not shaking hands and staying six feet away from each other forever!” There’s nothing I mind about not being crowded while in line in a store, or about not having near-strangers say “Are you a hugger?” and not wait for an answer before they move in and grab me while saying “I’M a hugger!”

I don’t come from a hugging family. We would hug when seeing each other after a long absence, but not so much on a day to day basis. My father was prone to patting us awkwardly on the head, arm, or foot in a way that makes me understand why animals flinch away from some human versions of touch, although inexplicably cats were always drawn to him. Perhaps because he did not ever try to pat them, even when they jumped on his lap. I have said that I sometimes think I get on with animals as well as I do because my mother was like a very well read and articulate cat, which come to think of it may also explain why she was drawn to my father. My mother and I hugged much more in my adult life than in my childhood – but I think this is true of all my immediate family, and probably because as adults we almost always see each other after a long absence.

When I was twelve, I started a new school with a lingering hippie reputation and I discovered there is a whole population of people who hug. It took a little getting used to but I not only got used to it, I learned to positively enjoy having friends to hug.

Lucky me, pandemic or no, I have animals that I get to touch. On the two extremes I have the dogs (huggers all, except for when they are not) and the cat (“touch me and you will bleed” is her default mood). In the middle are the horses.

I’ve been benignly neglecting the horses, along with most other things, for most of this year. A couple of weeks ago, Tabby cut her leg – nothing dire but bad enough to warrant stitches and two weeks of bandaging. As long as I was changing the bandage every two days, I also took the grooming box out with the medical supplies. Since I had to tend to Tabby’s leg, I figured at least I could offer grooming and see if she was interested, and then as long as I was out there I figured I could check in with the geldings too.

Grooming gloves are my favorite grooming tool. I can use them as curries and also for a massage. I can feel more of what’s going on with the horse’s body, whether I’m feeling for bumps or scabs, or feeling for where they stiffen, flinch, or lean in. The horses prefer them too. They seem to appreciate my ability to feel what I’m doing instead of having a chunk of stiff rubber or wood between my hands and them. Go figure. I have a very clear memory from a lot of years ago of watching a friend groom her horse while telling us how much he hated being groomed. She was talking to us the whole time she groomed him, focusing on her human visitors while scrubbing vigorously all over her horse’s body with one of the hardest and biggest curry combs I have ever seen. If I were the horse, I would have kicked her.

That said, I have done my share of oblivious grooming over the years. I get into a groove of what I have to do, and forget to pay attention to what I am doing and to how the horse is reacting to it. Whether my “have to do” is about getting tack on the horse so I can go for a ride, or about needing to groom the whole horse because that’s how it’s done, it causes me to stop listening to the actual horse in front of me.

Horses don’t touch each other all that much. They stand near each other, and they do something we call mutual grooming that doesn’t look anything like what we call “grooming” when we do it to a horse. And yes, I do realize that in referring to what the horses do I said “mutual” and in referring to what humans do I said “do it to.” Horses will ask each other for the scratching they want, and they will move around to get the right spot scratched, and they will leave when they are done or if the other horse is scratching too hard or not enough or in the wrong place.

Our current horses all have different feelings about being groomed. Niño generally loves it. He loves to be touched, and he really leans into anything we do with him. Even so, he has days and places he wants to be left alone.

Finn’s approach has always been to position the part that is itchy or that he wants to have massaged directly in front of me. For a very long time, I would try to insist that he stand still and let me go through my grooming routine that starts on the left side at the top of his neck, works all the way to his tail, and then repeats on the other side, finishing with his head. After a while I started to not worry so much if he moved around or what order I groomed him in, but I was still adamant that I touch all the parts. It’s only in the last year or two that I just let him tell me what he wants and leave it at that. I can visually check for cuts and bumps, and if I need to check something particular he’s fine with that. But if he tells me he has one itchy spot on his right shoulder, and another on his left hip, and then he walks away, ok.

Tabby is hot and cold. She has places she likes us to really scrub or massage, and she has places she’d prefer we not touch, and she has days she just wants to be left alone. I get this. All of it.

It would be easy to attribute their different approaches to grooming to breed, or gender. Horse people love to generalize about breeds, though our small herd goes almost completely against breed stereotypes. As for gender, there’s an often repeated saying in the horse world: you tell a gelding, you ask a stallion, but you negotiate with a mare. I don’t so much find this to hold true, either. Horses, like people, and dogs, and cats, and pretty much every other species I can think of, are individuals. They also have moods, and different levels of stiffness or pain on any given day, and they don’t react the same way to all people, or even to the same person on different days. I can guarantee that while I may go out on any old day and approach Finn with my ideas about what Finn is like and how Finn reacts, he’s busy tuning in to what is in his environment that day, at that moment, which includes me and my mood. Any horse being approached by a human with a grooming box and a lot of intensity – “I’m a groomer!” – may take the option to walk away, if given the choice.

I may not have to deal with unwanted hugs right now, but I also don’t get to have the wanted ones. What I do get to do is work on paying attention to the signals I’m getting from and giving to my animals who are, as always, my best teachers. Other people may have their pandemic bods, or their pandemic crafts, or their pandemic home improvements. I’m working on my pandemic boundaries. I’m sure the horses won’t mind.

Strong Medicine

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Last week was a long and stressy week. I’m anxious about everything right now. Last week more than some other weeks, each additional thing just added another layer with no time to level out or come down from the last thing. I probably should have realized it would be an anxious week when I woke up at 4:30 a.m. on Monday because I hadn’t taken the trash down to the road the night before and I might miss the trash pickup. Mind you, the trash pick up has been happening between 10 a.m. and noon for the last twenty years, and also I don’t actually care if we get the trash picked up every week.

I was anxious about work meetings, whether I had prepared enough, whether my presentations were good enough (hint: I don’t care about powerpoint presentations even more than I don’t care about trash pick up), whether after the next board meeting I might find my job had been deemed unnecessary.

I was anxious about Tabby’s leg wound, whether it was not healing well, whether I was bandaging it too loose or too tight, whether it was getting too wet in the five minutes of rain we had one night, whether the bandage would somehow come unwound and scare both Tabby and Niño into running through the fence and I would find them hogtied together somewhere in the back woods in the morning.

As I said, a stressy week, with periods of escalating craziness.

My most relaxing activity, always (except for when they fight), is to hang out with the dogs. So we spent a lot of time outside in the dog yard, generally with two dogs in one yard and the third dog in the other to avoid any possible fights. As always, I spent a lot of that time taking pictures of them. Also as always, sometimes the pictures were good and because even the worst ones – especially the worst ones – made me laugh. Laughter has been in short supply this year. It’s fair to say that one of the things I miss the most about people – about being around people at all during the pandemic restrictions, and also about specific people I haven’t seen in a long time, and people I will never see again – is laughing with them.

Ask me for a memory of most of my family members who are gone and the first one I think of will involve laughing. The kind of laughing at nothing that you can explain in a way that sounds funny, but in the middle of it you can’t stop and the harder you try the more you laugh. Laughing with my sister over the letters we wrote to our grandmother when we were really little and barely knew how to write. Laughing with my mother in a Thai restaurant over a silly poem until we genuinely thought they were going to ask us to leave. Laughing with my aunt over actually funny movies (the first time I saw Young Frankenstein was with her) and over movies that were so terrible we couldn’t stop laughing (The Abyss). Laughing at my father laughing so hard at his own joke that he could barely get the punchline out.

It’s hard to make clear why those moments were so funny. It’s probably just as hard to make clear why the photo of Boo at the top of this post made me laugh that hard, even if I zoom in closer.

Let me try to illustrate with a little story.

Last summer, which now feels like ten years ago, we were in Colorado and I had the chance to meet our son’s girlfriend for the first time. We planned a dinner for an evening after the kids got off work. Rose and I had bought some edibles the first day we were in town, because, hey, Colorado! And we were on vacation! And going to a music festival later in the week! We had the genius idea to try them out the very same afternoon of the dinner.

They were gummies, and we decided to each have one instead of splitting one, which sounded reasonable because they are really tiny. It turns out that even in the case of tiny gummies it’s really important to understand a) potency, b) your own personal (lack of) tolerance, and c) that some things have changed a lot since you were in college.

Also it turns out when you consume edibles it takes a lot longer than when you smoke for the effects to kick in, but oh joy, they also last a lot longer. Rose’s reaction to this was to get comprehensively ill and lock herself in the bathroom for either 30 minutes or 6 hours, it’s hard for me to say because I maybe lost my sense of time altogether.

In the middle of all this – Rose locked in the downstairs bathroom, me frantically googling “How do I counteract too much THC,” the girlfriend arrived. Now remember, we were supposed to go out to dinner. Dinner was very much out of the question, but saying this and explaining why was beyond my powers of reasoning or speech just then. I spent some time making getting-to-know-you conversation (I think) in the kitchen while Rose (who had already met the girlfriend) remained in the bathroom, with me periodically going downstairs to check on her and then going back to the kitchen and trying to act normal. Finally, Rose and I had a panicked conference through the bathroom door and decided we had to come clean. “We” being me because she was not coming out of the bathroom any time soon.

I went back upstairs and said something like “I’m kind of embarrassed to say this but we can’t go out to dinner tonight because we made a rookie Colorado mistake” and our son said “Oh no, altitude sickness?” and I thought – yes! Altitude sickness! It’s a total out, plus they will feel sorry for us! But what came out of my mouth instead was “Um, no. We had an error in judgement with some edibles.” Fortunately, the girlfriend thought this was really funny, and showed me a hilarious video called “What to Do if You’re Too High on Weed” which made me laugh in that laughing entirely too hard way. I can say that I’ve watched it again since then, and it really is funny. Probably more funny if you’ve ever had the experience, which I can’t actually recommend.

Now that I think of it, there’s some pretty good advice in that video for anxious times in general, starting with “You may feel like you’ve gone permanently insane, or like you’re dead. Here’s the good news: you’re alive, and your sanity is probably intact.” Some practical actions include breathing fresh air, staying hydrated, watching silly tv, and calling a trusted friend (“Talking things through can do wonders, and remind you that you’re a person, and not just a cloud of terrifying thoughts”).

If you haven’t guessed by now, that photo of Boo is a near exact replica of my face that evening, I’m sure of it. I’ll take my laughter where I can get it these days, and it’s nice to know the dogs will never mind when I look at pictures of them and laugh so hard I start to wheeze. I may not always remember how to relax, but they do.

Eavesdropping

This week we moved from culling clothing to a full on cleaning and clearing assault on areas of the house where things have piled up for too many years. I’m writing now at my newly uncovered desk, having thrown the antique mostly empty tube of toothpaste in the trash, and otherwise gone through the exercise of throw away, give away, put away that goes with this kind of tidying.

One thing I have kept is every notepad or index card or paper scrap that I found that has a quote on it. Some of them are inspirational scribbles, like a quote from Anne Lamott I jotted down that says “I also know that we don’t live long. And that dancing almost always turns out to be a good idea.” She’s right, even though I sometimes forget to dance for far too long at a stretch.

Many of these quotes are from eavesdropping. I don’t exactly do it on purpose, but it’s almost impossible not to overhear people in restaurants, airports, or pretty much any other public place, and once I hear one thing that gets my attention I start to listen harder. Sometimes I write them down because I think they will fit in a story (if hypothetically I start writing fiction one day) – like the guy I overheard in an airport security line who said “The last five years of my addiction I pretty much stopped watching everything but porn. Then I got sober and got out of the habit of watching any TV.” I still don’t know if the person he was talking to was someone he knew, or if he just had different ideas than I do about getting-to-know-you conversation topics.

I have one mystery note that just says “No one ever needs a ferret” and one that says “I’m surprised your phone still works with pictures like that on it.” There’s one I do remember – I was in a parking lot at a medical center, headed in for an MRI or an x-ray or a mammogram, and I overheard a woman saying to her daughter “You listen to me, Olivia” and the little girl said “I listen to mySELF.” Never change, Olivia.

In another overheard snippet from a medical appointment, this time at the dentist, a young boy was vocalizing how we all feel about being at the dentist and his mother said through gritted teeth “Listen – when we leave here I am taking you home, you are having a cheese sandwich, and you are going to bed” as if that were some type of punishment. I wanted to poke my head in the door and ask if I could come too. Cheese sandwich and early bed sounds like a cure for most ills.

There’s one that sounds like my mother but isn’t; it was an older woman in a local cafe, saying to her companion “I don’t like sticks and twigs tea. I like black tea.” At the time – and again now – this reminded me of my mother (and I have this written down somewhere that I haven’t tidied yet) when she told me that my father wanted her to go to his herbologist for something to do with her cancer or the side effects of her cancer treatment, and she said “I’m NOT going to the parsley doctor.”

I have an index card with something my father once told me about his friend Mary. She was an older friend from his office, and after she retired he used to pick her up on weekends and take her out driving – something he also did with us as kids that we all couldn’t wait to stop doing, but I trust he and Mary enjoyed their rides. Once when my parents and Rose and I were headed home from dinner, my father missed seeing a car coming when he turned out of the mall parking lot. As we all braced for the impact that somehow the other driver avoided, my mother yelled “Jesus, John!” A few minutes later when I asked him to slow down (in the dark on the curvy road that I knew well but he did not), he had had enough of driving criticism and said “Mary drives with me for hours every Saturday and SHE never complains about my driving” and my mother replied “Mary is old and ready for death!” None of that is written down (well, I guess it is now), but what I do have on a card is what my father said to me about Mary’s childhood: “She lived with an older aunt who was bludgeoned to death – BEFORE it was fashionable.”

It’s the things like Mary’s older aunt and the parsley doctor that make me miss my parents the most. Things that no one else will every say quite they way they would. I used to keep letters and cards, and at some point I got rid of most of them – one of the few clearing out decisions I sometimes regret. I did find two cards yesterday, one from my mother which includes a Garrison Keillor limerick that goes:

There was a young teacher named Deedee
Who went home and said to her sweetie
I’m worn out and wobbly,
So pour me a chablis
And don’t be emotionally needy.

The other card is from both my parents for a birthday I had sometime in the middle of my 30s – there’s no date, and it’s a lovely print of multicolored painted horses and a full moon, which I would have loved in a period from roughly birth to the present, so no clues there. My father’s birthday note, one of the few he wrote himself instead of just writing “Daddy” at the end of my mother’s message, says “Happy Birthday, Tessa. But then I think of you every day, so it’s Happy Birthday every day.” My mother’s note says “Tessa – asset backwards, forwards, and every other whichway, too.”

In one of my more insufferable childhood moods, when I first learned both what an asset was and that my name spelled backwards was an actual word, I believe I used to use it as a shield against sisterly teasing – something along the lines of “our parents think I’m an asset and that’s why they chose my name.” (“so there” is understood) Of course this was probably around the same time my sisters were doing a crossword puzzle and looking for a three-letter word for “self esteem,” which when your big sister says alound sounds like “self a-steam” to a young child. My suggestion was “hot,” and today I understand why they laughed so hard.

All I really planned to do was clear out my desk. It took longer than I thought, partly because there was even more stuff than I realized piled up here, but partly because I had to stop and read all the notes. I ended up with a lot more company than I expected, and now I’m surrounded by my parents, my sisters, Olivia, and the ferret people. Maybe I’ll go make a cup of sticks and twigs tea, and sit with them all for a bit.

Mix Tapes

We’ve been in a clearing out mood recently. I know a lot of people are, though I can’t say it’s particularly pandemic-related for us. For several years we’ve been talking about putting sticky notes on all of our belongings that say either “going to Colorado” or “not going to Colorado.” The specific location, or even the fact of a move, is not the point as much as is the question: if we wouldn’t move it somewhere new, why are we keeping it here?

The kids are all pretty settled in their adult lives away from here, and if their old belongings don’t have sentimental value for them, maybe we don’t need to keep hanging on to them. I mean, we’re the parents, so some things will always have sentimental value for us that they don’t have for the kids, but do we really need multiple boxes and backpacks of never-gone-through end of school year stuff from elementary and middle school?

Most of the things we have accumulated are ours, and not the kids’, however. Here at my writing desk I have a smattering of books, gifts, hobbies, and outdated technology that I simply haven’t organized, put away, or gotten rid of. In immediate reach of my left hand is: a collar tag for Cody, the box his clay footprint came back in from the crematorium earlier this year, two Liberian lappa fabric bracelets, three cables for computer peripherals I can’t identify, a horsemanship journal I started at a clinic in Colorado in 2004, several blank greeting cards for various occasions, a letter from the census bureau about how to electronically complete the census (which I did back in the spring), a Zentangle drawing book, a bandana, a mostly empty tube of toothpaste, a folder from Scout’s allergy vet with instructions I only needed last January, a computer mouse I haven’t been able to find for months, and a mix tape (literally a cassette tape) I received for my, let’s see, maybe 20th birthday. This is in a space roughly ten by twenty inches on the edge of my desk. Small wonder the whole house, not to mention the barn, the garage, and assorted outbuildings, feels a bit overwhelming. Also small wonder my go-to approach is to just get rid of everything.

When I moved from Vermont, where I went to college, back to my parents’ apartment, and then two weeks later to the farm in Maryland where I started a job, I packed everything I owned into my 1964 VW Bug, including the travel crate containing my three cats. Among the things I brought with me was a box of I don’t know what, because I moved it from the car to the room I slept in at my parents’ place (or maybe I left it in the car; either thing sounds plausible) to the closet at my house on the farm. When I moved from there three years later, having never opened the box, I just threw it away on the theory that things unexplored and unused were unneeded. I still have the desire to close my eyes and get rid of things.

When I look is when I start to have trouble. Not with some things – I got rid of easily half my clothes, probably more, without a thought, and I went through every item. In Deep Creek by the splendid Pam Houston, an author who makes me want write more and who also makes me want to give up writing entirely because she appears to have already had most of the thoughts in my head and has written about them better than I could, her description of identifying what she wants to pack in case of fire evacuation includes this: “I face my closet and can’t find one single stick of clothing I care whether or not I own.” A much less dramatic reason in my case, but a perfect description of my feeling about clothes.

The mix tape on my desk, though. It’s nowhere near a cassette player – in fact, the only cassette player in the house is currently in a pile of deconstructed stereo we haven’t made up our minds about yet. I think I pulled it out because I wanted to accurately cite the title (The Whinin’, Cheatin’, Drinkin’, Cussin’, Lyin’, Cryin, Dyin’ Birthday Tape), or maybe I was looking for one of the song names (my introduction to country music, in case the title didn’t give that away). I got rid of most of my cassettes – the store-bought ones, or the ones I made of albums I can easily get in another form – earlier this year. But I still have a box of mix tapes, and a few whole albums taped for me by someone else, in the basement, and I keep walking past it and thinking “I’ll decide about those later.”

I haven’t listened to any of those tapes for years, but just looking at the handwriting on them is enough to bring back memories. Some of them are tapes I made. In college in the midst of a pre-coming-out panicked depression, I made a tape with the title Trouble, Trouble, Trouble with every song I could think of about being troubled, having the blues, and just general misery, on the theory that if I wallowed in it for long enough I would eventually realize I was wallowing and snap out of it. Fact: I have never listened to that tape without starting to laugh, even if it’s not till the middle of side two. There’s one called Since My Phone Still Ain’t Ringing, I Assume it Still Ain’t You, which I made about, if not exactly for, someone I sort of dated in my early 20s. There’s a Yaz tape made for me by my best friend my senior year of high school, and a Robert Earl Keen Jr tape made for me by my sister. There is a tape that when Rose listened to it the first time made her say she felt like she was reading my diary, made for me by someone I’ve never met but a mutual friend thought we’d have the same taste in music and she was more right than she knew.

There’s a whole section of tapes Rose and I made for each other when we first became friends and then when we first got involved. It’s a bit of a musical time capsule – both in terms of what music was out at the time and in terms of the phases of our relationship (Songs for Louise from Thelma is still among my favorites). As I type this, Rose is listening to a playlist that has this vibe in the kitchen (I hear Melissa Etheridge, and a paragraph or two ago, Don Henley). I’ve thought about taking the mix tapes and remaking them as playlists, but there’s something about the handwriting that stirs my heart in unexpected ways.

I can make a playlist now without even listening to the songs. In the mix tape days, there was a lot of planning. Ordering and reording of songs on paper before I started taping. Deciding which songs revealed too much, or didn’t say it quite right, or felt like they came from somewhere in the most honest part of me. Stacks of vinyl, other tapes, and eventually CDs to pull songs from. Writing out the song list – include the artists with the song names? Write on the factory insert or make my own? The point of it all, of course, was in trying to show someone else what was in my heart. The opening chords of any one of those songs can sneak up on me and make me cry, or make my heart swell, before the words even start, remembering how I felt the first time I listened to one of those tapes Rose made for me. Would I save them in a fire? Hard to say. Would I move them to Colorado? You know, I think I would.

Three Little Words

A friend recently reminded me of Gordon Lightfoot, which reminded me of one of my favorite guitarists, Tony Rice, and one of my favorite albums of his, Tony Rice Sings Gordon Lightfoot. To share this with my friend I pulled up YouTube to pick a song from that album, and settled on I’m Not Saying.

My sister and I often listened to the double record set Gord’s Gold in high school, and this song was one of our favorites. For quite a few years we borrowed from it when we wrote letters to each other (remember letters?) – one of us would sign “I’m not saying that I love you” and the other would reply in the next letter by signing “I’m not saying that I care if you love me.”

“I love you” is not something we said in our family. It wasn’t until I went to college and heard other people talking to their parents on the phone that I realized that many – perhaps most – people I knew ended phone calls to their parents by saying “I love you.” The Gordon Lightfoot song was both a joke and the closest we came to actually saying the words within our own family.

My grandmother had a dresser drawer filled with drawings we made when visiting her, and letters or cards we wrote when we were young. Almost all were just signed “From” and then our name. Often our whole name, as in “From Tessa Pagones” in penmanship one step away from writing half the letters backwards. My whole family has always talked easily about literature, politics, movies. We have not ever been given to talking about personal things, closely held thoughts and beliefs, or feelings. Especially feelings.

When I started, at age 19, to say “I love you” when getting off the phone with my parents, my father started to begin his conversations with me by picking up the phone and saying “Love me!” It would be another 19 years and my mother would be dead before I heard him say “I love you.”

When my sisters and I we were kids we never had a Christmas tree, and one thing we all agreed on was that as soon as we had our own places, we would have our own Christmas trees. The three of us had varied ideas about what “normal” kid things our kids should get that we did not have: piano lessons, swimming lessons, band or orchestra practice, the chance to fill up on bread at a restaurant if they wanted to, and definitely a Christmas tree. I don’t know, if anyone had asked, that any of us would have said “A house where people say “I love you,” but it was something we all created. Probably in all cases (certainly in mine) with the help of one or more other parents who say it more easily.

My kids say “I love you” easily, even to each other. There are a lot of moments as a parent that make you marvel at your kids for how like you they are, how different from you or each other they are, how they have some talent that seems to have come out of thin air and is unique to them. Hearing my kids say “I love you” to their siblings is something that will always make me feel a little bit of awe.

Horseshoes

“Horseshoes are better than circles. Leave space. Always leave space. Horseshoes of friends > Circles of friends. Life can be lonely. Stand in horseshoes.” – Glennon Doyle

It started with a book.

Of course, it started before that. I found the book because of Rose, and I found Rose because of a horse, and I found the horse because… I could keep going backwards. Many if not most of my own stories either started with a book or started with a horse. Since I can’t tell all the origin stories at once, this one starts with a book.

This particular book I picked up with the intent to rifle through it, scoff, and point out what bullshit it was. It was a book called Horses Never Lie by a horseman named Mark Rashid, and I lumped it into all the other so-called natural horsemanship concepts I had no faith in or patience with. I started flipping quickly through the book, glancing at pages in different chapters, and then I flipped more slowly, and then I went back to the beginning and started on page one and pretty much didn’t put it down until I had read the whole thing. Then I read it again.

This book did what good books often do: it changed my life.

It changed my life in ways directly related to the topic of the book. It completely changed my approach to my horses and my horsemanship. This was and is very important to me, and probably even more so to my horses.

It changed my life in ways I would never have imagined, and while I can’t credit the book for all the changes, I can credit it for helping me find the first step. Because of this book I went to a horsemanship clinic. Because of the clinic I heard about a Yahoo group (remember those?). Because of the Yahoo group I got acquainted with a number of women with whom I shared things – an approach towards our horses, a sense of humor, a willingness to keep changing and improving, an interest in sharing the things that mattered to each of us.

The Yahoo group morphed into another Yahoo group, and then another one, as the size and nature of the group shifted, and then Facebook came along. As the years have gone by (17 of them so far), I have met a lot of these women in person, and through them I have met other women either online or in person or both.

Because of these women, I travelled all the way across the country where a woman I had never met in person invited me to spend nearly a week in her house and to ride a horse of hers for four days and if you don’t think that second part is an extraordinary leap of faith I can tell you are not a horse person.

Because of these women, I found my Truth Serum Horse, the horse who firmly but kindly demands every day that my outsides match my insides.

Because of these women, I found a friend to walk with during the year in which both our mothers died from metastatic breast cancer, and again when both our fathers died in the same year seven years later.

Because of these women, I have met people to share music with, and books, and coffee, and tequila, and laughter, and tears. Even when most of our communication is memes and silly photos and voice to text fiascos, there are those times we reach out to each other in our darkest moments to say “I just wanted someone else to know.” We have held each other up through heart tearing grief, we have laughed so hard we have snorted coffee out of our noses from thousands of miles away, we have told each other to put our boots back on and cowgirl up, sometimes all in the same conversation.

Because of these women, I found a friend to share books and grammar jokes and love of words, and this friend introduced me to a writer who had started an online writer’s group.

Because of these women, I rediscovered my writing voice, and I started this blog. The single best thing about sharing my writing, especially the writing I am afraid to share, is the moment that someone else says “Oh, me too.” Which is also the best thing about sharing a journey with these women.

Because of these women, I have work coming out in a book this November: What She Wrote, an anthology of women’s voices, published by Lilith House Press. More to come as we get closer to the release date.

It starts with a book.