Sorted

I’ve been cleaning house. Part of this is your typical spring cleaning – opening windows, giving surfaces a good dusting, laundering the slipcovers on the sofa. And part of this is a deep dive into an area largely untouched since I moved into the home: my basement.

The beauty of having a basement is being able to put things down there where they are out of sight, and don’t need to be dealt with – at least for awhile. I took full advantage of this when I bought the place. Camping equipment, unneeded furniture, boxes of holiday decorations, gardening tools. Random bits of family memorabilia. An inflatable kayak. Lawn games. All went to the basement.

There is a logic to this: basements are for storage, after all. But they also tend to be magnets for accumulation. At a certain point, I had to ask myself: How much is too much?

There were my college notebooks, filled with neat handwriting that seems almost unrecognizable, and printouts of articles I used for a research paper in 1999. It is hard for me to throw these away, even though I’m unlikely to need to revisit the topic of vector-born diseases anytime soon. I find other school materials as well: class photos, a program from my kindergarten graduation. And items from my teen years, like paystubs from my first “on the books” job at a fast-food restaurant, and a mood ring, safely tucked into the box I’d kept it in since high school.

I find items given to me by family members. There is a kitchen towel that still bears the distinctive scent of my Aunt Stella’s house; smelling it takes me instantly back to my childhood, to hours spent in her living room, eating handfuls of peanut M&Ms, where the furniture was always immaculate, and her wall clock chimed the hours in melodic tones. I hesitate to wash it, unwilling to lose that scent, that memory. I fold it and put it aside.

Some surprises are not as welcome. I’m caught off guard, unprepared for the discovery. With the objects come feelings, and I must sort these too.

I find a photograph of myself smiling in a red ballgown, standing next to the man I used to be married to.

There is the antique sausage grinder, passed down between family members and used for countless batches of homemade kielbasa. Its previous owner was my late cousin; his mother gifted it to me after his untimely death, along with a handwritten recipe. I can’t decide what to do with it. It moves from one side of the basement to the other.

Items like this beg the question: Where do I put it in my house? Where do I fit this stuff into my life?

More abstractly: What remainder of my past will stay in my present? Will become part of my future?

This is not merely cleaning, but emotional cataloging. It is taking stock.

Some things don’t stay. Bag after bag is placed in the trash. I take batches of items to Goodwill and other donation centers. A few I try to sell. And there are some that remain.

There is also space. I look at the vacant shelves, the empty areas in the floor and feel satisfied with a job well done. The house feels lighter. What is in it is, for the most part, chosen rather than simply received.

And isn’t that what a home is for? A place to keep what we hold dear, and to let the rest go.

Addendum: I would be remiss not to mention the heroic levels of deep cleaning that Peter engaged in over the course of this project. He swept, he scrubbed, he wiped and vacuumed and he kept me honest. The basement has never looked better. There’s still work ahead, but of the type that involves exploring possibilities: Beer fridge? Home theater? Yoga room? Because after the dust settles, its time to play.

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Undone

At year’s end, it is tempting to write a retrospective, a list of things done, a catalogue of accomplishments (or at the very least, some interesting statistics.)

Instead, I am going to tell you about what I didn’t do. Or in a few instances, stopped doing. Basically, this is my 2023 quit list

Photo by Linda Eller-Shein: https://www.pexels.com/photo/red-and-yellow-stop-sticker-1749900/

I stopped going to the local book club meetings.

I took a 6-month hiatus from guitar lessons.

I resigned from a non-profit board.

Over the summer, I signed up for an adult kickball league and did not play a single game.

I got off dating apps.

I quit wearing makeup for the most part.

I didn’t do any online teaching, or publish any articles.

I stepped down as the organizer for a Meetup group I’d led for a year and a half.

I could go on. There’s the biography of Hedy Lamarr, begun in January, that has been sitting on my bedside table, neglected. The brown bananas in my freezer, waiting for either ambition or boredom to spur me to transform them into banana bread. The artist’s statement I sketched out this spring and haven’t returned to since.

My reasons for quitting were varied. Sometimes it was simple as limited time. In other cases, it was a matter of reconsidering my priorities, of thinking about what value a particular activity brought to my life. Occasionally I didn’t have a choice; the online program I taught for was discontinued, much to my disappointment.

Even now, as I sit next to my kitchen filled with packages of candied pecans and bags of snickerdoodles and cranberry scones—the outputs of a frenzied weekend of holiday baking—I am glancing sideways at my to-do list and calculating how much remains on it. How little I checked off.

Then I think of how I actually spent my day. Waking to the sound of rain, then snuggling back under the blankets for just a minute longer. Finally getting dressed to venture out for coffee, Rosie in tow. Having a lovely brunch with friends and sharing good food and laughter. Peter’s company. A long afternoon nap.

Those were wonderful things. I would argue those were the most important things I did today. None of them were not on my list.

Life is not made up of lists. Or if it is, that misses the point. After four plus decades on the planet, I am starting to realize this. Not that I’ll ever abandon lists completely; part of me will always thrill to an item checked off, a task accomplished. But they will not be—can not be—how I measure my life.

It’s raining again. The couch calls. I’ll let myself answer.

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Kidding

“Better late than never.” Or so the saying goes. This past fall, I put this aphorism to the test.

But before I get into that, a little backstory.

For most of my life, I’ve been something of a late joiner when it comes to most cultural touchpoints. I was one of the last kids in my middle school class to have a CD player in the household. I didn’t see classic ‘80s films like Goonies or Back to the Future until I was well into high school. I didn’t really listen to Metallica or Madonna or Queen until college.

My younger sister and I, 1985.

Or sometimes the touchpoints went past me altogether. I never owned an album by Prince or Cher or Michael Jackson.*  Never owned a gaming console. In fact, I did not hold a Sega Genesis controller until last week, when I played Sonic for the first time and had my a** handed to me.

Is it delayed nostalgia? A chance to retroactively experience what my peers did in the 1980s, and I’m attempting decades later? Or am I simply looking to reconnect with aspects of myself, buried under the responsibilities of adulthood, that I haven’t visited in a long, long time?

Perhaps it’s all of those things.

So I’ve begun to experiment, to see if I can fill in some of the gaps. I did watch, within the past two months, both E.T. and Halloween for the first time. The experience wasn’t the same as it would have been if I was a kid. But I still felt surprise and empathy with E.T., and the full force of the jump scares in Halloween.

I bought Sonic and a bundle of retro games for my PS4.

Sometimes, for the heck of it, I blow off practicing French on Duolingo simply because it feels so friggin’ good to say no. (I always did my homework as soon as I got home from school, and this small but belated rebellion is deeply satisfying.)

I’ve added Kate Bush and other artists featured on Stranger Things to my Spotify queue.

Which brings me to Stranger Things. Yes, I’m late to the game on this one too. I didn’t watch the first four seasons when they originally aired. But now, with the final season on the horizon and a partner who persuaded me to give the series another shot, I’m knee-deep in the supernatural doings of Hawkins, IN. And along with all of the fine points of the show (the craft, the acting, the storylines, the music, which have been covered to death elsewhere), I’m getting a whopping flashback to the 80s.

Aquanet hairspray. Lite Brites and Spirographs. (You can actually still buy Lite Brites!)

Nancy Wheeler’s reporters’ notebook. (I carried the exact same kind on my early freelance assignments.)

The panic about Dungeons and Dragons.

Being a free-range kid and roaming the neighborhood on bikes.

All. The. Perms. (Yeah, I had one of those too.)

Seeing these things onscreen both triggers memories and reminds me that I while I missed a lot, I didn’t miss everything.

This realization was recently driven home on a gray Pittsburgh afternoon. I stood at the sink washing dishes (at the same time, so as not to appear too responsible, I was listening to Def Leppard and Guns n’ Roses while whipping up a batch of simple syrup for cocktails).

Sunlight managed to sneak through the clouds at just the moment “Sweet Child O’ Mine” blasted from the speaker.

Where do we go?
Oh, where do we go now?
Oh, where do we go?

And I saw that some things, like the right song at the right moment, are timeless.

*I was gifted Thriller this summer, on vinyl, and I’m delighted with it.

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2022: A Retrospective

In writing reflections on a past event – especially an entire year, especially on a digital platform – I struggle to find the right tone. Too bright, and it might feel fake, toxically positive, or even arrogant. Too somber, and it can come across as a slough of negativity.

I’ll do my best to steer between those two extremes. There were good things, hard things, sad things. I felt friendships shift and fade. I was ghosted (twice) and stood up (once). The relationship I was most excited about, a tantalizing multi-month series of dates during which I caught hope – and feelings – ended via a cold text. I experienced professional challenges that required every bit of my patience and discipline to navigate. Despite being drafted in Las Vegas, my fantasy football team did not make it to the playoffs. And for the last night of 2022, I attended a party where the highlight of the event was thumbing through a biography of the Brontës.

And yet. And yet. I am a stubborn optimist, and that isn’t all of the story.

  • At midlife, I took on spring break for the first time. It was hot and sunstruck and a little disorienting. In fact, it became just the adventure I needed.
  • In that vein, I decided that it was never too late to let a little rebellion into my life. Guitar playing, obviously. But there was also the winter night I laughed and listened to punk in my date’s pickup in a parking lot. Afternoons spent loitering in public parks like a delinquent. Numerous small trespasses against propriety: the flick of a lighter, the use of the f-bomb, a refusal to take up less space.
  • I finally watched Sleepless in Seattle. I devoured Ozark, which made me cry. And Bridgerton, which didn’t. Also both seasons of Sanditon just for the heck of it. (I have yet to see E.T. or any of the Rocky films.)
  • I went to the opera. Alone. (It was great.)
  • I swam 20,000 yards at the local pool. My tan was killer.
  • I emerged from comparative isolation and got busy re-building my social life. I took over a Meetup group, renamed it, and nearly tripled the membership. I went on 22 first dates*. I got new business cards. I attended book club discussions after having actually read the book.
  • I made a few new friends. In adulthood, that’s no small feat. We need people to laugh with. People to speak our truths to. To eat burritos with, go to for advice, share a hug. If anything, 2022 taught me not to take good connections for granted.
  • I got a new writing desk. In fact, that where I am typing this right now.
  • And I finally started to learn that my feelings are not liabilities I need to repress, but signals to pay attention to.

Of course, there are things that haven’t changed. I still miss my motorcycle. I still have my fascination with Eminem. There are still my wildling cats that make me laugh, and the books I turn to for comfort like a quilt.

As far as what’s ahead, I don’t have resolutions so much as intentions. I want to get back to Paris. I want to finally finish my damn novel. I want to get through all of “Tonight, Tonight” so that it sounds – and feels – like a song. Plus, the Les Paul guitar I’ve been eyeing.

And there’s this:

We must be willing to let go of the life we’ve planned so as to have the life that is waiting for us.

Joseph Campbell

*Defined as 1:1 in-person, predesignated meetings. Video chats and random unassigned hangouts not included in total.

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More Than a Feeling

The future is a hard thing to imagine, especially when just managing day-to-day life in the present feels so unpredictable. And yet I’m letting myself go there. To explore possibility. To wonder what might yet be found.

My previous post, Feme Sole, was written from a retrospective mindset. Not gonna lie: 2021 was the hardest year of my life. Hands down. That may have been the case for a lot of people. And yet – and yet – this too shall pass. Perhaps even now we see light.

Which raises the question – what next?

Banff, Canada.

The pandemic, and even my life before the pandemic, taught me how capable I am. Responsible, reliable, conscientious. And those are great qualities to have. But when they are one-sided, its exhausting. I’ve found that in many relationships, for most of my life (this includes family, friendships, workplace, romantic interests), I’ve taken pains to be the most likeable, most competent, least demanding version of myself. When there is imbalance, it tends to work out swimmingly for the other party, and not so well for me.

In midlife, I am flipping the script. I have the audacity to hold expectations. And the presumption to voice them.

So much for the theory. What about the practice? What about real-life application? What about… dating?

Here’s the deal: If we go out, I will show up. I’ll be polite and punctual and most likely send a text while I’m parking. I’ll have makeup on, and possibly be wearing hiking boots, or maybe the cute shoes I bought in Paris, depending on the activity.

I’ll laugh at your jokes. I’ll maintain eye contact. I will stay off my phone and hope – please – you do the same.

Midway through I’ll excuse myself, grab my purse, and take off to the ladies’ room where I will either text my sister or a friend to let them know how things are going. And to assure them I’m not dead. I’ll do the same once I get home.

When the bill comes and if I have a chance to jump in, I’ll offer to split it and mean it. (I don’t need your money.) In reality, a lot of external markers mean very little to me. I don’t make decisions about someone based solely on the occupation they hold, the salary they earn, the height they are. (Although, it would be nice if you’re taller so that I can wear heels and not feel weird on the 3 occasions a year when I’m in the mood to do so.)

I have a career and a title and a salary. I don’t need to borrow your prestige. I don’t need to borrow any toughness, either. I have that on my own, too. (With the ink and the scars to prove it. Also the facts that I was laid off, got divorced, found a new job, wrote a novel, and bought a house on my own during the pandemic. Say what you will, I get sh*t done.)

What I want is this: to not be asked to make myself smaller. Not to have the price of our connection be contingent on my being less than what I am. In time, to come to trust you enough so that I don’t have to be so self-reliant. To sit on the couch, or on a mountainside, or at the beach and genuinely relax, not because I’ve decided to stop being “so uptight” but because you have created a space where, for a time, you’ve taken care of everything and I don’t have to.  

To not be behind or in front of me, but beside. And to say – truthfully – “We’ve got this.”

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Tabula Rasa

Fact: I have too much stuff. I’ve known this since well before Marie Kondo and tidying up became a cultural phenomenon. Since before “edit” became an activity no longer reserved simply for manuscripts or films, but now has haute connotations applied to everything from cosmetics to jewelry to home furnishings.

My stuff, on the whole, is neither fashionable nor glamourous. Much of it I’ve been boxing up and carrying around with me for years. Decades, even. Handwritten letters from overseas penpals and junior high classmates. Theater tickets, bookmarks, notebooks from college courses long since completed. 

All of it marking an intersection of memory and material object that – somehow – I can’t yet bear to part with.

Urban art. South Side Flats, Pittsburgh PA. July 2021.

Even if these things no longer serve a practical purpose in my day-to-day, they are proof of who I was. All the selves I’ve been, every milestone or throwaway moment of my life marked. The bright orange t-shirt from a 5K race on a crisp October morning. Yes, a relatively short distance, but for me, momentous. It was the first race I completed after tearing my MCL and spending the better part of a year with orthopedists and physical therapists, fearing I’d never be able to run again.

The postcards from France showing colorful vintage illustrations of the Cote d’Azur. Invoices from dental treatments to reconstruct bone and tissue in my jaw. Family albums. The eulogy I wrote for my marriage, and then burned (but not before snapping a photo of the text).

If these things go, what evidence do I have – save memory, which is surely fallible – that I ever was that girl, that woman?

But I can’t take it with me, as the line from the Pulitzer Prize-winning play goes. At the end of the month, I am leaving this house forever. What better time for tidying up and cutting loose? What more apt juncture to consciously release what is no longer needed? When better to intentionally choose what comes with me?

These past weeks, I’ve been setting myself to brush off the dust and survey the goods. There are the documents and papers and clutter that will go. Ill-fitting shoes that I never liked. Superfluous kitchenware. And my beloved motorcycle. Perhaps not for forever. But I’ve taken what I needed from the Harley and I carry a scar and story to prove it. For now, I’m at peace with parting. There’s the hope of meeting again. 

Earlier this spring, I was determined to erase everything. Job, lifestyle, relationships. Then shred the remains and throw them into a dustbin. I looked at houses in the rural environs of Western Pennsylvania where I spent my childhood. I dreamed of acreage and horses. I wanted nothing more than to be away, away from the city and the feints and deflections inherent in many of my daily interactions. I wanted, I think, to disappear into some chrysalis of my own making. And to re-emerge in some other place, as some other self.

But following through on creating my blank slate includes letting go of even the belief that such extreme measures were necessary for preservation, for authenticity.

I am moving, but the distance isn’t far. I don’t need it to be; what I want next is closer than I thought. As for what I’m letting go of, there may be empty spaces, but not a void. And in those spaces, the promise of things hoped for, but not yet seen.

P.S. I played Essie Carmichael in my high school’s production of You Can’t Take it With You. I’m sure I have a few playbills inside a drawer somewhere around here.

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Beyond Binary: The Aftermath

Photo by Vlada Karpovich from Pexels

2020, the year of disruption. It took a global pandemic, the most bitter social and political fragmentation I’ve ever witnessed in American culture, and a painful end to my marriage, but I’m at last shaking free of the pursuit of something that just maybe, I should not have been chasing in the first place. I’ve given up looking for normal.

“Normal” is a loaded word these days. Some of us want to “get back to normal” or “adjust to the new normal.” Others believe that the establishment, in any form, is not to be trusted and that we’d be a lot better off crying foul on the status quo. In the days and weeks following the 2020 presidential election, I’ve been thinking a lot about normal. Is it what is comfortable? Familiar? Routine?

And if, but its very definition, normal is so unexceptional, why do we yearn for it so badly?

I’m beginning to think that in 2020, it wasn’t normality that was shattered. Instead, our habits and our complacency and our worldview were threatened at an existential level. There is no longer a common set of undisputed facts on which to base a shared understanding of reality. The world is tilted and off-center.  We’re in a space that we can’t predict, and with a set of unknowns we can’t control. 

And as a species, when the necessity to adapt forces itself upon us, we tend to resent it. Any behavioral economist will tell you that human beings are creatures of emotion, not logic. Just because we know better doesn’t mean we do better.

But we should. Maybe it’s not logical to expect “normal,” if normal means a return to what was before. How could it be? These are strange and often frightening times. 

Much of life as we remember it is past. Perhaps, ultimately, we may find parts of it are not worth going back for. Yet things remain that are worth holding on to, and those have little to do with whether or not our local gym is open, or if we’re required to wear a mask, or if a curfew has gone into effect.

Human behavior is often highly contextual. But there is almost always a choice. And I will not give up on the big picture. I will not give up on decency, civility, or kindness. I will not give up on the expectation that my elected leaders will follow established precedents for conduct befitting their office. And I won’t give up on America, or on my fellow Americans, although I’ve felt more grief and anger and disappointment in these past 12 months than I believed possible. 

For as Winston Churchill is alleged, but not proven, to have remarked, “Americans can always be trusted to do the right thing, once all other possibilities have been exhausted.”

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Doorways to Gratitude

It seems that more than ever, the world is in need of optimism. There are many things to worry about. Conflict. Our warming planet. Politics. The economy. Enemies, foreign and domestic. Not to mention, our own health, our commutes, our families, our bank accounts, the headaches with the utility company or the Internet service provider or the grocery store that just stopped carrying our favorite brand of coffee.

Stress is endemic. It’s serious enough that it has been recognized as a public health issue by the former U.S. Surgeon General. But this post isn’t about stress. Nor is about forced optimism, an insistence on finding the good in every situation, in calling the glass half full when all evidence points to the contrary.

But I am going to write about gratitude. And I’m going to write about the strangers, friends, and little moments of grace that allow me to feel this. Many of these people changed my life. Sometimes for an afternoon. Sometimes for years.

For example, my kindergarten teacher Mrs. Beason who taught me to read. My college English professor who, upon my graduation, presented me with a book inscribed “Remember to be yourself” – advice which I am still trying to follow.  

There is my former co-worker Charlotte who first talked me into running. With her prompting, I completed my first 5K, and went on to run longer, harder, more challenging races for the next several years. There are the wonderful and witty writers I crossed paths with two summers ago, one of whom collected a couple of us into her red convertible one afternoon to tool around the Hamptons. (Like I was going to say no.) And the women whose names I cannot recall, but under whose tutelage I learned how to ride a motorcycle. 

And sometimes, it is being ourselves, by ourselves, that opens this doorway. The moments we encounter accidentally, but are somehow just the right place, just the right time. Getting up early, resentful of the dark and cold, and then looking up to see the sky cast in a lavender dawn. Walking in the woods and catching sight of two kestrels circling each other, the white feathers of their bellies catching the sunlight. Hearing the wind as it pushes through brown leaves and dry grass.

Because life is improv. We never get the same day twice. Sometimes – maybe most days – we may feel like imposters. But when we find those with whom we may be our authentic selves – and the moments where our authentic selves feel closest –  it is cause for gratitude indeed.

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When to Get a Cat

As I write this, there is a cat on my lap.

Of course, not all people are cat people. But a lot of us are, judging from the number of views of cat videos on the Internet.

Some days, I’m convinced that cat videos are among the best things that the Internet has done for humanity.

Cat videos bring joy. They unite us, even if only for a few minutes. And they’re often downright hilarious.

2018 was a challenging year. But – lest you’re getting worried – this is not a political piece. My last piece of political writing was in 2016, shortly after the election that ushered in the 45th President of the United States.

This is a piece about cats. Yes, they bring chaos, and perhaps there are a few analogies that can be drawn between a household with cats and the current political climate. But while cats create chaos like no other domestic creature I know, they are also irresistible. And unlike politicians, prone to purring on your lap.

So when the going gets tough, the tough get a cat. Or in my case, a second cat. My original feline companion is a cool cat named Hendrix, adopted from a litter of barn kittens in 2014. The farmers assured my husband and I that our new pet was female. Fast forward two weeks later to our first vet visit, and we discovered that kitty is a boy.

Still, Hendrix is a delightful, handsome fellow who enjoys cuddling up to watch period dramas and snuggling in bed on chilly nights. He’s a great editor, as cats are naturally contemptuous of anything superfluous. I love Hendrix. He’s a fantastic cat.

Hendrix critiquing a manuscript.

But when an opportunity came last fall to see another litter of farm kittens in need of homes, I couldn’t say no. And Abby, the most adorable 3-pound tyrant the world has ever seen entered our lives.

Hendrix hated her.

Following the advice of cat blogs, I determined to keep the two cats separated until Hendrix grew more tolerant. Abby had a private establishment in the family room, complete with a bed, food and water, a litter box, toys, and a large window overlooking a bird feeder.

She hated it. And she made her displeasure known. First she screamed. (Yes, kittens can scream.) Then she battered the door with her tiny body as if she meant to break through by force. After a few days of this we relented and gave Abby the run of the house. Gradually – very gradually – Hendrix came to a grudging acceptance. He still steals her food at every opportunity, but I have caught them napping in the same room and sometimes even in the same bed.

Abby is crazy, of course. She’s imperious and demanding and very, very loud.

Beneath her kitten adorableness lies the soul of a despot.

Abby.

But I love her. And having her in our lives makes me happy.

So when I say get a cat, what I mean is do something that makes you happy. Do something that fills a void. Do something that makes the world, at least for a little while, a gentler place.

Unless you’re allergic. In which case, get a fish? And be sure to post some funny fish videos.

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Why Your Life Needs Rituals

Blue and white porcelain teacup and saucerLast summer I had the pleasure of visiting Hillwood Museum and Gardens in Washington, DC. The museum consists of the former home of Marjorie Merriweather Post, heiress, businesswoman, and art collector extraordinaire. I spent the afternoon gazing at priceless porcelain and dazzling jewels and wandering gardens filled with too many varieties of flower to name under a perfect blue sky.

Yes, the collection was remarkable, the setting splendid, and the home itself opulent. And yet what I came away most impressed by the recognition that seizing beauty isn’t something to postpone.

At the end of my visit I lingered in the gift shop. After seeing Marjorie’s fabulous collection, I wanted something beautiful of my own. I dithered and fretted, balking at the price of a Russian porcelain teacup.

“Just get it,” my friend Ali said.

I took her at her word, and she was a good sport as I spent the next 15 minutes deliberating which design I needed to bring home.

I’m now the proud owner of a teacup and saucer that cost more than some of my college textbooks. But self-indulgence wasn’t the point, not really. It was about giving myself permission to go after beauty and allow it into my everyday life. It was about permission to pause, to create a ritual that allowed moments to be savored.

In a world where we move from activity to activity seemingly second by second, we may need rituals more than ever.

Rituals anchor us. They provide focus in days that are often unpredictable. They offer time that is our own, to shape as we choose.

Rituals calm us. They offer comfort. They offer a moment to look forward to. They create space that allows mind and body to be still.

And powerfully, and perhaps counter to what we may often imagine in the creative process, rituals provide stability. Stability promotes routine, routine promotes consistency, and consistency means things get done.

Do you have a favorite ritual that has helped to foster your creativity? Drop a line in the comments!

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