Awkward Holidays & Inappropriate Traditions: the tree

My husband thinks I’m a control freak which is funny because he has actually met my mother.

One year, for reasons that continue to escape us, my dad, my sister and I thought it would be a nice idea to pick up a Christmas tree at the lot in the center of our little mountain town on our way home one evening. It doesn’t get any cuter than that lot — right down to the hot cider and a pot belly stove in the middle of everything. The stove would melt the daylights out of your 1970s ski jacket if you backed into it while sizing up a tree, but that melting smell is all part of the charm and if Proust can have a cookie then I can have melting nylon.

We put the tree in the station wagon which was, being the ‘70s, eight city blocks long, and drove home. And then we drove the tree back because mom made us return it. It apparently was crooked, flat on one side, had big gaping holes and good lord what were we thinking.

We all thought it was beautiful. It was a tree.

Like my mother, I sometimes have strong opinions about things, but ever since the Great Christmas Tree Return of 1978, I keep my tree thoughts to myself. When I pick out trees I try to make it look like it’s no big deal, giving trees no more than a cursory once-over as if to say “look at how not-control-freakish I am!”

Any lingering Christmas Tree Anxiety I was experiencing was completely alleviated once we found WinterFest. The tree sale benefits the high school music department and the trees themselves are grown by woodland elves or as it turns out, Canadians. They are perfect. So perfect that all we do is find one that’s skinny enough to fit in the corner of the dining room, and then buy it without even surreptitiously scanning for flaws. Not only are there trees at WinterFest, there is music, a bake sale, and hot cocoa with candy canes and whipped cream. It doesn’t get better than that.

I love WinterFest so much that this year I volunteered to come early and help unload the truck. So it is clearly my fault that everything went sideways.

The trees were not there when I arrived at 8 a.m. to help unwrap and stack them. Nor were they there by 8:30. At some point, maybe around 9 or 10, it came out that not only had there been weather delays, but they were held up at customs. I don’t know if there was a problem with Canadian trees opportunistically letting themselves be cut down and displayed in American homes thereby taking jobs away from American trees, or if one of the trees was discovered planning to find a manger in which to birth a seedling this side of the border, but whatever the reason, there were no trees for the Winterfest tree sale.

Volunteers who had not just jinxed the entire sale sprang into action, setting up tree pre-sales and orchestrating an evening pick-up. I made a sight-unseen tree purchase— which I assure you is a first for my family.

When the truck finally arrived my husband was there to help unload the trees, sorting them into pens by height to wait until their families came to claim them. And then he brought our tree home, still tied up in shipping twine. My mother would have died on the spot.

Even in its bound state it looked different from the other trees we’ve gotten, but I am not a freak so I kept that to myself. The tree stand came out of the basement, the tree went in, and the twine came off. As we watched, the tree expanded like one of those Hoberman sphere toys, or more seasonally, like it had polished off Thanksgiving and hit the Christmas cookies hard, sitting in our dining room like an overstuffed Mother Ginger. We moved furniture to make room as the branches unfolded, ultimately revealing a perfect, nearly spherical tree that has a certain glow to it as though it may actually be ready to deliver an infant among friendly beasts.

Our cat had been put up for adoption right around Christmas last year, so we decided not to put fragile ornaments on the tree, just in case there was a reason for that timing. Meanwhile the dog, who came to us from a shelter in the south and has been trusted around trees for years, now loves backing into the lower limbs and scratching all her itches on the luxuriously broad boughs — something she could never do on our normal, skinny, corner-shaped trees. So now we have a border of dog hair on the bottom of our tree, which we we see as a design element — like the fur trim on Santa’s coat, or if you prefer, organic, sustainable, humanely harvested tinsel. We decided to leave all the other ornaments off — not just the fragile ones— opting instead for a star, lights, dog tinsel, and an ornamental cat.

This year, the symbol of the holiday in our house is not a perfectly decorated tanenbaum, but a trinity of refugees— a shelter cat celebrating her first Christmas with us, a well-scratched rescue dog, and a tree that is beyond all judgment. We feel weirdly, brightly blessed.

And when it’s all over, I don’t have to put any ornaments away.

A parable for Tim

In quantum physics, they’ve discovered that light particles are connected. No matter how far apart they are or how impossible it seems, when one light blinks, another responds.

Once there was a filmmaker who pointed his camera at things people didn’t see. People all around the world told their stories to him. He recorded their stories, and shared them. He talked to hundreds, maybe thousands of people. It’s amazing, if you think about it, how many people we don’t hear or know about until someone shows us. Those stories, the ones he filmed, spoke to people’s hearts in many languages and on different continents. People who lived invisible lives felt heard because someone had seen and documented a story like theirs. Because of this filmmaker, they were not alone anymore.

For other people, the stories were surprising, or scary. They couldn’t believe that other human beings were having these experiences. But there they were, looking through the video camera, telling their lives.

The stories lit up something in all these people – something that was there all along but didn’t have anything to connect to.

He told many stories, for many years, never seeming to tire. Everywhere he went, he listened to people. He was intensely thoughtful, joyful, and impish.

And then, suddenly, shockingly, with so many stories still to tell, the filmmaker died. The sparks from the shock lit the night, and then went out. It was intensely dark.

“Now there’s a hole,” people said. “Where he was. There is no one else like him.”

And they were right. But what they couldn’t see was that the sparks had not gone out. Instead, they connected to their sister lights, in hearts all over the world. The impact – maybe the shock – made those lights dance furiously, joyfully, and with determination unimagined. An inexplicable joy and fierceness overcame the people he had touched.

The sparks ignited ideas, burning up self-doubt, apathy, and fear. People who didn’t think they could do something, now felt like they had to, and did.

Those lights still burn brightly – connecting the planet through new work, and more stories,

and inextinguishable love.

For Tim McCarthy. May you burn ever brightly.

Collapsing Dunes National Seashore

“Unstable areas can collapse at any time”

When I first moved to Cape Cod, leaving behind my family, friends, and a reliable source of cheap Mexican food, I got lonely and homesick. Whenever I missed the mountains, I’d drive to the beach. I spent a lot of time looking at the ocean – mostly from the comfort of my car because it’s hard to be homesick when the weather is nice.

Decades later, I thought about those trips to the ocean as I watched the waves from my old parking spot at Nauset Light and noticed a sign right in front of me: WARNING! Unstable areas can collapse at any time. Stay back.

Things really do need to be right in front of me sometimes. And be literal signs.

I thought, well obviously. When I moved here I had come specifically to stand on the sand, stomp on it, and see what happened.

Not this exact beach or sand dune, I’m not an environmental monster. I moved east because I needed to figure life out, and discard the parts that clearly weren’t working. I also really liked it here.

If you have a choice, of course you avoid the unstable parts and walk obediently to the path and stairs, where it’s shored up and safe, and won’t do ecological damage. When it’s your life, you don’t always have that choice. And when you realize that you’re standing on something that’s eroding around you – and out from under you – you need to do something about it. Like, jump up and down until it all gives way so you can find the parts that are solid.

I wanted to revise the sign: “Unstable areas can collapse at any time. Go for it.” But nature doesn’t need life lessons and some dork would take it literally.

The dunes teach us that change is constant and that nothing really belongs to us, no matter how many lines we draw or permits we issue.*

But once that sand finds its spot and settles into the cracks and crevices of life, it’s pretty solid. You can shake it down, stand on it, jump on it – until the next time things shift and it’s time to move, grow and reevaluate. But by that time you know what to do.

Take the stairs.

*I first typed “issues we permit” because Freud.

The politics of personal care items

I have long conversations in my head. Sometimes they’re with other people, but not always. Often, they’re with my husband. Sometimes I talk to him more inside my head than face to face – although I am sometimes talking to him inside my head when we are face to face. He is glad for the inside-my-head aspect of our conversations, or at least he would be if he had to listen to all of it.

My shampoo is the latest thing we’ve been discussing in my head. My husband ran out of his shampoo and started using mine. I know this because it is disappearing at an alarming rate. I don’t even have to make those little lines on the bottle to mark the last known volume to see that it is disappearing faster than normal.

Full disclosure: I spend more on personal care products than I should. But I hardly use them. They last right up to the expiration date with me. I am careful, judicious, and cheap. I don’t know why anyone wouldn’t be. I mean, you wouldn’t use your eye cream as a body lotion, would you? Of course not, unless it’s not yours and it’s right there and you need body lotion and no one will notice.

So I stand in my shower and eye the bottle, which is emptier than I left it. He’s used my shampoo, I think. Will he buy more when it is done? Or will he move onto someone else’s shampoo? If he moves on to someone else’s and I buy myself another bottle of salon shampoo will he come back and empty it again? What did he get on his report card, on the line that says “respects other people’s stuff?”

This is when I call the entire family to the dining room table inside my head for a talk, because it’s now a life lesson. When these kids leave home, I plan for them to be fully functioning humans who are a delight to live and work with. Read: people who don’t use their roommates’ shampoos.

I start to doubt myself at this point. People don’t use each other’s personal care products, unless possibly they do when they’re married. What is the rule for this? I’ve had siblings and roommates, but I was never called to a dining room table family discussion about the politics of using each others personal care items in marriage.

I was practically 70 when I met my husband. I realize this is a biological miracle since we had two children after we met and married, so 70 may be more of a state of mind than a chronological fact. I had lived on my own a long time. I had matching china, tools, and a dust ruffle.

I know that I am picky about things not worth having outside-my-head conversations about, and have managed some workarounds. I bought him his own toothpaste and put it with his toothbrush in his own tooth care cup so he will stop leaving the cap off my toothpaste and squishing it from the middle. I bought us his and hers razors. His is a bright color he can’t help but notice and grab, while mine blends cannily into the shower basket.

I don’t mind if he raids my cast-offs from the bathroom closet. The No Frizz bottle that is of no use to me since my hair – which once rivaled Chia Pets – is inexplicably thinning. He is welcome to use it on his full head of Kennedy hair. Innumerable bottles and jars of lotion, relegated to the closet, are all his.

When I first noticed my shampoo decreasing I took evasive action. I put it in the corner of the shower no one ever looks in. I accidentally took it with me and kept it in my bathrobe pocket. I put the family shampoo front and center. And then I felt like a freak and put mine back where it was.

I will buy a new bottle when the time comes, I thought. This is not a big deal.

But seriously, is he using it as body wash? I think, noting that the level has dropped below Rosemary Mint and is approaching the ingredient list.

As I toweled off it occurred to me that not only is the level dropping, he smells like me.

When the kids were babies I realized I frequently rubbed my face on theirs, like a mother cat marking her young. I have stopped because they’re practically driving now and are taller than me, but the impulse is still there. What is so wrong about scent-marking your family so it’s evident that we are a unit? I have never managed to do this with my husband because marking your spouse seems like something out of a movie, probably starring Glenn Close. It’s creepy and possessive and I’d never get away with it. Unless, of course, he did it himself. Using my shampoo as hair and body wash. I can’t believe I didn’t think of this sooner. I am a genius.

“Hi,” I say, rubbing my face against his for good measure. “You smell nice.”

I’m so glad we had this talk.

Hiding Places

My aunt took me to Plum Island in the off season once when I was a teenager, and I thought, “this is where I will go when I feign my own death.”

It was like an abandoned army barracks, with rows of houses on short, straight spikes of roads off a central spine, like fish bones.

You could hide there. You could have all the amenities – architecture, structure, the ghost of company – but never have to interact. Never be seen. This is where I will go into hiding, I thought. This is where I will spend months 4 through 9 of my unwed pregnancy. Where I will hide while the evidence proving my innocence floats to the surface and I’m absolved of whatever crime I’ve been charged with. Where I will write my novel.

I wasn’t pregnant. I had committed no crime. But it’s good to be prepared.

Ever since then I’ve had an eye for abandoned, solitary, outposts. There’s a mining town I passed regularly in Colorado that I wanted to live in called Silver Plume. It had just the right amount of nothing happening, mixed with a good number of houses that weren’t falling apart. It’s best to avoid actual abandoned places because they are likely laced with asbestos, or mask a collapsed mine. There’s a line between isolated and insane.

Speaking of which, I loved off-season hotels until The Shining came along. Perhaps a lot of us did, and that’s why Stephen King ruined them – to keep the rest of us away. I wish I had thought of that tactic first. There are so many hotels near us. It would be easy to check in on the last day of the season and then stand on the toilet seat in the lobby restroom until everyone went away, locking the doors behind them.

Yes, I have thought this through. I’ve thought about where I will park, how I’ll come and go unnoticed, where I’ll do laundry, and the black out curtains I’ll need to buy. When I pass hotels that are closed for the season I can’t help but look for a telltale sliver of light in one of the windows. I’m sure there are others who have thought of this, did they beat me to it?

Once I heard a news story about a homeless woman in Japan who lived in a man’s cupboard undetected for a year. Had she not taken food out of his fridge, she might have gone on living there indefinitely. But the man who lived there noticed missing food and thought he was being robbed, repeatedly, and admittedly a little weirdly. So he put in a security camera and saw her moseying around his house during the day. Even when they knew she was there, it took police ages to find her.

This obviously makes me think of some of the larger houses on the Cape. I don’t think squatting is legal here, but what if you occupied a cupboard, or an unused bedroom? Heck, some of these houses probably have entire wings that don’t get used. I wonder how long I could make it before I lost control and ate something out of their fridge?

I work at a place where artists and writers disappear for several consecutive months to write their novels – and have their babies I suppose if the timing is right – in a town where very little happens, in an unforgiving season. I wonder at the wisdom of this – placing artist-types at the edge of civilization, with intentionally little interaction, surrounded by darkness, sleet, silence, and alcohol. Because the bars are always open in these places.

If I had my druthers (whatever those are), and a book deal with a bottomless budget, I would pitch a book called Off Season and drag my family all over the globe to live in various resort areas when no one wants to be there. We’ll get off-season rentals and mingle with the locals, finding out what it’s really like to live there. Or maybe we’ll stand on the toilet seats.

The possibilities are endless.

Practices: Potters Potting

I am a nester and a creature of habit. I don’t think of myself as particularly materialistic, but if you’re eying my favorite mug you’d best step off.

Most of my favorite things are handmade – which is sad because when you accidentally smash them to smithereens they’re really hard to replace. I have gotten better with dealing with this kind of loss since having kids. When something breaks, I want to make sure I’m sending the right message – people first, things second.

But this is not about breaking things. This is about making them.

A few years ago I had the opportunity to work with several potters in creating an exhibit of their work. Talking to them was great because it made me feel less crazy about my rabid attachment to certain bowls and mugs.

Potter Laura Ross told me she feels she could “spend a lifetime making pots just to create one of those few cups or bowls in the kitchen cabinet which is chosen each morning. It is my intent to make pottery which is selected because it functions effortlessly in the dance of daily use as well as having an energy and life force that makes a connection with the user. The freshness and spontaneity of cut clay, ragged edges, and undulating rims, combined with the accidental quality of the flame patterns, impart an energy and spiritual edge that I want in my work. My pots are made to reflect the traditional values of fine craftsmanship, integrity of form, and usage to enliven our daily rituals.”

Enliven our daily rituals.

That seems to be a common theme among these sorts. Sequoia Miller says “handmade objects have a particular point of view that is a combination of the maker, the material, and the user. Using handmade anything simply gives you more to respond to. It’s like riding a horse versus driving a car, only much less inconvenient.”

I know there’s an element of autopilot with any kind of work, but there’s something great about people who enter the studio with a happy heart and the intention of making something for someone else to use.

Over and over, people talked about judging their own work by how frequently it was used. Not put on a shelf and admired. Not given awards. Used.

Is that what it is about these pieces? The hopes of the maker?

Potter Ben Krupka uses his own work as well as pottery made by friends. “Each piece has its own personality,” he says, “just like people. It makes beverages better when housed in a handmade cup or mug. It is a way of bringing art into daily life. Really, if you think about it, there aren’t many things we put to our lips. We use them to kiss and things like that, which make our lips a very sensual part of us. So I guess you have to treat them well. Why take such a sensual object and put a Styrofoam or paper cup to them?”

These people not only bring an element of art into everyday life, they make everyday things more human. There’s a connection between the maker and the user.

In a Gazette news clip about POW!, a collaborative group of potters including Sam Taylor and Mark Shapiro, one 11 year old said of a handmade pot, “It just felt good in my hands and like someone actually made it for me to pick up.”

So I’m not rabidly attached to a piece of clay – formed, fired and made functional. I’m attached to the idea that someone somewhere wanted to make life more personal and thought about the end user when they set about their work.

May we all do some of that when we go to work.

A version of this column originally appeared in The Magazine of Yoga, and is reposted with permission. It was the first in a series on practice.

Photo: Juicers, by Sam Taylor

Trout Towers eggs

The best possible way to cook eggs

Whoever said the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results has never had my eggs.

[“It was Einstein, genius” – my entire family, including the dog]

I can totally cook eggs. I can make a poached egg so perfect it will make you quietly weep. I have to watch a video when I’m doing it to remember the steps, but I can do it. I also do a mean scramble – both the fancy slow cook method and the here’s-your-breakfast-eat-it-on-the-way-to-the-bus method. But those aren’t the eggs I cook daily.

Daily, I make path-of-least-resistance eggs, aka fried eggs on the griddle. Lately I’ve been frying eggs every morning because we are overrun with eggs. Eggs are the new zucchini.

Making them on the griddle means they have a little extra trace of iron. It also means I don’t really have to clean up after myself because you’re not supposed to wash cast iron. Instead, you wipe it off with a cloth, or vacuum it or something. DO NOT let the dog lick it off because it turns out that completely removes the “seasoning” aka layers of absorbed fat and your eggs will stick. Also, people think it’s gross but only if they see the dog doing it. Ignorance is bliss.

So I make these eggs on the griddle and every single time they come out differently. I have heard people in restaurants order all the kinds of eggs I’ve ended up making, so I know they’re legit: over easy, over hard, over easy with a broken yolk, sunny side up with a side of shell, etc. It’s not that I don’t know how to make eggs. I just like to mix it up so people don’t get in a rut. I don’t have a method, I have a repertoire.

Okay, fine. They never come out the same way twice, despite my efforts to do the exact same thing every time except a little more this or that to avoid whatever went wrong the morning before. It’s Mystery Breakfast Theater at my house. You can order whatever you want in my kitchen, but you get what you get and you don’t get upset. Scrambled, you say? Here’s your sunny side over hard.

I see my eggs as a morning meditation for my family. It’s a metaphor for the other things that may well happen to them during the day. Things don’t always come out the way you planned, or were told. Broken yolks, surprisingly rubbery whites, and perfectly solid over easy eggs are a gentle way to encourage my family members to be okay with things that really don’t matter. They get fresh eggs, with a side of buttered toast. When life hands you something unrecognizable on a plate, focus on the toast.

At least until I learn how to make a fried egg.

Mom vs. Demon

When our firstborn was a toddler, she had night terrors. If you have not experienced night terrors, imagine a lot of screaming. Add more screaming. Now feel as useless as possible. You’re close.

Our daughter would have her eyes open and look completely awake, but still be dreaming. She’d look at us and see something else entirely.

And there was no waking her. I suppose we could have dumped ice water over her, but I’m not even sure that would have worked. She couldn’t let go of the dream.

Instinctively, we did what parents do with screaming children: we picked her up. Which was exactly the wrong thing to do. In her world, the thing that was making her scream had gotten her and was carrying her to its lair.  Injuries have been sustained by parents who thought picking up the child was a good idea.

After weeks of struggling to get her out of the nightmare, we realized we needed to go into it.
At first it was a case of the blind leading the screaming. Or vice versa. We had no idea what terrifying things we were dealing with.

I became a battler of demons. I’d sit next to her and instead of trying to wake her up, I’d say
I’m here and it’s all gone. You are so big and strong. Nothing is brave enough to scare you. It’s all gone. Your family is here and everyone is safe. Or something like that.

I had to improvise because I had no idea what was lurking in there. I’d change tack mid-stream when a line of reasoning wasn’t working. I’d just keep vanquishing until something hit the target. (It turned out to be giant lobsters. I wish I had known this as I’m quick with the claw crackers.)

Once she settled down (i.e. stopped the blood-curdling screaming), I’d put us back where we belonged – where we were all along: You are safe in your bed. Nothing can hurt you.

I’d say it over and over until she believed me and her breathing told me I could go back to bed.

What I learned from all this: Sometimes you need to meet people where they are. There are times when metaphysical truths like “you are safe and whole and right where you are supposed to be right now” are so far from someone’s experience that she can’t hear it at all. So you dive in and fix a belief – or clear a path so people can fix it themselves. And then you follow up with what’s true.

Caution: Don’t get sucked into the nightmare.
It’s easy to get caught up in the scary. There is so much that is scary. There are many things that we need to be brave and strong to get through. There are also many things that are big because we are scared of them. With these things, they get bigger and bigger until, for instance, someone offers to help.

We don’t always need to be woken up as much as we need to be validated. Night terrors are not just for toddlers, and they don’t just happen at night. I for one want to scream and cry fortnightly.

And I don’t know about you, but I am very grateful when someone shows up with claw crackers instead of a bucket of ice water.

This column originally appeared in The Magazine of Yoga

tiny chicken sympathy

Congratulations on your grief

I realized that “Congratulations! So proud of you” was the wrong thing to write on the group sympathy card almost as soon as I signed my name. I say “almost” because it wasn’t until I looked at what others had written that I realized it was a sympathy card. Things like, “So sorry for your loss” and “Our hearts are with you,” and nine other distinctly non-congratulatory expressions.

In my defense, I have signed a lot of congratulatory cards this month. Plus, I am a Pollyanna sort of person who thinks “oooh, who has news?!?” when the phone rings, not “who died this time?” Note: I still won’t pick up. It’s not what I use my phone for, and that’s why God made voicemail.

Anyway there I was, the last one holding a thoroughly signed card.

I tried to figure out how to make my words make sense with additions like, “so proud of your strength” but there was really no way around “congratulations.” Which left me with only one possible alternative because putting the card in my purse and never speaking of it again is something I’m trying to give up.

“I’ll go ahead and mail this,” I said, sealing the envelope before anyone else could see. I tucked it in my purse (where it will never be seen again), and set about making a forged duplicate.

I tried to find the same card but honestly who will know? I resisted the urge to get a graduation card on the sale rack and went straight to the bereaved section of the store, where I picked out a suitably sad yet supportive expression of our shared grief. And then I proceeded to forge my friends’ notes and signatures.

Some were completely illegible, so I made up something appropriate in their place. “We’ll always have Paris,” is my go-to in such cases. Most notes were easy to replicate. To make them more authentic I utilized what I know of the Stanislavski acting method, and became each person as I performed their signatures. Note: I am not an actor, but I rock at googling “what is the Stanislavski technique?”

By the time I got to my own contribution I felt totally legitimate writing “my thoughts are with you.” Like, you have no idea how much my thoughts are with you. In reenacting the others’ laudable thought processes I had spent more time thinking about my friend than it would have taken me to make a casserole. Or a grieferole, as we call them.

I felt actual grief, and compassion, and an overwhelming desire to go to Paris.

Now I’m not saying you should intentionally screw up a group card, but I am saying that if that’s what it takes to overcome a knee-jerk interaction, go ahead and screw up the card.

Also, congratulations. I am so proud of you.


The Black Friday Rebrand

It is the morning after Thanksgiving, which means I have just made a bathtub-sized batch of raisin bran muffin batter to use up the almost-quart of buttermilk left over from the mashed potatoes. If I know anything about early New Englanders, it’s that they used all the stuff. (I also know that Pilgrims first landed in Provincetown, not Plymouth, and that they fasted on their Thanksgiving, but whatever).

Even though it’s happened for ages, I didn’t realize that bran muffins were our day after Thanksgiving tradition until this year – the year I’m actively re-branding Black Friday. Because who’s the genius who decided it was a good idea to pair a day of gratitude with a day of buying as much sub-quality stuff as will fit in your car?

It started a few weeks ago when my son asked when Thanksgiving was. I told him I was pretty sure it was on a Thursday this year, to which he responded, “oh right, because Black Friday.”

He regretted it instantly because of course a lecture followed. We dedicate a day to being grateful – for our families, our homes, our freedoms, our health, our Sea Monkeys, our whatever. And then we get up the next morning, spontaneously unsatisfied with what we have.

I do get it. If you need something and you are on a tight budget, you buy it when it’s cheapest – like buying vegetables in season, or your own personal stash of peanut butter Cadbury eggs the day after Easter. The thing is, my tight budget doesn’t like other people telling me what I need, and what stuff will make my life happier. You don’t know me, marketing people. No matter how many ads for those boots I want you stick in my sidebar.

So this year I’m starting a new tradition. I’m going room to room, noting all the things I’m still happy I bought, inherited, made, or was given. Quirky things, like the tomato knife I grew up with, and big things, like the couch we saved up for and picked out on our way home from a wedding.

I found out I have a ton of great stuff. Would you think it was great? Maybe not. Not everyone is going to love my tomato knife, the chicken figurines in the kitchen window, or the dinner chime that’s useless but really pretty cool. I’m okay with that.

Thanksgiving has taught me a thing or two about the stuff we own.
1. We inevitably use our tablecloth in a craft project, and then forget that we now have no tablecloth. Ergo, Emergency Tablecloth Run Wednesday. In the rock/paper/scissors of life, craft projects crush homegoods.
2. While we’re at it, we buy new cloth napkins because Jeremy Irons made us stop using paper napkins and by the time Thanksgiving rolls around again we have nothing that matches.
3. Ditto glasses. Maybe this is why people have glasses and plates that only come out on special occasions. I get that now. But I’m also okay with replacing things at certain times of year – like changing smoke detector batteries with the time change. This is why we get toothbrushes and tape in our Christmas stockings. (If you don’t get tape in your Christmas stocking, I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to rub it in.)

I really did go room to room, noting things I was grateful to have, and now I can’t stop. I’m wrapped in a mohair blanket my mom used to keep in the back of her car when she lived in the mountains, just in case. My pencil cup was given to me right out of a family’s kitchen cupboard in Bavaria. My stapler – the only one that hasn’t broken – was rescued from my dad’s office.

I like things that are useful, beautiful, do their job, and don’t break. Things that were given or made by someone I love. Things whose history makes me smile.

Please make a note of it, marketing people.

My Mom’s Raisin Bran Muffins
adapted from the Christian Science Monitor

15 oz raisin bran cereal
2 cups sugar
5 cups flour
5 tsp baking soda
a couple grinds of salt
4 eggs
1 qt. buttermilk
1 cup melted butter, cooled
Mix the dry ingredients in the biggest bowl you have (I use my soup pot).
Whisk the liquids in a smaller bowl and then thoroughly combine with dry ingredients.
Store batter in a tight container for up to six weeks.

To bake: Preheat oven to 400º. Fill cups of a muffin tin ¾ of the way full. Bake for 15 minutes.

When I make it ¾ c. of the buttermilk is actually whole milk because I used it in the mashed potatoes. Also, you have to estimate 15oz of cereal because my recipe is probably from the ’70s and there are no 15oz boxes.

I’ve lost count of how many dozens of muffins it makes, but it’s a lot. I will try to pay attention and update when we have a new total.

Taking your fish to parties

Chris and I both had events to attend in the big city last night which meant, obviously, that it was time to get new fish for our hydroponic water garden.

I don’t want to talk about what happened to Antler, the beloved fish who first inhabited the water garden, but okay fine, we lost Antler. Not lost like “Omg where’d I put the fish?” but lost like “oh look, the fish is napping.”

Antler was the greatest and we were very sad. So sad, that we contacted the water garden people to see what we could do better. The response was a kind and incredibly helpful email, which closed with: “Again, we are very sorry for your loss and can send you a care package when you’re ready.” That is customer service, people.

Emily the Community Happyness Guru (not even kidding, that’s her title) recommended we try guppies next, so the plan was to get guppies at a pet store the next time we were near one. But who should pick them up? Chris was taking the girl child to symphony, while I held down the fort at a school fundraiser. Which event would the fish enjoy attending more?

I mean, it’s November and we can’t just leave them in the car while we eat passed hors d’oeuvres. We’re not monsters.

I thought symphony would be a nice way to introduce them to life at Trout Towers, but there was also some argument for taking them to my event where they could mingle a bit and enjoy life beyond the tank before settling in. In the end,  it came down to logistics and the fact that Chris doesn’t carry a purse. And symphony ended way past their bedtime.

I had one extra fundraiser ticket but wasn’t sure it would cover three fish (there is absolutely nothing on the website about the ticket price for fish) so I smuggled them in.

The trouble started pretty much instantly. I ran into friends who invited me to join them at their table. “Here, I’ll take your coat and save you a seat,” one said. At which I may have clutched my coat and bag closer and made up a perfectly logical excuse like “I don’t have fish in here and don’t take my purse.” I don’t know where he went after that.

We – by which I mean the fish and I – looked at the silent auction items and placed some bids. Fish are really good at auctions that are silent.

Here’s something you may not know: Carrying tiny aquatic family members around in your handbag is really good for your posture. It’s like walking with a book on your head, because all you can think about is not sloshing the fish. All possible worst case scenarios come to mind which surprisingly do not include water and fish spilling willy-nilly from your handbag as you reach for just one more bruschetta.

And then you settle in because people take companion animals to things all the time and really this is no big deal. You chat, you bid, you have some cubes of cheese. And then you decide it’s time to go and by golly you can’t get out of there fast enough.

Safely in the car, you start worrying about keeping their bag of water upright, now that they’re not attached to you in their BabyBjörn handbag. You hold them in your lap but then you think about what would happen should the airbag deploy and believe me it’s not pretty.

Once we got home I followed Emily’s email to the letter. The guppies are settled in and seem to be in good spirits – although I’m sensing a tinge of symphony remorse. Maybe next time.

photo: Waving Guppies by Alice Chaos

Abundance: The Zucchini Principle

We’ve been eating zucchini bread, zucchini pasta, stuffed zucchini, zucchini “crab” cakes, zucchini salad and pretty much everything else, up to but not including zucchini cobbler. It is zucchini season and we are experiencing abundance.

I am a fan of abundance.

I love watching abundance at work. The first thing it does is forces us to be grateful. We have to be grateful because otherwise we will be suffocated by squash. To avoid this fate, we take stock of what we have and acknowledge it. That’s gratitude. Even saying “damn, that’s a big pile of squash” is gratitude.

We may express our gratitude aloud, in the form of (for instance) a facebook update such as “Holy huge pile of squash, Batman!” Expressing gratitude aloud then results in an abundance of zucchini recipes.

It’s easy with zucchini because there’s so darn much of it, but this is tried and true: the next law of abundance is that if you give, you will receive. I’ve given vegetables from our garden to anyone who expressed an interest. Not only have we not run out, we’ve been on the receiving end of some culinary windfalls – completely unrelated to what we gave and to whom we gave it.

Don’t ask me how this works. It’s quantum physics.

One day I came home to find a huge box of smoked meat and cheese. Since we are flexitarians (read: dietary hypocrites), there are some meats we don’t eat. So we thought of people who would enjoy it and passed it along. Within the week I discovered salmon fillets in my freezer, delivered by a friend who had a windfall of her own.

When things pile up they don’t benefit anyone. We complain about what we don’t have, but then let what we do have sit underutilized. When our focus is on the empty basket, we don’t notice the one that’s breaking apart at the seams. Why would anyone, the universe included, put more stuff in a basket that’s already overflowing? (It does. It’s just harder to tell.)

Other things I’ve tried this with are jobs, baby clothes and a quart of heavy cream. I love volunteering but I can never do it for very long because inevitably someone comes along and hires me. I gave all our baby clothes and baby-related hoopla away, knowing if we had a second child we’d have everything we needed (we did, and we did). The quart of heavy cream scored me a mended slipcover I couldn’t figure out how to fix myself.

Exhibit B: A friend of mine is a very talented sculptor whose work sells in galleries across the country and can be seen in many public spaces. A few weeks ago I saw a knock-off of his work in a gift shop and emailed him about it, figuring he’d want them to stop stealing his designs.

He just laughed, telling me they’d have a heck of a time duplicating his latest, life-size, commission. He knew no one could steal his abundance.

My friend is no more afraid of running out of ideas and commissions than I am of running out of zucchini.

And believe me, I’m in no danger of running out of zucchini. Here, have some cobbler.

This column originally appeared in The Magazine of Yoga