Tuesday, April 28, 2015

Between Houses, Between the Worlds

Two years ago in 2013, we sold our Reinholds, PA house on April 26th, not to move to Arden, DE until June 29th. That left us two months without a home. Our in-laws stepped up to the plate and took us into their home in Lititz, PA. We had the upstairs, three bedrooms and a bath to ourselves. Jonah was in the final days of his high school career. Mark was commuting over ninety minutes to work. It was an incubation period as we got ready for our new lives in Arden. I don't think anyone ever dreams about having to stay with their parents or in-laws. It isn't a situation that anyone wants. I had a calendar on the refrigerator which counted down the days until we got our house. I wanted to be in Arden more than anything. I was killing time.

But looking back on those months, I really have to say, I would not have changed the experience if I could. Mark agrees: those two months with his parents were such a gift. We were able to use our regularly appointed living expenses to buy some new things for the house. And we used the time to get projects done with Karen and Nelson's help. Mark, Jonah, and Nelson made us a dining room table and bench out of reclaimed barn wood. Think Big Sur table from Crate and Barrel. While they were doing that, I was making a window seat cushion and started my quilt top, both with help from Karen.  On my own, I created two chalkboards out of old windows, crocheted an afghan, knitted some socks that I was calling cabin slippers, and sewed a bathrobe. Maren sat with her grandmother and learned to crochet a pillow top while the two of them watched Flea Market Flip on HGTV.

Some major happenings went down while we were living in Lititz. The town of Lititz itself was celebrating being named the Coolest Small Town in America, and we were able to join in the festivities. Also, while we staying in Lititz, Jonah was in a minor car accident, which meant that we were down a car. Juggling four cars for five drivers was ultimately easier than juggling two cars for three drivers. Nelson got hearing aids for the first time, which is more of a transition than most people realize. Jonah graduated high school, and we celebrated with a party at my sister's pool. Maren had what may have been her final dance concert ever.

While we didn't eat dinner all together every night (our schedules were different), we had a few family dinners including the time we sat down to eat Cobb Salads off of the vintage plates that Karen has been collecting over the years and off which the kids had never eaten.

It wasn't all sunshine and rainbows. We had to navigate around the living room which broadcast Fox News 24/7, volume turned up until the hearing aids arrived, and the Castle reruns playing in the family room. Sometimes, it didn't seem like there was anywhere to go to get away from the dueling TVs, none of which were playing shows we wanted to watch. (We don't have our TV running nonstop  in our home.) Lucky for us, it was a beautiful spring. I could read on the deck. Mark and I were able to take long walks. Jonah had a near miss with a class which meant he almost didn't graduate. That set off another chain of long, somewhat agonizing, walks with just him and us, his parents. And yet, we all managed the experience with grace and serenity. Translation: No relationships were harmed in this execution of this living arrangement. I daresay it even brought us closer.

The time we spent waiting to come to Arden, made us that more hungry for the experience, and more appreciative when the hour  finally arrived. We came to our house fully gestated and ready to begin our adventure. Jonah didn't make the journey with us. He stayed back at his grandparents, mowing lawns and readying himself for college in the fall. Then, after his freshman year at West Chester, he took this year off college and went back to live with his grandparents because Lancaster County was close to friends and job. Because we lived with Karen and Nelson for two months, we are better able to imagine his life there and feel comfortable with his choices at this point in his life. We are so grateful to Karen and Nelson for, not only sheltering all of us when we needed it, but also helping to make it a fruitful period in our lives as well. I will always look back with fondness on our homeless days. We were between the worlds.


Monday, April 27, 2015

Mortal Mom

In 2002, I started a blog called Mortal Mom. The original title was Divine Mother, Mortal Me, but that was too long, so I abbreviated to Mortal Mom. The Divine Mother half was about the creation aspect, creation being an act of the divine as far as I am concerned. And Mortal Me referred to the humbling world motherhood. In our society, motherhood serves to show you just how human you are, because whatever track you take, you will have those out there who tell you that you are doing it wrong. Often those people are your own children. The raising of little people is at best a thankless task and at worst is a forum for all the world to criticize you.  The blog was about maintaining a creative life while also working full-time and raising kids, who were five and eight at the time. I wanted the blog to be a conversation with other mothers who were going through similar issues of finding time to make art--and I did. But the blog was also a way for me to keep running tabs on myself and my progress with my creative goals. What did it mean to be an artist in the face of motherhood? Were there times when my art came before my kids? Could I do it all? Could I still be considered an artist if I wasn't doing any artwork at the time? What were the hallmarks of an imaginative life?

I changed platforms for the blog, so I don't have records of any of it before 2008. Some of 275 posts that I do have are fun to reread. I cringe at others. But it was my path. And the blog tells an important part of my story. This blog entry should be on my Mortal Mom blog, but as I have laid that to rest, I am telling the story here. My daughter just came home today after being in New York City for eight weeks. She was doing a film-acting intensive for six college credits with New York Film Academy. She is a changed girl. Can you imagine being let loose to do as you please in the greatest city in the world at the age of seventeen? I would have killed for that opportunity. It has shaped her and probably will continue to shape her for years to come. If that experience wasn't enough, her six classmates were from all over the world, representing all the continents except Antarctica. I hope someday she does a world tour next and gets to visit all her new friends.

But I do not want to tell Maren's story. I want to share my experience of being a mother and an artist. For the last eight weeks, Mark and I have experienced the empty nest. It has been glorious, and in expressing just how glorious it was, I get a twinge of guilt. Mothers are not supposed to be in ecstasy when their kids leave home. If you believe the media archetype of an empty-nester mom, she is sad and bored--not knowing what to do with herself. Sending care packages to her child and sealing off her room with velvet ropes until the lost sheep returns home on a break. Not so with me. Maybe it was because Maren was only leaving for eight weeks; my separation from my youngest child was only temporary. We were getting on one another's nerves before she left. Knowing it was temporary, I took full advantage of our time apart. I even turned her bedroom into a sewing room, temporary though it was.

Here is the list of things I accomplished in that time:
1. Redecorated the Living Room, with painted wall, new furniture, changed artwork and mantle scape.
2. Painted a 48x36 painting for the living room, my first finished painting in years.
3. Designed and printed a prototype of a poster that I am going to use as a fundraiser for an upcoming civic project.
4. Sewed 2 skirts, 2 pair of pants, a dress and a half (only half-way done with the second dress), and a shirt. The shirt and the pairs of pants were of my own design.
5. Started a blog and wrote over 50 blog entries.
6. Designed and planted my garden
7. Finished my quilt
8. Redid my website

It felt like I was on fire--able to accomplish anything. I finished old projects and started new ones. I tried explaining the freedom I felt to to my other mom friends.  I didn't have a million things on my mind. More than just freeing up my time, my kids' absence gave me the psychic space that helped me accomplish it all. When my kids are around, it is my job to keep tabs on them, answer their questions, make sure they get places on time. Even if they have their schedule under control, I still fret and check the time on my phone until they are out the door. The fretting isn't productive, but I can't stop myself. It is part of the mother code. Is the child dressed appropriately for the occasion, for the weather? I have to juggle everyone's schedule in my head. Figure out a dinner plan for all of us when two out of three people have evening plans.

It was the absence of all of that that freed me creatively. Maren is home now. I want to be excited about that. It is good to have her in our midst again. We have a new appreciation of one another born of separation. And as much as I value that, I don't want to lose my momentum for my projects and my creative gain. Can I find a place in my mothering that allows Maren to be responsible for herself? She already is responsible in so many ways. This is a girl who navigated all of the New York subway system on her own. I am sure she would love it if I backed off on the fretting and overarching control I have over the family schedule. The lesson of the day is letting go, for her sake and mine. These next few weeks will be a test for all of us, learning to live with each other again, and trying not to unlearn the lessons that distance provided. I am a Mortal Mom. I am sure to make more mistakes before that day when Maren really does leave us for good. But these last weeks have proven that I am also the Divine Mother, and she too must be honored.




Sunday, April 26, 2015

Pennsylvania Dutch Girl in a Delaware World

Sometimes it seems I am a world away from where I grew up. Other times I am reminded just how close I am to Lancaster County, in miles and in influence. There are Ardenites among us who grew up under Pennsylvania Dutch influence. (Dutch is a bit misleading. The original word is Deutsch which is German. We are actually Pennsylvania Germans.) Keri, from whom we bought our house, hails from New Holland. She laughs at me sometimes when my Dutchiness comes out in my speech, turns of phrases that I don't even know are giving me away because that is always the way I have always said them. With Keri, our spouses and a few friends, we serve up a Pennsylvania Dutch dinner at dinner gild. Ardenites not only enjoy the Chicken Bot Boi (Chicken Pot Pie) and whoopie pies, but we also find out who among us has our same heritage.

We find out in other ways, too. My neighbor Dorinda shared some pork and sauerkraut with me. She grew up around Hershey, PA. Her current household, like mine, isn't full of sauerkraut eaters. Dorinda and I like the taste of home every once in a while, but pork and sauerkraut isn't the kind of thing you can make in single servings. Then we have Sue and Rick, more Dutchy folks, who recently posted a picture of their haul of dandelion greens on Facebook. They did it up right with bacon dressing, as I knew they would.

I don't need to go far to get my fix of Pennsylvania Dutch goodies. Firstly, Delawareans also have a taste for scrapple. I'll admit, I don't come running when scrapple is mentioned, but I like to have it once in a blue moon. I have yet to have it in Delaware, but I am getting more curious. Last year at this time, our friend Larry took me to Booths Corner Farmers Market in nearby Garnet Valley, PA, where he showed me all the best market stands. I had been living in Arden for ten months without having gone there. When I went, it was as if I was at Roots Market in Manheim where my children went most Tuesday nights of their childhood for gyros with their grandparents. Even Maren remarked on this similarity the first time I took her to Booth's Corner. I could get all my hometown goodies there from Chicken Corn Soup to German Potato Salad, Apple Butter to Rhubarb Pie and much more. Many of the stands at the market advertise as being from Lancaster County.  I'd say that half of those have Stoltzfus in the their stand names. They come each weekend with their loads of fruits and meats and baked goods from the county of my birth. How did I not know about this Mecca sooner? You can now find me there most weekends. I don't always get the dishes from home because who can resist the Korean rice bowls or Cajun Kate's gumbo, but I like going there and soaking up the atmosphere, knowing I could get my comfort foods if I really needed them.

I can't recall a single instance of homesickness for Lancaster County in our two years we have been here. I think that has more to do with my ability to get back home often and the fact that I have some touchstones here with me. In Delaware, I can carry home with me everywhere I go.


Saturday, April 25, 2015

Left-brained in Arden

Today marks twenty-nine years since Mark and I went on our first date. Mini-golf and pizza, if you must know. We celebrated last night by going to Domaine Hudson in downtown Wilmington for a restaurant week menu which was divine. Mark had spare rib and bacon sausage. I had the duck confit. Ooh la la. We followed that up by going to Penn Cinema to the Wilmington Film Festival to see the documentary Jodorowsky's Dune. It is interesting to note that Penn Cinema has two theaters, one on the waterfront in Wilmington and the flagship theater in our hometown of Lititz, PA. It always plays with my mind a little to walk into this theater in Wilmington and see echoes of the place in Lititz, a place we patronized regularly.

I digress. The point is that my relationship with Mark has transcended a lot of time and a bit of space. We got together young and grew into adulthood together. We have been married over half our lives. That is not to say we grew into the same person. I'd more likely to say that we developed complementary skill sets and distinctly opposite personalities in service to our joint life. Mark's life work has been in the IT and business sectors. His obsessions over the years have included watching college football, playing softball, golf, computer games, home automation, and zymology. While I like to read novels, Mark reads tech articles and the stray biography of a business great. Mark is a self-proclaimed Geek. Note the absence of prefix. He is an original geek, before people added words like “wine” or “literary” to describe niche obsessions. 

So, how does a left-brained man feel about landing, via his wife's influence, in a Utopian arts community? He loves it. And it isn't the kind of love that is described by the phrase: If Mama ain't happy, ain't nobody happy. He is happy in Arden of his own accord. Arden is not just home to artists and their lovers, it houses many of the left-brained set.  DuPont is a major employer in the area, and you can bet that all those chemists and engineers need places to live. And they didn't land in Arden by accident. They sought out this environment where a wild intellect often trumps social graces. I've often heard it said that Arden is a place for people who don't fit in anywhere else. It isn't that we are the Island of Misfit Toys. Please. We make our quirks work for us. We form government committees and and gilds around them. 

I think that men like Mark especially benefit from this association. In Lancaster County, men seemed to have few outlets for male bonding, short of sports leagues and mens' prayer groups. At least that was Mark's experience. Arden has more possibilities for men it seems. We have the sports opportunities: Volleyball and ultimate frisbee among them. Mark has not availed himself of those groups. Neither will he join the mens' book group in Arden. That would be asking too much. He doesn't even read my blog. But his social range has increased exponentially. He has deep friendships, and he has relationships with our neighbors that range from friendly surface interaction to interest groups to the level of camaraderie that would have passed for close in the not-so-recent past. In addition to our hiking group friends, he belongs to a beer-making group and an entrepreneur group. (Okay, the Venn diagram on these groups might be a little more overlapping than not.) He is involved in government and has met so many interesting folks at dinner gild that his mind spins sometimes. His friends are brilliant types, many of them with creative tendencies that make them more similar to me in skill set than to Mark. And it seems that those in his inner circle who are not creative types are guys like Mark who are married to artists. He comes home from his group interactions with lists of movies he wants to watch. This infuriates and delights me because these are all movies that I want to see but he would have vetoed in our former life. But if his friends bring the recommendations, it is a different story. Still, I get to watch all the Oscar contenders now with nary a grumble. And I don’t even have to negotiate to do stuff he wants to do in order to watch them.  

In Arden, Mark has taken workshops on Georgism, which fascinates him. He is also quite the volunteer. He pretty much owns the job of climbing ladders and hanging garland across the main thoroughfare at the Arden Fair, but you can also find him in the creek, digging out trash, during Christina River Watershed clean-up. He is newly appointed to the Budget Committee. Someone has to punch all those numbers. Another thing about Mark: he loves to put chairs away after meetings or concerts. It appeals to his sense of order. My attention span is such that I just want to go home after events, but Mark relishes this act of community care. He definitely feels he has a place here in a way that he never did before. He has gone to Scholar’s Gild talks, but it is funny, because so have I. We just never go to the same talks. The same topics don’t interest us. Though the talks do give us something to discuss with each other. And we listen, because the enthusiasm our partner exhibits trumps a topic we would otherwise think is dull. We are so much more interesting to each other now that we are involved in so many separate activities.

We have had some anniversary dinners in which we had quiet spells, hoping the food would come soon--or ones where we intentionally ordered some sort of crazy appetizer that would keep us busy chewing or constructing the perfect bite. It wasn’t that we didn’t enjoy each other’s company, just that after many years together, we had nothing new to relate to one another. Last night, the conversation flowed. I love that a place that nourishes me can do the same for Mark, albeit in different ways. And in that manner, we have new things to offer one another. We can challenge each other and grow as a couple. Yes, we have been married over half our lives, but I suspect the best is yet to come.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Unlearning Yearning

Recently, I posted a cheat sheet entitled 27 Life Changing Lessons to learn from Eckhart Tolle on Facebook. I loved A New Earth and absorbed concepts from that book that, though I had heard them all before from different authors, became more accessible to me through Tolle's presentation. Or maybe I was ready to hear them. It seems am circling around on these concepts again because I am in a new place in life. Eckhart Tolle's name keeps coming up in a way that makes me want to grab his books and find a quiet spot to reread. Until that time, I have this list. In reviewing it, I was struck in particular with #21: Seeking is the antithesis of happiness.

I am working with this very concept in this cycle. It is part of the reason I burned all my journals last week. I was paging through them seeing the same yearnings over and over again, and in that yearning was desperation--the very opposite of appreciation. Such yearnings take me away from the present moment. We did not uproot our whole household and move to Arden to be caught up in a cycle of Okay, Utopia is really cool; what's next? I am here! I need to live in the full expression of what has come to pass.

It goes against a lot of my Type A personality, plan-everything-out mentality. Enjoy the now and be available for what shows us are foreign concepts to a lot of us--especially living in the United States. But guess what? Stuff continues to show up--without my having to push. And it is astonishing stuff that I could not even think to yearn for--even if I had diagrammed a five-year plan, complete with S.M.A.R.T (specific, measurable, assignable, realistic, time-based) goals.

Of course there are things that I still want to have happen in my life. And I would like to continue to journal. This blog is a part of that grand tradition--one that I hope I won't feel the need to eradicate in the years to come. (It's really hard to burn a blog.) So to dodge future destruction of my writing, I choose this space to be an exploration and appreciation of the experience of living here and being in vibrant artistic practice. The Practice. The doing. Not the perfection of. Not the wishing for. Not the fear of.  If I can manage that, all else will fall into place. I don't even need you to read this. It is in the action, and in writing this entry, I have already fulfilled its purpose.

Monday, April 20, 2015

Innie or Outie?

The Myers-Briggs type personality tests always tell me I am an extrovert, but barely. When I seem to reject that answer at face value, my friend Keri explains that it is about the source from which I draw energy. Do I draw it from being around others? Yes. Do I draw energy from being by myself? Yes. I am a writer. And a lifetime reader. I need my alone time. Ask my kids. Mommy gets grumpy from too much stimulation. On the other hand I need people, too, just not too many of them.

I don't like crowds or large groups, but I am not scared of them. That question about a party--do you tend to work the outside of the room or the middle of the room? Neither. I like to find a person who is standing by themselves and engage them. If everyone is engaged, I can usually cut a big group down and find a manageable sized group of people with which I can interact. If I had my druthers, I'd prefer if my socializing was limited to groups of twelve or less people. More than that and I get anxious. Too much energy. I'm an empath that way, picking up everyone else's vibe. Zing. Zing. Zing. The swirling chaos of that many people is almost too much for me, especially around the holidays. In college, I wasn't one for parties. I got out of the dorms and into the Honor's House because I could handle being in a group of nineteen people living under one roof. Much easier than 100+ kids.

After the college years were over and I was a newlywed, working on the opposite shift from my husband, I craved people. I worked second shift and missed so many social opportunities. And, too, I worked with only one or two other people during that shift. Sometimes, they were the only people I had meaningful contact the whole week.

I have no qualms about introducing myself. I can also be shy. It all depends on how far I think my social currency will get me with any particular group. I've noticed that the more dressed up people are, the more I tend to clam up. I don't do formality very well. As role models, my parents have modeled both ends of the spectrum. My dad was a teacher and basketball coach and loves to strike up deep conversations with complete strangers.  The subjects he could get into when evangelists came to the door or with locals in downtown Williamsburg or with a McDonald's employee while trying to order something at a drive-thru window. My mother, on the other hand, has a hearing impairment that she has had her whole life. She is not comfortable in social situations, especially those that involve background noise. An intelligent woman, she can't trust what she is hearing enough to do more than nod and gage other people's facial cues. As a result, she feels most comfortable around children who don't judge her intelligence by her ability to hold up her end of a complex conversation. I have to wonder what she would have been like if her hearing had not been an issue.  I always thought I took after my father more. Maybe the surveys are right. Maybe I am an extrovert. It isn't a bad thing to be. It sure came in handy when we moved to a new place where we only knew two people. After only a few months in Arden, my daughter would introduce herself to any adult she met as Jill Althouse-Wood's daughter--because everyone knows you, Mom.

But I can't be on all the time. I have fantasies about writing retreats in a remote cabin where I go all by myself for a week and a kindly gourmet chef slips kitchen witchery through a small compartment in the door. Kind of like a Walden experience except that Ina Garten is my personal woodland fairy. And then, at the end of the week, Ina would have magically prepared a dinner party for me, Mark, and my closest ten friends. With wine. With music. Is there such a thing as an Ina-vert?


Secret Reaches of the Soul

I have a recurring dream in which I find secret rooms in my house. Sometimes the rooms are basement spaces filled with stashes of possessions which could be classified as trash or treasure if I would only sort through it all. Did I know I had these stores? Other times the rooms are spa-type bathrooms with an array of plush towels and expensive lotions, or a secret meditation lair, or better yet--a seemingly Virginia Woolf-inspired Room of One's Own in which I can write and paint in private. Sometimes, I find multiple rooms that are arranged in a labyrinthine swirl. Wonderment is always at the center of these dreams. I awaken to feel slightly vexed that these amazing new discoveries are so quickly taken from me. But then I sit to analyze the dream, and the fun begins. I've come to think of these dreams as representing untapped regions of my sub-conscious or new areas of development in my personality. The location of the room represents what part of my life requires further exploration.

Living in the Ardens, I have had a similar, waking experience. The Ardens don't make a huge footprint on the map, yet, I find myself constantly finding new spots that I didn't realize existed before within our borders. Is this still considered the Ardens? I ask the people in my hiking or walking group. The Ardens themselves are a hidden room to some. I have a good friend who grew up in Wilmington, but has since moved to North Carolina. She had heard of Arden, but didn't know where it was. She described where she lived, and then I showed her on a map that I live a mile away from the spot. That's Arden? Unlike other housing developments, the Ardens are hidden from view because of all our trees. I've heard Arden compared to Brigadoon, that magical town not found on any maps that only exists for a day out of every 100 years, but then disappears into the mists. Arden even gets lost on Google Earth. Rumor has it that Lady Bird Johnson flew over Arden in an airplane and asked about all that green down there. "What is that exactly?" When she was told about Arden, she wanted to protect it. That is why we only have southbound access to I95. Travelers from Philadelphia can't get off at our exit.

Sunday's hike found us on the Sunnyside Tract, the wedge of forest area that is between the B. & O. Railway and I95. This is still part of Ardentown? I was assured that it was. Trails exist in this part of the woods in theory and only during certain times of year. Come summer and the height of plant growth, even theoretical trails will be a wash in underbrush.

"I feel as though I am in the middle of nowhere."

Photo by Joe del Tufo
Tunnel under the Tracks, photo by Joe del Tufo
The tunnel under the train trestle showed a pinhole of light back to the area of Arden Woods with which I was familiar. This other new forest seemed bigger and deeper somehow. It still followed Naaman's Creek and Naaman's Creek still had its spattering of boulders necessary for hop-rocking across the creek in an area where there are no bridges. Clay, one of the few native Delawareans in our hiking group, told me that the boulders were a result of glacial outwash. He is a former park ranger, and I have no reason to doubt this particular claim. Unlike some of Clay's other conspiracy theories, this one rings true. He is the oldest in our hiking group, and I am the youngest. Clay tells me things with a sparkle in his eye which makes me feel like I need to treat him as if he was one my older cousins--with a thread of suspicion. I remember one Easter when I was young, my cousin Craig told me that the green beans I was eating were grown in cow poop. It was worse than if he had told me the Easter Bunny didn't exist. My mother had to explain the subtleties of fertilizer to me before I would eat any more of my beans. I have been wary about the big kids feeding me a line of shit ever since.

Larry, our unofficial hiking leader and higher up on my trust scale, informed me the that New Castle County deeded the Sunnyside Tract to Ardentown about ten years ago. Knowing that the Ardens believed in the conservation of green spaces, it was one way to preserve the land in the face of future New Castle County commissioners who may or may not experience "green" in the same context. Just ask the folks over the line in Pennsylvania who battled and lost against their elected officials over the development of Beaver Valley lands put into a trust for conservation. I'd like to believe that under Ardentown's watch, this land is safe from that outcome.

Photo by Joe del Tufo
Trout Lily, Photo by Joe del Tufo
It did indeed feel as if we were "between the worlds" for that hour or so we spent exploring that particular swath of land. We didn't see other hikers though we did nudge a Claymont neighborhood on the other side of the stream. Only one home seemed to acknowledge the gem in its back yard, and it did so with the placement of a two-person swing near the bank of the creek. I could imagine sipping a glass of wine there at the end of the day. Larry stopped to chat with the woman who lived at the house. (He is also our unofficial hike ambassador.) He asked her about the flood plain of the creek. She had taken her own hike through the woods earlier that morning with her two Shelties. They were protective over their back yard and all of all of us who were trekking through it. The woman was the only person we encountered in the woods, either on Sunnyside or on the side of the tracks which is the traditionally known Arden Woods. I was sad to think that nobody else had thought to come out to experience the short bloom of the trout lily now appearing in golden droplets on the forest floor. Their loss. It was a beautiful spring morning in which to consider the untapped potentiality that exists inside and outside the human shell.


Sunday, April 19, 2015

Color Me Privileged

Arden is a white neighborhood. While we do have socio-economic diversity, there is no getting around the fact that racially, we are homogenous. We have a Wilmington address, though plenty of people will designate the area we live in as North Wilmington. I am not sure how that figures into statistics of Wilmington as a city. Are we included? The city of Wilmington has a population of about 70,000 people. 58% African American, 33% white. Separated into neighborhoods. Our daughter went to a high school where white and black were about even in terms of numbers. Compare that to our son's high school in Denver, PA, where the population was 99% white.

I was glad that Maren was going to experience the mix, but I was naive about what that meant exactly. Just as the neighborhoods in Wilmington form around race lines, so do the cafeteria tables. Maren was able to navigate these lines and even cross over to an extent. She is a confident girl with crazy hair. She was often asked if she was mixed race. (We've had genetic testing for genealogy purposes--nothing in our background explains the hair.) Interestingly enough, it was always black students who asked her if she was mixed. Never the white. She has African American friends. Maren played the lead in Hairspray, the musical put on by her high school. A good choice considering the make-up of the student population. But even at cast dinners for a play about racial integration, the kids arranged themselves at tables by the color of their skin.

I am not comfortable writing about race, but I need to acknowledge the changes I have experienced since moving to Arden. While most all of my neighbors are white, I encounter people of color on a daily basis. I didn't before the move, with the exception being the Indian family that ran the Dunkin' Donuts. I don't think that seeing African Americans out in the world makes me confront their blackness as much as it makes me confront my whiteness. What does it mean to be a white woman? I never really had to consider it before.

I get that I can be friendly, say hello, make small talk with people of other races, but I sense a line I can't cross. Wilmington is murder capital of the country at the moment.  Murdertown USA is not a title any city wants. Newsweek sent reporters to profile us. I'm not scared. It isn't my neighborhood that is contentious. Does that mean I am free to look away? Our friend, Joe, recently rode along with Wilmington police to take photos in the different neighborhoods for an upcoming local magazine piece. He isn't sure what the magazine is going to say about the neighborhoods or in what ways his photos will be used. He recounted some of his experiences to us.  In some sections of the city, he was pretty much guaranteed that he would have been robbed if it he had not been under the protection of police for the photoshoot. Why? Because he would have stuck out as white and therefore a stranger, which is funny because Joe vehemently denies being white. He is coy about his actual heritage, preferring to blend in where he can and keep people guessing.

The problem affects the economy of Wilmington as some people won't even go to downtown to take a meeting, much less patronize a business. As I have said before, I am not afraid to venture downtown, even alone. We go to galleries First Friday or to see shows at the Queen. We have dined well in city restaurants. But I cannot say that we have been unaffected. In Arden, we have to lock our doors, not because of our neighbors who have our keys anyway, but because we fear being burgled by drug users from the city. Crime sprees happen here. Usually minor ones. We have a security system in our home. I never lived with a security system before, although I should note that my old neighborhood in Reinholds experienced break-ins soon after we moved out. I'm not even saying that the reason we need security system is because of race. But there is a world of haves and haves not, and living in Arden, I am aware of my privilege in a way I never have been before.

If you look back into Wilmington's history, you will find that from April 1968 until January 1969, the National Guard was a presence in the city to quell the potential for race-related rioting after Martin Luther King, Jr. was murdered. It is the only such National Guard occupation in the history of this country. If you look deeper still you find a state that wasn't quite sure which side of the Civil War it was on. South of the Mason-Dixon Line, Delaware was a slave state in which slavery was dwindling to the point that it made little impact on the economy. It was a border state that was considered a Northern State by some because Delaware posed no risk of secession. Delaware sons fought on both sides of the Civil War. One hundred fifty years later, do we Delawareans identify as North or South? Food can tell the real story. We are both. Delaware aligns itself with the Mid-Atlantic (and my personal PA Dutch heritage) for its scrapple obsession, but Southern fried chicken is a thing here. Race and identification is just part of the story. Unemployment and family dynamics play their parts as well.

What all this means for me as someone who has moved in from lily white Lancaster County countryside is that I have to think about race for the first time. I am not always comfortable acknowledging the advantages of my skin color. And I shouldn't be. But I am a Delawarean now, and we are a people who live on the edge. Wilmington is desperately trying to figure out what will work to bring about change to those statistics nobody wants. It's going to involve a social inventory with its own fair share of discomfort.





Thursday, April 16, 2015

Into the Fire

It all started when I noticed an odd book on my desk that I have had on my desk for probably eight years. I never bought this book; I won it by having my ticket pulled at a writer's festival. It was an odd shaped book--about three inches cubed, so it never fit on my shelf. Inside were all kinds of writing prompts to help get you in the flow. I kept it, not so much to use the prompts for myself, but to get ideas for the writing workshops I taught. Yes, it took me eight years to realize that this toxically titled volume was what I saw sitting next to my computer as I wrote each day. I felt really dumb the day I realized what not-so-subliminal messages I had been sending to my brain. I wanted to get rid of the thing immediately.

I am not a book burner by nature, but felt that this book deserved a special kind of death. In my mind, I was already roasting marshmallows over it. But before I could execute my plan, I did some more spring cleaning. Even though I got rid of a lot of books in our move, I started looking through the volumes that were left with a more discriminating eye. Which books no longer served me or the person I was here and now? Which books were out of date? Which books contained information I could not look up on the internet? I began to see subjects which I had outgrown or had outgrown me. I was not the same person who bought those books. Much like my Writer's Block book, their appearance on my shelf represented being stuck somehow in a reality than no longer served me. I boxed up two more boxes of books, these slated for the book sale at the Arden Fair.

Then, I came upon my old journals. I am talking--20 plus years of morning pages, reading notes, goals, dreams, etc. This maybe amounted to a banker's box of material. I had moved all these journals from our old house. I write in my journals to get out all my feelings and ideas. I don't write them for the idea of rereading them at a later date.  This became very apparent as I started to flip through them looking for evidence of their worth. In general, they were not records of my life so much as ways for me to work through my yearnings. Much of the journals were accounts of why I wasn't enough and my plans for increasing my worth. Why was I so miserable at my job? How could I lose weight? I recognized lots of Oprah-inspired questing in those pages. It wasn't all bad, but it was sort of stuck circling the same issues over and over again. Whining, but hopeful. I didn't want to see myself in those terms any more. I don't want to live my life as quest, but as appreciation for who I am and where I am in this journey. Add these to the burn pile.

And so, last night I joined with a couple other friends. We lit some tinder in a fire pit, opened a bottle of bubbly and proceed to burn, baby, burn. Only two of us were actually burning journals. Yes, we had moments of not wanting to burn any possible gems, but then we let go and the fire roared. It was beautiful. Journals turned into amber roses as the fiery pages curled around each other. It was mesmerizing. The burn took two hours, during which time we told stories and talked about our own journeys and incarnations. After my box was emptied of my words, I went home and showered. Washing away the smell and soot of the fire. It was baptism.

I don't know what I expect now. Clearer channels? Flowing words? Maybe. But I think I just want to move on into this new day in which I honor the person I am and the moment in which I find myself.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Yoga, Flow, and Muffins

I met Kerry for the first time at Women in the Woods several months before we moved to Arden. She was passing out the most wonderful muffins I had ever tasted. (The secret is the toasted millet.) She told me she taught yoga at the Buzz. I stalked Kerry when I got back home. (I got her email off the Buzz website and used it for the nefarious, non-yoga purpose of procuring the muffin recipe.) She graciously sent me the recipe via snail mail, and I was pretty giddy to make a whole batch of the muffins.  I was also excited to be moving to a place where yoga classes were available less than a quarter mile away from my new house.

After I moved to Arden, I had every intention of checking out Kerry's class, but I was intimidated. In spite of the fact that I have done yoga on and off since I first took a class in college, I find even the most basic poses a challenge. I am the one for whom the instructors provide the modifications. The problem, and also the reason I need yoga more than the average person, is that I am the least flexible female I have ever encountered. I don't mean to judge myself or compare, but when you are at one end of the spectrum, you can't help but notice. I am the one who is grabbing for any prop available even if it is for simply touching my toes. I should probably even use blocks under my hands for staff pose, though I usually fake that one. Yoga also forces me to acknowledge such things as my weight gain, which further limits my range of motion in some poses. So, even though I come out of a yoga class more elastic than I went in, I have to face a lot of my physical limitations along the way, and that is disheartening in a practice that is supposed to, among other goals, open your heart.

Kerry kept encouraging me and eventually, I came to her class.  It was every bit of a challenge for me emotionally, mindfully, as well as physically, but I loved it, and my body responded to it. Even so, I had to force myself to go to yoga every single time, which is silly. I always experienced such a high after class, in part because it was such a challenge for me. That carrot didn't always work, and  sometimes, I couldn't find the will to go. I missed a class. And then one missed week turned into two, which led to a month, and I knew that reentry would be an even bigger challenge. I let my insecurities win. Kerry's class sizes started to dwindle at the same time she experienced a health crisis, so she took a hiatus from teaching.

I was bummed. Even though I wasn't going to class at the time, I wanted it to exist as possibility. I signed up for a block of yoga classes at a more distant venue. I knew if I didn't sign up for a large number of classes that I would never force myself to get in the car and drive to class. And I know how much I need it. When I come out of yoga class I notice how much easier it is to do simple things such as turn and look over my shoulder when backing out of a parking space. I wonder how much of life I am missing because my lack of mobility limits my actions.

Today I struggled in class. My back was tighter than even its normal rigidity when I entered the studio. Sherri led us through poses, and I made my normal allowances. But then we got to a kneeling pose in which we were supposed to flex our toes, bending them backwards under our body weight in order to stretch out the bottoms of our feet. My toes wouldn't budge, and I exclaimed as much. I wanted to sob. Even my frickin' toes are inflexible! Crying is something that happens to me sometimes in yoga. If I do manage to loosen up my muscles, sometimes the emotions stored in those tight places release themselves in all kinds of ways. I have been known to weep during shavasana. But this threat of tears today came from my frustration over the inability to make my body move. I feel almost paralyzed.

I know that my body craves yoga more than once a week, and that some of my issues would lessen with repeated mat time. But the once a week practice I am doing now is such a radical form of self-love that anything more seems like scaling a ten foot wall and jumping off the other side--emotionally at least.

I visited Kerry briefly the other day and know that she is struggling right now with her own body's limitations as she works to regain her health. I can't imagine how frustrating that must be for someone whose livelihood and identity flow from her physical body. I am awed by the way she is handling her illness. Even in crisis, she manages to inspire and teach. Maybe her purpose has less to do with the physical body than I imagined. For me, someone who is inside her head most of the time, maybe my purpose has more physical ties than I want to admit. Let it flow is a mantra that can work for writers and yoga practitioners alike. It is a practice of allowing and letting go. This, I think, is my assignment for this cycle. Allowing my body to open up. Allowing my novel to evolve. Allowing my children to make their own way in the world even if it means watching them stumble. It may involve some tears and setbacks. It may involve pushing myself into positions that are uncomfortable. It may involve working through, around, and over my limitations--perceived and actual. And it may also involve muffins. Some really conscious, millet-studded muffins. Namaste.

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

The Office a.k.a The Blue Pug Porch

As a writer, I can write anywhere. And have. But my favorite place to write is my screen porch. It truly feels like I am at summer camp when I am sitting out there surrounded by the trees and birds. I am not the only one who says so. I wasn't always  enamored with the space. When we first saw the screen porch, it was a cold, dreary day in March. I was not impressed by the narrow room. I frankly couldn't imagine us using it much when all of the outdoor spaces were so attractive. For instance, I thought the hammock area would see way more use than it has. The former owners asked if we wanted the blue wicker furniture they had on the porch, and we accepted the offer. Mark spruced the pieces up with a new coat of the cobalt blue paint. We even kept the rug that Joe and Keri had put out there when they were staging the house. I soon came to see the porch as a welcoming place. I'm pretty sure that the wicker has now molded to shape my rear end.

The weather limits the porch's usability to April through October. I mourned the closing of the porch for the season each  of the last two years. It felt as though I was leaving a vacation home at the end of the summer. I am not alone. The room is our pug's favorite place in the house. Even in the deepest, coldest day in January when I walk anywhere near the door, Eli scurries after me hopeful that the porch is where I am heading. I just look down at him and shake my head. Not yet. Eli's full name is Elijah Blue. Because the porch furniture is blue, we call it The Blue Pug Porch. I want to paint a silhouette of him, blue paint on a white background, to hang out there, but it is very hard to get a pug to pose for his silhouette. I've tried taking pictures for the cause. Black pugs tax a camera's ability to focus. To have him both remain in focus and face sideways is a task for the gods.

Today is the first morning it is warm enough to start our day our here. It is raining gently, almost musically. The birds are singing. The whole place is alive. I wonder about the raccoons. Sixty-six days ago Eli and were called out onto the porch because of a screeching racket that pretty much sounded like something was being murdered. Way high up in our neighbors' tree, I saw the cause. Mating raccoons. After the act, they lumbered around on branches that were at least thirty feet off the ground. I couldn't imagine that they chose such heights for their "activities." Unlike the daredevil squirrels that use these woods as their aerial playground, the raccoons seemed less than acrobatic. Forget that, they seemed barely ambulatory. After the wonder of the show, I looked online to find that the gestation period of raccoons is 65 days. I wonder if there are new raccoons in that tree or if the mama 'coon came back to earth to bear her fruit.

Raccoons and squirrels aren't the only wild life I can view from the porch. Occasionally a red fox slinks by. And I wish I was better at distinguishing bird calls. Right now the trees are filled with avian conversations. Eli is content to lay beside me, snoring softly. Only certain bird cries, those made by ornery black birds, raise his hackles. When he wakes up, I will read him a poem by Mary Oliver from her volume titled Dog Songs. We like to read poetry out here before the writing begins. My favorite coffee mug in hand, I am in my happy place again. The end of October is a long way away. Last year I wrote an entire novel in four weeks on this porch. (Though it is one that my agent tabled. She wants me to reimagine the first novel I sent her way.) I can only imagine what this season on the porch will produce. The office is open for business.

Monday, April 13, 2015

Clean Day, Green Day

In Arden, we know it is Spring because on our community Facebook page, you see lots of people selling or giving away items. People are cleaning out their houses. Back in Lancaster County, it was the same thing, except that it meant garage sale season. I'm not sure if Delaware, as a whole, does less with yard/garage sales. My only experience is Arden. Here, our roads are too narrow to accommodate much in the way of additional parking and traffic. We have community sales once or twice a year at the Buzz. You rent a space, put up a table and wait. I did this the first year we moved in, but the ordeal wasn't very successful for me. I was surprised that the sale opened late. I am remembering 9 AM. In Reinholds, the usual starting time was 7 AM, but people started showing up at 6 AM. Amish and Mennonite were especially known for their savvy ability to haggle. In Arden, it is sometimes easier to just put a photo of your items online, give your address, and then chat with whichever neighbors come to pick up your stuff. When we first moved in, we got rid of all sorts of items, including our bedroom suit. Later, in a moment we still laugh about, Mark introduced himself to a neighbor around a campfire, who replied, "Yes, I'm Jen. I sleep in your bed."

Saturday was my designated Spring cleaning day. With all our projects and new furniture, we needed to dust everything in sight, and feng shui the rest. Somehow, we ended up dumping a lot of furniture in the room Jonah takes over when he is here. He was coming down to sort through his belongings, so we could get rid of a few bookshelves and cabinets to make room for sofas and chairs that would make the room into a true sitting room when he wasn't in residence. I made a plan to start at the front door and radically clean, going clockwise through the house. After six hours of cleaning I had only finished the kitchen, which is the first room going clockwise from our front door. While I wished I had achieved more, the kitchen was the cleanest it has been since we moved in. That was a good feeling. Jonah and Mark tackled Jonah's room, though that room still has a long way to go.  With my energy waning, I had to stop. Would I be able to sustain any kind of momentum to clean the rest of the house during the week?

The other reason Jonah came down to visit is so we could go see American Idiot,  the rock musical with songs by Green Day. It was playing at City Theater Company. Jonah and I both share a love of Green Day. We used to play it in the car when we had to drive anywhere together. I'll admit that my love of Green Day wasn't due to my own good taste in music. Mark bought me a used iPod on eBay which came preloaded with Green Day songs and the odd addition of Will Smith's Get Jiggy With It. The former had a perfect beat for my angsty jogs through the farmland. I was hooked.  The fact that Jonah and I could bond over the songs, was, in the word of the credit card commercial--priceless.

Photo by Joe del Tufo
Adam Wahlberg as St. Jimmy
Photo by Joe del Tufo
I wasn't sure what I was hoping to see with the musical, but it defied any expectation. Jonah and I went with friends Larry and Linda. Mark, unwisely, chose to stay home. The cast was superb.  No individual performances stood out, not because anyone was that brilliant, but because they all were. I barely recognized Adam Wahlberg who played St. Jimmy, the drug dealer. He had had the lead in Arden's version of Shakespeare's As You Like It a few years back. He was also Maren's acting teacher last summer. Emma Orr, another Arden resident, was a member of the ensemble. The players used the entire theater, including the table where we were sitting, to tell the story. The choreography was as energized as the music. We couldn't help smiling and singing along. Our friend, Joe, who had photographed the performers during one of their rehearsals said that, from what he saw, it had the potential to be better than the Broadway version of the musical. I believe it, though I haven't seen the Broadway version. It was a superb performance. That is something that New Castle County and Lancaster County have in common, unbelievable local theater. I'm not sure why anyone would travel to New York City and pay big bucks when the local talent is so worthy of our love and dollars.

I had worried that I might fall asleep at the performance after my day of hard cleaning. No chance. I was wide-eyed until the end. I was happy, too, that Jonah enjoyed himself. I want him to keep visiting us--even if I have to use big bait to get him here. We all went back to Arden, recommitting ourselves to Green Day, elevating them once again on our playlists. I am willing to bet that with those songs blaring through the speakers of our home stereo, I will be able to tackle the rest of my spring cleaning.


Saturday, April 11, 2015

The Curse of the Purse

I hate carrying a purse. Most of the time I refuse; I carry the little pouch that came with the purse. It is just a zippered little 4x5" rectangle with a windowed card slot that is meant for a license but into which I have crammed about ten of my most necessary cards. Inside the zippered compartment, I carry cash, coins, the receipts I have yet to throw away, and my tinted chapstick which doubles as my entire makeup routine most days. The whole thing has a little strap which, when I wear it on my shoulder means that the pouch settles into my arm pit. My daughter calls it my pit purse. Some days a fuller purse is required, but I am not sure why. That thing just has more receipts, some Tic Tacs, slim readers, more pens than I have fingers, and a lot of brochures, programs, and playbills I have yet to throw away. Oh and my check book. Who needs a checkbook any more? I find the whole practice to be such a nuisance.

I never used to blame the purse. I thought it was me. I was the deficient one. Or that I just hadn't found the right purse, yet. It has never been about cuteness factor for me. I look for organization and efficiency. Some people go Prada or Gucci or Coach. I am looking at L.L. Bean and Eddie Bauer. Let me be clear. When I am talking purse, I am talking about a shoulder bag. I don't have time for any bag that you need to hold in your hand, dangle from your wrist, or hold in the crook of your arm. I'm not giving up a limb. Shoulder bag is good. Cross-body bag is even better.  I went through a love affair with Baggallini. I mean, these bags were designed by airline stewardesses. These women know how to pack efficiently, and still their product didn't work for me. I have had actual dreams of finding the perfect purse, the one that had a spot for everything I needed and not an inch to spare. I find it. I pay for it. Then I wake up--already at a loss for the day.

When I couldn't find what I needed, I started making my own purse organizers. They didn't work, either. More often than not, my purse becomes a place for people who don't have a purse (men and children) to ask you to put and carry their stuff. Then there is the issue of where to put a purse in a restaurant? Car designers certainly don't care that you have a purse. If a woman were designing a car, she would take out half a dozen of the cupholders and find a space for her bag.

When I was subbing more often, I didn't care. I liked having a big bag with lots of extraneous stuff. As a substitute teacher, you have to be like MacGyver because you never know what the situation will call for.  That stray hairpin, those peds to try on shoes, that spoon you were going to return to the cafeteria. They just might come in handy. But I am on the go now more than ever. Hiking. Walking to my activities. Going out to eat more than ever before. To concerts where dancing may or may not be involved. I need a bag that I don't have to worry about.

My friend Jodi who is a gardener introduced me to HipKlips which is a little pouch that attaches to the waist band of your pants. I think I am going to have to check these out. But about a year ago I backed a kickstarter campaign for RooSportPlus, a magnetized pouch for use with sports clothing. I did this with hiking in mind. We go hiking and end up at a pub for brunch. They should start sending them out any day now. Both solutions are made for beltless carrying which is great as long as your waistband can handle it. I'm not sure all of my waistbands will work. We shall see. It is an ongoing quest, my own personal holy grail. I once read an essay that Nora Ephron wrote on this same topic. When she died, I lamented that she went to her grave without finding the perfect "non-bag." If I was allowed to invoke Nora's spirit and ask her for one bit of guidance, I'm not sure if I would ask her for writing help or to tell me the secret of the purse. I'd like to think I'd ask her for writing guidance, but I can't promise I wouldn't choose the other.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Reading... and other victims of my lost attention span

I used to be a voracious reader. I have been reading novels since I picked up my first Bobbsey Twin Mystery in first grade. Oh, the Bobbsey Twins. Four kids: the two older kids with brown hair, the two younger ones with blonde hair. It was my family. If only I could convince my younger siblings to solve mysteries with me.  In Middle School, I was reading a book a day, sometimes more. I couldn't get enough.  As an adult, I pummeled through everything Oprah could recommend as well as my own novel choices. I usually had a work of fiction and a work of non-fiction going at the same time--to say nothing of my stacks of magazines. I always had a tote bag with me, which, in addition to my books and magazines, held a homemade journal so I could take notes--mainly on the non-fiction books. Even when the kids were little, I found time to read. At work on lunch breaks or while waiting in the car to pick them up from their activities. Maren was always the last child to emerge.

I don't read in bed as I did as a child and teenager. Mark isn't a reader, and he is early to bed, so I got out of the habit-- except when he went on business trips. Then, reading in bed, for as late as I wanted, became my big indulgence. Oh, yeah. Things get wild when Mark isn't around. But he hasn't taken a business trip in years.

What happened to me? Keri says that she could never read in our house, which she owned before we bought it. Too dark? I try not to let her personal idiosyncrasies of place influence my ideas of this house. Try being the operative word. While it might be true that this house isn't particularly conducive to reading, I don't think that is the issue. I have been having trouble getting into the swing of a good book for years now. A strong correlative may be the appearance of the iPhone in my life. I'm still reading, just in little snippets of Facebook posts, Tweets, the first couple paragraphs of an article that leads me further down a rabbit hole to other articles I did not intend on reading. Not long after we got our iPhones, I got an iPad. I love books, but as I always liked to carry several, I figured it would be more convenient to have them all in one device, rather than a heavy tote bag. I even started buying purses so they would fit my iPad. Plus, I didn't have to dust an ebook--or pack it in a box to move it across state lines.

I don't know. Was it the fact that an iPad isn't as personal as a book? That an iPad doesn't smell as good as the perfume of ink on wood pulp? It doesn't feel as sueded as the pages between my fingers. You can't read with it in the bathtub or floating on a raft in my sister's pool or in certain outdoor conditions. In addition, my eyesight has waned, and I didn't realize it at first. On the iPad, you can always make your print bigger. It was only when I switched back to an actual bound book that I realized that I couldn't see the print any more. Having to grab readers when you want to read is a deterrent. I own several pairs, and I still can't find them.

I also used to go through more audio books before I moved here. I would take long solo walks for exercise, and I took the audio books with me to pass the miles. Also, I drove my car more. As a sub, my schools were, on average, a half hour away, as was most of the shopping I had to do. I could listen in the car and make my commutes pass quickly. In Arden, I am more apt to walk with someone than alone. And stores are conveniently located to within ten minutes of our house.

I am getting through some books. The process is just so painfully slow. I have started mediating now for twenty minute increments. I know I need to also work reading time back into my daily routine. I need to back off of Facebook and all its immediate satisfaction. Maybe give up the binging on TV shows I missed the first time around, or at least give myself a break between series. It really is the new way to watch television. Oh so addictive.

I wonder if I am alone in this affliction or if others are suffering with me. This is one instance in which I think that the doing things the Arden way and joining a club isn't going to help me. A book group would just make me feel bad about my inability to read a book cover to cover within the very doable timeline of a month. And the book in question would more than likely not be one that I chose. For now, I must take my latest read back to the Arden library. I have had for too long and haven't finished it. They are having an amnesty on fines this week, so off it must go. And I must apologize to my friend, Andy, for not finishing his first novel effort that he asked me to read and review. It's not you, it's me. 

When people come up to me and apologize because they haven't read my book, I laugh. No apology necessary. I know. I hope modern society doesn't turn us all into non-readers or readers who only read 140 characters at a time. I have one great hope in my son. He is both an insatiable reader and someone who loves video games. If he can create the space to exist this dualism, I think I have a shot as both a reader and as someone who wants to write novels for a living. For the reading part, I just need to remind myself of the joy I used to get from all those words...once upon a time.

Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The Art of Substitution

Before we moved to Delaware, I was a substitute teacher for three years. I worked, on average, two days a week--all ages levels, all subject matters, including special needs classrooms where help is always needed. This was the most perfect and most ridiculous job for me to have. I am the daughter of two teachers. My mom did her fair share of substituting when we were growing up. Teaching is the last thing I wanted to do. Ever. Period.

In the early 2000s, I was leading creativity workshops to make extra cash and still be flexible for my kids' schedules. Then, 2008 happened, and the economy tanked. I would prepare my workshops and though I had a list of people signed up, only one would show. Or the class would be canceled altogether. I worked hard on my plans for these classes. A friend of mine had been laid off of her job during this time. She told me about emergency teaching certification. I decided to go for it. As a substitute teacher,  I could still make my own schedule and teach the plans that someone else had spent hours to prepare.

This became an especially interesting prospect for me. I am a planner. My Myers Briggs personality profile is ENFJ. For E, N, and F, I could pretty much go one way or another and land in another letter's camp, but I have earned my J for judging. The letter is deceiving. Don't think that this one is about judgment. It's the part of the personality that pertains to planning versus spontaneity. When we took our kids to Europe for ten days, I printed out a twenty-page booklet filled with our itinerary and maps, train schedules and restaurant reviews. I left nothing to chance. I am also that person who peruses menus online before I go to the restaurant. I write lists. And more lists.

So, to have me show up in a classroom not knowing anything about what I would be doing or what equipment I would need to use was a frightening and strangely exhilarating possibility for me. It has taught me that I can think on my feet. I can solve problems, and I can deal with the unknown. I can go with the flow.

I have developed a new skill set in all of this. I have learned that I can read people pretty well and understand when a high school student is asking to go to the nurse but really means that she is meeting her boyfriend in the hall.  I can figure out how to use a smart board or locate specific art supplies in walls of unmarked cabinets.  And don't even get me started what this has done for my sense of direction. I used to be able to get lost in my driveway. With subbing, I not only had to find my way to about twenty-five different schools, but I had to navigate parking without disrupting bus drop-off.  Once I was in a building, I had to get to and from my classes and figure out where other places, such as offices and faculty lunch room, were located. Finding the faculty lunch room is especially hard--usually a closely held secret. Look for that unmarked square on a school map. But even if you find it, be ready to give the secret password.

Every day is different when you are a sub. Some days I would be using a chair lift to change adult diapers on physically challenged students or helping autistic students to use iPads to communicate. I have taught everything from art to driver's ed, middle school wood shop to high-school biology. And I have taught first graders during full moon in mercury retrograde on the day before a long holiday break. I loved teaching, and I believe I am good at it. At the very least, I would come off of a day of subbing feeling very proud of myself because I knew I was setting fire to any preexisting mental blocks I may have had.

When I moved to Delaware, my emergency certification for Pennsylvania was no longer valid. I thought my subbing days were behind me. Within a week of moving into our house, I met our neighbor Betty, an art teacher for a private school. I gave her some of our leftover moving boxes to move her art classroom. I told her how I had been an art sub, and she lit up. They were always looking for good subs. Private schools didn't have the regulations of a public school. My degree in Fine Arts would be enough for me to qualify. I have retained my status as a teacher. I only sub a few times a year, but it is enough to keep up my skills and to challenge self-imposed limitation.

Yesterday's adventure had me teaching high school students. It was the first time I had set foot in a photography darkroom in twenty-five years. I  also made rotations in the computer lab, 2D art room, and ceramics lab. In doing all of this with confidence, I am beginning to believe I am ready to bring my creativity workshops to the Wilmington public. A friend of mine has opened the Art Garage, so I have a venue I could use. I am grudgingly coming to accept that teaching, in one form or another, is in my blood, and that it energizes me in a way that few things can. I may be the teacher, but I am the one who is receiving knowledge. And for those lessons, I am very grateful.

Monday, April 6, 2015

Easter Trinity

Living in Delaware, we live at least an hour and half from our family, which now includes our son. We used to live in the same county as most of our relatives. Going for a holiday dinner requires a different kind of finesse than before. While we used to have to herd our kids into the car, we now have to plan for what to do with our dog because a accepting an invitation to a holiday dinner means we are gone all day. We are not far enough away that overnighters are required for anything but the staggered events at Christmas. We do, however, live far enough away that we try to stack our visitations one on top of another until our day resembles a triathlon. If we are driving three hours round trip, we will see as many people as possible. In terms of Easter, this meant two-and-a-half hour stints at three places, with pug in tow. He rode in the back seat and cried for three-quarters of the journey with Mark yelling at him for half. Note to self: bring earbuds along for holiday car rides.

We dropped Eli off at Mark's parents, where he is more at home with Lilly, their dog, and since we were not getting in our Sunday morning hike, we walked the two miles to my parents' house. We held hands as we walked and marveled at the changes to our hometown. An addition to the Rec Center, a drainage ditch where Mark used to play field games at the pool, a skateboard park behind that. It is a beautiful day, and we snacked on a bag of cookies that Mark nicked from his parents' house even though we are about to have two full dinners in the span of three hours.

My parents' house is pure chaos. Eight of the ten grandchildren, ages seven months to twenty years, are accounted for. Maren, our daughter, is in New York. My eleven-year old nephew is with a friend at Disney World. My dad is beside himself trying to locate seating for the entire franchise. My parents put out the invitation to Easter dinner within the last week. I am not sure they expected that all four of their kids would agree to come. Bowls of strangely sour jelly beans are set out with the paper plates and plasticware. The menu is Pennsylvania Dutch and includes Ham Loaf (a favorite of mine even though I dislike ham) and pineapple filling among the spread of other of my mother's go-to dishes. My sister-in-law makes up a separate meal for my niece who suffers from food allergies. The talk is boisterous and animated while we pass the baby around like a hot potato. My dad must pray over his food in his usual manner, but one in which I find to be less about the thanks part and more about his dominion. I realize that is my personal issue. Amen.

The news of the day is that my brother-in-law has just resigned his post as Warwick's head basketball coach, a position he held for eight-years and that my father held for twenty years prior to that. Looking around the room, four of my dad's former players are in attendance in the form of his sons and sons-in-law, including my husband. All the togetherness is a bit much for some of us. Jonah puts himself in time-out on a faraway couch to get away from it all. My sister, brother-in-law, niece, and I take the baby for a walk to put her to sleep. Mark takes the menfolk out in a spin in his new hybrid vehicle which Jonah had driven over from Mark's parents' house. The car is so new that I have not even driven it yet. We just have enough time for a little pretzel salad when we all return. My mother makes pretzel salad for every event, and we all guzzle it down. I do, too, even knowing that my lemon sponge pies are going untouched and that meal number two is upon us. I should have known better than to have gone up against the almighty pretzel salad.

Dinner number two is far more relaxed. Just nine of us around a dining room table with actual plates and silverware. My mother-in-law has made ham and raisin sauce, which only she and Mark's brother will eat. They have also made a chicken or a turkey. I don't know. I pass on the meat because I have had my protein in the preferred form of ham loaf. I serve up the pierogi lasagne we brought. It is a new recipe which puts potatoes, cheddar cheese, and sautéed onions between layers of lasagna noodles. It is good and and it is hefty, but with my mother-in-law's fresh cole slaw it strikes a perfect balance. The boys, young and old, fight over the homemade crescent rolls which show up and disappear at every special occasion.  I'm almost glad that I prefer a crustier bread. Like I need any more calories--or a black eye for trying to come between the Wood men and those rolls.

We all call Maren from around the table and joke that it is like our Christmas Eve calls to Grandma Pat in Michigan where we all have to make small talk and fight over who gets to ask about the weather. I take a walk (#3) with Mark's brother's wife, Tammy, with whom I once trained for and ran the Chicago marathon years ago. We have lots of catching up to do. It is so good when family members are friends. I count myself lucky in this regard many times over.  Dessert after this walk is assorted cheesecake. Again, my sad lemon sponge pie waits in the wings, but I know that Jonah will take care to polish it off during the week. That comforts me. There are very few treats I can bring him that he doesn't already get living at Grandma and Grandpa's house.

Our third and final stop is to our best friends' house where we have our wine. They bring out the good stuff for us now that we live far away.  We sit and catch up. The kids, who have not eaten in a while come up--starving. I make them fried sweet bologna sandwiches which they have never had. I used to cook a lot in our friends' kitchen. As veterinarians, they would work late on Friday nights when we used to get together. I had my afternoons free, so I would cook dinner even if we were meeting at their house. It is nostalgic to cook here, even if it is just frying up some lunchmeat. Our two-and-half hour allotment stretches into three hours here. Monday morning seems so far away when you are enjoying a Sunday night with old friends.

I nod off on the car ride home. Fresh air, wine, and heavy food have done me in. Even the dog is silent on his blanket in the back seat.  Mark squeezes my hand. This is our new normal holiday regime, I tell myself. I am fine with that.

Saturday, April 4, 2015

A Thesis on Utopia

from Arden: The Architecture and Planning of a Delaware Utopia by Eliza Harvey Edwards
 This photo comes from the 1993 Masters of Science thesis in historic preservation by University of Pennsylvania student Eliza Harvey Edwards entitled Arden: The Architecture and Planning of a Delaware Utopia. I am finding fascinating reading and am posting this photo and the link to the thesis for anyone else who may be interested. Enjoy!

Good Friday in New York City

New York City has played a role in our Arden life. We have always sojourned to the city, but now it is two hours away instead of three which makes a day trip just that much more doable. I am currently returning from my sixth trip to the city since moving to Arden in June of 2013. Our daughter, Maren, is currently in the middle of an eight week acting intensive. She had off classes on Good Friday, and I decided that it was as good a time as any to tick walking across the Brooklyn Bridge off my bucket list. I should note that in my lifetime of trips to visit NYC, I have yet to go to the top of the Empire State Building or visit the Statue of Liberty. I am not sure why these tourist attractions have never interested me. I've visited the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the London Eye.  I guess I have always just had a very specific cultural agenda every time I've come to New York. Usually it is a museum exhibit. Since we have been in Arden, I have visited college friends on the Upper West Side with Mark, taken Maren on an audition for HBO, and visited the Brooklyn Museum of Art to see the Judy Chicago exhibit while Jonah took a sci-fi writing class at Gotham Writers’ Workshop. 

On this day, our daughter journeyed down from the room she is renting on the Upper East Side to walk the bridge with us, starting from lower Manhattan. We are not religious when it comes to Easter. Mark was raised Catholic, while I was raised Lutheran. Holy Week was a big deal in my household growing up. Between sunrise prayer services and all the services in the evening, I felt as though our family was living at the church over Holy Week. Good Friday was always my favorite church service of the entire year, because of its contemplative nature. It never failed to move me, but as an adult, my religious path has followed the pagan calendar of solstices and equinoxes rather than the Christian calendar based on Christ’s life. I really dislike celebrating Easter more than any other holiday because spring is in full swing. I usually have so many projects going--indoor and out, that I never want to wash my garden-dirty hands to dress in pastels and sit down to a really heavy dinner of ham and scalloped potatoes. If our family celebrations had been an Easter bike ride followed by a some grilled rosemary lamb and green beans, I may have been more amenable. Ham has never been a reason to stop the traffic of my life. We opt out of Easter celebrations more than we opt in. 

So, it is not with any sense of the holiday that we head to Manhattan.This is the second time we have been in Manhattan on Good Friday, and it is the second time that Good Friday was meaningful in spite of our spiritual shrug. The first time was in 2010. We were coming to the Museum of Modern Art with the kids to see the Tim Burton movie art exhibition. But Tim Burton was the least of what was going on at the MoMA. The museum was also hosting the Marina Abramovic Retrospective. Marina herself was there doing her famed piece in which she, in a flowing red dress, sits still and looks into the eyes of strangers across a table. The museum also reenacted some of her other performance pieces. In order to walk through that part of the exhibit, we had to walk between a totally nude woman on one side and a totally nude man on the other. The entrance way was tight, and the proximity to these naked people was intentionally uncomfortable. Our kids were twelve and fifteen at the time. Once we were in the show, more squeamishness awaited. The piece that stuck with me, though, was called Luminosity. In this piece, a naked woman sits on a bicycle seat which was mounted about ten feet up on a wall. Her arms were spread as wide as they would go, and she was still. The room is dark and she is lit. One cannot help but think of the crucifixion when staring at this sight. I don’t know if Abramovic herself referenced this, but she did say that it was "a work about loneliness, about pain and about spiritual elevation.” Being Good Friday, I could not help but make the associations, and the image of the woman mounted on the wall has always stayed with me.

It is drizzling and threatening even heavier weather as we begin our pilgrimage across the bridge. About half of those braving the elements are doing so under the-oh-so-annoying protection of umbrellas. It isn't even raining that hard. We do what we can to avoid them, ducking out of line to take photos, and lamenting that our usual photographer, Joe del Tufo, backed out of the bridge trip after the stomach bug sidelined him for much of the week. We do what we can to document this gray moment on a gray bridge. The crossing itself is so much less dramatic than I imagined. Walking across the Benjamin Franklin Bridge with my hiking group in August seemed more of an event. When we hit the Brooklyn side, we wander a little aimlessly. We intended to eat on this side, but it is only 10:30 AM. We decide to walk back across the bridge and take lunch in New York's Chinatown instead. 

Good Friday 2015
20th Way of the Cross/Brooklyn Bridge
Mark slips inside a diner to use their bathroom, while Maren and I stand on a sidewalk corner outside. We see people with news cameras stroll past. I see a man wearing a brown monk's robe over blue jeans. Still, this does not prepare us for what is coming. I see the man carrying the cross, and it doesn't compute. Whatever. This is New York. You see everything here. Then I see the swells of people following him. I reach for my camera, but it is zipped inside my jacket and by the time I figure out what is going on, I can only get a photo of the man carrying the cross from the back. Where is Mark? I see the whole crew turning onto the bridge where we are headed. Mark finally comes out of the diner with a look of confusion and his accompanying trademark, "What the hell?" I am anxious to be a part of this throng. The bridge crossing to the Brooklyn side was unthrilling for a bucket list item, but being part of this group has raised the interest factor. Mark and Maren are talking animately about alternately trying to get out in front of all the people or just getting out of the way of a few specific umbrella-weilders. We are surrounded by nuns and monks, Catholic school students, and Chinese people. (Is this due to our proximity to Chinatown?) I notice the silence of the group and try to find my own meditative space, but Maren and Mark haven't caught onto the fact that this is a silent walk. Maren asks questions and I shush her in a way that is not very meditative. We have not talked about doing this and to them, it is a nuisance. I don’t know how to convey to them that I want to take part. As a group, we take up the width of the bridge and stretch out for hundreds of feet. People walking the other direction over the bridge must wait. At first we are smack dab in the middle, but later, we move to the front by virtue of Mark's ability to navigate the stream. Not until we are almost to the Manhattan side does the group stop. 

They intend to have a service and as much as I would like to stay, I know that Mark and Maren will not stand in the rain for this. Maren does grab a program, so we can figure out just what it was we encountered. It was the 20th Way of the Cross: Over the Brooklyn Bridge. As we are walking away, Maren says that she got an umbrella tangled in her hair eight times. I tell her to think of Jesus and the crown of thorns. It is a joke, but it is not. I can check the Brooklyn Bridge off my bucket list, knowing it is not an experience I will forget any time soon.

Thursday, April 2, 2015

Good Morning, Arden.

photo by Heather Auman
A friend of mine told me a story about one of the former owners of her house. Legend has it that the woman used to rise each morning, throw open the windows to Arden's busiest road, and greet the day wearing nothing more than a smile. In my head, I imagine her waving at all the passersby.  I, too, am a morning person, but have not quite settled in on my morning routine. A regular pattern of action eludes me, which is strange because I so crave ritual in this part of my day.  It is like a puzzle I want to figure out.

I have mentioned before that I took a course at Omega in October of 2012 with Eric Maisel, renowned psychotherapist to us artist types. His wisdom came down to the fact that as artists, we must make meaning first thing in the day or risk spinning into depression. Have your morning pee, grab your cup of coffee, but that is it. The first hour of your day is spent in meaning making.  This isn't the Julia Cameron Morning Pages where you write stream of consciousness for thirty minutes without pausing to lift your hand from the page. I've tried making that my morning practice. It was a very whiney way to start my day. Dr. Maisel has you using your clear morning mind to tackle your art.  I could really get on board with this practice. I could! Certainly if I get in a writing groove, it might mean I skip breakfast or that I am still in my pajamas at noon when the mail carrier knocks on my door with a package. I could live that life.

Here is the problem. I want to do everything first thing in the morning. I want to get my exercise out of the way first thing because it makes me feel good about myself. And if I don't do it then, sometimes I let it slide. I want to walk with the Misty Morning Walkers who come by my house at approximately 8:12 AM on their loop around the three Ardens. I am so stiff when I get out of bed in the morning that I should stretch, probably do at least thirty minutes of yoga, before I sit myself in a chair behind my computer or worse, sit on my soft armchair with my feet on the ottoman. When I go get a massage, it is as if my therapist is untangling knots that would make a sailor cry. It is getting so bad, that my mobility has suffered, and not just a little. I want to meditate. This morning I did a guided meditation from Deepak Chopra in which the centering thought was "I use the organizing power of my awareness." Apparently the key is to become centered and to meditate myself to an organized morning. It didn't happen. Last but not least, I want to make the bed and empty the dishwasher first thing in the morning. My son used to put away the dishes for me when he was home. I love starting off the day with a made bed and an empty dishwasher.

And then there is the fact that I feel as though I am always waiting for my husband to vacate before I do anything meaningful. It is one thing when it is warm enough for me to be out on my screen porch where I am out of his way. But I don't want to be in the middle of a meditation and hear the ironing board screech. Plus I want to make sure I get my goodbye kiss before he leaves. Sometimes he dawdles.  Is it too much to ask for him to pick an exit time and stick to it? Now I have to help him with a morning routine.

I do not know what the answer is for me. I will continue type hack my morning into Google search engine, but my Goo-ru has not figured out all the answers for me yet. We do have a great balcony off our bedroom and probably live on the quietest rode in town. Even though the only person I would scare would be my neighbor, Debbi, I don't think I am ready to greet the day with full nudity. Maybe the same thing could be accomplished with a stylish kimono. Good Morning, Arden.

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

April Fool's Day--Arden Style

April Fool's Day in Arden
This is the kind of April Fool's prank you get when you live in a community of creative types. This may or may not be the handiwork of someone who was recently voted into the Buzz Ware Village Center Committee. Who is going to top this? It is almost happy hour. If only...

To Paint Again?

Meditation on a Winter Forest
Yesterday I painted the largest painting I have ever painted. It has been years since I completed a painting, and yet I started and completed this one in a single day. I had to. I am such a mess when it comes to painting that I knew I would never get all my supplies out again and subject myself to that level of clean-up. And in this house, the only space I have to work is on our plastic draped dining room table.

I had a designated studio in our old house, which I rarely used to paint. I think I was afraid of the beige carpets. Most of the paintings I accomplished were squarely in the year 2007 and I did them in the basement painting studio of my friend Marsha while she was at work. Marsha was a high-end faux painter. I used her leftover paints on my canvases. They were luxurious paints--had this really nice tooth that made it a dream to use with a palette knife. They also had a metallic luster that took on a richness after I buffed the paintings with dark wax. The palette was limited which is what I need to work. Too many colors and I get overwhelmed. I practically hyperventilate at all the choices at an art supply store. This color palette was also practical in that it coordinated with many home interiors. I loved that paint. But it is proprietary. Only those who are certified in their faux painting techniques can use it. I have thought about taking faux painting classes just so I can use the paint, but it seemed a little extreme. I would just have to take a deep breath and go into the art supply store.

I have a fine arts degree, but it is not in painting. My major area of concentration was fibers. My minor area was metals. I took one painting class college which was in oils. These days I work in acrylic with which I am more comfortable--reaching back to my high school days when I first learned to paint. While I have an eye and can generally accomplish what I want to accomplish when I paint, it is not easy for me. A lot of times, I feel like I am winging it. I generally hold about 5 brushes in my hand and between my teeth at any given moment. My paint mixing is done all over the place and not in any organized fashion.

I have rejected taking any painting classes. I don't know what it is that I exactly need to learn so I don't know what to look for in a class. I have been perusing YouTube tutorials on setting up your paint palette, etc. I have come across a series of acrylic lessons. I think I am going to try them. I have the supplies. When we moved in here, I designated a crawl space off of our bedroom for all my blank canvases. I told Mark that if I hadn't used anything from the crawl space after five years, we could use it for something besides my canvases. Considering I went out and bought the giant canvas I used for this painting, I don't think I have yet held up my end of the bargain.

The reason I was so enthusiastic about this new painting is because I had a vision of what should go in our  revamped living room, and I knew I had to create it. I wasn't about to buy anybody else's artwork when I had what I wanted pictured so clearly in my head. I am not sure if I will be able to muster that kind of energy again. Parts of making this painting really frustrated me, and I am pretty much out of wall space in this house. If I painted again, it would have to be with the intention of selling it, and that is not the kind of pressure you want on yourself when you are restarting your engines for the first time in eight years.

But hey, I am living in an artist community. If any place can inspire your to paint, it would be hanging out with all these artists. But it also daunting. I don't want to fall flat on my face while I am surrounded by people I respect. For now, I feel good enough about the piece I just finished to showcase it in our house in a most prominent position. Maybe seeing it every day will remind me of what I can accomplish. Time will tell if my inspiration has been sparked or quelled.