Oh, Beths–I Get It Now

toddler-655541_1280

Tonight, when I was on my knees shoving a plastic knife up into the roller thingy of my carpet steamer in order to extract wet globs of dog hair…I had a moment. A good moment. A laughy kind of moment.

I thought back to a Sunday morning about fourteen years ago. Sun streamed through the French doors of my bedroom. Moxie and Zoe, the dachshunds, lay in a snoozy little pile on the white carpet. The phone rang–it was my friend, Beth.

She asked, “Hey! What are you doing?”

I glanced at the clock. 11:30 a.m. “Oh, a little of this, a little of that. Cleaning up a little.” I was lying like a rug. Beth had a toddler and another one on the way. I frequently lied to her about how busy I wasn’t. I didn’t want to rub it in.

A pause fell between us, a silence on the line before she screeched, “ARE YOU STILL IN THE BED??”

I snorted then confessed. “Yeah, but I’m not even sleeping any more. Just laying here with a book.” I didn’t tell her that I had been reading for three hours. That I was eating fresh cherries and orange juice that I had driven all the way in to Atlanta to get.

“Oh. My. God. It’s been YEARS since I got to do that.”

child-646201_1280

Now Beth’s toddler is driving and on the golf team. Tempus fugit and all, y’all.

And me? The one who was lolling around in bed at lunchtime on a Sunday? I’m living the dream. I left the feverish toddler at home with G so I could go to work. Went to therapy on my lunch hour to clean out my head. Picked a logo for the new project at work. Did some moving, did some shaking. Picked up Vivi from school and took her grocery shopping, where we practiced math in the produce department and made up a song about Froot Loops. Two hundred dollars poorer, we drove through Chic-fil-a to pick up dinner. I fed the kids, talked about girl drama with the teenager, patted the sick boy, fed the dog. Got the kids in bed then cleaned blueberry smoothie barf out of the carpet. Then cleaned the steamer with a plastic knife because I should have vacuumed first. Then did two loads of laundry and addressed 25 birthday party invitations. Now it’s 11:39 and I’m sitting down to write this because I start to nut up if I go too many days without writing.

I get it Beth. I swear I do. Thank you for being patient with me back then. It’s been years for me now, too.

Another Sunday morning and a different Beth….One time, about the same thirteen years ago, I needed to call my brother’s house about something. I waited until 9 a.m. because I didn’t want to be rude. My sister-in-law, Beth, answered.

“Hey! It’s Ashley–I hope it’s not too early to call. I didn’t want to wake up the boys.”

She hooted. “OH RIGHT! Please–they’re both in time out and I’ve already had to use Liquid Stitches! What’s up with you?”

THAT is the life I’m living right now. Both Beths–I totally get you.

The White Stuff

bird-678917_1280Q:  Do you know what the white stuff in bird shit is?

A:  It’s bird shit, too.

 

There’s no difference, y’all.

There’s no better part of shit that makes it not quite so shitty.

Just after Richard’s cancer diagnosis, my friend Karen and I were having a talk. Her husband has survived chronic leukemia for over twenty years. Steve has CLL–the slow kind of leukemia–whereas Richard had AML–the very fast kind. Karen and I were talking about the way cancer blows up your life in one KAPOW kind of instant. She said, “It’s like you’re at a party then being handed a big ole shit pie to eat while everyone else is having cake.”

We laughed over that, then she said, “At least they give you a spoon!” Karen, always the optimist. I’ve learned a lot from her over the years.

I was thinking about this story today with good reason. You know how you find that sweet sweet parking spot and think, “I am so lucky! None of these other suckers saw this sweet spot! Ha HA! I am GOLDEN. Score!”

Yeah.

poo_1And you come back to your car after work and find it covered in an explosive row of bird bombs…and realize that the empty parking spot sits directly beneath a comfortable perch of a powerline…and maybe those other suckers knew that?

So I spent a few minutes thinking about bird poop today, and the white part and the shittiness. Before I got too bogged down in the shit that came with that sweet parking space, I thought about the GOOD things that came my way thanks to that parking place. I got to walk to my office under giant pecan trees. My steps bounced over the squishy black mulch of a tidy path that winds past gardenias just warming up in the sun. I watched squirrels skitter to their trees and birds flit past.

I feel LUCKY every time I walk that path, into a job I love then back to my car to get to a home I love. So even if there’s a little bird shit on my car, that’s a small price to pay for all the rest of it.

Living is always going to be like that–there’s the greenish part of the bird shit and the white part…and all around it, the sky part and the tree part and the skittering part and the gardenia part.

It’s a question of where you choose to look. Bird shit is the price we pay for bird song and little robin nests filled with blue eggs. The worst parts of my life were still part of my life, bumped right up next to the best parts of my life. All or nothing.

Sure, I’ll park somewhere else tomorrow. Still enjoy my walk and smell the gardenias, but with a lesson learned!

revenge-statue-pigeon-poop-hammer-time-demotivational-posters-1339440871

 

 

My Sister Is a Gift

I’ve written about my sister before, but there’s a special milestone in her life happening right around now and even though I won’t say specifically what it is, I thought it would be appropriate to remind her that I think she’s awesome. It may be her birthday, but she’s the gift.

(And I’m NOT going to say WHICH birthday this is, but the original title of this post was “FIFTY Things I Learned From My Sister.” But discretion.)

gay face

Woke up like this.

When I was little, I admired my sister because she is beautiful. I remember very clearly one afternoon when I was about 11. Gay and Joe and I were walking down the dirt road from the bus stop to our house. I looked over at the sister I had seen every day of my life and saw just how beautiful she is–blue black hair shining in the sun, a quick smile, sparkly eyes. She wore a green striped shirt that day, a shirt she had bought with her own money from her first job. I thought she had to be the most beautiful girl ever.

gay surgery 2

She’s the one in the flowery hat.

As I grew older, I learned to admire my sister because she is smart. Wicked smart. She made being smart and being proud of being smart look fun and easy to me. So I grew up thinking it was normal to be curious and confident about the way the world works. She sailed through college with a double major in Chemistry/Biology. Went straight to medical school with a full scholarship. I remember talking to her one night when she was studying for a Pharmacology final. She said she had 800 pages of notes to cover. I couldn’t believe it when she said, “I just want to pass.” I laughed like that was out of the question and said something like, “Yeah, right, you’ve probably got a 96.” She said, “Nope. I’ve got a 68 going into the final….but that’s the second highest grade in the class!”

When we grew into adults, I realized that my sister–who once beat the crap out of me for using her hair brush–is exceedingly kind. Not the namby pamby kind of kind. She’ll yank your pancreas out in 30 seconds flat if that’s what needs to happen, but she’ll also squeeze your hand later and tell you you’re going to be OK. When everyone started watching “E.R.” on NBC, I asked her which of the doctors on the show was most like what she did every day. She said, “I’m the tall black guy, only not an asshole.” Ah. I asked her one time if she faces sexism as a female surgeon and she answered, “Oh, I’ve walked into patient rooms and had them ask me to fetch them coffee.” How did she handle that? “I got them coffee then introduced myself as Dr. Garrett.” When I started working in healthcare, we talked about how doctors learn the human side of doctoring. She told me her secret to communicating with patients. “I pretend I’m talking to Grandmama Eunice. She’s someone I love and respect, who’s plenty smart, but doesn’t speak medical jargon. Plus I know she would jerk a knot in me if I got on my high horse about being The Doctor.”

gay bolivia

 

She’s so generous, and I’m not just talking about money. She gives her time and her talents. Over the last few years, Gay has started doing medical mission trips to South America. She pays her own way, uses her own vacation time, and carries bags and bags of donated supplies to countries that need more surgical hands. She’ll do 40 cases in a week in a mountainside hospital in Bolivia and those patients get the same level of care her patients back home do. She’s taught Bolivian doctors to perform minimally invasive procedures so that patients who support an entire family through subsistence farming have much shorter recovery times. Hell, she even got a hospital up here to donate an entire surgical suite that was being replaced but still in perfect working order! When she met a Wesleyan student who wanted to become a surgeon, Gay brought her up over spring break to shadow her then took her on the next medical mission, too.

gay christmas

Helping out a Wesleyan sister.

 

I used to admire my sister because she was brave–windsurfing, snowboarding, mountain climbing, scuba diving, kind of brave. Now that the need for adrenaline is tapering off…I realize that she’s strong. She’s not stupid fearless–she still screams at spiders–but she’s steely. If she decides it’s worth the risk, she’s in 100%. And I’m not talking about sports. I’m talking about those days when Richard was dying and she was right there beside us the whole way. She was in the room when the doctors told him to go home. A month after he died, Gay and I were at the site of the World Trade Center and I mentioned that day in the hospital room. She confided that that had been one of the hardest days of her life–being the loving family member in the room, getting the bad news, instead of the doctor giving it. But I never would have guessed at the time. She doesn’t flinch.

My sister is loving. She and her husband are absolutely devoted to each other, even to the point of using ridiculous nicknames that I won’t publish here. Some things SHOULD be kept off the internet. These goofballs have been together for…jeez is it almost 20 years?…and they are smitten kittens.

Scarlett and Rhett, in the flesh.

Scarlett and Rhett, in the flesh.

She loves the nieces and the nephews and makes sure they get an adventure here and there. Even before I knew I was pregnant with Vivi, Gay and I went on an adventure to the zoo in Chicago. A woman in the big cats house noticed that we were repeat visitors and told us to hang around until just before the park closes. We did, and were rewarded with the thrill of hearing lions and tigers roar for their dinner. I will never forget the way my body quivered as their calls bounced off the walls. The air shook. Gay and I turned to each other in silence with delighted grins on our faces. To think, the tiny beginning of Vivi, my lioness, was there somewhere. Since then, Aunt Gay has taken her to see sea lions, snow leopards, orangutans, penguins, and even Nana’s chickens down in the garden.

gay vivi nyc

I could tell 50 more stories just like these, but they all are simply my way of saying “Happy Birthday” to my sister. I love you.

The Moosewood Cookbook: How I Broke My Oven and Learned to Cook Again

Remember a while back when I tried to write a cookbook review and ended up breaking the oven? (and coining the new cuss word FOCACCIT!)  Well, I’m proud to report that just 6 months and $1200 later, we have a new oven! And I STILL haven’t made that focaccia.  But I am ready to write a review of the The Moosewood Cookbook: 40th Anniversary Edition.

Short Review: Buy yourself one today! Or get one for the mama in your life for Mothers Day! If you use that Amazon link, it will be here in time for Sunday. Probably. Wedding gift, graduation gift, Treat Yoself gift…this book belongs in every kitchen.

Being without an oven meant I had to do some re-engineering in the kitchen. Loooots of Crock Pot cooking. Also more salads and stir frys. I feel like this beautiful book helped me fall back in love with the basics of cooking–the sensual, spiritual creation of concoctions that nourish us.

(Does that sound sufficiently Hippie enough for ya? Good, let’s continue.)


I was unfamiliar with the story of the Moosewood Cookbook. It’s one of the best-selling cookbooks of all time, a classic of vegetarian cooking. Mollie Katzen, one of the founders of the Moosewood Restaurant in Ithaca, New York, compiled and illustrated this collection of recipes 40 years ago. The cookbook started as a binder of recipes used by the cooks at Moosewood–none of them professional chefs. The collection includes recipes from grandmothers, restaurant diners, international adventures. A little of this, a little of that.

Yes, it’s packed with exotic flavors from around the world, but what I loved most about this book was that it helped me get back to the basics. Over the past couple of years, I’ve fallen into the trap of the working mother–convenience foods and a boring routine of proven, easy recipes. Seriously, we are one taco salad from oblivion up in here.

When I prepared the Moosewood recipe for French Onion Soup, I remembered the simple pleasure of caramelizing onions on a Sunday afternoon (and G even ate it too!). Just below the recipe for onion soup are instructions for making croutons. I didn’t need a recipe for croutons–I just needed a reminder that I COULD make my own croutons. And I did.

This book reminded me that I can make my own vinaigrette instead of relying on Paul Newman’s. As I mixed the ingredients, I remembered how my sister taught me to smash the salt and garlic together with a fork to release the flavors. I shook my dressing in a cruet that reminded me of Big Gay and the homemade salad dressing she keeps on hand. I got back in touch with the act of cooking.

Instead of cracking a bottle of LaChoy, I cracked open the Moosewood Cookbook and taught myself how to make stir-fry sauces from scratch. Again–not complicated things to do, but a return to the basic joy of making foods with my whole brain instead of a jar.

moosewoodIt’s not only an interesting and varied cookbook–it’s beautiful and playful. Katzen hand-lettered and illustrated each page. It’s a completely different feeling from the Pinteresty, food stylist, soft focus filter world of today. The simplicity of the pages reminds me of the Flint River Favorites cookbook that my school put together in the 1970s (except there are a lot fewer recipes that call for cream of mushroom soup). I remember my mother helping to collect and type all those recipes. The cookbook fell open to the page with the brownie recipe, which was smearing and smudged with so many drips that it smelled like brownies.

I’m looking forward to working my way around to the jicama salads and spanakopita and Ukranian poppy seed cake, but for right now, I’m so glad I have this rich book to explore, one taste at a time.

It’s a marvel!

moosewood2

 

 

I received a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. Check out Blogging for Books if you’d like to know more about the program!

Mother Each Other

I’ve started doing this weird thing. When I hug someone, I don’t just do the hug and the pat on the back–I put my hand on top of their head and give a gentle pat. It’s such a mothery thing to do, the pat on the head. As if I am hugging them horizontally and vertically at the same time. OK that sounds weird. You know, the way you cradle a baby’s head when you’re holding them close.

baby-539969_1280

I did it a few weeks ago to a total stranger. Heading down the hallway at Vivi’s school, I passed a young woman who was wiping tears behind her sunglasses. She was ducking her head and sobbing. I could have given her the head-tilt-sad-face combo and kept walking, but I stopped a few steps in front of her and asked, “Are you OK?”

“I just got some really bad news. These girls I went to school with were killed in a really bad wreck.” I wrapped her up in a hug and started mother-clucking.

“Oh, honey! That’s awful! Oh my goodness!” I patted her on the back of the head and let her cry for a few moments before letting go. “Are you OK to drive? Can I get you anything?”

She waved off the offer and said she just needed to get home. I told her to be careful then went on my way. Found out that night about the horrible wreck on I-16 that killed five nursing students from Georgia Southern.

Earlier that same day, I had sat in the sunshine with a friend whose life has been blown up in the last six months. I listened to him and told him what I knew about getting through hard times. When it was time to go, I hugged him and rested my hand on the back of his head. Held him close.

That instinct towards mothering the hurting–it put me in mind of a story my college sister Sally told about a moment she had at the school where she works:

“So yesterday I accidentally stabbed myself with a tiny screwdriver while changing the battery in my watch. (pretty par for Miss Graceful, here) I had to ask the school nurse for a band aid. Last night, as I was taking the bandage off, I flashed back to the moment with Mrs. F, the school nurse. She didn’t just hand the band aid to me. She opened it and carefully placed it on my wrist. Like a Mom. Then patted my arm and smiled. Like a Mom. And it struck me that as little girls we get “mothered-on” a lot. But when little girls grow up, we become mothers or mother figures to others and, for many of us, miss out on being “mothered-on.” Little boys get this attention as well, AND it continues into their adulthood. (If you don’t understand this point, you aren’t’ married or haven’t been long enough!) I think we can do better, my grownup girlfriends. Now go get a band aid and find a woman to “mother-on!” We all deserve this kind of love.”

bandageAmen, Sally, amen. Maybe my kids are so crazy about those Doc McStuffins bandages because they aren’t just a cool sticky thing with a picture–they’re visible reminders of how much they are loved. How their boo-boos will always be patted and kissed and fixed right up.

It’s the subtle difference in meaning between “loving someone” and “loving on someone.” One takes heart and the other takes heart and hands. One is an intransitive verb and one is very very transitive.

For Mothers Day this year? Let’s mother each other. Go find someone who’s hurting and love on them a little bit.

 

Meet The Baby’s Baby

Every day as we leave his school, Carlos asks to stop and see the babies. We stand in the doorway of the infants room and Miss Morgan lets Carlos say hello to the babies as they bounce in jumpers or wiggle around on the rug. He says, “Hey, BABY!” to each one until they smile at him.

Now he’s saying, “Hi, Baby!” to any baby we see in public. It’s kind of a big deal that he’s gone from being such a closed off loner of a kid to a kid who walks right up to strangers to say hello.

Carlos doesn’t like to take naps and he’s been having a hard time being still and quiet during nap time while the other kids rest…so I had a brilliant idea. This morning, he met his very own baby. He holds her carefully and helps find her pacifier when she’s misplaced it. She’s been dressed and undressed twenty times. Carlos and Vivi have spent all morning playing together with the baby’s baby.

mari2I knew this doll was “The One” when I saw that her name is Mariana. G’s sweet cousin and my college sister both share that name.

But….

I forgot that my son still has a bit of a “baby talk” thing going on when he tries to pronounce certain sounds. He can’t quite say “Mah-ree-ah-nah”

So….

Meet Mary-Wana. You know, like Mary + Juana.

Or marijuana.

I can’t wait until he takes her to school Monday and asks if he can have Mary Juana to keep him calm at nap time.

marijuana

In Baltimore, You Hear What You Expect to Hear

file541344101316The events unfolding in Baltimore–whether you call it a riot or an uprising–put me in mind of a lesson I learned in Baltimore eleven years ago on a broiling hot summer day when my heart and mind throbbed with fear.

There wasn’t much left of my rational brain at that point. Richard had been diagnosed with leukemia on June 30. He got blood and platelets the next day at the hospital where I work–just enough to get him healthy enough to fly. He took off that evening for Baltimore, for Johns Hopkins Hospital, where his treatment would begin as soon as possible.

I stayed behind for a couple of days to batten down the hatches and pack us both some clean underwear. I tied up loose ends at work, at home. I explained what was going on to everyone who needed to know, then I rushed north to Baltimore.

While Richard had been teaching at Loyola in Baltimore, I had fallen in love with the city. We rode water taxis across the Inner Harbor, dined along Second Street, walked the paths of Poe. So it wasn’t my first time in Baltimore by any means, but I didn’t know anything about the neighborhoods around Hopkins. Well, I knew one thing–“Don’t go there. It’s not safe.”

Rockwell House. My throat closes up just looking at the door.

Rockwell House. My throat closes up just looking at the door.

But now, in the world of leukemia, Johns Hopkins felt like an island of hope, the one place Richard might be safe again. His parents had booked us a small caregiver apartment at the Joanne Rockwell House, right on the edge of campus. Somewhere around Washington and Jefferson Streets. I tried to find it on a map this morning, but the building isn’t there anymore–replaced by newer digs.

A flight, a ride from BWI, dropping my things at Rockwell House, then hurrying to the hospital with my heart in my throat. Then the first slow hours of waiting in a room with Richard, the first few of the hundreds we would spend like that over the next 10 months. Waiting for a miracle in the worst neighborhood in Baltimore.

file000137091442On his advice, I left before sundown, so I could make it back to Rockwell House. Luckily, Richard’s mom had left some food in the minifridge. The only store visible from my window was a corner liquor store, plastered with booze posters.  A barren parking lot, owned by the hospital, gray buildings shuttered with plywood, and the liquor store. I felt like a traveler in a ship, looking out my porthole at a strange land.

Eight o’clock, nine o’clock. The summer sky grew dark. After so many days of panic and chaos, the time had come to be still. I stretched out on the narrow twin bed under the window and tried to let my brain and body catch up to each other.

Then just under the window, a few feet from my head, I heard several loud cracks. Someone shouted over the sound of POP POP POP POP from the parking lot below me.

This middle class white lady HIT THE FLOOR. With a quickness. I didn’t even watch The Wire at the time, but I knew what happened when you mixed a Baltimore liquor store, summer heat, darkness and shouting. I slithered across the floor then reached up to kill the overhead light. The cracking and shouting continued. I lay panting in fear on the linoleum floor and waited for the sounds of sirens. None came. I watched the window and waited for it to explode from a stray bullet.

Then a strange SCREEEEEEEECH cut the air, followed by more popping, but slower now. A green burst of light filled the window. I remember lying there on the floor and trying to make sense of it. Cop car lights aren’t green in Baltimore, are they?

In all the rushing to get to Richard, I had forgotten that day was the Fourth of July. And Americans shoot fireworks after dark on the Fourth of July. I eventually realized the sounds were firecrackers and bottle rockets and crawled up off the floor to watch out the window.

Those young men in the parking lot across from the liquor store that night were celebrating freedom the old-fashioned way–with some gunpowder and fire and laughter. An American tradition.

My tired brain, filled with fear and confusion, had heard gunfire and threats. That was what I expected to hear in that part of Baltimore.

So I ask you, when you watch the news, don’t just listen for what you expect to hear–look again.

file000323988880