Fear & Type A in Bucolia

Horse

That’s me. The me in my fantasy horseback riding lesson: like fearlessness and a hat with a feather would levitate me and a one ton animal off into space.

The happiness I courted was specific: to conquer a fear I’d been carrying around my entire life. But I didn’t just want to conquer it, I wanted to excel.

When I was a teenager, I attempted to conquer my fear of horses by riding.  Instead, I got as far as sitting on a horse for thirty seconds. He never even moved. That’s all I could handle. A week later, he threw his owner, who had been riding him for years. That settled it in my mind: some fears weren’t worth a crushed vertabrae.

And yet.

I’ve spent the last twenty-nine years admiring horses from the comfort of my car. Daily, I drive alongside rolling pastures that dot the Land-of-Bucolia where I live, watching horses graze and toss their tails. The horses seem small and manageable from a distance.

I’ve felt this way before. Several years ago I was riding a wave of successful newness: I’d moved and opened a business so why not try a triathlon? I ran, I rode my bike, and I did the breaststroke in open water while wearing unnecessary goggles and hair protection. Why? Because I never put my face in the water. I’m a quadruple Type A who needs to be in control all the time. And I couldn’t control what lived in the lake.

What if a giant barracuda swam toward my face? What if the Loch Ness monster grabbed my ankles and pulled me under? It didn’t matter that barracuda live in the ocean or that the Loch Ness is lake folklore of Scotland and I was swimming in dime-sized lakes in Connecticut.

Reason didn’t factor into the fear. But, when I mentioned to my friend Jane, an avid horsewoman, that I wanted to try horseback riding again, she said she had been intimidated at the beginning, too and now she loved it.

I wanted so badly to love it.

So last month I called a local stable, arranged for a $45 private lesson, and on the appointed day pulled on my boots. I drove confidently to the stable and instead of driving by, pulled my car down its rutted gravel road. I parked and strode purposefully to the barn, used my whole body to slide the heavy door open and then- I couldn’t move. There were horses everywhere. Being brushed, being washed, winying from their bays. They were huge with massive heads and I imagined a set of horse teeth taking a hunk out of my leg if I attempted to climb onto its back. I defaulted to my safety plan: talk my way out of the lesson, stay in control.

Newly purposeful, I walked carefully around horses to a woman with kind eyes. “Oh, Becky? She’s back through the ring.” I kept going, walking past jumping apparatus and sets of climb-on-the-back-of-horses stairs, to a tiny girl-sized woman.

“Oh, hi! There you are, let’s get Guennie. She’s super gentle and has been doing lessons for years.” I walked with her. This is the moment, this is when I’m going to say, Um- no thanks. I love my vertebrae. But I just follow to the tack room. What is wrong with me- say something!

The next thing I know, I’m wearing a helmet and carrying a saddle. Becky leads Guennie to the indoor paddock and I follow. Oddly, I’m patting Guennie on her mane. Now I’m babbling about the puppy I’ve been training, and now I am sitting on Guennie and don’t remember how I did it. Holy shit.

I’m not even afraid. I am comfortable. I do what Becky says and steer Guennie in circles around the paddock. I learn to stop her and when Becky asks me to stand up in the stirrups and let go of the reins, spreading my arms wide- I do it, and I’m pretty sure I yelp. I sit down and somehow I’m cantoring and then I’m learning to post: up, down, up, down, one, two, one, two. It’s all going great until I start wondering what I would do if the horse bolts, or if I pulled the bit too tight, or what if. . .

“Hey,” Becky says, holding the reins and looking me in the eye, “The people who have the hardest time horseback riding are the Type A ones.”

I laugh out loud. And then I stop thinking about all the things that could go wrong and I just enjoy myself. When the lesson’s over, I help brush Guennie and Becky says, “People think that with horseback riding, you’re 80% in control. That’s wrong. The horse is 80% in control and if you’re lucky, you get 20%.”

Standing in a barn with mud up to my ankles, leading Guennie back to her stall, it hits me that maybe I don’t have to be in control all of the time. Maybe that was my real lesson.

And I drive home, into the sunset.

 

 

 

 

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This is What Democracy Looks Like

girl-power

When I boarded Skedaddle bus number 6661 from Hartford’s Trinity College at 1:15 AM on January 21st, I wasn’t expecting to be handed a cookie. It was chocolate chip, homemade and delicious. As the bus pulled out of the parking lot the other riders and I got comfortable for the six-hour ride to our nation’s capitol, ate our cookies and let out a collective “Whoo hoo!” This was just the first of a smorgasbord of experiences to, from, and at the Women’s March on Washington.

I wasn’t going to D.C. only to march as my own response to the hateful, misogynistic, racist, divisive call of rhetoric from our now 45th president, I was going to D.C. to talk with other marchers for inclusion in an essay I will be writing for PAGE literary magazine.

The day of the inauguration I drafted my questions. Sitting at my kitchen counter with my pen, paper and pre-march sustinence of tea and chocolate, I watched and listened to Trump’s bleak inaugural address. My questions, it turned out, were easy: “Why are you marching?” “Will your involvment encourage future civic involvment?”

By the time my bus arrived in D.C. I had interviewed two women: one upon boarding while nibbling our cookies and one hours later as our bus drove out of the Baltimore harbor tunnel and into fog.

By the time my bus departed D.C., I had marched, chanted, posed for pictures, taken pictures, and interviewed four more women, not including the four women I spent the day with- who two days ago were acquaintences and are now friends.

street

I have enough material for a book series never mind an essay.

I’m just beginning to digest the smorgesbord. After a late morning breakfast and the best shower ever, I spent the majority of today watching video of yesterday’s rally speakers and spoke by phone with a graduate school friend who was also at the event to compare notes. I’ve reviewed my little red notebook and disciphered my interview short-hand while my memory is fresh.

In my notebook I recorded my talks with a nurse, a professor, a town official, an immigant, and an elementary school teacher. All women, but from different economic classes and a huge arrary of life expererience. We gathered with over 500,000 others to march, to support, and chant together. There was a rhetorical call and this was our action response.

capitol

In my first chant of the day a single voice called “Tell me what democracy looks like!” And we responded: “This is what democracy looks like!” The signs were up, the mood was up, my head was up.

womens-march-sign

I will begin the essay this week, digesting, interpreting, and finally writing my impressions. It would be a lie to say that I know exactly what that essay will look like. But I do know this: my experience at the Women’s March in our nation’s capitol was similar to the cookie I was handed when I first boarded the bus: homemade, homegrown, and even more delicious.

Whatever Sprinkles Your Donuts

 

gigi-new-years-day
Gigi has a hangover.

New Year’s Day, 2017! You: New! Improved! Ugh.

After a late night (early morning) of celebrating, I snuggled with Gigi on the sofa and turned on the TV. In about ten seconds the “lose weight” ads started. I’m so over it.

Christmastime media tells women to bake it, New Year’s Day media tells us not to eat it.

At this very moment I am eating a Deluxe Hershey’s Kiss. I peeled back the gold foil wrapper and enjoyed. I don’t feel guilty about it and I don’t wish it was sugar-free. As a mother, I have enough guilt to fill a Hershey’s factory, so I certainly don’t want to eat my guilt. I’d rather look it square in the eyes of my three sons (have I doled out love equally?) and the garden I planned on whipping into shape but ended up neglecting as other things took priority. Like sleeping.

You know, you’ve just got to do what makes you happy. And things that make us happy change. So this year, instead of seeing flaws, I’m seeing possibilities for happiness. If I’m going to eat a donut, it better be slathered in sprinkles, as if it were covered in all the stars in the sky.

sprinkles

A Little Sparkle (even from teenagers)

 

Merry Christmas Everyone!

Neighborhood Christmas

portrait

This is how it is: I’ve been in my new old-house neighborhood for over a year and I know exactly three neighbors. I do, however, know all of the dogs. I blame hats.

My neighbors and I approach each other with short, cold-weather greetings like: “Morning!” “Don’t worry, he’s friendly!” and “Which house are you?” We are covered from hat to boot with only our noses exposed.

Once, taking my English Springer puppy Gigi on a longish walk two miles up our long rural street, a woman in a sprawling colonial opened its front door and hollered from atop her hill, “Hello! Is it very icy?”

But, today I will finally be able to put the people names with the dog names and all of them into the landscape of our old logging woods neighborhood because today is the Neighborhood Christmas Party. Of course I’m expected to bring something. I only remembered this fact a couple hours ago and as I write this, my last batch of something is in the oven and the party starts in 50 minutes.

molds

In my perfect week-before-Christmas dream I have hours to sit with my dessert cookbooks contemplating options while I drink a pot of tea. All the handmade by me Christmas presents are already wrapped, shovels are greased and ready by the door, and I know exactly what I’m wearing to every Christmas party.

In my reality none of these things is possible because I spent all my time reading Drew Magary’s Hater’s Guide to the Williams-Sonoma Catalog aloud to anyone in the house.

With the few hours before the party that I was going to work on my manuscript (memoir-in-it-seems-forever-process) instead I pulled my trusty Hershey’s Homemade cookbook from the kitchen bookshelf.

hersheys-homemade

I bought Hershey’s Homemade in 1991 by sending an envelope to the Hershey Company with three cocoa powder proofs of purchase wrapped inside a check totaling $1.50 for shipping and handling. I was a newly engaged college junior with a chocolate addiction. That my fiance (now my husband, Greg) didn’t (and still doesn’t) like chocolate didn’t even enter my mind. If I was going to go through the effort to bake, I was going to bake what I liked. Today, 25 years later, my eyes fell on this recipe:

Black Magic Cake

Ingredients:

  • 2 cups sugar
  • 1/2 cup vegetable oil
  • 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 1 cup buttermilk or sour milk *
  • 2 eggs
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 2 teaspoons baking soda
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • 1 cup strong black coffee OR 2 teaspoons powdered instant coffee plus 1 cup boiling water
  • 3/4 cup HERSHEY’S Cocoa
  • 1-3/4 cups all-purpose flour

Directions

  • 1. Heat oven to 350°F. Grease and flour 12-cup fluted tube pan, two 9-inch round baking pans or one 13x9x2-inch baking pan.
  • 2. Stir together sugar, flour, cocoa, baking soda, baking powder and salt in large bowl. Add eggs, buttermilk, coffee, oil and vanilla; beat on medium speed of mixer 2 minutes (Batter will be thin). Pour batter evenly into prepared pan.
  • 3. Bake 50 to 55 minutes for fluted tube pan, 30 to 35 minutes for round pans, 35 to 40 minutes for rectangular pan or until wooden pick inserted in center comes out clean. Cool 10 minutes. Loosen cake from side of pan and remove from pans to wire racks. Cool completely. Frost as desired. Makes 12 servings.
  • * To sour milk: Use 1 tablespoon white vinegar plus milk to equal 1 cup.

This was the “bring something” winner because I happened to have all the ingredients. But the presentation of the cake in the cookbook was a little wah. . . wah. The photo showed the cake baked in a rectangular sheet pan and frosted.

It was clearly a time for my grandfather’s Jell-O molds.

mixer

 

My grandfather was a professional baker who died when I was six. I’m lucky enough to have one of his commercial mixers as well as an assortment of individually-sized Jell-O molds. I can’t stand Jell-O so I use the molds for individual cakes.

I made Black Magic Cake as directed and poured into my molds. I greased and floured the tins which was a mistake. A good deal of the flour stuck to the tops of the cakes when they were turned out onto the cooling rack. For the second batch, I only used Pam.

filled

The solution for the mistake cakes was to brush off as much flour as I could and apply powdered sugar through a sieve. Presto.

The remaining cakes I whisked confectioner’s sugar and milk, used the whisk to flick-drizzle it onto the cakes and added a garnish of a single blackberry and blueberry each.

cakes-closeup

Wow. These look better than I hoped. I feel very generous in a Christmas-y way, letting anyone other than me eat these. Watch out neighborhood, here I come!

 

Christmas in a Jar

I am beginning this blog post from the check-out line at Michael’s craft store. It’s a line that rivals only the infamous line at Barnes and Noble on Black Friday. My craft store line has snaked from the registers past Christmas bows and wrapping paper into the serious art isle whose shelves include empty canvases, cold-pressed papers, and watercolor paints in cabinets under lock and key. I’ve moved up and now stand next to intricately designed coloring books for adults.

Why would I put myself through this? Pinterest. It’s all Pinterest’s fault. A couple weeks ago I came across this image:

jars
Image courtesy Under the Sycamore

. . . and I was smitten. I’ve loved miniatures forever and used to have a dollhouse.

But my dollhouse is long-gone and a few years back, I gave the dollhouse furniture away to a friend with two little girls. My boys were more interested in other toys and I wanted the miniature beds and bureaus to go to someone who would enjoy them.

I don’t have the time for a dollhouse now, but a miniature Christmas world in a jar? I think I can swing that. The supplies are few and directions simple: pour the snow (Epsom salt) into the bottom of the jar, add figures, and ta da! It’s Christmas.

Down in my scary basement, I have about fifty old glass jars. I try never to go down there. It’s got a dirt floor and stone walls. Snakes have been known to make it home. I made my husband bring about ten of the jars upstairs. Then he cleaned them (OMG)!

basement

So, here I am in line, holding some cute little trees, a couple reindeer, and some metal house ornaments. Finally! Once I get home I realize the tin houses are too big for the jars. No prob. I repurpose some glass vases and now, twenty hours later- it’s instant Christmas.

village

 

tree

I have just enough Epsom salt leftover to soak my feet.

A Homeowner’s Fairy Tale

WHEN I WAS A LITTLE GIRL, I IMAGINED WHAT IT MIGHT BE LIKE TO LIVE IN A CASTLE OR A TOWER OR A MAGICAL FOREST.

from-book
Our fairy tale cottage as it appeared in the 1920s

I tried to imagine myself as a princess. I tried really hard, but it never worked. Somehow in my fantasies I was always the assistant to the princess. I attribute this to my peasant ancestry.

Since I was relegated to be the right hand of the princess, the position included suitable lodgings. I would be able to visit the castle or tower or magical forest as often as I pleased, yet I would live in a cottage. The cottage was my childhood bedroom.

I remember commandeering my mother’s broom and sweeping away real cobwebs. I used my cardboard kitchenette where I cooked faux dinners and drank plastic glasses full of disappearing toy milk. My dolls had bunk beds with knitted blankets that they straightened every morning before eating their breakfast. Because our house was a ranch my fairy tale cottage had two stories. I mentally placed a staircase in my bedroom closet and staged regular entrances and exits from “upstairs.” Importantly, unlike our real house, my imaginary cottage would have a fireplace, which of course, was the bureau.

I am embarrassed to say how long I kept this up. So I won’t. (I was nine.)

I have never outgrown my cottage fantasy. I have always wanted a not-too-big home. Nothing excessively showy (although a little sparkle is appreciated) and conversely, nothing too rough like a cabin. Someplace snug, but not cramped. Someplace with charm.

After living in eleven other places, my fairy tale dream came true. But in the true story, no princess bestowed it. Instead, it fell magically in my lap.

house
Clockwise from top left: Once the attached shed, the addition houses the new kitchen downstairs and master bedroom upstairs. The doorway from the original part of the house to the kitchen. The previous homeowner left me this fall display of gourds, pumpkin, and bittersweet. The back of the house. That large window on the top floor is where my desk sits.

Once upon a time a couple in their forties with three teenage sons were approached by the mother of a neighbor. “Please, I want to buy your house so I can live near my daughter,” she said. 

The couple felt sympathy for the grandmother and although they had no place else to go, they quickly agreed. The next day, the couple met their fairy god-mother (see: Mary the real estate agent) at a house for sale in the next town. It was white (the woman’s favorite) and had a porch, a barn, two stories, and woods that abutted a forest. When the woman entered the master bedroom she was drawn to a large window that overlooked the backyard. Nearly touching the window was a large lilac bush with a blue jay in it; two of her favorite things. She imagined a writing desk in that very spot.

“This is home,” she said. Her husband had the same idea when he saw how much fun he would have with his leaf blower on three acres. “This is home,” he said. The couple looked at no other house. The fairy godmother said, “It’s meant to be yours.”

Due to the fairy godmother, the sale went through easily despite hurdles that resembled walls and the family moved in. Then the woman held Thanksgiving and Christmas while writing a book and kept writing all the way through New Year’s while existing on cereal and red wine.

So, there you have it. I’m here and have spent the last year writing and not working too much on the house. I worked in the yard enough to get two bouts of poison ivy but that’s for another post.

Hallway

The original living quarters was a Cape with one and a half stories and three bedrooms under the eaves. The front door has been replaced but the floors are the original chestnut. The children kept tearing holes in their socks requiring the regular swinging of a hammer and nail-setter. This is one of two staircases in the house.

Staircase

I especially love the post-medieval English pediment details on the underside of the upstairs landing. I’ve painted nothing so far in this space. I haven’t finished listening to what the house wants.

Unmade Beds

Just upstairs are the twins’ bedrooms. Unlike my childhood dolls, this pair of fifteen year-olds don’t often make their beds.

This is a true-life fairy tale, after all.

Old House | New Life

first-old-house-new-life-post

What the hell did I do? The cliches run through my head: blaze a trail, back to square one, been there done that, or the obvious: begin at the beginning.

Not this time.

It begins, I think- with breakfast. It begins with a pen and paper and a prayer for a quiet house. To write, this is what I need. I’m not the type of writer who gets the job done in a coffee shop. No, I need silence while I contort my legs beneath me and settle to the task of untwisting my mind so the words can appear on paper.

I also need my husband and three sons out of the house. If I can achieve all of these things at once it will be a sort of miracle.

The job? The untwisting? Imagine me saying this offhandedly: Oh, I’m just writing a book.

Crazy. Even more crazy? I sold our house (that wasn’t exactly for sale) and bought another one. Not just another house, but another house in need of a make-over. This change happened in a string of changes: I closed my sewing business, my oldest started college, and I went to graduate school.

I knew my oldest would grow up and go to college, but I never imagined I would. Because I had a career, not writing but sewing. I designed drapery, duvets, bed-skirts and pillows. I loved it. Then, I left.

Then, I wanted more. It took me a little while, but I discovered that I needed a narrative that had more weight than silk. The transition to full-time writing and teaching wasn’t immediate. I spent six months revisiting my previous enchantments: I took classes in jewelry making, watercolor, and figure drawing. Then I took a creative writing class. Bingo. 

By then I’d been blogging here for several years. I called the blog “Your Monday Moment,” for my mom and aunt. They were sharing care-giving of my grandmother. Week-ends were the hardest for them. I live too far away to be any regular help, so I wrote what they thought was funny: my life. I sent them the blog in their email every Monday morning and hoped I was helping. Laughter can do that.

Almost three years ago, my grandmother died. I kept the blog going because I couldn’t stop. What I began as a way to fill a need in someone else was filling a need in me. It’s been a year since I posted. Life morphs but I can’t say goodbye to this blog. So I decided to re-name it.

I’ve spent my life working in houses: mine and other people’s. All twelve that have been home and the couple hundred that my clients owned and I visited- inspire me still. The inspiration doesn’t just come from the buildings, but the people who lived or still live- inside.

When I think about home, I can feel the untwisting- my shoulders relax, I have another sip of tea and dive in, right here, on this page. Because although I am also writing a book about a house I lived in over ten years ago, a house where some bizarre and some beautiful things happened- I am simultaneously pulled to my new old house. I can’t stop thinking about it. It’s new to me. It’s old and expansive. It has stories. It’s my new beginning.

I am going to share those stories with you, here- on Mondays. But first, breakfast.

cereal

Flight of the SpiderWoman

New_Avengers_Vol_1_15_Textless

When my boys were little they used to ask me, “Mom, if you could pick, what superpower would you want?” I always said, “flying” because I knew that they would get it. What little boy didn’t want to fly? I also said “flying” because some of my favorite dreams from childhood involved me tripping near the basement stairs but instead of falling, I floated safely to the bottom. My mother was always in the basement of my dreams, doing what else? Laundry.

What I really wanted to say to my little boys was, “I want a superpower that hasn’t been invented. One that picks up all the toys when I’m sleeping, can predict when one of you kids is about to push the other or get a splinter, a superpower that can remind me to bring all the coupons to the grocery store since I spent an hour and a half cutting them out and organizing the in an envelope by isle.”

I never got those powers. If I didn’t pick up the toys or remember the coupons there was twice as much work to do the next day and it was more expensive. I am not nostalgic for that time. (Is it obvious?)

I continue to develop as a mother (I think of it as a life-long exercise in patience) and would ask for different things now. A week ago I got my chance.

To reduce stress and fit in my jeans, I like to ride my bike. Last Sunday I was on a long bike ride, The Flattest Century in the East, with a friend. At the second rest stop, around mile 50, my friend suggested we sit in the grass and stretch our legs. I grabbed a handful of grapes and sat down. Seconds later I said, “Wendy, I think something just bit me.” I hopped up and we finished the 102 miles, ate dinner together and once I got home I went right to bed.

Two days later enormous welts appeared on the back of my right thigh. The doctor said, “You’ve been bitten, many times, by a spider.” He winced when he said it. He also looked at me funny. When I got home, completely bandaged up and loaded with antibiotics, I pulled my bike shorts out of the laundry basket. There was a hole right where the biggest bite was. I presume my attacker bit me, climbed into my shorts, and attempted to eat the rest of my leg for dinner.

For the last several days I have been going outside in the dark to water my flowers and carrying around a towel to sit on. The spider bites are weeping. I’m wearing shorts rolled up to my hip bone. It’s a look I don’t recommend. After all this, I am waiting for my superpowers to show up. Spiderman was bitten and he got a cool suit and web shooters.

I don’t want practical things anymore. Like Spiderman, I want magic. I want the summer not to turn to fall, I want my boys and I to always be close, I want my parents to be healthy and for anyone with an illness to be cured. I want to remember for myself what I always tell my boys, that we can do anything. I want to laugh out loud with the wonder of being alive and if I happen to do this walking down the street, I want other people to laugh too- not wonder who the crazy woman is. I want people to stop being caught up in things that don’t matter. I could probably be more kind.

After I checked my bike shorts that day, I went in my bedroom, took off my bandages and looked at my leg. Reflected in the mirror was my bum, which was wearing a pair of black lace underwear. I laughed out loud and my laugh went out the window, ricocheted off the house across the street and flew throughout the neighborhood. My underwear looked like a giant spiderweb.