There are thirty-two types of hammers. I looked it up.
I have six hammers, four of which are varying sizes and decrement of the same type much like siblings but in tools, one is specifically for flooring, and the last is a sledge. I suspect I may have more hammers in places where they shouldn’t be--a remnant behavior from childhood, but at the last gathering of the hammers, there were six.
The four related hammers are from the claw family. During my exploration of personal hammers, each was lifted and toyed with and paired with the question as to why I had so many of the same hammer. One was my grandfather’s. When he passed away, I was gifted an old milk crate full of his meticulously kept, old-timey tools, many of which are now gone—again, the same remnant behavior from childhood—but the hammer remains. It’s got some paint and plaster and dirt on it, but it is otherwise holding up just fine.
My Dad bought me a hammer as a housewarming gift. The others just seemed to appear. I don’t recall ever buying a hammer. Never. Never in my life has the thought, “hmm, I need a hammer” ever run through my mind. In the same way that my step-dad’s hammers disappeared from his tool box, new ones keep showing up in mine.
The sledgehammer was a birthday gift from a friend. Someone knows me very, very well.
All of the hammers wear their love from me like a fancier person might wear a tennis bracelet. In lieu of bedazzling with diamonds, my tools are smeared with paint, smudged with dirt and tinged with plaster or goo. They have been used often and they all do their job quite well.
So, it was a mystery to me, when after the last blog posting which showed an image of one of my hammers, a male friend commented that I needed a new hammer. Immediately shrouded in shame, I saw that my hammer looked pretty rough. Clearly, cleaning the handles has not been a priority, not even in the slightest, and I spiraled down, making a silent promise to myself to take better care of my tools in the future.
The unkempt nature of my tools belies the fastidiousness in which I keep my house. It is immaculate.
As I shrank into my shame spiral, I asked him why he thought I needed a new one and braced myself for the lecture around having dirty tools. I was not prepared for his actual reason.
He explained that they make hammers out of new materials now that are lighter and easier for someone like me to use.
Someone like me? Someone like me. Old? Feeble? Female? Unable to properly swing 2.2 pounds? The conversation degenerated into stammers and incomplete sentences. Someone like me was not happy with the implications. The shame blanket caught fire.
That’s when I gathered my hammers, laid them all out on a table, and lifted each and every one. Then I went to the hardware store and lifted all of their hammers. Someone like me had a hard time noticing the nuance differences in weight. My knowledge of tools comes on an as-needed basis and I was quite certain that I didn’t need a new hammer.
When I was in fourth grade, we moved to a new old house. Shortly after we moved in, a brand-new house was being built on the neighboring lot. Every day, a shirtless man appeared and set up his work, laid out his tools, and said hello to the growing crowd of on lookers. His name was Mike, and he was the dad of the kids who occasionally tagged along and the husband to the wife who appeared after the house was completed.
It’s hard to say who showed up first, the neighborhood kids or the neighborhood wives. Mike, as I recall, was one good-looking guy. While he worked, he never lacked a little helper or a cold beverage or a sandwich. The wives were very attentive to everything but their kids.
Mike was awesome, though. He gave all of the kids who showed up a task to do. He didn’t care about your age, gender, or ability. If you came to the lot, he put you to work. Some kids got to stain wood. Other kids were tool runners. Others still picked out the big rocks and placed them near the driveway so Mike could use them later for landscaping, he said.
Tool runners were instructed as to which tools were which. It was important that we knew the difference not only between a wrench and a screwdriver, but also between the types of wrenches and the types of screwdrivers. Mike gave us all lessons on what each thing was called and how it was used. As we waited for the next call out for tools, Mike let us practice using the tools on the scrap wood in the yard. We hammered and pulled nails, screwed and unscrewed screws, and were otherwise occupied for as long as Mike was working.
Sometimes he’d check on us or take a break, and in those times, he’d check our progress in working with the tools. He’d always give a demonstration of how he could put a nail through a 2x4 like a fly ball through a window. Bam! Bam! Two hits and he’d be done. Hashtags weren’t around then but if they were, we would have all been like “hashtag goals!” Mike explained that it isn’t the power of your swing but the physics behind it; how holding the handle properly allows for the weight of the hammer’s head to create its own momentum. He said to us girls, and there were a lot of us, that it wasn’t about strength but about allowing the tool to do the work for you.
Collectively, we girls were not ever instructed in this way. I stopped practicing piano so I could practice using tools with Mike. I was not alone in this. By the end of summer, I had moved on to building my own house: the fort in the back lot. What I lacked in knowledge around structure, I gained in ability to drive a nail. The fort was made up of a LOT of nails.
Flash forward to my current home and the work that I’ve done on it. It isn’t perfect. I’m not a carpenter, but I think Mike would give a nod to how much my hammer skills have improved over the years. So, when it was suggested that I get a lighter hammer because it would be easier to use, I took offense because I know my way around a toolbox. I had hammer lessons, after all.
Childhood friends hold a special place in my heart. Especially the ones who have faded into the shadows of time after being so long ago in the sunshine of my youth. They have evaporated like chalk on a sidewalk of yesterday’s path.
In the last blog post I mentioned a feeble fort I built in the back yard. It wasn’t sturdy, but it was 100% my own effort and doing. I loved it there.
There was another fort that was suspended over a small creek dividing our lot from the neighbor’s. This fort was a well framed, solid structure built by older kids to hide and house their smoking and drinking. They abandoned their building for things like after school athletics and dating. We younger kids moved into that space like nesting mice.
David, Jay, Todd and I invaded the one-room mini-mansion like the mutiny of youth that we were. We cleaned it, repaired it and spent hours and hours in either that space or the other.
We hiked the loping hills of the countryside, proud to have discovered the convent and its graveyard beyond the barbed wire and thistle, always on the hunt for what adventure we could bring back to into the sacred space of the doorless wooden box with small cutouts for windows.
We commandeered tattered lawn furniture left curbside and other broken fodder to fill the space with remnants from the adulthood we so wanted to experience. We did our homework there. We played cards and board games. Todd brought his baseball stats to share and the rest of us called him weird. Jay brought a bit of trouble and spent more time being grounded than able to play in the fort.
For the bulk of those few years, it was David and I, navigating our faulty engineering skills to stabilize my little lean-to on the back lot. He helped me to drag the lumber and linoleum from where it was stored to where it was utilized. He never questioned my ability to build.
At that time and age, no one ever thought twice about little Mari and her entourage of boy friends. The only concerns were about the disappearance of the tools and/or the box of Twinkies. And the boys never offered flack about my skills with tools or our safety therein. Gender and sexualized behaviors weren’t a part of our dynamic. We were free in the androgyny of being neighborhood kids, pestering no one but each other and always on time for dinner at home.
Somewhere between middle school and now, gender roles, taught to us by our elders, squeezed us out of our freedom like a whalebone corset that cinched a little tighter with each year that passed. I grew taller and yet was somehow seen as smaller; as less than—as suddenly incapable of many things that just an inch prior no one thought much about.
With height came hips while menses and bras that fasten in the back magically transformed missing tools into missing make-up. I didn’t put the hammer away. I simply found new tools in which to hide.
Back in the hey of my young adulthood, tools, like so many other things, became gender specific. Cigarettes and drinking were included. Capri cigarettes for women, Marlboro for men, filter-less if he ever had his nose broken in a fight or a tooth knocked out. Skinny wine became a thing because femininity was anorexic in all of its forms.
‘Ladies tool kits,’ in shades of pink, floral and tiny, were no exception. They looked as though Strawberry Shortcake got caught in a die-cast form, fruit scent optional. With a matching carrying case should the need arise to tote an entire entourage of malnourished tools to any home repair emergency, these instruments were an embarrassment to anything outside of jewelry repair, doll dentistry, or the children of Keebler Elves.
Of course, I had a set. I may have even had two. Where they went is a mystery. They probably lifted up and blew away like the dandelion seeds that they were. I just remember the incredible frustration I felt when unwedging the tiny-tot hammer from its flimsy plastic prison and then holding the hammer and thinking that it would shatter the instant it hit anything other than a finishing nail through a sugar cookie.
Well intended, I’m certain that those fragile little instruments, like the ideals around them, harbor a greater purpose, but they hold no real weight in the work that needs to be done.
My leather gloves and crowbar are tirelessly in use, tearing down walls and separating the things that no longer function from the items that are trying to hold them together.
Deconstruction of material fabricated by someone else has meant finding a blend between cast carbon steel and padded underwire; between tool belt and satin sash; between knowing my strengths and accepting self-determination as a societal synonym for single.
It shouldn’t be but I’ve bore witness to independence called out as intimidation and being capable confused with being contemptuous. One fool referred to the project that I was working on as “little” and the work I was doing as “cute.” For good measure, he added “sexy” to his comments as though cute and little somehow belong with sexy. Okay, potential pedophile…why don’t you and your primed-for-prison mindset squeeze yourself into your own pigeonhole because my self-sufficiency is too big for such a small space.
Childhood friends always wanted to help, not because they didn’t think I could manage my vision, but because they were inspired by it. They never isolated me as cute, rather joined me in what became our collective determination. Autonomy isn’t about being alone rather it is the coming together of like minds to find freedom, partnership and possibility as well as having the right tools make it all happen.
I have this fantasy. It’s a bit out there.
There’s an unmarked cargo van, a generator, a five-gallon container of gas, solar powered battery chargers for the cache of power tools in the van, cases of nails, water, granola bars and dried fruit, a few living essentials such as clothing, blankets, a folding chair and folding table, my watercolors, painting and writing paper galore, a fishing rod, and some pots, kettles, and a campfire tripod. I drive to a remote spot in a large mountain range, hidden from human existence with the exception of the one road that I have just used to get to this spot. The road leads to lake access. The land is mine and I am there to build my little cabin and become a recluse.
I imagine cutting down a few small trees to build the structure of my dwelling, digging a deep fire pit that will eventually become a kiln and a smoker for all the fish I’ll catch and things I’ll make out of mud. I live happily and busily establishing my old self in this pristine land, essentially wrecking my part of it not out of malice but out of a desire to be closer to it, and I finally drop the fucking weight from 2020.
Does anyone else have this fantasy?
I know there are easier weight loss methods but the appeal of my survival in the wilderness, alone, and without the temptation of an oven in which to bake cakes, pies, muffins, breads or cinnamon rolls makes my lack of will power obsolete. Who needs the strength to say no when a bear is looking at you the way you look at a donut?
There are other fantasies. They pop up like corn in hot oil and I butter them, salt them and gobble them down like the delicious morsels that they are.
I imagine turning my dilapidated garden-shed into a chichi she-shed by knocking out a wall, raising the roof, putting a deck around it and so on. I went so far as to contact a friend who’s an architect. He hashed out my idea on a napkin before it occurred to us that I was wanting to build a building to escape the building that I already live in. MY WHOLE HOUSE IS A SHE-SHED! Why would I want a second one fifty yards away?
That had nothing to do with diet and has everything to do with being forced to look at the former owner’s hack-job of a homemade shed.
Looking at it from my back patio is like a punch to my eye sockets every day. I blame its aesthetic for the furrow lines in my forehead, the dragged down mouth and sagging jowl. The actual fault belongs to aging, but the shed certainly isn’t helping matters.
It reminds me of when I was ten and building forts in the back yard to escape my overly boisterous family.
I built a ramshackle two-sided shack near a creek on the wild back lot of our fourteen-acre yard. It had a front and a back that were held feebly in place by the single sheet of plywood precariously balanced and faintly nailed down as a roof. The whole thing was draped in clear plastic sheeting, giving the sides the option of being tied back for air conditioning. I was living large.
The garage, attic and storage sheds were scoured clean of scrap materials and tools, much to the annoyance of my stepdad who was constantly yelling “where is the damn hammer?”
I have my own tools now and when I start wondering where the damn hammer is, I also have to wonder if I rearrange things while sleep walking or if the shoemaker’s elves are drunk and messing with me again.
My fort was many things and well-built was not one of them, not too unlike my current shed. Thankfully my home remodeling skills have dramatically improved since the weeble-wobble lean-to that eventually fell down. My current skills have more patience and understand the engineering component to my artistic vision. Also, not only am I allowed to use power tools, but I have my own collection of them.
It’s given me a false sense of security in my fantasy life for the great outdoors, but owning power tools has definitely helped me out a great deal in the very real life of being single and owning a home.
Last summer, the patio gate finally gave way. The rot that had been overlooked for four years finally let go of the nails that were pretending to hold the gate together, and the thing crumbled like feta cheese on an omelette. It took a little over an hour and one—ONE—trip to the hardware store to cut, sand, stain and assemble the new gate.
I’d be lying if I didn’t start of this project like I normally do by wanting someone else to do it. I go through my options: me, me, hire someone, ask for help from a neighbor, phone a friend, me, me or more me. I weigh the options: asking for help will put this immediate need on someone else’s timeframe and hiring someone, also a time thing, will cost money that is being meticulously saved for a gym membership and a diet plan…or a sweet pair of Frye boots. I can’t decide.
Sometimes a whiny voice cries out in my head, “I wish I had a man around so he could just fix it.”
Oh damn. Really? I take umbrage with that sniveling twit in my head because she isn’t speaking from experience, rather railroading mine. I argue with her about what she thinks a man can do that I can’t. Between youtube, pinterest, woodshop in college, and a shit-ton of experience fixing things because, as mentioned in a previous post, I’ve been taught to fish, so-to-speak, I’ve got this.
And so I do.
Sunday morning, my dog barked like the world was on fire. It was 7am. Expecting a garden-devouring bunch of vicious rabbits, as is often the case, I opened my door and found, instead, a bouquet of flowers, a bag of chocolate hearts and a note. I caught a glimpse of my neighbor's backside as it ducked into her house. She left a gift from her four-year old daughter. The note, scrawled in large, pink and some backwards letters told me that I am loved.
Sometimes I forget.
Sometimes it takes the enormous, wide-open heart of a small child to remind us about the vast reach and expansive depth of unadulterated, unsullied and unconditional love.
Though it happened to be Valentine’s day, this love extended beyond the one-day celebration and into the infinite. Sidewalk chalk letters and hearts often decorate my steps and copy-paper watercolors are often taped to my door. She is not my child, but she is.
When my daughter was four, she announced that she would like to marry me when she grows up. She had seen enough princess movies to know that marriage meant happily ever after, as in forever. I said a hearty 'yes' and then explained to her that she need not reserve that space and time for us, because, as her mother, I was already her forever. She agreed and then told me that she was going to marry the dog, too.
Since then, I’ve had a few other offers but from people my own age. None of the offers were as sweet or sincere as that of my daughter’s and I’m not about to lower that standard.
My daughter’s love showed up in so many ways: crayons on paper, pens on the wall, markers up her nose, songs on bike rides, car trips, bath time, chitty-chatty walks to the park, hand prints everywhere and for every gift giving opportunity, and lots and lots of excitement and honesty. It was these last two, the excitement and honesty, for which I was able to multi-task my love giving abilities along with my DIY handiness.
One day, after a War and Peace amount of time in the bathroom, my mini-me walked into the hallway. She bee-lined to the linen closet and grabbed a fresh roll of toilet paper. She marched back into the bathroom and shut the door behind her. I was so proud of her for doing what so many adults cannot: replacing the toilet paper roll when it’s out.
But that’s not what she was doing. I knocked and a little voice called out, “yeeeessss?” I asked if things were okay in there and she opened the door, placed her little dimpled knuckles on her adorably round and surprisingly wet, middle and stated, “No. Things are not okay. Did you know that it takes an awful lot of toilet paper to get that water to stop going down the sink?”
The Barbies were trying to have a pool party, but it was failing due to the slow drain of water from the sink. You see, my once-husband wasn’t nearly as handy as he was practical. The stopper on the drain had stopped stopping so instead of replacing it, which he felt was labor, he simply removed it. At the time, it seemed like a viable solution. But now, with two full rolls of toilet paper crammed into the space where the stopper should have been and a sink full of disgruntled Barbie dolls, I was left to figure out how to fix this situation on my own since he-who-was-not-yet-my-ex was away for work.
I called my dad. I asked him to come over and fix the sink and he refused. It was my sink and my problem, he said, and I was an adult and had to figure this stuff out. In my defense, I had. I called him.
He agreed to at least walk me through the process of my first ever plumbing job but not before repeating his favorite adage, “If you give a man a fish, he eats for a day. If you teach him how to fish, he eats for a lifetime.”
After that, all I heard from my dad was blah-blah-blah ‘J-trap’ and ‘snake’ and ‘bucket’ and ‘teaching you to fish.’ What I had wanted to hear was, “I fixed it for you. Who wants ice cream?” but I knew better.
As disappointed as I was, I knew he was right. This would not be our last Barbie pool party or issue with the sink.
My daughter and I set to work gathering towels, a bucket and a plumber’s wrench, while having a conversation about what types of paper go where and why. I asked her what kind of paper went in the toilet and she correctly answered, “toilet paper.” I explained that toilet paper doesn’t clog the toilet; that it was made to flow with the water versus stop it. Following that same thread, I asked her what kind of paper goes in the sink. “Sink paper!!” She was very excited about this answer. “Right!” I said before asking, “Do we have any sink paper?”
“No,” she said, and then asked, “can we get some?”
“No,” I said explaining that no such thing exists because paper isn’t supposed to go in the sink.
She got it much like I had gotten my dad’s lesson.
I sat her down next to me, giving her the title of assistant, and walked her through the whole process of unclogging the sink.
The pipes were stuffed FULL of toilet paper. She clearly worked very hard to get the water to not go down the drain. She concurred. The toilet paper had reached the wall pipes.
My dad’s words rang in my head. “If the toilet paper is in the wall, you’ll need to snake it out…but be careful. Your house is old and the pipes are probably original which means that snaking runs the risk of poking a hole in the pipes. If that happens, you’ll be needing a plumber and it will be a costly repair because he’ll have to open up the wall…”
Son of a bitch.
I wasn’t upset with anyone other than the plumber that I didn’t want to call. I kept hearing dollar signs for money I didn’t have.
Sure, necessity is the mother of invention, but poverty is its ass-slappin’ daddy. This was the one time I had both parents intact and I was determined to get the pool party back in full swing.
I considered getting the wet-vac from the garage to suck the tp out but settled on getting the bent-nosed pliers from my jewelry making box instead. I made a long ‘J’hook out of a beading needle and fished the toilet paper safely out of the wall. No poking holes through old pipes and no need for a plumber.
The Barbies moved their party to the tub, and I lost my assistant to a bubbly bath, a gaggle of dolls and lots and lots of giggles.
And this is what love is to me. It is a patient teacher—especially in the face of a tantruming and unwilling student such as myself, a quiet determination, an equal partner even if one partner played with barbies instead of handing me the wrench, an undeniable faith that things will be okay, a soft hand, a big hug, and sometimes it’s a bit of fun.
Sometimes love comes like bubbles or like sidewalk chalk or like a note written in a pink marker. It doesn’t need a day like Valentine’s Day, rather it needs an experience where the expression becomes everlasting.
I know I am loved, and I love in return…and I am also slightly handy, thanks in part, to a lazy former spouse and a father who didn’t want to be bothered but who bothered anyway because that’s what love is to him, too…even if he finds it slightly annoying.
Trying to write a blog post with a right thumb that won’t bend has made for long work in both trying to decipher the hand-written notes and then rewriting them into coherent sentences.
I’ve had some issues with thumbs in recent years. The first time, when I was solidly pet-less, there was a floor involved. This time it was a cat.
As the pandemic settled in like an ass-indent on an old couch, the fabric of a predictable and sometimes mundane existence wore bare and frayed the threads that held us all, especially couples, together. I found myself unforeseeably single once again.
In a desperate need for companionship and touch that I couched as “I’m better off on my own anyway,” I found myself forking over loads of cash for some ball play with collars-and-command action.
Her name is George and she’s a sweet-as-they-come, velvety hound mix. She’s my 60-pound lap warmer and 2am alert that a leaf may have fallen from a tree. She buffed my right arm while nearly dislocating its shoulder as we attempted to leash train this un-walked, three year old yard dog.
It has now been 10 months and four consistent methods of certified training and she still doesn’t understand the leash, basic commands, or that she will never gain traction on the wooden floors.
A month after getting her, I had to go back to work. Every morning, she barks at me from the front window as I leave for the day, and howls from that same window when I return. I suspect it may be an 8-hour show, but none of the neighbors complain.
George and I develop our routines. We settle in like an old couple but her inconsolable need for my presence gets a bit bothersome. She’s needy. Typically, that’s my role and I learn, firsthand, how very annoying that is. As much as I appreciate the mirror-as-lesson of her behavior, I find myself longing for a fenced yard. Boundaries are good in any relationship. Somedays I think about a fence with a hole in it…but a fence all the same.
So, I adopt a cat because that’s how the pandemic affects our decision-making abilities. I’m not sure how I missed the turn for hardware store to pick up fencing materials and ended up with a loaded cat carrier in my car instead, but there you have it.
It will come as no surprise that the new cat and the needy dog do not get along. Not on days one, two, or three anyway. One lapse in this knowledge left me with a cat shredding my right wrist while circumcising my thumb and the dog, for some reason, whining while wagging her tail. It was as though she was having a very passive-aggressive gratification ceremony at my expense.
The bath of blood that was once my hand became nulled in comparison to the pain of a pierced thumb. It was worse than the first time I had a thumb injury in this house.
At the end of summer, 2018, as hurricane Florence worked to transform the piedmont city of Charlotte, North Carolina into Atlantis, I was a castaway at home with a hammer, a small piece of 2-by-4, and twenty-seven boxes of snap-together wood laminate flooring.
The nine-month kitchen remodeling project, borne on the clamshell of a leaky dishwasher that rotted the cabinets and floor, was coming to its completion. The new floor was waiting to be installed and I, out of financial necessity, was going to be installing it myself. The entire project was DIY with small exceptions. There were no exceptions for the floor. It was going to be all me.
I watched instructional videos. I read the directions on the box. Then, trapped and grounded by mother nature, I figured it was as good a time as any to turn my knowledge into a skill.
It is obvious, now, where I started. It is also obvious when I actually purchased the flooring tools needed to install the floor properly…months and a new project later.
There is a little divot in the floor where a part of my thumb marked its final resting place.
The deluge of rain over ran the gutter capacity and washed the windows in blankets. My back yard became a lake that I could not see from inside the house. It was loud. Trees bowed and snapped, pleading for mercy from the sky while kissing the ground where the roots dug in deep to hold on. I felt helpless, powerless and afraid, certain that my house would be collateral for the debt I owed God for all the shit I had done in my life and all the times I asked Him to damn just about everything. The damning requests were more verbal habit than actual appeal but in the moment of a hurricane, I assumed God and Karma came together, and, like the parents that they are, had a few things to say about those habits.
High on anxiety, fear and a tinge of guilt, I set out to burn off this energy by putting in a floor that I only had an inkling of how to do and a piece of 2-by-4 in lieu of actual tools. I set to work, and hours passed.
By early evening, I had successfully made my way through more than half of the boxes and was gaining confidence in this task when it happened.
With full assurance and determination, my right hand swung the hammer like a 9-iron towards the scrap wood being used as a tool to help snap the floor together. My left hand, thumb on the outer edge, fingers on the inner, never thought to move out of the way. The head of the hammer hit the nail bed of my thumb, popping it like a water balloon and simultaneously skidding my left hand over the edge of the floorboard and shaving off the tip of my middle finger.
The immediate pain teamed with the blood, the throbbing, the damning requests, a whole bunch of fucks thrown in for good measure, created a new form of anxiety called absolute panic.
Survival guide manuals from back in the day when I thought camping was fun taught me to raise my hand higher than my heart. I put it over my head like I had one final question to ask. “Is this really how it ends?”
A two-spicket sprinkler of blood held high over my head stained the subfloor as my mind catastrophized an eminent death. No ambulance could traverse the submerged roads. A helicopter could not manage the winds. I was almost certain that this was it. This was my lonely, isolated demise in a house partially repaired and submerged in the rath of Florence.
It took an eternity of seconds to figure out what to do.
I ran cold water in the newly installed kitchen sink, rinsing the massacre I call a hand, while trying to scoop ice cubes with the offending appendage. By the time the bleeding slowed enough to survey the damage, the tears were a hurricane of their own.
Bandaged but alive, I wrote a note on the subfloor with a sharpie before gingerly finishing the work that needed to be done. A prayer for the sacrificial digits.
My left thumb nail bed is permanently flat.
The issue now is the right thumb. It was double pierced by a cat who didn’t know that this was the hand that would also feed her. My left-hand struggles to help out sometimes.
The spike of her teeth, sharp, swift, and without mercy, felt like it ruptured a nerve. The pain was electric. About an hour and three trays of ice-cubes later, the swelling became concerning. I went to work anyway, complaining of the pain and yet fascinated by the hot-dog appearance of my thumb. I was sent to urgent care.
With a pharmacy bag of antibiotics and not enough ibuprofen to dull the sting, my thumb had ballooned up to the size of a brat. A bright red line was making its way across my hand and towards my arm. A cat’s venom is staphylococcus aureus or some similar quasi-lethal bacteria that not only earned me a trip to urgent care and a caricature of an extremity , but had put me, once again, in the full-on panic about my end-of-life scenario.
Sleep was evasive.
Two weeks and a completed round of meds later, and my thumb still prefers to not bend. The knuckle has a couple of solid knots in it yet where the stab of feline jaws made their way into my bloodstream. The doctor assures my daily inquiries that time and warm water hand baths every half an hour are the new best medicine. I cannot meet these demands. I pray and apologize.
I am learning to trust the doctor’s expertise just as the cat is learning to trust this space where there is a dog, and the dog continues to learn very little. This is pandemic life. This is what it looks like to have a lot of love to give and no one special person to give it to. This is what I mean when I say that I am unforeseeably single and slightly handy…though occasionally without the use of a thumb or two.
This probably doesn’t look very good.
At first glance, you might think that my New Year’s Resolution to shed the 20 from 2020 failed already. I’d love to tell you you’re wrong; that the scale hasn’t gone in the wrong direction, but that would imply that I own a scale. I own many things that contribute to my self-depreciating humor such as jeans from 2010, a mirror with a 15x reflection I call “the mirror of self-hatred”, and shirts speckled with decades-old stains of which I belie that any stain is coffee spilled this morning, but a scale I do not have. That is just too much.
This defeated elliptical machine is something else entirely.
My grandparents, all of them, were devoted, dedicated, and serious Catholics. They cited verse and offered prayers for things that seemed beyond their grasp and out of their control. If you lost something they prayed to St. Anthony. If your heart was broken, they mumbled novenas to St. Rita. And if you were in financial need, the plea went to St. Joseph, rumored to be not only the financial manager of the waking world, but also its real estate agent. An example of this is when my dad was selling his home. The house sat on the market for a long enough time that he revisited his religious upbringing. He took a trip to the local Catholic gift shop and purchased a blessed plastic statue of St. Joseph. My dad then dug a hole in his front yard and plopped the saint in, head first, and completely buried him in the dirt.
All kidding aside, the home sold within the week and sold above the asking price.
The resuscitated statue of St. Joseph sits on the mantel in my dad’s new home—a place of honor as an act of gratitude and spiritual tradition. Belief is powerful.
Not raised with the same religious ethic as my grandparents or parents, their beliefs were both a mystery and a comfort to me. They had a saints to turn to in times of need, and their faith provided a magic in the way things showed up for them. My grandfather used to say, “Never worry about money, Marianne. It will always come.” And it always has.
Many things show up when you express what it is that you truly want.
When I was married, my husband and I, who didn’t agree on anything, decided to get a dog. I am a fan of larger breeds and he of smaller. The compromise was a beagle. We agreed that we would start looking for a beagle in the weeks to come. Well, St. Francis must have been on the heavenly call that night because the next day, I kid you not, a stray beagle showed up at my husband’s work.
Things like this happen with jaw-dropping frequency. It freaks me out a little.
When 2020 became an adjective I put the magnifying glass to my words and wishes. Too many thoughts spoken arrived or left my doorstep, depending on the desired direction. Some things were hard, others challenging, but overall, and in hindsight, each was a blessing.
As 2020 moved from adjective to explicative, so did the weight. All the prayers in the world could not remove the muffin top. Maybe I had the wrong saint. I considered a gym membership and then reconsidered it as the pandemic escalated. To me, fitness centers are all about the ellipticals. I love elliptical machines. I don’t know why but I think they are a tremendous amount of fun. Fun might be the wrong word.
One day after work, I veered into a sporting goods store to look at ellipticals. With the cost too high for my wages, I heard my grandfather’s voice, “Don’t worry about the money, Honey. It will come.” Defeated and mildly swathed in shame, I drove home.
Two blocks from my house, I slammed the brakes on my little Honda Fit and nearly flipped the car tail over tit. On the side of the road, with a note reading “Free”, was an elliptical! Thank you, whatever saint oversees my exercising goals!
After some rather ingenious maneuvering, the machine made it into the hatchback of the car. With two-thirds of it hanging out, I put on the hazards and inched my way home, happy as a clam.
The same genius feat of physics that got the machine in the car, also got it out and then up the three steps into my home. Once in place and cleaned up, I gave it a whirl.
Everything worked except for one thing. The center stabilizing pole wasn’t stable. It thrashed left and right with each round of my feet and arms. Tools in hand, everything got tightened down, and I began again. It was still a capsizing boat. With practice, I learned to engage my full core moving in the slowest motion possible, for a work-out that was ‘good’ and extremely short, but where the machine didn’t threaten to bludgeon me.
One should never have to fear one’s exercise equipment in this way.
My efforts to repair the machine again and again were fruitless and I eventually thanked St. Jude, saint of hopeless causes, for allowing me the clarity to see that what I had in my home was a piece of potentially lethal junk. It sat in its purgatory of un-use for a long time.
With the dawn of 2021 arising, I made some resolutions: walk more, ride my bike, and for God’s sake, stop picking up junk from the side of the road. I decided that it was high time I treated myself better than to take in curbside crap and try to make do. It dawned on me that this wasn’t about being frugal rather it was a practice in lack of faith. I fell short on faith in myself and blind to the magic and mystery of what the great Divine provides.
The saints didn’t provide an elliptical. They gave me a mirror that was shaped like one. The universe provided a clear reflection in the form of this machine, of what I thought of myself; of how much I had settled for less in so many aspects of my overall life instead of believing I deserved better. It put on display, once again, the co-dependent tendency to want to fix everything and revealed that part of me that I thought had long since been left behind in therapy.
My resolution wasn’t really about losing weight or eating healthier. It was about loving myself to the degree that the rubbish could remain at the curb.
A cup of kindness for Auld Ang Syne
One of the many challenges of 2020 is to look back upon it with love and gratitude, but to be fair to the year behind me, that’s what I experienced. I did not expect the year that it was, but I appreciate all that it brought forward.
In the beginning of the year when Corona Virus was rumored to be but a possible flu outbreak, Australia was burning to a crisp, California was on fire, and an earthquake happened in North Carolina, I decided to up my environmental conservancy efforts and work on creating a sustainable yard. That didn’t go so well. But what did go well was that whenever I ate a plant, I re-planted its seeds and grew more plants. Some things bloomed and others went haywire(everyone on my block got tomatoes), and most was eaten by the vast number of deer who took over the neighborhood. I was so proud of the one raspberry that appeared on the vine.
Interest rates dropped and for the first time in my life, I refinanced a home…My home. It felt very grown up—a feeling that typically brings out my inner adolescent, ironically. But not this time. It just felt good.
I bought a new-to-me car. That felt good, too.
Then all hell broke loose with this thing that wasn’t a flu and, as we all know, shit hit the fan. I still don’t understand the run on toilet paper, but it did inspire me to order my tp via the mail (by an environmentally and socially conscious company, of course!). Since I was going so green, I opted to renew any soaps with solid soaps and reduce my plastic usage as much as possible. Another soft-fuzzy in the feel-good corner of life.
And just as the memes started coming in about fire tornados and space aliens, Covid-19 reached a category ‘pandemic’ and the folks who hoarded tp began wishing they’d stocked up on soup and canned meat, too.
The company I work for closed its doors, like so many others, as we (by we, I mean they) figured out the logistics of going virtual. It took three weeks, and in that time, my neighbors and I all pitched in together and collectively re-landscaped all of our yards. Our block is currently gorgeous, and the lot of us went from just neighbors to being friends. One friend even took me to my colonoscopy appointment and waited there for the hour in order to bring me home again. That’s the kind of friends we’ve all become, and I can honestly thank 2020 for that.
Working virtually wasn’t so bad, either. What made it even better was that the company continued our wages as if we were actually pulling the same hours as before the pandemic. My gratitude for the continuance of pay runs deeper than I can express in part because I know that so many people simply lost their jobs. I feel blessed. I also feel guilt because I practiced my cello while on the dole. I also baked a lot of bread and took naps. It felt like living a more balanced life but really I think it was just trying to play catch up for being so very out of balance for so long. The naps were glorious. The cello vacillates between whale sounds or mosquitos. The learning curve is steep.
As social beings by design, the pandemic really threw a wrench at mental health as we stepped into uncertainty, solitude, lack of physical contact and the like. The unbearable lonliness and lack of someone to hug & hold led me to seek companionship where I could.
I adopted a dog…and discovered that I seemed to have actually adopted myself. We share many of the same issues, including a bit of thickness around the area where our waists used to be. She has since dropped her weight and I seemed to have picked it right up. We are addressing some of our issues as best we can.
I completed the seventh edition of my first manuscript for a book which now lives in the hands of an agent. Yes—I have an agent. Whatever happens after this will simply be the cherry on top of the fact that I get to say, “I have an agent.” I also get to say things like, “have your people call my people” and “I’m sorry but you’ll need to go through my agent for that.” May next year bring me the wonderful pressure of also having a publisher. I am looking forward to what I get to say next.
Work resumed and shortly thereafter, I was paid a visit by Second Lady, Mrs. Pence. Politics aside, she visited the work place to talk mental health; to promote art therapy as a legitimate field and to talk about how the creative therapies save lives. The high honor of a white house visit was whispered behind a hand with a side-eyed glance because of the politics involved. It was a pickle to be in and I don’t quite know what to do with the bracelet she gave me. Our platforms for our practices couldn’t be more opposed but it landed me some white house bling and a photo op.
Speaking of politics, never have I ever known so much about the who’s who of the government. Never have I been more involved and feeling like I was in the know than this year. The feelings of helplessness that have pervaded this year, politically and otherwise, were quelled just a little bit with a vote. I vow to stay more involved.
I also have a great appreciation for the civil unrest around race. Like so many other white, middle-aged women, I joined a book club and am doing a lot of reading about my own tacit biases. This doesn’t take away systemic racism, but it opens my eyes to what I haven’t seen before and gives me a bit more voice in bringing about change. Like the cello, the learning curve is steep but I’m certainly grateful to have values that line up with justice and equality. When this knowledge is coupled with politics, I feel that change is possible and is happening. As hard as it is to hold up the mirror, it is good to know more about the person looking back at me and see how I can do better.
But some of the best things that have happened this past year have taken two forms: one is in the form of epiphanies. Not the Holy kind. No one is having a miracle baby. My epiphanies were the insightful kind that only happen with too much alone time and a mind trying to entertain itself. I learned a lot about stuff I thought I had already sorted through. Turns out, I hadn’t…but maybe now I have. The other best thing has been the closeness I actually feel to people who are anywhere from an arm’s length away to infinity. There haven’t been too many conversations between friends and family where the phrase “I love you” hasn’t been said. I hear it and say it now more than I ever have and I truly believe it’s because we have all seen how precious and sacred life actually is. Truth be told, we are all scared shitless and are loving each other like shipwreck survivors to dry land. It’s just a theory but it seems to fit.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that my fabulous and brilliant daughter graduated with two master’s degrees in 2020 AND is working full-time as a head librarian! Sure, she had been furloughed before her job even began but it began eventually. Maybe the celebratory cake ended up in New Jersey instead of Brooklyn and we didn’t get to woohoo in person, but we managed to celebrate all the same and dote on her with lots of love. Life is solidly good for her. I can’t ask for much more.
I know that 2020 has been hard on almost every fiber of our beings, but it has also been very good. We try harder to connect. We make eye-contact. We love more openly. We look out for each other.
Hurricanes, tornadoes, politics, racial injustice, a global pandemic, and the repercussions of it all have me counting my blessings. There are so many. It has certainly been a year of change and of personal growth; of trying to break through the compost of life so we can see the sun again; to bloom.
2021 holds the promise of what we have worked so hard to rise above in 2020. I feel like the past year has prepared me in ways that I have yet to unfold for the beauty, glory, and abundance of the new year ahead. I feel ready for it.
Thank you 2020. I learned so much and I am now ready to apply what I’ve learned to 2021.
Happy New Year.
I love you.
It’s the end of December and I’m finally getting around to raking my lawn. This is how December goes in the South. I see green. Weeds are still trying to dominate my efforts in the gardens and leaves are still clogging my gutters and occupying space reserved for grass.
I moved to the South six years ago from Wisconsin and never imagined raking leaves in December or needing to wear a sweater because the temperature was in the mid-50’s. What was once considered summer weather now gives me chills. Where I’m from, this time of year frost gathers on eyelashes while taking the brisk walk from the office to the car. Local Parks in the North intentionally flood the low spots for outdoor ice-skating rinks, and everyone owns their own ice skates.
Where I’m from, a toboggan is a sled with rudders. Here, it’s a hat. Imagine the conversation I had with a new friend from the South who got an unwanted toboggan for the holidays. My first question was, “where do you even use it?” and she said, “outside.” “Clearly,” I said. I wanted to know if there was snow enough to use it and she assured me that it gets cold here. It took us a long time to understand why I was so baffled by the concept of a toboggan in the South. When we finally did figure it out, my following question was, “what do you call a scarf?”
As nostalgic as I might be for snow and snowy type activities like making snowmen, shoveling, sliding down the driveway on my ass, and using the cold as an excuse to day drink hot whiskey drinks, raking leaves this time of year has its upsides too. For starters, I can recognize my neighbors because they aren’t disguised as the Michelin man for a jaunt outside. I also see neighbors because being outside in December in the South is lovely. Southerners have no reason to hibernate or send smoke signals from the fireplace. This is bonfire and marshmallow weather here.
This year, raking leaves had me waxing retrospectively about snow, snakes and personal growth.
The first year I owned my home here, I had raked the leaves into a pile, just like we did when I was a kid up North with a goal of romping, kicking, and scattering the leaves in a hey of wild abandon. I had big plans that included friends, puppies, and cider drinks.
As I prepped the pile, an old neighbor stopped by and poked the leaves with his cane. He said I 'ought come over to him for a spell.' The rasp of his deep drawl sounded out a warning that snakes like leaf piles in these parts and that “y’all (meaning me) might ought be more careful.”
Sure enough, I re-spread the leaves on the lawn and uncovered a small den.
Just to be clear, this was not a calm or collected event. I threw down my rake, swearing f*cks and Mother’s of God and more f*cks as I leapt a gate onto the patio, threw open my back door while simultaneously throwing my gloves out of the door, and skivvied in my kitchen while still dropping more f-bombs. Neighbors within ear shot were certain that a spawn of the devil had moved in next door the way I cursed and used God's name with the same mouth. They were probably as frightened of me than I was of the snakes.
It took me days to pick the rake back up. It had been contaminated with snake. The leaves were bagged one at a time and touched as if they were toxic. Each one lifted had the potential to uncover another snake. It was a very long raking season.
The following year, I found a class on snakes in the South and learned that I really only had one reason to be afraid out of dozens: the copperhead. The snakes in my leaf pile were a harmless garden variety that liked to eat grubs and I had a lot of those.
I also learned that snakes like wood piles. Frogs like clogged gutters. Skinks like compost piles and little green geckos love to sneak into my house and surprise me when I water my plants.
The steep learning curve keeps me swearing a lot but I’m learning to swear less…or at least to keep God out of the explicative mix. I’ve picked up the language of the South much in the same manner that I’ve grown accustomed to the heat and the lack of true cold. Sometimes I think I miss snow…but I’ve learned that I can throw my back out just as good with a rake as I can with a shovel.