Blog Miscellany: Who is Reading My Blog?

Periodically, I take a closer look on my blog dashboard to see who is reading my blog, at least to see what search terms people used to find me, that is.  In the last couple of days, these are a few of the terms that showed up:

grieving words of wisdom
length of the pan am highway
swedish word for just right not to much
how to write a christmas letter
husband takes me for granted
birthday alone
fun writing assignments for kids
rats in a rented house
benjamin moore lilly pad
peruvian pig
thank you notes for thinking of me
bilbo baggins chip the plates

You know, when I started this blog, I fully intended it to be a blog specializing in writing.  That’s why I called it Writing Grandma’s Book.  But it’s become such a mishmash, or as one Victorian periodical was called, a Miscellany.  I guess I’m okay with that fact.  It wasn’t where I thought I was headed, but I’m happy with the journey.

But what a strange mixture. Scandinavian-American recipes and Peruvian mountain village vignettes.  Advice on writing Christmas letters and thank you notes.  Words of grief and joy. Then there are the posts when I do not have anything particularly important or interesting to share — like today — but I put my little note out there to readers anyway.  Maybe next week, I’ll see a searcher looking for “miscellany.”

P.S.  Dear reader who had to spend your birthday alone, sorry about that!  Hope it turned out nice anyway.

P.P.S.  Dear reader whose husband takes you for granted, sorry about that, too. And sorry my blog probably didn’t particulary help you in your quest for a solution.  When I used to feel like that, it was awful.  It took some real heart to heart communication for a long while to help my husband and me to get beyond that pattern, but things have improved a lot.  I wish you good luck!

In Sickness and in Health…

The hubster and kid have been wicked sick with some nausea virus for the last few days.  So far I’ve avoided it.  I am just far too busy to get sick.  My defenses are up and my armies of antibodies are on high alert.  After all, next week I go back to the classroom! 🙂

In any case, they are sick and I am taking care of them.  I’m also trying to do all those extras to help me to stay well.  Incessant hand washing. Extra zinc vitamin pill last night.  Emergen-C drink yesterday.  Water.  Peaches. Pesto.  (Yeh, right, you say. Is pesto a miracle cure?  I don’t know, but I had made some over the weekend, so I’ve been eating it this week. Hard to cook for one and pesto on some leftover noodles or bread — whole grain, of course — is yummy and easy.  Especially when the sight of most food makes my family want to, well, you know ….)

Anyway, I’ve been wondering what other folks do to try to stay well.  Any teachers out there?  What do you do to stave off the creepin cruds?  Folks with small children?  How do you stay healthy in the face of so many bodily fluids in your parental presence? For that matter, how do you stay SANE?

Sorry I have nothing more to say today.  My armies of white blood cells are on the move, and I’ve gotta keep movin, keep movin, keep movin. Left… right… left, right, left.

On Gratitude…

I’ve read two unrelated articles in the last day that have really made me stop and think. I’ve been in mega self-improvement mode for the last year, and two weeks from tomorrow my sabbatical ends and I go back to teaching full time, so I’m trying to tie up some loose ends.

Looking back over the last year, I can see that I’ve made a lot of progress in several areas of family and personal life. There have been some lingering issues that are unresolved, of course, and I’ll get to that in a moment, but I thought I’d take a moment to reflect on how far I’ve/we’ve come:

1) My husband and I have a one-on-one meeting each Sunday to discuss any relationship or personal issues and devote some time to maintaining the health of our marriage.

2) On Saturday mornings, the three of us (me, hubster, and son) hold a family meeting to give each of us, and especially our son, a chance to air concerns or make requests. We also use that time to go over our week’s schedule.

3) I lost twenty-five pounds and have kept it off for months now. I have finally recognized that I have a weight problem whether I am currently overweight or not. So I need to be vigilant and keep my physical health front and center. Stress eating is most likely to occur if I do not take time to plan and cook decent food. So I absolutely must make time for planning and preparing. So far, so good. But I continue to go to weight Watchers each month and weigh in and attend a meeting.

4) I started reading again. Not for my job. I read as an English Professor a lot. But I mean reading for pleasure and for enlightenment. I started a book club at my church, killing the proverbial two birds with one stone by forming this club within our “Women’s Group.” There was such a women’s group at our church in the past, but right now our book group is it. The best things about doing the book group this year are getting to read and discuss some terrific books and getting to know these awesome women. I’ve never belonged to a book group before. I highly recommend it!

5) I am exercising more. Okay, not as much as I’d like to or need to, but more than before. And I’m okay with that. It’s improvement. I’ve added regular walking into my fall schedule (along with time to plan, prep food, and read), so I am sure to have the time to exercise if I merely stick to the plan.

6) I have become a writer. Early on in this blog I wondered if I were a “real” writer if I did not write every day. The funny thing is that the more I wrote on this blog, the more I felt like a real writer. The more I wrote, the more I thought of my life in terms of what I would write about it. I love writing now as never before. I’m not sure how I’ll fit blogging into my schedule this fall. But I’m going to try to find a way because it keeps me thinking in terms of words on the page and helps me produce raw material. I have not scheduled time in my week this fall for blogging, but I have, however, scheduled in time for my creative writing. I’ve NEVER done that before. When school started, I used to stop all creative or scholarly writing. I’m not willing to do that anymore.

7) Most recently I’ve also gone a long way toward helping my family to reduce its ecological footprint in terms of food consumption. We had already joined a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) farm a couple of years ago. We enjoy getting a share of fresh veggies direct from the farm each week of the growing season. Now I’ve also signed us up for a pasture-raised meat CSA and a fruit CSA. I also just discovered that not five miles from us there is a local dairy (with organic cows) that delivers milk in those old-fashioned glass milk bottles! I still haven’t figured out a good source for other food products like grains, but I’m getting there. It feels SO good NOT to feel guilty about contributing to global warming by eating non-local, highly processed and over-packaged food. We’re not yet where I want us to be, but much improvement on this front!

Now, back to some things left unfixed and the two articles I read.

A lot is unfixed. Such is life. But one thing that I have noticed this year and that really bothers me is a certain bitterness I have been feeling about some things that have happened to me and to loved ones in the last few years. I have also, the more I learn about the state of the world, become more anxious about our planet’s future than I ever have been before. I have been working hard this year to try to find a way to let go of the rancor and fear and to embrace a sense of peace. I am naturally optimistic and positive, but I’ve become less so in recent years. This sabbatical year I have been looking for a way to regain my healthier outlook on life, to restore balance.

So, anyway, yesterday I read this article in the Sept. 2008 issue of Body and Soul magazine: “Thank-You Therapy” by Terri Trespicio. The title may sound like it’s a trite essay, but it contained the right info to help me. Here’s what I learned:

(a) A study showed that people who wrote five things for which they were grateful each week in a journal felt better about their lives than people who kept track of their problems or just kept a record of events. The gratitude group also was healthier physically and, get this, spent more time exercising — up to 80 minutes more a week! Further, people who kept a daily gratitude journal for two weeks were more likely to “offer emotional support and help to others” than those keeping the other journals.

(b) A study showed that the earlier truism that people have a set point for happiness (a predetermined level of happiness that pretty much stays the same over the long term regardless of circumstances) is not exactly true. In fact, they found that about half of a person’s happiness comes from genetics (their set point) and 10% from circumstances, but a full 40% comes from “intentional activity,” our habits, essentially. The author makes the point that you can actually “bump up your happiness set point” if you commit to a regular practice of gratitude. Gratitude can be learned. We get better at it if we practice it. Hmmm.

(c) The article gives a lot of examples of how to practice gratitude. Here are some of the ones I most liked: “enjoy a mindful meal,” reflecting with gratitude on the people who helped bring that food to your table; “start a gratitude wall” by writing things for which you’re grateful on stickie notes and putting them on a wall (I’m thinking of doing this on my office window); “pay a thank you visit” to someone you appreciate ; “flip your complaints” (i.e., every time you complain stop and think of something for which you are grateful); “set an alarm” to go off during the day and when it does, stop what you are doing and focus on something for which you are grateful; “count blessings, not sheep” before bed; for five minutes write “a bliss list” of as many things that you can remember for which you are grateful and keep the list in your purse or pocket to look at when you are waiting in lines.

The other article appeared in the UU World in Spring 2007, but I just got around to reading it this morning: “The Heart of Our Faith: Gratitude Should Be the Center of Unitarian Universalist Theology” by Galen Guengerich. This article clinched the whole gratitude thing for me, providing another reason for cultivating gratitude in my own and our family life. Here’s an excerpt that hits at the heart of gratitude as a religious principle:

… A sense of awe and a sense of obligation, religion’s basic impulses, are both experiences of transcendence, of being part of something much larger than ourselves.

The feeling of awe emerges from experiences of the grandeur of life and the mystery of the divine. We happen upon a sense of inexpressible exhilaration at being alive and a sense of utter dependence upon sources of being beyond ourselves. This sense of awe and dependence should engender in us a discipline of gratitude, which constantly acknowledges that our present experience depends upon the sources that make it possible. The feeling of obligation lays claim to us when we sense our duty to the larger life we share. As we glimpse our dependence upon other people and things, we also glimpse our duty to them. This sense of obligation leads to an ethic of gratitude, which takes our experience of transcendence in the present and works for a future in which all relationships—among humans, as well as between humans and the physical world—are fair, constructive, and beautiful.

Gratitude. Yup. That’ll work, I think. When one is filled with gratitude, there is no room for bitterness. When one is deliberately grateful, one turns away from fear. When one feels ones extreme good fortune, one works willingly and gladly for the good of others. When one is thankful, one is FULL of thanks, not rancor or fear. Not that I am FULL of rancor and fear, but I’d rather squeeze out those emotions and make room for thanks.

Now, I’ve got two weeks before school starts to try to get a habit of gratefulness started!

Dog Idolatry

Please do not be offended. It’s not my fault that idolatry is tolerated in my home. I am certainly not guilty of it! My son isn’t doing it. My husband isn’t…well..isn’t doing it, per se, though he is the object of devotion, a household god of sorts.

Our dog, as I think I’ve mentioned before, adores my husband. Adores might not be the right word, if you get my drift. Really she worships him.

This summer the hubster has been taking two on-line classes in preparation for launching a new career in IT. And right now it’s final exam time. So hubbie is locked away in the den working on his C Programming final. The dog is not happy…

Prostrate before the almighty, she offers herself, a living sacrifice. “Take me, oh, take me, alpha dog,” she cries. Sigh. Double sigh. “When is he coming out of there?”

I took this picture with my cell phone and sent it to my husband, thinking he’d get a kick out of it later. Turns out he had his phone with him in the den. As soon as he saw what was waiting for him on the other side of the door, he got up and greeted his loyal devotee, who was beside herself with joy. “Ah, let me nibble your ear, O Wise One! You have emerged from the great beyond at last!”

Is it any wonder she continues with such encouragement? My husband is a marshmallow. 🙂

Anniversary Gift

This week my husband and I marked our 18th wedding anniversary. The hubbster gave me a thoughtful and well-written card (he’s a fabulous writer), and I gave him my annual poem written for the occasion and enclosed in a less thoughtful and well-written card. But, hey, he got a poem, so I’m off the hook for the card, right?

My poem this year, no surprise, arose out of my research on the ancestors. Turns out that in Swedish, the word for married is GIFT! (Not at all pronounced as it is in English, but when reading the word on my geneology, it tripped me up each time.) Anyway, the poem is about the ancestors who were gift in the past and the choices they made to be with one another, to make a life together, and in some cases to leave their life in search of a better future in a new land. Thank God they were so brave and strong!

So yesterday I gave my partner his poem even though Tuesday was actually our anniversary. But he is taking classes (in addition to working full time) and had to finish up final exams and all that this week, so we postponed our official anniversary card exchange, etc., until Saturday. On Tuesday, though, we did manage to watch some of our wedding video with our ten-year-old son, who had never seen it.

Wow! First of all, we were SOOOO young! I mean, compared to now. We got married when we had both just turned 26, which is young, sort of, though not really that young to get married, I think. But looking at us! Oh, my, we were so goofy.

Then my attention was grabbed by grandma and grandpa, who were all over that video. My heart skipped a beat when I first saw them. I had no idea that I had them on tape. What a joy to see them once more! Grandpa was so funny. He just didn’t understand what the video camera was. Every time my step-sister pointed it at him, he’d say, “Take it. Take it, Michelle!!” He was waiting for the flash of a still camera. They just couldn’t get across to him that they were filming moving pictures. 🙂 All the while there was Grandma, serene as ever, gracious and loving, never once cracking a smile at her husband’s expense. They were married over fifty years.

And last night, after all of this thinking about the anniversary, the wedding, my grandmother, I dreamt one of those beautiful and rare dreams when Grandma came to visit me in my sleep. She and I were walking around together before my wedding. I was marveling how well she was managing to walk. Of course, she used to walk all the time (duh!), but she had many years with a walker and then was bed-ridden in the final years of her very long life. Those later years had taken over, it seemed, in my memory of her. But here she was walking with me, arm in arm, around the hall where I was married. We were laughing and talking, and I was so happy. As happy as I was that day.

And I was very happy that day. I recall with crystal clarity that I felt complete assurance that I was doing exactly the right thing in marrying this man. I KNEW that it was right. I still think that today. Not that everything is always rosy. But I knew going in that life (and marriage) aren’t like that. No, I knew, though, that here was a guy to be tied to for life. A guy I could trust and enjoy and who would work beside me to build a good life together.

A lovely gift.

Happy Birthday to Me

Yesterday was my birthday. It was a good one overall. West-coast loved ones phoned. Mom sent me flowers, a rare luxury these days. My in-laws sent me a cool hand-crafted bracelet, bought at a jewelry shop in their cute little California town. And my husband. He presented me with the best gift I have ever received from him…

He MADE me a ring!

He started in March. That alone scores him big-time points. 🙂 Talk about planning ahead! But get this, he bought a silver quarter from my birth year (the last year the US gov’t made silver quarters, by the way). And then he pounded the edges until they flattened out. He even found one of my old rings and used it to size the ring correctly! The outside he polished smooth and shiny. The inside is smooth, but he left it so one can still read the “United States” inscription that was on the original quarter.

Turns out all those times when I was carting the kid around to soccer and cello, etc., he was tapping away in the basement, making me my birthday present. He even sanded down one of his weights to use as an anvil (he needed something flat and hard as iron, so what better substance than, well, iron!)

I gotta say, he’s given me some nice things in the past, but he’s never been much the romantic type. He’s worked pretty hard to get past that handicap, though, over the last few years. Not that he’s suddenly become a gushy type. No. But he seems to be able to show that he loves me in ways that far surpass the norm. This one tops all.

I’m one lucky duck!

Mother’s Day Weekend: Ferry Beach, Maine

Just got back yesterday afternoon from our annual all-church retreat to Ferry Beach, on the southern coast of Maine. About 250 people usually come from our Unitarian Universalist church to this yearly weekend away. It’s always held on Mother’s Day weekend, and pretty much every year my husband stays home and let’s us have our special weekend (besides, it’s chaos there, and though my son and I like a little chaos every once in a while, it’s not the hubster’s cup ‘o tea.) Anyway, as always an awesome time! And as always, I’m exhausted. 🙂

About my lovely weekend…

It takes a village. The most notable thing about this annual weekend is how we work cooperatively to take care of one another. We cook together (everyone signs up for one chore during the weekend) and eat together, sleep in dorms, hang out on the beach (if it’s not raining!!) or in the common areas, and care for the children in small groups or what have you. The weekend is relaxed and slow-paced, with a variety of activities, planned and spontaneous. The retreat center where we always go is lovely though fairly basic. I like that it is not a luxury hotel or some such nonsense. I like it’s age and homey-feel.

To give you a taste, here is a picture of a sign out front. Cute!

No nonsense here! Just good old-fashioned fun. “If the rock is wet, it’s raining.” Yup. And the rock stayed dry all three days! Having no rain all weekend was a special treat — that’s a rarity this time of year. More times than not it rains at least half of the weekend. One year, we all stood on the deep, covered, wrap-around porch and watched a huge lightning storm rage for an hour. That year the majority of the dunes were destroyed, and I returned home to a city flooded at 100-year stage levels. Yikes! But this year, no rain. Cool but sunny about half the weekend and quite bearable cloudiness the rest of the time.

…which meant that my son and I were able to spend a lot of time on the beach. He dug a huge pit with his pals. Of course. What else would a ten-year-old enjoy half as much?

That was pretty much most of Saturday. Then on Sunday we took a walk on the beach down to the breakwater (HUGE granite boulders piled in a line a mile out to sea). Last year we discovered a quiet cove right on the other side of those rocks, so we returned this year to check it out again. Along the way, we searched for flat rocks to skip into the water. Here’s my son proudly holding up his latest find:

Amazingly, before going to bed last night, I managed to do most of the laundry and get us unpacked — as well as get my son packed and ready for his week at nature camp! Happy Mother’s Day to me, boo hoo. 😦 No, I’m just joking! I got what I wanted for Mother’s Day — a lovely time with my son on the beach in the morning and squeaky CLEAN front windows, when I returned home, washed by my hubbie!! Yipee — life is grand!

Great-Grandma Watching Over Me and My Laundry

The weekend before last, my superstar husband painted the laundry room.  Does this seem frivolous to you?  I guess in the scheme of things, it isn’t exactly at the top of the list of the world’s most important things to do, but it has made my life brighter.

You see, I do the laundry in our family, and the state of the laundry room has been a drag on my mood for some time.  My biggest complaint was that I couldn’t clean it properly because it had never been painted beyond the builder’s white sprayed on in a thin coat after construction.  Have you ever tried to wash such walls?  The so-called paint just comes off, leaving bare wallboard that can’t be cleaned either.  Ugh.

Anyway, we’ve been using the laundry room as a sort of mudroom, and my son’s winter coats and snowpants, etc. have been mucking the place up.  And, well, when you have a room dedicated basically to making things clean, it’s hard to swallow that the room itself looks so dirty.

So my dear spouse painted, and I bought some lovely bins to organize everything on the shelves.  Oh, my, it looks so good now!  I admit that I’m still so in love with the room that when I walk by, I open the door and just look at it.  I’m doing more laundry, too, an improvement which is, no doubt, not lost on my family. (It hasn’t been unheard of for someone in the house to buy new underwear because the laundry had been piled up for so long….)

So, the funny thing is that now that I am spending more time in the laundry room and am newly attuned to my surroundings (instead of blocking them out in disgust), I have discovered that I am being watched as I perform my duties!  In the hallway, directly across from the door, hangs my great-grandparents’ wedding photo.  Now, as I emerge from the laundry room carrying a load of clean clothes in a basket, I meet eyes with my grandmother’s mother and feel somehow as if she approves.

“Great!  You’re doing a fine job fulfilling your duties,” I can almost hear her say. Not that I hear her say this with any rancor in her voice.  She was a gentle and kind woman, so I am told, and I imagine her more pleased than smug, happy to see my world ordered.

Then comes the difficulty.  I am a feminist.  (And I am not afraid to say it — equal pay for equal work, fair treatment — I mean, honesty, who ISN’T a feminist if you look at it in such terms?)  Honestly, though, all of what I am writing in this post feels a bit awkward.  I mean, I’m fitting into the stereotype … and liking it.  Then again, my husband and I did decide to split things up this way — he has his chores and I have mine.  We could have had him do the laundry, but I’m home more often, so it makes more sense for me to take this on.  Nevertheless, I feel a little uncomfortable with the whole wifely duty thing.

Yet, I love my laundry room.  And I love cleaning things up and having everything look fresh and tidy.  And I feel a sense of satisfaction when I look at my great-grandma’s photo and feel as if she approves, as if she is telling me I’m on the right track and never mind with worrying about all that philosophical stuff.  And I think she would be thrilled for me that I have a husband who paints the laundry room because he knows it will make my world more cheerful.  Er, and the automated washer and dryer … well, that sure beats a hand-crank mangler any day. She did live to see mechanized machines but for most of her life did things the old-fashioned way.

I can just see her on the homestead in Minnesota in 1906 with her washing on the line.  Oh, and in the northern winter — imagine that!  No, I’m lucky.

Gotta go put another load in the wash now.  There must be something else I can wash… curtains? bathroom rugs?

Making Time for Love: Busy Schedules & Taken-for-Granted Marriages

Love — especially in a marriage — needs time, and if we do not MAKE time for the marriage, we can bet the time will slip away and the marriage will be, at best, lack-luster. I haven’t been exactly a model of making time for my marriage through the years of grad school and pre-tenure professorship, but I’ve been working on this one over the last year, and it is one of my priorities during this sabbatical to figure out a better plan for the future. Thought I’d share my strategy this Valentine’s Day and explain the changes I’ve embraced to make time for love to thrive.

First, my husband and I set aside a couple of hours for a conflict resolution “meeting” each Sunday afternoon. When we started this last year, we were arguing a lot. (This happens to all married couples, I suspect, from time to time. No big surprise, right? Marriage is hard work.) Anyway, a few months after we started these meetings, we had noticably fewer arguments, and life together got a lot less stressful.

Here are the rules of our meeting time: (1) We each chose one issue from the week that we want to discuss, and we get to speak without interruption to explain our concern/feelings while the other person listens. (2) Then the other person asks clarifying questions and does active listening to make sure the speaker was really understood. We say things like, “So what you are saying is….” (3) Then we move into problem-solving mode, trying to find a way to fix the problem. Sometimes this entails the listener bringing up points that the original speaker misunderstood or omitted, but the goal is problem-solving, so our tone is supposed to stay helpful. (4) We write down the resoluion we agree upon so we can check for follow-through in the ensuing weeks: “Spouse A will work on being more welcoming when Spouse B comes home and not dump the day’s problems on Spouse B immediately.” Etcetera. (5) Then we go through the process for the other partner and what he or she wants to discuss as a concern.

These days we seldom had to go through the whole process — we are just getting along better now. But what we are using the time for is discussing big issues like our child’s education, use of family time, or issues we are facing not in the marriage but elsewhere. This is fine with me! The point is that every week we know we have time set aside to work on issues that matter to us.

The second thing I’ve done in order to try to make time for our marriage is still in development, but I can share some of what I’ve come up with today and let you know how it goes later! Here’s the idea behind my latest move…. I’m currently on sabbatical leave and so I am not teaching, only doing my research and writing, but when I AM teaching, I usually create my syllabi for classes based solely on whatever strikes me as good ways for students to learn and how much work is reasonable to expect from them. I never think about how much time what I have planned will take ME. I always figured that I just had to suck it up and make it work, and I did…but at the expense of (a) sleep, (b) exercise, and (c) time with my husband.

I’m sure some of you must think I’m nuts. What an idiot not to consider how much time tasks will take to accomplish! But really, it just hadn’t occurred to me that perhaps I should try filling in a schedule with the necessities like sleep, eating, exercise, and family time FIRST. Then see how much time is available for my work and plan my classes and service projects accordingly. A life in higher ed means no 9 to 5 work day, and this openess can be tricky because there is ALWAYS more work to be done! Most faculty I know work way more than a 40 hour week. It’s no exaggeration to say that typically during the semester, I work 70 hours a week. But I just can’t do that anymore. It’s not healthy for my body, I’m getting burned out on teaching already at 43, I’m a terrible role model for my students and my son with my chronic overwork, and it’s not fair to my husband.

So I’ve created a rough draft of a schedule for the fall semester, when I will return to teaching, with the following breakdown: 33% of my week = sleep (that’s eight hours a night — what a concept!), 29% of my week = work (that’s 49 hours), 29% of my week = the general business of living (exercise, eating, cleaning house, driving the kid around, time with family/husband, church, etc.), and 9% left open for miscellaneous demands on my time. I’ve never left myself any unscheduled time before, so when something went wrong, like I had to take the kid to the doctor or my car broke down, etc., there was no flexibility in my schedule. Stuff still had to get done, so I’d just have to take away time from sleep, exercise, and husband. I’m hoping that if I plan my courses now in terms of the actual time I have available each week for my job, then I will find my career much more sustainable over the long haul. And when last minute things come up, I’ll know there is time to spare. The trick will be to make sure that I do not add in a bunch of committments to use up that 9%!!

I know it will be a real challenge for me to break old habits, but I am committed to making time for the things that matter to me. While teaching DOES matter to me and my work is very important work, it is also crucial that I maintain my health and give proper attention to my family. I can do a lot still in my alloted time, but I am no longer going to let myself feel pressured to try to do everything. It’s time to make a change.

Happy Valentines Day to you all! May you make time today, and always, for those you love, including yourself, and may your lives be a perfect balance of meaningful work, rejuvenating personal and family time, and restful and regular sleep! 🙂