Tidying Up: My Aversion

My Aversion

I bought the book titled The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up by Marie Kondo. I told my partner about an amazing review I had received at a dinner party about the book. My partner read a few pages and then kept the book for the next two days until she finished it. She read the tidying book from cover to cover.

When she finished reading it, she set the book back on my desk and started going through all of her clothes, picking out things to get rid of. When I say that she went through all of her clothes, I mean that she went through all of her clothes.

She put everything from her underwear to her suit jackets to her hats in a pile on the bed in the guest room. She sorted through everything and decided what to keep and what to give away. When she was done, she had several large garbage bags full of clothing that she no longer wanted.

 

Seeing the dramatic discard pile, I became uneasy about reading Kondo’s book. I’m nostalgic. I’m a packrat. And I’m definitely a book hoarder. I have also kept nearly every postcard, letter, birthday card and any paper communication from anyone I have ever loved since I was about 12 years old. I was afraid that Marie Kondo’s book was going to tell me that I had to get rid of all the things that I love. My partner assured me that I would approve of Marie Kondo’s criteria.

I was skeptical. I have an inherit aversion to getting rid of things.

 

When I was about ten years old, my mother, who was a single-mom, and totally stressed out all the time, asked me to clean my room. I was a typical kid and I had stuff everywhere. My desk was a mess. I had dolls and clothes all over the floor. My closet wouldn’t shut because there was either too much stuff going in or too much stuff coming out. I had games and books all over the place. My bed was so cluttered with stuffed animals that it was a wonder I could sleep. A couple of days had passed since my mom’s request and I didn’t clean my room. My mom didn’t say anything further about it.

kids roomAfter a few more days of silence, and of me neglecting her request, my mother came into my room, armed with garbage bags, and started stuffing the garbage bags with the contents of my room. She was not discerning or careful. She had reached her limit with my mess and put everything she could into the bags: dolls, books, trinkets, the homework that I had been working on, the teddy bear my godfather gave me, pictures of my friends, and on and on and on. I threw a tantrum and started crying hysterically, asking her why. She threw a tantrum and screamed at me about not keeping my room clean and continued to stuff the bags.

When it was over, she took all the bags and threw them into the shared dumpster for the condominium complex that we lived in. She called a friend and sat outside talking on the phone and smoking cigarettes. I laid on my bed, cuddling my few remaining stuffed animals and crying. When my mom went to sleep, I snuck out of the house with a flashlight and climbed into the dumpster to retrieve my teddy bear and to find my schoolbooks and homework. It was just before garbage day and everything was top. I took all the bags back into the house and stuffed them tightly into my closet. The next day, after school, while my mom was still at work, I cleaned everything up and put things away. I hid a bunch of stuff in drawers and in the back of my closet so my mom wouldn’t know that I got it out of the garbage.

 

The KonMari method, as Marie Kondo calls it, requires that one keeps anything that sparks joy. The only reason to discard anything is because it doesn’t “spark joy.” A person should go through everything in the house in an outlined order and decide if the item sparks joy. If the item doesn’t spark joy, it should be tossed.

I think I can get on board with that.

The Dear John

My partner’s brother’s “Dear John Letter” didn’t come in the form of a letter. It came in the form of finding a Facebook chat message between his wife and another man. Three months ago, when he showed us the dialogue between his wife and the other man, it was unequivocal that she was being unfaithful.

When confronted, she denied it. She said something about “just flirting” and accused her husband of being controlling, untrusting, and a snoop. My brother-in-law, unwilling to believe what he didn’t want to believe, agreed to the story his wife fed him and, not being an idiot, installed key-stroke software on the computer, a type of computer program that tracks the strokes of the keyboard and makes all communication activity readable. Around Christmas, his wife wrote a message to a stranger about a Motel 6 and the backseat of a car. It left little to the imagination and nothing to be questioned.

My brother-in-law told his wife that he wanted a divorce. It took several weeks for her to leave, but, finally, last weekend, my brother-in-law’s wife moved out. When she did, she took almost all of the furniture and left my brother-in-law to sleep on the floor.

My brother-in-law, whom we’ll call “John,” has primary custody of his two teenage daughters from a previous marriage, my nieces. John’s soon-to-be ex-wife has a young daughter of her own. Together, the five of them lived in a two-bedroom apartment. It was a fairly small and modest place in a rather expensive but run-down area with a good school district. When John’s wife left last week, she left an unimaginable mess behind her. (Both emotionally and quite literally.)

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Last Sunday, our nieces called my wife and I on video-chat and showed us what their home had been turned into. It looked like they had been robbed, like a tornado had gone through the place. The 14-year-old did her best not to cry. The 13-year-old didn’t say more than a few words. I did my best not to throw up in my mouth.

My wife and I don’t usually have extra money because, for a long time, I was unemployed. Presently, we don’t have a lot of time because we both work hectic jobs. This weekend we had some time off and, for the first time in a very long time, we had a bit of extra money we could spare. We decided to go to John’s and help put things in order.

Being accustomed to frugality, we spent all of last week scrambling to find household items and furniture for free or low-cost. I asked friends to help out. I posted on a Freecycle group locally and explained the situation. I asked for stuff on swap-shop chat rooms. I accidentally crashed an Estate Sale one day early. (Don’t ever do that. They aren’t usually very nice about it.) Everyone was completely generous and kind. We ended up with more gifts than we could have imagined.

Many people donated to help out and we collected everything we could: linens, towels, dishes, clothes, a microwave, a bookshelf, pots and pans, and several small household items. We didn’t ask for particulars. Beggars can’t be choosers. Still, we were gifted high-quality stuff. And, as luck would have it, all the kitchen stuff happened to match. (Apparently no one likes red for a kitchen.) It was a frivolous blessing.

My friend Jovi recently moved in with her fiance and had several pieces of furniture to give away. She gave us a couch, a chair, a coffee table, a tall bookcase, a queen-size bed with a mattress and boxspring, and a nightstand. (She was willing to give us a dresser as well but it wouldn’t fit in the Uhaul trailer we rented.)

On Friday afternoon, we drove 172 miles to my brother-in-law’s house with a midway stop to pick up Jovi’s furniture. We took the day off and we mostly packed up everything ourselves. When we got to Jovi’s old apartment, we had help from Judah, Jovi’s old roommate, and some of the buff and polite neighbors who helped us to get the furniture into the trailer. We drove at 50 miles per hour with a towering trailer of furniture. Thankfully I know a few sailor’s knots. It was quite a trip.

Our nieces were scheduled to go to their mom’s for the weekend on Friday so we didn’t get to spend much time with them when we visited. The youngest had walked home from school so she was at the apartment when we got there. She helped unload stuff from the car.

The 14-year-old still needed to be picked up from play practice so we unpacked the car at the apartment and my wife went and picked her up. The two of them did a quick shopping trip and rented a steam cleaner so we could clean the apartment floors. Our nieces left for the weekend with their mother shortly after we got there.

I had ignorantly underestimated how hard the weekend was going to be for John. In my mind, I thought we were there to help put his life back together for him and his two girls. We brought furniture and appliances and linens. We were there to clean and to organize. We were there to help him make a clean break and to help him move on. I underestimated his broken heart.

I’m pretty sure that John saw our intrusion as something equivalent to cutting off a limb. While we cleaned and put his ex-partner’s stuff into bags, he saw a separation and a closing that he hadn’t before considered or even fathomed. He saw the reality of his immediate family falling apart. He saw his sisters cleaning up after the wife that had cheated on him and left him with a disaster. He saw the end of the wife and family he wanted for the long-term. He saw his future crumbling into reality.

My partner and I continued to clean and furnish John’s apartment even though it was clear that he didn’t know what to do next.

Maybe we did the wrong thing. Maybe, instead of bringing furniture and appliances, we should have brought several bottles of red wine and an entire collection of Leonard Cohen CDs. Or the Once soundtrack. We could have just played “Round Here” by The Counting Crows on repeat or played everything Damien Rice has ever written. Maybe we should have just sat with our brother on the dirty floor of his apartment and cried with him. Because…fuck furniture. And fuck moving on. And fuck some sort of normal reality.

When your heart breaks, there is no normal reality. When your heart breaks, you don’t need furntiure. There is only, “fuck it, my heart hurts.” And what you need is hugs and music.

But we couldn’t really do that. We couldn’t really say “fuck it.” For one thing, we had to return the trailer to our home town nearly 200 miles away. And we couldn’t really return the furniture or anything else.

There is no such thing as “fuck it” for my brother because John is a parent. He has children he cares for. He doesn’t have the luxury of time for grief. He doesn’t have time for Leonard Cohen or red wine because he has report cards and play practice and dinners and a job.

John has two amazing daughters and they need something totally different from what he needs right now. They need love and constancy. They need to be fed. The need permission slips signed. They need rides to school. They are still young and they need assurance. They need a place to do homework. They need stability and something that they can count on.

So we didn’t put on any music. We just cleaned the carpets in silence and put the new stuff in the house. We cleaned the rooms. We moved furniture. We scrubbed the floors and surfaces. We did laundry. We packed what John’s life had left but planned to take. The process was nothing short of excruciating. For all of us.

While cleaning the kitchen, I bagged two full garbage bags of tupperware. There was “stuff” tucked into ever corner of every crevice. I found plastic spoons and bottle caps in every drawer in the kitchen. There were useless dishes, unclaimed lids, obscure and random appliance parts tucked into the back of each cupboard. I found three of the exact same serving-dish in three different cupboards. It was nearly a sick metaphor: John’s wife had forgotten what she had at home and just went out and got something new. It was exhausting and disgusting.

My wife and I had only planned to stay for one night but we decided to stay for the entire weekend. It seemed a safe bet that John’s ex wasn’t going to come back to clean her mess. So we stayed until the job was done. (Thank you to the wonderful friend who looked in on our cats!) We did 16 loads of laundry and folded every piece. Including the socks. We went through the entire house and bagged up all the shit John’s wife had left.

We spent as much of the weekend packing and bagging as we did cleaning. The headless dolls in the bathtub (just in the bathtub) filled one entire garbage bag. The stuff in the corner of the bedroom filled five garbage bags. The stuff in the drawers filled at least three garbage bags. We didn’t even get to the linen closets. We packed up everything we could find and put it in bags on the porch. We nearly filled the porch top to bottom and left to right.

My hands are raw with chemical burns from scrubbing the bathroom and kitchen floors with bleach and Ajax. (I don’t usually use chemicals but this weekend needed bleach,) My face is broken out like a teenager’s from all the dust and dirt in my pores. I haven’t been this zitty since I was 14. My joints hurt from squatting and cleaning this weekend. My back is messed up. I still have a weird smell of carpet cleaner in my nose. I’ve been sneezing like one of Snow White’s dwarves for almost 48 hours.

We moved the girls’ room into the larger bedroom. We put the queen-size bed in John’s new room along with new sheets. We put the couches in the living room and bought a new rug and a throw pillow to make it look nice. We even bought candles and a mail shelf to make it look thoughtfully decorated.

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We made the place look amazing and new. We did every chore that could be done. We left everything beautiful and in tact.

Except John’s heart. John’s heart is anything but in tact. And there isn’t a damn thing we can do about that.

Except wait and show him every day how much we love him.

Children Are Not Animals

Our small community has created facebook groups where people can post announcements and observations pertaining to the community. People will post announcements about the opening of a new restaurant, local classes that are available, and, occasionally, pictures of lost pets. We even have a facebook group specifically for venting, where people can air their frustrations. Today, a community member posted the following vent:

“[It] seems like lately I have been reprimanded for my “free-range” parenting of my very precocious 3 year old daughter. At the park for running up to your dog, at the school picnic for pretending to drive the golf cart, etc. But I read TONS of posts everyday of lost dogs on peeps & other pages! No shaming or name calling or tear-inducing rude comments to these “parents” of the dogs. For the record, I have never lost a child while at Grocery Outlet, River or park & I don’t have a leash for mine. SOOO why am I the incompetent person being shamed when other folks loose their “family members” willy nilly everywhere with no comment on their faulty parenting skills? My children are watched, loved, fed, educated & cherished. Yes, I give them freedom to explore but if you took the time to noticed beyond your bias, I am always there watching, monitoring & educating my children.”

Let me clear something up: Children and animals are different. I am not going to reprimand my cat if it decides to climb a tree during a family dinner. That is, of course, because it’s a cat.

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Children are not animals. Being a responsible pet owner and being a responsible parent requires distinctly different skill sets. Pet owners aren’t supposed to raise pets to one day successfully leave home on their own. The whole point of parenting a child is that a parent will raise a prudent, thoughtful human being who will one day safely leave the home and become a productive member of society.

This is not to say that free-thinking, creative types aren’t productive. Society needs art and it needs artists. People need music. We need song and dance and creative expression. There are lots of ways to contribute in this world. I’m all for raising creative little humans. It is important to note, however, that creative people who are successful are also hardworking.

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Developmentally, children do not have the same sense of discipline or self-restraint that functioning adults have. Children need guidance and boundaries during their development so that they can mature in the right direction. Children also need guidance and boundaries in order to stay safe.

If a three-year-old child is running up to unfamiliar dogs or sitting in the driver seats of heavy machinery, the child is not safe. If a parent, in an attempt at “free range” parenting, is allowing a child to run up to dogs or sit in the driver’s seat of heavy machinery, that parent is putting their child in danger. It is not thoughtful child-raising. It is not an attempt at unleashing a child’s creativity. It is irresponsible parenting.

If a parent wants a child to have a successful life, even at creative endeavors, the best thing a parent can teach a child is discipline. The most accomplished writers, artists, and musicians all had one thing in common: they were all disciplined. A parent is not doing a child any favors by allowing a child the freedom to be an animal.

Teach Your Children To Write “Thank You” Notes

My step-mother was the first person in my life to force me to write thank you notes. I was still growing into my left-handedness and very much struggling with my cursive. It was embarrassing. I was so annoyed that I had to write thank you notes. I remember feeling like the whole process was just a stupid, useless chore. I was about eight years old and I hated it.

My parents, just a few years earlier, had divorced and I had all these new “family members” that I had just met. Why should I have to write a note to thank someone I hardly knew for a gift that I didn’t even want? When my birthday and Christmas rolled around, I was told to sit down and write thank you notes. I crinkled my nose every time.

Because it was my step-mother who forced me to write thank you notes, it was only her side of the family that got them. In my infinite childhood wisdom, I figured that my other side of the family didn’t need any thanks. They knew that I loved them and I knew that they bought me presents because they loved me. What more needed to be said?

When I was about twelve or thirteen years old, I was in the habit of reading the newspaper. I read the funnies regularly and tried to do the crossword. The advice columns were on the same page as the funnies and sometimes I would read them too.

One day, the “Dear Abby” column was about thank you notes. The letter was written from a grandmother who was irritated because she sent her granddaughter money on her birthday each year but never received a thank you note. Abby’s advice was to stop sending the granddaughter money. Abby said that a simple card would suffice.

Realizing that the Dear Abby letter could have been sent from my grandmother, I panicked. I got out stationary and, right then and there, sent my grandmother a thank you letter. I thanked her for every gift she had ever sent me that I could remember. I thanked her for my Christmas presents, my birthday presents, my Easter baskets, and for every other holiday and event on the calendar from the day of my birth up until that point. And then, just to be thorough, I sent a thank you note to every other member on that side of my family. I didn’t want anyone to be irritated with me. I wanted to ensure that I would continue getting gifts.

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When I was very little, my mother used to sing me a lullaby that went, “When you are tired and you can’t sleep, count your blessings instead of sheep.” It was a very sweet song but I wasn’t sure what it meant. I was very young and didn’t have the vocabulary to understand what a blessing was, so I would count all the stuffed animals in my room and give each of them a name. I didn’t ask my mother to define the word blessing but, even if I had asked, I’m not sure that I would have understood the concept, even if my mother would have told me that it was “something that you’re thankful for.” Gratitude might be a concept that we are able to understand later in life, something that we grow to understand.

Now that I’m older, and have nieces and nephews of my own, I completely understand the sentiment of that “Dear Abby” letter. I send my nieces and nephews presents on a regular basis. Sometimes I send them presents because they’ve had a milestone. Sometimes I send presents just because I’m thinking about them. For my older nieces, I usually get a call or a text message expressing thanks. For the younger kids, I usually get a call from the parents.

I still write thank you notes. I write them more now than ever before. I write them just to thank people for being in my life and for being my friend. I no longer crinkle my nose. There are incredible things to thankful for. I’m thankful for being invited, for having dinner, for sharing a bottle of wine. I’m thankful for music, for potlucks, and for sound advice. I’m thankful for the kind of nights that shatter all previous conceptions. I’m thankful for poetry, for harmony and for the sound of new musical instruments. I’m thankful for quotes from Shakespeare, for the sound of waves crashing on the beach and for a first-attempt at fig pie. I’m thankful that I notice so many things to be thankful for.

A few months back, I attended a child’s birthday party. It was filled with pomp and circumstance. There was a bounce house and lots of presents. There was a professionally-made cake. There were little bags of goodies for the children. There was a huge picnic and a barbeque. I ended up doing a lot of the cooking at the grill. The night before, I helped to stuff the pinata. At the party, the kids ran around and had a good time.

The day before the party, my partner and I ran around town trying to find a nice present for the child. It was a little stressful because the child was a recent addition to our family and we really wanted to make sure that she felt loved and included. We wanted to get something that she would appreciate and play with. We decided on a set of fairy dolls and spent way more money than we had on them. We wrapped it and included a thoughtful card.

My partner and I have never received a single acknowledgment for that day. Not a phone call. Not a text. Not an email. Not a card. Not a “thank you.” Not for the help and not for the gift.

Now that I’m older, I know how hard it is to find time and money for the friends and family that I love. I know that every single gift I receive is precious and that every moment I get to be with friends and family is even more precious. It means so much to me when someone takes the time to express their gratitude for my efforts and it is very slighting when they don’t. But I try to shake off because I know that writing “thank you” cards is a learned skill. Unfortunately, it is also a dying art form.

Contemplating Suicide

I have kept a diary since the sixth grade. I now have many diaries, documenting most of my life, stored away in boxes in my shed. According to my well-kept records, the first time that I contemplated suicide was about twenty years ago, when I was 14-years-old. I have contemplated suicide many times since. I don’t ever talk about it because it makes people uncomfortable and, to most people, it is generally a pathetic and selfish thought pattern. But, since the great and powerful genie, and the kind and brilliant comedian, Robin Williams, has made suicide the topic du jour, I thought that I would share a few things about my experience with depression and suicide.

Robin Williams’ death was a tragedy for his family, for his friends and for the millions of fans who admired his work. In that order. I grieve for him under the latter rubric, which is to say, I grieve for his art. Like many people who have been speculating about his life and situation, I never met him. But like so many others, I loved what I knew.

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There has already been so much ink spilled about Robin Williams’ tragic death and I hate the piggy-backing that has subsequently followed. I write this, not because it is timely and might get my blog more hits, but because the subject hits close to home and I feel compelled to share this.

As with any event where a media blitz follows, a lot of misinformation gets spread and a lot of ill-informed opinions are solidified. I have seen a lot of commentary about suicide and depression. While much of it is well-intended, there is so much circulating currently that is neither helpful nor productive. I once heard someone say that telling a depressed person to “cheer up” or “reach out” is like giving someone an aspirin for a brain tumor. I feel like that is pretty accurate.

As a caveat, I’m fine today. That is to say, I’m fine for now. I’ve been fine for at least a year. I have been eating really well and exercising. I stay away from situations that could put my mental health at risk. I stay away from people who exacerbate my occasional severe depression. When I can, I go out into the sun a lot. I take vitamins. I allow myself to find joy where ever I can. I sometimes even recite positive affirmations while looking in the mirror.

I’m not medicated for my depression. I have been fortunate enough in my life that a comprehensive, holistic approach has always provided me with the tools to overcome my depression. Early on, my parents took me to see a therapist. They divorced when I was young and I think my therapy sessions were more for their peace of mind than my own, but I equally think the sessions probably set a good foundation for what has become a battle with depression in my adult life. So far so good.

But I know that there is always the possibility that the depression will come back. And that it could come back worse than before. It occasionally rears its ugly head when I’m having a particularly bad day or bad week. My depression isn’t as severe as some other people’s. My depression is cyclical and occasional, sometimes lasting a few detrimental days and sometimes for a few devastating months. I know that I am much more fortunate than a lot of people who deal with depression. But, like most people who deal with depression, I also know that I am always at risk.

I don’t think that it is a coincidence that Robin Williams chose to act in several movies dealing with the subjects of suicide, displacement, and mental illness. Dead Poet’s Society, The Fisher King, Jumanji, August Rush and What Dreams May Come are among my favorites. I also don’t think that it is a coincidence that he won an Oscar for his role in a film where seizing the day triumphs in the face of death and life’s obstacles: Good Will Hunting.

Depression is not equivalent to having a bad day. It is not a sadness. It is like the scene in What Dreams May Come where Annie Collins-Nielsen, played by actress Annabella Sciorra, can’t get up and can’t even cry. It’s like the scene in Jumanji when Alan Parrish, played by Williams, comes back to his home town after years of isolation to find that no one remembers him or is willing to acknowledge his existence. Depression is a desolation so deep and so clear. It is a submersion. There is no reasoning or arguing. It is an all-encompassing monster, reaching its tendrils into every part of a person’s life.

I have seen a lot of messages about suicide prevention and about “reaching out” in the past few days. I appreciate the effort. I really do. I can sympathize with those who have lost loved ones to depression and who hope to prevent suicide in the future. I have seen the messages of hope. I think that my friend, Zack Hamra, offered one of the best messages of hope I have read.

He said, “Please be kinder to yourself than you think you should be. This world is one crazy place if you let yourself get all caught up in it. Slow down. You might actually be right where you need to be. Our mental health is serious stuff, and it saddens me, that in school, we’re not provided with the tools to figure out on a daily basis what this stuff called happiness is really made of. RIP Robin Williams. The whole world loved you.”

The whole world loved you. It rings in my ears like a gong.

The whole world loved you.

Isn’t that an incredible thing? The whole world loved you.

For most of us, we don’t hear these messages on any regular basis. We don’t hear messages of love enough. Whether we are dealing with depression or not. There are many who cater to the love outside, but there are few who are willing to love the people in front of them. People are complicated. There are people in the world who never hear kind words from anyone.

I am saddened beyond grief that a man who brought so much joy to the world has now become the poster-child for suicide prevention. But, as someone who has lived silently as someone actively struggling for suicide prevention, I can tell you that we, as a people, just don’t love each other enough for the world to hold all of us.

I mean this in the kindest way possible, even though it’s shitty: There are those of us in the world who won’t survive this time and place because it is too much to get through. I am heart-broken, like so many, about Robin Williams’ suicide. But unlike many, I completely understand it. I get it. I respect it. And I can’t blame him. I can’t even say that I’m surprised about the circumstances surrounding his death. He goes, like so many before him, carrying the art he could no longer burden, to his grave. May his sweet, sweet soul now rest in peace.

And for the rest of us?

A good friend of mine, who has suffered from severe depression for many years, explained her outward dismay by saying, “They keep saying that ‘it gets better…’” She trailed off with a pregnant pause. The truth is that, for many of us, it will never get better. It just gets different. And all we can hope for is that we lived the best we could. I think of Sean Maguire, Robin Williams’ role in Good Will Hunting.

Robin Williams’ death may very well be the culmination and apex of his entire life’s work. When I heard that his cause of death was suicide by asphyxia, my initial thought was not that he had hung himself, but that he had attached a pipe to the exhaust of his car, the way that Willy Loman attempted suicide in Death of a Salesman. But Robin Williams wasn’t making an attempt. He was saying goodbye.

I have kept a diary since the sixth grade. I now have many diaries, documenting most of my life, stored away in boxes in my shed. According to my well-kept records, the first time that I contemplated suicide was about twenty years ago, when I was 14-years-old. I have contemplated suicide many times since.

Most people who read a blog are looking for simple answers: A fifteen minute pineapple-upsidedown-cake. A quick-fix diet. A simple way to get rid of aphids on roses. A catch-all solution to acne. This blog will not, and can not, offer a quick fix to suicide. The truth is that there is no quick fix. This world is broken and, for a lot of us, it is broken beyond repair.

Here is what you can do for now: Call the friend that needs it most. Make contact. Write a letter. Be nice. Be cordial. Be present. Use your turn signals. Make friends. Help a stranger. Put up with the hard stuff. Deal with the worst of people. Smile. Hug. Love.

And understand, when it isn’t enough, it’s not your fault. Some people just aren’t meant for this world.

I had the incredible fortune to see Maya Angelou speak in 2002. One thing that she said has always stuck with me: “If you think that you are alone, listen to music and read poetry and know that you are not alone. You have never been alone.”

I give you Wordsworth:

 

The World Is Too Much With Us

 

The world is too much with us; late and soon,

Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;—

Little we see in Nature that is ours;

We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;

The winds that will be howling at all hours,

And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers;

For this, for everything, we are out of tune;

It moves us not. Great God! I’d rather be

A Pagan suckled in a creed outworn;

So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,

Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;

Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;

Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.

 

And I leave you with a medley of some of the best lines from some of the movies that Robin Williams participated in. I won’t specify. Let’s just celebrate his genius. Together, his words build a brilliant and perfect representation of a troubled man who gave the world so much. Hopefully we can be better for them.

“Hunger for hope may be worse than hunger for food.” “Even when you’re squeaky clean, you can still fall in the mud.” “No matter what anybody tells you, words and ideas can change the world.” “A whole human life is just a heartbeat here in Heaven. Then we’ll all be together forever.” “Thank you for believing.”

Rest in peace Robin Williams. And for all who are struggling with depression, you are not alone.

City Mice

There are few things more beautiful than an organic farm in the first few days of summer. My nieces are visiting from the Bay Area and I had the privilege to take them to Mountain Bounty Farm this morning. They are 12- and 13-years-old and got up early today to volunteer their time with the Gold Country Gleaners.

We got to Mountain Bounty Farm at 7:45am, just when the cool air had all but worn off. There were butterflies touching their noses to yellow flowers and bees bowing to bolted broccoli. It was breath-taking.

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My nieces are definitely “city mice” but they are not totally ignorant about country ways and where their food comes from. My nieces have spent enough time with us in the country, and have spent many days on local farms while visiting us here in Nevada County. They like the country and they love to visit farms. Today was no exception.

The girls and I spent the morning picking vegetables with, Clif Mackinlay, another Gleaners volunteer. The owner of Mountain Bounty Farm, John Tecklin, and his skilled farm managers, are great at preparing the fields for succession planting so that the farm’s CSA and market customers always have the best of the best and a wide variety of veggies, lettuce and herbs. The fields were filled with a variety of greenery.

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I laughed when the 12-year-old, Mariana, said today, “Auntie, this plant smells like pickles.” She was standing next to a wispy-leafed plant with big, yellow sprigs of flowers. She thought for a moment and asked, “Is this dill?”

It sure was. “Yep!” I said. “Nice plant identification!”

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Mountain Bounty Farm is in full swing right now but many of the cruciferous vegetables out at the farm are in their last days. For Mountain Bounty and their customers, they have had their fill of vegetables like cabbage and bok choy; they are now moving onto other varieties that are more in season.

Vegetables like cabbage, cauliflower and bok choy grow better in the late winter and early spring up here in the Sierra Foothills. With summer upon us, things like and cabbage and bok choy are starting to bolt. The CSA and market customers have delightfully gotten the cream of the crop (quite literally) but there were still some very nice cabbages and lots of bok choy left in the field. That’s where gleaning comes in.

The concept of gleaning dates back to before the Christian bible was written. In other parts of the world, gleaning has been a staple of consistent community service for centuries. In Nevada County, our most organized efforts have taken place in the past few years. Last year, we really took off. Last year alone, we donated more than five tons of food to local organizations. The Gold Country Gleaners have been called out to orchards, homesteads, farms and gardens to help with gathering and donating food.

I’m not sure how effective my nieces and I were in the field at Mountain Bounty today. I cut heads of cabbage away from the roots with my knife and tossed them to the girls who ran the cabbages back to boxes up the hill. I think we probably looked more like we were running a P.E. drill than like we were farming.

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Pulling the bok choy and helping Clif with things like fennel and lettuce proved even more of a mess. As we tried to separate the plants from their strong roots, we found ourselves covered in dirt and often times holding leaves and stalks, rather than a whole bunch. Still, we worked hard and eventually came up with nearly twenty boxes of veggies to take to our local food pantries.

Clif Mackinlay had a much easier time than the three of us. He is a skilled harvester and is much more patient than a couple of teenaged-girls and their auntie. I watched him as he carefully harvested lettuce and a green, leafy vegetable related to bok choy. He had large stalks of fennel and several boxes filled with neatly picked greens.

We agreed that my nieces and I would go to the San Juan Ridge Family Resource Center to drop off some produce and then to the Interfaith Food Ministry in Grass Valley. Clif would go to the Salvation Army, Hospitality House, and then to the Nevada County Food bank.

Altogether, the Gold Country Gleaners donated about 50 boxes of food and several work-hours to help feed the hungry in Nevada County today. We served several non-profits and made sure that our food pantries were stocked.

 My nieces were happy to help and they had a great time. I’m glad that we all had a nice day out on the farm.

Doing The Right Thing

A few months ago I went to a bar with my partner and some of our friends. It’s not my ideal choice for a hang out but one of my favorite bands was playing: My partner and I went to see A Thousand Years At Sea at the Old Five Mile House, just outside of Nevada City.

Let me set the scene: We opened the door to lively fiddle music and a large beverage area. It was a standard set up for a bar, plus extra dining seating. The room was decorated in fine, dark wood and romantic lighting with a lovely fire place at the far end of the bar. It was actually a nice place, not the dive I had expected. The tables and chairs were sturdy. There were little details that stood out. The food was served with white, cloth napkins. The flatware was heavy and reasonably ornate. The salt shakers on the table were upscale and original. The place wasn’t entirely populated with drunken locals. There were tourists and visitors.

My partner took a seat and I walked up to the bar to order a club soda and a glass of wine. The two women next to me were in a passionate discussion about a break up. It was a strange scene. Because one was hanging on the other, I initially thought that they were a lesbian couple.

One woman was wearing a peach dress and the other was in jeans and a red shirt. The one in a dress (I will call her Peach) was comforting the woman in the red shirt (I will call her Red). Red was crying and had obviously had a few too many. Peach was consoling Red through her misery. Peach said something about Red’s ex-boyfriend. From what I gathered, he didn’t deserve her. Both were attractive women and drew a lot of attention from the other patrons. I could see several people trying not to stare.

The bartender was a friendly brunette, very attentive and knowledgeable. I watched her answer questions with authority and ease. She looked sideways at Peach and Red but didn’t seem overtly concerned. They were drunk. It came with the job.

I got my drinks and walked away from the bar. I sat across from my partner in a nearby seat. I listened to the wonderful music and and started to write postcards.

The Old Five Mile House isn’t just a bar. It’s a restaurant with really good food. We weren’t sure what to expect because the place is almost in the middle of the woods. We ate dinner before we arrived and regretted doing so upon seeing the menu. They serve what you would hope for at a fancy restaurant. The food looked incredible. Goat cheese. Chutneys. Fresh salads. Grass-fed meat. All the food looked and smelled amazing; Next time we visit, we will order dinner.

From where I was sitting, Peach and Red were in my line of sight. I kept looking up from my postcards and couldn’t help but notice their night unfold. Red became visibly drunker and Peach became less willing to tolerate the progression. Red was clearly having a hard time. Peach was clearly over it.

After three or four songs from A Thousand Years at Sea, Peach got up to leave. She was done entertaining Red’s progression. Peach hugged her friend and left.

Maybe I just imagined it. The air seemed to tense when Red was left on her own. I glanced sideways at the table next to me and they seemed to watch Peach walk out the door while they held their breath.

Red order a slurred drink of water. Maybe the rest of the patrons were thinking what I was thinking. The water came and I watched Red drink a few sips. She subtlety swayed at her seat, forward and backward, looking downward as she sat in her chair.

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I went back to my postcards, trying to ignore something I had little control over. I welcomed the amazing music and enjoyed a few more songs.

Pizza and salad and steaks gathered in front of the other people around me. Someone at the bar ordered a glass of Chardonnay. An older couple walked through the doors, looking like tourists. The band kept up with their flawless set.

After a while, Red lifted herself from her chair and gathered her purse. She stumbled forward and walked around the tables and out the door. The entire place looked at each other and then looked out the window to make sure that a taxicab was pulling up.

When Red got in her car, the bartender bolted out the door.

Everyone in the bar could see the whole scene through the window. I was dumbstruck. I saw an older women across from me take a long sip of her soda and sigh dramatically. There was a moment of disbelief and, as we started to understand that Red was going to attempt to drive home, we all looked around at each other as though Donald Duck had walked up to the bar and ordered a vodka-tonic.

We couldn’t hear a word from the scene outside but we could see the tawny-headed bartender arguing with the drunk girl as she sat in her driver’s seat of her wagon with the door open. The conversation might have started with, “Are you fucking kidding me???”

An older gentleman, and his wife got up from their dinner and went out to help. Those of us left in the bar talked about starting a collection to get the woman a cab.

The bartender came back inside and returned to her station, visibly and rightfully angry. The older couple continued to council the woman outside.

From what I could gather, this wasn’t Red’s first offense. There were other people at the bar who had seen her before. But it didn’t matter. Even if Red had driven home drunk on other occasions, on this occasion, people were concerned.

Red sobbed from the view of the window, in her driver’s seat, until she finally relented her phone. The couple helping her assisted with phone calls. Several calls were made before the man helping came inside.

He told us that Red’s father would come to collect her. The other woman stayed by her side.

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When all was said and done, Red was escorted away. Someone drove her home. When her ride came to get her and tucked her away in the passenger seat, the entire place blew a collective sigh of relief. People went back to their dinner. A man went to put another log on the fire in the fire place.

The night could have ended a number of ways. It could have ended in some stranger’s death and some drunk girl’s revelation. It could have ended with first responders and road side assistance. It could have ended with another mother with a lifetime membership to MADD.

Instead, it ended in community. It ended with everyone safely home.

It is always better to do the right thing.

Facebook Etiquette for Parents of Adult Children

Deciding to be friends with a parent on Facebook is a difficult decision for many adults. Even though our posts on Facebook are fairly public, when it comes to our Facebook profiles, we like to think of ourselves as autonomous, free-thinking individuals inhabiting our own personal “Speaker’s Corner”. It is a place where we can rant about politics, lament about our relationships, whine about work and brag about our successes. Facebook, for many of us, is an every day live-feed that is reminiscent of the autograph section of a high school yearbook. It’s something we are proud of, but it isn’t necessarily something we want our parents to see.

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If you have attempted to “friend” your adult son or daughter on Facebook and haven’t received acceptance yet, don’t take it personally. Many adult children have a lot of concerns when it comes to their parents seeing their Facebook profile and interacting through Facebook’s feeds. Most of us accept our parents’ “friend requests” because we are afraid we might hurt our parents’ feelings or because we have taken for granted our parents’ tech-savvy ability to check up on us.

Parent-child relationships can be difficult to navigate in real life. The added element of Facebook can be terrible for many of those relationships. More and more, I am seeing my friends block their parents from Facebook altogether in order to avoid hurt feelings, misconceptions or socially awkward situations.

Facebook isn’t designed to lend itself to parent-child relationships. It is hardly suitable for lasting friendships. Facebook is often a forum where long-term friends become irate at each other for superfluous posts about pop culture or off-color political commentary. It is a place where people often feel dishonored and discredited. It is a constant source of misunderstandings and misinterpretations.

Yet, people indulge in Facebook because it is a wonderful way to keep in touch. We can see pictures of recent engagements and births. We may hear of a friend’s passing or learn about nearby neighborhood happenings. We can get up-to-the minute news coverage and, at the same time, look into what our old high school clubs are up to. It is a constant source of information.

For many adult children, it’s that constant source of information that we are worried about. Parents: heed this, there are some things that you are better off not knowing. It was true when we were teenagers and it is still true today.

Parents, if you are determined to be friends with your adult children on Facebook, and you hope to stay friends in real life, I offer these tips:

  1. Set ground rules. Maybe I’m thinking too highly of parental-child communication. Maybe I’m being too idealistic. Still, I hope that parents and children can communicate about Facebook before attempting the deep complexities of having a Facebook relationship. Parents, ask your children what their boundaries are. Children, make your wishes known through clear and concise communication. You may be surprised about what this forum has to offer. You may be even more surprised about what the Facebook limits are.
  2. Do not parent on Facebook. If you think your child is making poor decisions, make a phone call or send a private email. Do not comment on a photo or status update indicating your concern or disapproval. Your child is an adult and can make his or her own decisions. You may see something on Facebook that you don’t like but that doesn’t mean you can control it.
  3. Do not, under any circumstances, grandparent on Facebook. If your adult child has children of his or her own, do not offer any unsolicited advice on Facebook. Don’t council. Don’t advise. Don’t help. Don’t make comments like, “You gave my grandbaby an ice cream cone for breakfast??” All grandparent commentary on Facebook is viewed as unwarranted micro-managing. It is completely unwanted and creates ill-will. If you want to be involved in the raising of your grandchild, schedule a visit.
  4. Do not come to your adult child’s rescue on Facebook. It doesn’t matter how much you love your child or children. Do not intervene in a Facebook conversation with offerings of, “Now kids,” or, “Just breathe.” You do not know the context of your child’s relationship with the person who may seem like their aggressor. It could be their boss at work. It could be their best friend. It could be their landlord or next-door neighbor. If you see a Facebook argument ensuing between your child and another Facebook friend, do not take offense. Let your child make a case. It doesn’t involve you and it doesn’t need your protection.
  5. Don’t make friends with your kids’ friends on Facebook. It is okay to accept a friend request from a child’s friend, especially if they grew up together and especially if their parents are mutual friends of yours. However, don’t search your child’s friend list and invite their friends to be your friend on Facebook. Even as adults, your children still want their own autonomous friendships outside of your interaction.
  6. Don’t tag your children in any pictures and especially don’t tag your children in pictures that they are not in. When you “tag” someone on Facebook, in most cases, the tagged picture gets published on their Facebook feed for everyone to see. How would you feel if your child uploaded a bunch of pictures to Facebook and tagged you when you had bad 80s hair or terrible 70s sideburns? If you upload pictures that you are hoping your child sees, upload them to your page and then send your child a private message to alert him or her. Don’t use the tagging feature as a way to get your child’s attention. (The only exception to this rule might be when you are uploading and tagging picture’s of your child’s child. Still, use discretion. If in doubt, consult with your adult child before you start tagging pictures of your grandkids using their parents’ profiles.)
  7. Don’t embarrass your children on Facebook. If you have ever wanted to start a post with “Remember that time when…” stop yourself. None of us want to rehash the time we peed our pants on Christmas morning. We definitely don’t want to relive being stood up for prom. Even lesser offenses can be excruciating when made public. Adult children have tried to establish their lives beyond childhood and adolescence. Many of your child’s friends now didn’t know them when they were awkward and zitty. Further, if your adult child told you something personal over the phone, it is not okay to follow up over Facebook. Never write things like, “Are you still fighting with that girl?” or, “How did it go with the gynecologist?” No matter how cute, endearing or concerned it might seem, don’t publicize something that could embarrass your child.
  8. Don’t use pet names. In print, pet names are degrading and weird. It’s okay to use sweet references on the phone or in person but pet names don’t translate on Facebook. Calling someone “baby”, “honey”, “pumpkin”, etc. is immediately creepy or demeaning when it shows up online.
  9. Don’t write things on a Facebook thread that do not apply to the subject of the thread. If your adult child updates their Facebook status or posts an article, all following commentary should be related to the original subject. For example, if your child posts “Looking forward to poker night with my co-workers tonight”, it’s okay to write a comment such as “I once won $300 playing blackjack in Vegas. Good luck!” Similarly, if your child writes “I can’t wait for Thanksgiving!”, it’s okay to comment with “I’m making pumpkin pie.” It is not okay to write an unrelated comment such as, “Did you get the pictures I sent you?”, or “Your father bought a new couch.”
  10. Don’t reveal critical milestones on Facebook without having a personal conversation with your children or family first. It is never okay for your family to learn about something important on Facebook without first hearing it from you. Don’t use Facebook as a forum to announce things like, “I’m getting remarried”, “We’re adopting child”, or “I have been diagnosed with breast cancer.” Your child or children may, at times, seems aloof or unavailable. Facebook is not the place to shock them into caring. Facebook may paint a different picture about relationships but there are still many things in life that are sacred and require direct communication.
  11. Don’t confuse a promotion with an invitation. This one is a tough issue and often heart-breaking. For parents of adult children who perform (in a band, on stage etc.) those individuals may use their Facebook profile to promote an engagement or performance, but may not actually hope for their parents’ attendance at the event. Often, an entire “friend list” receives an invitation as a point of promotion. Don’t assume that you are invited. Of course, as a parent, you want to support your child and their endeavors, but there are times when your presence may be unwanted. For example, I had a friend who was recently in a raunchy and violent performance of Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. The show was over-the-top and included the caveat “Warning: first six rows may get wet.” While he appreciated his mother’s support, the performance wasn’t exactly welcoming of parental opinion or participation. When the show was promoted on Facebook, it was for publicity, not to entice parental involvement. Be clear about the events you’re attending and get clarification about whether or not your attendance at the event is appropriate.
  12. Don’t use your child’s Facebook page as a tool for passive-aggressive family communication. For example, if you and your child’s other parent are no longer together, your child’s Facebook profile is not the place to make a scene about it. Similarly, if you don’t like your in-laws, don’t put your child in the middle of it by making off-color comments. Don’t foster jealousy or create guilt-trips if you have several children on Facebook. It is never okay to say things like, “See! Your brother comes to visit me!” or “I’m so thankful that my daughter decided to spend Labor Day at OUR family’s cabin.” It is hard enough for adult children to make family decisions about how to divide time amongst loved ones without getting a wrath of comments on Facebook.
  13. Don’t take things personally. This will be the hardest rule to adhere to. Just do the best you can. Adult children often have to make tough decisions about who to spend Christmas with, where to take a vacation, or how to grab a quick lunch when time is a constraint. You might learn from Facebook that your child stopped through town but decided to have lunch with a friend instead of you. Don’t interpret your child’s decisions as a personal insult. Human relationships are complex. It is very possible that the friend solicited your child’s advice or needed someone to talk to. It could have been a business opportunity. Don’t ever assume that your child did something on purpose to hurt your feelings.

 

 

Unemployed in America

I haven’t had a pay check since May 2011.  My job in the social services sector got eliminated.  After I was laid off, I had received checks for unemployment insurance benefits for a while but the benefits dropped off before I could find another job.

I paid my phone bill this month because my partner put money into my account. It’s how I’ve paid for my phone bill and almost every other bill I’ve had for the past twenty-seven months.

I applied for another job last month. The deadline was July 31st. This time it was different. I had heard about the job locally and submitted my cover letter to someone who was actually accessible and who seemed to care. She even wrote me back and said that she liked me. I finished my application and submitted it on July 28th, a few days ahead of schedule.

I paid $89 for a TB test, which was required for the application. I borrowed the $89. I got tested at a local health clinic. I tested negative for TB. I haven’t had any healthcare benefits since I had my job so it was a double relief that I didn’t have a positive test for a disease.

I needed three letters of recommendation for the application and asked sixteen people to write one. I volunteer with five organizations and have more than twenty friends that I have known either personally or professionally for more than ten years. I got three letters of recommendation, one of them from someone I’ve only known for six months but who spoke highly of me.

I’ve applied for a lot of jobs in the past two years. A lot. I’ve applied for probably more than four hundred jobs in the past two years. All of the jobs I’ve applied for were in a position that I was qualified for.

I have a Bachelors Degree from a University. I have professional experience. I have community service experience. I volunteer, network. and show up. I’m highly skilled, very literate and look good on paper. I’m also pretty, which helps, whether or not anyone wants to admit it.

The job I applied for last month was the first job, in over four hundred applications, that gave me a response. Prior to this application, I’ve submitted over four hundred applications, and haven’t even received so much as a “Thank you for applying” email.

I got a response and I was actually asked to interview.

I was ecstatic because it was my dream job. I was applying to be the garden coordinator at a primary school, kindergarteners through eighth graders. All of my skills and volunteerism had prepared me for this job. I was one of four qualified candidates. I was elated that I had made contact.

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I nailed the first interview.

This week, I had a second interview. It was a working interview and I was supposed to teach 5th graders about science as it relates to gardening. They wanted me to prepare and implement a lesson plan.

When the job was posted, the application asked for someone with an Associates Degree, someone who had finished coursework in the community college system. The application process was rigorous but, given the parameters, I was qualified for the position. Given the parameters, I was over-qualified for the position. The position asked for a “garden coordinator.” It did not ask for someone with a higher education and it did not ask for someone with a teaching credential.

The job description listed that they wanted someone who could farm, organize volunteers and write grants. I have professional and personal experience with all of those things.

I figured that the position, based on the description and requirements, would fall under the jurisdiction of the maintenance department at the school. It was part time and offered no benefits. I understood that they wanted someone to put in an edible schoolyard. They needed someone with a farming background and some education. They wanted someone with irrigation experience. They wanted someone with the brains and brawn to manage a garden on the school grounds. I could do that. And I could help students learn about gardening, plant identification and more.

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I was more than a little surprised when I was told that I would be asked to teach a class as a part of the interview process.

I have a higher education. I’m a brilliant farmer and gardener. I have ample experience working with kids. I’m not a credentialed teacher.

I bombed the second interview.

When I learned that I was selected for a first interview, I went to a local thrift to purchase my interview outfit. I found a khaki skirt with a soft flower print and paid a dollar for it. I wore a dark-blue cotton shirt from the back of my closet and matched the color to one of the printed flowers on the skirt. I found an orange scarf to tie the outfit together. I went to Kmart and bought smart, beige pumps which cost $19 and I later returned them to cover our electric bill.

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When I got word that I would be received for a second interview, my partner and I went to Target and returned towels that my parents bought us as an engagement gift so that I could have a different outfit for my second interview. After several hopeful options, we settled on a nice cotton shirt and I decided to wear my gardening boots with a brown skirt that I already owned. I wouldn’t have worn the outfit to an office interview but it would look appropriate given the situation. I hoped that, out in the garden, I would look nice.

It wasn’t the outfit that made me bomb the interview.

My lesson plan was awful.

I wasn’t expecting to have to put a lesson plan together. It’s just not a skill I have. And honestly, if I had thought that I was applying to be a teacher, I would not have applied. Teaching is a very particular skill and it’s something that I respect. I respect the extra education required of teachers. If I knew that I was trying to be a teacher, at the very least, I would have worn a different outfit. I would have kept the “smart pumps.”

My “lesson plan” involved handing shovels to the entire 5th grade class. We went out into the garden and actually dug up weeds. I didn’t use colored pens or an easel. I didn’t use handouts. I did what a farmer would do.  I did what a gardener would do.

Everything that I have achieved in my life, up to this moment, pointed me to this job. According to the written job requirements, I was going to be a shoe-in.

That’s just not the way it happened.

Because the other applicant and I had back to back interviews, I got to see her lesson plan. She had hand outs. She had colored pens. She used an easel. She worn tight back jeans.

After I finished with my presentation, I knew that I wasn’t going to get the job. They shook my hand and said curtly, “We will let you know.”

They called the next day and told me that they had gone with the other person.

Mariana

My 11-year-old niece, Mariana, looked at me today while we were on a hike, “Plantain is the one you can chew up and put on a splinter to draw it out, right?” She was standing over plantain and bent down to break a leaf. I was elated.

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Mariana has spent time with us in the foothills but she lives in Silicon Valley. She lives in an apartment and there just isn’t much vegetation between the walls and the streets and the sidewalk. I was surprised that she remembered our lesson from last summer. I was thrilled that she could still identify the plant.

Our family and friends always leave their kids with us. It is the most gracious of compliments. I know that my partner and I are tender, patient people and that we can be trusted to take the utmost consideration when caring for children. It helps that we are good cooks. I wonder, however, if our treasured responsibility has something to do with our terrain.

Living in one of the most lush and lovely places in the world has its advantages. We are blessed with wild vegetation that is both purposeful and beautiful. We are able to grow wonderful vegetables and produce. We are able to pass the knowledge about plants and their bounty onto our loved ones and our community.

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Both my partner and I grew up in cities and many of our family members still live in urban sprawl. When their kids visit, not only do they get fresh food, but they get real dirt and real air with it.

I have always wondered if our city kids have gone home to their televisions and iPods and have forgotten everything about our foothills.

I was thankful to learn today that our lessons stick.