29 April 2017

Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, an homage to AKR on her birthday

Back in 2011, after reading Amy Krouse Rosenthal's Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life, I was astounded by the similarities in how my mind and AKR's mind worked.  It was eerie and life-affirming and hilarious and it inspired me to keep a journal of similar entries about my own life.  If you've read my previous blog, then you know that AKR meant a great deal to me and that she died earlier this year.  Today is her birthday and I thought I'd share a few of my own Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life entries.  And so here they are, alphabetized and curated à la AKR:

Bunkbeds
Changing the sheets on my daughters’ bunkbeds always leaves me feeling like an aging pro wrestler.  Too old for those strength-required moves, wrestling and grappling with my mattress-opponent, and then withdrawing from the cage-enclosed stage exhausted, sweaty, and with a new crick in my neck.

Compliment
When you see your hair stylist out in public and she compliments you on your hair, is she complimenting you or herself?

Exhaustion, Complete
The most exhausting day in my profession is the second day of school.  All the nervous energy that propels me through Day One is completely spent by Day Two.

Game, License Plate
It always takes me several days after returning home from a trip to stop scanning license plates for the ones we haven’t yet seen.

Gouda
I have a small, gold, plastic Buddha on my desk.  Arden keeps referring to it as my ‘gouda.’  I really don’t want to correct her.

Horn, Saddle
Arden believes the horn on a western-style horse saddle can be used to honk.

Housecleaning
It is a great idea to invite someone to come to your house mid-day Saturday to force you to do a ‘good enough’ quick housecleaning.

Language, Foreign

In Montréal, Madeleine remarks that she is amazed to hear young kids speaking foreign languages, especially French.  She wonders:  How can a kid younger than me know something I don’t?


04 March 2017

Nothing > Love

This morning I learned that one of my favorite writers, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, is dying – before long – of ovarian cancer.  I had known that she was sick for about the past month, but I didn’t realize that her situation was so grim.  Gratefully, in this day and age, a cancer diagnosis isn’t a certain death, but unfortunately there are still many types of cancer that are not as treatable as others.  By now, you've probably heard about her from the article in the New York Times, where she essentially writes a dating ad for her soon-to-be-widowed husband.  It is one of the loveliest love letters I've ever read.

AKR, as I think of this writer, has written both children’s books and several memoirs and books for adults.  Her children’s books are sweet, often with a theme of inclusion or permission to be your true self.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed her memoirs.  The first one I came across was An Encyclopedia of an Ordinary Life.  In this book, she chronicles her life, encyclopedia-style.  AKR is a few years younger than me, so she grew up in the age of encyclopedias.  This book contains short smatterings of her thoughts on various topics, alphabetized and cross-referenced.  There was a set of Collier’s Encyclopedias in my house that my parents probably spent far too much on and which I loved.  They contained the entirety of the known universe.  Anything I wanted to know more about lurked within those heavy tomes.  I can still recall the weight of the volume on my cross-legged lap, the cracking sound of the spines as they were opened, revealing glossy pages and sometimes mystifying black and white photos.  AKR’s uncanny ability to connect interesting commonalities of words or ideas is equal parts amusing, poignant, and oh, so true.  I identified with her ideas and experiences on such a deep level that I often found myself nodding my head in agreement, wondering how she knew me so well.

Through her works, I connected to a couple of friends.  One of those was a college friend, Tara, who was lucky enough to host AKR at her school in Thailand where she was working as a librarian a few years ago.  We both loved AKR’s writing and Tara was sweet enough to send me temporary tattoos from the swag AKR brought to her school.  Given AKR’s latest article, the message is especially pointed.



This fall, I read her latest memoir, Textbook Amy KR.  It’s an easy read with lots of negative space.  For example, here's a page  that struck such a chord I took a photo of it and posted it on my Instagram:



The book also provides many opportunities for readers to interact with one another and AKR.  Readers could share images of rainbows, or enter a contest for AKR to send one lucky participant a pecan pie. 

AKR sees the world through a charmed lens, and it is heartbreaking to me to learn that her diagnosis is so grim.  Her symbol is a yellow umbrella – something bright and sunny on a grey day.  I’ll sport one of her temporary tattoos this weekend to remind me to rise above that which is petty and draining, and to hug and smile and live a little more deliberately.  And to remember always one of her best observations:  Nothing > Love.


29 January 2017

Story Time


We had a white Christmas this year, which has not happened in quite some time.  According to the local meteorology professor, there’s only a 10% chance of a white Christmas in any given year in our mountain town.  It was also the most snowfall we’ve had in many years, which delayed my parents’ arrival to celebrate at our house by a few hours.  One of the gifts they brought for us was a set of “books,” copied and bound pages, really.  These books are their life stories, which they began writing earlier this year after my oldest brother gave them each a journal and asked them to write their stories.

Surprisingly, my mom’s story was the shorter of the two.  She’s the talker of the two of them, so I guess I expected her story to be longer.  Many of her stories were familiar to me, in part because she is a talker but also because we spent a lot of time with her family when I was growing up.  Family legends always came up as we sat around the dinner table or a campfire.  It was interesting to read regardless of its familiarity, and I enjoyed getting a sense of her as a little girl and of my grandparents and uncles when they were younger.

My father’s book spanned many pages and chapters and much of it was new to me.  I knew a few sound bites from his youth, like he and his sister sometimes rode their horses to and from school, that he’d signed up for the Army and gone to Korea when he lost direction in college, and that his father had been murdered by ranch hands after a dispute when my father was a little boy.  I also knew that he and my mom had a whirlwind romance and that they were married less than a year after meeting one another.  What a treat, though, to learn of his extended trip to England as a boy, filled with interesting details about the school he attended, relatives they stayed with, and how frequently he had to clean his muddy shoes – a chore uncommon to an Arizona boy.

He described many life events in a considerable amount of detail, like his time as an Army clerk in Korea, or how he settled on a career as a wildlife biologist, and important projects that he worked on in that capacity.  He’s kept a short account of his days, beginning in his youth, and so was able to recall specifics that may have otherwise been forgotten. 

Mostly, though, I was struck by how deeply he loves my mom.  I suppose that I knew on some level their connection – they’ve been married nearly sixty years and that doesn’t just happen without a serious investment in one’s partner.  But it was so evident throughout his writing.  I recognize how rare and singular it is for me not only to have both of my parents living and healthy at this stage in my life, but also for them to be so generous with their stories.  Perhaps there is some desire for a degree of immortality in writing their stories like they’ve done, but why not?  They lived in a time that bridged some groundbreaking inventions, global events of great significance, not to mention life in rural Arizona in the first half of the 20th Century.  I have friends and cousins who will never know the stories of their parents, as much as they wish they could. 

The stories were entertaining, sometimes poignant, and always interesting.  It’s often that we offspring think they knew their parents having known them our entire lives.  But we forget the lives and childhoods they had before we came along and changed everything for them.  We don’t really know our parents; we only know them as parents. 

I’ve read letters from a great-uncle I’d never met who wrote home of his work rebuilding bridges and roads in France after World War I.  There’s a story in our family history about a wedding dress that was shared by several of my female ancestors.  My husband’s grandparents recorded stories that my mother-in-law transcribed:  the grandmother’s terrible bout with scarlet fever as a child and the burning of the church where the grandfather’s father was preacher.


And so I urge you, write down some memories, funny anecdotes, adventures you took.  What was life like before smart phones, personal computers, and cable TV?  It might feel strange to think your story is worth writing, but if you add enough detail and put your heart in it, it will be appreciated.    Start with one story.  Something unusual, tragic, or funny.  And that will lead to another.  Write it down for someone.  It will be read.

29 December 2016

Special Forces and Random Love Letters in the Desert

Yesterday I met with my surgeon for my fourth annual follow up visit.  This spring marks four years since my cancer diagnosis and recovery.  After each of our brief visits, I always have plans for something pleasant to soften the anxiety and to leave Phoenix with a positive vibe.  In previous years I’ve scheduled lunch at my favorite French bistro with my sister or cousin, but since my doctor moved her office across town, that wasn’t really an option this year.  Instead I plotted a long solo hike in the mountains west of Phoenix along the Mesquite Canyon and Willow Canyon trails.

White Tank Regional Park is a large county park, the western geographic boundary of the Valley of the Sun.  Like most desert mountains, these are steep and rocky, lined with dry canyons and few trees.  I recall coming here from time to time as a child, for celebratory picnics; as an adult I’ve been back a few times, mostly to hike with my in-laws.  Several years ago, Dan and the girls and I spent two nights here, backpacking in and camping at an abandoned sheep corral.  The water from the nearby spring was so alkaline it curdled our dry coffee creamer.  On that trip we played cribbage, drank bourbon, and explored the mostly dry tinajas (depressions scoured out of bedrock, usually below dry waterfalls, which fill with rainwater and runoff) which give the mountains their name.

This trip, though, I was hoping to complete an eight-mile loop which would take me beyond that camp, and return in time to have a late lunch with a friend from high school afterward.  I’d done another long solo hike recently, Picacho Peak north of Tucson, a landmark I’ve driven by dozens of times in the past.  It was a fantastic experience to be alone in the desert with my boots and my mind.  Life is short and I intend to take more time to explore places I've always wanted to go from here on out.  The trail begins at the mouth of a canyon, climbing gradually but continually.  A recent storm had brought a lot of rain to the area, and the desert was damp and muddy in places, green shoots carpeting the ground where it isn’t covered in stones and boulders.  I felt strong as I hiked, stopping infrequently to chug water or for a quick snack.  I had to keep moving to avoid feeling chilled.  After the first mile or so, I encountered other hikers only rarely.  The solitude and silence were exactly what my post-holiday mind craved.  I’d finished Peter Matthiessen’s The Snow Leopard earlier this week, which details his trek in the Himalaya in the 1970’s.  It’s a beautiful book about many things, among them how to live in the present moment as fully as possible, which is what hiking alone does for me.  It’s a story that I know I will read again and that I will carry in my heart for a long time.

In the desert mountains, the terrain is varied, but the vegetation appears dispersed with care, almost planned:  a saguaro or two studs the landscape and is surrounded by perfectly placed brittlebush, grasses, and small boulders covered with desert varnish.  The colors blend and are generally muted this time of year, with nearly nothing in flower.  It’s as if the countryside is storing its energy to release all its vibrant colors in a single explosion of spring blooms.

And so, when my eye was drawn to a small, bright white square, I investigated.  The white square was folded paper, anchored with a square stone to a rough granite boulder right along the trail.  I unfolded it and revealed this message:



I can only assume it’s part of the random love letters movement that I learned about over the summer.  I left a random love letter earlier this summer myself as part of a calligraphy challenge I participated in on Instagram, but I’d never found one in the wild, or anywhere else for that matter.  Its effect on me was so profound and positive that I’m inspired to make a true effort to leave many for strangers to find.  I re-folded this note and replaced it, hoping others will be touched by its message.

As I approached the junction where I intended to take my next break, I happened upon an old man seated on a rock outcropping overlooking the canyon I would soon descend into.  He waved both arms above his head and smiled broadly.

“I’m so glad you’re here!” he cried out, as if he’d been waiting for me.  “Sit!  Here’s a good rock.  It’s lunch time!”

Now, in a city, I doubt I would have even made eye contact with such an exuberant person, so wary are we of our own species.  But here, high above the city, I thought, “Why the hell not?”

We never exchanged names, although we did share dried mango and pretzels.  He asked about my life and told me of his:  special forces in Vietnam, teaching biology in Denver, dividing the year between Colorado and Arizona in the RV he shares with his wife.  He told me he hikes this eight-mile loop twice a week and that after his 80th birthday this spring, he hopes to climb another fourteener in Colorado with his son and grandson.  He was as gregarious a character as I’ve ever met.  I wondered, as I continued down the trail, how many hikers he’s shared his lunch with in that spot.

And on I went, past the low sheep corral where we’d camped those years before (the only level place, it seemed, in this tangle of canyons and ridges), and back up again only to wander back down.  Once back in my car, I whizzed past the fields of flowers grown for florists, rows of lettuce, and a few remaining citrus groves on my way to share a pint of Guinness and laughter with an old friend just a stone’s throw from the high school where we met decades prior.  This morning I awoke to the silence of a sleepy house not yet stirring, reflecting on the magic of a day well-spent.

15 October 2016

Second Spring

This past week we camped at one of our favorite places, Granite Basin.  We love it because it’s quiet and beautiful, plus it’s only about a ten-minute drive from home.  It’s so close that my 73-year-old mother-in-law surprised us on two of our mornings there by hiking from our neighborhood to visit us.  It truly is a gem of our county, in fact my blog wallpaper is from a nearby trail.

It wasn’t our typical camping trip, though, as Dan worked every day for at least a few hours and Madeleine had some kind of social event with friends most days.   But we had the campground pretty much to ourselves.  Arden taught herself to play ukulele.  I hiked every day.  There’s a five-mile loop that connects to the campground that traverses several drainages with a really lovely variety of trees and plants.  Fall colors are blooming on the deciduous trees and some late flowers are still bright.  The network of trails continues on to the small lake and the imposing Granite Mountain and beyond, including the Prescott Circle Trail which is a future goal of mine.

Fall in October is my favorite time of year here.  The days are warm and sunny and the mornings are crisp but not yet frosty.  This week offered a bit of respite from our busy lives, a chance for reflection, and a pooling of stores before winter – it was good enough to energize us through the weeks until our next adventure.

Autumn is a second spring when every leaf is a flower.  – Albert Camus

Some of the more interesting plants and trees in Granite Basin:

Digitalis purpurea (Foxglove)




Salvia henryi (Crimson sage)




Achillea millefolium (Yarrow)




Senecio douglasii (Threadleaf groundsel)




Oenothera hookeri (Hooker’s evening primrose)




Geranium caopitosum (Pineywoods geranium)




Cercocarpus montanus (True mountain mahogany)




Rhus Glubra (Smooth sumac)




Vitis arizonica (Canyon grape)




Parthenocissus vitacea (Virginia creeper)




Pinus ponderosa (Ponderosa pine)




Juniperus deppeana (Alligator juniper)




Arctostaphylos pungens (Pointleaf manzanita)





Quercus gambelii (Gambel oak)




Chenopodium graveolens (Fetid goosefoot)



Parthenocissus vitacea (Virginia creeper) near our front door
(I've done my best to correctly identify these plants.  If you note any errors, please let me know and I'll rectify it.)