My Mother

A preview of things to come?

Mom and a Caregiver

Mom and a Caregiver



Clutter makes me happy, clutter makes me crazy. (No, happy and crazy are not the same thing.)

As I write this, it’s the tail end of a very long day, during which I did a lot of things and did not do much cleaning-up afterwards. The downstairs table, for example, has a cat, an unpainted drum with painting supplies plus some reference books, my property tax bill from today’s mail, a pile of reference books for tomorrow’s Natural History lesson on nettles at school, a recipe book for the caramel sauce that’s simmering on the stove for the nettle ice cream I’ll serve the kids tomorrow, and a linen shirt with some buttons and needle and thread. The kitchen counter has another cat, some drying dishes, half an onion, a ruler (for the drum project), the three cardamom plants that I brought in from the porch because they’re frost-sensitive and it’s a clear, cold night, and a stack of New Yorkers and London Review of Books plus a book by Max Gladstone and one by Ruth Ozeki. On the next counter over is a watercolor tray with some of the home-made watercolor paint that my student and I made the other day at the beach, a sample painting using those paints, my laptop, some sewing machine oil for the spinning wheel, and a bill from the Automobile Club.

By tomorrow when I go to work, much of this mess will be dealt with one way or another. Either I will read it, or pay it, or take it to school, or put it into the cupboard, or paint it, or eat it, or pet it, or sew buttons on it, or take it back outside, or something. By tomorrow evening when I’m ready for bed, a new mess will have materialized, consisting of entirely different artifacts, except for the cats.

Is all of this life-enhancing? Would I be better off if I had only one job and one avocation and one cat and one magazine subscription, and only read one book at a time?

Since my divorce, I have mailed 95% of my ex’s things to him. I’ll send the other 5% as I find it, but at this point his possessions don’t stick out of the general clutter clearly. All of my children live elsewhere but have left some things behind, which I am okay with. One of my kids hasn’t left much. One still has a roomful of stuff, the third has half a roomful. My mother was an artist and her paintings plus her parents’ paintings are boxed higgledy-piggledy in the attic, along with mine and two of my kids’.

As far as purging the clutter, I’ve picked much of the low-hanging fruit already, the books I don’t want to read, the cracked plates I don’t eat from, the ugly bits of fabric and the clothes that don’t fit. Now, I have to think a bit before I know where to tackle next.

Some of the de-cluttering is so intimidating I don’t know how to start. The woodshed is like that. After my ex left, I asked his friend to help me go through the jumble, sorting out stuff that he would want from stuff that should go to the dump from stuff that should stay with the house. We sent a dumptruck full to the dump, and several people, over the course of several months, took pickup truckloads to my ex. Now it’s a year later and I haven’t sorted through what remains; garden hoses, electric fence parts for the sheep, screws and screwdrivers, chainsaw parts, a winch and some trash cans, ropes and wires and the appurtenances of a rural household. I imagine I’ll have to build a few shelves, plus throw out a bunch of it. Not today, though.

Some of the de-cluttering is invisible. I’ve lived with it for so long that I can’t see it. For example, I don’t use plastic if I can help it so I store food in glass. I save glass jars, but it has gotten out of hand. I just noticed today, and have scheduled a glass-jar purge for my next free weekend. No doubt there are other similar areas where a bit of work could make a lot of difference.

Perhaps it’s time to make a room-by-room chart and do it that way.

But I haven’t addressed the other half of the situation. Yes, clutter makes me crazy, and it’s good to de-clutter. But it also makes me happy. I like gazing around at the mess at the end of the day, and thinking, “Yep, today was productive!”

How to balance the two?

The answer, for right now, is that I don’t have to even think about it. It will take several more months before I get to the point where I have to consider whether I’ve gone too far.

WOOP update:

1. Piano: I have memorized half of the Pachelbel Canon! It’s not rock-solid but it’s better than I’ve ever done before. It really feels good.

2. Bird feeder: I put the feeder up a few days ago, and this morning the birds finally found it. I think I can identify both male and female dark-eyed juncos.

3. Lose 4 lbs this month: I lost 1 lb this week.

It looks like the WOOP technique works, at least in the first few days of implementation. Try it!

A Whim Day

It’s the weekend! I have few obligations until Monday so I thought it would be interesting to follow my whims instead of my to-do list. This is not something I take lightly. I’ve been overly conscientious all my life. Mom says she used to watch me trudge to school with my overloaded book bag and wonder why I did that to myself.

I wonder too. No doubt it’s a combination of body chemistry, upbringing, and choice. The internal monologue that goes on, when I pay attention to it, goes something like this: “If I do what I want in the moment, I won’t achieve what I want long-term.” But, I’m not sure if I’ve ever actually tested this idea. Maybe it isn’t true.

One obligation I had today was to hang out with one of my students for a few hours at the beach. I did that, and it was awesomely fun. There was an exhilarating North wind and it was sunny. We found some clay and ground it up, added gum arabic, corn syrup, and ox gall, and hoped we were making watercolor paint. It sort of worked. The paint was grainy and didn’t spread gracefully but neither of us cared.


Then he went back home and I walked around the Point, shivering, throwing sticks for the dog, and letting my mind drift. I bought some sprouted potatoes at the farm stand, took a nap, then pottered around in the garden, planting those potatoes plus some radishes, and running a small burn pile to get rid of some of the gnawed-on branches in the sheep pasture. I spun some wool on my front porch in the cold sun.


A friend came over to look at my pictures of Cuba and asked me to design a logo for his company. Then I watched 8 episodes of Larry Wilmore’s new show back-to-back while being pinned down by not one but two cats.

The thing about this day is that it did not involve either playing the Pachelbel Canon or looking at bird feeder birds (see yesterday’s post). Those goals are hard for me, that’s why I had to make them be goals instead of just part of life. I’ll do them, that’s part of my nature. But today, and tomorrow, I want to see what happens when I don’t set any goals.

It’s too early to say, of course, so, of course, I’ll say something. First of all, this Saturday was a pretty great day! I enjoyed every moment of it, except near the end of the Larry Wilmore marathon, when I started to feel antsy and as though I was wasting my time (because I was wasting my time). Second of all, I am reminded of the idea of Sabbath. Sure, it’s possible to keep pushing every day, all day, but I suspect it’s not very healthy. It turns out most of us really do need about eight hours of sleep. Whim-days might serve a similar function.

Tomorrow is another day. I’m looking forward to it.

WOOPing it up

All right then, I’m going to change my life for the better.

People do this kind of thing all the time, or at least they try to. Two questions come up right away: 1. How do you decide what is “better” and what isn’t?, and 2. How do you change longstanding habits?

As for how to decide, that is a bit of a puzzler. Especially when I talk to people from other cultures, it becomes clear that what I think of as “better” might turn out to be a fad instead of something that really would be an improvement. I remember once I asked my dad, who was a harsh parent when I was small (he was awesome after I grew up, though), what he would have done differently if he had to do it over again. I was fishing for an apology. He said, “I look around me at how our society is deteriorating in every way. I would have disciplined you more. Maybe that might have helped.” I imagine I’ll explore this question more (the question of how you decide, not the subject of Dad’s violent parenting).

As for how to change, synchronicity took over. I was listening to a Mother Jones’ Inquiring Minds podcast and, in an interview with Gabriele Oettingen, they explored just that. Oettingen researches how people change their habits. She’s developed a rubric based on what her research shows, which she charmingly calls WOOP (scientifically, she calls it Mental Contrasting with Implementation Intentions, so you see why she had to go with WOOP).

WISH – decide what you want to change, something that is do-able. Be specific. For one of my three WOOPs (because I am going to try this technique out), I picked “Learn the Pachelbel Canon by heart on the piano.” I picked this because I’ve spent years and years and years telling myself that I can’t memorize anything. Read music, yes. Memorize a piece, no. This is clearly not true, but something has been stopping me from taking that step. Time to address my block.

OUTCOME – here it gets interesting. You have to clearly visualize or feel the way life will be once you have achieved the thing. For me, not memorizing pieces means that my musicianship isn’t portable. I can’t play with other musicians unless I have sheet music. Also, many musicians have the opposite problem from mine–they memorize everything but can’t read music. I’m tired of people marveling at how different my musicianship is from theirs. But, when I closed my eyes and thought about the outcome of learning the Pachelbel Canon, what jumped to mind was “I’ll be more flexible as a musician.”

OBSTACLE – What is it that has prevented you from meeting your goal already? There’s often several reasons, some deeper than others. In my case, I think there are two things. Firstly, I’m good at reading music and I get bored fairly quickly. It’s fun and easy to browse through the many choices I have. Secondly, I don’t put in the time. As soon as it gets hard, I just bip over to the next piece of music and play that instead. So, my obstacle is that I don’t spend the time.

PLAN – How are you going to address the obstacle? Usually, if you have expressed the obstacle clearly, the answer is also clear. In my case, I should spend the time needed instead of giving up right away.

I went to Oettingen’s site and followed the links to get a phone app. Then I immediately settled on three goals and WOOPed them (writing that makes me smile!):

1. Memorize Pachelbel’s Canon on the piano.

2. Learn my birdfeeder birds.

3. Lose 4 pounds this month.

We’ll see what happens next.


Hacking the Grey

I was a precocious, competitive, desperate little girl. I have a faded photo of myself in third grade, with protruding teeth, ferociously combed hair, and grim eyes. Looking at her, I’m torn between wanting to mother her properly and wanting to kick her in the butt. It was 50 years ago that the picture was taken, so I share very few of my component molecules with that little girl anymore. I don’t have many clear memories of that time either, except for those untrustworthy nuggets that have been looked at so often that they have their own life, independent of facts or possibly even emotional truth. My sisters and I sometimes compare notes about our childhood, and have concluded that we must have come from different parents and lived in different parts of town … this despite the evidence left by paper trails. Nevertheless the little girl in the photo has power over my life today. It’s time to give her a warm hug and send her on her way. Evidence suggests that it might be a bit of a struggle to do so.


I’ve decided to use this space to explore ways to age well. Who knows, I might even implement one or two of my ideas. Who knows, they might work.

As a rough draft, it seems like things can be divided into several categories:

* Build better habits, things like having a regular bedtime, sweeping the floor once a year need it or not, and keeping that bird feeder checklist current.

* Nudge certain character traits from dysfunctional to effective. I believe in the duct tape philosophy of life. Everything has a dark side and a light side, and this is true of character traits as well. I certainly hope it is, because much of my character has been with me since my earliest memories. Which, as I pointed out above, are unreliable.

* Be a better friend, family member, and teacher.

* Care for my body, which seems to be poised between being more effective than ever, while also disintegrating in fascinating new ways.

* Keep learning new things, without getting pulled into too many directions (a life-long struggle).

* Get good at something. I mean, really good. I’m okay in lots of areas, but the only unique, world-class skill I have is making juvenile salmon vomit without killing them. This skill is a bit too narrow to be genuinely satisfying. Well, actually, it is very satisfying, but not in a “now I die happy” kind of a way.

* Get better at living sustainably.

I imagine this will take longer than a couple days to pull off. I’ll keep blogging about it until I’m perfect. Watch this space.