Friday, November 6, 2015

Gratitude and Grey Matter

I recently read that practicing gratitude can actually, physically, change your brain for the better (go here ). So, because I’m interested in anything that helps my brain, here’s a smattering of the bajillion people/things for which I’m grateful…

The treat: Snickers. The trick: the "sass face."

1.     I’m alive!
2.     Ray patiently outlasted my recent downward spiral into the grading abyss, with the usual shrieking threat to quit my job and go work as a checker at Hy-Vee (a job I think I’d like, BTW).
3.     The pod is gone from our driveway! This means we have finally completed Phase (something-in-the-late-teens-early-twenties) of our EPIC MOVE. On to Phase…what, like 27? 28? And that, of course, would be clearing out enough of the garage before Jack Blizzard’s first tantrum to park at least one car in there (it’s a 2.5-stall). The house is still very much like a lab rat maze, without the food rewards. Space is so tight, I threw a doily over an inverted plant stand. I was tired of finding places for things. For now, I call the monstrosity “telephone table,” even though we no longer have a landline.
4.     Mom is a fun, thoughtful roommate. She’s a wicked Bridge player with a biting sense of humor. She’s relatively healthy, even though she has two kinds of cancers, CLL and lymphoma, which she completely ignores.
5.     I can see the Vermillion River out my home office window.
6.     We had a successful birthday dinner for our friend, which also turned into a housewarming, which was also Halloween (we never had trick-or-treaters at the farm…good lord, those little kids are freaking adorable), which was also a delightful hootenanny with guitars, a fiddle, and two, yes TWO, accordians, which also turned into a family reunion for 3 of us whose children dropped by with their children. I have the best family & friends.
7.     Because I live in town now, I can stop grading, go to meditation class, and go back to grading. Just. Like. That.
8.     Bambi is doe-eyed and precious, but not when he jumps in front of a VW Bug doing 65. That’s what Ray found out this week. Bambi flew into and over the Bug, caving in the driver’s door and front quarter panel, and shattering the windshield and driver’s door window. Ray was shaken but miraculously unhurt.

Bug - 0; Bambi - 0
9.     I discovered Gudrun Sjödén (see, which is both a blessing and a horrible curse.
10.  It’s been a week of poetic inspiration. Fall semester hasn’t just been crushing me into the dirt; it’s been  grinding me into pulverized dust. This past week, though, I pulled myself together enough to help host a poetry slam at one of our Little Town pubs, and I was invited to read poems at our Little Town library. These events have inspired me to get off my poetry arse, don my beret, spin some fusion jazz, warm up the lava light, and get down to it again. More. Writing.
11.  Because the peacocks back on the farm imprinted on me and I on them, I guess, I still hear them at night. (Peacocks have many calls. They have one call they use to locate each other at night, just after they all fly up in their roosting trees. This is the call that’s stuck in my sweetly-addled brain.)
12.  I have 3 kids, a stepkid, and 5 grandkids, and they’re all really smart and classy humans. And healthy (which is what we’re SUPPOSED to say).
Our new digs, dressed for Halloween
13.  I just passed my 3rd strokeiversary. I’m grateful (and weirdly fascinated) to look back and remember that three years ago at this time, I couldn’t button my own shirt, put my hair in a ponytail, make the fingers on my left hand meet my left thumb, or walk without a cane. I’m much less impressed now with cool gadgets, no matter how sophisticated, after witnessing first-hand the design genius of the human self-repairing SmartBody. I still have glitches, but even these are fascinating: My new neural pathways are bumpy, clumsy “footpaths” compared to the old “super highways” of muscle and memory I’d smoothed and resurfaced through 50-odd years of repetition. So I sometimes stutter for a second or two while my brain tries to locate a word, or I flip a kitchen rug because my left foot only thinks it has lifted off the floor, or I fall into a near-narcoleptic stupor around 3 p.m. because my brain is literally, physically, TIRED, or my iffy balance makes me weave like a bad drunk. Still, I just helped move two complete households, started a new semester teaching full-time, lost 20+ lbs. without chewing off anyone’s arm, AND…
14.  I’m alive!

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Searching for the Sock Drawer

Marie Kondo is my new guru.

Her Holiness Marie Kondo
I haven’t read Kondo’s book yet, The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up: The Japanese Art of Decluttering and Organizing, but I heard a review of the book on NPR, and BAM. I shaved my head (not really) and joined the cult.

Kondo proposes discarding anything that doesn’t “spark joy” in the PRESENT moment, thanking each discarded item as it goes into the Goodwill bin (Civic Council in our Little Town), for its past service. Items that DO spark joy (the keepers) are folded & rolled neatly and stored upright, so each can be seen, hung with similar items (by color), or tucked into beautiful lined drawers & baskets. She says not to keep anything based on sentimentality or guilt (gifts are often kept well past their joy-giving days for these reasons).

Enlightenment: the perfect sock drawer
So picture this: Mom, Ray, and I are all moved into our new house in Little Town. We’ve combined households, which means (1) We now have two of everything, (2) our 2 ½-stall garage is full to the rafters (the rafters are filling up too), (3) we have a full storage pod parked in our driveway (which I’m thinking of painting to match the house, with painted fake windows and planter boxes—THAT’S how long it could be there), and (4) inside our house, it’s is a maze-like wonderland of crates, boxes, and Rubbermaid tubs. It’s SO FAR from my Zen leanings up in here, that I’m self-medicating for the anxiety with decaf espresso shots, Alaska Monsters marathons, meditation classes, and head-in-the-sand naps.

Then along comes Kondo.

Now, even Mom (mocking, of course, but I take it seriously) is asking, “Is that bringing you joy today?” And you know what? It’s working. My daughter and daughter-in-love have agreed to organize and run a huge garage sale (they’ll split half the cash…SO worth it to me). I sort through each box with an extra box on hand, into which goes anything that is not currently sparking joy for me, which is then sealed with yellow “garage sale” duct tape and sent, via Ray's superpowers, back to the giant Jenga that is our garage.

Mace Windu
Turns out, I have a TON of joyless stuff, like the Star Wars Mace Windu McDonald’s drink cup. Or the seventeen unopened boxes of gauze bandages (apparently, we were prepping for apocalypse minor injuries). Or the three pairs of purple and orange striped tights. Or the five egg poachers (microwave, oven, stovetop, campfire). Or the file box of 3 ½” floppy discs (there’s got to be something craftsy one can make with these…Pinterest?). Or the 15 tubs of yarn. Okay…these last ones ARE bringing me joy. They stay.

When I’m finished, and it will be months, years maybe, I will still have WAAAAY more stuff than I’ll ever need, a sad commentary on my own consumerism. But I can already feel it…I will also be lighter (okay, that might be the PROFILE diet I’m on), and I will be a radiant, grinning, pink-striped-tight wearing bundle of JOY.

Monday, August 10, 2015

The Big Fat Bohunk Family Reunion: An Illustrated Story of Life

It was a year of milestones at the Big Fat Bohunk Family Reunion 2015. I guess there are always milestones, since we only meet annually, but this year in particular seemed a reminder of the Circle of Life.

There were 47 people this year, offshoots from the three branches of the Viola/Adolph family tree, plus 11 dogs. We occupied two cabins, a small tent city, and 4 motel rooms in town. Two families in particular--our "Bohangels"--do all the prep work getting everything ready. Before we even descend on the place, clans and families volunteer to provide meals, so we had taco night, steak night, Asian night, pulled pork night, coconut French toast brunch, gyro lunch, and more--an endless supply of excellent food and delicious drink. We had actual goll-dern lattes every morning, thanks to cousin J’s grinder and espresso machine. 

Everyone helps out with dishes, camp pickup, fire starting/snuffing, wet clothes line-hanging, etc. And miraculously and spontaneously, the entire village watches over and helps keep in line the growing herd of small children, who turn feral within minutes of arriving. The frequently-yelled “theme call” this year was, “Has anyone seen my cousin?” We also decided that GF stood, interchangeably, for both girl friend and gluten free.

Among the milestones we celebrated this year are two new babies, the unwelcome passage of a potential cousin (a very early miscarriage), the 80th birthday year and end of radiation therapy for Mom, our Grand Matriarch, the continuing struggle but current good health of a young cousin with kidney disease, and a beautiful Veatles (Viking + Beatles) lakeside goodbye to cousin Britta, an amazing young woman whose energy became part of the Force this year.

We had the 5th annual Esther Williams Invitational Lake Swim, the 4th annual This Cabin Won’t Pay for Itself Auction, the 1st annual Serious-as-Sheit Beanbag Toss Tourney, Golf Day (I hear the old dawgs whipped the pups), the Old Farts Slow Cruise, the Party Boat Speed Cruise, jet skiing, paddle boating, paddle boarding (I was on my feet for at least 2-3 minutes!), floaties, fishing, sunburns, and singing. The under-12 crowd got in on the Grandpa Spot Annual Quarter Toss, where cousin Spot tosses $100 or more in quarters across the lawn, and kids armed with plastic cups and pointy elbows scrabble for the loot.

It was a glorious several days of laughing, toasting marshmallows (we all bow before Luke’s marshmallow mastery), singing, shouting, swearing, crying (mostly kids), in a watery wonderland of family love & togetherness. We come from all over this country and others, all occupations, all political, social, religious, and nonreligious leanings, various cultural and ethnic backgrounds, from 6 weeks to 80 years of age. The BFBFR was totally worth every minute of the 9-hour car ride in a compact car with two bored toddlers.

I’ve been going to the cabin in Minnesota since I was 4 or 5 (with a decade or two off in there somewhere; I still remember sneaking down to the water late at night when I was 8 or 9, to set free the frogs Grandpa Adolph hung on stringers off the dock--his catfish bait, my “friends”). That’s 50+ years of family on Long Lake, people, and it was already a tradition before I came along. There aren’t many rambling, extended families as big and diverse as ours that can or will congregate like this, and I’m grateful as heck for the little (Great Big?) miracle that is the Big Fat Bohunk Family Reunion.

Celebrating Britta with "fireflies" (sparklers)
Veatles sendoff: ashes, paper butterflies, poems.
Cousin Britta Joy: Happy journey!
Cousin Clyde learns to fish.
New Baby: Cousin Dylan
Esther Williams Invitational 2015 Participants
Cousin Hazel biffs it on the motel sidewalk.
Hazel likes to dress for the Quarter Toss.
Quarter Toss wee cousin scrounging.
This cousin paddle boards with a dog and a beer. Next year...
French toast feeding frenzy.
Auctioneer cousin talks up groovy silly hat.
Speedy young'un cousins party boat.
Over 50 cousins chillin' boat.
Mmm…steak & potato night.
The youngest cousin, Stella, & oldest cousin, Mom.

Monday, July 13, 2015

A'hermiting we'll go…a'hermiting we'll go…hi ho the merry-o...

Abbey from the hermitage path.

I turned 59 last Saturday. I was having a hard time getting excited about my birthday this year, and everyone’s lives right now seem so busy, so scattered in a million directions. So, instead of trying to schedule another dinner, another cake, another night at the Little Town Watering Hole, etc. (although I usually LOVE all of those), I decided to give myself a gift I’ve been wanting for a very long time—a weekend hermitage.
I spent a LOT of time here.

Home sweet hermitage.
Home sweet hermitage.
I spent Friday through Sunday at a hermitage cabin on the grounds of the Abbey of the Hills in Marvin, South Dakota. From its founding in 1950 through 2012, the Abbey was a Benedictine monastery, Blue Cloud Abbey, until it became unsustainable for the dwindling number of aging brothers who lived there. A nonprofit bought it and maintains it as a retreat center now.

I lit one little candle for the whole world.
There are two hermitage cabins a good hike downhill from the abbey. The cabins are simple but quite comfortable—a small bed, a writing table, a rocking chair, hotplate and microwave, dorm fridge, fan, AC if you need it. The Abbey supplies you with a basket when you arrive that includes clean sheets, a chunk of Valley Queen cheese, a chunk of summer sausage, a couple bottles of water, and half a loaf of homebaked Abbey bread. There is a tiny sink in the cabin with cold running water, and an outhouse halfway between the two cabins. The cabins have picture windows that face a small pond/lake. While you’re there, you also have access to the Abbey (which includes a shower room if you want).
Windows as art.

Reflections in marble floor.
I spent my time there writing, reading (re-reading Thich Nhat Hanh’s Miracle of Mindfulness), playing my guitar, practicing meditation, walking, and rocking while I stared into space. On Saturday, I sat in the back of the sanctuary and sang old Sufi & Shaker hymns until the echoing songs made me weepy, but I mostly kept to the cabin.
Cabin from the pond bench.

Saturday rain.
I’m not Catholic, not religious in any traditional way, but I am drawn to places, like the Abbey, that I consider sacred spaces. Also, I felt the need to UNPLUG from the constant chatter—on my phone/email/computer/TV, and in my head. I wasn’t expecting any epiphanies, but, as in all times when we slow down and pay attention, I did learn a few things about myself, which I share with you here…

Sound bounces off marble floors and walls.
- I do not need a hermitage. I need only the willingness, in ANY space or time, to pay attention to the present moment (sans the gadgets). I can “hermit” while doing laundry, washing dishes, writing a blog post, or going to the bathroom, as long as I give my complete attention to that moment.

- I am surrounded by love. (Dangit! I checked my Facebook birthday wishes Saturday night! O Facebook, thy name is Evil.)

- Typically, instead of giving our total attention to the present moment, we run future scenes in the mind, relive past events/regrets, carry on imaginary conversations, go over to-do lists, etc. Thich Nhat Hahn calls this the “dispersion” of the mind, and reining this in is the point of meditation. Not stopping it or silencing it, which is impossible, but learning to control what the mind does with it—we can notice it, let it go, and gently, constantly, come back to the present moment—the breath in meditation, the dishes, cleaning the litterbox, whatever we’re doing.

I sat back there and sang in this echo chamber.
- I have missed writing in my journals.

- Solitude forces us to face, and embrace if we can, our selves. What are we REALLY, without the costumes, the reinforcement, the pretense, the affect? What are YOU, stripped to the bone? Most people can’t take their own company, which is why we fill our time with people, going, doing, and stuff. Der weg nach innen, the “way within” (from the novel Siddhartha), makes us squirm.

- I want a fantail goldfish. I will name her Fontaine. (Clearly, I still have some work to do with that reining in thing.)

- There is no such thing as silence. I got up at 3 a.m. to listen to the world. There’s a LOT of sound at 3 a.m. We have to stop waitingwaitingwaiting for the right time to be still. We have to be still in the midst of the noise.

- Frogs really do play leapfrog.

So would I do another hermitage? Absolutely. But I think I’d go for 5 days next time. I need one day at the beginning just to slow down, to stop spinning. Then, I need a day at the other end for a slow, peaceful re-entry. And I need at least three days, maybe more, in the stop squirming.
View from the hermitage door.