Monday, June 28, 2010

Brought to Me by Irish Spring

This is the first time I have seen this lily blossom in many years. I couldn't even remember what color it was! Every year, every single year since soon after I put it in ten or so years ago, it has come up like gangbusters, developed two or three hearty stalks, budded, and then--before I even really get my mind around it--the buds disappear, thanks to my friends the deer.

The same thing has happened to tomatoes. Last year, I grew a lovely tomato plant in a pot--just enough cherry tomatoes for me. Not. Every single tomato--EVERY SINGLE ONE!--was eaten before it began to ripen. I am not entirely stupid: I checked into getting some netting to protect it. Turned out the netting would cost far more than the sum total of the tomatoes would have cost me at the local markets, so I decided to be stoic. But I digress.

This year, determined to see the lily blossom, I decided to try the frequently-recommended remedy of Irish Spring soap. What you can't see in the picture is the entire cake of soap impaled on a green bamboo stake, right beside the lily plant, at the same height as the buds and blossoms. Fabulous! It works. Deer smart--woman smarter. Sorta.

I hadn't seen too much of the deer lately. I was imagining them saying to each other, Keep out of that place--it STINKS! But here they were this morning, and it was hard to think any bad thoughts at all about them, the pretty little things.

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Good Enough

I care quite a bit about what I see in the mirror. When I get dressed up for some event for which my appearance seems to matter, I really like to look nice. But I was never a looker, and now I'm getting old. Many's the time that I have looked at myself in the mirror and said to myself, "Well, I look nice-ish." That's usually good enough.

Today I want to celebrate "nice-ish," "goodish," and "good enough." They can get us through the day, and they can help us let go of some of what holds us back.

The psychoanalyst D.W. Winnicott coined a wonderful term: the "good enough mother." He was convinced that children didn't need perfection in a parent but did absolutely need a mother who would both supply the child's needs for closeness and bonding and allow space between mother and child, a space he labeled "potential space." This is, he maintains, the space where the child can create through play--the space which in later years will become the space of creativity in other kinds of play (the arts, work, etc.). It is a lovely theory, and a comforting one. (It seems true enough.) Good mothers are so anxious about being "good mothers"! To know that "good enough" is really good enough is a great comfort: armed with that idea, a mother can relax and both allow the child to play and play herself.

In the late eighties I read in Tracy Kidder's more-than-goodish book House a comment made by one of the builders (he was somebody I went to high school with, delightfully enough, but that is not relevant to the current topic). When the builders encountered a glitch and found a way around it that didn't quite satisfy their zeal for perfection, it would be "good enough for Amherst" (the house was being built in Amherst, Mass.). My husband and I grabbed onto that "good enough for _______" expression. We would be making the bed, for example, and something would be a little skew-gee. My husband would say "Good enough for Buff" (meaning Buffalo), and we'd leave it at that. It always made us smile a little.

"Good enough for _____" is, in my mind at least, particularly resonant in Buffalo, a city with a large self-deprecating streak and a history of disappointment. A local artist, Michael Margolis, designed a T-shirt with the motto "Buffalo: City of No Illusions."
One could argue that it is a pretty negative motto. But we in the Buffalo area love it; it's just right. And really, it's something another city could emulate. It suggests that it's good not to have illusions. It suggests that "good enough" is good enough, that "goodish" is better than nothing, that a sheepish semi-success is better than failure, that half a loaf really is better than none. Most of our lives are half-loaf affairs; many of us can do little better than to look nice-ish. But why not celebrate the no-illusions attitude that sees "good enough" as really good enough?

All Those Hand-Me-Ups

It's time for a few words of praise for my wonderful daughters. We are all familiar with the concept of the hand-me-down, usually the outgrown clothes that a person gives to a younger person. As a child I didn't have many sources of hand-me-downs: I was an only child, and I had only one older child family member, a cousin who was 2-1/2 years older. I don't recall wearing her clothes, though I must have.

But now that they are grown up, my kids have been a rich source of such endowments! I cannot begin to enumerate the shoes and articles of clothing that have ended up in my closet because they were too big, too small (shoes, never clothes!), too far out of style, too something. Some of my all-time favorite things to wear have come to me that way.

Still, the best hand-me-ups have been intangible, and unlike the tangible ones, they can be both given away and kept. B., my elder daughter, pictured above in her kitchen making bread, has provided me with ideas for craft projects, expertise in breadmaking, courage to try foods I have ignored or avoided for six decades, a vision of sustainability, and--most important of all--the inspiration of a compassionate analytical mind guided by a remarkable ability to see what is important and right in human relations (what my late husband called a "good gut"), which operates both in her work and in her role as a mother of two little ones. A., my younger daughter, has taught me a great deal about fine arts and design, guided my reading and music choices, clued me in on style, challenged me to work on physical fitness, and helped me up to keep up to date with technology (more or less). More profoundly, she has inspired me with her steadfast courage to wing out on her own, despite shyness and doubts; her ability to rise to occasions even when they are difficult; and her self-knowledge and her unwillingness to betray her own identity.

I hope I am still able to grow--though I would prefer that it not be in girth! But I will never outgrow the intangible hand-me-ups of knowledge and inspiration that I have received from my lovely smart daughters.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

The Garden Is...Well, Some of It Is Okay

This is the amazing clematis that nature produced after I put the plant in the ground last year. I am very proud to have such a pretty thing facing my next-door neighbor, who knows full well what a triumph it is for a struggling and failing gardener. On the ground--well, there sure are a lot of weeds, and those two cubic yards of mulch didn't quite go the distance.

For several weeks I worked furiously in anticipation of a family luncheon. Since it came to pass, with some warts (metaphorically speaking) still showing, it has been harder to get out there just for the sake of the house, or Beauty. The weeds are alive and well, and here I am writing a blog while they inch up to take over the world.

Better rethink that strategy, I guess. Up and at 'em, woman!

A New Bee in My Bonnet!

I've been working on My First Commercial Knitting Pattern, which represents, I guess, my business plan for my retirement (not really). I am inordinately proud of this accomplishment-in-the-making! I finished the garment yesterday and photographed it. There's a lot more work to do, since I intend to adapt the pattern to larger sizes in different yarns. But last night I got the itch to begin to write it up, and that felt really good! I forgot to eat dinner.

Sunday, May 9, 2010

Mother's Day

I've never been big on Mother's Day, a holiday I consider to have been popularized, if not created, by Hallmark Cards. But when you miss a call and then call back, and your three-year-old granddaughter answers the phone and says "Happy Mother's Day" in her sweet precise little voice, and then your one-year-old granddaughter comes on the line and says "Hi....Hi....Hi," and then keeps wanting to talk more after her mom takes over--well, that's jist kinda nice. Nice, too, to know that the lines are open between me and both of my lovely adult daughters. And that there is Skype.

Thursday, May 6, 2010

Cotton Balls, etc.

I was wiping my face with a lotion-dampened cotton ball yesterday morning, thinking about cotton balls. In my childhood my father was a foreman in a mill where these and other cotton products were made, and sometimes I would go with him to the mill when he changed the clocks in the spring or fall, or at other times when he was about to quit work for the day. I saw the giant cards in action; can still remember the hissing sound that something on that floor made, and feel the dampness of the air. On another floor of the mill, I saw the women tending large machines that fed in multiple strips of cotton sliver to roll a line of cotton balls like puffy beads on a metal core rod; and then, when the balls were big enough, halting the machines, which then cut the sliver and slicked the ends onto the ball; and then stripping the balls off the rods into a ready paper bag.

All that was in my mind as I wiped my face. I had recently found a box of cotton balls brought from my parents’ house—sterile ones in an inner paper bag. I suppose they cost more than the ordinary plastic bag of cotton balls. But I have for a long time been disgusted by the cotton balls sold in those plastic bags. They seem to be made of dryer lint, and on top of that they are made in China. When I realized I had finally used up my stash of them, I went hunting for more cotton balls in my bathroom drawers and came up with this box, containing silky balls made from real cotton sliver, not dryer lint. Use them for cosmetic instead of first-aid purposes? Why not! First aid emergencies involving cotton balls come up awfully seldom when you live alone, and a little luxury, at least on that scale, seems okay, especially when the money was spent years ago by my parents. Today, using one of the luxurious little balls, I mused that it had probably been made in the U.S., remembered the machines, and remembered two little stories.

When I was in grade school, there were at least two times during the year when the school’s art classes were challenged to make construction paper posters for a competition. One kind was the Safety Poster; the other was the Poppy Poster. (It was the late fifties, after all. Maybe such competitions go on to this day, but somehow I doubt it.) These were not particularly fun events for me. I have always been artistically challenged. I have never really known what it was to have an artistic idea, become imbued with the purpose of realizing it, and find the means to accomplish that purpose. But all of us made posters, and after all it was an art class assignment. So I made them, dutifully and without inspiration.

One time—sixth grade, maybe?—I made a poster that won first prize. It was a rendering in crayon—pretty goofy, I imagine—of a cotton ball machine with a woman tending it. I suppose I put little tufts of cotton where the cotton balls were forming at the front of the machine. The motto, delivered in block letters cut out and pasted on with the guidance of penciled lines, I still remember: A SAFE WORKER IS A HAPPY WORKER. How did I know what the cotton ball machine looked like? Well, as related above, I had been fortunate enough to see it in action. That is my whole claim to any excellence on that poster: information. Oh, and maybe just the tiniest bit of understanding of perspective—which, I hope, persists and may even be the subject of this essay.

I am a little proud that I won. But what is memorable still, much more than the honest pride, is that when the art teacher announced first, second, and third place, and I heard my name for first place, I feigned amazement. Well, in a way I really was a little startled; as I have said, I have never had any illusions about my artistic ability. But I stood up with my mouth open, looking around to make sure several people registered my shock. I knew I was not a good artist. But truth to tell, even by then I was ever prepared to be praised; and even by then I was nearly incapable of surprise. This event, in recalling to me these two rather dubious and long-lasting character traits, stands for something bigger than itself. I suppose it is my ambivalent reconcilement to my own nature, to the shabbiness that coexists with all that may be good in me and sometimes, to me at least, seems to vitiate it.

Pride goeth before a fall. Much later, I was at an event, probably an art show, at our town’s Bridge of Flowers. (It’s a charming trolley-bridge garden that has always been associated with hometown pride and has put Shelburne Falls, Mass., on the map for many a traveler—go see it if you can). A hastily-lettered sign thumb-tacked to a door caught my eye. There was something familiar about it. Oddly enough, my name, in my handwriting, was on a square of white paper at one corner. I looked at the back. It was my most recent poppy poster.

Now, as I think about it, as then, this recycling seems both laudable and offensive. Of course it makes sense to reuse expensive construction paper that cost the school system money and has no other current use. But in public! where the person who made the poster might see it! Yes, in my career I threw away student essays, when they were orphaned long past the ends of semesters. And yes, I recycled most of them without shredding them. Still, I wouldn’t have used the back side of an abandoned essay to write memos to my colleagues or to post “Back at 10:30” on my door. My indignation then seems valid now.

But how comical it is now to pair those two incidents, both of which illuminate the tawdry but realistic little ego with which I am both blessed and cursed.