Oh the joys of a summer trip to the library… my kids piling up more books than they can carry, me grabbing a few new release novels that will inevitably rack up late fees, and a few things I’ll never actually read (cause you’ve gotta have a backup)-- and then going home for an afternoon of family reading time and maybe getting ice cream drips on a few pages. Bliss.
This was one of the things I missed most during the pandemic. Our library was entirely closed for the longest time, and then they did “curbside pickup only” which was fine but all things considered, hard to plan for and utterly unsatisfying. I missed the roaming and browsing, and the flexibility to just go when we had a few minutes and were in the neighborhood. I missed finding and picking up things I’d never heard of. I missed watching my kids go to their favorite sections and totally nerd out over things I know nothing about.
Add these tiny joys to the long list of things I will never take for granted again.
Now the library is back! And it’s summer! Let the people rejoice. Also… what are we reading??
While I had a hard time focusing on ANYthing early in the pandemic, I got my reading mojo back about 6 months ago. I’ve also discovered the gift of audiobooks in recent times, so between the actual paper reading and the listening, I’ve covered some pretty good territory this year. The past year-plus has been a good reminder that a book can take you places, even when you can't go anywhere. As we (hopefully) start to go ACTUAL places again, here are some titles that I highly recommend for your summer roadtrip/hammock-lounging/beach-bumming/mountain climbing/porch-sitting adventures.
Every one of these books, in its own way, has the ‘sense of place’ factor--which is to say, the power to take you places-- that makes a book magical. So whether you need a book to take on the road this summer, or you need a book to actually be the road that takes you--we’ve got you covered. Happy trails!
Yesterday I grabbed the last package of pecans from the baking aisle in Kroger. Clearly all of Louisville is doing what I’m doing today--baking Derby pies.
Shoot, I can’t say that. The official name is trademarked, so let’s just say, I am making chocolate pecan pie (or walnut, if you fancy), using a heavy hand with the bourbon. There may be some on the side for sipping.
Of course, when I say “all of Louisville,” I mean those in my fair city who are not actually going to Churchill Downs for the race. My confession is, I’ve never been to the track ON Derby Day. But honestly, if you aren’t going to pay a 5-digit ticket price for a luxury box, you are just going to stand in the muddy infield with all the drunk frat guys who don’t know the words to My Old Kentucky Home. No, thank you. I prefer to enjoy my pie with a few close friends, the NBC Sports’ view of the whole track, and bourbon refills that you don’t have to wait in line for.
You don’t have to be at the track to enjoy Derby Day. Actually-- you don’t even have to be in Kentucky to enjoy Derby Day.
I can attest to this after years of having lived “elsewhere,” marking the day as “National Homesick Kentuckian” day--crying into my bourbon even as we sang “weep no more, my lady,” sharing pie with whomever was around, and trying to help my friends and neighbors in Phoenix, then Kansas City, understand what this whole thing was about. Because if you know, you know, but if you DON’T know… well, it just seems like a big lot of fuss for a horse race.
In those away years, I always tried to share the experience with the people in my proximity as best I could. I would say that my transplanted traditions ‘took’ better in some locales than they did in others… But everywhere, everybody loved pie. You can’t argue with the power of pie.
In fact, I have made and shared Derby Pie in so many other places, with so many other gatherings that now, this thing that used to make me homesick for Kentucky now makes me homesick for other places and people. How is that possible? This is Kentucky’s THING! Kentucky’s day. And yet-- anyplace I’ve taken this pie is also home.
I guess home is where your pie is.
This time last year, COVID-19 meant no Derby… Churchill Downs, like every other public place, was shut down tight and silent. The race was postponed until September when, in a truly spooky and post-apocalyptic feeling broadcast, the horses ran with no spectators. No juleps, no fancy hats, no drunken frat guys singing the wrong words loudly…just the sound of hooves on dirt. It was as though the whole pandemic had been distilled into a single, empty, two minute event.
We gathered on our patio with a small group of friends, the T.V. having been moved outside for a socially-distanced watch party. As the opening strains of Stephen Foster carried across the airwaves from that impossibly empty place, my daughter said, “are you CRYING?” like it was weird or something to be crying over a horse race. I said “every Kentuckian everywhere is crying right now. Believe me.”
If you know, you know. But if you don’t know… well, it just seems like a big lot of fuss for a horse race.
Watching the race from just a few miles away that day felt a lot like watching it from Arizona. So close, but so far… So removed from the place itself, but so connected to every other homesick Kentuckian in the world, every other piece of traveling pie...
I will watch again today-- on a friend's patio, from just a few miles away. While Churchill Downs will be at about half capacity, there will be spectators. But I don't feel the need to be there in person.
It is possible to feel homesick even when you are at home. It is possible to feel connected to home, even when you are nowhere near it in proximity. And it is not just possible, but highly probable, that a certain food, or song, or sound of hooves-on-turf, can transport you instantly from home to elsewhere, and back again. Because home is not so much a place as a longing; a thing that you take with you everywhere and, hopefully, share with anyone who happens to be in your orbit.
Home is where your pie is.
“It is getting tricky for me to fix your hair... I feel like I am having to reach UP for the top of your head.”
It was the night before her first day of in-person school. After a year-plus of at-home virtual learning, 8 months into her 6th grade year, she was actually going to be in the building. This gradual, part-time ease into school at the very end of the year felt incredibly anti-climactic in some ways. But in others, it was huge.
And so, I realized, was my daughter.
For the last year or so, she has been allllllllmost as tall as me. Starting to borrow my shoes. She walked up to me the other day while I was standing in line at the grocery store, put her arm around me and said, “what’s up, Shorty?” And she was looking me square in the eye.
And here we were, on the eve of her real live Middle School career-- asking me for a rare blow-dry because FIRST DAY OF SCHOOL (even if it is April); and I realized that the window of her being the same height as me had lasted all of 24 hours. I was literally reaching UP.
“Wait, turn around,” I said. I shifted her around so we were standing back to back in the mirror, and there it was. It was obvious-- this child is taller than me.
This will surprise no one who knows my family. I am 5’2”, so being “taller than mom” is not a huge achievement around here. And my husband is 6’7” in his socks, so we all knew this day of reckoning with his gene pool was coming for me.
She had a moment of delighted, if slightly baffled laughter, as I looked UP at this child I created from scratch. And then she said, all seriousness, "I could sit in a chair, if you need me to..."
It may come to that soon, it really might. But for now, I can still reach her. And for now, I am just sitting here in awe at how much time marches on. Even in a lock-down year when time seemed to be standing still most days. The kids were growing-- and growing right past me--every second.
* * *
We have this little dog, a Jack Russell(ish) named Van Halen. He is mostly just “Van,” unless he’s in trouble, in which case it is his full name. We got him from a rescue when he was probably a year to two years old. This was a year before our daughter was born, so we calculate his age as “Harper-plus-2.” Which means he is probably about 14 now. Maybe 15, at the high end of counting.
I don’t have to tell you that, in dog years, that is getting up there.
He still gets around pretty well for an old man, though he is starting to do strange old dog things. He doesn’t hear very well so you have to get really close to call him now. He is getting much less tolerant of small children, strangers, and really, people in general who want to touch him or be in his space. And most recently--sometimes, in the evening, he will just cry for awhile.
It is truly pitiful to see this dog who has always been so full of life and boundless energy just roaming or sitting in his favorite chair, whining for no apparent reason. I have figured out this behavior correlates with Tuesday nights, when dad has band practice at a friend’s house and is out late. When he’s gone to work during the day, Van is fine. But if it gets past dark and he’s not around, there is something unsettling about that for the dog. I wonder if it is, in some ways, a creeping doubt about his ability to be the Alpha and protect the family when his man-person isn’t home.
Then again, perhaps I am reading too much into the existential struggles of a dog. Maybe his joints just hurt more at night. Maybe he needs more attention.
Maybe he is just sad.
Or maybe he knows that, even in the times when every day seems the same, when a year goes by and we’ve scarcely left the house, when nothing else has been certain or predictable or really seemed to “happen” at all… time just keeps coming. And at some point, we stop growing and just get older.
* * *
Wednesday was the weirdest weather day I have ever experienced. And I’ve lived in Kansas, where you can have a blizzard one day and a tornado the next. I’ve lived in Arizona, where the “fall” means you need a heavy jacket in the morning, and by afternoon it will be 105 in the shade.
We woke up, this third week of April in Kentucky, to snow on the ground. By late morning, the sun came out, and the snow was melting in huge, clumsy clumps that sounded like someone throwing snowballs at my roof. By noon, it was sunny and all the snow was gone.
And then, about 2pm, it started snowing again. Big heavy, wet snow that stuck to nothing, but came down for a solid several hours all the same. It went on like this all afternoon.
By 6pm, we were at baseball practice and the sun was shining. It was bizarre.
They say if you don’t like the weather in Kentucky, stay for 24 hours and it will change. In this case, it was more like 10 hours-- from Spring to Winter and back to Spring again. Like I say, bizarre. But also, a stunning reminder that this, too shall pass. That the sun always comes back eventually. And that a whole season can fly by in what seems like a moment.
We are, all of us, in deep time. Sometimes we can feel it ticking by in minutes and days; at other times, we catch a glimpse of what it is to measure in lifetimes, generations, eons. The tree at the National Park that is a thousand years old. The artifact at the museum that is ten thousand years old. The outline of the Appalachian Mountains that defy calculation, but speak to time that has begun turning back on itself--grinding back to the dust what it once drew out of the bedrock.
* * *
By the time she went to bed, on the night before the “first” day of school, my daughter was finding less hilarity in her ability to look down at her mother. “I don’t want to be taller than you,” she said. “I like being AS tall as you… but I don’t want to be taller.”
“Yeah, but here we are,” I said. “What can I say, you’ve got your daddy’s legs. We knew this day was coming for us.” It is some consolation to her, I suppose, that she can steal my shoes now. For now.
As with all things that grow, evolve, or live out their season, it is somehow both the most unsettling and the most comforting truth imaginable: that time can crawl, or time can fly by-- but it is always, always moving. And bringing us along in its wake.
We already adored her. Of course we did.
As a musician, she is legendary. An institution. I've been in that room in the house in Dollywood where they have all her awards, and it is too much for the eye to take in. And you just KNOW she's got a few favorites at home on the mantle too. Her body of work speaks for itself, accolades aside. There is a Dolly song for everything, and we know every word.
But the music is not the only reason she is so beloved. There is an incomparable something about her that has always sparkled, always made you feel like you KNEW her, like you could run into her at the grocery store and she'd give you a hug. (Let me stop you now if you feel compelled to disavow me of this particular daydream). But at this particular moment in history, heavy and chaotic as it is, Dolly has emerged as something much more than iconic artistsand genuinely nice person. She is a unifying figure, one who has managed to bring hope, joy, and a kind of aspirational resilience to the present upheaval.
Jad Abumrad explored this phenomenon in his podcast, Dolly Parton's America, even before the pandemic. If you have not already listened to every single delightful episode of this series, then congratulations: your weekend is planned!
A philanthropist to the Nth degree, she has long provided scholarships for any kid from her hometown who wants to go to college. Fiercely committed to literacy, she has donated over 130 million books to children around the world. And just recently, she made a many-zeroes contribution to Vanderbilt Medical Center, funding research that made significant strides towards a coronavirus vaccine.
It’s no wonder Tennessee wants to put a statue of her on the state’s very front lawn.
And here, I think we might be coming around the heart of things, the intangible something that makes Dolly the incomparable force that she is, and it is this: she doesn’t want the statue.
In response to the announcement she said “I am honored and humbled by their intention but I have asked the leaders of the state legislature to remove the bill from any and all consideration. Given all that is going on in the world, I don't think putting me on a pedestal is appropriate at this time”
What it takes to step out of the spotlight in a moment like this is something more than just humility. It is a whole different kind of internal economy: one that defies individualism. This is what it looks like when you know that you don’t live for just yourself, and that nothing you have is really your own. Because when you get right down to it… you are just part of the neighborhood. More than anything else Dolly just gets that.
As a rule, America operates on an economy of self-- glorifying independence and rendering individualism a uniquely American idol. Such an economy is rooted in ego; it values wealth, seeks status and power over communal wellbeing, and elevates “personal freedom” above all else. This is how one of the wealthiest and most privileged countries in the world ends up with one of the highest death rates in a global pandemic: because our toxic notions of 'personal freedom' somehow got caught up in a fight about masks and, well, here we are.
These twisted notions of individualism also lead to things like: corporations get to do whatever they want, even if it means poisoning the environment. A de-regulated power grid in Texas that fails in catastrophic fashion and costs lives in a moment of crisis. Generations of systemic racism that we can't seem to even talk about without white folks hollering how "It's not my fault, I never owned slaves!" and "all lives matter!" in yet another communal failure of empathy. And the guns... let's get into the 'personal freedom' gun conundrum another day, because we're talking about Dolly here and I want to stay on task.
Ultimately, what Dolly displays with her life is this wonderfully counter-cultural understanding of her place in the world. And it's hard to be counter-cultural when you are so deeply a part of the culture, you know? But that's what makes her kind of extraordinary. She has this internal economy, not of independence, but of INTERdependence.
And I think deep down, we all know that is the way. Now more than ever.
For my part, one of the things that I've always loved most about her is her accent-- here is one of the only truly famous people in the world who comes from that part of the world and yet did not somehow water down or eliminate her dialect to make herself more relatable to folks on the outside. Though I'm sure she's been pressured at times to talk more "regular," I hear home when she talks, and I love that she represents my people and my place out there in the wide world.
That sense of place is what people see in her that sparkles, that connects, that we want to somehow emulate but don't know how. Here is a woman who has more fame, fortune, and power than any of us would know what to do with; and yet she continues to honor her roots, and to take her place as part of a larger whole. Giving back to make communities stronger, to give families a future--maybe even to help end a global pandemic.
But she'll pass on the statue, thanks. She is just part of the neighborhood.
If we want to be like Dolly, but no one is offering to build us a monument that we can turn down (just speaking for myself here) then where to begin? All I can say is, it has to do with transforming our internal economy from one of independence to one of interdependence.
To start: know where you're from. Then, just take your place in the neighborhood. Be who you are. Show up for folks. Sing a song. Read a kid a book. Give something away. Maybe see what comes to life from there.
We will always love you, Dolly! These are just a few of the reasons why.
Americans will spend about 21.8 Billion dollars buying Valentine's stuff this year.
That's nearly $4 billion more than it was last time I looked up that number, about 4 years ago.
When I think about what we could do, collectively, with nearly $22 billion, it boggles the mind. No, scratch that-- it literally breaks my heart.
For one thing, it would cover our National Parks budget for about 8 years. Or fund the National Endowment for the Arts for a few decades. How many hungry children could be fed? Student loans forgiven? Refugees resettled?
We could make a longer list, but you get my point- we have the resources in this country to do so much collective good; to meet so many needs; to solve so many complex problems. But when you come right down to it-- our hearts are just in all the wrong places.
Valentine's Day itself is not the problem. A holiday designated for love? Sure. Fantastic. But... when did “love” get saddled with all this stuff? Billions and billions of dollars worth of stuff?
I’d venture that most of the billions are spent on flowers, jewelry, stuffed animals, and any other number of things that come in the shape of a heart. Which, by Monday, will be marked down 80% at Walgreen’s and Target and every other store in America. Not long after that, much of it will be in a landfill.
This holiday is just one of many that draws attention to our consumer sickness. That sickness is big, and multi-layered, and it’s not Saint Valentine’s fault. It’s also not the fault of Baby Jesus or the Easter Bunny; or Saint Patrick, the Great Pumpkin or Uncle Sam. On every one of these days, we wade through the sea of sugar and cheap plastic crap that will ultimately flood the landfills we use to hide our addiction. The dam will only hold for so long.
So there’s an environmental concern, and a sweatshop concern. But more than anything, there's a heart concern, underlying all the paper and diamond ones. The real emptiness that might make us feel like we *have* to buy this stuff, or else we have somehow failed at the whole love thing.
More to the point, this is an illumination of the scarcity mentality… The one that tells us we cannot possibly afford to insure all of our children–or educate them, or provide them with clean water and air, or protect the resources for their retirement someday–when clearly, we have all the money in the world to spend on… What, exactly? Another engraved picture frame? Another charm for that bracelet? Another bear holding a heart? (What can I say, SNL gets it).
Can we fix all of these complex problems by abstaining from flowers and stuffed animals today? Maybe not. But practicing a bit of mindfulness about our own spending and gifting can go a long way to change our thinking about what is needed, what is important, and what is worthwhile. And that shift might, in turn, change our thinking about what we can, and cannot afford… As a family, as a country, and as people who have to inhabit this earth together long after the landfills overflow and the rivers run dry.
Here are a few ideas for how to celebrate this day of love without breaking the bank–or contributing to our collective national junk pile.
This is modified for COVID times from a post that originally appeared on Patheos.
Historically speaking, January and I have not been friends. Blame it on the cold, the post-holiday letdown, or the fact that January is about as far as a month can be from October (except for November & December, but they get a pass on account of holidays).
For the seven years I lived in Arizona, January and I had a respite from our adversarial relationship. In the southwest, that window of time is a sparkling paradise -- perfect for drinking spicy Mexican lattes and hiking desert mountains under crayon-blue skies dotted with hot air balloons. And also, you know, a nice break from the other months that will melt your face right off and not even feel sorry about it.
It's possible that, since leaving that winter utopia, I've felt even more frigid towards the first month of the year. And January in a pandemic? I've been dreading it, hard. The cold and the gray, plus the isolation and anxiety, and the lack of things to look forward to... It felt like a lot this year. The attempted overthrow of the government didn't help, but at least I saw that one coming.
I looked at my calendar this week and noted that January is ALMOST OVER! And yet... winter is not done, by a long shot. Neither is the pandemic. Or the escalating political discord that really piles on to the usual heaviness of the season. We've got miles to go yet, on all counts, and we all need some coping devices to get us through. I'm not telling anybody how to live their lives, but here are a few of the daily verbs that have been holding me up through this season:
Speaking of reading--my daughter has been reading The Long Winter, a book in the Little House/Laura Ingalls Wilder series. I never really got into those as a kid, other than little snippets here and there. But I'm familiar with the gist of this one: it's winter, it's cold, they have no food, everything is terrible, they almost die. The end. And get this-- my kid has read this before and is reading it again on purpose. For fun.
I said "why in the world would you want to read that right now?? Isn't it so depressing?!"
And do y'all know what this tiny thing said to me? She said, "Well, parts of it are sad. But it makes me feel happy because in the end... it's spring."
Well. Let the child preach.
Here in my end of Kentucky we got a beautiful big snow this week-- the kind that looks nice and is fun to play in but melts off the road quickly. I walked over to creek (crick) in my neighborhood just to stand there on the path in a quiet, wooded place for minute. The canopy of icy branches, almost cartoonishly magical, reminded me that winter does have its own kind of beauty some days, its own spiritual gifts, if we can be wise enough to witness.
Meanwhile, the water running over the rocks of the creek bed sang its own song -- spring is coming.
Seems like my kid and my creek have the same good news to share this week. Finish the book. Stay in this story, however sad and heavy it feels. In the end, it will be spring.
There are staples I buy every time I go to the store. They don't even have to go on the list, they're just part of life. Milk. Fruit. Cheese. Cereal.
And bread. I always buy bread.
But lately, I've noticed that when I put the groceries away, I go to put the bread in the pantry... and there is already a loaf of bread there. Sometimes half a loaf, sometimes a whole one. Interesting.
As I tossed the new bread into the freezer (again) I took a minute to wonder what might be causing our carbs to pile up like this. Nobody is on a keto kick.
And it occurred to me that during pandemic times, a few things have shifted. For one thing, there is no school. Which means there are no lunch boxes. Our mornings are not spent making sandwiches and cleaning up our lunch mess while we also put away the breakfast dishes.
The other thing that has changed is The Children themselves. I do not know how this happened, but I have two tweens up in here all of a sudden. One is as tall as me, and the other is gaining fast. Since they were toddlers, they've been able to eat their collective weight in peanut butter sandwiches every week. And while their appetites grow along with them, it seems their tastes have changed. Given the fact that I have a full-time job and am not a damn maid, these grown ass children fix their own lunches now. Having no school and full access to the kitchen means that lunch is now mac cheese, frozen pizzas, quesadillas, or leftovers from dinner last night. In fact, my son commented the other day, "when we go back to school, I don't know what I'm going to take for lunch. I never really want sandwiches anymore." Aha. Bread mystery solved.
And yet, I keep buying bread.
I recognize the privilege inherent here- in buying something out of sheer habit whether we need it or not. Having more food in the house than we can eat in a week, having more than we need in general. So many are struggling right now. Diminished food security has been, by far, the biggest fall-out of the pandemic, with hunger affecting millions more people than the virus itself. I reckon with this imbalance by giving to causes and organizations that are working to feed people. Contributing to local needs as well as global development programs focused on food security and sustainability.
At a more micro level, this disparity makes me want to examine my habits. What else do I do on autopilot without mindfulness? What other habits have I picked up, or let go, during this weird time of lockdown? What do I have more (or too much) of? What could I make more room for if I stopped taking up unnecessary space with things I don't need? And I don't just mean in the pantry...
It makes me think about how I spend not just my money-- but my time, and myself.
I buy more sweatpants and pajamas now; but spend a lot less on gas. I spend more time scrolling; but a lot less running around town for pointless errands. I see fewer people; but am so much more grateful for even the smallest of social interactions. I cook more and eat out less. I exercise more, but I also drink more. I miss the library and coffee shops, but I strangely don't miss so many other places where I used to spend my time. Interesting.
Some of these evolutions are good and healthy. Some are not great. All of them are what they are. And all of them make me want to be more intentional about life in general when we go back to life as normal... whatever that means.
This week, I won't buy bread. Maybe next week, I'll want toast for breakfast. Or I'll just forget and toss it in the cart again. Either way, my daily bread is now a daily call to mindfulness. And that, I will keep - with butter and jam.
How about y'all? What habits have you picked up or laid down during all this craziness? How will it change your "normal" when this whole thing is over?
What do you "throw in the cart" without even thinking about it?
And what would you have more room for if you stopped?