I pass dead people

From our place of temporary abode in Winterport to my place of work in Ellsworth and back again - that is how I spend 2 hours of each workday. I've never had a commute that long before, and it certainly has made me anxious to move into the new house, which will cut that commute to about 10 minutes. In spite of that, a long commute does provide me with some reflection time.

I pass two cemeteries on this commute. Back in Tennessee, it seemed like there were cemeteries around every corner, but up here in Maine they are few in number, probably because cremation is very popular here.

Cemeteries have always fascinated me; I'm not sure why. In one way, because of my spiritual beliefs that the body is only the temporary holding place of the spirit, a cemetery is insignificant. It's just a repository. But in another way, the symbolism is too strong to ignore. I pass dead people and they talk to me.

Lest you think I've lapsed into schizophrenia, I want to emphasize that I'm not actually hearing voices. But the dead do speak to me, reminding me of life's fragility. They encourage me to keep my priorities straight. They urge me to make my life fulfilling while I can. They remind me that all this can change in an instant. There's nothing like death to get one to thinking about life.


A desire for peace and simplicity is an admirable goal, of course. But, as every gift has a corresponding curse, I have found that to be so in my movement to simplicity. Specifically, I have been battling the demon of judgmentalism.

I guess that kind of thing can happen with a lot of other life changes. You give up smoking, and you get upset with smokers. You lose weight, and have no tolerance for overweight people. You go the simplicity route, and - yes - you find yourself looking with disdain on the Hummers and mansions and every other evidence of overconsumption.

I was driving home yesterday, listening to a local radio station playing 24/7 Christmas music. During the break, the announcer reminded everyone that their DJs were temporarily living in a truck outside the Bangor mall, collecting food and money to distribute to the poor this Thanksgiving. Immediately after the break came an ad for plastic surgery. Not plastic surgery to fix gross deformities, but plastic surgery to nip and tuck if you've lost weight but still want to look "toned." The contrast in the two messages was so evident. Some people can't afford to buy food while others can afford all sorts of nonessential "extras" to make their lives more to their liking. I try to start getting my priorities in line, and all of a sudden, those kinds of things seem to jump out at me. I think sometimes it's because they lift a mirror to my lifestyle, past and present, in many ways, and that upsets me. It can be just as hard when you're aging to look in a psychological/spiritual mirror as to look in a physical mirror.

I think it's partly that I'm trying to simplify and partly that I'm getting older, but other things are bothering me more than they ever have. Take grocery carts, for instance. At any given moment in our grocery parking lot, there are 30 or so carts strewn around as if a tornado had been by. The store has those cart drop-off places in several locations, but it doesn't matter. Too many people are unloading their carts and then just leaving them there. How long does it take to push the cart back to the holding place? A minute? Less than a minute? What is the problem? I could understand it if the offenders were old or infirm, but the ones I have seen do this are able-bodied people. What are they thinking? Some of these carts are left to roll around only a few feet from the holding place. They strike parked cars when the wind blows, they block otherwise empty parking spaces - I just can't understand the whole situation.

The things that irked me when I was younger are irritating me even more now.

I loved the movie "Grumpy Old Men," but I don't want "grumpy" to be my main personality trait for the rest of my life. I certainly don't want judgmentalism to represent my attitude of the world. On my journey to simplicity, I find that life is never simple.

Was the patient turned on?

My job as a medical transcriptionist takes complete focus. People who don't know what MT involves think, "How easy it must be! You just type what you hear!" Never that simple, folks. For one thing, sometimes your hearing can trick you.

Today the doctor dictated, "The patient got lamb stuck in his throat." I initially thought he said, "The patient got a lamp stuck in his throat." In the half second it took for me to catch my error, I thought, "Hmm...he must have been told to have a light diet."

I love my job!

The attic

I grew up in only one house, the small one my mother still lives in. One of my favorite places to go was the attic. The only way to get to the attic was through a set of pull-down steps, which were located in the hall ceiling. One pull of the cord, and the metal steps released their full length with loud clangs that could be heard anywhere in the house. Once they were secure on the hall floor, we could gingerly make our way up to the chamber of secrets.

The attic was basically our only storage space, so you never knew what you would find there. We went up there to get Christmas stuff down every year, but sometimes we just went up to explore. Only the center of the floor had flooring on it; the sides underneath the rafters just had insulation. I remember when someone - I can't recall who, but Joy would remember, I'm sure - stepped too far off the side and made a hole in the den room ceiling. Add to that limitation, the roof height was short, so mobility up there was rather tricky.

The star of the attic was Mother's cedar chest. There she kept the things she cherished. Our first locks of hair, some baby clothes, and other treasures that spoke of a life filled with love and happy memories. I remember the lovely cedar smell that permeated the air whenever we opened the chest.

When we went up to the attic to retrieve summer clothes, it always made me feel strange to be able to see the Christmas stuff nearby. Back then, you didn't see Christmas stuff in the stores starting in the summer, and usually not even before Thanksgiving. It was a little jarring to be going up there for shorts and T-shirts, when just a few feet away lay a Christmas card holder and tree ornaments. When one is a child, anything associated with Christmas is imbued with some sort of magic. It was not an ordinary time of year, and everything connected to Christmas was not ordinary either. Even up in the attic, I viewed the Christmas stuff with awe.

As I got older, my interest in the attic contents switched from old toys and baby hair to Daddy's papers. He kept old magazines and newspapers, speeches he had given, letters he had written, old books, and all sorts of other goodies that piqued my interest. I can vividly remember spending long periods of time sitting in the attic, right at the top of the steps, browing through all this old stuff.

These memories came back yesterday when Ed and I went to our new house. The workers haven't done anything for a week because of the heavy, steady rains we have been having. The ground is too muddy and soft to allow trucks to come in. The well, which was scheduled to be dug last week is still absent, and granite countertops are not there, the siding is noticeably missing, etc. But it was the first beautiful day in over a week, so we decided to drive to Hancock and take a look around the house.

We will have an attic when we move. Ed made sure to specify that the attic should be completely floored. Yesterday was a perfect time to see it, since we were there during daylight hours (the house has no electricity yet). We pulled the cord and down came the row of wooden steps. Going up wasn't a problem. I couldn't believe how large the attic was. It was the length and width of the house and completely floored. How exciting! What storage possibilities! What magical things will be stored in this mysterious place? Will our grandchildren consider it a place of treasures?

I can't quite make my way up and down the tiny steps as nimbly as I used to when I was a girl. But the enchantment of the attic for me has stayed intact and strong. Now my challenge is to balance the anticipation of having an attic again with the tiny warning in my brain reminding me it is dangerous to have too much available storage space when one's goal is to downsize!

You make me feel so young..uh, old

Living with my grandchildren, I have many opportunities to see the world through their eyes. I've heard that being around young kids can make you feel young. That's true, but the opposite is also true - kids can make you feel very old. Caroline, for instance, often reminds me of my infirmities, at least from her vantage point.

Last night at supper, she was not eating all of her carrots. As a rule, she likes carrots, but last night I think she was anxious for dessert, so it took a little coaxing from the rest of us to finish her meal.

"Carrots are good for your eyes," said Chris. "They help you see better!"
"Yeah," said Ed. "If you don't eat your carrots, you may end up looking like me - bald with glasses!"
At that, Caroline paused to take a close look at Ed. I'm not sure what was going through her head, but I knew she was trying to picture herself bald with glasses. Either that, or she was wondering how carrots got to be such a power broker in human transformation.

Later that night, I was helping give Caroline her bath. She told me she wanted more soap on her washcloth. I said I'd do it, but as I reached for the soap, she took it gently from me, looked up and said, "No, thank you. I'll do it. You can't see." She squeezed the liquid soap on her washcloth, then looked up again. "I have the goodest eyes in this house."

Of course, I realize Caroline thinks I am old, as I used to think all my elementary school teachers were old. But back then, all ladies of a certain age dressed "old." They wore clunky shoes and long dresses and jewelry and had their hair in buns. I really have no idea how old they actually were. But in the perspective of us second-graders, they were definitely old ladies.

This was my challenge when I became a grandmother. I think most Baby Boomers want to be a different kind of role model for "old ladies." Both my own grandmothers were elderly and frail by the time I was old enough to know them. They never wore shorts, or got down on the floor and lifted me up on their knees, or even chased me around the room. Even as I look in Caroline's books, all the grandmothers in the pictures are dumpy, dowdy, and wearing aprons.

Yes, my eyes are not what they used to be. I still get down on the floor with Caroline and Charlotte, but it takes a lot more effort to get back up. When I get home from my commute, I sometimes prefer to sit down for a while instead of playing with the doll house. But she accepts me all the same - with all my limitations as well as my strengths, most of the time with patience. Through it all, she can make me feel 5 years old one day and can make me feel 70 the next. I'm beginning to think the power is not in the carrots - it's really in Caroline.


When my sister and I were children, our parents presented us with a record which taught us all the instruments of the orchestra. It even came with a miniature baton, just like the conductors used. Alas, my instrument knowledge went the way of my early geographic knowledge, and even after years spent at the Auditorium in Memphis listening to the Memphis Symphony Orchestra, I still cannot identify many of the instruments. The only instruments I play, of course, are the Celtic harp, piano, and organ. I flunked guitar lessons. Does the kazoo count?

At any rate, on my long commutes to work these days I am listening to my favorite Christmas CDs. One of my favorites is recorded by a brass band. I love listening to brass. The music reminds me of football games and Christmas carols. As I enjoyed my CD this morning, I realized that my brain was tuning in on the tubas. That is rather strange. I'm a soprano, and one would think I would be more attuned to the trumpet, for instance. I have never played a tuba and have never known anyone who did. The rest of my commute was spent in contemplation. Why was the tuba resonating with me?

The tuba is the foundation of every song on that CD. It keeps the beat, keeps all the other instruments in place. It's firm, solid, dependable. It may not be a romantic instrument, but it is certainly the rock of the orchestra. Its notes aren't fancy. It's not a show-off type of horn. But it's there when you need it. No surprises. Just a firm, steady beat. I can anticipate each note even before it is played, because it's usually a predictable sequence.

I concluded that I am probably being drawn to the tuba these days because my life otherwise is so up in the air. I've heard people complain about being in a rut - how uninspired, how depressing. I long for a rut! I long for the steady beat of the tuba, counting in a dependable rhythm, undergirding all my activities. As comfortable as our temporary quarters are in Rachel's basement (thanks, Chris, for finishing up our bathroom!), I still yearn for drawers instead of Rubbermaid containers, a desk instead of an underbed box, and a place to call home. I long for rut and routine!

Routine boring? I've never understood that. How could I possibly be bored? I have so many interests that I will never have enough time to fulfill them. Too many books, too much fabric, too many patterns, too many places to visit, too many sites to see on the Internet, too much music, too much learning!

No, all I want is to be settled and organized. I want to know where my clothes are. I want to play my harp again. I want to finish my quilts. I want to have all my stuff on shelves that are low enough for me to reach. I want that foundation, that rhythm of life that supports everything around me. Nothing fancy, no bells and whistles. Just a nice, firm beat that I can count on.

Mozart's critics said he had "too many notes." It can also be that way in life. There's something to be said for monotony.

Grammy Tales

3-year-old Caroline was pensive while she was enjoying her bath.
"Grammy," she said, looking up at me, "you're an old lady."
Taken slightly aback, I paused, then agreed, somewhat jokingly.
Caroline continued. "And you're gonna die. But not for a long time."
She sighed. "I will miss you."

Another time she told her mother she wanted to go to a site on the internet and order something online and have it sent to her by Fed-Ex.

At least that's what I think Rachel told me. Of course, I might not remember it exactly right. I am an old lady, after all...


When I was in 7th grade, I had to take a class in art. It was a completely new experience for me. This course was only half a year, and it was required (a situation that usually aggravates my usually hidden stubborn side), and on top of that, music was my passion, and I didn't really see art as a useful skill. Mr. Tatum opened my world to new ideas.

In one of our first assignments, Mr. Tatum showed us a picture of a street. "Look at the telephone poles," he said. "See how, as your eyes are drawn down the road, the poles get shorter and closer together. This is perspective."

Wow! That was something I had never noticed before. He taught me to appreciate how perspective can take a flat surface and transform it into depth and shadows and distance. It was the same piece of paper, but the artist's skill changes the picture entirely. That lesson has remained with me since.

I took the above picture today. Ed and I were visiting the new house site, so we parked the Liberty and walked around. What you see here is our new basement. I laughed when I saw the photo, because the distortion in the picture makes the car almost look like a toy standing on the hill. The perspective is askew.

My goal for this time of transition is to keep my sense of perspective. We have so many phrases to interpret this idea that it has become almost trite. "Don't sweat the small stuff." "Choose your battles." "Consider the glass half full." A step back to check perspective is the only way we will be able to handle all the frustrations and hassles that will inevitably overtake us in the next few weeks. It's not easy to move in with our adult kids. It's not easy to live out of boxes. It's not easy to walk around on tiptoe to avoiding waking the baby. It's not easy adjusting to a 45-minute commute. It's especially not easy to cultivate patience when all we want to do is get settled in our new house.

Perspective tells a different story. All this is temporary. And in this temporary waiting period, I have found the joy. What can compare to little Charlotte falling asleep in my arms? What can hold a candle to hearing Caroline spell "stone"? What could possibly surpass our warm bed and delicious meals from Rachel? The funny story from Chris about setting off the car alarm and not being able to turn it off? All these experiences and more we would have missed had we been able to move directly into our new house. A simple change in perspective transforms impatience into contentment.

It's a powerful lesson from a little 7th-grade art class.


One of my favorite bumper stickers reads: "Life is not a dress rehearsal." In that case, we are smack dab in the middle of an extraordinary play in progress. I know the plot outline, but the actors always are prone to improvisation and there's no telling how the play will end.

In case you came in late to the show, the previous act related the drama of selling a Queen Anne Victorian in Maine. By the end of the act, the house was indeed sold, and the curtain came down as one family tenderly said goodbye and another family took their place. Compelling drama has always made effective use of entrances and exits.

We are now officially homeless - that is, we have no address. Our Victorian changed hands yesterday, and so I told our daughter Rachel, with whom we live now until our new house is ready, that we are completely dependent on her and her husband for sustenance, shelter, and showers.

As hard as it is for me to believe, some people actually never get attached to their houses. They can stay one month or ten years - and they never feel sad about leaving. My supervisor is like that. When she left her house of twenty years or so, I considered taking a beautiful photo of her house and having it framed for her. I had the foresight to quiz her as to her emotions, and boy, was I glad. I learned she couldn't care less about leaving her home, and I had to find a more suitable gift.

I, on the other hand, have plenty of pictures of our lovely Victorian. I took pictures from the first time I saw it. In the twelve ensuing years, I have taken many, many more. I've been blogging for almost two years about it, since it is an integral part of our attempt to downsize and simplify.

Rachel and Matt tried to remind me that it wasn't the house so much as it was the memories that I didn't want to lose. In a way, that is true, but the hard part is that the house has interwoven itself with our memories in such a way that it would be as difficult to separate them as it would be to separate the threads in a blanket. The house will live in our collective memory with plenty of photographs to refresh that memory, for the years will pass and the memory will fade of what color the trim was, or what the pattern in the stairway runner looked like. The important things will always be carried in our hearts.

I can't complain. The family who bought our house fell in love with it, too, so they will take good care of it and change things about it to suit them. That's as it should be. For a couple of months, that family shared the stage with us in a scene, then left to continue their own play. Meanwhile, the curtain drops and we are preparing for the next act. It promises to contain all the excitement, laughter, and - yes - melancholy that are always the staple ingredients for this play we call life. Don't even think of getting up and leaving the theater; I hear the next act will be a doozy.