The livin’ is easy …

What I read

Our book club read this month was Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine by Gail Honeyman. Since we had a few absent members, we met at Panera for discussion and a sweet treat–a little change up from usual. This book club was total serendipity. We first met and organized on a neighborhood social media platform and the mix of women is amazing. We are all pretty much on the same page when it comes to current events, we are a comfortable mix of married, divorced, remarried, and widowed, and our ages are within a decade of each other.

But I digress.

Eleanor Oliphant is a touching character: a survivor of childhood abuse, socially illiterate, and incredibly endearing. (I even wondered aloud if Eleanor might be on the spectrum.) But when this fragile woman with a horrific past meets love and friendship, she finds within herself a strength I think few of us possess. And courageous?! Eleanor comes to realize she must face her tormentor to put the trauma behind her.

Now if I sound cryptic here, I really don’t mean to be. But this is one novel where it might be best to let each reader discover Eleanor as he or she reads the novel, especially since Honeyman makes a style choice that is not revealed until the end of the novel.

It won’t, however, hurt to tell you about Eleanor’s first-ever friend, Raymond, the IT guy at the small graphic design company where she works. Raymond is frumpy–Eleanor dismisses his baggy pants, trainers, mussed hair, and whiskers. But he treats his elderly mom like a queen and is kind to a fault. Which brings us to Eleanor’s second-ever friend, Sammy. Eleanor meets Sammy (if you can call it that) when he collapses on the street outside her office building. She and Raymond come to his aid, staying with Sammy until the ambulance arrives. That ‘stay with him’ part was all Raymond’s doing, though. Eleanor thought Sammy was a drunk, homeless old man and would have stepped right over him in true Eleanor fashion if Raymond hadn’t convinced her they couldn’t leave him. From there, Eleanor, Raymond, and Sammy–and even Sammy’s family–are irrevocably connected.

And it’s in that connection that Eleanor begins to heal.

What I lived

Actually the title of this post is something of a misnomer. Although yesterday was the first day of summer and we are barreling into July at breakneck speed, it could hardly be described as “summer-like” in this Great Lake state. We have had day after day of cloudy skies and rain. Lake levels are at an all-time high and beaches are underwater. And can you say chilly? It’s been one of the coldest, wettest springs on record–and summer isn’t turning out to be much different.

So can you blame a girl for picking up a needle and starting to stitch a little? (Reading goes without saying!) I haven’t done any hand stitching since my children were young when I crafted my little heart out: cross-stitch, basket weaving, doll-making, and more. But by the time my daughter was three, I was working part time–and then it was divorce and back-to-college and all the craziness such life events bring.

I have missed it.

So a few weeks ago I took a hand loom weaving class from Jennifer Haywood of Craftsanity–and although the piece I started in class was an embarrassment (I’ve since unwoven it Penelope-style!) I ordered some yarn stash packages from an Etsy seller, and I’m now weaving my little heart out.

I’ve also stitched four of Ann Wood’s Very Nice Mice with the thought of gifting my granddaughters some cute little friends–with no end of teasing and puzzlement from my daughter and husband. (“So you retire … and start sewing little mice for … what, exactly?!”) But my ideas keep growing. What if I weave each mouse a little bedroll or gunny sack? And this boat is a no-brainer, since don’t the Tiny Mice (as I call them) need some sort of transport for their journey? (Because of course mice such as these are on a journey.) And what if each Tiny Mouse came with a story about who they are and from where they came?

Oh, my. I have surely missed this whole stitching game …

Country mouse

For weeks I’ve waited to post about my visit to Canyon Ranch in April because processing my visit was like trying to fit a square peg into the round hole of my experience. I had nothing with which to compare it. When I was gifted a spa package several years ago, the day consisted of beauty treatments at a local upscale salon: facial, body wrap, pedicure, makeup. So when my son and daughter-in-law gifted me a day at a Canyon Ranch Tucson, I was a bit wary–how would I ever fill nine hours with facials and mud wraps, for gosh sake?

Desert spaces

The night before my visit I was a little–okay, a lot–apprehensive. I’m a Midwesterner, born and raised, and we are a self-effacing lot. Don’t draw attention to yourself and that sort of thing. I wasn’t familiar with the ins and outs of what a day at the Ranch would entail and had all those first-day-of-school jitters. Where do I go? What do I wear? Who do I ask for …?

I worried I’d stick out like a country mouse among the rich and famous spa mice.

One of the many garden spots for reflection

But think of Canyon Ranch as an upscale sleepover camp for grownups, with an emphasis on health and wellness. (You could almost hear my sigh of relief!) The Ranch offers a wide range of services, from spa treatments to fitness classes to nutrition to bodywork. For the more spiritual, there’s crystal energy, tarot card reading, and handwriting analysis. For the sports enthusiast? Golf, archery, biking, and tennis. And, yes–there is also a whole range of skincare and salon services if a little bit of pampering is what you crave.

The nectar of the gods

Bless my daughter-in-law’s heart. She walked me through how my day would work at the spa: how the lockers were situated and how to choose a steam room … right down to where to get my robe and slippers and what to wear–or not wear!–in the whirlpool. And my son (who works at Canyon Ranch) left for work early to walk me around and get me familiar with the layout. His best advice? (Other than “Use the map and follow the signs!”) “Remember, it’s the job of everyone on staff to make you feel as comfortable as possible.”

And they did.

The two-mile loop

I started my day with a neuromuscular therapy treatment for chronic pain I manage, and then whirlpooled in my altogether. I walked the Ranch’s two-mile perimeter, looping around the 200 acre property located in the beautiful Sonoran Desert. I went on something called a Soul Journey where I was surrounded by sound and music as an incredible facilitator used guided imagery to create a sacred space for healing. My son met me for lunch at the Canyon Ranch’s Grill where the menu emphasizes a plant-based diet and whole grains. And then I ended the day soaking in a poolside whirlpool. (Turns out I’ve got a thing for whirlpools!)

My day was a delight, plain and simple. The grounds were gorgeous and offered up beautiful spaces to relax and restore. The staff was gracious and accommodating. The women I chit chatted with were interesting and their lives sounded not too different from my own.

And I never for a minute felt like a country mouse.

Artsy fartsy

art·sy-fart·sy/ˌärtsēˈfärtsē/adjective INFORMAL•DEROGATORY
1. associated with or showing a pretentious interest in the arts.

No one would ever call me artsy fartsy. This, despite the fact that my father was an architect and a watercolorist. Let’s just say I didn’t get his art gene! Mind you, I love visiting the Chicago Art Institute–but mainly because I like to see the famous paintings in real life like Sunday Afternoon and Nighthawks and Child’s Bath and American Gothic. And I’m one of those I-know-what-I-like type of museum goers. When it comes to art, I’m usually out-of-my-comfort-zone.

But this past month I’ve seen some fine art– both as in fine art, and fine. art. Friend Denice and I went to the Muskegon Museum of Art to see an exhibit of Patricia Polacco, children’s book writer and illustrator. The exhibit was in honor of teachers and so it was fitting that I attend with Denice, a retired school librarian and book store colleague in our previous lives. My familiarity with children’s books ended with my time at Pooh’s Corner (a children’s bookstore), so I wasn’t familiar with the illustrations on exhibit, but I sure did fall in love with some new titles. Especially An A from Miss Keller, in which Tricia takes Miss Keller’s creative writing class and gets the greatest accolade of all–Miss Keller’s comment, “You’ve given your words wings.” Now that, my friends is what I miss about being in the classroom–the opportunity to watch kids soar.

My Town recently installed public art on electrical boxes throughout the downtown area. Based on Kate Schatz’s children’s book Rad Women A-Z the twenty-six installations feature rad(ical) women from Angela Davis to Zora Neal Hurston. Represented are women in entertainment, the arts, science, and civil rights. I was lucky enough to join up with a walking tour of the exhibit that just happened to include the ribbon cutting for the installation–and writer Schatz walked along, too! The boxes were painted by local women artists during Women’s History Month. We walked up hills and down and heard stories of incredible women, many I’d never heard of before. (Look up the Grimke sisters and Lucy Parsons.)

Can you say “Carol Burnett”?!

It might be telling that both exhibits were inspired by children’s books where, my experience tells me, the best writing and artwork is often to be found–and certainly the greatest Truths.

Perfect for a beginner like me.

The one where I retired: Six months and counting (Part 4)

School started on a Tuesday in late August and there I was for the first time in twenty-five years–home and in my PJs at 7:30 AM. First hour was about to begin.

To quote Shakespeare (as, I suppose, any good English teacher would do) I met that day with bated breath. Would I feel unmoored? Purposeless? Would I crave the hustle and bustle of football games and spirit week and SAT testing and staff meetings? Would I miss those 700 souls I’d lived with day in and day out over the past two decades plus a few?

I woke up and the wobblies were gone. I had planned well.

That first official retirement morning I spent walking in Frederik Meijer Gardens with friend Denice, my retirement ‘midwife’. She had blazed the trail a few years before me and was firm in her advice: 1) don’t rush into anything 2) let yourself meander through your days 3) keep your commitments to a minimum. After a year, she said, I’d know better how I wanted my retirement to look. That morning we wandered the sculpture garden and for once my direction was spot-on, and I didn’t get lost. We stopped to admire the farm garden and chit-chatted with the garden volunteers. I learned what amaranth was. We swapped stories on the boardwalk about herons and loons. Lunched at Panera. In the evening, my husband and I had tickets to see Lyle Lovett, our favorite summer concert tradition. Lovett is so entertaining, warm, and personable that you’d hardly think he was playing to a crowd of nearly two thousand. The perfect end to a milestone of a day.

And then came Tuesday when I unexpectedly babysat a sick grandson and Wednesday when I spent half an hour talking to a stranger–the young mom behind a farm stand at the Farmer’s Market–about public high schools and curriculum and her son’s needs and why she was homeschooling and … and you get the picture. I had time–and energy–to stop and connect without rushing on to the next thing on my long to-do list.

I’ve had no regrets.

The esprit de corps among teachers is a powerful thing, though, and those first six months I mourned the loss of my teaching buddies nearly every day. We were in the trenches together and that’s potent stuff. We kvetched together. Laughed until we cried. Got tipsy on the occasional Friday after work. Attended each other’s weddings and parent’s funerals. But even that ache is waning. I still see those who have been fast friends, and the rest are fading into fond memories of a life I no longer live.

I read more widely than I have before. Because I have the time, and I’m not reading Marzanno’s Classroom Instruction That Works for Professional Development (!). I’ve spent time developing my writing workshops. Through an online social media platform for neighbors, I organized a neighborhood book club with women I had never met before–not something I would have ever done in my previous life. I’ve taken a few online writing and blogging courses. I volunteer one very full day a week for an incredible organization that provides healthy home-cooked meals for individuals living with chronic illness.

While I no longer live at breakneck speed, juggling thirty-seven things at once, I do have busy days, believe it or not. (Although I suppose even that is relative!) And then sometimes I don’t–but I’m okay with that. I’m not living the high life that some retirees seem to because life got in the (financial) way, but that’s okay, too. I am living happy, wild, and free–and I’ve never been more comfortable in my own skin.

Life is good.

The one where I retired: A bit of the wobblies (Part 3)

Before school started last year–before my hall buddies returned to long, hot days in un-air-conditioned rooms, a new principal with all the uncertainty that brings, and meetings, meetings, meetings–I met friend Lindsey, my neighbor in the room next door, to set up a little surprise that I hoped would soften the institutional edges of my teacher friends’ days, even if only a bit. My going-away present to them.

Because teachers don’t get squat when it comes to comfortable–or nice-looking–interior decorating.

The district Central Office and high school offices had been redecorated at least once each during my tenure with the district … but my room in the original wing? Nary a lick of paint in all those years. A window that had no latch so that snow would sometimes blow through the crack. An office desk at least forty years old and file cabinets even older. For more than a few years, I’d tripped over a loose carpet seam until it was finally replaced. No working lock on anything (cupboard, desk, or cabinet) to hold my personal belongings. Staff break rooms are a mix of cast off furniture and appliances and the rest rooms are barely a step up from a highway rest stop.

But I digress.

What I was not prepared for the evening before school started–the year I wouldn’t return–was the wave that washed over me, memory so powerful it nearly knocked me over. The dusk was warm, sun sinking behind the trees as the band and color guard practiced in the parking lot–flags twirling, megaphone blaring, xylophone tinkling–just as they do every autumn. The halls were quiet as I climbed to the second floor, lights dimmed on the timer. And there was that smell, distinctive only to school buildings–some indeterminate combination of sweat and Expo marker and gym shoes and dust.

There is no other place on earth like this. None, I thought to myself.

And I remembered walking up those same stairs over Christmas break, probably to make copies or rearrange desks or change a bulletin board. How I climbed those stairs to leave lesson plans the night my dad died. I remembered leaning out of my second floor window oh so long ago to wave to my son (then 18, rebellious, bedecked in chains and JNCO jeans) when he dropped off something or other I needed from home. I remembered standing at the door of my room after state testing, passing out M&M(E) bars to the juniors I proctored. I remembered stacks of enveloped invitations and prom favors that covered every flat surface the month before prom. I remembered the personal protective order I filed against two students, the media hullabaloo that followed–and the administration that, in many ways, failed me. Reciting the pledge each morning with black, brown, white, and native kids; gay and straight; able-bodied or not; Christian, Muslim, Jewish, Sikh. I remembered the times I called for Mr. MERT–frantically–while also trying to comfort: “It will be okay. Help is coming, sweetie.” I remembered dark, dark days of my own when Room B209 was an anchor and it was my students who kept me putting one foot in front of the other.

But I didn’t take a peek in the room at the top of those stairs, my home away from home for close to twenty years. Memories or no, I couldn’t. It was no longer my room–I knew that. This was no longer my place … and I was okay with that.

Which is not to say I left dry-eyed.