Heroes and chores

Sometimes I wonder where my life went. Most days seem to be a series of chores and enough days in a row adds up to a life.

Take my mission this morning, should I choose to accept it. Yes, today’s chore is to separate the wheat from the chaff, the worthy from the no-longer worthy, the just from the unjust! A task for a True Hero! An assignment for the bold and brave!

Well, not exactly. I am planning to sort the medical bills from my husband’s two week hospital stay and seven week home-bound antibiotic treatment. Also, there is a teetering pile of magazines to go through. Not exactly the fifth labor of Hercules but even Hercules probably wondered why he was spending his life cleaning the Augean stables instead of pursuing frolicking wood nymphs. (I’m not interested in wood nymphs myself but there is an entertaining novel waiting for me.)

Both sections of my assignment have pitfalls.

The medical bills are from individual doctors, two hospitals, three medical suppliers, and  labs. No two medical bills are alike. Each provider uses a different form to itemize services, credits, and charges. There are also reports from three insurance companies. I must review each one for duplications and mistakes (like I can remember what procedures were administered to my husband and when — not only was I not with him every minutes but he himself was not a reliable witness and my always compromised self * was next to depleted at the time). So there are many generous opportunities for confusion.

Figuring out these bills will scramble my poor weakened brain cells until I won’t have the mental energy for anything else today.

Sorting magazines is easier but has its own pitfalls. We have several months’ worth of publications. Usually, I sort them by date and keep the newest, but the New Yorkers are hard to give up. Of course, we’ve read the cartoons and “Shouts and Murmurs” and “Talk of the Town.” But I’m bound to run across an article on Something Fascinating That I Must Learn About but haven’t yet read so maybe I should set that issue aside to read later? But if I haven’t read it after six months am I likely to read it anytime soon?

One must be coldly realistic to sort magazines.

So this paperwork is my assignment this morning. It’s up to me to ensure the bills are addressed in a timely fashion and we aren’t tripping over piles of magazines or mail. (Mail is usually sorted as it comes in — otherwise we’d get lost in our own house.)

Paperwork is a common plague. I like to imagine that universal health care comes without any paperwork to follow the patient home. Maybe that’s a fantasy, but isn’t it a nice one? We’d still have taxes to complain about so life wouldn’t be all roses.

My husband has his own assignments and I don’t want to trade with him, even if I could.  He’s mowing the grass right now. He seems happy enough with his portion of the household burden. But he’s had a meaningful career. There is little status in the homemaking which fell to my lot by default, since I was too sick to do anything else  beyond that. So I am still, in some ways, anticipating a Life and dissatisfied with this Sisyphean procession of chores.

So is this my Life? It seems like I just finished the taxes, which was also a joyless chore, the only satisfaction was the completion of the task. Why is life made up of so much paperwork, record keeping, telephone clarifications, trick questions, excess possessions? Who benefits from all this rigmarole?  I only have a couple of good, clear hours a day. I don’t want to squander them.

Ah, well. Hand me that pitchfork. I’ve got stables to clean.


*Due to a stubborn illness — ME or chronic fatigue or CFIDS/fibromyalgia or SEID or whatever label is attached today — I suffer from post-exertional disability. Thinking hard exhausts me. Thinking hard leaves me only well enough to knit and watch cat-videos on YouTube. Or read a romance novel. 




Sock Monkeys I Have Known

I just texted my daughter: Give me a topic for a blog post — any topic. Sock Monkeys I have known? My favorite neighbor? Vegetables?

The truth is I couldn’t think of anything to write about because I am that worn out. I look normal, but then there is a reason Chronic Fatigue is one of the “invisible illnesses.” And if you ask me what I’ve done today I might remember washing a couple of windows, practicing piano, doing some laundry.I can remember that Emily Kimball, the Aging Adventurer, came by to have me trim her hair.

But I feel like I haven’t done anything for days. In spite of the perfectly gorgeous fall weather –red maple leaves against a cloudless blue sky, warm sunshine, butterflies on the just-about-done-for mums — I’m not quite connected to the world.

Let’s blame it on the election.

For example, after Emily arrived with a gift of unidentified leafy greens (not arugula, not watercress, etc.) and I was setting out the scissors and the clippers, she asked me how I was. I told her I was tired from getting swept up in the giant wave of emotional reaction following the presidential election. Swept up, dragged across the sand, and spit out limp on the shore! I was tired and there just couldn’t be anything left to say about any of it.

Then we BOTH proceeded to talk about the election for the next twenty minutes.

It’s no wonder I’m tired to the bone.

I’m not as bad as I could be. For example, I can make a decision about what clothes to wear and then put them on. I am keeping up with my morning exercises of making the bed and fetching the newspaper from wherever it has landed in the front yard. Then, usually, I practice piano. But the rest of my day seems to drift by, untouched by human hands, wasted. Rationally I know that I may have talked to someone or gone somewhere or done something, but it feels like I’ve spent the day doing nothing except reading novels. (I’ve read three or four or more in the last week.)

So I don’t have much to write about because I’m floating somewhere outside my own life.

So — what about those sock monkeys?

The first sock monkey I ever met was made by my friend Charlotte Henson. She brought him to the hospital for my new baby boy. Except, my baby was a girl, not a boy, but Charlotte had to rely on word of mouth for the birth announcement because the Shelby Daily Globe would not print the usual birth announcement for an unmarried woman. We removed the felt vest and little bowtie on that monkey and I made her a dress. A gender specific sock monkey seemed important at the time. She was Henson Monkey, named after her maker.

Favorite book of a favorite grandson or two.

Henson became Anna-baby’s fast friend. When I went back to college, Anna brought Henson along with us. And there Anna and Henson played with blond, curly-haired Brian and his sock monkey who lived across the courtyard of married students’ housing on Mill Street. (I was the only not-married person to live in the complex.) Those sock monkeys got quite the workout on the exterior stairs and balconies of the apartments.

It was there on campus that I met the man who eventually made an honest woman out of me (as they used to say, and without irony). I stitched up sock monkeys for the first two of our boys but by the time my little girl’s third brother was born, she made the sock monkey for him. (We thought he was going to be a she, so Leslie Monkey wore a dress. She kept the name and the dress.)

Leslie Monkey and her fellows led interesting lives. Our middle son had the stuffed animals perform in a rock band. His sock monkey, Fred, was the lead singer. When the stuffed animals played baseball, Fred was the pitcher.

Over the years, with the help of my son-in-law’s keen insight, we’ve come to understand sock monkeys in general as sneaky tricksters. (Leslie Monkey is the exception.) Never buy insurance from a Sock Monkey!

These days my daughter makes sock monkeys for the grandchildren. I make the baby quilts.  But I always have sock monkey materials on hand and there’s no telling how many I’ve stuffed for other babies. Once I even made miniature sock monkey portraits for myself and my mother and a few friends. And I needlepointed a piano bench cushion with sock monkeys for my daughter and her husband. I’ve sent out sock monkey Christmas cards. I printed kitchen curtains with sock monkey linoleum blocks.  The same design worked on onesies.

Is Santa Sock Monkey going down the chimney with that sack of toys? or coming UP

In 1999, I etched sock monkeys onto glass coffee mugs for my daughter’s Christmas present and she made me a millennium monkey commemorative plate. Once, Charlotte made a miniature flying sock monkey for me. Another friend gave me a sock monkey mug. A quilting friend gave me sock monkey fabric. And our favorite Christmas decoration is the sock monkey Santa snow globe my daughter made. Our son-in-law even wrote a sock monkey Christmas carol!



I am not a collector and I don’t collect sock monkeys. You wouldn’t come into my house and say, “Oh! This woman has a thing about sock monkeys.” You wouldn’t even notice at all.

And I can prove that sock monkeys are sneaky.

They’ve snuck right into this blog!


Plan to be Well

Right now, there is a wondrous light show going on just ten minutes away.

I am not there.

Life in a vibrant city offers more people, events, music, art, theater, volunteer opportunities, etc. than even a person in perfect health can keep up with. Life anywhere (assuming basic needs are met) is a rich offering. We all make choices about how we will spend our time. Even if — as we sometimes wish — we could be in two places at once, we still couldn’t experience everything.

I had plans for this afternoon. I ended up in bed.

Like countless others, I have limited energy. CFIDS/ME or Systemic Exertional Intolerance Disorder, or whatever else someone comes up with as a label for my group of symptoms, is a chronic condition with no known cure. Pain, vertigo, tinitus, brain fog. deep fatigue — all are worsened by too much stimulation or effort: Noise, lights, action — or thinking.*

Before this disease, I was curious about everything, high-spirited, and ready to throw myself into a challenge.

Not anymore.

I remember well when I was much sicker than I am now. I couldn’t keep up with the essential duties of a wife and mother. My children suffered. My husband had to pick up the pieces even as he feared for my life. In spite of every test the doctors could think up, there was no diagnosis and thus no prognosis.

I am convinced that the main reason I am doing better is because I have learned to be careful. If I write a time and place in my date book, I leave white space on the dates around it so I can rest up before and recover afterwards.

If I am getting ready to go somewhere and my head hurts too much for me to pick out clothes to put on, I know I don’t have the strength to go. I am still learning to be comfortable with canceling plans when I have to. I still feel guilty about it when it happens. If I’m not willing to take a chance on having to cancel, I can’t make plans at all.  I require a lot of down time — but too much time alone is not good for me either. It’s worth the effort to spend time with good-hearted, engaged people.

This morning, my plan was to stay home before joining the Quaker quilting group this afternoon. I did stay home. But an old friend telephoned.

highquality_pictures_of_ancient_english_letters_170435Except for a few months on a college campus, Anne and I have never lived in the same town. We met in a poetry class and our friendship grew stronger through countless letters, occasional phone calls, and rare visits. Anne is a cancer survivor, several times over. A few months ago, she left voice mail on my phone to let me know she can no longer see well enough to write letters. This was a blow to me. I can only imagine how much worse it is for her, who wrote letters to everyone, often.

It can be difficult for me to make friends or to maintain friendships. I especially treasure the friends who have stuck by me. So if Anne calls, which is still not often, I will answer the phone if I can. We had a long conversation this morning. And afterwards, I went back to bed. I slept through my quilting group. Later, I apologized to the quilters via group email.

Of course, it wasn’t the phone conversation that did me in. I did too much yesterday — met with friends for coffee in the morning, worked with my friend/collaborator on our Knitting Nana novel in the afternoon and then played with the grandchildren. No downtown. Overstimulated, I didn’t sleep well.

Yes, I am not as sick as I was. But I’m not as well I’d like to be or I’d be at that light show right now.

Oh, well. Life is still wonderful.

There’s always a next time. Maybe next time I’ll plan better, not be done in, and I’ll see that light show.


*E.g. I could think hard about the punctuation in this sentence but then I’d be too worn out to finish typing the rest of this post.

How to Save the World?

“Start where you are.

Use what you have.

Do what you can.”

Arthur Ashe

Before I got knocked flat by the “yuppie flu” (now more respectfully, if still problematically, titled Systemic Exertional Intolerance Disorder) I was an ambitious person.

In high school I answered the call from a favorite AM Radio DJ to collect money for St. Jude’s Children’s Hospital. I organized other kids to collect donations door-to-door and street-by-street. We covered the whole town. At the end of the day, our kitchen table was covered with neatly stacked bills and columns of coins. As a reward, participants took a chartered bus to Cleveland to a live concert with the popular DJ.

While I was pregnant with my third child I organized other volunteers in Scioto county, Ohio’s largest county, to collect signatures for a state-wide ballot initiative. Collecting enough signatures for a bottle bill turned out to be relatively easy. Nobody likes trash and  a deposit on containers was a proven method to cut down on roadside litter and broken glass. Several other states already had a bottle bill and the facts spoke for themselves.

But once our bottle bill was securely on the ballot, those facts didn’t speak loud enough to drown out the flood of money that poured into the state in opposition. The widespread support we encountered while collecting signatures evaporated under the barrage of expensive radio and TV and print ads we couldn’t match. The bottle bill would destroy jobs! Factories would close! And prices on soda and beer would go through the roof! It’s a communist plot!

Okay. Maybe nobody made that last claim but, the bottlers and beverage producers smeared proponents of the bill as a mess of dirty-hippies-who-aren’t-like-you. It was the most expensive ballot initiative (campaign?) in the state up until that time. And, of course, we proponents lost, Big Time. And, of course, soon after that glass bottle factories closed and truck drivers lost their jobs when the beverage industry turned to plastic bottles and aluminum cans. Prices went up. And trash increased exponentially.

But I digress. My intent here is to illustrate my appetite for projects to Save the World! (or at least a part of it).  I was a big donor to the Mothers’ Milk Bank Club (started by bereaved mother and nurse Laura Taylor) and decorated and furnished a large doll house for the club raffle several years in a row. My husband and I were key members in a storefront food coop. If there was a local anti-war rally I was there with my kids and a sign. Etc.

Even after my fourth baby, I was confident there were lots more good fights out there for me, and, as soon as my children were a little older, I’d take on The World!

This didn’t happen. My illness destroyed my expectations. I can no longer be the kind of ambitious that talks to lots of people, remembers their names, encourages them to get involved, and gives them marching orders. It makes me tired just to think about it. These days, on a good day, I might manage to blow a fanfare or wave a banner.

You who have your own limitations, especially invisible illnesses, know the adjustments necessary to self-image. We live in a culture that values achievement and high income.  One where “What do you do?” is a common rejoinder after the exchange of names. Those of us who don’t do much or earn any money are stung by the assumption behind the question.

So what do I do with the embers of my burning desire to change the world?

As the joke goes:

Q: How do you eat an elephant?

A: One bite at a time.

So I nibble on the problems of the world. When I can get my thoughts together, I write letters to the editor. I make sure that we take advantage of our relatively secure financial position and donate small monthly amounts to support non-profits. I am a faithful — if fitful– penpal to several incarcerated persons. I add my small bit to committees at our Quaker meeting. I compost. I recycle. I can still participate in the small things that, in the aggregate, make a difference.

Today, in this unseasonable November, I am tending caterpillars. I find black swallowtail caterpillars where the butterflies laid eggs on the carrots, fennel and parsley I planted to attract them. I confine the caterpillars to jars and feed them until they form chrysalises. I’ll keep the chrysalises safe over the winter so the new butterflies can emerge in the spring. Then the cycle will start over again.mermaid-1_1

Linoleum block reduction print/JBH

Not all of these caterpillars would make it to adulthood without intervention. Years ago, I  watched them on the parsley and wondered why I’d see a dozen one day and only three the next. Do birds eat them in spite of the foul-smelling orange horns they sprout when startled? Spiders?

A butterfly flitting by can lift the heart. And there are fewer of them than I remember as a child. As more gardeners use fewer pesticides and herbicides and plant more of the plants that butterflies need, we will see more butterflies. And my little guys and gals will be out there repopulating the world, lifting hearts wherever they go.


“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.”

It is no small thing to lift a heart.


Internal Pressure

Our neighbor keeps a rain gauge on the fence marking our shared property line. After a light rain, or after the sort of deluge we’ve been subjected to this last season, this gauge supplies a neutral topic of conversation, devoid of politics and stripped of world view. (His front yard sports a Trump-Pence sign: our side yard, judging by its blue and white sign, hasn’t given up on Bernie Sanders.) As long as neither side of the fence brings up global climate change, an observation on inches of rain per hour makes for a pleasant topic for a chat across the fence.

Though I’d like to, I usually can’t use the weather as an excuse for the state of my house. The one clear exception is tree pollen season — you can’t clean while that’s going on. But then one day you look out the window at your car and see the windshield isn’t yellow and then you know you’ve lost your good excuse and you have to clean the house.

But the rest of the year, I can’t blame the weather for a dirty house. Of course, as a person with a cluster of disabling symptoms aggravated by plunges and leaps in barometric pressure, any thunderstorm can bring me down and when I can’t do much of anything, housework is not an option. But that presumes I was even planning to clean.



Plastic bottle sealed at 14,000 feet (4267 m) on Mauna Kea observatory on the island of Hawaii, taken down to 9000 feet (2743 m) and then 1000 feet (305 m), where the change in air pressure had crushed it.


It’s true that I am the kind of person who straightens pictures frames as I walk through a room and sorts out the junk as I pull the mail from the mail box. I line up the shoes in my closet and square up the magazines. The knowledge of objects in one room that belong in another room causes me distress. Disorder is a kind of grief.

However, I can easily ignore a certain amount of dust and dirt. I put off vacuuming, scrubbing and  dusting, and oiling furniture and Windexing glass until all of a sudden (it seems) I can write my grocery list in the dust on the buffet and I’m catching cobwebs in my hair when I walk through doorways.

I don’t like cleaning. There are so many more interesting things to do and so little time (and energy) to do them. Now that my husband is retired he does the vacuuming. But my part still requires a lot of moving around, and if I move around too much, I wear out quickly. People like me, with CFIDS or Fibromyalgia, have little or no stamina for exertion of any kind. If I clean, I probably won’t write or practice piano on the same day.

So it makes sense that I want to live in a clean, neat house AND I don’t want to clean it.

What would be useful around here is a sort of dust and dog hair gauge. It could be attached to the baseboard, say, and when it measured a certain size of dust bunny — one inch? two inches? ankle high? — I’d know it was time to clean. The dust couldn’t sneak up on me.

But we don’t have a dust gauge, so we’ll just have to continue setting our cleaning schedule the way we do now: Invite company and clean for two days before they show up.

How do you decide when it’s time to clean?

Or maybe you don’t?

No post today – weather on the way

61u7hsheyzlI am down but not out for good!

While people on the southeast coast are evacuating for Hurricane Matthew, I am dealing with weather aggravated symptoms brought on by the same storm. I expect, as the storm travels north, I will feel worse. But unlike a house hit by the storm, I will shed the worst symptoms as the storm dissipates. And unlike those fleeing the course of the storm, I am waiting it out with all the comforts of home — including electricity (not to be taken for granted, as many in Florida can tell you today).

Since even mild mental exertion hurts, I’ll probably continue reading The Incorrigible Children of Ashton Place to pass the time.


P.S. Cover of book mentioned in comments:


And, yes — I do like the artwork! Reminds me of a silk wedding dress I once embroidered with ferns.




Thrifting is in my Blood


            I was a second generation thrift store clerk.

Goodwill Industries was an angel for my mother. After a suicide attempt, Mama was afforded a long, leisurely rest at the state hospital in Columbus, Ohio. Once she regained her strength, she remained there but took the bus from the hospital gates to a Goodwill store for “training”.

Mama loved working at Goodwill. There was always something new to look at and interesting people to meet. She made friends with some of the regular customers and got to know what they were looking for. Old postcards? Vintage dolls? Gold jewelry? Sometimes she’d set back and hold small items for her favorite customers.

When Mama’s Goodwill location was scheduled to shut down, a few of those customers offered to serve as references for Mama in her search for a new job. Because of them, she landed a position as a copy clerk at a research facility that paid well enough that she could afford her own place. (And she stayed long enough to get a pension.)

Mama not only worked at Goodwill, she shopped there. And even after she changed jobs, she continued to “thrift.” She appreciated nice things and, thanks to thrifting, she surrounded herself with them. And she bought things for others.

My infant daughter had LOTS of clothes. Except for a few special outfits I stitched up for her, and her underwear and shoes, almost everything she wore came from Goodwill or from the yard sales Mama tracked down every weekend.           

After Mama retired, she moved from Columbus to live near us in Virginia Beach. She had a tiny house of her own that had once been the servant’s quarters behind a summer cottage. She quickly found the best thrift stores at the Beach and furnished her place with her finds. Her walls were covered in framed pictures of all varieties, whatever appealed to her. And if something else appealed to her the next month, she’d switch out the artwork.

I came to depend on Mama’s shopping prowess. I was often flat on my back — the volatile weather at the ocean front aggravated my CFIDS/SEID — and I didn’t have much energy left for tramping around in stores. The grocery was often too much for me, thank you. But if I wanted a bathrobe, or a black cotton cardigan, I would just tell my mother. She accepted each request as a personal challenge, like a quest! It might take her months, but she’d find whatever I’d asked for.

All her friends ( and some of mine) were envious. How did she ever find that perfect Liz Claiborne dress? And she paid how much for this tea-kettle? She was SO LUCKY!

And let’s take a look at Mama’s luck. Her luck worked like this: she went thrifting often and knew which stores had good stuff and reasonable prices. She checked the yard sales in the newspaper and mapped out a route to ones that looked promising. She took her time. She bargained. She was charming.

I remember the first time I drove Mama to my favorite thrift store in Virginia Beach. After thirty minutes, I was ready to leave. Mama? “But I haven’t seen everything yet!” And she did mean everything. I bought a paperback (it turned out to be a gay romance, the first one I’d ever seen — I didn’t know such things existed!) and sat down to read. I was halfway through that book before Mama was satisfied that she hadn’t missed anything. She had carefully looked at each and every blouse, skirt, dress, etc. in the store, sliding hangers across the racks one by one.

She was just as thorough at yard sales. She’d size up the offerings and quickly check out the prices. She wouldn’t waste time with people who weren’t serious about getting rid of things. But if they were, she’d look at everything. She’d spend so much time at some yard sales, she and the sellers were old friends by the time she handed over her cash. She’d come home and tell me their life stories.

Thrift shops, estate sales, consignment stores, rummage sales, church sales, flea markets, library sales, etc.– Mama could be found wherever bargains were waiting. She bought clothes and art and furniture and rugs and dishes — and lots of books.

Mama loved to read. And she loved to read to her granddaughter. She bought my little girl countless used books which were, eventually, passed along to three younger brothers. We still have some of those books.

And that is how I came to be reading Mark Alan Stamaty’s Who Needs Donuts? to my grandson Atticus this afternoon. At the end of the book, Atticus turned back to the page where Sam sits in the grass. He pointed out Mr. Bickford and the tiny giraffes and other creatures almost concealed within the myriad individual blades of grass. This marvelous book was another of my mother’s “lucky” finds.

What wonderful thrift store purchase is your favorite find?