The eleventh first day

August 18th, 2014

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2014

The boys walked into their fifth, eighth, and tenth grade classrooms this morning, at three different schools. At least, I think those are their grade levels. At check-in this year I tried to register my youngest for fourth grade again. The PTA past-president had to persuade me that my child was, in fact, going into his final year of elementary school. It took a full minute or two for me to believe her. I still can’t quite fathom it. How can the Littlest Who be going off to middle school next year? 

For that matter, how can each of his brothers count off on one hand the mandatory school years remaining? And why I am seeing so many posts this week from friends who are dropping off kids at university campuses? How can that be, when it seems like we’re barely out of college ourselves? 

I feel like a cartoon character paddling backwards at the edge of a waterfall, having just now heard the roar and realized where this lovely stream of days and years was always headed.

We used to wait

July 30th, 2014

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As anxious as the days are in between, the wait for a letter from camp is worth it, if only to recall a time when we used to have to wonder. 

Now it seems strange
How we used to wait for letters to arrive
But what’s stranger still
Is how something so small can keep you alive

Arcade Fire “We Used to Wait”

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Adventure Time

July 29th, 2014

Preparing for first time at camp with help from fictional friends.

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The Littlest Who went to his first sleep-away camp on Sunday afternoon. He’s watched his brothers go before him, three years running, and he says he’s ready.

“We won’t be able to call each other,” I reminded him, when he declared it, back in the spring. Our last significant separation, a year before, was difficult. A heart wrenching, tearful telephone call, the long, anxious hours until I got home. “You might get homesick.”

“I might,” he allowed. “But I’ll get over it.”

Definitely ready. It’s a long way from nine years old to ten.

When he accompanied me a few weeks ago to drop his brother off at camp, he was unusually quiet as we walked away from the cabin, his blue eyes wide and solemn. I knew he must be picturing me walking away without him.

“Let’s walk around a bit,” I said. I pointed out the various buildings, the swimming pool, the chicken yard, the astonishing view.  We ended our tour in the stone chapel that looks over the cliffs to the river valley below. “You’ll be like Harry Potter going to Hogwart’s for the first time,” I told him. “You’re going to love this place more than you know.”

He brightened up right away. Isn’t it good how stories can give us a frame of reference for situations we’ve never experienced before?

Even the cartoon kind. On departure day, he emerged from his room dressed as Finn, from Adventuretime, wearing the hat I knit for Halloween before last, and sporting an empty green backpack “just for looks.” Ready for adventures. The first of which was getting manhandled by big brothers. 

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When we pulled into the camp parking lot, he took his props off and left them in the car, their purpose presumably served. As was mine, clearly, as soon as he found his bunk, and was surrounded by friendly cabin mates. I managed to get one more hug and one more picture before I left him, ready to be the hero of his own story.

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I can’t wait to hear it.

Living rooms.

July 24th, 2014

Teen Lair Project Update

There are no stand-alone home improvement projects. The newly improved thing demands the old thing next to it be likewise improved. The rearranged objects necessitate the rearrangement of other objects. The clearing of one space requires the finding of new space. And so on, like a cascade of dominoes, where “dominoes” stands for painting equipment, stacks of possessions temporarily dispossessed of shelves and closets, no place for anything, and everything out of its place. Life coming together and coming apart, as life does in this ecosystem we call a home.

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I love going to estate sales, pretending to shop, but really to study—to note where and when the cycle of domestic renewal ends, and stasis sets in. The founders of our mid-century suburban neighborhood are in their nineties now, dying and dwindling. I walk through the houses that were their homes for decades, measuring the half-lives of a lifetime from the wallpaper, the lamp shades, the kitchen tile. Many of them are like time capsules from the 20th century. It seems if you live in one house long enough, there comes a point when you stop putting energy into changes. The material kind, anyway.

Maybe it’s because income contracts, or physical ability diminishes, or priorities simply shift. I suppose if I live long enough, I’ll get to find out. For now, I’m the amateur archaeologist, hypothesizing the end of little lost empires from artifacts left behind.

Here in my own little empire, civilization is still bustling. We have entered the Teen Epoch, and have switched all the bedrooms around to accommodate it. It isn’t as simple as changing beds (which wasn’t at all simple)—bedrooms also contain wardrobes, books, toys, and an astonishing amount of STUFF. Stuff that is all over the house while we redraw the lines of our household map.

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And even though it’s all uncontainable, I’m managing to contain my focus on one smallish project at a time, breaking the overwhelming, vast whole of it into increments of weeks and fifty dollars (which is as much money as I can afford to put into this project at a time, and a great safeguard against starting more than I can finish in a few days). In other words, I’m harnessing the Power of Small. Which converts to the awesome Power of Done.

Instead of starting the Teen Lair project in the Teen Lair (formerly our master suite), I began with my new bedroom (formerly the 15-year-old’s room), painting the bright green walls a serene ivory that captures the beautiful natural light that pours in from the southeast and southwest windows. I found room for my writing desk, that I’d sadly thought I’d have to give up, leaving just enough space for our antique dressers. It still has a way to go—I need to make curtains and hang some pictures on the walls—but it’s lovelier than I imagined it could be, a sanctuary in the midst of all this upheaval. I don’t miss our giant suite even a bit, after months of talking myself into making this big sacrifice!

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In home improvement, and other dramatic changes of altitude, always, always, put your own oxygen mask on before assisting fellow passengers.

As for my fellow passengers, they’re loving their new quarters., even though I’ve barely gotten started on the Teen Lair. Last week, I painted the bunk beds and moved them to their new position. It brought up memories of moving the older boys to their very own room the first time, decorated in a vintage cowboy theme. They were so excited to each get their own bed, though they still slept together anyway, piled like puppies on the lower bunk. I had a brief pang before painting over my 13-year-old’s five-year-old hieroglyphics, but settled for a keepsake photo. This isn’t a time capsule, it’s a home, still growing and changing with us, still improving.

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What I’ve been working on.

July 11th, 2014

In which I answer a few probing questions about my novel, its progress and my process. Or lack thereof.

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I was invited last week by author and blogger Rita Arens to participate in a writers “blog hop,” where various authors are sharing on work in progress. Assuming they are making progress.
 
“Okay if I totally fabricate my answers?” I asked her. 
 
“Absolutely.”
 
I like Rita. She gets me.
 
I’ll give straight answers to these questions, though, because I love peeking into other writers’ processes, particularly when they confide stumbles and stalls
 
What am I working on/writing?
 
I’m working on a first novel. It’s about the tension between domestic, cultivated life, and the soul’s wilderness–the same theme than ran through my memoir, Planting Dandelions, and runs through much of my writing here. My protagonist is a lifestyle blogger whose explosive crossover success is based on her exquisitely curated cottage life on an Ozark homestead. And it’s about to get very chaotic and messy. The story is about the way we tend to fence ourselves in, in the quest for security and stability, and what we fence out. 
 
There’s also an ecological layer, mirroring the same conflict. I’m a naturalist at heart, and the ecosystem in which the story takes place is a character as much it is as a setting. I’m hoping I can bring a touch of magic realism to the writing through the perspective of a child character, who loves to wander through woods as much as I did as a girl. I want there to be a sense of fable.
 
Finally, there’s a conflict within another kind of ecosystem, media. My antagonist is a journalist with a career built on print. Everything she’s worked for is being encroached upon and choked out by (to borrow the infamous, sniffy phrase from Martha Stewart) “these bloggers.”  A feminist who  pursued her career while singly raising a son to adulthood, she’s appalled at the retro-romantic obsession of younger women with traditional domestic roles. She’s afraid and she’s angry. Understandably.
 
There are other characters and subplots, but I think I’ve already given away way more than you’re supposed to, and at the rate it’s going, I may be reading this summary off someone else’s book jacket before I finish the first draft.
 
How does my writing/work differ from others in its genre?
 
With one memoir, and a not-nearly-there novel, I’m not sure what my genre is. Trying to sort it out just gets me frustrated about the way literature by women gets packaged and pegged. I write as a woman. I try to represent the experience of being a woman. But I loathe the chick lit designation. I write for people who are interested in the same things I am: relationships, identity, creativity.
 
One thing I’m doing with this story that (I think) is unique is writing about the lifestyle/family blogger world in a way that’s intimate, not gimmicky. I’ve occupied that world for a long time in blogger years, and I know it very, very well. People are going to speculate that certain situations and characters are based on actual people, but they aren’t, except as a check for myself to ask if a scenario is plausible: could a blogger rocket to crossover success in a few short years? Might a blogger be given the opportunity to shoot a television pilot? Might a blogger’s divorce be news in national papers? Could there be people who are obsessed with destroying the reputation of well-known bloggers?
 
If you spend any amount of time in this realm, you already know the answer is yes, yes, yes, and hell, yes. 
 
Why do I write what I do?
 
I think I covered this above. I write what I know, including what I know I can imagine. I believe in the power of “what if?”
 
How does my writing process work?
 
This is where I would love to fabricate an answer. Not having a legally binding deadline is really kicking my ass. Without that external do-or-die, avoidance and diversion is just too easy. I’ve got moleskines full of character sketches and back story. I’ve got a plot summary and an outline. I’ve got index cards and passages and snippets. But I have precious few numbered pages. People who complete manuscript after manuscript on spec are a wonder to me. I swing between feeling like I have all the time in the world, and panic attacks that my editor and agent will have forgotten who I am by the time I have anything substantial to show.
 
Since the kids got out of school, I haven’t strung three words together. I’ve thrown myself into nesting and homesteading instead: gardening, redo-ing our bedrooms, baking, pickling. I’m on the verge of sewing curtains. It’s ironic, because it’s my protagonist’s domain. Maybe it’s hiding. Maybe it’s research. Either way, it’s all usable.
 
Enough about me.
 
I’ve asked two of my most cherished creative companions to play along next week. Asha Dornfest is the creator of Parent Hacks — a site crammed with forehead-smackingly smart tips for life + kids–and the co-author of Minimalist Parenting. She’s at work on the fervently anticipated Parenting Hacks book.  Karen Walrond is the author of bestselling book, The Beauty of Different, and author of Chookooloonks, an award-winning photoblog. 
 
I’ll hook you up with their posts next week. Meantime, have a terrific weekend. Let’s kick it off with this:

 
Got anything to share about your own progress/process? I’d love to hear!

In the seams

June 23rd, 2014

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In the seams between seasons, time leaks away. School days turn to summer days, and two weeks are gone before the calendar catches them in its grid, fallen leaves at the storm grate after a June shower.

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Yesterday, we sat at the dinner table to eat for the first time in over a week. Four of us did, anyway. The fifteen-year-old left for summer camp a week ago Sunday, and we’ve somehow managed to avoid setting the table without him since then. He’s an assistant counselor this year, so he’s away for two consecutive weeks. I drove up the mountain to visit him on Saturday—two weeks is too long to go without hugging my boy. It’s an incredible place, and he’s having a great time, but I’m poignantly aware that all this is dress rehearsal for the sleep away camp of life.

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The thirteen-year-old has a girlfriend—very quiet and easy-going, like him. I’m getting used to having girls around all the time now, and gradually coming to accept that I won’t always be the principal woman in my boys’ lives. There’s a whole lot of the usual parental anxieties about teenage romance, but it’s also sweet to see my sons grow into this phase of life.

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I’m still the queen of the littlest who’s heart, though he’s a fifth grader now, and can hardly be called little anymore. When school starts again, he’ll be in his last year of elementary school, and last year of cub scouts. He spent the first week of summer vacation at a scout day camp, shooting arrows and BBs, doing arts and crafts, and learning to hula hoop. All excellent survival skills.

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I’ve been watching my garden—the literal one—grow, too. Instead of packing lunchboxes and signing school papers, I spend the first hour of my mornings watering containers and beds, tying up vines, stalking insects, and trying to foil my cat, who thinks it is all a luxury litter box. It’s exhausting and consuming in the best possible way. It’s restoring and reordering my creative self at a deep, wordless level. In the garden, I don’t make anything happen. I just create the space and protect it, every day. It’s a good lesson.

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Speaking of creating space, Phase One of the Teenage Lair is happening while the fifteen-year-old is at camp. I’m painting his bedroom in preparation to move our bed into it. When I started removing skater decals from the walls, giant strips of painted wallpaper started coming off with them. I’m afraid to find out that the ceiling is only held up by decades worth of wallpaper, so I’m not taking it down past that top level, but I loved the glimpse of the room’s earlier history. I thought of Helen, the elderly widow who lived here before us, who must have picked out that paper. She raised her own family in this house, watched her children grow in it, then out of it, tended her garden and home through the seasons, school days into summer, childhood to adulthood, time flowing away in floods and trickles. 

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Mealtime, deconstructed and reconstructed.

June 9th, 2014

Cooking for picky and plucky eaters.

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I’m a plucky eater. I love complex, highly seasoned dishes, with lots of textures and flavors coming together to make something greater than the sum of their parts. My middle son is a picky eater. What I just described to you would make him gag. There is no bribe or threat or loving logical consequence that can make him eat certain foods without cost to his psyche, our relationship, and the family harmony. I decided years ago that we would not pay that price. There are plenty of moms for whom it’s a point of pride that their family eats whatever is put in front of them, but I’m not that mom. Dinner in our home isn’t just about eating–it’s about nourishing. My kids don’t bolt from the table the second the plates are cleared; they linger because the family dinner table is a pleasant place to be. Let their spouses fight with them someday about getting more cruciferous vegetables in their diets. Our table is not a Phyrric battle ground.

Everyone else in the family falls somewhere in between our two extremes. My youngest is an adventurous gourmet, who loves raw vegetables and spicy foods. My eldest is a meat-and-potato guy who will eat a whole pan of roasted broccoli, but won’t go near a banana. My husband goes along to get along, but really doesn’t care for casseroles or tomato based dishes.

You can’t please all the people all of the time, but over the years, I’ve learned how to keep most of us mostly happy at mealtime by deconstructing recipes, and letting diners reconstruct them to taste. Take spaghetti and meatballs for example: I put out serving bowls of hot buttered pasta, baked meatballs, marinara sauce, and cheese. Spaghetti squash, too, if I’m low-carbing. There’s usually a bowl or two of raw vegetables to munch on. Everyone fills his plate to taste, with a little parental prodding to have a bite of this or that.

Curries and stir fries can be taken apart and put back together the same way: grill or roast the protein and vegetables separately with simple, but flavorful seasonings like garlic, soy, or citrus. Serve with a huge bowl of steamed rice, raw veggies (sugar snap peas and bell peppers are favorites), and offer the sauce on the side to pour over whatever you like. Sure, I love a slow-simmered lamb korba, but I save those recipes for my dinner parties where they are most appreciated. Someday the boys will get curious enough about what the grown ups are raving about to want to try a taste. Which is exactly how I overcame my childhood horror of stewed tomatoes long enough to try my mother’s famous cabbage rolls. My picky eater recently started eating sushi on his own volition, not because he was pressured into it by his parents, but maybe because he sees that we regard it as a special date night treat.

My latest triumph in pleasing picky and plucky eaters is beef chili. I simmered a big pot of it all afternoon yesterday, thinking we’d have leftovers for nachos later in the week, but almost every bite of it was eaten at dinner last night. I’ve come to prefer it to traditional ground-beef/beans/tomato chili, and if we ever did have leftovers, they’d be very versatile in tacos, nachos, a green salad, or a hot sandwich. The beef is stewed with chiles, onions, and peppers, and is very flavorful, but because the meat is cut and not ground, it’s easy for picky eaters to separate from the “green bits.” Plucky eaters can just ladle out the meat and broth together and load up on favorite toppings. 

Try it on your picky or plucky eaters and let me know how it goes over! Here’s the recipe:

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Deconstructed Chili Con Carne
Print
Ingredients
  1. 2 lbs fajita or stew beef, cut into 1.5 in chunks
  2. 1/2 onion, diced fine
  3. 1 jalepeno pepper, diced fine
  4. 1 4-oz can diced green chiles
  5. 1 cup finely diced green pepper
  6. 3 cloves garlic, minced or pressed
  7. 1/4 c. dry red wine (optional)
  8. 1 tsp salt
  9. 2 T chili powder
  10. 2 tsp cumin powder
  11. 1 tsp. pepper vinegar (a.k.a. "pepper sauce" with pickled tabasco peppers, or use a splash of vinegar from pickled jalapenos or other hot pickled pepper)
  12. 1 qt. water
  13. 1 can low sodium beef broth
  14. 1/4 c. corn meal
  15. toppings and sides as suggested
Instructions
  1. Brown beef and onions in oil over med-high heat, add peppers and chiles, and cook until vegetables are tender. Add garlic, wine, and seasonings, cook one or two minutes. Add water, broth, and pepper vinegar. Bring to a boil, then lower to simmer for at least two hours, or until meat is very tender. Make a slurry of cornmeal and 1/2 c. water and pour into chili, stirring to prevent any lumps. Let simmer another 20-30 minutes until thickened.
  2. Serve with cornbread, shredded cheese, pickled jalapeno peppers, ranch-style beans, pico de gallo, guacamole, corn chips, or whatever else you can dream up.
Planting Dandelions http://www.plantingdandelions.com/

Life in progress: on being vulnerable and visible.

May 30th, 2014

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As an introspective extrovert, my employment of first person pronouns was once inexhaustible. I didn’t mean to always take up more than my fair share of a conversation–I just had a lot that I wanted to share. Needed to share. Feelings and ideas would tumble out in a torrent. Some people really liked that about me. Some people really didn’t. In my defense, it came from a place of enthusiasm, not selfishness–like a four-year-old who brings everything from her room to show you, because that’s how much she likes you.

After my memoir came out, that urge to constantly reveal myself changed. Something–maybe a craving to be known and understood intimately– felt fulfilled.  I had said everything I needed to say, as best as I could say it, and it was time to shut up and listen. It was so easy and satisfying to let other people talk about themselves for a change. I became a much better listener and–I hope–a much better friend.

Partly too, the publication of the book made me feel exposed in a way blogging never had. I’m not sure why that is, but privacy became intensely important for a little while. I’ve yet to regret anything I shared in the book, but I put a whole lot of myself into it, and it felt necessary to pull back for a while, and recharge.

Balance is not static–it’s an ongoing process of correction. We shift our weight from one side to the other, and so we move forward, sometimes smoothly, sometimes lurching.

I must have veered too far to one side, because one of my closest friends recently chided me, lovingly, for not being more open with her when I have my own struggles and problems. I was completely taken aback by her observation, because I thought I was doing everyone a favor these past few years by not burdening them with so much about me. But here was my friend telling me I’ve been withholding something vital to intimate relationships–vulnerability.

Even beyond that conversation, the idea of vulnerability and visibility has been coming up a lot for me in the past year. I’m attracted to those qualities in some people, and repelled by them in others, and I’m not sure I can say what makes the difference–why one person’s self-revelation blesses me, and another’s feels burdensome. Perhaps it comes down to expectations, real or perceived. Perhaps it doesn’t matter, and the important thing is to risk being known and seen; to connect intimately with someone, never mind the people who don’t get it. I don’t know, but I’m being nudged to reconsider my own boundaries with respect to being vulnerable and visible, to paint a new center line.

As a writer who frequently rails against toxic myths of creative success, I immediately loved Austin Kleon’s manifesto, Show Your Work!  I know what a generous thing it is to be shown a work in progress, how reassuring and instructive to see the cycle of vision and revision, the stalling and starting, the lurching movement forward.

Maybe it’s just as important to see life in progress, and just as magnanimous to show it.

 

 

The Teen Lair

May 22nd, 2014

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It’s been six years since we moved into our little house in the valley, a fact so unbelievable to me, I have to keep checking the math to be sure. But the math is correct. In the spring of 2008, when we downsized from our two-story, 2200 square-foot home, to a one-story, 1700 foot home, our boys were nine, seven, and four. Still little kids.

Even though we’d given up a lot of space, our new address seemed spacious after purging the clutter of a decade and actually decorating  instead of ad-libbing with hand-me-downs and garage sale finds, as we’d always done before. The move reflected our shift to a new stage of family life–the middle years–where we would feel less squeezed for time and energy.

Fast forward at warp speed, and those little kids are big kids: 15, 13, and 10. We have two teenage boys. In case you don’t know, teenage boys rarely exist in ones and twos. They are pack animals. They travel in a cloud of testosterone-oozing, cologne-drenched baby-men. We call it the brozone.

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The brozone comes in, not on little cat feet, but on the thudding soles of man-sized Vans and Converse All-Stars. It would come in on skateboards, but even “cool” moms have their limits. And I do hope I’m a cool mom—not cool in the sense of “anything goes,” but in the sense of providing a place where the brozone feels welcome. Because I would much rather wake up every weekend to three or four adolescent boys sprawled every which way on our living room sectional, hungover from nothing more than an all-night game of Halo 3, than not know exactly where my sons are after dark and who’s with them. I would rather the brozone come into our home and inhale all the cereal than wonder what’s available to inhale at an unsupervised party. We’re fortunate in that most of our sons’ friends have parents whose sensibilities are more or less in line with ours, but there’s always a kid whose mom or dad is parenting from a different place altogether.  I’d rather those kids came to our house to hang out than vice versa.

It’s not that I’m trying to keep them on lock down. I’m no helicopter mom, and they’re all good boys. Teenagers need safe places where they feel comfortable, and I’m happy to give them one.

However.

I would also like to have the family room back on weekend nights and mornings. And to maybe cut back the number of gaming controllers and consoles on the TV table by two-thirds.

My 13-year-old would also like to have his own room. He’s been sharing with his little brother since our first teenager graduated up to a room of his own, and he’s emphatically over it. I don’t blame him. When the youngest and oldest have friends over, he really has no place to go. He’s been more than accommodating, and a change is past due.

The fact is, we could all use more space. The reality is, moving or adding on isn’t feasible right now. And even if it were, would it make sense to size up for the sake of a few years? In less time than we’ve been in this house, our oldest will have graduated from high school, and this nest will begin emptying. I don’t want the brozone to get too comfortable.

So we’ve got to work with what we’ve got: 1700 square feet, three bedrooms, two baths, and a budget based on what’s left after orthodontics get started this summer–not much. Somebody’s going to have to use her imagination. It also looks like somebody is giving up their master bedroom to make way for a teen lair, where two baby men can hang out, study, play games, draw, and sleep without being on top of each other. It’s a daunting sacrifice, but a temporary one. We’ll either reclaim our space when they start going to college, or we’ll have moved by then. In the meantime, I’m hoping we gain more privacy than we lose. Call it a strategic retreat.

Things will get started as soon as my oldest goes to summer camp next month. I’ll be chronicling the process for moral support and motivation. Meantime, you’re welcome to check out my Teen Lair Pinterest board. I’d love your ideas–and if you’re raising, or have raised teens, your own solutions for giving everybody some space. 

Honeysuckle Time

May 14th, 2014

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I wish I could post the fragrance. It borders on too much.

The fireflies can’t be far behind. Any evening now, my youngest will burst in from outside, calling for something to catch them in. In a crate on the back porch, there’s a stash of jam jars with hole-punched lids, a little rusted and dusty, but ready to go. Maybe his teenage brothers will join the chase again this year. Or maybe not. They’re like fireflies themselves now, blinking in and out of view, and I’m the one running behind them with my jar, catching them for a moment, then letting them go. 

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It’s all so sweet and fleeting–the honeysuckle, the fireflies, these years.