In a humdrum


Hibiscus

The other night J and I watched a home-shopping show selling enormous and eye-poppingly colorful hibiscuses, begonias, and day lilies. Neither one of us is a gardener: the only flowers in our yard are the ones planted by previous inhabitants that have survived an annual onslaught of hungry rabbits. But J and I happily watched a half-hour pitch for plants we’ll never buy because it’s February in New England, and we’ve lived here long enough to know that in February, you call upon your strongest coping strategies to get you through another long winter.

Hibiscus

This winter has been milder than most–before this week, we’d gotten more rain than snow–but that doesn’t matter. It’s still February–the year’s longest month–and this morning I called upon Winter Coping Strategy #2, which is to listen to uptempo dance music (preferably from somewhere warm) while doing morning chores. (This morning, it was salsa music; later in the month, when salsa grows stale and I need to call in the big guns, I’ll listen to bellydance.)

Hibiscus bud

In February, the days have begun to lengthen, but the ground is either covered in snow or salt-blanched and barren. In December and January , we were starved for light; in February, we’re starved for color. Long gone is the yellow light of summer: in February, even sunlight is gray and glaring. Soon enough, I’ll be browsing cute sandals online (Coping Strategy #3), planning a trip to the aquarium (Coping Strategy #4), or visiting a greenhouse and taking macro shots of flowers (Coping Strategy #5).

Purple

There are many ways to cope with long, cold winters. While other regions pin their seasonal hopes on prognosticating rodents, sports fans in New England look forward to Truck Day, when our thoughts and a truckload of baseball equipment head to Florida. While we wait for Red Sox pitchers and catchers to report to spring training tomorrow, I find myself once again lingering a bit too long by the supermarket florist, basking in the scent of cut flowers (Coping Strategy #6). If past years are indicative, it will be only a week or so until I’m snapping surreptitious photos in the produce aisle (Coping Strategy #7), craving a quick fix of color imported from Somewhere South, a place otherwise known as anywhere but here.

Today’s photos come from an October trip to Tower Hill Botanic Garden, which I’ve previously blogged. Winter Coping Strategy #1 is to take plenty of pictures during the golden days of summer and fall so you can look back upon (and blog) them when the days turn gray and grim.

Snowy patio

We got about a foot of snow from winter storm Niko: not exceptional by New England standards, but the biggest storm of the season so far. Today was sunny, as is typical after big snowstorms: a perfect day for digging out.

Miss Bling in a blanket

Before J got started with roof-raking and snow-blowing, I had two tasks: clear my car and shake snow from the trees. Clearing my car was easy enough: the trick is to use a push-broom to brush the bulk of the snow, start the car and leave it running with the heat on, and then clear the windows, windshield, and mirrors with an ice scraper. Once you’ve cleared most of the snow, the sun will take care of the rest.

The snow-shaking is a more involved task. Our house is fringed with rhododendrons and evergreens, and these get weighed down after every snowfall. Although I like the look of tree limbs laden with snow, it’s not good for trees and shrubs to be bent double, so after I cleared my car, I circled our yard with my push-broom, shaking the snow from bent boughs.

Snowy backyard

The shrubs alongside the garage and driveway are easy to reach, especially with a long-handled broom, but the rhododendrons on the far side of our house are less accessible, growing as they do in the narrow strip of yard between our house and the neighbors’ hedges. Wintertime is the only time I squeeze into this space between our rhodies and their hedge, a messy tangle that feels a lot wilder than its location right alongside our house would suggest.

Today, the rhododendron leaves were curled lengthwise and frozen, hanging like brittle green cigars that rattled woodenly as I knocked the snow from their branches. Sometimes, when a bough is bent low to the ground with snow, it springs up with a swish when you liberate it. Other times when you shake an overhead limb, the snow showers down in a diamond-glitter burst. I’ve learned to turn my face and close my eyes before knocking the largest overhead boughs, but sometimes out of the corner of my eye I’ll see a hint of rainbow as the snow turns to diamond-dust then dissolves in midair.

Modern

I keep two collections of random thoughts. First, I have my handwritten journal pages: on mornings when I’m not teaching, I try to write four longhand pages in a Moleskine notebook over my morning cup of tea, and on teaching days, I try to use time between classes to write four pages in one of the slim, softback notebooks I keep in my teaching bag.

Terry Winters

In addition, I have an assortment of typewritten documents I write and store on my Google Drive: each of them dated, and some of them titled. The entries with titles usually end up on my blog, but the entries without titles usually get abandoned or forgotten: pages where I’m basically talking to myself, rehearsing the usual complaints and quibbles.

On an excellent day, I’ll write in both places: I’ll spend a half hour or so on my handwritten pages, then I’ll spend another half hour transcribing any ideas or insights that emerged there. On a good day, I have time to write only in my journal, and on bad days, I don’t write anywhere at all. But even though I don’t manage to write every single day, I still produce a lot of odds and ends. I post some of this random writing on my blog, but much of it lives a quiet, forgotten existence in closed notebooks and forgotten Google Drive folders.

Terry Winters

Sometimes when I have time to write but little to say, I’ll open a random notebook or Google Doc, just to see what was on my mind weeks, months, or even years ago. It’s as if my life were a book, and I open to a random page.

Recently, for example, I re-read a Google Doc titled “No timeline” that I wrote in September, 2015:

Last week, I was at Angell for Groucho’s oncology check-up, a ritual we’ve reenacted every month since he was diagnosed with small cell lymphoma over two years ago. As I was leaving our appointment and walking toward the reception desk to check out, I heard a sound from the dog waiting area that stopped me cold: a high pitched squealing whine that sounded so much like Reggie, I had to stop and collect myself.

It’s been over three years since Reggie died, but that doesn’t matter: when I heard a dog that whined like him, the intervening years evaporated and I had to stop myself from rushing into the dog waiting are just to make sure Reggie hadn’t come back to find me. This is, of course, a crazy thought, but a grieving heart knows no logic.

Terry Winters

Groucho died in November, 2015, so the monthly oncology appointment I describe in these paragraphs would have been one of his last. But I had no way of knowing that at the time, of course. In September, 2015, Groucho was alive but reaching the end of even the most positive prognosis: chemotherapy for cats with lymphoma works really well until it doesn’t.

In September, 2015, Groucho was alive and it was Reggie I was mourning, even though he’d been dead more than three years. Rereading that entry brings it all back: the still-raw sting of lingering loss, and the too-familiar ache of anticipatory grieving.

Terry Winters

Last year, Bunny the cat died; this year, we’re worried about Rocco. This week, J took Rocco for his first oncology appointment after his recent diagnosis with the same kind of cancer that claimed Groucho: deja vu all over again.

There is no timeline for grief: that’s what I never got around to saying back in 2015. They say time heals all wounds, but that assumes time moves in a straight line rather than circling like a dog before sleep. Just when you think you’ve grown past expecting your dead dog to be underfoot at every step–a phenomenon J calls “phantom dog”–you hear a stranger’s pet at the vet who sounds so eerily familiar, you wonder if grief is the only thing on earth that doesn’t die. Just when you’ve almost forgotten one cat dead to cancer, another gets diagnosed with the same disease, history echoing and repeating, this year not much different from then.

Memorial labyrinth

Today I’m supposed to get together with A (not her real initial), walking the labyrinth at Boston College then having potato pancakes at the diner in Newton Centre.

Memorial labyrinth

Tomorrow J and I are going to Angell to adopt two cats–George and Gracie–that were surrendered by a breeder/hoarder in New Hampshire, a woman with 40 cats. They are shy and not well socialized–our job will be to get them acclimated into the house and also to get them comfortable around people. We’d intended to adopt just one cat to fill the spot left by Bunny when she died, but since George and Gracie find comfort in cuddling together, we didn’t want to split them.

Nina and Gumbo continue to cuddle me whenever I sit on the loveseat in the master bedroom–Nina on my lap and Gumbo sprawled across my chest. Nina was incredibly shy when we first adopted her–she spent her first few weeks under the bed–but now she runs up and falls at my feet when I walk into the room, begging for a belly rub.

Memorial labyrinth

And so we slowly socialize each of the cats we adopt. Frankie and Bobbi will never be lap cats–they’re too feisty and independent for that–but they each tolerate petting as long as it’s brief.

The world is filled with suffering: so many bad, sad situations I am powerless to fix. But I know how to comfort cats and tend to dogs, and so I do that as a small act of devotion I offer to a suffering world.

This is an entry I wrote in my journal on January 30, 2016, along with photos I took and promptly forgot about. I don’t remember what bad, sad situations I’m referring to in the final paragraph, but what was true then is just as true now.

Nina and Gumbo continue to climb all over me, looking for cuddles, whenever I walk into their room, and Frankie and Bobbi are still as feisty as ever. And one year after we adopted them, George and Gracie now let me pet their heads but are otherwise shy.

Belated birthday card

Now that both the holidays and my birthday are over, I’ve settled deep into ordinary time. On teaching days, I’m up before daylight and stay on campus until after dark, the precious sunlight of January something I see from the inside looking out. On weekends and at-home grading days, I do my morning kitchen chores upon awaking, then brew a cup of tea and sit at my desk to read, meditate, and write.

Cassie in sunlight

I’m a creature of habit, and so is the dog, who is content to lie on her bed and chew her bone while I sit at my desk, scribbling or tapping out words. She doesn’t care what I’m working on or how it’s going, only that I stop what I’m doing and scratch behind her ears when she sidles up to my chair and rests her head in my lap.

RIP Prince

Without much hoopla, Hoarded Ordinaries has made the awkward transition from tween to teen:  it’s been a little over thirteen years since I published my first blog post on December 27, 2003. Because my blog anniversary happens so close to the New Year, I typically use the occasion to post some sort of retrospect on the previous year in blogging. So in honor of Hoarded Ordinaries’ thirteenth birthday, here are thirteen posts from 2016.

End white supremacy

Many people were happy to see 2016 go, given its tumultuous conflicts, violent outbreaks, and tragic losses. When I look back on 2016 through the lens of my blog, I see frequent reminders of loss and heartbreak. I blogged relatively little in 2016, averaging less than a handful of posts most months. (In September, I only posted once, which is unusual for me.) One of my resolutions for 2017 is to blog more, and considering I posted only three entries in January 2016, I’m already on-track to blog more this January than last, at least.

Bunny enjoys her lap-time

Last year began with J and me putting Bunny the cat to sleep, a sad event I chronicled in “Traveling Mercies.” In May, we put another of our cats, Crash, to sleep, and I described the now-too-familiar experience of coming home to a too-big, too-empty house in “His ninth life.” As if euthanizing two cats weren’t enough, in October we put our elderly beagle to sleep after a sudden seizure led to a diagnosis of metastatic cancer. I never got around to blogging Melony’s death: I never found (and still don’t have) words to describe the sudden, beagle-sized hole in our household.

Float reflections

Many of the tragedies of 2016 transcended the purely personal. In “A world full of swans,” I responded to the Orlando nightclub shootings, and in “The cries of the world,” I addressed gun violence by and against police. The election of Donald Trump was a development I’m still reeling from, and I described my reaction in a post titled “Aftermath.”

Stickwork

Not everything in 2016 was drear and disappointing. In August, I enjoyed a trip to the Brookline birthplace of John F. Kennedy, which I blogged in “The house on Beals Street.” In October, I enjoyed a trip to the Tower Hill Botanic Garden to see a stickwork installation by Patrick Doughtery, which I described in “Where the wild things are.”

Journal pages

Although I didn’t write much in 2016, I did meet my goal of reading (more than) 50 books, which I recorded on Goodreads. Of the books I read in 2016, I particularly enjoyed Alexander Masters’ A Life Discarded, which I discussed in “Trusting your days to the page“; Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, which I mentioned in a September post titled “Between the book and me“; and Kerry Egan’s On Living, which I reviewed in a December entry of the same name.

RIP Bowie

Many of my blog entries aren’t easily categorized: one of the things I love most about blogging, in fact, is its random and ragtag nature. In a February post titled “As the moment unfolds,” for example, I describe the flying-by-the-seat-of-your-pants feeling I have whenever I teach a new course for the first time, and in “A grace freely given,” I describe the feeling of abundance that comes from leaving a book in a Little Free Library. Finally, in “Keep your options open,” I describe the spacious, free-fall feeling that comes in the summer when I have time to write but haven’t yet defined a topic.

Wake up and do good

For thirteen years, Hoarded Ordinaries has been a place where I’ve explored the creative abundance of writing by the seat of my pants, with or without a clearly defined topic. Here’s to another year of posts both random and ragtag.

Faces

Fridays are always busy:  a day devoted to an assortment of teaching tasks and household errands.  By the time I’ve picked up a Friday night pizza and unpacked the week’s groceries, it’s almost time for evening chores:  too late to do any serious work, but too early to collapse into a end-of-week coma on the couch.

Face

Sometimes I use these spare minutes to read; too often, I fritter them away online, catching up with Breaking News that seems genuinely intent on breaking us all.  I’d be much better served, I think, to turn off the news, turn on some music, and spent a spare half hour writing, stitching together some sort of sense from the tag ends of days.

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