Making Connections

I often look for spiritual messages in life’s happenings. It’s a lot like reading a book and looking for symbolism, but the book I’m reading is life. This is rooted in the belief that everything is connected, and if you are paying attention, spiritual guidance is all around you. I see messages in numbers, nature, patterns, text, dreams and “coincidences.”

Ancient people saw signs in nature through animal totems, that is, certain animals symbolized or brought certain messages; if any of those animals appeared to you, you were getting a specific message to help you on your spiritual path. For example, if you kept seeing an eagle (in its physical form or in dreams), the universe, God, angels (whatever floats your boat) was telling you that you should strive for greater spiritual heights. There are tons of books and websites that are devoted to animal totems. I typically try to glean my own meanings out of what I see, but it’s fun to look up animals that appear to me and see what the author thinks its meaning is.

I have a pretty unhealthy fear of snakes, no doubt engendered by my mother, who does a “happy dance,” as she calls it, whenever a snake crosses her path, which, unfortunately for her, happens a lot. The happy dance isn’t happy at all. It’s a jig born out of sheer terror. She cranks her fists to her shoulders and does a tippy-toe pounding rhythm with her feet that any drummer would envy, and busts out some primal utterances akin to speaking in tongues. It’s a sight to see (unless it’s me doing this same exact dance; please avert your eyes). So you could imagine my horror when my realtor first showed me the house I currently live in: just as I was walking up the driveway, out of the corner of my eye, I saw a snake slither into a hole in the concrete. I looked at my husband, and all he could muster was, “I didn’t see anything.”

At that time, there were three houses for sale on the same block in the same model. One we dubbed the “yellow house” (it was yellow), the next, the “Pergo house” (they had Pergo floors in the dining room), and ours, the “snake house” (for obvious reasons). It was quite apparent that the snake house was the best fit for us: it had a great view, better price, hot tub, granite, new appliances, yada, yada, yada. But I had my reservations because of that snake. I thought it was a sign: Stay the hell away!

If being met by Mr. Slither on my first visit was not enough, I saw him on the second visit, and it put me over the edge. I ranted to my husband all the reasons why we couldn’t buy the house: What were the chances of seeing the snake twice on two separate occasions?! The house probably had a snake problem–that’s why it was priced better! Maybe the whole block had a snake problem–people were trying to move out! We should just stay in Denver and expand our house! My husband, being a reasonable man, reasoned that he’d patch the hole in the concrete. I wasn’t convinced. I told my girlfriend about it expecting her to be an ally, but she said, “Oh! That’s a great omen!”

She showed me her animal totem book and read that snakes are a sign of rebirth and new beginnings because they shed their skins. And that’s all it took. Something in my soul knew that I had to buy that house.

As promised, my husband patched the hole, and I didn’t see the snake again until several years had passed. By the time I saw it (or its offspring, or a friend), I had made peace with snakes. They still rattle me (pun intended) when I see them–something I can’t quite shake (like a rattle)–but maybe they’re supposed to make me jump: “Holly! Wake up! Time for something new!”

So my latest bout with an animal happened on Earth Day. Nice touch, eh? It was a glorious day, but too cool to sit outside and write, so I did the next best thing: opened the back door to enjoy the spring air and songs of nature. As I was working, a bird flew into my house. It was a male Clark’s Nutcracker or maybe a Northern Flicker. I don’t know what it is about a bird flying in my house, but it gets my hackles up. Birds are just so freaked out when they get “trapped” in a house, they do the bird version of my mom’s happy dance; their energy freaks me out. He knocked over some trinkets and pooped on my hardwoods. All I wanted to do was get my feathered friend out the door. But no. Every time I got close to him, he’d fly past the open door to a new room and try to go through a glass pane. I kept telling him to just go out the door, but I guess he didn’t speak English.

We did this dance for about thirty minutes until he did a beak-dive into my kitchen window and fell to the ground. I thought for sure he was injured. I felt terrible. But then he flew to a window sill, then back to the floor and started running for cover, straight past the wide open door again, under my sofa. So I got an idea: If he wanted to go from window to window, I would give him more opportunities to flee. I took off the screens of several windows, then got the broom out to coax the wee beast out of his safe house. He came running out (literally) and just went with that very crude form of mobility. He ran to the next room as I chased him with a broom, past the open front door, and under a coffee table. With another nudge of the broom, he ran under the dining room table and back to the kitchen. I felt like I was in a Tom and Jerry cartoon.

Finally, in the kitchen, he flew up to the window sill. He was three inches away from an open window. I stopped. We stared at each other. I brought the broom up to him quietly saying, “You’re right there. Just fly through…”

He hopped to the right once. I held my breath. Then he hopped once more. He was an inch away! He suddenly turned his little bird head and was like, “Oh, freedom.” And he flew out the window.
So the message? Am I being lead to something better, and I’m too much of a bird brain to see it? Quite possibly. Or am I serving as the messenger for you? Fly! Be free!

The Whole 30 Diet

I recently did a 30-day extreme version of the Paleo diet.  If you’re not familiar with this diet, it’s basically eating what our pre-agricultural, hunter-gather ancestors would have eaten: meat and vegetables. I also wasn’t allowed to eat “non-compliant” foods: grains, dairy, legumes, alcohol, seed/vegetable oils and sugar. One of the diet’s biggest goals was to avoid eating foods with chemicals and preservatives. And just to sour the pot, the creators of the diet decreed that if you slipped up, you’d have to start all over again. This awesome rule actually had me pressing reset after two days in—not because I couldn’t control my urges—it was because I stupidly bought organic bacon thinking that there wouldn’t be any chemical stew added to it. I even read the Nutrition Facts to look for added sugar, which said “Sugars 0.” Great. After two mornings of indulging, I read some Paleo blogs for entertainment and everyone was talking about how hard it was to find bacon without sugar. I was like, “What’s wrong with these people? That wasn’t hard at all.” But then I got a little worried and reread the label: Sugars 0, Ingredients: pork, salt, organic cane sugar…” What the?! Reset. So I became an avid label reader, inquisitive customer, nightmare diner, and culinary do-it-yourselfer. In other words, I became extremely paranoid about what I was eating.

Dining Out

My husband was supportive…at first. He’s used to my “special” diets. We went to Aspen for a little get-away during my first week of the diet. I was leery of dining out. I told him I wasn’t about to tell a chef what oils he was allowed to use. So he made me a gourmet Paleo meal at the condo: steak, lobster, and sweet potato.  We went “out to dinner” at Whole Foods so that I could eat at the salad bar and read the labels posted on the sneeze shield. About three weeks into the diet, and too many dinners at grocery stores, my family begged me to go to a pizza place. I agreed, thinking I could just get a salad, while they stuffed their gobs with a deep dish “Chicago Seven.” I ordered a grilled, unseasoned chicken spinach salad with avocado and sundried tomatoes sans delicious feta and salad dressing. I told my server I was on a “stupid diet,” and I needed just some lemon slices and olive oil for dressing. He was very accommodating, but the kitchen was not. I got a bowl full of spinach and sundried tomatoes with cremated chicken and a heavenly golden wedge of garlic bread. I sent the chicken back, and asked for the oil, lemons, and avocado and slid the bread bullion to my son. As I waited an additional fifteen minutes for the new chicken, I started to fear my sundried tomatoes. I shuttered at the thought of putting my server on a label-reading errand, so I started pulling out the slivers of dried tomato one by one. My husband tried to contain his disgust.  When I was done, I had a mound on the table that was probably a cup’s worth. “We’re never doing this again,” my significant other mumbled.  “Fine by me,” I proclaimed as I watched mozzarella stretch from my boys’ mouths and beer leave its foam on my husband’s mustache. When all the trappings of my salad finally appeared (it took them an additional two trips). I thoughtfully ate my salad making sure to savor every bite—not because it was good because it surely wasn’t—but because I needed something to distract me from temptation. I was like a monk in a brothel.  Because they took so long to get my special diet salad out, I got free dessert. Oh, irony.

From Scratch

Another perk of the diet was a general distrust of condiments and food companies that I’ve depended on for years. This drove me to make my own mustard, mayonnaise, and almond milk. I looked at the label of one of my favorite mustards and decided to make my own. It’s basically mustard powder, mustard seed (if you want country style), salt, vinegar, and sugar, which would stay in the sugar bowl. How hard could that be? It tasted like that acrid hot mustard sauce you get at Chinese restaurants to “complement” eggrolls. Not a fan of that sauce and not a fan of my own hellfire concoction.

My mayonnaise was interesting. I actually followed directions for that. Word on the street: the secret to making mayonnaise is you have to get your eggs and lemons at room temperature before you mix them, and you have to very, very slowly add the light olive oil. Thin. Stream. Of. Oil. You do this so that you don’t “break” the emulsion. The directions said it would take about 6 minutes. I was doing a double batch, so I assumed it would take 12 minutes. I think it took more like 20 minutes of me stuck in the same position. I felt like I was doing a Survivor “Immunity Challenge.” I was hunched over the mixing bowl with my arms in a perpendicular configuration to hold up the jumbo glass measuring cup at just the right angle to get that constant yarn’s width stream into the mixture. Of course the doorbell rang halfway into it. “Mom, someone wants to talk to you!”

There was no way I was going to break the stream. With desperation I yelled, “I’m making mayonnaise!” Miraculously, the caller disappeared. (Whoever it was must have known how much a pain making mayo is.) My son walked up to me and said, “Um, Mom, you’re pouring that really slow.” Excellent observation, Sherlock. When I was done, my mayo was the right color (success), the right flavor (yippee) and the wrong texture (boo). I made salad dressing. But it’s the best salad dressing I’ve ever eaten—the flavor of hard labor.

My almond milk was perfection and so easy to make. And you get to use this thing called a nut bag. Hee, hee. My son, put it on his head when he found it thinking it was a hairnet. Of course I yelled at him—not wanting extra protein in my milk. All you have to do is soak the almonds overnight (12 hours), rinse, fill up your blender with the nuts and water, then blend until milky. Then you strain it through the nut sack…er…bag and squeeze the milk out. (Ahem.) I put it in my tea and sipped with a smile. I exuberantly offered a taste to my curious, albeit, pro-dairy husband. He tasted it. “What d’ya think?” He smiled like a father does at his daughter when he doesn’t really like her artwork. No matter. I didn’t make it for him.

Apart from my husband’s confusion (rebellion?) towards the end—he bought carrot cake for “the family” on the weekend of week 3 (he ate my portion)—I think the diet was a success. My jeans fit better. I learned how to scrutinize labels. I learned how to make salad dressing and almond milk. One thing bothers me, though: how did cavemen make mayo and almond milk without a blender, a mixer, and a nut bag?

How to Survive a Power Outage

How to survive a power outageSpring storms in Colorado are my favorite. They are intense and build up the life-giving snowpack. The next day after the storm has passed, the sun ignites the hills and the snow melts in a frenzy–steam rises and whisks the blacktop. The melt hurries off the roofs and steeps. If I sit on my sofa and close my eyes, it doesn’t take much to imagine that my house is a cabin with only a stream for a neighbor. Magic aside, spring storms can turn life upside down. You have to learn how to survive power outages and strange “happenings.” One year, I was sitting with my brother, watching the snow gather on the deck at twilight, when suddenly we saw the sky light up. It felt weird–like meteorite- or UFO-weird. Then we heard something that resembled thunder. Well, duh, it was lightning, we agreed. Then it dawned on us…We just saw lightning while it was snowing!  Some things just don’t go together–lightning and snow is right up there with peanut butter and tomatoes in my book. It felt almost apocalyptic–like cows were going to start meowing or it’d start raining frogs.  But it was just…ya know…Nature.

Power outages, which seem to happen a lot during heavy, wet spring storms, also turn life upside down. We had one spring blizzard that caused an outage that lasted three days.  The children had to sled instead of watch TV and play board games instead of play video games. Poor things. The darkness tricked them into thinking they were sleepy and they went to bed before 9 pm each night. Since the moon was our babysitter, my husband and I had to figure out how to entertain ourselves during our wakeful hours. One night, we did taxes by candlelight. Super romantic. But the next night we made music. He played guitar and I sang like we used to–before joint filing. We dusted off our old tunes and tried some new ones. Never dropped a beat.

One outage a few years ago put me in survival mode. We were having a snow storm and the temp was on the other side of 30 degrees. The electricity shut off around 5 am–so we had no alarm clock. Lucky for us, my 6-year-old just happened to wake up because his nightlight went out. And why should that wake a child who has his eyes shut? The only thing I can think of is spidey sense. He just knows… Much like my grammy’s spidey sense. She could wake up without an alarm clock. If she needed to wake up at 6:13, she would without fail. Funny enough, I have this same gift. I just set my inner clock and wake up when I’m supposed to. Unfortunately, this gift is useless if you don’t “set me,” which no one did. Thank goodness for my son’s superhero power. Anyhoo…back to scene. The kids went to school and my husband went to work. Since my home office was now an officicle, I decided to pack up my laptop and slide down I-70 to find some power. I thought it might be nice to be warm while I worked, have tea and maybe an egg. The little things… But, since the power was out, I could not get my car out of the garage. Yes, I now know you have to pull that red handle hanging from the garage door track and release the latch so that you can manually heave open the door. Great. I’ll do that next time. This time, I tried to do it with the latch on the actual door (aka the lock).  I kept yanking that thing over to the right and then pulling with all my might to get the door to lift up a millimeter. I felt like a total weakling. After breaking skin, my pride resolved that the door was malfunctioning.  But of course it was my technique that was malfunctioning. Wrong latch. I was stuck and now hungry.

At that time I was on a diet that required eggs for breakfast every day. If ya gotta eat eggs during an outage, an electric stove is no more than a large tchotchke. I considered shooting a couple of raw eggs Rocky-style but then lost my nerve (it was a power outage after all—not the “eye of the tiger”). It was clear I needed fire, which I did not possess. Then I eyed my gas grill…

I filled a pan with water, put a nob of butter on my skillet, bundled up, and lit the grill. I was gonna have scrambled eggs and tea outdoor-style. I never knew how exciting boiling water could be. I felt like I was camping in the Wild West—until I saw my neighbor in the cul-de-sac below throw open his garage door. (How did he do that???) I suddenly felt a little goofy scrambling eggs on the barbie—he undoubtedly knew the trick to opening my garage. I hid in the house until he left.

My breakfast was delicious. The eggs had a faint flavor of smoke. So with a protein high, I set out to set up camp by my gas fireplace—a smart feature in desperate times. I grabbed a chair and a tray and fired up my laptop–even lit a candle to add warmth. I looked up from my work from time to time to watch the snow quietly fall.

The power came on with a blast a couple hours later. The fridge moaned. The heater roared. Appliances beeped like baby birds. (I never realized how noisy my house was!) With the power on, I imagined rejoicing and kissing the ground—after all, I was saved! But I didn’t. I was hoping it would still be off late into the night. I was hoping for candlelit homework and reading. I was hoping for music.

Yes, spring storms can turn things upside down. I like upside down.  And now I can officially say I know how to survive a power outage!

Family Rock Climbing

Colorado Rock Climbing with the FamilyNow that ski season is almost over, it’s family rock climbing season. My family and I like to get rad on Table Mountain in Golden, Colorado. Sometimes, we are lucky enough to get an early spring/late winter climb in—the cliffs heat up in the afternoon sun, and we feel like we’re getting away with something—cheating Mother Nature.

After a short hike, we get to the base of the rocks. My boys hunt for bugs or find spaces to squeeze into between the stacked crags, while my husband hikes to the top of the rock face and sets up the anchors for the toprope. When we hear, “Rope!” we know to get the heck out of the way so we don’t get clobbered by 9 pounds of blue nylon. We love Table Mountain because it has climbs for all levels. And the names of the climbs are pretty funny: Thelma (and) Louise, Mournful Mullet, Basalt and Battery, Killian’s Dead, Bullet the Brown Cloud, Plumber’s Crack, Deck Chairs on the Titanic, Honey I Shrunk the Hemorrhoids…

Climbing was actually something my husband taught me how to do back when we were dating. One of his first gifts to me were climbing shoes (which were too small, but I wore them anyway, so I ruined my feet for love). He had long honey hair–well below his shoulders–and he’d climb shirtless. He showed me the ropes (pun sooo intended) and taught me the language–the specialized rock jock jargon. He’d take me to Morrison to go bouldering (aka low-height climbs without ropes). Bouldering is all about working out the moves–the puzzles you may encounter on toprope or lead climbs. I remember this one “puzzle” that was three feet off the ground. It required that you defy gravity (support all your weight by your chalked fingernails) for as long as you could before you had to “dyno” the crux of the move (lunge up and find a hold by the grace of God). We had tried several times to make this move, but it kept ending in us falling on our bums. Until it didn’t. Yep. It was me. I did it. My then-boyfriend was as astonished as I was. He bragged about me to his climbing buddies.

After several years of “On belays!” and “Climb ons!” then tying the knot (punny) and birthing two rock climbers, it was inevitable that we’d end up on the Golden Cliffs. It took us a while, though. Infants are crappy rock climbers. They cry, and they’re afraid of falling, and they can’t reach the holds. Wah, wah, wah.  Just kidding. We waited until they were at least toddlers or whatever. Let’s just say our “cranking moves” days had become a distant memory, so much so, I forget how to tie a retraced figure 8 knot. I know. I know.  A good friend and fellow crag hag pointed out this sad fact during a couple’s dinner. Our husbands were the real climbers—they’d had climbed together since high school—we were the Johnny-come-latelys. When they were in college, my husband fell about 50 feet until the climbing rope caught him, slamming him into the side of the rock. The force of the fall picked his 6 foot 6 buddy up from his harness ten feet off the ground. They were just two dudes hanging around… War stories aside, we gals thought it would be great to have a couple’s night at the rock gym, but there were no male takers. So we went to a gym to re-enter the realm of the rock without them. Only problem was, we needed to pass a test before the gym would let us climb. And they wouldn’t HELP us. We suddenly realized how much the guys used to cater to us; they were wonderful climbing guides–probably mostly because they were afraid we’d accidentally kill them—but time away from the rocks had us scratching our heads about the details now.

We had to read the signs on the wall and spy on climbers to try to rattle our amnesia. We got into a mild argument about belaying. She wondered why I kept resting half of my rope on my right hip. I wasn’t sure, then I shrieked, “Oh! I’m breaking!” (It’s a way to lock the rope when the climber is resting or plummeting.) It all came back; we passed; we climbed. My interest rekindled my husband’s and the rest is history.

My husband once told me that women are natural climbers because they lack arm strength, so they depend more on their legs. Women leverage upward mobility from the bottom up; guys (not in the know) think they have to do it all with their arms and forget about their legs, so they burn out faster. Now this is either true, or he was trying to woo me.  But there may be something to it; my boys are naturals too and they, being boys, have spaghetti arms, so most of their strength is in their legs. Much like their father, their climbing sometimes looks like climbing ballet—a kind of grace on the rock that shows a oneness.  I hope they won’t lose this when they are men.

We are fans of family rock climbing . You’ll find us yo-yoing from the cliffs in the late afternoon to get in a few pitches before dinner. Or you’ll see my boys chasing elusive brown lizards in between climbs. You might even see me successfully dyno the crux.  When we’ve had our fill, we’ll be at the local tavern telling war stories and eating pizza. And by the way: we’re happy to announce that the youngest now hikes up and down the approach trail all by himself—sure was hard to push up that stroller. Just kidding. He was in a BabyBjorn carrier.

How to Declutter Homes

how to declutter homesMy friend just moved to Evergreen. Oddly, this sparked a little envy in me, which I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I love my house and neighborhood.  I didn’t want to move. So what was I wishing for? I came to realize that I needed a move of a different sort; I needed a mass exodus of complacency. I needed to declutter. Homes get old when you turn them into storage pods.   I went on a redo and renew rampage.

I started with the shelves. I have two built-in floor-to-ceiling shelves in my family room. When I moved in, I couldn’t wait to fill them with wonderful things. Over the span of eight years, my once lovingly adorned shelves became a dumping ground for ill-placed trinkets, forgotten games and ugly picture frames. So I looked up ways to make the shelves appealing. The experts recommended interesting groupings, vertical stacks of books, shiny stuff like bottles, brass and copper, and textural tidbits like baskets and wooden boxes. I had all that…in crowded cabinets and closets only penetrable with a pickax and shovel. If I wanted copper, I was gonna have to dig. The shelves were not the only things that needed attention.

I dug out things that I didn’t know why were hidden: a silver wine trivet that I purchased in the UK, wooden wine crates with intricate carvings of bucolic scenes, glassware of varying intrigue. I gave away novelties that lost their novelty, gifts that needed to be re-gifted and orphaned items of long lost families: do-it-yourself dip ‘n dots, a bracelet loom, plates in the shape of vegetables, a plastic loaf slicer, a lone brandy snifter. I threw away items that I had been saving for the unfortunate collapse of the infrastructure: one-inch tapers, expired legumes, three analog TVs, and long-ignored lotions, cosmetics and perfumes (I guess I wanted to smell nice for the apocalypse).

It didn’t stop there. I finally gave away items that somehow made the cut by the skin of their teeth eight years ago. I remember having a discussion with a purple bottle that my friend gave to me when I was a teenager. “Do I need to keep you? You’re kind of cool. I guess you could be showcased someday…” And away it went into a cabinet; then away it went in the Goodwill bin with a dose of backbone too many years later.

This—talking to inanimate objects—gave me pause. What is up with having sympathy for things that do not breathe? When I was a kid, I once felt sad for an abandoned tee-shirt.  It was lying in a muddy puddle by our four-foot above-ground pool. My brother must have flung it off in a frenzy to canon-ball. After weeks of trying to ignore it, I finally delivered it to my mother via stick. I think she smartly threw it away–white cotton, forever sullied by Illinois soil.

At the time of the purge, I did not realize at first that I was actually going through the motions of someone who was about to move. With my shelves all spiffed up, my attention was drawn to my irritating laundry room. It had shelves…very neglected shelves…and a laundry separator—which was a great name for it because it liked to separate at the joints and fall apart. This item fell into the Why Am I Putting up with This Crap category. After 12 years, I got rid of the separator. Applause. I also got rid of several plastic containers containing many forgotten items like build-it-yourself furniture dowels, washers and hex wrenches, and warranties and manuals for appliances that I no longer owned. More applause. Then I gave it a cute face lift with baskets and wine crates for storage like they do on TV shows like “Love It or List It.” I love that show. As the name suggests, homeowners need to decide to stay at a house with a ton of issues that a designer tries to tackle within a budget or they can leave after the renovation and buy their dream house. They seldom put their house on the market; they usually stay. Interesting, huh? And that’s when it dawned on me; I was “loving” my house. And I was making a move to stay.

When the renew rampage was over, in one month’s time, I accomplished the following: redid my family room shelves, organized four closets, four cabinets and four drawers, redid the laundry room, painted two pieces of lawn furniture, planted three barberry bushes and three lavender plants in my front yard and created a new space in my backyard with a rock garden and fire pit. I spent under 100 dollars.

My home feels new again. I moved out the debris, excavated the gems and enriched the bones. I got my wish; I got to move into something fresh without moving. A declutter home success story!