Happy New Year! Our Pipes Burst! (essay)

I was cleaning the first floor of a little rental house we own, getting it ready for occupancy. It felt good to dust the flies and cobwebs off the walls and counters. I thought about Annie Dillard’s quote: “The way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives”–and though I didn’t relish the thought of spending my days cleaning, there’s something about tidying up a living space, making it sparkle and be beautiful, that is so soul-satisfying. So many problems I deal with each day are in my head and nonphysical, like paying bills or negotiating relationships. Turning a dirty window clean by simply washing it with a rag and some vinegar water is so doable, so refreshingly easy. In fact, I’ve read that some mental health professionals tell their depressed clients it can be therapeutic to make their beds first thing in the morning. Apparently, just the act of ordering the environment can make us feel better. It’s one small way we can exert control in our lives and be successful.

While I was dusting the rental house, control though, suddenly became a big problem. I heard a loud thud upstairs followed by my husband barreling down the stair steps. As he ran past me and out the back door I yelled, “What’s wrong?” –but my words were literally drowned out by a torrent of water pouring through the ceiling and on my head like a cloudburst. He’d been working on the plumbing and a brittle pipe had burst so he’d ran to turn off the pump. I quickly grabbed a broom and tried to sweep the raining water now flooding the laminate floor out the back door he’d flung open. By the time the ceiling stopped raining, I was soaked and completely disheartened. A quarter of the main floor of the house was a damp mess. If only the fun I’d had cleaning this morning had just went down a drain instead of settling on the floor, a floor that now needed to be moped up.

A couple of hours and a lot of sore muscles later, our little rental house was finally drying out and looking considerably better. Before the flood, I’d washed the dust off a drip coffee-maker I’d found in the cupboard next to some filters and a can of sealed coffee grounds. I decided my husband and I deserved a cup of coffee after all we’d went through. As we sipped hot coffee we watched the oscillating fan move back and forth, blowing air across the floor, both of us too exhausted to talk. Annie Dillard was right: the way we spend our days is the way we spend our lives, each one full of ups and downs, joys and challenges. It’s a good thing to remember at the start of a new year. The days to come in 2019 probably won’t be smooth or effortless, but in the end we can still be okay. Floors dry out and life goes on.

Hot Flash in the Age of Global Warming

The starlings are swarming in the trees over the Snake River this December, and I’m wondering why they haven’t migrated. More importantly, where’s our snow? We did get maybe an inch or two last night, but the weatherman on TV was very non-committal about a white Christmas for south central Idaho this year. For some, this is great news. With no or little snow, driving is less hazardous, you don’t have to shovel the sidewalk, and moving anywhere outdoors is easier with flip flops than snow boots. Our ski resorts though, need snow and I for one, find the white, wispy stuff almost comforting. It feels as if weather-wise, all is as it should be.

Sometimes I’ve wondered, if in a hundred years, we’d call this time period we’re living in—the early 2000’s—the in-between time of climate change, when winters in Idaho were mild, but snow still happened most of the time. The full effects of a warming planet had not yet hit us. I think about this every time I read that NASA has issued another warning about our average global temperatures climbing.

But wet snow, the kind it seems we’re more likely to get this winter, is great for snowman-building. I found this out a few weeks ago when we had that 4-6 inch snowfall, enough for the grand-kids to play in. Then I bent over, hamstrings screaming, and tried rolling a syrupy little snowman ball along the ground. It was no easy task. The ball kept breaking apart because the snow was almost too wet.

“We’re making a snowman, huh Gan-ma?” my granddaughter Cora asked as she watched me push my snowball around the backyard leaving a ribbon of frozen green grass in its wake.

“Yep.” I said, breathing hard and thinking, the things we do for our grand-kids.

When my snowball was finally big enough for a respectable snowman belly, I took mitten handfuls of snow and tried to round out the torso. And Cora, despite being hobbled by her thick snowsuit, managed to kneel down and grab her own clump of snow to pat on Mr. Snowman’s tummy. Then we put some rocks on his lumpy face for eyes and a carrot became his nose. The finishing touch was a ratty old farm cap for the top of his head and a checkered scarf around his neck. Cora’s eyes shone when she saw the big snowball suddenly transformed into a man. The world for her was a magical place.

Later, I stood in the kitchen with a hot cup of coffee in my hands and watched out the window as Cora and her brother ran around and around our drippy snowman. They were laughing and throwing globs of snow at each other. Looking at this scene made me thankful we still had a world full of natural beauty that included, sometimes, a white winter. It may not always be like this. Wise men know. They watch the sky.

What I’m reading . . .

Becoming
by Michelle Obama

The title of Michelle Obama’s book is Becoming, so I was interested to find out how she became all that she became. Despite humble beginnings, Obama became a Harvard Law graduate, a corporate lawyer, a university administrator, and the wife of the president of the United States.

Incredibly, Michelle Obama and I started out in life in similar ways. We both grew up in the Chicagoland area. In fact, my husband and I drove into Chicago after we first married to honeymoon in a motel on Euclid Avenue, probably not far from where young Michelle was skipping Double Dutch on the sidewalk. We both had blue collar, working class parents. Her father was a water pump operator for the city of Chicago and my dad was a truck driver. She lived in a rented 900 square foot apartment, and my parents mortgaged their 900 square feet. I had the advantage of being born white in racist America, but maybe this wasn’t such an advantage. As Obama chronicles it, race and humble beginnings, along with the love and expectations of her parents, were part of the engine that motivated her many accomplishments. She says: “The idea was we (she and her brother Craig) were to transcend, to get ourselves further.”

Obama defines “becoming” as reaching continuously “for a better self,” which was certainly the case in her life. She worked hard, payed attention to detail and always arrived early. She marveled in her book how she could fall in love with such a “breezy,” laid-back kind-of guy as Barack Obama. But appearances can be deceptive, and she soon realized his relaxed manner belied a keen intellect and deep personal ethic. Michelle Obama’s love for her husband is everywhere evident in this autobiography. However, their marriage was not without challenges. She tells about struggles to become pregnant, going to marriage counseling during a rough patch, and the resistance she launched against Barack Obama’s political ambitions. Like any loving wife, she didn’t want to have to share her husband with the world—but I, for one, am so glad she did.

Obama writes her book well. It’s honest, yet optimistic, interesting and wise. And, like any good autobiography, Obama reveals several little known facts about her life. I was surprised to read she had to be schooled in how to speak publicly during her husband’s political campaigns. I’ve always enjoyed listening to her speak on television, but apparently when she first began to advocate for her husband at political rallies, her advisers told her she came across as too strident and harsh. She needed to sound more friendly and open. I also never realized during the 2016 campaign the personal impact of Donald Trump’s race-baiting on the Obama family. The number of death threats increased alarmingly, and Michelle worried for her husband and children’s safety.

Becoming has the distinction of being the best-selling book of the year, and I think I know why. It’s not just the fascinating story of a young woman’s rise, but the story of a better time in our country’s history, a time when we had a strong leader, someone guided by a true moral compass.