Treasures & Trash: Or Why I Hate to Clean and Why I Hate to Throw Things Out

I could have titled this post “Tidying Up, Part 2.” But I decided on “Treasures and Trash” because that is what I found.

It started as a simple project. I have a chest in which I have stored items for many years. It’s a small chest, the height of a short dresser, and it has cupboard doors. Over the years, when I had photographs printed, I would throw the envelopes of snapshots (together with negatives or CDs) into the chest. Old family portraits I didn’t want to display anymore went into the chest, along with the frames they were in, unless I had another portrait to put in the frame. I stored many other keepsakes in the chest as well. After each item went in, I shut the doors and rarely thought of it again.

Occasionally, I rummaged through the chest looking for pictures for this blog, or searched through my kids’ baby books to find a date or a certificate. But for the most part, out of sight, out of mind.

It was getting hard to keep the doors on the chest shut. So I finally decided I had to clean it out. Really, I thought, if I just put the loose envelopes of photos into boxes, I could keep the chest neat enough to close the doors. So one Saturday afternoon, I found some boxes and started in.

Well.

Before: The Messy Stage

There is always a stage in a cleaning project when it is messier than when one begins. This immediately became true of this project. No way could I simply cram photo envelopes into boxes and stash everything back in the chest. There was too much stuff in there.

I’d been afraid something like this would happen, which is why I chose an afternoon when my husband was away. Messes—at least my messes—make him nervous.

But I’d started. I had to do something, to get it back to a stage when my husband wouldn’t see a mess.

So once everything was out of the chest, I started sorting. I found many things that were trash, and many that were treasures. In the trash category were about two years of old financial statements from the mid-1990s. And many terrible snapshots of family members (though I didn’t bother to sort these out). And also a costume I’d worn for Halloween at work in about the year 2000—Catbert, Evil HR Director.

But there were even more treasures. Things I’d been looking for. Things I’d forgotten I had. Things I don’t think I ever knew I had. The photograph of my brother and me with Santa Claus from 1960 or 1961—I’ve been searching for that since my father died two years ago (though I think this copy was my grandmother’s, not my parents’). A 1950 picture of the adults in my husband’s family at a civic event (one of the things I didn’t know I had). A postcard from my husband to his great-aunt announcing that he’d taken a girl (me) home to his mother (another thing I didn’t know I had). Many pictures of momentous occasions in my children’s lives I’d forgotten about—my daughter’s preschool graduation, my son’s Eagle Scout ceremony (now if I could just find a copy of the speech I gave), and many visits and vacations. And so much more.

These treasures are why I hate to throw things out. I didn’t have time to look through all the photos. I’m sure there are more treasures in some of the rolls of film from years ago. If I simply toss them, I might lose something precious, a memory that would make me smile.

In months to come, you’ll hear more about the treasures I found. And maybe about some additional treasures, if I can steel myself to get back into those boxes. If I can bear to attack the chest again.

After: Much neater, and less stuff

I spent a miserable afternoon at the chore, but the treasures were all back in the chest before my husband got home. The trash? It’s been thrown out, the financial records shredded.

When have you found family treasures you didn’t know you had?

Lent: Too Old to Fast . . . At Last!

The Catholic Lenten obligations prohibit eating meat on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays during Lent and require fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. As our pastor reminded the congregation recently, “A Catholic fast isn’t a real fast. We get to eat three times a day.” Which is true—the Lenten fast permits two small meals that do not add to a full meal, plus one full meal. And only on two days of the year. It really isn’t an onerous practice.

Still, I am glad that this year I am too old to fast. The fasting obligation only applies to people between the ages of eighteen and fifty-nine. I’m sixty now! Other than being eligible for a few senior discounts, this is the first time I’ve been glad to be sixty. I might have been able to get away with not fasting last year—I was fifty-nine when Lent started last year, so in my sixtieth year—but I piously decided I’d be a stickler for the rules, and so last year I complied with the fasting rules.

Although Catholic fasting is not onerous, I have always hated it. (Maybe that’s the point. It is a sacrifice.) I’ve had Greek Orthodox friends whose religious fasting meant they could eat practically nothing for the week before Easter. I know Muslims who fast from sunrise to sunset during Ramadan. Am I weaker than they are? Less religious? Maybe.

But in truth, I feel better when I eat small, regular meals. When I started my fasting years, I only weighed 88 pounds. Reducing my two already small daytime meals to less than a full meal meant I Uwas really dragging by evening. I was ravenous and cranky. Somehow, that never felt like the Lenten spirit.

I didn’t reach 100 pounds until mid-way through my first pregnancy, and I didn’t stay above 100 pounds until after my second child was born. I weigh “comfortably” over 100 now, but I still like my regular meals. And sometimes snacks—when I get home from the gym, I eat any food in the house that isn’t frozen.

Plus, it’s best if I avoid situations that make me cantankerous (as my family would attest). I had some blood work done recently, and I couldn’t eat breakfast until 9:30—that was enough to make me snarl. So I admit to being glad I no longer have a religious obligation to fast.

This Lent, I’ll give up fasting.

But on a positive note, I have decided on other ways of observing Lent this year. I’ve given up the daily Wall Street Journal crossword puzzles, which have been consuming a half-hour or so of my day. (I wish the Journal had never begun daily puzzles—the weekly puzzle was plenty for me.) I’ve reduced my Diet Coke intake each day (and suffered withdrawal for the first few days of Lent). And I’ve decided to read more literary fiction for the next six weeks, instead of genre fiction like murder mysteries (maybe I’ll sleep better at night).

These changes in my habits, plus a couple of other projects I’m taking on, should do me at least as much good as reducing my food intake for two days. I’m hoping to be more productive and healthier. And less cranky.

What makes you cranky?

Not Proud of Middlebury College Now

As readers of this blog know, I am a proud alumna of Middlebury College, Class of 1976. My years at Middlebury contributed greatly to making me the person I am today (see here and here).

But this week I am not proud.

Last Thursday, March 2, 2017, Middlebury students protested an appearance by Charles Murray, a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of several books. I haven’t read Mr. Murray’s writings, so I do not take a position on his work. He is conservative and controversial (not necessarily bad traits), and some claim he is racist. Regardless of Mr. Murray’s opinions, I do take a position on how Middlebury students handled themselves during their protest.

First, let me say that it was at Middlebury that I was taught the historical and theoretical bases for civil disobedience. I took two Political Science courses taught by Professor Murray Dry, one of the best professors I had at the college. His courses on classical and American political theory and history prepared me well for Stanford Law School and have informed my thinking on many issues over the years.

In Professor Dry’s classes, I read Thoreau’s Civil Disobedience and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter from Birmingham Jail. Dr. King impressed me with his arguments supporting nonviolent direct action against unjust laws. I recall discussions on the merits of violent versus nonviolent protest, on how far civil disobedience should go, and on whether these tactics would only work in a just society.

The problem I have with the conduct of the Middlebury students last week is that they did not remain nonviolent. Nor was their conduct directed against laws or civil authorities, but against speech by a private citizen who was invited by a student club to speak on campus. Mr. Murray was invited because he has written about the white working class in America. Apparently, the invitation was intended to permit him to explain his views on Donald Trump’s appeal to much of America—which seems an eminently reasonable issue for college students to discuss and debate at the moment.

In advance of the scheduled speech, students and alums argued that Mr. Murray should not be permitted to speak on campus. They have the right to protest, and I have no problem with the fact that they did, although I believe that college campuses should solicit and present to students a wide variety of opinions on issues of the day—including conservative opinions. Middlebury has the reputation of being a very liberal campus these days, and I think it is particularly important for liberals to listen to conservative opinions (and vice versa, of course).

Once Mr. Murray took the stage, students disrupted his attempts to speak by shouting protest slogans and screaming. Again, they had the right to speak and protest, though it shows a remarkable lack of civility to disrupt a campus-sponsored event, when a boycott or standing in silent protest would have made their point as well.

When it became clear Mr. Murray could not speak in the original location, administration and faculty members moved him to another site, so that his remarks could be broadcast without disruption. While he was being escorted to the new building, protesters pursued the car in which Mr. Murray was riding, jumped on it and shook it. In the mêlée, a demonstrator pulled a female faculty member’s hair and twisted her neck. She was injured to the extent that she went to the hospital later and ended up in a neck brace.

In addition, the students pulled fire alarms and disrupted the transmission of Mr. Murray’s broadcast.

This summary of the events is based on multiple news accounts. A Google search will let readers verify the reports for themselves.

The events at Middlebury last week went beyond my understanding of nonviolent civil disobedience. The student protestors engaged in criminal acts of vandalism, assault, and battery.

Middlebury College President Laurie Patton said in a statement forwarded to alumni that this was a “lost opportunity for those in our community who wanted to listen to and engage with Mr. Murray.” She says the college will respond in “the very near future” to “clear violations of Middlebury College policy.”

I will not be proud of my alma mater again until I see how the college responds. I hope the response is swift and strong. I hope the college cooperates in the prosecution of the criminal acts that occurred on campus. And I hope Middlebury encourages open and civil debate on a wide range of topics in the future.

I have donated money to Middlebury College for most of the 41 years since I graduated. I have represented Middlebury at college fairs in the Kansas City area, and I have interviewed many applicants from the Kansas City area in the last decade as part of the college’s Alumni Admissions Program.

I do not see how I can continue to support the college if it does not support the values I uphold. One of my values is maintaining courtesy to those with whom I disagree. If Middlebury students cannot be courteous to those with whom they disagree, I see no reason to contribute to their education.

How do you feel about the decrease in civility in today’s society?

P.S. as of March 6, in the evening: Here is a link to the March 6 statement by President Patton to the Middlebury community. She raises the right initial response items, and I am hopeful that the college’s actions will hold people accountable and improve respectfulness on all sides. The proof will be in the results of the investigation, the follow-up actions, and the conduct of students in the future.

Why Did the Emigrants Head West? For Prosperity, Health, or “Manifest Destiny”?

Westward the Course of Empire Takes Its Way (mural study, U.S. Capitol, by Emanuel Leutze)

I decided to write about the Oregon Trail in part because the concept of leaving home for an unknown wilderness so far away is such an alien concept to me. I’ve moved across the country on a few occasions, but I don’t like spending time in the wilderness.

Why did the emigrants choose to leave? I wanted to know. What made them pack what they could in a wagon and leave family and friends behind?

As I researched, I discovered that the reasons were as varied as why we move from state to state or leave one job to take another.

Most pioneers left for economic opportunity. They could own more land—free land—in the West than they had in the settled territories.

Some left for health reasons. Plagues of cholera and smallpox and other illnesses struck the East Coast regularly. The open land was considered healthier. Of course, it wasn’t long before diseases followed the people.

Some went for patriotic reasons. Americans wanted to drive the British out of the Pacific Northwest and the Mexicans out of California.

“Manifest destiny” was a phrase coined by John L. O’Sullivan in an article titled “Annexation” in the July-August 1845 edition of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review. In this article, Mr. O’Sullivan argued that the U.S. should annex Texas, writing:

“other nations have undertaken to intrude themselves . . . in a spirit of hostile interference against us, for the avowed object of thwarting our policy and hampering our power, limiting our greatness and checking the fulfillment of our manifest destiny to overspread the continent allotted by Providence for the free development of our yearly multiplying millions.”

And he went on to point the finger specifically at England and France.

Zeal for “manifest destiny” became the prevailing sentiment of most Americans—the United States should extend unbroken from the Atlantic to the Pacific. This attitude led not only to settling the West, but also to ill-treatment of Native Americans, as well as to war with Mexico and conflicts with Great Britain.

Regardless of their rationales, all types of people emigrated to the West. Most were hard-working and sensible—farmers and tradesmen who intended to work for prosperity they hoped to find in the new land. These families were probably less motivated by politics than by prosperity.

But there were also those who left home unprepared for the hardships of the journey. Some families brought their sick and elderly, unwilling to be parted. Others came who had lived in luxury in the East and knew nothing about fending for themselves.

And there were the troublemakers one finds in every crowd. I created one such troublemaker—Samuel Abercrombie—in Lead Me Home, and this character reappears in Now I’m Found and in my current work-in-progress about this same wagon company. I have to admit, writing scenes with Samuel in them are the most fun!

The migration to the West is a reminder that we are a diverse people, with varied motives and abilities. It takes all kinds to settle a nation and to populate a novel. Though conflict, in my opinion, is more enjoyable on the page than in real life.

Do you know why your ancestors came to the United States?

Pompeii: A Lesson in Life and Death . . . and History

Growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was aware from a very young age of the power of volcanoes. Not that I ever experienced one, but we learned about them in geography, and I knew that the mountains all around us were volcanic. Indian legends told of past eruptions, and we knew that many of our most majestic peaks still had the potential to blow.

And then, not long after I moved away, but while my family still lived in Washington State on both sides of the Cascades, Mount St. Helens erupted. The volcano’s devastation could be seen first-hand

But the Romans of 1st Century Pompeii did not even have a word for “volcano,” according to an exhibit on Pompeii that I recently attended. Imagine these Romans’ shock on that day in 79 A.D., when rocks and fiery ash rained down, ultimately burying everyone and everything beneath many feet of debris and ash.

Detail from Last Days of Pompeii, painting by Russian artist Karl Bryullov, 1830-33

The exhibit is called “Journey Through Time: To the Last Day of the Lost City”, and it is housed at Union Station in Kansas City. It displays nearly 200 artifacts on loan from the Naples National Archaeological Museum.

The volcano that destroyed Pompeii also preserved it, and the items in the exhibit tell the story of the destruction and of the way of life that was destroyed. Pompeii may give us the best depiction of how Romans lived in the 1st Century A.D. that we will ever have.

The volcano had been active for millennia before the eruption in 79 A.D., but it had been dormant for generations, and most ancient Romans were probably not even aware of its potential to erupt. Pompeii had been destroyed by an earthquake in 62 A.D., and if residents gave the rumblings in the days ahead of the eruption any thought, it was probably to suspect another earthquake.

The eruption began shortly after noon one day and continued through the evening. Most residents of the city of 25,000 probably had only a few hours to evacuate the city. Pliny the Younger, an eyewitness from a neighboring town, described the ash cloud as causing “darkness as if the light had gone out in a room that is locked and sealed.”

When it was over, almost five cubic miles of pumice and ash covering approximately 186 miles of land. People were buried in place, some in their homes, some trying to flee. Over 2,000 people lost their lives as a result of the eruption.

Cast of deceased Pompeiian

The ash covered the dead so completely that centuries later we know exactly the position some were in when they died. Their remains have since decayed, but the ash remained firmly in place. Researchers made casts of the spaces in the ash where bodies used to be. The casts are precise enough to show folds in clothing and expressions on faces. Some of those casts were in the Union Station exhibit.

The city was lost for almost 1700 years. Its destruction was so complete that the Romans soon forgot where it had been. It was rediscovered in 1748, and over the last 250 years, we have learned about Roman civilization from its preserved buildings and artifacts.

During the early excavations, the city was crudely plundered, and for decades there was no attempt to record or preserve the site. Later, Italy took control of the best frescoes and artifacts, which are now housed in the National Archaeological Museum of Naples. In 1997, Pompeii and surrounding sites were declared a World Heritage Site by UNESCO.

Nevertheless, nature continues to harm the site. It’s been struck by earthquakes, and in 2010 torrential rains destroyed some buildings. In the end, nature will win, and all we will have left of Pompeii is what we can preserve in museums and what has never been excavated. (Approximately one-third of the city is still buried.)

I’ve been to the excavations at Pompeii twice and seen the barren stone streets and buildings. Some frescoes and statues are still in place, but most have been moved. But I’d never seen artifacts as well preserved as those included in the Union Station exhibit.

As I walked the streets of Pompeii, most recently in November 2005, I could get the sense of a bustling city. But the stone shells and the few remaining frescoes do not tell the story of the people who lived there the way the traveling exhibit does. The every-day artifacts in the exhibit, supplemented by the imagination of historians and museum curators fill in the gaps.

We know how the Romans decorated their homes. And what types of jewelry they wore.

We know the armor the gladiators sported. We know how they measured their weights. And what their tweezers looked like. And even how their hydraulic valves worked.

Bust of Agrippina the Elder decorating a home in Pompeii. Notice dye still visible on her hair.

Asp water fountain

Jewelry. I would wear this today.

A gladiator's shin guard

Roman hydraulic valve

Weights from a shop in Pompeii

Bronze tweezers

Cast of dog. Only the bronze studs on his collar remain.

And, of course, we know how they died.

This exhibit depicted how natural forces can both destroy and educate. It showed me how the fear of one generation can provoke awe many centuries later. And it made me wonder what daily artifacts of our lives today will provoke amazement a millennium from now.

I have the same thoughts when I see museum exhibits on the American pioneers, but my marvel at history becomes even greater when I think about our society today sometime becoming so ancient we are known only through archeology.

What have historical exhibits taught you about life in the past?

Avoca Blankets: Evoking the Generations

avoca-img_20170202_085016In the summer of 2001, a few months before September 11, my daughter and I took a trip to Ireland. The trip was sponsored by her all-girls Catholic school. About ten mother/daughter pairs went, along with two teachers. The school had arranged several such trips over the years, but due to shenanigans on a previous girls-only trip, mothers were required to participate with their daughters the summer we went.

Some mothers participated for the mother/daughter bonding time, some to learn about history, some to see the scenery, some no doubt because of the Guinness. I went for most of these reasons, though not for the Guinness, which has never really appealed to me.

Most of the mothers and daughters probably had some trepidation about enforced togetherness for ten days. Each mother/daughter pair was required to share the hotel rooms in the various stops we made as we motored about Ireland. I was no exception on the trepidation issue—my sixteen-year-old daughter could be testy on occasion, and often took it out (mildly, but pointedly) on her mother.

It turned out to be a wonderful trip. There was some drama, some fatigue, some hurt feelings at various occasions for one and all. But overall, I had a delightful time, and I think my daughter did, too. Ireland is the only place outside the United States that I have visited where I felt I could really live happily. (Well, Canada is fine, but it’s too cold. And the little bit of England outside of London that I’ve seen would probably be all right. And Copenhagen came close.)

One of the places we stopped for a midday break was a touristy gift shop that sold Avoca wool products. I had never heard of Avoca before our trip, but their website now proclaims that Avoca is “an Irish family-run business that spans one of the world’s oldest surviving manufacturing companies and Ireland’s most exciting stores.”

My daughter and I didn’t buy anything in that gift shop, but a few days later when we were shopping in Dublin, we came across more Avoca products in another store. They had the most beautiful woven wool plaid throws. We each decided we needed one as a memento of the trip. I bought a blue plaid with a stripe of pale pink for myself, and my daughter selected a green plaid with a goldish stripe for herself. We squished them in our luggage for the return flight home.

I don’t like wool next to my skin—too scratchy—but that autumn I discovered my new throw was the perfect weight for snuggling under while I read or watched TV. Or a light extra layer on the bed when another blanket would be too heavy. For years now, during the winter months, it sits at the end of our bed, and I throw it over the comforter on chilly nights. I’ve had it dry-cleaned several times, but it still looks lovely, with the fringe only just starting to unravel.

m-at-xcountry-meet-w-avoca-blanket

Daughter at cross-country meet wrapped in Avoca blanket

My daughter took hers to cross-country meets during her high-school years. In college, it went with her to rowing regattas and on picnics and hikes. When she got her first apartment, it went on the back of her couch for reading and snoozing. She is now grown and owns her own home, and the Avoca throw is still on her couch. It has had a fair amount of heavy use over the years, so it’s shabbier than mine, but still looks pretty nice.

I was so taken with my Avoca throw in 2001 that when Christmas came around that year, I decided to see if I could buy more of them for Christmas gifts. I searched the web and found an Avoca source in the U.S. I think I ended up buying three more, but the only recipient I can remember for certain is that one of them was for my mother. I got her the same blue plaid design I had bought for myself.

My mother kept hers on the back of a couch to use as a cozy cover for reading also. When she went into assisted living in January 2013, the Avoca throw went with her. Unfortunately, the caregivers at the facility put the woolen throw in the laundry along with her other clothes. It felted and shrunk to half its size. When I saw it, I almost cried. After my mother died, my father gave her Avoca throw away with the rest of the things she’d had with her in assisted living—it wasn’t worth keeping.

So when I see my blue plaid Avoca throw at the end of my bed now, I remember a lovely trip with my daughter. I smile at my daughter’s growth from high-school student, through college and law school, and into independent adulthood—and of her green throw that has accompanied her at every step. I mourn my mother’s decline from cozy reader to Alzheimer’s patient and then her death, and the destruction of the Avoca throw that reflected her deterioration.

All these memories speak of continuity from one generation to the next, and they speak of the inevitable changes that occur through our lives. All these memories fill my heart because my daughter and I were taken with these pretty woolen blankets.

What do you own that symbolizes change for you?

Lavender Lotion and “Temps Perdu”

img_20170125_090600-lavender-lotionI don’t use much scented lotion. I’m allergic to many floral scents, particularly roses and lilies. They make me sneeze. So I buy hypoallergenic brands. Gifts of scented hand lotions tend to sit on my counter for a long time, to be used only on special occasions when I want to feel pampered and don’t mind a little tickle in my nose.

I just used up one bottle I wish I could have kept longer. My parents gave me a bottle of lavender lotion in the summer of 2006, when I first visited them on the Olympic Peninsula. They were glad to have me visit, and they were so excited to show me their new home and community and some of the beautiful sights of that corner of the state where I’d been born (a corner where I’d spent little time as a child).

Waiting for me in the guest bedroom when I arrived was this bottle of lavender goat’s milk lotion—a reverse housewarming gift of sorts. My mother raved about the excursion to Swiss Lavender Farm near Sequim, Washington, where my parents had bought the lotion made from locally grown lavender and goat’s milk. She talked about the fields of purple flowers, the cute little goats, and the Swiss chalet that was part of the farm.

lavender-1595490_1280“We’ll have to take you there,” she said. “If not this trip, then another time.” But we never made it to the lavender farm.

Even without the visit to the farm, I enjoyed the lotion. It had a lovely creamy texture, a good consistency to spread. The lavender scent was not too strong and didn’t cause me too much of an allergic reaction.

So much has happened over the last decade since I received that bottle of lavender lotion. My parents had a few wonderful years on the Olympic Peninsula, broken up by international travel and trips to visit friends and relatives and month-long winter stays in Carmel, California.

Then my mother started having health problems—leg pain that couldn’t be diagnosed, blood chemistry imbalances, and in 2010 she was also diagnosed with dementia. From there it was downhill, and in January 2013 she moved into assisted living and later into dementia care. As readers of this blog know, she died in July 2014, and my father died suddenly just six months later.

And through it all, with each of my sparing uses of the lavender lotion, I thought of them. And remembered good times and bad. The Olympic Peninsula days and earlier times.

Finally, a few months ago, the pump dispenser on the bottle quit working—not enough lotion left to pump. I clung to the bottle as a memory of my parents, so I researched the lavender farm that produced it, hoping to buy more lotion for myself. Unfortunately, Swiss Lavender Farm has gone out of business and I could not buy more.

So I turned the bottle upside down and scooped out as much as I could with my finger. This last week, however, I had to concede I’d used it all. I took a picture of the bottle for this post, then threw it away.

Smells have a powerful effect on memory, as Proust wrote of his madeleines in À la Recherche du Temps Perdu.

Proust’s title was originally translated into English as Remembrance of Things Past. More recent translators have used In Search of Lost Time. The latter translation is much closer to the French, but still doesn’t quite capture the meaning of the French for me. “Recherche” means not only “search” or “searching,” but can also mean “research” or “study.” And “perdu” means not only “lost,” but also “wasted,” as well as “missing” and “disappeared.” So Proust intends his novel to be about a deliberate, questing search for a past that is gone—perhaps just disappeared, but perhaps a past that has been wasted.

There seems to be a finality in “temps perdu” that is sadder than the English “lost time.” I find myself often on a quest for my own “temps perdu.” That’s why I write this blog. That’s why I focus so much on memories in my posts. My mother’s past was lost to dementia and then to death. I try to keep mine alive in words that remain after me.

And all this I thought of when I smelled the last of my lavender lotion.

What odors bring memories to mind for you?