Tag Archives: marriage

Monday and Other Gifts

I am the early riser around our house. I am used to the quiet of just me and the dog, as I do my morning disciplines (or not), eat breakfast, read the daily comics (and just enough news to keep me reasonably abreast but not too depressed), walk the dog, etc.

A few times a year, I wake to find Nancy already up. And whatever it was that got her up early usually has her wired for activity. Yesterday was one of those. I woke to lights on all over the house. She had unloaded, reloaded, and started the dishwasher; scrubbed the kitchen counters; attended the laundry. She was on a tidying and organizing mission that took her from room to room, moving stuff from where it was to where it should be. And she had just discovered water coming from under the fridge. Did I mention it was a Monday?

And then, against expectations, I was gifted—graced with a pause, a reset, a take-a-deep-breath-and-count-to-ten. Against expectations, I didn’t lash out (and only turned sullen for a minute). The water problem was not serious. Nancy sensed that I needed some quiet time and confined her tidying to one part of the house while I made a pot of coffee and retreated to a writing corner with my mug and journal.

My new year seems full of graces and gifts. The projects and tasks on my plate excite me with their challenges; it is a gift to enjoy my work. My family and I are healthy and happy; it is a gift. Nancy and I are scheming and dreaming about the future; it is a gift. Today we scrapped our separate plans and spent much of the day together, taking trash to the dump, searching for my lost keys—the kinds of things old married folks do for excitement. It was a gift.

Customer service has a bad reputation, yet I have had two recent customer service experiences that left me satisfied, even more than satisfied. It was a gift, and I extend kudos to Sears and Home Depot.

It is a gift, I think, when we see and accept the gifts all around us. My Monday was a gift. I hope yours was, too.

Somewhat Stunned

Twenty-six years ago today, we went on our first date. It was, as I have said many times, the toughest job interview I ever endured. From “How do you spend money?” to “What did you learn from your divorce?”, I was grilled, poked, and prodded.

A week earlier, my friend, Peggy, had asked, “Are you ready to meet someone?” Good question. After two years of separation/divorce, I was still seeing the therapist I’d gone to in hopes of saving the last marriage. Still working on some things about myself I recognized a need to change. Lonely, still hurting, but also hopeful. I said, “Yes.” Armed with a name and phone number, I made the call.

I don’t think my adolescent date requests were any scarier than this one. Perhaps they never get any less scary—I’m not planning to run the experiment. Anyhow, I expected a short phone call; she either turns me down, or we set a date and time. Some of you are thinking, “He must have played hooky the day they handed out boy-girl skills.” The rest of you also missed that day; you feel my pain.

That first phone call lasted an hour and a half. It was, in light of what was to come, a gentle inquisition. Pleasant, even. We talked about books that had had an impact on us.  She told me of her three years in Taiwan and her current passions. I mentioned that I had two children; she replied, “You are fortunate.”

Actually, the date itself, despite the job interview overtones, was not an unpleasant experience. I think I had recently crossed some sort of threshold in my own interior work, and was ready. If our first date had occurred even a few weeks earlier, I suspect it would have been a disaster. As it happened, in one of those gifts of synchronicity and grace, I was ready to be vulnerable and sensed that Nancy was safe to be vulnerable to.

We talked until three am. Seven weeks later, we were engaged; seven months later, married. I remain grateful—and somewhat stunned.

‘Whale Song’ in the Gold’s Gym Pool

I was doing my usual after church swim one recent Sunday when I heard singing. I looked toward the spa and therapeutic pools and saw no one. Nancy was the only other person in the lap pool, and her head was underwater. I briefly thought of whale song, then kicked off for another lap. Still the strange music. Given the acoustics of the pool area, it had lots of reverb, and no apparent directional source. At the end of that lap, I stood and waited. Nancy came to the end of her lap and emerged to move her lap counter. The singing stopped. Then she re-submerged and kicked off, and the singing started again. Nancy swims with a snorkel. She was singing through her snorkel! The Taize’ hymn, she later told me, that we had sung earlier that morning. Singing helps her relax into a smooth un-rushed rhythm, she said, to feel at one with the water.

Swimming as a form of working out is relatively new to both of us. We both learned to swim as kids; me with some lessons, Nancy less formally taught. But neither had ever swum laps nor gotten comfortable with that head under the water thing until several years ago. When Nancy’s hip problems began to render her infirm on land, she joined the gym for access to a pool where she could get weight off the joints, and stretch and exercise without trauma. I joined, too, in support of her and in acknowledgment that my exercise-at-home strategy was not working. While she was in the pool, I would use the treadmills and ellipticals and rowing machines and resistance equipment.

Gradually, Nancy began to swim laps. She would watch the strong lap swimmers, ask questions, and watch instructional videos. She developed excellent form and respectable speed. And she began to ask me to join her in the pool. Reluctantly, I did.

I acknowledged my thin skin a few posts ago. I hereby do so again. Nancy would occasionally make a suggestion on my swimming form, and each time, I bristled. Sulked. Resisted. And then gave it a try and found she was right.

Nancy still has better form than I do. She swims her thousand meters faster than I do. She looks better in a swimsuit than I do. But I have come to enjoy swimming as my regular exercise. I started by swimming in lieu of a dry workout maybe once in three trips to the gym. Then twice in three. Now it is nine times out of ten, or more. Sometimes, maybe often, I feel at one with the water. And, inside my head, I sing.

“I thought you were going to …”

“I thought you were going to … ,” Nancy says, prefacing the way she would have done it.

We are making our favorite flour-less chocolate cake. We have tried several recipes since Nancy went gluten-free. Looking for decadences to compensate for what she was giving up seemed important. This one not only beat the others for taste and texture, but is the most fun—for that magic moment when a small amount of hot coffee is added to the finely divided chocolate and sugar mix in the blender, instantly converting sand-like powder to rich dark liquid. This is about the fifth time we have made this cake.

Later, after adding eggs (lots of eggs) and oil and a few minor ingredients, comes the time to pour into the springform pan. The recipe suggests wrapping the pan in aluminum foil to catch any liquid that might drip through the form before the oven heat has solidified it. Last time, after having committed to the foil, Nancy suggested we simply set the form onto a small round baking pan and save the foil. But I had forgotten, done it the old way.

Why do those words, “I thought you were going to …” trigger the flash of anger I feel?  Note my use of “trigger” and “feel,” not “triggered” and “felt.” We have danced this dance many times.

We are different people, so it is no great surprise that we would take different approaches to any given problem. Sometimes, my way doesn’t work out. Other times, it works just fine. But “I thought you were going to …” really means “I would have … ,” and if my approach did not work very well, this response by Nancy adds to the embarrassment and frustration of my failure. I am realizing at this late time of my life that I am rather thin-skinned. Not a happy revelation.

I am reminded of a phase I went through in my teens. I would see something that needed doing and mentally place it on my agenda. Then one of my parents would ask me to do it, and I’d get angry. Doing the task was no longer my initiative.

And I thought I had grown beyond that!

——————

Flourless Chocolate Cake
(recipe from Karina Allrich, Gluten-Free Goddess)

Ingredients:
16 oz. solid dark chocolate
1 cup organic light brown sugar, packed
1/2 cup organic white cane sugar
3/4 cup very hot strong coffee
2 sticks unsalted butter, room temperature, cut into pieces
2 tablespoons unsweetened organic cocoa powder
8 large organic free-range eggs
1 tablespoon bourbon vanilla extract
Note from Brent: We substitute coconut oil for the butter and use Kroger’s Private Selection Brand dark chocolate chunks (62% cacao) for the chocolate.

Instructions:

Preheat the oven to 350ºF. Prepare a 10-cup Springform pan by lining the bottom with a circle of buttered parchment. Wrap the outside of the whole pan (underneath, to catch any leaks) with a big piece of foil.

Break up the dark chocolate into pieces and pour the chocolate into the bowl of the food processor. Pulse until the chocolate breaks up into small bits. Add the sugar. Pulse until the chocolate and sugar turns into an even, sandy grain.

Pour the hot water or coffee slowly into the feed tube as you pulse again. Pulse until the chocolate is melted. Magic!

Add the butter pieces and the cocoa powder, and pulse to combine. Add the eggs and vanilla, and process till smooth. The batter will be liquid and creamy.

*Note for cooks across the pond: One stick of butter here equals 8 tablespoons, or one half cup, 4 oz.

Pour the batter into the lined Springform pan.

Bake at 350º F in the center of the oven, till puffed and cracked and lovely – about 55 to 65 minutes. (Note – it took an hour plus 15 minutes when I baked this at high altitude.) Use a wooden toothpick to check the center of the cake; pick should emerge clean, with maybe a crumb.

Place the cake pan on a wire rack to cool. The cake will deflate. Don’t worry! When cooled a bit, press down on it gently with a spatula to make it even, if you wish. Or not.

When the cake is completely cooled, cover, and chill it for at least three hours (best up to eight hours), until serving. Overnight is even better.

Serve thin slices with drizzled chocolate sauce or a sprinkle of sifted powdered sugar. Garnish with a fresh berries or mint leaves.

Yield: 12 servings
Prep Time: 15 mins.
Cook time: 01 hrs. 00 mins.
Total time: 1 hrs. 15 mins.

Dancing

If I were to ever undertake the discipline of centering prayer, as have a number of my friends, I’d choose as my sacred word, dancing.

On our first date, Nancy and I tried dancing to the music of a Zydeco band. The results were laughable, but we signed up for dancing lessons, and by the end of the course, had set a wedding date. In those giddy days of new love, we’d sometimes start dancing to the piped-in music in the grocery store. The topper on our wedding cake was a dancing couple. The band for the reception was chosen for the danceability of its music.

Those days are long gone. But sometimes, life itself seems a dance, in which the events of our lives are our partners and each step we take is in response to their moves. It is easy to think of dancing to the hug of a grandchild; the yellow and blue of maple leaves against an October sky; the silence of snowfall; work well done or a game well played. Then we get knocked for a loop; by illness, betrayal, loss. For a time, we feel more like a pinball, battered by events beyond our control. But then, by grace, we find the rhythm and the grace, and we take up the dance again.

In Robert Earl Keen’s song, “No Kinda Dancer,” the chorus goes:

     I tried hard to tell you I was no kinda dancer
     ‘Took my hand to prove I was wrong
     You guided me gently
     Though I thought I could never
     We were dancing together at the end of the song

Can you find a better definition of love than this—the lover leading us beyond our self-imposed “can’t,” into a world of greater possibilities? I have received such gifts, as God, the ultimate lover, sometimes acting through Nancy or another agent, has led me, pushed me, “guided me gently” to places “I thought I could never.”

In literal, physical terms, I remain “no kinda dancer,” the aforementioned lessons notwithstanding. We haven’t danced in years. I sometimes fantasize that we’ll take lessons again, that we’ll move like Jennifer Lopez and Richard Gere in Shall We Dance, that we’ll tango like Jessica Biel and Colin Firth in Easy Virtue. Not likely. But, the larger dances still go on. And there is always hope.

That’s what dancing means to me: hope, gratitude, grace, thanksgiving, love.

     And it made me feel lucky that I had a partner
     to teach me the dance steps
     And come back again

Dumpster Diving

“Is that trash?” asks Nancy, pointing to a large barrel on wheels.

“Help yourself,” replies the Home Depot guy.

So Nancy begins pulling lumber pieces out and loading them into our cart. Not fancy lumber, but the rough stuff used to protect the good stuff from the steel bands that hold the bundles together for transport.

“You have a place for that in your studio?” I ask. (Translation: That’s not going in my shop.)

“Yes.” She makes two or three more trips from the trash barrel to our cart.

“I repeat: You have room for that in your studio?” She gives me a look—part smile and part not—and I walk away.

Later, in the car as we chuckle about it, I tell her I read that smile to say, I”m going to keep this up until you get that disapproving look off your face. She does not deny it.

I married a dumpster-diver. Actually, I married into a family of dumpster-divers and hoarders. When I first met him, Nancy’s father still had a coffee can of bent and rusty nails he’d salvaged from his father’s hoard. (That story may be apocryphal; memory is a funny thing.)

I suppose there has never been a shop or studio whose occupant thought it was big enough. But even against that standard, Nancy and I have far too little space in our respective realms relative to the equipment, materials, and projects they contain. (That was true even before our son brought home a 280Z for restoration and began scattering parts and tools everywhere. But that’s a whole ‘nother story.)

So the struggle over what to keep and what to throw away is intense in our house. Since Nancy grew up in a household of creative reuse and since many of her projects tend toward collage, her predilection is to save. Mine is to toss and reclaim some space. I confess, many’s the time I threw away a lumber scrap only to need it a week later. Many’s the time I have asked Nancy, “Do you have ____?” and she does. And yet, other scraps I have saved for years without finding a use for them, until they’d mildewed beyond salvage.

In the ensuing week after the Home Depot episode, Nancy spent a great deal of time rearranging her studio and moving some little used stuff out as she gears up for some larger projects. Yet the salvaged sticks still reside in a place of honor inside the door. Except for the ones I borrowed today—temporarily—for a project of my own.

The premier dumpster-diving story in our family involves a rescued dolphin, Greek pastry, and a stroller. We were in Florida on vacation, and on our way to see Sunset Sam at the Clearwater Aquarium. Sunset Sam had injuries that prevented his release back into the wild, and had been taught to paint with a brush in his teeth. He was a regular on our vacation agendas until his death a few years later. On this visit, Jay was about two. He fell asleep in the car before we arrived, so we decided to abort the Aquarium stop and let him nap, while we went to Tarpon Springs for Greek pastries. Nancy was driving, and I had just mumbled something about how uncomfortable it would be to carry a sleeping two-year-old around in the heat when she suddenly did a u-turn on a residential street and stopped next to a pile of trash awaiting pickup. A stroller. Rather, a rusty stroller frame, the canvas seat rotted out. Jay’s car seat fit perfectly in the frame. We used that stroller frame for the rest of our trip. When I threw it into a dumpster as we packed up for our return to Tennessee, Jay cried. His mother’s son.

Not Afraid of Curves

Sitting area, St. Stephen's Memorial Garden
Sitting area, St. Stephen’s Memorial Garden

We were driving to visit the in-laws this weekend when an image and a phrase popped into my head. The image was of the small patio/seating area we had recently completed at the Memorial Garden. The phrase, Not Afraid of Curves.

I have constructed things all my life. I have early memories of helping my father build a carport, a cabin/“fort,” fencing for our pony pasture. Mostly, the things we built then, and the things I have built since, were rectilinear. Straight lines and right angles. Sure, there is the occasional deviation from 90 degrees, roof slopes being an obvious example. But always for a good, practical reason.

Nancy and I build things, too. In fact, on one of our earliest dates, she informed me we’d be assembling a shelf—a simple shelf, it turned out— to sit on her desk. Early as it was in our courtship, I already knew her well enough to recognize that exercise as a deliberate test of our compatibility.

But building with Nancy often throws curves (pun intended) at my native practicality. She will introduce an angle or a curve, for aesthetic reasons, where practicality and efficiency would be be content with a straight line. Our mudroom is an example.

The addition to our house that we built early in our marriage included a long room that was mostly Nancy’s studio but also, at one end, the primary family entrance. Each time that outer door was opened in winter, an arctic blast cooled her whole studio. We needed a wall to subdivide the space into studio and mudroom. But the dividing wall was problematic as the existing doors and windows precluded a normal, straight wall. So the wall we built has three segments. It leaves the room’s sidewall at a right angle, then jogs to the left at 30 degrees, then returns to the original heading before contacting the opposite wall in another right angle. The doorway is a wide opening in the angle section, with French doors. We were to finish off the mudroom with ceramic tile on the floor.  Then, Nancy threw in the kicker: “You know, of course, that the tile have to be laid on the angle.” Of course. Mutter. Mutter.

It turned out to be only a slight inconvenience. Ten minutes to make a simple jig for the wet saw we would have rented anyway, and cutting triangular edge pieces was as simple as the rectangular ones would have been.

Bench in wall, Nancy's garden
Bench in wall, Nancy’s garden

Don’t get me wrong. Our joint building projects are collaborative affairs, and Nancy is open to the arguments of practicality. The retaining wall at left is an example. Nancy wanted a curve in the wall, and I wanted to use the existing rectangular brick floor as the foundation. My suggestion for the built-in bench satisfied both criteria.

I could give many other examples of things we have built over the past 25 years into which, by intention, some curve or angle violates the grid work of my engineering mind for the sake of aesthetics. And I expect that it would be true in each instance that there was a point in the planning or execution when I rebelled at the impracticality and the extra work involved, and had to be convinced that the outcome would be worth the extra effort.

Reflecting back on where we started, with an image and a phrase appearing simultaneously and unbidden, I realize that on this latest project, I did not have to be led down the aesthetic path, but followed it willingly, even eagerly. The site dictated the curves, and the fact that our floor was to be of rectangular elements (brick pavers) was not an impediment. Of course we would rent another wet saw and cut the bricks as needed. Of course.

It seems like a growth step.

Letting It Simmer

When we married and bought the home we still live in, we acquired a “master bath” the size of a closet. Nancy was a self-employed graphic designer and avocational artist, with limited office and no studio. I was a sometime woodworker in need of a shop. In short, we immediately began planning an addition to the house. The studio and shop were relatively easy. But the master suite was a design headache. We wanted to take advantage of the second story view into our woods. But moving the sleeping area into the new space left bath, closet, and dressing areas in the old space. And we could not find a configuration that worked. Proportions were wrong; traffic patterns were unwieldy.

The house had plenty of lesser needs, so we tackled those while continuing to chew on the design problem. We mentally “let it simmer.” (Or stew. Or soak.) It took a year to work through the smaller needs—and for the solution to our design dilemma to emerge. From our second story, privacy is not an issue, so the solution was to leave the sleeping area in the interior, put the bath/closet/dressing area in the exterior (new) space, and let the view in through large windows. A master bath with a picture window.

Our house also had a side porch off the living/dining area, with a large deck behind the porch. Again, the configuration did not work for us. We tried and tried to think of a way to sit outside in comfort and convenience, but the back drops off quickly and getting to any outdoor space involved excessive movement in both horizontal and vertical directions. We could not come up with a design that worked. So again, we put action on hold and let the need simmer.

Front Yard Patio
Front Yard Patio

Years later, as Nancy’s ornamental garden was taking shape, the solution to our outdoor room dilemma came clear. Our outdoor room should be in the front, not the back. The front yard is level and on practically the same elevation as our main interior living space. Our street is a quiet cul-de-sac so traffic noise is not an issue. The large black cherry overhead and the berm we had built halfway to the street provide a sense of enclosure and just the right amount of privacy. We both grew up in a back yard era and ours is not a front porch neighborhood. But the front is definitely the direction that works for our house. Our front yard patio is convenient, frequently-used, and a visual delight from inside or out.

This “strategy” of letting a problem simmer seems to involve more than just the element of time. Time is certainly a factor: If we have the luxury of time, we can search more widely, think more deeply, explore more options. But I think “letting it simmer” is more importantly an act of faith in which we do not accept second best. Instead we wait patiently for the right solution to emerge. In large ways and small, when I have had the luxury of time, and the patience and faith to wait, I have been richly blessed.