Thursday, July 31, 2014

Another Bittersweet Birthday Approaching

The biggest of the three Es will turn 5 in a few weeks.

It's no surprise it will be a "Frozen" party theme, and I'll get to paint a t-shirt to commemorate the occasion -- something I've done each birthday for several years.

But while I'll be getting the house and yard ready for the party to be here, just as it was last year and would have been the year before had E2 not fallen ill, I'm battling more than the need to get things ready.

The last memory I have of seeing my son, Ethan, was at E's fourth birthday party. In just a few short weeks it will have been a year since he swept me up in one of his big hugs, probably swinging me off my feet just to show me he could. A year since I watched him drifting around the edge of the party, talking to my cousin's attractive stepdaughter and dreaming of being that boy again (OMG that would embarrass him so). A year since he sat in a chair in my yard enjoying hot dogs and cake and ice cream. A year since he left with my parents, my dad stopping to make some smart remark about him that even then made me want to reach into the car and slap my father.

Although it was December before he was gone, he was just a voice on the phone, the one who left an empty place when he didn't show up for family gatherings, an already hard to reckon with distant presence whose life was disintegrating around him.

Four more months he was here, and I never saw him, never hugged him, smelled him, kissed him. How could that be? How could our last time together have been so vague a memory? Rushing around being hostess, just seeing him and glad he was here, stopping to exchange a word here and there?

And so this birthday looms. An anniversary I'm trying not to give too much power, but something I'm struggling with at odd moments all the same.

I'm glad E1 wants the party here. Even though it will be largely the same gathering, minus one, it will keep me busy. I won't have time to look for the ghost that isn't there. I won't have a chance to huddle somewhere trying to put my broken heart back together.

I know birthday parties will always be hard -- although I can hope they will be easier as time goes by. I'll always look for him in the background, always feel the hole left in my family by his death.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Oatmeal Pies, Pimento Cheese and Working Out

Right this moment, joy is a cup of coffee and iTunes radio while the rest of the house is quiet.

The girls arrived in rare form this morning -- a little late and unwilling to go back to sleep, even though it was still before 6 a.m. It made for a long morning. Bicycles, swings, playing in my kennel office, watermelon for snack, more swings, E3 in and out of the playhouse in some toddler version of hide and seek, and finally a bit of tree switching that ended when the twig landed wrong and there were tears.

Everyone was ordered to bed, even though I was the one who needed it the most. Thankfully, they were asleep in 30 minutes. They'd already been at my house for 8 hours and up for longer than that.

I'm tired.

They're tired, but they've gone home and won't be back until Saturday unless it is with parental accompaniment.

Zumba tonight is questionable, even though this is the only evening I've found a class I like.

Joy, however, has continued.

1. Feeding an oatmeal creme pie to three little dogs. I tried to get a good picture, really I did. The dachshund, chiweenie and chihuahua have never stayed with me before and were a little unnerved by the whole experience. But among their things was a box of oatmeal cream pies. My grandpa loved Little Debbie Oatmeal Cream Pies. There was always a box around. Ethan adopted the same devotion to them and any time he got to pick out his groceries he wanted some, not the small ones, but big ones, just like the little dogs had. Their "mom" said to divide one between them at bedtime. When they heard the rattle of the package, they changed. One oatmeal creme pie and they were happy and have been all week, munching out each evening.

2. Sticking with my at-home PiYo. There may be moments I hate it, or stop to try to figure out how I'm supposed to do it, but I'm in my third week of six workouts a week. I've been taking Saturday and Sunday off and doubling up on another day. Being able to stick to it this long brings a sense of satisfaction and joy along with sore muscles.

4. Palmetto (pimento) Cheese. Oh, my gosh. That is the best stuff. I absolutely have to stop buying it. Ma Mary used to keep pimento cheese and serve it grilled with the slightest encouragement. I'm content to melt it on a flour tortilla in the microwave, but still. I know it's not the best dietary choice, but the taste is heaven and memories and largely impossible to resist.

5. My farming neighbor, Ray. On a regular basis he stops with buckets of beans, corn, squash, tomatoes and melons. I grow a small garden, but he sets out hundreds of tomatoes and acres of corn. When my sorry hens are laying, I have fresh eggs for him. We tease and wave and visit when he drives by to tend his crops. I value Ray more than he will probably ever know. The girls and I love him -- produce entirely aside.

6. Finding another Zumba class that is bearable where "my" PiYo instructor is going to start teaching next month. Membership there is affordable and I can get those extra live workouts in each month. The fact that PiYo is getting ready to go live again, even if it is an inconvenient hour, is a pending joy.

7. Sleeping little girls snuggled against my neck as I carried them to the car. Despite how tired we were, they are still a dose of sunshine and joy, whatever else the day holds.

Find your joy. Hold it close and remember it for whatever else comes your way.

Friday, July 25, 2014

Time for Really Going to the Dogs

Thursday night I found myself apologizing, not for the first time, to my dogs.

I was urging my senior Jack Russell terrier, Abi, to walk a little faster. She just turned 13 and what used to be a quick walk has been slowed somewhat by age. Having lost my senior male, Al, to cancer over a year ago, I no longer have another older dog to help set a reasonable pace that will give good exercise without being too fast. Instead we were meandering at a sniff-every-other-tuft-of-grass pace, being pulled by the two younger dogs.

I realized the fault wasn't all her advancing years. It was mine and the toll that the last seven months has taken on what used to be my life. Daily dog walks, which had been part of my life for years and helped hold back the signs of aging for both of us, haven't been the routine event they were at one time.

"We'll get it back, Abi," I said, "just like I need to get mine back. We'll get back in shape together."

I realized I needed to apologize, not just to her for contributing to her lack of muscle tone, but to all my dogs and all the dogs who have been "mine" for a few days since Dec. 15 when police found my son dead in his apartment.

Although I've made several false starts at picking up the threads of my previous routines, this week has felt better, and I think I may have found a rhythm that I can live with and maintain. I've done it for a week with PiYo in the early morning and dog walks after dinner (although once cold weather comes that may change to after lunch). The changes help my schedule merge with my family's work, but I'll still go for a morning walk when I get the chance, like I did today.

With that in mind, I think it's time to apologize and try to put my failures behind me.

If I could, this is what I would say to them all:

"I'm sorry that the walks you had come to expect every day when you stayed with me weren't always delivered, that more often than not, I just wanted to sit with you. Instead of stretching my legs and yours, I wanted to huddle inside the broken shell of my heart and try to find a way to live again. Instead of being content to dwell in my mind, meditating or praying, and listen to the sound of our combined feet on the road, the wind and the birds, the jingle of leashes and tags, the last place I wanted to be was where it was too quiet.

"I'm sorry that when I came out the front door in athletic shoes, it was to get in the car and drive to a Zumba or PiYo class, leaving your bright eyes and wagging tails to dim and slow as I disappeared. I couldn't bear another minute of my own company or even your silent companionship. I needed the distraction of other people, the escape of getting away.

"I'm sorry that while I was supposed to be caring for you, I was feeding and cleaning up after you, but you were really the ones caring for me. Never once did your disappointment make you bitter toward me. Instead, you nurtured my healing with soft fur and damp tongues, warm little bodies in my lap, or big shoulders leaning against my legs.

"Even though my words couldn't explain what was going on, somehow you knew what I needed. Although you were always hopeful and eager, you were still willing to accept what I could give you. What you gave me was doggy love and time to mourn and begin to heal.

"So not only am I sorry, but I'm grateful. There have been days that, had I not needed to get out of bed to make sure you were fed and had a chance to do your doggy business, chances are I might not have moved. There were times that it was just the sense of being needed that kept me going.

"In addition to apologizing, I want you to know I'm trying to do better. I'm trying to find a new routine that works around changes in everyone else's work schedule and my need for sleep at some point during each 24-hour span. This week's dogs have been the first beneficiaries of the change, but I believe it will be ongoing.

"Thanks for your patience, love and understanding. I love you."

Thursday, July 24, 2014

A Blackberry Summer Like No Other

As long as I can remember, I've picked blackberries, but I've never picked blackberries like I have this year.

Considering that as a kid, I didn't like blackberries except in jelly or maybe cobbler, my fascination with blackberry picking eludes even me. Strawberries, I actually like, but hate to pick. Go figure.

When I was young, my dad liked blackberries, so I assume picking them may have been some vane attempt to win his overt approval. He would eat them with milk or cream (depending on how Granny was skimming the milk) for breakfast. But I haven't picked them for him for years, unless it's an occasional quart or perhaps I serve a cobbler when there's a family meal. The approval I sought always eluded me, but I never quit picking.

I don't remember anyone showing me how to pick them either. I know my granny picked them with long sleeves and a sun bonnet and dire warnings about "chiggers," which were supposed to infest your arms and hands and itch like the dickens. I pick in shorts and a tank top and always have. Chiggers are apparently like fleas and mosquitoes and don't find me appealing. I do, however, wear high top work boots since I moved to North Carolina -- not because of the briars, but because of copperheads, even though I've never seen one when I was picking.

As long as I can remember I've grabbed a bucket and my dog and slipped out at odd hours to pick blackberries. When I was young it was always in the morning, although more recently it's been whenever and this summer I've even taken the SUV and finished up by driving home with the headlights on.

Spring left us with what promised to be a bumper crop of blackberries, hanging bright red on the vines down the side of my rural road and in the peach trees of a no-longer-picked orchard nearby. There were so many red berries, that if they had all ripened and if I had nothing else to do, there would have been truckloads. But the weather was dry and there was a time when I was convinced they would die on the vine, hard, blackened and dessicated.

The first time I picked, I carried bucket and all to the house where the matriarch of the peach orchard owning farm family lives. They had enough for cobbler and then some.

Since then I've picked probably five gallon, selling many of them to friends. Another friend said she gave hers away, but I thought selling them would allow me to share them with friends who wouldn't feel right asking me to just pick them a gallon. I even met one of my Facebook friends face to face for the first time when she came to pick up hers. She converted them into a blackberry sonker. Part of another huge bucket made its way to Charlotte with some of my doggy family and some of it became blackberry freezer jam. The last bucket I picked, to date, was on its way to becoming jelly as well.

I've packed away several quarts in the freezer and I'm not done picking yet, although most folks would say the season is over. Some of the shady hedgerows and woodlines where I'm picking are just beginning to ripen, the berries full and sweet and warm in the hot summer sun.

Every time I go blackberry picking, the memory of my past expeditions goes with me -- my first dog, Hershey, a terrier mix, and my old, worn Converse sneakers. The sun on my shoulders and across my face feels the same as it did decades ago. The thorns still do their best to entangle me, baffling me with their purpose, and occasionally leaving me a battle wound even though I know to lean into them to get free. The June bugs eating the sweet berries still startle me with their bee-like buzz as they flee the shaking vines. My fingers are still stained purple, although now I eat the overripe berries and think of warm blackberry wine (something I didn't have in my experience years ago).

While I'm picking, I feel a connection to my ancestors -- Appalachian women who foraged the fields for the same sort of berries I seek, hoping to gather food to feed a family, or perhaps berries to trade at the local store for items they needed more. I feel an almost genetic link to their gathering nature, an innate disdain for seeing food go to waste, unharvested, when it should be picked and put to use. I feel a timelessness to the task that hasn't been changed by hundreds of years of technological advancement.

Wild blackberries are still wild blackberries and their harvest is done by hand, braving thorns and snakes and the possibility of a bear, when they ripen. It's as organic and natural as it can be and I savor every moment of it, as much for the experience as for the fruit.

When it comes to the fruit, however, despite acquiring a taste for the biggest, ripest berries this year, I still like it best in jellies and jams, cobblers, and my new favorite, a crisp.

Our family cobbler recipe comes from Ma Mary, and works with peaches or any other berry or juicy sort of fruit (applies I'm not sure about.) It's easy, peasy, and the ultimate lazy dessert.

Ma's Cobbler
1 stick butter
1 cup self-rising flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup milk
1 quart fruit

Melt butter in 9X9 square pan in 425-degree oven while you stir together flour, sugar and milk. Pour mixture into hot melted butter in pan. Spread fruit evenly in batter. Bake about 20-25 minutes. Serve hot with ice cream or whipped cream if you like, although I also like it the next day at room temperature.

The blackberry crisp recipe was one of several I found on Pinterest and just happened to be the one I had the ingredients to make when I wanted something besides cobbler for dessert Saturday.

Blackberry Crisp
1 cup flour
3/4 cup oatmeal
1 cup brown sugar
1 tsp cinnamon
1/2 cup melted butter

Combine these ingredients to make crust and spread half of crust in a 9X9 pan.

1/2 cup water
1/2 cup sugar
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1/2 tsp vanilla (I seriously don't think I included this)

In saucepan, dissolve the cornstarch in part of the water. Add the rest of the water and sugar and heat to boiling. (If you don't dissolve the cornstarch first, you get lumps -- trust me.) Add vanilla.

Stir in 4 cups blackberries.

Pour over crust in pan, then top with remaining crust.

Bake at 350 degrees for 40 to 60 minutes. (Mine was done in the low end of the spectrum, even with big berries.)

Have I made you hungry? Not me.

I've made myself want to go blackberry picking while I can, and I know just the dogs who will join me for my outing.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Sometimes Joy is Seeing the Bright Spots

Last week beat me up physically.

By Friday afternoon I was sleeping sitting upright on the front porch, my book laying by my side. When the phone roused me I relocated inside and slept some more, eventually stuck with staying up until nearly 1 a.m. to make up for it.

But I had reasons to be tired.

On Tuesday I had a suspicious lesion removed from my right leg, and yes, it was some variety of skin cancer. I'm stuck with a bandaid, and I never wear bandaids, and will have to go for more excavation once this round heals.

On Wednesday, us girls, which would be my daughter and I and the little ones, all trooped the length of the N.C. Zoo in Asheboro, alternately pushing my jogging stroller with the two big Es, who occasionally took turns walking, and carrying a baby in a carrier (or occasionally in the stroller) and a backpack of food, that also sometimes rode. Someone said the zoo was 6 miles of walking end to end. I wasn't able to verify that, but we did cover it and got home tired.

It was, however, my busy week and I was determined to get something done, so I went to the kennel play yard where I had been wrestling artificial turf for two days. I then managed to trip over the porch and with a hoard of small dogs under my feet, I wasn't able to get my footing and instead landed badly on my left knee, the side of my right hand, and my chin.

I still cannot picture how that would have looked.

I did manage not to land on any of the poodles, maltipoos, Maltese, or Shih t'zus who were keeping me company. My knee was badly banged up, however, earning me a second bandage, and I even wore one on my right hand Thursday while I was dog grooming.

And I was enjoying riding with the top down on the back roads coming back from a grooming appointment, right up until I saw blue lights in my rear view.

But even those things can be things to be happy about.

1. I didn't get a ticket, just a warning, because there was some uncertainty over whether I was in the 45 mph zone or not when he clocked me at 56, which wouldn't have been speeding if I hadn't passed the sign. I didn't argue, and in fact had already pulled over long before he caught up with me because that little orange Miata just inspires that sort of reaction from a trooper.

2. Although I was scuffed up a bit, I didn't break anything when I fell, on me or any of my little four-legged assistants. My knee is still sore, but it doesn't stop me from getting around or doing PiYo.

3. The lesion on my leg may need more care, but the dark freckle on my forehead was nothing to be worried about. I can handle a scar on my leg a lot easier than one on my face.

4. The zoo visit, although exhausting for all, was a wonderful outing. The weather was cool for July and, other than the Polar Bear, we saw more animals than ever. Lions and red wolves and Red River hogs and bears and apes with their babies and more. I love the N.C. Zoo and its habitat structure, even though that often means we cannot see all the animals. A weekday during the summer is also a great time to go with no school groups (just a few summer camp type programs).

5. Having two of the three pieces of turf where I want them to be brings me a sense of accomplishment and, yes, a feeling of satisfaction and joy. The new stuff looks like grass. I'm keeping it washed (so far) so the dogs and I can sit on it, and it's just part of not letting my kennel get rundown looking. Fence cleaning and new cages still need to be tackled, but I'm making progress.

6. Dinner with friends. I know, again! My commitment to get out of that solitary rut we were in seems to be taking root. A friend had given me two packs of ribs and we had ribs, baked squash from the garden, a blackberry crisp (locally picked berries), and oven roasted corn on the cob (from my neighbor's patch), a salad and bread. It was delish and the company was even better.

7. Catching up with a friend over a glass of sangria on the front porch. I have found a sangria recipe I like -- the same one that had the potential to cause trouble during our wine festival outing in May -- and have made it twice. I may perfect it at some point, but it's good enough to share now.

Today's my only baby free day this week and I've got lights and a ceiling fan to deal with, blackberries just begging to be picked, a yard that needs mowing and a kennel full of dogs. Here's hoping next week's joy won't be on the tails of more mishaps.

But if it is, as long as there's some joy, well, it'll be OK.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Crunchy Confessions -- Not Everything Works

I have a confession about my move to crunchy.

Well, a few actually.

The big thing is that not everything works, at least initially.

1 - I haven't put away my detergent completely.

The natural alternative doesn't get my super dirty, I've worked in the yard and garden or manhandled things in the kennel shorts clean. And for whatever reason I wasn't sure about using it to clean kennel towels and blankets, used for grooming, bedding and sometimes doggy accidents. But I'm using much less and I may eventually get around to making something more natural, but a bit stronger than the soap nuts. Oh, and I've found that regular detergent tends to not get my kennel clothes clean either -- maybe I need to get less dirty, or just buy new shorts.

I had my husband buy bleach for my laundry from the dog kennel as well because I wanted to be sure it was santitized and didn't smell like doggy business any more. Bleach is bad stuff to add to your water and I know that. Funny thing is, while I was out, I used white vinegar, and the towels smelled amazing. I'm pretty sure I'll be going back to white vinegar for the less nasty loads and, once the bleach is gone, for everything.

2 - My first crunchy deodorant got thrown away.

It was one of the first things I made because I was convinced that antiperspirant wasn't good. I had a problem in that every time I used it, I broke out. I thought it was shaving. Turned out to be the Shea butter. My daughter has been buying natural deodorant off Etsy (an option if you don't want to take the time to make your own) and her newest purchase had Shea butter in it and guess what, she broke out.

I tossed my old stuff and found a recipe without Shea butter, which is apparently wonderful for skin everywhere else.

This one calls for 6-7 Tbsp coconut oil, 25 drops tea tree oil, 2 Tbsp Vitamin E oil, 2 Tbsp baking soda, 2 Tbsp cornstarch or arrowroot powder. I added 2 Tbsp of beeswax because I wanted to make sure my deodorant wasn't a lotion in hot weather. Start out by melting the beeswax. Once it is completely liquified, add the coconut oil and melt it, then add the dry ingredients and mix thoroughly.

This recipe made enough for two deodorant sticks. Unfortunately, I only had one, so back to the the jar, but either way I've got enough to do me for a while and it's working great.

3 - Fleas are tough.

My dogs had made it great with their garlic supplements until about two weeks ago. Then I gave them all baths, which is part of the natural flea control method. Unfortunately, I let them dry in my grooming parlor.

I'm sorry to admit that I occasionally groom dogs with fleas. Many of the fleas fall off with the hair and the rest die in a good bath, but those that fall off with the hair are just waiting for another dog to come along with no protection. Without any spot-on drops, my dogs became those dogs and we've been fighting the flea battle with everything but chemical weaponry since.

The Jack Russells were shaved to improve flea visibility and saturation (it also helps with shedding so it's not their first time). Then they were bathed again and sprayed liberally with the flea repelling lavender spray made by combining 1 teaspoon Apple Cider Vinegar, 3-4 drops lavendar essential oil and the water needed to fill a small spray bottle. I also add about 3-4 drops of tea tree oil to help with healing. It makes the dogs smell fresh, instead of perfumed or chemically, but they still run and hide when they see the bottle.

That wasn't quite doing the trick, so I started looking for something to kill them. I found a natural product on Amazon from Buck Mountain, but it was prohibitively expensive. Then I found a recipe for one on Primally Inspired that was based on the Buck Mountain formula and ordered the ingredients for it from Amazon instead.


1 cup food grade Diatomaceous Earth (DE)

1/2 cup neem powder

1/2 cup yarrow powder

20 Drops Eucalyptus essential oil (Leave out the essential oil if using for cats.)

I found a 10-lb bag of DE with free shipping for about the same price as a 1-lb bag with prime shipping. I had to wait on it, but DE is also good for dusting garden parasites and dealing with other bugs.

Diatomaceous Earth is a very soft powder made up of fossilized remains of tiny aquatic organisms called diatoms. While it feels soft to us, to insects it is anything but. Under a microscope, DE is very sharp, causing it to puncture the exterior of insects so that they die of dehydration or buggy infections. Food grade DE is harmless to humans and pets and can be taken internally for parasites (if you need to deal with that). I don't have to worry about the babies or dogs eating it.

At the same time, it means it doesn't instantly kill fleas. If I want instant gratification, I need a bottle of alcohol and the flea comb. I use rubbing alcohol, even if not completely safe and natural, as I still eliminate the exposure of pets and children. Comb the fleas out and douse them. They're dead.

Neem powder is made from an herb and is a natural repellent because it interrupts the insect's life cycle. It also has moisturizing properties, which may help heal flea irritated skin.

Yarrow powder is supposed to help sooth the skin. It's also quite expensive with no free shipping options, so I wound up leaving it out.

Eucalyptus is a repellent, but after I made the powder, I could not really smell it.

Making the powder is a matter of combining the ingredients in a glass jar. If you have a shaker top to fit a Mason jar, you're set. I wound up transferring powder as needed to a cheese shaker jar.

It will make your dog's coat look dull and green and to me they smell like henna, very herbal. Death is not instant for the fleas, but there has been a gradual decrease in their numbers and less frantic scratching. My senior JRT, Abi, has a flea allergy, so she's been getting occasional doses of Benedryl to help her cope. Everyone is getting powdered regularly and another bath is looming. I think we'll have the situation eliminated in another few days.

No, it wasn't an instant fix like a good dose of chemicals. But it is safe and natural and I'm pretty sure we'll all survive, although Abi is looking a little worse for wear.

4 - After two batches, I tossed my Vitamin C serum. It wasn't doing anything. At the same time, none of the $20 to $30 commercial products I've been trying seemed to do anything either. I'm washing with olive and castor oil, and following it with plain aloe vera gel. My daughter has been trying some other essential oils, but I haven't got around to it yet.

5 - I also haven't gotten around to making natural housecleaning stuff. My daughter made a batch she shared, and I've discovered baking soda cleans the shower as well as Mr. Clean magic sponges, but I feel like a slacker in that area. I really want to make natural air freshener. On the other hand, I'm not using the chemical kind either, so I guess I'll get around to making my own one day.

And I generally feel like a slacker when it comes to anything to do with cleaning the house anyway, so that's not a big shocker.

6 - I won't go back.

I was rushing around the other evening and thought some hand lotion would feel nice, you know, good old commercial lotion. It didn't. It didn't even smell good any more. My hands felt like they were smothering. I washed them and tossed the container in the trash. I think there are still a few unemptied lotion bottles around, but I don't think I'll be tempted to use them and they'll soon be making the trash run as well. I am about out of my luscious body butter, but I've restocked on ingredients and found another lotion recipe to try, so I'll be cooking some up and sharing it soon.

For me going crunchy has been not only a gradual transition, but a learning experience as well. I'm far enough along to notice the difference quickly and have to catch myself before I look down my nose at anyone still relying on chemicals or eating highly processed foods. I'm glad it's a multigenerational thing and "my" girls are living in a home with fewer chemicals as well.

It's a journey and I don't think there will ever come a time when I think, hey, I know all I need to know to make all I need to make. I'll keep experimenting and losing my recipes and finding new ones.

I'll stay on the crunchy path.

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Time to Show Myself Some Love

I've hated my feet for years.

They're short. Not really tiny, because I always felt what they lacked in length, they made up for in width.

Then there was the incident with my brother's horse when I was a kid. There's a reason you shouldn't go around horses with bare feet. He stepped on my left foot and couldn't be persuaded to step back. Instead he finished the step, carrying through with his other leg. A podiatrist later told me that the bone in my foot was dead, and I suppose I've been lucky to have no more problems than an occasional ache and a tendency to athlete's foot under the stunted toe. All I know is that the toe stopped growing and my feet look even worse in sandals than they otherwise would.

But on my way to the beach in May I posted a picture of my feet on the dashboard, curled toe displayed.

I no longer hate my feet.

They'll never be beautiful (except maybe to my first boyfriend, but then he had a thing for feet,) but they look like my grandmother's feet. In my closet I still have shoes she bought probably 50 years ago. They fit me.

My feet will never look athletic, yet they carry me through thousands of steps every day. They support me through yoga poses and Zumba steps. They bear the extra weight of one to three children, a 50-lb. sack of chicken food, two buckets of gravel.

I've finally come to appreciate my feet. They've carried me for 50 plus years and I guess they're due.

But thinking about my feet got me to thinking beyond my feet. It's not only my feet that have been with me for years, not only my feet that haven't received the love they deserve, even if they've been the more frequent target of my dislike.

In fact, I realized if I treated other relationships like I do the one I have with my own body, I'd be a shallow somebody indeed. I don't think I'm the only person guilty of that horrible lack of self love either. We may be content with ourselves, as long as we don't see ourselves in a photo or spend too long in a dressing room trying on clothes. Then that relationship changes.

"You're not pretty enough, skinny enough, young enough to look good," we wind up telling ourselves.

Or maybe we're up considering a new physical challenge, and then in addition to not young enough, we're not strong enough or fit enough. A new mental challenge can have us beating ourselves up for not being smart enough.

Really? If we looked at the people around us that way, we wouldn't have a lot of people around us. And those we found who met all those criteria, well, we'd probably decide they were shallow.

I ran into those emotions, not only with the feet on the dash picture, but other pictures made this summer enjoying the beach or the pool with my granddaughters when all my flaws are pretty much on display. But seriously, I'm not going to put on a tummy flattening one piece appropriate for "my age." Oh, hell, no. Instead I'm trying to practice a bit of that self love and not only accepting myself, but appreciating the vessel that has carried me through life's journey.

I need to remind myself that my 52-year-old self could literally and figuratively kick my 20-something's ass. I have not only scars, stretch marks and wrinkles, but experience, muscles and know how that I didn't have two or three decades ago.

I could go through the list of negatives. I can try to cover them up with makeup or corrective clothing. I can apply the standards to myself that I don't apply to other people.

Or I can accept that my body is a miracle that I need to be kind to and care for properly.

A friend reminded me of that when she posted the following "1 Corinthians 6:19-20 ESV: Or do you not know that your body is a temple of the Holy Spirit within you, whom you have from God? You are not your own, for you were bought with a price. So glorify God in your body!"

I can let my hair turn white, wear a bikini to the beach, leave home without makeup, and feel less apologetic to the world around me. I can quit worrying about how things look beyond the smiles on our faces when someone else points the camera at me and the girls.

I can do better about accepting in myself the things I overlook in other people.

And maybe, just maybe, I can soak my feet and give myself a pedicure. I think my poor toes deserve it.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

A Clean House, Grandbabies and Getting on my Feet

Sunday was rough, but looking back, I had a good week. In fact, I can easily come up with a long list of things that brought me joy last week.

But then again, it was a long week.

It was my week to babysit four of five days, to get up at 5 a.m. and take sleeping bundles of sweetness from their daddy in the still dark driveway, then tuck them back into bed for another hour or two of sleep before starting the day in earnest.

Most of those days, I stayed up as well, burning the candle at both ends as I started motivating myself to do PiYo at home, and then went blackberry picking at the end of the day, needing the headlights to get home from the patch.

So there was plenty of joy and remembering it helps me bounce back from the rollercoaster dip that was Sunday.

1. E2 coming to me in the middle of gymnastics class and telling me she needed me, not because she really needed my help, but because she hadn't been at my house all day and just wanted my company. Sure, I was enjoying reading my book instead of helping a 3-year old reach bars and tumble, but I really enjoyed being with her more.

2. Time in the pool with the big Es when Mommy brought them over and she took care of the baby, who opted not to swim. We were able to be much wilder than we can when E3 joins us.

3. "I'm a mermaid. Mermaids don't care." E2 made that proclamation during our pool play Saturday. It caught on and we all love it. Where it came from in her little head, I don't know.

4. An evening with friends. As a couple, we've managed three weekends in a row with adult outings! It's amazing and it was so good to catch up. We should seriously make a habit of it. Not only that, but I had dinner with gal pals one day as well! How much adult company can I stand? Apparently more than I've been getting because both evenings, although different, were wonderful times of joy.

5. A clean house. Housecleaning doesn't rate high on my to-do list, except when company is coming. So inviting friends over for dinner meant I cleaned house. While I don't enjoy the process, I do appreciate the end result.

6. E3's ridiculous tantrums. Lying facedown in the driveway while her sisters rode their bikes because I told her not to get in the rose bush took the cake. Then she got up with wood chips stuck to her face. And thank heavens for my iPhone camera. My grandchildren will never be able to deny anything ridiculous that they do for more than 15 or 20 seconds.

7. E3's fascination with cows. Everything is a cow. If she can't see a cow, she's looking for one. In church Sunday she kept loudly proclaiming "Cow," as she looked for one on her mom's iPad. No one knows why cows have suddenly become the thing for her.

8. E1 insisting she could help me carry gravels to raise my turf beds. Of course, that meant E2 did for a while as well, but E1 hung right in there until I quit to fix us lunch. Sure, she was carrying about a shovel full each trip, but she was helping and proud of herself for being part of the process.

9. Falling into a blackberry bush with the baby. No, it wasn't funny that we were both scratched, but we weren't seriously hurt. I just couldn't get my feet back under me with E3 in a backpack on my back and I kept imagining a 911 call to my daughter's co-workers. "Help, I've fallen and I can't get up," I would have had to say. And then there was the fact that we nearly landed on some innocent turtle, and the big Es wanted me to get the turtle so they could see it. It was one of those much better to laugh than cry situations and eventually I got on my feet and out of the bush.'

What brought you joy last week? Whether you're coping with a loss or just the ups and downs of life, it's good to stock away those treasures for the days that don't make you smile. Never let life slip by without taking time to appreciate what brings you joy.

Sunday, July 13, 2014

A Dead Fawn on the Lawn

I woke up this morning with a mental picture of the moment the doctor handed me my newborn son.

The wonder that after a dark-haired little girl who looked so much like her father, I had produced an unexpected son who looked instead like me with light hair and blue eyes. I was thunderstruck in that I had no idea how to be a little boy's mother, and realized even then that his father would be no help.

Then I was fully awake with the realization yet again that my beautiful boy is gone. Before I even threw back the covers, I had to pray and admit once again that I don't understand why this is how our lives had to be.

I turned on the coffee pot, fed the cat, and once coffee was made went to the front porch to enjoy it and wake up in the quiet, cool air, and hopefully regain my equilibrium for the day.

That wasn't to be.

In the center of the front yard was a dead fawn, a gaping wound of red meat, delicate legs splayed, the spots in its back letting me know without going any closer what I had to deal with.

Thanks, dogs.

Even before I went out to clean up the carcass, I knew it was roadkill. My dogs are too well fed and lazy to actually hunt and kill any real prey, and fawns are generally safe despite the tremendous number of deer in my neighborhood. When I got near with a garbage bag in hand, I wasn't disappointed to find the tiny back legs shattered with bones protruding through the skin. I wrestled the surprisingly heavy little body into the bag, discovering that the dogs had hid the worst of the wounds in their placement, and removed it from my yard.

But my memories and the fawn were linked. My emptiness and lack of understanding had found a soul mate in a doe sleeping alone somewhere. My morning was ruined.

I carried the bad feeling with me to church where I clutched a tissue and tried to avoid looking like a raccoon, although I didn't realize for a while that the two had been linked and that I was crying for Ethan and for a baby deer that I would have been willing to eat had it grown.

I was sad for another mother I met a few days ago who was in the same place I was in December, struggling to adjust to the reality that her troubled son had been found dead. I never knew her son, never met her before, but I know I was the only person in the room that understood exactly what she felt.

We're bound together in heartache and a loneliness in our hearts that we will never get over or come to terms with. Our loss is so senseless, so beyond our comprehension, so life shattering that even while we go on we know we'll never be back to who we were before.

Right now, the lonely doe is part of our misery, but I envy her.

Her life is short, even if she survives traffic and hunter's guns.

Her memory is even shorter. She won't look at other fawns and think of her own. She won't stand alone in a meadow and miss the flicking tail of her fawn as it nurses in the evening air.

Next year she'll have another baby, and it will replace the one that was torn from her side as though the dead deer on my lawn had never existed.

For her the circle of life will go on.

For me, it's the circle of grief bottoming out one more time in a process that I expect to repeat itself for the rest of my life.

Tuesday, July 8, 2014

Grief Has to Chase Me, I'm Running on Joy

I've found that this summer is giving me little time for anything beyond living in the moment.

I've decided that's not bad.

So I blog when I have a few moments to be at a computer and be introspective, which isn't as often as it is when there isn't a bag of cucumbers in the refrigerator, a roll of turf still waiting to be wrestled by the driveway, a yard that needs mowing, and wild blackberries singing their siren song from road banks and unmowed fields nearby.

Grief has to chase me down, which doesn't mean it doesn't happen, but it has to catch me alone with nothing to do, and that's a difficult task. I know it's hovering nearby, so I'm not ignoring it and still find myself with a tear in my eye at moments when I'm not wanting to deal with smeared makeup.

Joy, still random, is easier. I'm a summer person. I thrive on everything around me and I'm already cringing at the thought of cold weather.

So I store up my joy. There may be days in the months ahead when the light is short and the weather cold when I'll pull out these writings to shore myself up and remind myself that summer comes full of heat and sweat and laughs and pool time and work.

1. Sisterly love. When E2 had what sounded like a horrible fall in the driveway, and I scooped her up to pack her banged head in ice, it wasn't long before her two sisters came to pet and love on her and see how badly she was hurt. Sweet touches from other little hands and a smoochy kiss from the baby. She was back to playing amazingly soon and despite a skinned nose, the bruise was never as bad as I expected.

2. Watching/listening to "Frozen" for the fourth(?) time this week while we drove to therapy in Winston. The big Es and I were engaged in a discussion comparing them to the princesses in the movie. E1 is obviously Elsa, who has a different power that sometimes causes her to do mean things -- her SPD. It's something she is learning to control, not by ignoring it, but by working on it. E2 is Anna, her little sister, who loves her despite it. (E3, not part of the discussion, is another Elsa.) We talked about how Elsa's parents misunderstood and didn't help her, and how E1's parents are helping with therapy.

3. An unhurried outing with the girls. I got absolutely nothing ticked off my summer to do list, but we all had a good time. We spent money at Costco buying good things to eat, loading the cart while the girls followed my rule not to disappear and were able to stretch their legs. We followed that with a grown up lunch at Jason's Deli and the manager made the whole dining with three little people easier by meeting us at the door with a wheeled high chair and coming by to check on us. So what if they didn't eat a lot? At least it was fresh and healthy and we followed it with ice cream!

4. A challenging yoga class. I'm still chasing a good workout since my dance studio remains closed. I went for a Zumba/yoga double header at one of the local recreation centers. The Zumba class was horrible and I would have been better off with my DVDs or YouTube for all the energy there, but I guess it beat sitting on the sofa. The yoga class, however, was wonderful. Seriously, I've never thought of stretching my toes! I would like to do it again, but I want to be sure I don't wind up with that Zumba instructor ever again.

5. Amazon Prime Music. I'm enjoying it right now. Although I've not managed to get it to work on my mobile devices yet, I do enjoy it on the computer and I've already accessed a ton of playlists and music I had not heard in a long time.

6. Being invited by Springtime, Inc. to send in a picture of Abi to be featured in their 2015 catalog. I was so pleased with their Bug Off Garlic, which I chose for a natural alternative for pest control this year, that I wrote them. I received a letter asking to use my testimonial, a credit for $150, and a request for a picture of my 13-year-old Jack Russell who has gotten over her summer allergies since taking the supplement. That reminds me, I need to send one in.

7. Blackberries. Huge, fill up a bucket fast blackberries. Almost overripe, tasting like a burst of blackberry wine in my mouth blackberries. While a week ago I was worried that they would dry up instead of ripening, now I'm picking as often as I get a chance. I need to write just about blackberry picking, but suffice it to say I've done it as long as I can remember and it's always been a good thing for me. This year's crop just puts it over the top.

Now I've got to get going. There are dogs who need tending and berries that need picking, and that bag of cucumbers isn't fixing itself.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Head Above Water At Last

Last week I was swamped in every sense of the word.

My kennel was full. My best friend who has a kennel full of registered breeding dogs was in the Virgin Islands. The girls were here every day except Tuesday, and it was Vacation Bible School with our "second" church family. There was grooming and baths and lots and lots of poop to clean up.

I was spread as thin as the last piece of butter on a thick slice of sourdough bread.

But even though I didn't have a chance to access a real computer, I did keep my mental list. "This makes me smile," I would stop and think. "This is what I need to remember."

So finally, today, the girls have gone home from their only day at my house this week and I can possibly catch my breath and try to remember those quick, unexpected moments of joy from the last two weeks.

1. Rain on Sunday morning. No, it wasn't enough and yards and pastures in my area of North Carolina are turning brown. I'm glad I don't have livestock to feed. But it rained Sunday morning and I sat on the front porch drinking coffee and listening to rain falling on the metal roof and trickling away in the gutters.

2. A return visit from a radical dog rehab. When I met Violet nearly two years ago, she was terrified of everything -- even the couple who had rescued her. She spent most of a week with me where her occasional lapses into tantrums were dismissed and ignored and she gradually relinquished her hold on her past. She's still a little timid, but she's comfortable with her owners and doesn't spend any time with her tail tucked when she comes to visit. She plays with the other dogs and sometimes decides I'm worthy of a tail wag.

3. An overnight with E2. Even if it was to take her to the dentist while her sisters went to therapy. It was still a quick glimpse of special time alone with the middle child. Hearing how much E1 missed her was a hoot as well, since they so often fight, but when they were together again E1 ran up and said, "Hug me like you missed me." Ah, sisters.

4. Speaking of sisters, I finally got to watch "Frozen" as part of the sleepover deal. It was wonderful to see Disney recognize that true love may be the tangled relationship between siblings, not just the prince and princess we are so used to seeing. No wonder the Es love it so! They don't get the romance, but they get two sisters who could practically kill one another, but who are really first loves.

5. Spending the evening with friends. With our fractured work schedules and busy lives, we don't do enough of that. It was several hours of being adults and friends, instead of filling the other roles we are often pushed into.

6. Seeing an old friend at church for the second time in as many weeks. My past career means I know people from a lot of walks and most of them, no matter how much we used to talk or how genuinely I value their friendship, I don't see very often any more. When one of those friends and his family was behind me in church two weeks ago, I know my face lit up. When he was back this week, well, there were two moments of unexpected joy.

7. Watching the girls blow bubbles and remembering that it wasn't so long ago they could just chase them. E1's concentration to get a big bubble and E2's interest in quantity over quality were fun to watch, even if they were dribbling soap bubbles over my hands.

8. Texts from dog owners. "You do not know how much you mean to us!!!" said one. "I don't worry as much when they are with you," read another. "It cracks me up how well she does with you," from Violet's mom. "You're the dog whisperer." It warms my heart feeling how much these dogs are loved, and how much trust their owners place in me to leave them with me when they are on vacation, or traveling on business, or even dealing with family emergencies.

9. A new baby joining a friend's family. When my friend shared that they were hoping to adopt a baby this summer, it made me want to cry tears of joy for her. Sharing that with me made me feel closer to her, and after all she's been to me during the last six months, it was good to be there for her. When she sent me a picture of the baby the morning after she was born, I did cry happy, hopeful tears.

10. Hugs. Especially hugs from Jacob, a young man at my church who like Ethan went down a path of addiction. He's fought his way back and when I spoke to the church about the abuse of legal drugs, he sat in the congregation and wept. Now I pray for him and his family and when he's at church (which is when he isn't working) he envelops me in a big hug much like Ethan would have done. Sometimes, I'm brushing away the tears after the hug, but there is joy there all the same.

11. A late night dip in the pool and realizing how darn much I like it. I hate to swim. Wouldn't do it unless a life depended on it. But a four-foot deep pool of saltwater in my yard is the best thing I've found to turn a sticky summer day into something enjoyable. So when I came in from tending dogs at 11 p.m. one night and didn't really want a shower, a towel and I went to the pool instead. Rural living has its benefits for sure.

12. Zumba class. Even though I miss my classmates and teachers, I'm enjoying my new Zumba class. It's fun to challenge my brain in new ways and the energy of my new teacher is incredible. Yes, I still hear a song and miss the old choreography, but more and more I hear one and start to remember new moves as well.

13. Finding a new route to a familiar place because of a bridge closing, and discovering it was faster and a more enjoyable drive.

14. Little tiny vegetables in my garden. I have a well that has always had plenty of water, so the sprinklers go on the garden at least every other day. There are tiny cucumbers, tomatoes and shiny purple eggplants and the squash and melons are blooming. I'm hoping for a few things to harvest and me and the little people are enjoying watching them grow.

That seems like a long list, but it's been two weeks and I can still smile at the memory of toads in the kennel light, a deer that looked as big as a moose from the seat of my Miata, a tiny turtle in the rain (and yes I got out and rescued him), little girls splashing in the pool, a "new" bike for E1 after her tire went flat, and so much more. While last week had me down a few times, mainly due to exhaustion, life is still good and still worth living and there is still so much to bring me joy.

I know there are days it is easier, that time makes it easier, and some days not even the most pleasant memory can pull me back from the edge of tears. Even on those days, a "Ma" from a curly-haired girl can still do the trick. All I have to do is hang in there.