horseweed

We all know the old saying. Money doesn’t grow on trees. But when my sister and I were kids, money grew on weeds.

In the summers, on the border of our neighbors’ yard and ours, past the swing set, behind the willow tree, and between Threepinederoga and my mom’s garden, tall, bright green weeds grew. The stalks were covered radially with three- or four-inch oblong leaves that were slightly fuzzy, somewhat floppy, and perfect specimens for make-believe currency.

I never knew what they were called; I never cared until I wanted to blog about it. A cursory web search has suggested the terms “marestail” and “horseweed” and Conyza canadensis, although I can’t verify this with my diminishing visual memory of the plant.

What I do remember distinctly about the moneyplant is the smell it would give off when you tore bills from that primitive ATM. The smell was earthy, sharp, and very, very green. It was so delightfully pungent that I used to rip the leaves up after I was done “paying” with them just so I could smell it again.

In case you were wondering, yes, I did regularly tear up different leaves from around the yard to investigate their odor. The moneyplant is just one of many whose properties I discovered. For example, there was a small, feathery weed you could find low in the grass that smelled minty (but wasn’t mint). Did you know that the shredded leaf of a checkerberry plant smells exactly like its berries taste? You’d be surprised at what you find when you dabble in botany.

But I completely forgot about the scent of the moneyplant until I started cooking for myself a few years ago.

It happened when I was chopping parsley. Olfactory memory is strange because you almost never can identify the origin of the nostalgia at first. This is just normal fresh parsley, so why have I been transported to a childhood summer? After wracking my brain I finally remembered the moneyplant. If that weed really was C. canadensis, I can find no indication that it’s related to parsley (although American Indians did use it as an herb and apparently when dried it tastes like tarragon). However, the memory is reawakened every single time I chop parsley, so I figure there might be something to it. I can’t think of another olfactory trigger that affects me like this does or that conjures as specific and unadulterated a memory.

The money of my childhood and the money of my adulthood bear only a few similarities. For one, I used to keep a stash of moneyplant bills, and I still hoard my money today. (What are banks but professionally-tended hoards of money?) The bills are still green, but I wouldn’t recommend tearing them up and huffing the pieces anymore. Adult money’s harder to come by, but worth more. It can make you more comfortable but not more happy. The memory of the moneyplant’s aroma, on the other hand, offers no material comfort whatsoever, but every time I chop parsley, I smile. Money doesn’t grow on trees, but as it turns out, happiness just might.

couch

Two Januaries ago I had a month off classes to write my culminating undergraduate paper. I spent a good chunk of that time sitting on the enormously comfortable sectional couch in my partner and his housemates’ living room, crisscross applesauce, laptop on lap, notebooks and papers balanced precariously on each knee, slowly going insane from focusing on a single subject for weeks on end.

Instead of using this time to travel, I stayed in town and picked up a few extra shifts at work. But that bachelor pad couch became something of my home base: a versatile spot, conducive to both work and relaxation, perfect for writing long papers and for watching hours of Star Trek: The Next Generation.
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The couch holds a special place in my memory for other reasons, too. For one, it was large enough that we could fit pretty much as many friends on it as we wanted. It’s fun to try to guess how many Yuengling Lagers it saw in those days (too many). But it was also the very spot I was when I had an important realization.

*       *       *

I was sitting on the couch one afternoon during my paper writing period, my partner somewhere nearby. It suddenly dawned on me that after five years of companionship I couldn’t envision a life that didn’t have us together, and I knew he felt the same. I looked up from my work and asked him, “Are we engaged?” A look of revelation passed over his eyes as he replied, “Yeah. I think we are!” And that was that, until he officially proposed and we officially announced our engagement just over two years later.

*       *       *

This is not the story that people expect or want to hear when they ask about a couple’s engagement, and it is not a story that I have ever told before. Part of the reason I haven’t told this story is that it’s largely based on the notion that we’re together because we’re comfortable, which is something people often warn about in a relationship. “Don’t just stay together because it’s easier than leaving”; “Don’t get/let him get too comfortable” because the romance will die or because it’s an indication of settling.

While I see the good intentions behind these warnings, I would like to reintroduce the positive side of comfort – one that makes me believe whole-heartedly that comfort is an excellent reason to spend forever with someone.

Comfort goes hand-in-hand with friendship. The friends I feel closest to are the ones who have seen me in pajamas and glasses, pre-coffee and pre-undereye concealer.

Comfort goes hand-in-hand with trust. Enough difficult things happen in life, that being with a person you’re used to becomes an invaluable asset in overcoming or enduring hardship.

Comfort goes hand-in-hand with affection. I find my partner the most endearing when his guard is down and he’s being himself.

*       *       *

Now, obviously there are ways to abuse the comfort you share with another person, just as there are ways to abuse a couch; e.g., by being a couch potato or by spilling a lot of beer on it. But overall I think that couch is an apt metaphor for our relationship: trusty comrade in both work and play, flexible yet supportive, and comfortable to the max.

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analog

On my parents’ living room wall hangs a large clock made from the highly polished, stained, and glazed cross-section of a cypress tree. The outline of its spidery figure never looked like a tree to me, and it was a very long time before I even knew that’s what it was. Instead, I always thought it was deliberately made to be in the shape of a very squat chef wearing a chef’s hat and oven mitt. I perhaps even experienced some confusion over why the clock’s home was the living room instead of the kitchen.

But there was another layer to what I saw with my child’s eyes – something that my mom to this day can’t really see, but I, on the other hand, cannot unsee.  Inside the clock, where the tree’s rings and clock hands are, lives a dancing Arab man.

Disney’s Aladdin came out the year I was born. I imagine my young life was much influenced by this movie, not least of all because of Robin Williams’s undeniable talent. One of my most beloved piano books was the reduced score of this instant Disney classic, and I played and sang “A Whole New World” (both voice parts, of course!) multiple times, daily, for probably several years. My piano was situated next to the wall with the clock with the dancing Arab man.

He wears a white robe and a white turban that has a long, white feather sticking out the top. His beard is long, dark, and pointed. He appears to be dancing a jig, and far in the background a lady attendant stands, a white scarf draped over her head.

When I was growing up, I thought this curious scene was intentionally put there by the clock maker. That’s how conspicuous the picture was (and is) to my eyes. Even looking at him now, I still have a hard time admitting to myself that the dancing Arab man is naturally occurring, or at the very most brought forward by the wood stain.

For a long time, the clock as a functional timepiece was not very useful to me, as it only has small hashes for most of the hours and Roman numerals for the rest, so when I looked at it I hardly saw a clock at all, although I knew it was one. What I did see was a strange little chef and a strange little Arab man, and I don’t even remember questioning why the two were paired. They just belonged together, living in joyful unity above the piano, listening to the repetitive serenades of a ten-year-old.

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The chef and the dancing Arab

eleven

Sharp scissors scraping
Endlessly to make blazing
Christmas ribbon curls


Christmas at my grandmother’s house was an over-the-top, magical miracle for us grandkids (my adult family would perhaps agree with only the first descriptor). You cannot even dream of the number of Christmas-themed stuffed animals and nutcrackers that littered the house. I have yet to see as many presents addressed to me sitting under a tree as I did for many years as a child, nor have I helped wrap as many.

You see, Nanny loved to cook and decorate and shop for her family, securing a line of brilliant hostesses behind her, but she tended to take on more than she could carry. So, she would employ her young granddaughters in the wrapping of all the gifts she hadn’t quite gotten to by the time Christmas night rolled around. We would sit together on the big bed in the Red Bedroom (so called after the solid scarlet hue of the 70s-style full carpeting in those quarters), surrounded by gifts, paper, and ribbons, and we would get to work.

It occurs to me now that this must have been a thought-through strategy. I’m pretty sure she always wrapped our presents first, so that when she ran out of time for wrapping, only the boys’ gifts were left, and we could finish the job without spoiling our own surprises.

Nanny’s big claim to fame is ribbon curls. Each present had dozens and dozens of ribbon curls, and there were dozens and dozens of presents, so you do the math. She taught us at a very early age how to do it, carefully tying many ribbon pieces of different colors in a crisscross pattern, and then one-by-one sliding the blade of a pair of scissors along the bottom of each piece, until you were left with an explosion of shiny, colorful curlicues – often dwarfing the present underneath.

With so many beautifully wrapped presents (and, let’s be honest, some badly wrapped ones done by a few eight year olds), perhaps the most striking thing about the whole event was not the sheer number of packages, but the love, beauty, and detail put into the wrapping itself.

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A present for me, beautifully wrapped by my father – although, according to Nanny’s standards, still lacking in the bow department?

aloud

When I was in middle school, my youth group signed up for a four hour shift to ring the Salvation Army bell outside the local Walmart one December night. It was particularly bitter that evening – in the teens – and so we took turns singing carols outside and running into the store to warm up for a few minutes. My parents bought us all mitten warmer packets from inside.

Despite having been in choruses and choir productions from the earliest age, no one had ever told me explicitly that you are not supposed to sing in the cold, for danger of injuring your vocal cords. I didn’t imagine that the singing term “to warm-up” might actually mean to warm up your vocal cords (something which is near impossible to do if with every breath you’re sucking in frigid northern air).

After four hours of hoarsely projecting Christmas songs at the top of my lungs (according to my logic, so as to have the greatest effect on the generosity of shoppers entering and exiting the store), I fully expected to suffer mild laryngitis the following day. What I did not expect was that my voice would still be suffering negative effects over a decade later.

Once the initial discomfort was over, a few months later, my main complaint was that my voice – speaking and singing – got tired very quickly. Words would thicken and stick in my tonsils. Reading even short things aloud became difficult. I could start out singing strong and clearly, but after about one song a hoarseness and fatigue would creep into my voice. This was not for lack of practice. I regularly participated in my school chorus, choral productions at church, and the church band on Sundays. I never had any medical confirmation of a condition, as it was only a persistent annoyance and frustration, but I knew that something had changed that night, for the worse.

Fastforward several years. Being an aunt is one of my greatest joys. Although I don’t get to see my nephews more than two or three times a year, time spent with them is very precious to me. I would do pretty much anything for them, but one thing that used to make me cringe during my visits was story time. They would request me to read book after book, and my voice would get smaller and grainier with every page. I dreaded when they brought out the books, because I knew I would have to curtail this important developmental activity. I wanted nothing more than to read aloud to them for hours (reading was pretty much the only way I could get these little boys to cuddle with me for a good amount of time), but my voice would not cooperate. I admit I was relieved (and impressed!) when the older one started reading for himself.

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The littler one, “reading”
Only in the last few months have I noticed a marked improvement in my voice endurance. When I found out that my partner had never read Roald Dahl’s BFG as a child, it could not stand. Seeing this as a huge oversight in his education, I began to read it aloud to him, voices and all. I was surprised to find that, after a little warming up, my voice performed much better than I had expected and than historically it had. I drank a lot of water throughout, but I could easily make it through a whole chapter without my voice feeling too strained to continue.

Encouraged by this and by the fact that my partner only fell asleep a couple of times during the reading, reading aloud has become a hobby of ours, and an excellent alternative to watching TV. We are currently rereading A Wrinkle in Time together (honestly, slow going because I keep falling asleep to his calming intonations), and I imagine we’ll even one day emerge into adult fiction.

In the meantime, this hobby is good practice for when I see my nephews over New Year’s.

frost

 

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I opened my eyes to slivers this morning and, despite already knowing the answer, mumbled, “Did it snow?”

It’s October 13th in coastal Mid Atlantic, so no, of course it didn’t snow. I doubt it even got as cold as 50 overnight, let alone freezing, but I imagined peeking through the blinds to see a white dusting covering the lawn and fence and branches. I’m about two months ahead of myself for my locale, and I’m guessing that many of you don’t want to hear about winter just yet (wasn’t my last post about savoring fall?), but it’s what’s on my mind now that the [somewhat] chilly mornings have arrived. Maybe my imagination was influenced by pulling my winter clothes out of storage the day before, or by buying two new sweaters, or by seeing pictures of first snows elsewhere in the country, or by hearing my mom report that the first frost is supposed to happen this week at my parents’ house in New England.

For the most part, I hated winter when I was younger. Layers were bulky and accentuated my flatchestedness, so I often ditched them in favor of being cold. Dressing for the elements could take up to fifteen minutes, and Lord help you if you realized you had to pee once the snowsuit was on. The harsh wind and blowing snow burned my cheeks and made my eyes water. My lips and hands would become cracked and scaly, and it didn’t matter how many times I applied lotion or Vaseline – they would still bleed. But perhaps worst of all, after breathing the bone-dry air all night, I would wake up every morning with a devastatingly sore throat, four to five months out of the year.

On school mornings, my mom would wake me up. Judging from the numbness of my nose, I knew the bedroom air was sharp and cold, and I dreaded leaving the covers because I knew all that was waiting for me was a cold wooden floor and a cold, stiff outfit. So my mom would stick my clothes for the day under the covers with me and come back again in a few minutes to persuade me to get up once the clothes were warmed.

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My pre-waking brain this morning recognized an old and unwelcome sensation – that dry, raspy, uncomfortable feeling in my throat. But before I even realized I was in pain, my first reaction was to think, It snowed. I was simultaneously convinced of this as fact and cognizant of the near impossibility that this was indeed fact, but the association was powerful.

Setting aside the many nuisances of cold weather, I’m always happy to see a thick morning frost on the ground or to wake to find that it has snowed overnight. The phrase “blanket of snow” is fitting. Most obviously, it covers. But it also brings comfort to an otherwise bland and dead season. It softens the landscape. Yes, I’ll eventually have to shovel it. It’ll turn dull and grey. I’ll have to clear off my car with a poorly made tool and start the engine twenty minutes early. But when the snow is newly spread and untouched, I feel as though I have been tucked into bed with crisp, clean sheets.

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Nephews enjoying the first snow a couple years ago. (Photo credit: Mom)

overcome

Today’s guest post is by the most motivated, most resilient, most inspiring person that I have the honor of calling friend. From an early age, she has shone brightly in her own life and in the lives of everyone around her, despite the unfair darkness of life’s circumstances.

-Leslie

My entire life has been a fight for survival. I have never had anything come easy to me except being nice and caring for others. I was taught at a young age to respect others and treat them as I wanted to be treated, and it always boggled me that others didn’t know the Golden Rule, or if they did, that they did not abide by it.

My early childhood years were amazing. I guess the best part about being a kid is that even when everything is going wrong, all you notice is the good. When I think back to it now, there were a lot of clues around me that would have led me to learning about my family sooner, but I ignored them. At the young age of seven, I remember noticing that something was wrong. I went from being an oblivious child to seeing dysfunction and tuning in to the arguments around me. From that moment forward, I had to grow up quickly and learn how to act and react depending on whoever was near me at the time.

For the next few years I struggled with my family, and we made an unexpected move out of state. It seemed at first as though things were getting better, but the move had not fixed the problem. The problem was that my mom still struggled with substance abuse and, despite the move, wasn’t doing any better. This caused my parents to fight a lot. My mom decided to take us back home.

We were forced to live with my grandparents, who weren’t good people. If I slipped up even once I was doomed and I knew it. But protecting myself was the least of my worries, as I had a sister and brother to think of. I would quickly take the blame for mistakes that they did and carry the punishment. Unlike most punishments for wrongdoing, my grandparents reminded you of your mistake until you made another, making life absolutely draining.

Being kids, we misbehaved and made mistakes quite often, but even when we were being good it wasn’t enough. We were constantly the target of verbal and mental abuse. My brother was targeted a lot more than my sister and I were. He was called names like “faggot” and “twinkle toes” because he walked on his toes. I would get so angry and tell them to stop, which only made them turn their abuse towards me. I didn’t care at that point. I didn’t even want to be alive anymore. I remember writing a note to God saying I would rather die and go to Hell than spend eternity with them. Stupid me actually wrote that on a piece of paper and hid it in my drawer, only for it to be found later. I never lived that one down.

We moved into a new house with central air conditioning about a year later. It was set on a timer from the previous owners to click on and off. This made my grandparents furious and they blamed be every single time it happened. I would get screamed at and pushed back into my room as they threatened me even more. One day, I looked into it and noticed it was set on auto. I wish I would have done that sooner, but by now you should know that that would have been too easy.

Without going into more detail, which could be as lengthy as a novel, the point is I was struggling. I struggled every day to protect my siblings from harm and to fight within myself to stay alive. I have met a lot of low points in my life, but I have always managed to fight them. This particular situation was fixed by contacting the authorities and being removed from my grandparents’ care and placed instead with my loving aunt and uncle.

Years passed and I thought I was finally in the clear. I kept going and I kept my goals in the forefront. I graduated high school in the top 10 of my class and was accepted to the college of my choice. There I felt like I had a break. I was finally “on my own” and only had to be around people I wanted to be around. I had my family at home supporting me and my new and old friends by my side. Things changed for the worse when, in my sophomore year of college, I decided to date a boy and get myself into my first relationship. I was naive and should have ended it about a week in. Instead, I fought for his love and acceptance every day. Nothing I did was ever good enough, but I found myself staying anyways. I ruined a lot of friendships and relationships by staying with him and secluding myself from others. Thankfully, the ones who loved me forgave me when I finally moved on. It took me physically moving to a new state to get my head right. I struggled with myself that whole entire relationship and thought everything I did was wrong and that’s why he was so mean, but I survived. I learned not to put myself in that position ever again. I learned to love myself and better my life.

It’s been three years since I moved, but I still struggle mentally. Everything I try to do still fights against me and becomes more difficult than it really needs to be, but I continue to fight back. A year ago on this date I played in my first rugby game since college and it ended very quickly. This was the beginning of my darkest struggle since I have moved. I was injured in a breakdown and I knew I was done. This injury threw me into a downward spiral of depression that led to drinking too much and wondering what the point of life was. I was gaining back the weight I had lost and losing the confidence I had previously gained. Every single day for three months was a fight for my life.

When thinking about this time, I don’t really understand why I was so depressed. I had come so far in life just to let a stupid injury affect me. I have reflected on this a couple of times, but it wasn’t until today that I can see the bright side of that injury. It’s been 9 months of healing. I have lost the weight I gained during that injury, I have stuck with eating healthier even if I slip up more than I would like to admit, and I’m becoming the me I want to be. I am stronger, healthier, and happier. I have been able to get back into rugby, and what turned into a way to make new friends has blossomed into so much more. I continue to work out even on the days I want to stay home and cry. Playing rugby and working out are my antidepressants of choice, and they help me to never give up on myself. I have thought about it so many times and even still think about it: I am strong because of my past, and if I could survive that without any serious issues, I can survive anything the world throws at me. I thank God for my friends and my family, because without their support I would be lost. I’m letting you in on my struggles because I want every single person to know that it will get better. You can survive and you will be okay. There is no disgrace in being a survivor of abuse; the only disgrace is if you allow your past to drag you down instead of push you forward. And there’s no problem with having a mental illness; the only problem is if you ignore it.