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.

list

Ever since I can remember, I’ve had a hard time entertaining myself. This is not for lack of creativity – I could spend hours on a project once I started one – but the actual initiation of an activity always came as a difficulty to me.

Thankfully, my sister, who is three years my senior and the queen of self-entertainment, was usually kind enough to let me glom onto her activities. When I was really little, I would follow her around and copy everything she did (to her vexation); but even as we got older, I did most of the things she did. When she got to go to school and I had to stay home, I begged my mother to be the source of my activities.

I am, of course, ashamed of this; and I’m also ashamed to say that this struggle has not much worn off with time. I often get out of work three or four hours before my partner does and rarely have anything to show for it. Although my productive days are very productive, they are few and far between.

The worst part is that I know the solution to my problem. If I write down a list – a physical list – of everything I want to do after work, I will accomplish 90% of it. If I do not write down a physical list of the things I want to accomplish, I will not accomplish anything at all. I will sit on my ass and scroll through my phone for several hours.

Writing a daily list is so simple, and yet I hardly ever do it. And I’m not just talking about tasks. I’m pretty good about making a task list and checking those things off (wedding lists abound right now). I’m really talking about a list of things that I would like to do. Places I’ve been meaning to check out. Activities for my mental health and to get me out of the work-home-work-home routine. So, today I wrote such a list.

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Contrary to the above evidence, I am not a huge shopper, but I had a couple things I was looking for (which I ended up either not finding or not buying) and copious time to kill after work. As you can see, I also included a few small tasks into the mix as well as the cryptic word “vanilla”; and yes, I have been known to be idle enough not to shave unless it is written in ink. I even still had plenty of time to sit on my ass and scroll on my phone! But the point is that I got myself to do activities, ungoaded and unaccompanied, something which I am learning is necessary for a thriving adulthood. Even as I write this I am fulfilling “yoga” (which for me just means gentle stretches), but entirely because I wrote it down.

I feel really stupid admitting that I struggle with something most six year olds have a firm grasp on. I am especially aware of this shortcoming now as I prepare to make vows of eternal companionship, in spite of which I am sure I will oftentimes find myself alone and in need of diversion. I thought that if I made myself face such a disgraceful flaw in writing, in public, that I might work harder to fight against the lethargy and dependence that for some reason has been encumbering me since childhood.

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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thirteen

sit under milky way sky
permitting the dark circle
beyond ember glow

*       *       *

This unseasonably warm weather has been taunting me almost more than I can bear. All I think about is the quiet crackle of firewood, crackle of frying eggs, crackle of leaves being stepped on gently by forest friends. When can I go back?

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Home sweet Camp

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

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.

supermoon

The event of the supermoon this past month was, I must admit, underwhelming. This is not entirely surprising, considering that widespread popular news tends to blow actual events way out of proportion by highlighting facts whose sole purpose is to raise your expectations unreasonably. Biggest Moon In 68 Years! Never Again!!* (*until 2034.) However, it cannot be denied that the moon was very bright and rather big and reddish at moonrise for almost a week, and where I live was lucky enough to have clear skies at the time.

Something I miss most about living in a rural area is the nighttime sky. Now that I’m surrounded by urban centers, all but a handful of the most prominent stars are allowed through the heavy light pollution, so when I do make it up north, I try to spend some time stargazing.

In winter this is easy because the sky gets dark there by around 4pm. I remember lying on the crusty top layer of snow in my back yard as a kid, staring up at the night sky. I can still feel the sharp air circulating through my nose and mouth and lungs and the chill of the air on my eyeballs with every hard blink. The surrounding woods make a frame around the northern sky, and the Big Dipper spins brightly within that frame throughout the year. The Dipper and Orion were – and are – like old friends, so easily recognizable even to a child, and so very bright when given the chance.

One of the drives between my house and church growing up brought you along a small ridge with an incredible view of the White Mountains. On really clear days you could even make out Mount Washington (especially identifiable if it had just snowed). But my favorite time to drive past that vista was at night. Sometimes in the winter we’d be driving back late from a church event, silently riding together in the car, maybe with Christmas music playing on the radio. I would press my forehead against the cold window so that I could see the huge, black expanse above me, unobscured by trees or streetlights, and scattered with thousands of visible stars. I say thousands – but how could I know? I would like to say a million, but I have no idea what a million of something looks like, so I compare those vivid pinpricks with the half dozen I can normally make out where I live today.

This past summer some friends and I went camping in New Hampshire and spent a long time lying on the beach. The sky was pitch black but for the stars, and we were completely alone, dwarfed by the sheer number of galaxies above us and grains of sand below.

Without looking up the science of it all, I always feel like I can see more stars when it’s cold out. I vaguely remember reading that the northern hemisphere faces more stars, or at least more bright stars, in the winter than it does in the summer. And I imagine there’s less interference from hot, hazy air, too. (I really am being very lazy by not verifying this for you. But you can do a bad google search just as well as I can.)

On the evening of the supermoon, my partner and I walked down to the water, to the end of a pier. The moon was bright and clear (just like most of the adjectives in this post) and cast a long, wavy reflection in the water, like a path across the bay’s surface. We identified Venus and Saturn.

A couple days later we went back again. The moon was still bright but waning at the top, as though it were looking down. Maybe it was the right time of year, or maybe the light pollution was less than usual, or maybe it was just cold, but we could see about a hundred stars – entire constellations – more than I had seen in months. And although I will always want more stars in my sky, it was wonderful to greet once again the Hunter and the Great Bear.