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Normally, I love the middle of August. I have spent most of my life in the south, so the heat doesn’t really bug me all that much. Besides, the world is just so ... alive ... in late summer. There is green everywhere. Bugs all over. The animals that chase the bugs, and the animals that chase *those* animals are all about. In the south, the sound of cicadas can be deafening at times. Mid-August also represents the last gasps of time right before school starts. And I have always loved going back to school.
My favorite part of going back to school is going school supply shopping. There is something about the promise of unsharpened pencils and blank notebooks that resonates for me. Anything can happen. Nothing is known. The school year takes on its own shapes and contours, and meanders like a river. Even when you think you know the river or its bends, you see something new. New crayons are the promise of new hopes and new dreams. For one morning, backpacks and shoes are clean and hair is cut and everything that can be good is. At least for a moment.
One of my favorite commercials was the “holiday” themed Staples back to school shopping commercial from the mid 90s. I don’t know that anything better captures what back to school shopping is really like.
Normally, the middle of August is the most wonderful time of the year.
Only nothing is normal right now is it?
The pandemic has taken away so many things. Graduations and weddings and family reunions. It has taken away old friends getting together at the beach, and first dates at the movies. And now it has taken away back to school, at least in any traditional sense. I am not buying school supplies this year. Lizzie doesn’t need pencils in Google Classroom.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Kids being home is absolutely the right call. And I am horrified that so many school districts in our state and nation are forcing kids and staff to go back. I think it will end badly. In fact, it already is in many places (including UNC).
And something has still been lost. Part of what has been lost for me is just the simple pleasure of buying school supplies. Labeling them. Making sure everything is organized. It’s so small. But it makes you feel like you have some control over the year. You don’t, but at least for one morning you can make things good.
Thinking about back to school has made me think of other simple pleasures, the little things that get us through the day. For this week’s top 5, I will be sharing my 5 simple pleasures.
“I adore simple pleasures,” Oscar Wilde wrote. “They are the last refuge of the complex.” While I don’t know that they are a last refuge, I do know that they are a refuge. Simple pleasures are a safe harbor in a world that can feel out of control. These are the 5 small things that help lighten my day. At the end of this week, I hope you will consider sharing yours.
Simple Pleasure #1
Most every morning at our house follows a predictable routine. I am usually the first one up. Well, let me amend that a bit. *Justin* is usually the first up. When I hear him stirring in his room, I get up and head downstairs. Justin is usually pretty good about entertaining himself for a bit.
When I get downstairs I pour him a cup of chocolate milk, and then I make two cups of coffee - one for me and one for Barb. Then I take my cup and walk out on the back porch, letting Bella out to use the bathroom in the woods behind our house.
And for a few glorious minutes I stand there in the morning sun, listen to the birds, and drink my coffee. This is a short time - usually about 5 minutes - but it is one of the few times of the day where I am truly by myself. I take some time to give thanks for getting to a new day. I set my intention for the day and think about what I want to accomplish. Then I call Bella back in, grab Barb’s coffee and Justin’s milk and head upstairs to deliver them.
Coffee is fine. I like coffee. I used to drink a lot more of it. Now I only drink one cup. Because it isn’t really about the coffee. It is about the moment on the porch. The moment in the morning that exists between waking up and doing the business of the day. A moment that exists out of time. There aren’t a lot of those when you have 5 kids. It’s not a long moment. It is not a dramatic moment.
It is just one, quiet, simple pleasure. One small thing at the beginning of the day that smells like vanilla syrup and cream and dark roast coffee. And I love that moment. I appreciate that moment.
And that’s enough.
Simple Pleasure #2
Text Messages and (some) Emails
I am an extrovert. For a long time, I didn’t really understand the whole extrovert / introvert thing. But I had a therapist who explained it this way. How we interact with others falls along a spectrum, with extroversion on one end and introversion on the other. We are all generally in one area of the spectrum, but it is a sliding scale. Sometimes even extroverts are introverted. Sometimes the shyest people will dance on a table.
The real difference between being an introvert and an extrovert is how our interactions with others make US feel. If you leave from, say, a coffee with a new acquaintance, how do you feel? If you feel energized, excited, and lit up, then you tend toward extroversion. If you leave feeling tired, and need to replenish your energy, then you tend toward introversion. The introvert and the extrovert may have seemed just the same to the other person at the coffeeshop - engaged, lively, a good conversation partner. But the extrovert will leave walking on air. The introvert will leave wanting a nap.
It has been hard to be an extrovert during coronavirus. I miss seeing people. I miss random conversations. I miss being able to really connect with people, even for a brief time. I think one of the reasons I have had so little energy the last few months is a direct reflection of how little time I get to spend with others.
One thing that helps is iMessage. I love getting text messages from people. The more random the better. I love hearing how people are doing, answering questions, or sharing jokes. My good friend Sam and I have one of the most unique and interesting text threads in history. Everything from clown motels in Nevada to discourses on Czeslaw Milosz. It’s weird. And fun. As weird things often are.
For the record, I know not everyone texts. I also love getting emails from people I love. So much better than offers to help move Nigerian gold or meet hot singles in my area (my spam folder is a hot mess).
Whether text or email, these brief communications from ... out there ... remind me that the world is bigger than this house, and that relationships may not be the same on lockdown, but they are still there. And that fills me with good energy.
So. Text me. Text the other people in your life. Especially the extroverts y’all. We are not doing well in all this. But we will all get through it. Together.
Simple Pleasure #3
The late true crime writer Michelle McNamara was the youngest of 6 kids, but there was a ten year difference between her birth and that of her closest sibling. She would say that her childhood felt like showing up at a party that was already winding down. Despite the fact that she was technically part of a large family, she said, her childhood felt much more like that of an only child.
Sometimes it feels like that for Justin too.
He has been born into a radically different family than his older siblings. By the time he was born, Willie no longer lived with us. The Army was a distant memory. For most of his life, I have been the healthiest (mentally at least) that I have ever been.
He is also growing up in a time of incredible uncertainty. Trump has been President for most of his life. He has lived through pandemic, his older sister moving away and getting married, and is facing the departure of his beloved big brother in just 11 days.
He is our bonus baby. Our miracle. By every metric, he should not be here. And yet, he greets me every morning with a “good morning Daddy!”
Barb and I did not expect to be parents again in our mid-40s. And it has been hard y’all. We are physically tired. We are at the age where our bodies are falling apart, and where energy is a highly valued commodity. And he is 4. He wants to run and climb and explore and be a kid. It is hard to meet that need sometimes. And his needs don’t exist in a vacuum. We also have to help our older kids navigate their transition to adulthood.
And in the middle of all that challenge, and all that fatigue, and all that worry and struggle.... he laughs. He laughs because he is (most of the time) a very sweet, very loving, and pretty happy go lucky kid. And he likes to laugh.
And when he laughs it feels like this is actually possible. That I can find a way. That we all can.
Simple Pleasure #4
When we moved across town a few years ago, Barb and I decided to use our savings to buy new furniture for the first time in our adult lives. Up until that point we had hand me down furniture, thrift store finds, and a hodgepodge of looks, styles, and textures. We decided to invest in some good mattresses, some nice beds for the kids, and a living room suit that we could all sit on.
The biggest purchase, though, was the dining room table. We thought a lot about ourselves as a family. Where we spend time. Where we connect. And we realized that our very best family moments happened at dinner. So we went all out and bought a hand-painted table imported from Italy. Outside of our van and our house, it is the single most expensive thing we have ever bought as a couple.
And it has been worth every penny.
We all have busy lives. Barb works hard, and is online and in meetings most of every day. Lizzie has school. Matthew worked until recently and has spent a lot of time preparing for Air Force basic. Justin and I do our thing.
The one time we come together every day is dinner. It is our share daily experience. We talk. We laugh. We connect. The table is a circle, and everyone can see everyone else. At the table, everyone participates, and everyone shares. We do “high / low” and each person shares one good thing about their day, and one bad thing. Everyone brings a topic of discussion - a news story, or something from school or work. When Alex is home she participates.
Dinners are the bright spot of our family life, and are one of the things that we look forward to. It is a small pleasure. A time of togetherness. It feels sad to see the circle get slowly smaller, as kids leave. But there is - and will always be - a place for each of them. The table will be passed down. It is our family.
It’s just a table. Dinner can be everything from McDonald’s to homemade chicken fried steak, but in the end it is just food. What makes it special are the people.
Sometimes, simple pleasures are shared.
Simple Pleasure #5
There is an element of narrative writing called the “inciting incident.” While most commonly associated with screenwriting and movies, the concept is applicable to all writing that tells a story. The inciting incident is the moment that launches the story. It is the thing that happens that then propels the rest of the story. While the inciting incident may not necessarily be the very first thing that happens in the story, it is - in the most important sense - where the story begins.
One of my very favorite inciting incidents is the tornado in The Wizard of Oz. Not only is the scene a remarkable effect for 1939, it is also one of the clearest examples of an inciting incident. Before the tornado, Dorothy Gale is a bored Kansas schoolgirl, who lives her life in literal black and white. But when that tornado sets the farmhouse down in the colorful land of Oz, she is on her hero’s journey of adventure and transformation.
I love beginnings. I love that fuzzy static and the noise that starts the beginning of HBO shows. I love the opening titles of Do The Right Thing with Rosie Perez dancing while Public Enemy drops their greatest song. I like opening lines of novels, especially really good ones like The Stranger, Gravity’s Rainbow and 100 Years of Solitude. I love that moment where anything seems possible, and when a conversation can go in any direction or any kind of connection can happen.
I love blank pages, falling in love, big ideas, and when you haven’t figured out who the killer is yet. I love kittens and hope. I love draft night when the suits are new and the moms are smiling and potential is all that matters. I like that moment when the ball rolls off your finger tips and heads toward the hoop.
In the beginning there is promise. Nothing has happened yet. Everything is still possible. The beginning is magic.
As I get older I find myself having to work hard to see magic. Justin sees it everywhere. Every day he sees something he has never seen before. Sometimes it feels like the only new things I see are the novel ways we find to fuck one another over.
I am working on being better about seeing magic. At finding the new. About understanding that beginnings are all around us. That they exist.
The world is full of things I don’t know yet. The world is beginning. I take joy in that small pleasure.
And I look to the next blank page.
As always, thank you for reading. Be well friends. If you are not a yet a subscriber and would like to get the 5 things (and a whole lot of other good stuff) during the week, I encourage you to become a subscriber.
See you all soon. Keep pounding the rock.