Thursday, December 29, 2011

Zen and Granite Counterstops

Have you noticed how people whine and complain on HGTV’s House Hunters and Property Virgins shows?

Oh, lawsy.

They criticize Formica counters, funky wall colors, small bathrooms from the 60s with pink tile, vinyl flooring. Whine, whine, whine. No house is “perfect,” they sigh. Why isn’t there a perfect house for them for a reasonable price?

I think about the nice house I was privileged to grow up in, with one pink bathroom for seven people, a tiny sliver of yard, about three linear feet of Formica kitchen counter. The mouth-watering meals my parents turned out of that bare-bones kitchen were the definition of delicious. Cherry pie from the fruit tree in the backyard? Who does that today? My family loved that house—it’s the place we think of when we remember home. My parents were so proud to make their last $200.00 monthly mortgage payment after thirty years.

The HGTV house-hunters’ expectations are high. How did these young Americans get the idea that they were supposed to be living so large? What the heck is wrong with Formica, anyway? Some of the most fabulous meals I ever cooked were in a camper trailer kitchen with an apartment sized gas stove from the 1950s—and gasp—no granite counters. Here’s a shocker: granite counters and stainless steel appliances don’t make dinner taste any better. Or create family harmony.


Here comes the hypocritical part, and my secret shame. I live in McMansion. Before you start hating on me, let me explain.

We owned the lot for 20 years; we bought it when it was called a swamp and not a “delightful marsh-front property with bird-watching from the back yard.” My husband built the house for us in 2006. Sounds ominous, right? Yep, we built at the height of the real estate boom, planned to stay in the house about five years, sell, and have enough equity to help with our eventual retirement. That retirement has been moved back to about age 90 since the real estate bubble burst. We pray our health holds out.

We aren’t wealthy people. I teach in the South, for Pete’s sake. That alone speaks volumes; you must know I teach for love, not money. Like many others, I haven’t even had a cost of living raise in five years. They’ve cut my health benefits and are going after my retirement plan next. Although I’m not happy with this treatment, I’m incredibly thankful to have the job, for obvious reasons.

So now the lovely house we built, our “dream” house that we really built for other people, is sitting on the market. The market is in the toilet. We’re stuck in a house that has a humongous mortgage payment, is too big and fancy for us, and may not sell for years. The house has most of the hot-button features that HGTV buyers crave: oak floors, granite counters, 3 full baths, loads of windows, porches, decks, and even a boat dock.

The house is lovely, and we’re lucky to live in it, but it has never felt like home to me. I knew we’d sell it, so I haven’t let myself relax into it, to feel like I belonged here. I appreciate all the features, I do. We looked at house plans for ten years before we picked this plan as a match for the lot. It’s a special, light-filled house, built like a fortress to withstand the hurricanes we get here in the South.

But when I write that murderous mortgage check every month, I dream of a house of half the size, with a small yard, some old-timey charm, and yes, even Formica counters.  A house with a tiny little mortgage to reflect its tiny little square footage. Room to breathe financially. A lift to this relentless weight on our shoulders.

Yet we are extremely lucky, and I count my blessings every day. Yes, I really do. Believe it or not, we moved directly from a comfortable double-wide (not a thing in the world wrong with double-wides) to this house. We sang the theme song to The Jeffersons, “Moving On Up” when we moved in. We have this huge mortgage, but we are not underwater. The house is still worth more than the mortgage, although if you count the cash we put into the house ourselves, we are at breakeven. For today’s economy, that’s a miracle.

We see people—we know people who have lost homes to foreclosure in the last few years. Other people are underwater but still scraping together a mortgage payment each month. Some families are homeless and may never be homeowners again. They are the ones who deserve our attention, our help, our understanding.

We have been there, too. In the early 1990s we were bankrupt and foreclosed on, wandering the country in an old van and living in a tiny 1964 Holiday Rambler camper trailer. Foreclosure is heartbreaking. No one can fully understand how it hurts unless she’s been through it. It hurts financially and it hurts because a dream dies when a family loses a home after trying everything they know to save it. The hurt lasts for years, and never really goes away entirely.

Please don’t judge someone who has lost a home to foreclosure. An outside observer never knows the whole story about how a family lost their home. The situation is always more complicated than you could possibly imagine. Saying they shouldn’t have borrowed the money in the first place is not helpful. Illness, job loss, addiction, and death can hit any family at any time. Most foreclosed families have spent their life-savings fighting to keep their house, trying to do the “right thing.”

In our case, after foreclosure, we rebuilt our credit over the course of 15 years. We worked and saved. We don’t ask for praise. We did what so many others have done; we built a pretty house.

Some of you may be thinking, tough shit. I should just shut up, put on my big girl panties, and thank God I don’t lay my head down in a cardboard box or homeless shelter every night. I get it, I do.

Maybe that’s why some of the couples on HGTV upset me. They tend to have such high expectations of what a house should be. The hardwood floors, the granite counters, the high ceilings seem to mean everything to them.

If I could, I’d try to get through to these house-hunters. Lighten up, I’d tell them. It isn’t the house, it’s the feeling of home created within the house. A nice house means nothing if we don’t have peace of mind.

All the granite countertops in the world won’t bring us that.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Girl Crush

“Holiness has most often been revealed to me in the exquisite pun of the first syllable, in holes—in not enough help, in brokenness, mess… in holes and lostness I can pick up the light of small ordinary progress, newly made moments flecked like pepper into the slog and the disruptions.” –Anne Lamott

My latest girl crush is writer Anne Lamott. My feelings toward Anne are part crush, part hero worship, part “she would totally get me if we met” awe.

I’m reading Lamott’s 2005 book, Plan B: Further Thoughts on Faith. After my dad died four weeks ago, I did what some readers/writers/overthinkers might do (perhaps especially if they have a touch of religious belief)—I went to Barnes and Noble and bought books about grieving, death, faith, and comfort.

That first week I was still numb, but I knew the numbness would wear off, and I wanted to be prepared. The way I saw it, $80.00 worth of books would be well worthwhile if I could avoid costly professional grief therapy. Yes, I’m a real DIY kind of sufferer.

So I’ve dipped into four of the books, but Annie’s is the one I’m reading the most. I was a little worried, since she started right off damning George Bush to hell for starting the war in Iraq. While I may tend to agree with her, the constant damning to hell of George Bush was not helping me move forward in my grieving process.

But I trusted, kept reading. 

What I love about my Anne is that she is so messed up and sarcastic, and she knows it. So self-deprecating, yet she’s unwilling to take shit from anyone, including God. She talks about Jesus and God in the most intimate and sometimes bitchy ways.

A recovering alcoholic, now in her fifties, at the time Plan B was written she is both a mother to a teenage boy and going through menopause, an incendiary situation. Summing her life experience up, she’s a survivor.

She overthinks, as well, a trait we share. Lamott admits to wrongheadedness, uncharitable thoughts, and murderous impulses. She’s not afraid to pray the one-word prayer: HELP!

In short, she’s exactly the kind of Christian I need right now. I don’t need platitudes, and my Annie doesn’t do platitudes. She’s had to do lots of inner work to get to where she is, a place where she is mostly (or at least sometimes) content with her life.

For instance, she admits that she’d rather be celibate than get into another toxic relationship. Of course, in the funny way life goes, a while after she came to that conclusion, she found a boyfriend.

She attends a racially diverse Presbyterian church in the Bay area, has a female pastor, and sometimes refers to God as “She.” I know this kind of new-agey feminist stuff drives some Christians over the edge, but me and Annie, we say, “Chill.” We don’t think God gets all excited about gender. Or about a lot of other stuff.

She says, “…we should try to stay on God’s good side. It’s not hard. God has extremely low standards. Pray, take care of people, be actively grateful for your blessings, give away your money—you’re cool. You’re in. Nice room in heaven, flossing no longer required—which is what will make it heaven for me. Oh, I mean that, and Jesus.”

Anne struggles with mid-life, admits she has a bit of flab, is creaky when she gets up in the morning, forgetful. She’s a white girl who gave up the struggle with her exceedingly curly, unruly hair a decade ago and now sports dreadlocks, feeling that dreadlocks are the equivalent of her hair finding its way home. She’s a blue jeans kind of girl; she’d never judge me for my general dishevelment.

If I lived near her, my friend Annie and I would go for hikes in the hills. She’d show me her favorite views, the trails she hiked with her dad as a girl. We’d talk about faith, and failure, and love.  I’d be sure she knew how much I valued our friendship, and she’d offer to read drafts of my historical novel. I might even admit that I’d had a girl crush on her. She’d be a little embarrassed, but mostly flattered.

She be kind, real, and she’d offer to watch my cats if I had to go out of town. We’d make each other laugh. I’d cook her some soup.

That’s my girl crush. Crazy Annie is helping me work through some of my grief, after all.

Have you ever had a girl crush on an author or famous person, living or dead? I challenge you to name your crush, and tell me about her.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Tasteless, Tacky, Tawdry: My Life as a Prude

I used to be such a Prude with a capital P.

What happened?
Once the mere mention of “passing gas” offended me to the core, the word “damn” made me cringe, and if I saw the “f” word on the ladies room wall, I felt slightly dizzy and broke out in hives.
Now I find I excel at double-entendres, bad bathroom puns, and none-too-lightly-veiled sexual innuendo.
By the way, no one writes on the bathroom wall anymore. Is that because we’re too busy talking on the cell, texting, or taking notes for our next blog post? Remember when there was even rhyming poetry on the walls? “If you sprinkle when you tinkle, please be neat and wipe the seat” springs to mind.
See what I mean? In my life as a prude, I would never, ever, have repeated that poem. As a teenager I was completely mortified by needing to ask for a bathroom when traveling with friends. I routinely “held it” long enough it’s a wonder I didn’t burst a kidney.
Now I blab for the world to hear, “Time for a pee break! Anyone else need to go?”
My grandmother would be appalled. I believe I heard her say “damn” maybe twice in her 93 years. She powdered her nose—she certainly didn’t “use the toilet.” I heard nary a curse word from my mother until I was at least 18. 
Purchasing feminine hygiene products used to be torture, but now I can actually say the word tampons out loud without feeling like my tongue may burst into flames. Although not in mixed company. And of course I recently passed the point of needing tampons. I can even say menopause out loud. Well, if it’s just us girls.
I use the “f” word out loud perhaps two dozen times a year, but my long-suffering husband is usually the only one who hears it (not directed at him, but in description of politicians, incompetent drivers, and other assorted dunderheads).
Upon reflection, perhaps I do retain a few taboos and words I refuse to acknowledge: nasal discharge, alternative “poo” words, parts of male and female anatomy below the waist, certain gastric disturbances, and don’t even attempt to talk to me about something you read in the Kama Sutra.
A friend from the Deep South recently revealed that she calls a certain part of the female anatomy one’s “butterbean.” I adore this as a term.
If you’ve never seen a butterbean, they are really very cute. They're shaped like a... oh, dear heavens, stop it! The vegetable, people, I’m talking about the VEGETABLE. Sheesh.
So maybe I am still a bit of a prude after all.
Shall I say it out loud, I’m a prude and I’m proud?
Or shall I write it on the bathroom wall?

Sunday, December 11, 2011


One of the books I’m reading, Healing After Loss, by Martha Whitmore Hickman (Harper, 1994), quotes social worker Lily Pincus:

When I asked the orthopedic surgeon who treated me whether people often fracture bones after bereavement, he said, without even looking up from my injured foot, “Naturally, people lose their sense of balance.”

Oh, so that’s what’s going on.

Never the most graceful of women, lately I have been walking into a few more walls than usual. My elbows flail away from me, hitting door casings. Small bruises appear on my arms and legs, and I can’t remember how I got them. Walking along, suddenly I veer off to the side like the cliché of the drunken sailor. I haven’t fallen. Yet.

Unbalanced. That’s a good way to put it. Off-center.

Losing Dad three weeks ago, I sometimes wonder I’m dealing a little too well with grief. Does that mean there’s something wrong with me?

Then, leaving a restaurant, I encounter a little man, bent over his walker, wearing a WW II, D-Day veteran’s cap. Dad had a cap like that, but for his service in the Pacific. I bought it for him, but he was reluctant to wear it, and continued with his ratty Carolina Panthers hat. Dad didn’t like to draw attention to his veteran status.

The little man is toddling toward the restaurant door. Shockwaves hit me, but I smile, say “WW II? Thank you for your service,” as I hold the door for the little man and his companion. Then I turn away, hit with that stupid weight front and center, under the breast bone.

But it passes. A young man in a wheel chair rolls up, and I hold the door open for him, too. My day to be doorman, but that’s how we do it in the South. I pull it back together, and no one with me even notices.

Talking with my husband later, I told him that meeting the old man was an unexpected slap of grief. I should have been prepared to meet my first little man with a walker after losing Dad, but I wasn’t, hadn’t planned for it.

I’m dealing well with the grief thing, honestly. Just a little clumsy, the occasional crying jag in the shower, and the urge to hug little old men.

But that’s not such a bad impulse, is it?