One Last Bouquet

The zinnias I planted in early summer are still holding on. Out my window, I see them reaching awkwardly up to the heavens, scraggly and too tall, like a teenager whose feet have grown too fast and are out of proportion with his body.

The zinnia is my favorite flower. It is a reliable annual, pretty easy to grow from seed, even with my less-than-stellar gardening skills. In spring, I start buying seed packets from garden shops, choosing different varieties: Sunbow Mix. Envy. Dwarf. Peppermint. The bright oranges, yellows, pinks, and reds of zinnias are pure color therapy for me—the epitome of hope. The summer of 2020, I planted twice as many zinnias as usual, nestling tiny seeds into every available square inch of soil in my garden because I knew I needed twice as much hope. I needed bright, showy colors to soldier on through what I hoped would be a brief pandemic.

Photo by Joyce McCown on Unsplash

Like a fulfilled promise, they poked through the dirt, unfurled their emerald arms, and smiled right at me with their dazzling blooms.

I share my love of zinnias with delicate monarch butterflies and shimmering hummingbirds who were drawn to the sweet nectar and visited my garden daily throughout August.

But the butterflies and hummingbirds don’t come any more. They haven’t for a while. Summer is over, and my bright, brave zinnias are holding on even as the wind grows colder and damp October rains threaten to wilt their petals. The gold and crimson maple trees nearby hover overhead and toss their leaves, the biggest show-offs on the playground. They try to outshine the beauty of my zinnias, but they can’t, really. The leaves and the zinnias can coexist peacefully; the world can’t have too much color, after all.

I know it’s just a matter of time before the frost comes, nipping at the flowers’ dazzling colors, forcing them to fade. I don’t know if I can bear the sight.

So I will gather my zinnias, arrange them in my nicest vase and make one last bouquet. They will stand bravely for a few more days, maybe a week, relying on the stores of energy remaining in their stems. Their beauty will have one last hoorah inside my warm house, the best accommodation I can give them to repay them for all they’ve given me. They’ll be at my table, where I work on my laptop, pay bills, and eat meals with my family. Perhaps I’ll even whisper thank you to my last bouquet, to honor the summer, and the good things that happened in spite of the bad.

Creating my last bouquet of the year is an act of hope, too. I will clear away the scraggly stems and smooth out the soil, in preparation for cold November rains, and the snow of winter.

Then, come spring, I will scour garden shops for even more zinnia seed packets, with even more vibrant colors and shapes and sizes. I’ll find any available square inch of soil in my garden and nestle the seeds just below the surface.

Then I will wait — and hope.

Originally published October 26 on MyHuntleyNews.com

Savoring Senseless Beauty

Practice random kindness & senseless acts of beauty.

~Anne Herbert

On a nondescript weeknight, a young man, probably barely over the age of 20, set up a chair beside a bike path. With a single microphone, an amplifier, and his guitar, he began playing — with no explanation — exquisite classical music.

There was nothing about this young man that would indicate that he was capable of this stunning music. His sneakers were scuffed, his hair a shaggy reminder that haircuts in the time of COVID are not necessarily essential.

But his fingers flew up and down the fretboard and coaxed such lyrical musical phrases out of his guitar strings that I was compelled to sit down on a nearby bench and take in this unexpected performance.

The guitarist had no music in front of him, and his eyes closed as he played. I found it fascinating. Wasn’t he wondering who was listening? Would he sneak a peek to see if an audience had gathered?

He did not. In fact, I wasn’t sure why he was even there. His guitar case was closed, so money didn’t seem to be his objective.

Then I thought: does there have to be a reason? Could it be that this young musician felt the urge to play and decided to share it with strangers for the sheer joy of it?

As he played song after song, I observed his serendipitous audience, the people who happened to walk or bike on that exact path at the exact moment that brought their evening to a cosmic convergence with this mysterious musician.

A dad passed by, pushing a stroller while the little girl in the seat leaned over to get a better view.

One man in bike shorts rode past with headphones on. He never even noticed what he missed.

A grandmother walked by with her three young grandsons. They stopped, smiled, listened, then began dancing. I liked the way the grandmother threw her head back in laughter when the boys tried to spin her. More people stopped: couples holding hands, individuals, families. People with dogs on leashes.

Even though the music was recital hall quality, this was a come-as-you-are venue: No fancy clothes or tickets or hushed voices required. Out in the open, the beauty of the music seemed even more striking — more part of this world, even — as the sound of barking dogs, passing cars, laughing children, and crickets singing their evening song provided a strange, discordant accompaniment.

I thought, what if I had walked in the other direction? What if I’d stayed home? I would’ve missed this.

I’m glad I didn’t miss it. I’m glad I accidentally stumbled upon senseless beauty. Thank goodness I wasn’t in a hurry and had time to sit down and be transported somewhere else for a few moments.

As the days turn cooler and the uncertainty of 2020 seems never ending, I’m worrying a lot. The tension in my neck and shoulders is always there. I find myself sighing throughout the day, just out of habit.

But there is still beauty in this world. There is beauty for no other purpose than to just be; it asks nothing in return, just serves as a reminder of our humanity—the way even strangers can feel connected in a solitary moment over a single shared experience. It makes me want to wake up, get outside, and seek out even more beauty. Or perhaps I will commit my own senseless act of beauty to make a stranger stop and smile. Just because.

Originally published Sept. 23, 2020 on MyHuntleyNews.com

Remote Learning Results in Unexpected Closeness

This isn’t the school year we planned for.

My work partner, focused and in the zone

Instead of new shoes, piles of fresh notebooks, pencil cases, locker organizers, and backpacks, this year started off more with a tiptoe than a bang. Come to think of it, I never took a “First Day of School” picture like I usually do. On the first day of classes, two of my kids woke up, showered, and unceremoniously walked to the dining room table a few feet away from where they’d just grabbed the milk for their breakfast cereal. Our school, like many across the country during the pandemic, is starting the year out with remote learning, allowing students to stay home and attend classes virtually.

Whereas our house used to wait empty most days, now our entire life seems to play out in two rooms of our house. My son sets up his high school learning command center in our sunroom, while my daughter sits across the dining room table from me. As I clack away on my laptop working remotely for my job at a public library, she attends Zoom classes and reviews Google Classroom for her middle school assignments.

When I check social media groups, parents seem outraged, signified by the number of exclamation points they use.

“We are failing our children!!” writes one mom. 

“E-learning is not working!!” says another. 

“My son isn’t being challenged enough!!” says a father.

I understand the frustration during these times of frequent handwashing and canceled plans. Still, I can’t muster the level of anger some are feeling. In fact, I actually appreciate the surprising advantages of remote learning.

I look over my laptop to see my daughter with her head cocked at a thoughtful angle. She is listening intently to her teacher over a Zoom call as she lazily reaches over to a bowl of sliced peaches positioned between us. We’ve started a new quiet routine with unspoken rules: when heading to the kitchen for a snack, always bring back enough to share with your “co-workers.”

Her classes are the soundtrack to my day—I’ve become accustomed to the voice of her Industrial Tech teacher, who tells stories about his various summer jobs when he was a teen. The social studies teacher always sings “Good morning, Good morning!” before taking attendance. The English teacher affectionately calls the students “my babies” (pronounced BAY-bez).

How often do our plans really work out anyway?

Carol Pavlik

This isn’t the school year we planned for. But how often do our plans really work out anyway? I’m taking this year as it comes, holding on to the things I know to be true: We are safe. We are healthy (today, anyway). We get to be together when normally, we’d be too busy for more than a quick hello before going on to our next obligation. Instead, I get a front-row seat to the expression of bravery on my kid’s face when she pipes up to answer a question, or the way she furrows her brow when she doesn’t understand something. Sometimes, I know how to help her. Other times, her eighth grade curriculum leaves me in the dust and I have to admit that I don’t know.

Remote learning has brought a closeness to my teenagers that I didn’t know was possible. As much as I long to get back to “normal,” I’m trying to hold these days of togetherness close to my heart. I have a feeling I’ll kind of miss them when they’re gone.

Originally published Sept. 10, 2020 on MyHuntleyNews.com

Minimalists: This is Our Moment

Photo by Fernando Rodrigues on Unsplash

Fellow minimalists: We didn’t realize it, but the way we’ve been editing our lives down, tossing out the extra, non-essentials in our lives has uncannily prepared us perfectly for this wave of COVID-19, the pandemic that is keeping most of us at home right now.

There was no way we could’ve guessed.

As I’ve said before, minimalism is an ongoing process, and one person’s minimalism may be completely different than another’s version. But the thread that binds us all together is our desire to get rid of the extra—because we’ve realized that having too much actually takes away from our happiness and peace of mind.

Here are a few ways our practice of minimalism has made this trying time of social distancing a little more bearable—especially those of us hunkered down with our families.

We’ve cleared the clutter
There is more room in our house to play and create. There are clear surfaces for puzzles, games, and art.

We’ve cleared our schedule
We’ve already taken steps to clear our calendars of extra obligations. We’ve had some practice not using busy-ness as a badge of honor. We’re comfortable with moments of stillness and rest.

We’ve practiced sharing space
Our smaller house has one bathroom, and we share bedrooms. We’ve got this whole “living in close quarters with others” down cold.

We know how to communicate with our roommates
Since our house is small, we’ve already learned to say, “I need a few minutes of quiet,” or, “I’m planning to take a long, relaxing bubble bath. Anyone need to get in the bathroom before I start?”

We have a safety net
Minimalism, for us, had a lot to do with finances. We’ve cut down our spending by a lot (hellooooo, small house mortgage payment!), which means that we’re not spending every dollar we earn as soon as we earn it. In these uncertain times, that helps me sleep a little better at night. 

But most importantly …

We’re all doing the best we can.
No one knew this was going to happen. Not really. We’re all just winging it. We’re all coming up with a new normal for right now that works for us. There are no wrong answers! 

If anything good comes from this period of social distancing, let it be that we discover that we’re more resourceful than we thought. We’ll probably discover we are more connected to our neighbors than we originally thought, too. And with all this time at home living a slower pace, I have a feeling some new beauty will be created.

Stay well, my friends. Be kind to yourself and others.

Xoxo,

Carol

Music Builds Cathedrals

Being a band director’s wife, there is no shortage of music in my life–thank goodness!

Last weekend in a span of less than 24 hours, I had two very different back-to-back musical experiences. On Saturday, we were given primo floor-level tickets to Symphony Center in Chicago, arguably one of the best and most beautiful performance spaces. We heard the Chicago Symphony Orchestra perform music by Dmitri Shostakovich: loud, brash, passionate, and stirring. The way the brass played with such power that the sound pummeled the walls behind us then dissipated in swirls around our ears, had my trumpeter husband just as enthused as you might imagine someone cheering on their favorite team in the last moments of a neck-and-neck championship game.

Players of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra warm up before performing Shostakovich’s Eighth Symphony

Sunday, however, there were no tuxedos or stages or conductor podiums or glasses of wine poured at intermission; Sunday we went to an assisted living facility just a mile or so from home. Like many times before, Mr. Band Director invited his students to volunteer to come on a sunny Sunday to play a piece of music or two for the residents.

If anyone ever sighs, “Kids these days!” Mr. Band Director and I will argue that the kids we know, the band kids, have hearts of gold and will take our world into the future in excellent fashion, thank you very much. Carrying their instruments and music stands, a small army of students followed my husband to the second floor, where folks were already gathered, canes and walkers cast aside, brakes secured on wheelchairs. The room is used for programs, concerts, and parties, and the stained glass window nestled in the crux of the vaulted ceiling gives the insinuation of a chapel.

Teaching band at the local high school means my husband stands before large groups of kids for concert band, jazz band, pep band, even marching band. But the small groups that form–perhaps a couple flutists, or a group of woodwinds, maybe a brass quartet–is the stuff that produces some of the largest educational leaps in his students. Since Mr. Band Director grew up taking his music to nursing homes–unlikely cathedrals–he knows this is something worth doing.

The music begins. Smiles spread across faces. Eyes sparkle. Toes tap.

A group of students play an instrumental arrangement of “Havana,” by Camila Cabello. It’s unlikely any of the residents recognized the Top 40 hit, but no matter; the students sound good, and the tune has a catchy groove. More toes tap.

At the sound of an old favorite hymn–“Morning Has Broken”–a collective sigh ripples through the crowd.

Ahhhh, I remember this one!

Before long, the imaginary wall between audience and performer breaks down.

What kind of saxophone is that? a woman asks.

I used to play clarinet, says another woman to the students. My sister played flute.

A man in back doesn’t say a word. But there are tears in his eyes.

And who’s to say which is better, the concert hall or the retirement home? There are arguments for each. Symphony Center takes my breath away at the domed ceiling, bright lights, and the sheer lifelong, grueling commitment of all the musicians to study and hone their craft in order to join and remain in one of the finest Symphony Orchestras.

And yet.

The students didn’t come that Sunday for a grade or for a paycheck. They volunteered–said yes–to sharing their music. Some didn’t know what to expect, but they came anyway. Some had only one song prepared, but the one song came out sweet and strong and clear.

I think these young musicians already know that music can exist among tuxedos, stages, and box seats, but it doesn’t need to. This beautiful connective force called music belongs in unexpected places, among the hearing aids and orthopedic shoes, on a quiet street, in a homeless shelter. You can bring the music to the cathedral, or you can build the cathedral with the music.

Mr. Band Director knew it all along. Off to the side, he’s giddy with excitement, cheering on his team.

We bought a little camper

“Money can’t buy happiness, but it can buy a camper,
which is kind of the same thing.”

Unknown

The fun started when we rented an RV for our family vacation this past summer: a 32-foot monstrosity with room enough for 8 to sleep. It was a bucket-list item that we wanted to try: load up the whole tribe, traverse the Midwest, and end up at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. For a week, we were all together with our four kids, ranging from age 12 to 23, plus our son’s girlfriend, seeing the sights, watching Old Faithful erupt, searching the scenery for bears, elk, and moose (our efforts were rewarded on all counts). There was so much laughter and singing. We hiked and climbed, oohed and aahed. Books and playlists were shared. There were so. many. chess games. It’s a trip we’ll remember for a long time.

We’ve done a lot of tent camping over the years. Taking babies and toddlers and young children to a campground is work, but it’s also magical. The outdoors is the perfect playground for kids. But as my husband likes to say, “As time goes on, the ground gets harder.” Our rented RV opened our eyes to the convenience of having a little place to come in from out of the rain, while not missing out on the campfires and simplicity of camping.

Here’s a photo of Mr. Band Director at the wheel of the rented RV. It’s a 32-foot monstrosity and he handled it like a pro!

Soon after returning from Yellowstone, we bought a camping trailer. Our little teardrop is more compact, more suited for weekend getaways. It sleeps 3.

Our “new-to-us” little camper!

Check out this photo of us on our maiden voyage. Next to us is our friend’s car. She slept in a specially fitted tent for her Prius, called a Habitent. It’s pretty awesome. It transformed her little car into a wilderness getaway. Plus, she added twinkly lights which gets my full approval.

So, I stand by the fact that the happiest times of my life are spent in small spaces: my small house (a.k.a. the Cozy Cottage); a college dorm room; cabins in Michigan; bedtime stories in my kids’ treehouse. We don’t need a lot of space to feel happy and peaceful: in fact, it’s my experience is that the smaller the space, the more expansive the joy.

I’m looking forward to big adventures in the beautiful world in our little house on wheels!

Beginning, Middle, and End

Photo by Dominika Roseclay on Pexels.com

Life is one big love story with hundreds of little love stories within it.

Ram Charan

I wasn’t intending on telling a story as I rode with Sarah into the city on a Monday night. I was just going to lend moral support to our friend, Kim, a storyteller. Earlier in the day, Kim asked me, “Are you going to tell a story?” and I said “Absolutely not!” without hesitating. Later, Sarah told me, “I have a story. Do you want to do one, too?”

This time I hesitated and said, “Maybe.”

What are you supposed to do when you’re out on a Monday night in the spring in your favorite city with two fearless women who don’t seem to be concerned about baring their souls to a roomful of strangers?

I folded under the peer pressure and put my name on the sign-up sheet.

The storytelling event, an open mic, is a popular long-running series in Chicago. The stories are unrehearsed. Anyone can walk in, sign up, and be called up to the front where there’s just a microphone. There are rules: The story can be no longer than 7 minutes, and the audience is expected to offer up unbridled enthusiasm. I mean, each storyteller approached and retreated from the microphone among thunderous applause from a supportive audience. It was a safe space. Phones were off, eyes were up, ears were open. We were all going to be vulnerable. Together.

I felt the earth shift during that evening of storytelling. I heard stories of love, loss, and redemption. Of breaking rules. Of making up new rules. Feeling alone. Overcoming.

Every story has a beginning, a middle, and an end. Since that night, I’m starting to consider my quiet life as a series of my own stories. I hadn’t really thought of it quite that way before. But when your life is a story unfolding, it makes you want to try new things, experience things out of your comfort zone. Because who knows what might happen? Everything could go right, and that will become a sweet story.

Or everything could go wrong. That would make a compelling story. All of it is good.

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Band Wife

March 2019 – visiting Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs with our 174 “kids.”

Spring Break involved a bus ride spanning four states with 174 teenagers and about a dozen adults. We traveled to the beautiful Rocky Mountains in Colorado, arguably one of the most stunning spots in our country. Two years ago I did this on a trip to Disney World. Four years ago I was on a bus to Memphis.

I’m a Band Wife. My husband, Mr. Band Director, is a musician and a teacher, and his passion is showing young people how to make music a part of their everyday life. Mr. Director wakes up early and is excited to get to a before-school jazz rehearsal at the high school where he’s taught for 13 years. He leads his band during the day. After school, there are sectionals, auditions, lessons. In the evenings, there are sometimes performances, rehearsals, marching band during football season, pep band during basketball season. After an event, Mr. Director can’t leave until the last student is picked up. Weekends, there’s the occasional call: “Mr. Band Director, I forgot my instrument at school. Can you help me get it?”

I only tell you this so that you understand that for Mr. Director, this isn’t a 9-5 job. This is a calling. A lifestyle, in fact. When Mr. Director isn’t in the classroom, he is reading articles about more effective teaching methods, reaching out to other musicians to exchange ideas. At our dinner table, we sometimes get a music lesson, or tips on how to practice better to achieve mastery on an instrument.

Being a Band Wife isn’t a calling, but it is a lifestyle. Band wives know the literature. They understand the different sections of the band. They’re sitting on the sidelines at the football game and basketball game, cheering for the band (and the team, too!). They’re in the auditorium. They’re armed with lawn chair and mosquito spray in the back of the van for all the summer concerts outside.

So why do I spend spring break riding 18 hours on a coach bus, thankful for my neck pillow, crushing a bag filled with snacks between my ankles to keep it upright as we rumble along the highway?

Because it’s Band Tour, silly.

Those 174 kids are like our extended family. They shape the world our family lives in. Based on these 174, the world is in great hands. These are thoughtful kids who are kind to one another, who look out for each other, and make great music together. Even better, they aren’t shy about sharing their music with the rest of the world. Some of them will go on and do music as a career–performers, educators, songwriters, arrangers– and others will use music as a stress reliever or a side hustle outside of their “day jobs.” But they will always have music in their lives. My husband makes it his life’s work.

I get to watch my husband do what he loves. When a student is hurting, he cries with them. When a student makes a sudden connection with music, it can feed his soul for days. As the Band Wife, I have the best seat in the house.

Oh, hello, 2019.

At the turn of the calendar each January, do you choose a word of the year?

I do.

For 2017, I chose “Fierce.” That was the year I tried to get my mojo back as my own person, not just “Mom” or “Wife.”

2018 was “Ritual.” It was the year I chose to establish new habits like exercise and making more time to connect with my spouse.

But 2019? I just couldn’t come up with the right word. Until it smacked me in the face, quite literally.

While walking the dog on a Thursday evening, I took a spill. I fell right on my face. I tripped on the sidewalk, and down I went. Pretty, right?

I’m lucky. I know that now. I got great help from my daughter, a kind neighbor, my caring husband, skillful emergency room personnel. The next day, an oral surgeon did what I can only classify as a miracle when he muscled my front teeth back into alignment.

Above me on the MRI table at the hospital, one ceiling tile was decorated with a shiny laminated poster of an impossibly blue sky, fluffy white clouds, and lush green palm leaves. This could almost feel like vacation, I thought wryly to myself, if not for the bleeding and the throbbing pain.

I contemplated the word “spill” as I lay there, not moving. I like the sound of the word, the way it cuts through the air like a knife. It takes on different meanings. It’s short and to the point.

spill
 verb
\ˈspil \spilled\ˈspild,  ˈspilt \ also spilt\ˈspilt \; spilling
Definition of spill 
1: to cause or allow especially accidentally or unintentionally to fall, flow, or run out so as to be lost or wasted
2a: to cause (blood) to be lost by wounding b.archaic KILLDESTROY
3: to let out DIVULGEspill a secret

I’m claiming the word SPILL for myself for 2019. Or rather, it claimed me. I’m going to let it remind me that I got knocked down along the way, but I got back up.

I’m going to spill my guts through my writing.

Also, I’m going to use spill as a metaphor for gratitude. As in, my cup spills over. I have more than I need or deserve. A pesky little fall? A cut lip and scratched face? A bruised ego? It’s nothing compared to what some have had to face. Maybe this is a clue that I need to enter the new year with a stiff upper lip, with my arms swinging.

So hello, 2019. Let’s do this.

Snow Day

macro photography of snowflakes
Photo by David Dibert on Pexels.com

Today’s snow day extends our long, luxurious Thanksgiving weekend another day. Last night, as the snow fell and the power flickered on and off a few too many times for my comfort level, we waited in hushed tones for a call or text from our school district. At 9:30 p.m.–hallelujah! We knew what the call was about before we answered. The lovely, scratchy sound of a pre-recorded message: “Due to weather conditions, school is canceled tomorrow …”

(In case anyone ever wanted to know, I can affirm that a teacher is just as excited about a snow day as students–maybe more!)

A snow day rates way higher in my book than a scheduled day off. I have so many memories of our four children waking up early searching for snow pants and boots, going out before breakfast to scope out which neighbor kids were out already building snow forts. They’d come back once they were good and cold, noses running, cheeks bright pink, eyes sparkling at the sight of me making pancakes or waffles or muffins. We’d hang up the wet snow gear on the shower curtain or throw it in the dryer so it would be ready for round two.

Today’s snow day is a bit different. One teenage son’s plans to go out to have breakfast with his friend was delayed by the reality of clearing snow off the car’s windshield and the driveway, but hopefully the sense of accomplishment he felt afterwards was worth it. Another teenage son is still sleeping soundly in his bed, earbuds in, broadcasting to the rest of us that he is not meant to be disturbed. Our 11 year old daughter is still holding on to precious childhood wonder: searching for snow pants, layering up to go outside and build something in the snow with her friend. I can’t help but wonder to myself if this is the last year she’ll wake up excited to play in the snow.

Even though my kids are spending their snow days differently than they used to, they are learning the exhilarating feeling of having a day stretched out before them, a completely clean slate. They have the choice to spend it the way they like, and every delicious moment they can compare where they would’ve been at that moment if school were in session.

Whether you are in snow or sun today, take a Snow Day or a Snow Moment for yourself: give yourself a fun snapshot of a memory to freeze in your mind for a later date, when you need it. Right now I’m gazing out the window searching for cardinals. I think I’ll be heading for the tea kettle next. What do you like to do when life gives you a snow day?

xoxo,

Carol