This Boiled Frog

I went to a dentist in February for the first time in I don’t even know how many years. It’s ridiculous, really. I’ve had dental insurance for over a year and a half, but I was scared of what they would say to me, so I kept putting it off. When I finally went, the news wasn’t as bad as I expected: only three cavities, and those pretty minor. My wisdom teeth will be coming out next week, but at least they didn’t take one look and say, “Call the surgeon, stat! We’ve got a rotten tooth about to turn into a brain infection here.” The wisdom teeth thing is an unfinished saga, so I’ll save that for another day, but the cavities I had done in short order after my exam and there’s an amusing story in there.

Maybe three or four days after having my cavities drilled and filled, I woke up to discover that the tip of my tongue had gone numb, almost as if I had burned it. It wasn’t painful, exactly but certainly disconcerting.

I think I’ve been a bit stressed of late. I mean, I know I’ve been stressed. I more or less abandoned a blog that I’ve been intrepidly plugging away at in spite of a low readership for more than two years, and believe it or not, I love obsessing about my life and attempting to spin the details into stories that will garner a chuckle or two from my grandmother and mother-in-law. I’ve hardly touched my guitar in three months, and I haven’t even pulled my ukulele out of the case in six. My sourdough is more sour than usual because I haven’t been working with it on a regular basis. All of these things I love, I’ve put aside because one person can only do so much, and I just haven’t had the will or the energy.

I had forgotten, however, just how different stress feels from not-stress. Stress is one of those things that changes your quality of life in slow, subtle ways, like putting a frog in a pot of comfortable water and putting it on to boil at a low heat. You don’t notice the incremental changes in your well-being until they’ve transformed you from a banjo-strumming green nudist into Doc Hopper’s French-fried dinner.

Last week I had the first real vacation I’ve had in a long time. My program schedule is tied to the school schedule, so of  course I get Monday holidays and in-service days off, and I have more vacations in a year than most  people would know what to do with, but in all that alleged time off, I have had Stuff To do for Other People (questionably  by appropriately acronymized, STOP). Not unpleasant stuff, really, and not so much from anyone person that their desire to borrow my time could be questioned, but enough from enough people that my vacations have felt claustrophobic. When I have had time, it’s been so cold and dreary that I didn’t want to go anywhere, which led to a claustrophobic vacation of my own making that did not do its job. If you never vacate your apartment, it’s not really a vacation, is it?

But last week, the weather was warm and inviting. The grass was green. My obligations to others were so minimal as to be all but nonexistent. I didn’t even have the pressures of my book hanging over my head because I just finished a major rewrite and the book is now locked away until July so I can get some distance and perspective on it. I literally had nothing to do except walk in the park, read, pick away at some short stories I had relegated to the back burner, and generally relish the sense of being unfettered for a week. I didn’t even make myself exercise, beyond those gorgeous park walks, or do housework. I just plain chilled until I was on that pleasant edge of boredom where you haven’t yet crossed into despair at your own uselessness. It was marvelous. Monday morning came, and for the first time since September, I woke up before my alarm feeling rested and not miserable at getting up at such an unholy hour.

Driving home on Monday, I noticed something. My left eye was twitching. I frowned and considered the past week. The eye twitching thing has been intermittent most of my life, and in the last year or so it’s become much more regular. During my vacation, however, the eye twitching hadn’t made a single appearance. Yesterday, as I was driving to a meeting, I noticed that the tip of my tongue was feeling a bit numb and sore. This too, has become a regular occurrence over the past three months, but I had chalked it up to some weird reaction my mouth was having to the new topography of my teeth-after-three-fillings. Again, however, during my vacation my tongue felt good and normal and whole.

Apparently, stress is also a wolf lurking at the edge’s of the campfire’s light, ready to pounce on that pot of boiling frog the second the illumination of rest starts to fade. One day back at work, and my nervous ticks that I hadn’t even registered as nervous ticks before were back in full force.

All I can say to this is (1) it’s a shame I’m not really able to tell the short and squeaky sources of my stress what they’re doing to me, for fear of giving them long-term anxiety issues and (2) I am really looking forward to June 21st. Part-time employment may not be a permanently sustainable situation, but I am going to rock it while I can.

The Joy of the Soul: Part Two

When last we left you, John and I were digesting our delicious pie from a classic Maine diner and winding our way slowly inland toward John’s native soil. I believe you were sitting on the edge of your seat, waiting with bated breath to discover the second simple step to lifting up your spirit. Your patience, dear reader, shall not be in vain.

Step 2. Remember Childhood

When we arrived at John’s mom and step-dad’s, tired and ready to get some dinner, we decided to visit the local ice cream / hot dog stand. The evening was just starting to cool and the air was perfect for sitting on picnic benches outside a building so tiny it’s hard to believe they actually store and prepare quite tasty food inside it. This little ice cream stand is one of the icon’s of John’s childhood, and I confess that between the onion rings and the ice cream covered in sprinkles savored to the sound of families laughing and the sites of dogs looking longingly out the half-open car windows at the passing trays of hot dogs, I have myself become a fan.

Full of deliciously unhealthy food, we went back to the house and quickly got drawn into catching fireflies with our nephew. (Here’s a funny tidbit for you, folks. My blog name is taken from a Mark Twain quote; where I come from, we call them fireflies.) I was exhausted at that point, so I stood on the porch for a while watching John and our nephew romp through the damp grass after the flashes of light, talking with my mother-in-law. At some point in the game, it occurred to me that as much as I enjoy talking with my wonderful mother-in-law, I was missing out on an opportunity that I might one day look back on as rare, so I crept down the porch stairs to chase after my boys and help them imprison poor helpless bugs for a while. (Don’t worry – John snuck out to let them go once our nephew was distracted.)

This is cliche, I’m sorry, but there truly is magic in catching fireflies with people you love.

The next day began bright, but not too early, with some Saturday morning cartoons, pastries, and berry-picking. The last time I remember picking strawberries was when I was visiting my aunt in Massachusetts and she took us out to get strawberries for my absolute favorite pie in the whole world (her strawberry-rhubarb). John swears I’ve been strawberry picking with him before, but I think his brain is starting to rewrite itself to include me in memories I wasn’t yet around to witness. I do remember the day with my aunt and cousins, and the farmer who jokingly tried to weigh us as we left so he could charge us for all the berries we had eaten as we picked. Watching my nephew gather berries made me realize why: he got more around his mouth in juice stains, I believe, than ever made it to the inside of his green cardboard basket.

Can you blame him?

Our day continued in like kind, swimming in an icy lake and hunting crawfish. Tickling one another with grass and enjoying cookies on a dock. Piggyback rides and floating in the sun. The moments are as hard to capture in words as they are to forget: they’re precious. Childhood means different things to different people, but participating in the rituals that have made you feel safe and beloved through your life is not something to be neglected. For your soul’s sake, revisit the moments of belonging and joy, then move on to…

Step 3. Cross Something Off Your Bucket List

I don’t actually have a bucket list, as such. I also think it’s a horribly crude way of naming the repository of hope for what a person can achieve in their numbered days. That said, you know what I’m referring to, and written down or not, we all have certain things we hope to do before we shuffle off this mortal coil, so to speak.

After John and I left his mother and step-father, we turned south to visit with my parents, who brought us back out to the coast on Sunday to enjoy some rather questionable weather in Camden. We drove up Mount Battie, climbed the tower, threw crackers at each other, picked the leftover crackers up, hassled the park attendant, and generally made nuisances of ourselves while we waited to find out if we would be able to enjoy the main reason we had made the trek out to the coast: sailing on the Lazy Jack II.

I have wanted to learn to sail, or at least to experience sailing in some small capacity to find out if I have the stomach for it, since I read and loved Moby Dick in high school. I didn’t learn any great truths about boats or human nature on our two-hour tour, but I did get to feel the exciting tilt of a boat under sail and the wind whipping in my face. And best of all, I got to hoist the mainsail.

Oh yes, my friends. The only thing that could have made that moment better was if a younger Kevin Kline had popped out of the hold and started climbing the rigging and singing….

All the same, it was a fulfilling moment.

And there you have it, class. To lift up your spirit in three steps, simply take the scenic route, remember your childhood (the good bits), and do something new that you’d like to do before you die. Go, now. Do it. Shut down your browser this instant and do what you need to be able to step into the street without knocking people’s hat from their heads. You can thank me later, after you have  found the joy your soul is longing for.

What the heck are you still reading for? Didn’t I tell you to get going?

The Joy of the Soul: Part One

Life has a way of tumbling from one day into the next, routines blurring together in a way that makes you feel like life is living you instead of the reverse. Vacations justifiably have a reputation for being anything but restful, but I think rest can be construed in a number of ways. There is physical rest for the body, which I surprisingly get plenty of as an adult with a regular work schedule. And then there’s rest for the soul, but how do you rest something so intangible? You stop abusing it with drab routines and send it on vacation to take hold of life.

John and I had the opportunity to take a four-day trip to Maine this past weekend, which wore my body out completely but has left my mind and heart more content than they’ve been in what feels like a long while. In the interest of sharing this gift of rejuvenation with a hundred of my closest friends, here are my notes on puttering about tourist-style in our home state…

How To Lift Up Your Spirit In 3 Simple Steps

Step 1. Take the Scenic Route

On a light traffic day, it takes us about three and a half hours to drive from our apartment to John’s mother and step-father’s house. On Friday, we left our apartment at 6:30 am. We arrived at my in-laws shortly after 6:00 pm. By the time we got there, we were a bit tired, but we were not sick of one another because we followed the cardinal rules of road trips: (1) Bring tunes everyone can enjoy. (2) Begin the day with donuts and go downhill from there. (3) Do what you feel like, not what you planned.

We had thought to stop in Portland to catch the ferry out to Peaks Island, but our timetable would have had us just missing the 9:15. We’ve been meaning to go wander around Peaks together since we first started dating, but somehow the timing never quite works out. Someday we’ll get out there, or not. Friday, we decided to head straight to Bradbury Mountain instead.

The hike up the Summit Trail was actually too easy, so we meandered our way down the North Ridge Trail, where we discovered some awesome mushrooms, an oak sprouting from an acorn, and a downed tree across the trail. It was small and easy to climb over, but I felt like a good citizen when I reported it to the ranger, who hadn’t heard about it yet. Even if I did call it a maple when it was apparently an oak. Ah well, you can’t not look like an idiot all of the time.

The trip from Bradbury to Popham Beach took us through Brunswick, where we stopped to pick up some grilling food. We had some charcoal and lighter fluid and a deep conviction in the pleasure of bratwursts and mustard with a hint of sand. Neither John nor I had been to Popham in years, and I’m not sure either of us had ever grilled there,  so we were operating on the assumption that my memory of the information on the one website out of several I had looked at the night before was accurate in telling us there were grilling facilities. We parked close to the bathhouse on the right side of the parking lot, loaded ourselves up with our beach gear, and struck out in search of grills.

The path to the beach revealed a very grill-free area, so we went back to the parking lot and walked over to the bathhouse on the left side. There were no signs, so we assumed that the beach on that side would be equally grill-free. Still laden with our stuff, we trekked over to the booth at the park entrance to ask the ranger if there were, in fact, grills. After waiting five or ten minutes for her to process incoming cars and answer phone calls, we were told that they were, in fact, up the left beach path just a short ways. D’oh.

By the time we got to the grills, we were very hungry and, therefore, very impatient with the way the sea breeze kept blowing out our charcoal. After three douses of light fluid, we thought we finally had the coals going. They weren’t nice and grayish-white, but we were so hungry that we decided to put our brats on anyway. Three minutes later, we realized the coals were out again. My brilliant solution, instead of moving the brats, was to squirt the lighter fluid in sideways. My family history may have endowed me with a slight subconscious tendency toward pyromania; I really have no sense of moderation when it comes to using accelerants to get a fire going. When I flicked the fire finger on, the flames billowed up at me and around the brats in really a very impressive way, triggering chuckles from the older couple watching us grill from a nearby table.

What can I say? Lighter fluid has never seasoned meat so deliciously.

We left the gorgeous beach decidedly sunburned with a camera full of waves, sand dollars, and driftwood to drive straight through a raging thunderstorm for pie at Moody’s Diner. Seriously–do you see how blue the sky is behind me? The morning had been gorgeous, but we hadn’t been in the car ten minutes when the sky broke open and starting dumping on us. It poured steadily all the way to Waldoboro and let up just before we pulled into the diner’s parking lot.

If you don’t know Moody’s, it’s a Maine tourist tradition of sorts. It’s just a diner, but it has a long history, as diners go, and their coconut cream pie is otherworldly.

If you want to find out what steps 2 and 3 to lifting the spirit are, I’m afraid you will have to exercise patience and diligence. Bringing joy to the soul is a topic worthy of a series, don’t you think?

Fruit Flies Like a Banana

You’d think that vacation would be the best time for actually getting a post up at a reasonable hour, wouldn’t you? You’d be wrong, though. I have nothing but time on my hands right now, spent half of the day wondering what I should do with my time, and still managed to accomplish what feels like exactly nothing.

I think the problem started with not getting out of bed. I woke up at a reasonable hour, but I’m trying to finish reading through a series I borrowed from Mom so I can return it to her this weekend before borrowing a new one. (My mother has a better sci-fi/fantasy collection than my local library. When she buys a series, she buys the whole darn thing.) Staying in bed to read is something I haven’t actually done much of since college, largely because lounging around like that makes my body all sluggish and sore. Am I turning into an old fuddy-duddy prematurely? Yes, yes I am.

When I finally managed to drag myself out of bed, I ran (i.e., mostly walked) a very half-hearted three miles, which took forever because I was sore. Then I wrestled with my old and cranky sewing machine to try to do a few simple hems for a work project. That project should have taken me twenty minutes. It took me two hours.

Somehow those little tasks carried me all the way past lunchtime into the early afternoon, when I realized I should probably shower off the sweat from my run at some point in the day. I had also decided to oil my hair this morning, so the shower turned into a battle to get the visible majority of the oil back out of my hair.

I realized halfway through the shower that I hadn’t put up a blog post yet, but as soon as I got dressed, my phone rang and my awesome new freelance boss had some stuff for me to work on. I hate to say it, but turning my time into money is currently somewhat higher up my priority list than writing my own blog. Eventually the one might equal the other, but I suspect that’s a fair way off.

Tired and out of sorts as my overslept-in body has been all day, I completely forgot about my blog until I had been working on my next novel for about an hour. I won’t apologize for putting that first–my hope for vacation is always to get some real writing done–but when I looked at the clock and realized it was already four, I was completely flabbergasted. That is why my blog post is retracing the minute steps of my day–I am desperately trying to figure out where my writing vacation has gone. Where does it always go?

One thing is for sure–I get a lot more done in a day where I get up at five instead of eight.