40 before 40: build a French drain

Building a French drain wasn’t going to be a 40 Before 40 project, but my incredibly sore muscles are demanding it — plus it meets the primary rule: it is something new that I have never done before. As a bonus, it should have a far more lasting impact for our home than many of our other major ventures.

Despite what you might be thinking, a French drain actually has nothing to do with the European country by the same name. It’s a system of moving water away from your home that was invented by an attorney from Massachusetts named Henry French. (Random fun fact: Henry was born in 1813, which means he was 23 years old when our church house was constructed.)

A French drain (also called a weeping tile, a blind drain, a rock drain, an agricultural drain, and about 900 other things) is a trench filled with gravel and rock that contains a perforated pipe to help collect and redirect water. Our home was in desperate need of one: it was one of the few things our home inspector cited as a priority.

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This is what a French drain looks like underground.

Our problem is this: we live at the bottom of a hill, and when it rains, a small river forms off the road, traveling down our driveway and straight into the foundation of our garage. That moisture adds to anything that collects on our property, from the roof, etc. Over time, all of this water washed away a lot of the soil surrounding the garage’s foundation, forming rather disturbing canyons-to-nowhere on the front and side of the structure. We did a lot of work last summer to fill in these area and repair cracks, but we needed a permanent solution or we risked the corner of our garage collapsing.

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This is what a French drain looks like underground.

To build our French drain, we needed:

  1. 14,000 pounds (seven tons!) of rock.IMG_1839 (1)
  2. The world’s smallest diesel excavator, which looks ridiculous, but actually was a workhorse. We rented this one from our local hardware store, and my brother drove it — adding to the hilarity, since he’s quite tall.IMG_1861
  3. 200 feet of corrugated pipe… which we purchased. Then, as we were getting started, Elizabeth peered into the woods next to our house, pointed through the trees and brush, and said, “hey — is that pipe that someone threw in the forest?” And yes, yes it was. About 100 feet of it — trashed in the forest. I don’t know how long it has been there, but we have lived in the house almost two years and hadn’t spotted it. It was virtually brand new… after we shook out a squirrel’s impressive collection of nuts and seeds.IMG_1883
  4. 200 feet of landscape fabric sock, to keep dirt and debris out of the pipe. This photo (which I found online) makes it look very easy to slide on, but it’s basically like putting pantyhose on a 100-foot, constantly moving, uncooperative plastic leg.e_Drainageschlauch_ueberziehen_2
  5. And, most importantly, an amazing team of people. My dad drew a rough plan with Google Earth so we could get a sense of the natural slope of the land to assist with planning, and also to know how much rock and pipe to purchase. And Scott and I will be forever grateful to Steve and Elizabeth for their know-how, muscles, patience and perseverance. This was not an easy job. At all.IMG_1879

In all, the project took the four of us about 8 hours to complete. We took two breaks — totaling maybe 10 minutes — otherwise, we kept snacks out and shoveled food in our mouths as we passed them.

The most difficult part was preparing the drain over areas of the driveway and yard that are flat — the pipe obviously needs to have a constant downward trajectory to work. We chose a path that traveled mostly downhill, but there were a few areas that required brain power to get right. Otherwise, though, it was our muscles that got the workout — the mini-excavator helped tremendously, but we still had to move the rock by hand (using wheelbarrows) and do a lot of the surface work with yard tools.

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This is what a French drain looks like underground.

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This is what a French drain looks like underground.

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This is what a French drain looks like underground.

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This is what a French drain looks like underground.

It’s been raining on and off today, and I keep going outside to check on the drain in the driveway we installed. If it’s raining hard, it fills up fast, and then a few minutes later, it’s empty again. I can’t possibly relay to you how exciting it is to see!

Yes. I know. I’m watching and getting thrills from watching water drain away from our house. This is what almost 40-year-olds do for fun.

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This is what a French drain looks like underground.

Before I close, I want to use this opportunity to publicly acknowledge our worker bees. Huge, huge, huge thanks to Steve and Elizabeth for their help. We would never, ever have been able to do this without you, and certainly not in one weekend day. You guys are the best. Anytime you want to come over and watch water drain away, you let me know — it’ll be a party!

 

40 before 40: get slathered in honey and slapped by trees

If I had been forced to write a bucket list two years ago, there is absolutely no way one of the items would have been “sit in an obnoxiously hot sauna while a man pours honey over my naked body and then beats me with an oak tree.”

That’s the beauty of 40 Before 40. Because now that it happened, I get to add it to the list!

Let me back up a bit.

In Russia, a “banya” is a type of sauna — it’s a centuries-old tradition to visit a banya, and some people even build them in their homes. The banya is made of wood and heated by fire, and an intense hot steam is created when water (sometimes infused with essential oils) is poured over it.

Wooden benches line the walls of the banya, and guests lie on them to be smacked briskly by “veniks,” which is a broom made of twigs, branches and leaves of birch or oak trees.

Yes, you read the right. People in Russia relax by paying people to whack them with tree branches.

More to the point, I paid to be whacked by tree branches.

I’d heard about a spa in Denver that specializes in banya massages, and as I near the end of 40 Before 40, it seemed like a good time to try one. My (mostly work) trip to Colorado last week came on the heels of a circus-related injury that’s caused muscles in my shoulder/back to seize, placing constant pressure on my right scapula. I’m not in pain as long as I’m not doing anything crazy (like… you know… circus), but it is pretty uncomfortable.

I arrived at the spa to greet the therapist who would spend the better part of an afternoon with me: he was a burly, bearded man, clad in swim trunks and flip flops. Beyond reading a little about the banya, and the tree whipping, I didn’t know much about what to expect — I find that with new experiences, it’s sometimes more fun not to know all the details (it’s a philosophy that backfired on me when it came to my death jump in the Adirondacks).  However, I’ll admit I was a little alarmed by my intake form, which asked me to rate my tolerance for heat… and pain!?!

I was lead to my treatment room, which was gorgeously decorated with wooden panels and carvings. A typical massage table took up about half of the space, with the other half dedicated to a hot tub, a shower and the banya.

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I started my treatment in the hot tub, which was lovely and featured glowing blue and red lights that pulsed on and off slowly. It would have been mesmerizing if I hadn’t been wholly focused on preventing my own drowning.

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I am a fairly accomplished long-distance swimmer — my longest open water swim was a 6.2 mile crawl across a lake in California. Deep water doesn’t scare me. But one doesn’t often climb into a hot tub with the expectation of treading water. The tub was so deep that if I sat on the seat, I had to tip my head completely back to keep my nose out of the water. Even so, the water was churning and bubbling, and it was nearly impossible to relax.

I am not a short person, and I do not know how this hot tub could be reasonably used by anyone under six-foot-four. I ended up squatting on the tub’s seat which had the added benefit of keeping part of my chest out of the water, helping me avoid feeling like I might overheat and die.

(It’s important to note that, as my intake form will verify, my tolerance to heat is “very, very low.”)

A knock on the door 15 minutes later signaled my time to dry off and lay on the massage table. For the better part of an hour, my therapist worked on my shoulder and back. Though I hadn’t used it in the most ideal way, the hot tub had warmed my muscles and made my body far more pliable than normal, so the massage was deep, intense… and magically healing.

Then it was time for the banya, the real adventure!

The therapist left the room for me to move to into the banya, which felt like an oven that had been preheating for days. As I climbed onto a towel, my naked calf touched the wooden side of the bench, and I legitimately worried that I had burned myself.

I hope you can appreciate how much I hate to be hot. A summer day should be 80 degrees, and anything beyond that feels like we might as well live on the sun. I am not being melodramatic — I either experience heat more intensely than most people, or I have an extremely low tolerance for it. Maybe both.

So imagine my delight when the therapist entered a few unbearable minutes later and said, “Alright! It’s time to heat this place up!”

Brilliant!

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I don’t have a photo of the inside of the banya, but this is what it felt like.

The next ten minutes were a lesson in living in the moment. If I allowed my mind to even begin to wonder how much longer I might have to endure the heat and humidity — which just kept increasing, thanks to the therapist throwing pails of eucalyptus infused water over the hot fire — I would become convinced I was about to die.

I am not being overly dramatic… it was by far the most intense heat I have endured, and I have been to Death Valley and taken a (admittedly VERY short) hike in 121 degrees. Because I had to force myself into the moment to keep from panicking, I did experience something I have never felt before: I literally could feel every pore on my body as it opened and began expelling sweat. I don’t know how to describe it except to say that it was like being slowly pricked by 100,000 needles. But in a good way. Which I know makes no sense. Just go with it. It was awesome.

Finally, as I was about 4 seconds away from exploding, the therapist began beating me with two very large, very compact handfuls of oak branches.

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This is an oak tree.

It was oddly relaxing, after I got over the initial shock. The branches had been soaked in water, so in some ways, the assault was a welcome relief. But it was more than just cool drops of water hitting my scorched body — something about it… the rhythm and the intensity… it was actually very meditative.

That brief moment of zen ended abruptly as the therapist put down his weapons and said, “Jennifer, are you ready for the honey?”

Am I ready for the honey?

What? 

I was silent. Surely I misheard.

It didn’t matter. A response was completely unnecessary. The question was barely out of his mouth before I felt a cool, sticky liquid pooling behind my knees and in the small of my back. I looked up as a giant plastic bottle of honey made its way towards my neck and hair.

I started laughing — I couldn’t help myself. I get myself into some weird things, but this had to take the cake. If ever there were a reason to read about something before you go, if only to mentally prepare, this was it. Though I will admit, having half a gallon of honey poured all over my body was enough of a shock that I forgot I was still roasting inside a giant wooden torture chamber.

So I don’t know if I learned a lesson or not.

After a quick shower to wash off the honey and the random leaves and twigs now stuck to my skin, I was back on the massage table for another 45 minutes of bliss.

Then it was back in the banya. More heat, more heat, more heat. You hot yet? Let’s add more water! Let’s feel those pores open up. Are there areas of the body you didn’t think capable of produce sweat — eyelids, fingernail cuticles, belly button? Guess what?! They all sweat eventually — you just need to be hot enough!

If you believe the hype and/or the Russians, this process allows the body to release accumulated toxins. I’m pretty sure I sweated out every preservative I’ve ever eaten, every artificial anything. Meat byproducts I consumed decades ago? Gone. The box of grape Nerds I bought in 1983 from a concession stand at a roller skating rink? Eliminated! The buckets of perspiration pooled around me proved it.

Then it was time for another tree beating. More honey.

And finally, it’s over.

I was left alone to take a very long, very cold shower. Afterwards, my muscles were so fatigued I sat on the floor, trying to summon the strength to use a towel to dry off and put my clothes back on.

If what I felt in that moment wasn’t bliss, then I don’t know what is.

So there you go. Would I recommend the banya massage? Absolutely. Though if you don’t have $100, or two-plus hours to spend on yourself, I suppose you could build a fire, collect tree branches from the yard and a bottle of honey from the fridge and try a DIY version.

I expect to see your results on Pinterest, ok?!

Welcome, spring

How cute it is: my previous post! February 15. I thought my sister-in-law’s cancer journey was coming to an end, and I did the whole hippie dippy navel-gazing reflection thing, wrapping up my feelings about caregiving in a nice package with a lovely little optimistic “thank you for loving me” bow.

A couple weeks later, in a quiet moment together, Elizabeth and I laughed that we each had written a closure post of sorts for our respective blogs…just before all hell broke loose again.

“There was a part of me that wondered if I had brought this on myself, declaring you to be at the end of this journey,” I told her. And then I immediately realized I needed to get over myself: I don’t have that kind of power.

The details of what happened aren’t mine to share here. This is what I’ll say: July 16, 2015 was one of my family’s worst days. February 23, 2016 came pretty damn close to that.

Yet here we are, another month gone by, time that we use as space — space between cancer and the rest of our lives.

I saw a quote this morning that resonated with me:

“If we had no winter, the spring would not be so pleasant; if we did not sometimes taste of adversity, prosperity would not be so welcome.”

We didn’t have much of a winter this year. I didn’t get to go skiing even once — a far cry from last year when we couldn’t see our road over the 10-ft mounds of snow that accumulated at the ends of our driveway.

With a mild winter, it should not be surprising that spring has come so soon. And as much as I do love winter and playing in snow, I’m okay with an early spring. It feels like a fresh start. A rebirth of both the landscapes that inspire us and our emotional and physical energies.

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Crocus are blooming, daffodils are not far behind, and I even see a few tulips starting to pop up in my flower beds. Last September, a local greenhouse was selling brown paper bags labeled “bulbs – unknown” for $5. I snatched one up and promptly stuck at least 50 bulbs in the ground on a very cold afternoon. Now that they are starting to emerge, I wish I’d bought 2 bags!

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Although this past month has been exhausting in many ways, I flip through my phone photos and realize I’m spending a lot of time doing really fun things, too. And that makes me happy.

A sample of what I’ve been up to:

I continue to circus every chance I get.

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I helped out at Wellspring Forest Farm’s wildly successful maple celebration last weekend.

I’ve taken a bunch of painting classes.

My friend Claudia and I took a felting class (yes, that is a monkey riding an alpaca).

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I spent quality time with mom and dad, who were here for two-plus weeks (and thank goodness they were! We needed them!)

Phew — that’s a lot for about 6 weeks of time!

Wherever you are in the world, whatever you are doing, I hope this season is one of rejuvenation and joy, for you and everyone you love.  We’ve had a hard winter — not in terms of snow, but certainly in terms of turmoil. Let’s enjoy spring to its fullest!

Reflections on the flipside of this cancer voyage

As my sister-in-law’s cancer journey nears its end this week, I have found myself spending a lot of time thinking about the last 7 months. Elizabeth has been raw and honest in sharing her own journey as a cancer patient (and now survivor!) on her blog. I haven’t done as much reflection here.

That’s in part because feelings are complicated (duh), and while writing has always been how I process feelings, I haven’t always felt comfortable sharing my thoughts in this public forum.

Then, last week, I had a conversation that made me think that by not sharing my experience, I’m doing a bit of a disservice — to both myself and to other caregivers who might appreciate knowing they’re not alone.

I get a lot of comments from people about how “strong” or “amazing” I’ve been as one of Elizabeth’s caregivers. I appreciate those sentiments so much. When they come from people who are (or have been) caregivers themselves, I know they understand firsthand how draining and hard the role can be. But you know what? There are a lot of times I haven’t felt strong or amazing. I’ve felt weak and helpless.

And I’ve felt guilty. A few times, it’s because I wanted to do more but couldn’t. But mostly, the guilt stems from a belief that I don’t have a right to feel anything. Certainly, I haven’t felt like I have a right to complain. Nothing I feel is as intense or raw or emotional as what Elizabeth is going though. And my role in caregiving pales in comparison to what my brother has — and continues — to do.

So whenever someone pays me a compliment, I compulsively put it in perspective: “I’m not doing nearly as much as Steve.” A friend inquires about my feelings, and I deflect: “It’s been a good week. Elizabeth seems to tolerating the chemo better now, and her spirits are high today.”

In quieter moments, I question why I can’t be more open and honest. Why do I feel compelled to devalue the nice things people say to me? Why can’t I allow myself to express my own feelings?

I’m going to dedicate this post to those feelings, no holds barred. No sugar-coating. No diminishing language.

Cancer f#%king sucks.

It sucks for the patient, obviously. It sucks for the spouse, also obvious. If the patient is the center of the suckage universe, the spouse/partner occupies the next ring out. And the next ring in the orbit is home to a small group of immediate family and best friends.

That’s the ring I’m in. Let’s talk about what that felt like.

I felt grief. 

For the first 3 weeks after diagnosis, I cried every time I was alone. I cried on the way to work, and on the way home. I cried when I drove to the grocery store, and I cried in the parking lot of Home Depot. I cried behind my closed door at work.

Most times, I didn’t even know what I was crying about. I tried to hide my grief, minimizing it because I was not in the center of the cancer circle, or even in that first ring. I didn’t feel like I deserved to feel grief at the intensity that I did.

But what I learned is that grief will not be denied its opportunity to exist. Ignore it and it will leak out every chance it gets.

Eventually, I found a support structure — both formal and informal — and that helped provide a healthier outlet for the pain. Mostly, it helped connect me to other people who could empathize, and who could offer advice (REAL advice… we’ll get to fake advice in a moment) about how to cope and move forward.

I felt lonely.

My lowest point: a day after Elizabeth’s emergency surgery, my parents flew in. I was exhausted, scared, and overwhelmed as I arrived at the Elmira airport to pick them up. Once I got inside, I looked on the “arrivals” screen and found that their flight was listed as “diverted.”

I inquired with a Delta employee at the ticket counter:  “Excuse me, what does ‘diverted’ mean?”

This is what she said: “We’re not sure. We have never seen that before. We’re trying to get the control tower on the phone.”

This is what I heard: “The plane has crashed and everyone is dead and now you don’t have parents.”

I lost it. I literally crumbled onto the floor and started sobbing. My bag came off my arm and everything tumbled onto the floor: wallet, chapstick, several packs of gum, a pair of fuzzy socks I wore at my brother’s place the night before, a toothbrush, half a bag of M&Ms that had been my lunch, used tissues, a plastic baggie of alfalfa pellets (another story), random pieces of paper from the hospital, old receipts and about $7 in coins.

The Delta employee didn’t know what to do. I scooped up my belongings and she picked up my cell phone and asked me who she should call. Her words barely registered. My brain was screaming: MY PARENTS ARE DEAD AND MY HUSBAND AND BROTHER ARE AT THE BEDSIDE OF MY CRITICALLY ILL SISTER-IN-LAW AND I AM AN HOUR FROM HOME WITH NO ONE TO HELP ME.

I don’t know if this technically was a nervous breakdown, but if it wasn’t, I don’t ever want to have one. And when my parents showed up a few minutes later (because in aviation language “diverted” apparently means “we’re having a small computer glitch and the plane will arrive in 10 minutes”), they barely made it through the security doors before I collapsed on them, heaving into their shoulders. It took minutes before I could even tell them why I was acting so insanely.

That is my worst, most drastic example of the times I felt alone. There are others. While other people exist in the same ring of caregiving as I do, we were all dealing with our own stuff. We couldn’t always be there for each other, and people on rings further out rarely understood — really understood — what I was battling at any given time.

I’m a classic introvert. I relish the moments I get to be alone. But there’s a big difference between choosing to be alone and feeling lonely.

Caregiving can feel very, very lonely.

I felt useless.

A few weeks ago, we received some potentially troubling news. “Potentially troubling” is code for “possibly catastrophic.” Everything turned out OK. But in the hours after the news was first dropped on us, Steve asked me to meet him.

We sat in a coffee shop for a couple hours. We talked about what little we knew, what little we understood and what might happen next. Then we stopped talking because there was nothing left to say. I made a few feeble attempts to offer assistance: can I go pick up dinner for you? Can I drive you somewhere?  Can I go take care of the animals at the farm? No. No. No.

And then I stopped talking. Steve and I stared at one another, at the wall, at his computer, then back at each other. I realized my role was simply to be there. So we sat there and just allowed ourselves to feel it all. It hurt. It hurt like someone had taken a sledge hammer to my heart, and Steve’s face and body language suggested that he felt even worse.

Of course it would have felt better for me to do something. I wanted to help. I wanted to make things better. I wanted to take away the pain. I wanted to make life easier for two people who don’t deserve to go through this. I wanted to buy dinner. Do laundry. Feed the dogs. Pay a bill. ANYTHING.

It took me a while to realize something, and it sounds kind of stupid when I write it out, but here it is: Caregiving isn’t about me.

It would have felt better TO ME to do something. If I’m running errands or doing farm chores or making cookies, my mind is occupied. I am helping. I have control.

I want to be doing. Doing means I don’t feel useless.

But sometimes caregiving means total silence. Sometimes it means listening without offering solutions or advice. Sometimes it means acknowledging the pain and uncertainty, or embracing the fear and grief. Sometimes it means accepting that we have no control.

This journey taught me that there are some people who can’t be that kind of caregiver. They need to do. They fill silences with words, freezers with dinners, and vases with flowers. Those are very useful caregivers, believe me. We had a lot of people who helped in significant and unbelievable ways.

But for me, there was value in learning how to be a caregiver who can be okay just being there, sitting in silence, reaching for a hand, or embracing in a hug that lasts whole minutes.

Being able to do that — fighting the urge to do or say anything — was incredibly difficult for me. In those moments, my brain would yell: “Do something! Do anything! Take away some of the pain for these two people you love!”

There were a handful of times when I was alone with Steve or Elizabeth, and I was a caregiver who did nothing. I felt useless. And I’m learning that perhaps that means I was actually somewhat useful.

I felt annoyed. Sometimes angry.

Many people don’t know what to say when they hear about a loved one’s cancer for the first time. Here are the things I heard the most:

  • God has a plan.
  • The universe/God only gives you what you can handle.
  • Everything will be OK.
  • My dad had colon cancer and died.
  • My great aunt had colon cancer and lived.
  • My friend had <another disease that’s not even cancer> and she’s doing great now.
  • I bet she got cancer because <whatever environmental concern the person has at the moment>.

I know people are trying. I know the intent is to help. Unfortunately, none of those comments are actually helpful.

Books have been written about this subject, so I’m not going to try to repeat everything here. I will just tell you about the hardest part for me.

Most times, I could shrug off the comments. But some of them really, really ate at me.  These included “you’re doing too much” or “your brother should be doing that” or “you shouldn’t be expected to do that.”

People have a lot of opinions, and they aren’t afraid to share them. But no one else is me. No one else has the relationship I do with my family. No one else has to live with the consequences of my decisions.

On my best days, I ignored the “advice” and the thinly veiled judgements. But more often, I got defensive or I was snappy in my response back. I’m not particularly proud of that. But as I look ahead and consider what I’ll say or how I act in the future when someone I know is going through a tough time — I want to try to remember not to be so quick to critique someone else’s personal choices.

I’ll be me; you be you, ok?

I felt supported.

Good friends reminded me to take care of myself when they saw I was cracking. Best friends planned a night at the movies or an tournament at the bowling alley, and then informed me that I was going.

I’ve talked before about the amazing support network that reached out to Steve and Elizabeth in their time of need. My support network stepped up as well, and I don’t take any of that for granted. I feel really blessed to have had people reach out to me and make sure I felt loved and remembered. Sometimes that came in the form of an email or a text or a greeting card. Other times it was an evening out on the town.

I can’t thank you all enough for making my life a little brighter, for cheering me up when I needed it most, and for listening. Sometimes you didn’t even know you were helping me — because sometimes it was just the knowledge that you were there that helped me through a rough patch. (See: “doing nothing is sometimes doing everything” above.)

I feel changed.

I hate confrontation, and I hate difficult conversations. Most of us do.

The funny thing about going through something like this is that it gives you a lot of perspective about what matters.  This is always going to be a work in progress for me, but I have noticed that I’ve gotten a lot more direct with people, and especially in articulating my own needs or desires. I’ve had conversations with people that I never would have had a year ago — and some of the most difficult ones ended without hurt feelings or tears or giant blow-ups. In general, I’ve found that polite, honest, frank conversations lead to better outcomes for everyone.

You always hear about how hard times show you who is a friend and who is not. In looking forward, I am making a conscientious decision to foster relationships that are two-way streets, and let go of those that feel soul-sucking.

I felt humbled.

I made mistakes in my caregiving. I don’t want to tell those stories because, in general, they have involved conflicts and the point of this post is to be honest about my own feelings, not to make other people feel bad.

We all make mistakes. That is easy to say. The trick is being honest enough with yourself to admit the mistakes and then to make changes.  I learned a lot about myself since July, and after some of my mistakes, I took the experience to heart and hopefully made better choices.

Another way I felt humbled? If you count up all the caregivers, the nurses, the doctors, the gofundme donors, the friends and family, the colleagues, the acquaintances, and the strangers (!) who helped our family navigate these past 7 months in some way, shape or form — it’s mind-numbing. Maybe you said a prayer for us, maybe you made us dinner one weekend — I’m fairly sure the population of people who came together for Elizabeth and Steve (and those of us who are closest to them) numbers in the thousands.

That’s amazing.

Thank you.

And quick third way I have felt humbled: Elizabeth and Steve have been so “real” through this whole process. While I obviously wish none of this had happened to them,  a silver lining is that we are closer than ever before (I’ll add Scott and my parents to this sentiment as well). I feel honored to have been a part of the inner circle, and to be trusted to share in some of their most vulnerable moments. I’m certainly blessed that I have a family that is  close enough to be able to be there for one another, physically and emotionally, when these kinds of things happen.

I felt loved.

I’m not going to gush here. You know who you are if you fit in this category. Thank you for showing me love, compassion, and understanding. Thank you for letting me vent or cry, and for dancing and high-fiving when I shared good news.

The good news to share today is that Elizabeth is nearly at the conclusion of this phase of the journey. While my caregiving days are ending — or at least changing — the things I have experienced and the lessons I have learned will no doubt influence many other aspects of my life.

And for that, I feel grateful.

40 before 40: wet felting

They can’t all be winners.

The spirit behind 40 before 40 has always been about embracing new moments, new adventures, and new skills. It makes sense that in a list of 40 new activities, there will be a few duds.

I knew about halfway through my wet felting class that this was something I would never, ever do again.

Wet felting is the process of creating felt from sheep wool. The process is relatively simple — you start with handfuls of wool and place them on a table in layers that overlap at 90-degree angles (this is about 6 layers of wool and I threw in some colored bits on top).

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Then you get the whole mess wet and soapy and agitate the fibers together– wool naturally wants to “hook” itself, so after a few minutes of agitation and compression with a bamboo mat, you have yourself a block of soaking wet felt.

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The end result is admittedly a beautiful fabric that you can transform into literally anything. My three hour class yielded some lovely wool insoles to keep my toes toasty in the winter and a small merino wool pouch that I have absolutely no idea what to do with.

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I’m not knocking the art behind wet felting. I know there are craftspeople out there who create amazing, useful, wonderful, luxurious items. I just won’t be one of them. And that’s ok — it’s as valuable to learn about new things you love as it is to discover those you can leave behind.

No good riddance to 2015

As the weeks have passed, I’ve wondered how I would feel as New Year’s Eve got closer and closer. Would I consider the impending new year a moment of great comfort, a chance to close the door on a tough year?

I have never been more grateful to say goodbye to a year than in 2005, which was — in my whole 29 years of experience — about as bad a year as it could get. I finally ended a relationship that had nearly killed my spirit, and the fallout and drama definitely kicked the year off with a bang. Work became unbearable as my boss revealed romantic feelings for me, feelings that were certainly not reciprocated nor appreciated. I had a health scare with my heart (after days of tests and monitors and sticky nodes stuck to every square inch of my chest, I was diagnosed with… shocking… stress).

And to top it all off, I kept doing stupid things that left my body covered in physical signs of my emotional distress — for example, in an attempt to donate clothes to the local Goodwill, I accidentally rammed my eyeball into the corner of my car door. (Days later, a domestic violence shelter worker tried to talk to me and refused to believe that my abusive relationship was with a Subaru.) I tripped in a parking lot enroute to get a fish taco, shattering a tiny bone in my wrist that the ER doctor said was literally the hardest bone in the body to break, and it also came with a 9 month recovery timeline.

Oh, and red-winged blackbirds kept attacking my head on my morning runs. I still can’t explain that one, though Scott swears it must be because my chlorine-damaged hair is nice nesting material. At the time, it just felt like the universe hated me.

Early in January in 2006, I sat on a rural road in Utah and sobbed heavily after realizing that 2005 was over and I had survived it.

It’s been a decade and I’ve had plenty of time to gain perspective on that year. In the years that followed, I honed my ability to see good (or funny) mixed in every bad situation — and I can even look back on 2005 with laughter and gratitude. That year was a training ground for how I can deal with life’s challenges. As trite as the saying may be, it’s true that what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.

Time also helped me realize that 2005 contained a lot of good. Ten years later, the friend who offered easy laughs in moments of great pain is the husband whose quick wit still delights me daily (we still won’t eat fish tacos though). My parents stepped up as rocks that year, and I still marvel at the stability they offered me then and still offer me now. The spring road trip that my brother and I took to Arizona launched a tradition of occasionally taking time just for the two of us. I discovered the importance of a true friendship, eliminated the toxic people in my life, and vowed to cultivate the relationships that mean the most.

2015 dealt our family a nasty hand. And yes, the tragedy that unfolded was not mine. There’s a huge difference between being a person going through hell and being a caregiver for the person going through hell.

That said, it was still a hard year. And yet, the words I wrote back in August remain true: I can’t call it a nightmare. I saw too many good people step up to help in ways big and small, and there are just so many things I feel grateful for.

Aside from cancer, there were also a lot of moments of pure joy. I added 20 adventures to my 40 before 40 list, from circus antics to pottery throwing to the (not one, not two, but THREEidiotic death jumps in the Adirondacks that we never need to do again.  We did an incredible amount of work on the church house — some of it easily apparent (I’m talking to you, thousands of bald eagles who terrified our guests) and much of it not (tuck-pointing the foundation — during which my cake decorating skills came in handy):

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There were also plenty of other wonderful moments, which never made it to this blog because I want to live life, not just write about it. There was bowling and berry picking, trips to Colorado, Vermont, Massachusetts, and South Carolina to spend time with family and friends, hikes and kayaks in beautiful places across New York, and a war on voles in our garage that (at least for now) the humans have won.

2015 was not without its struggle, and 2016 will not have an easy start. But as we sit on the eve of the new year and reflect, I know my immediate family is stronger for all we have been through, and there is an amazing network of extended family and friends who provide a safety net below us. For that, I am humbled. Thank you.

Happy New Year friends. May it be your best yet!

Twas the night before Christmas

 

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I made our wreath this year… even the bow!

Last year at Christmas, a cold squirrel broke into our warm house. His (her?) presence delighted the cats and freaked out the humans. This year, it’s 65 degrees outside and we’re swatting cluster flies from windowsills and there are frogs swimming in the pond.

It doesn’t feel like Christmas outside.

But I know it’s Christmas because we jammed a giant tree into our living room. I know it’s Christmas because the last few weeks have been chock full of cheer and holiday parties and thoughtful gifts and gestures from friends and strangers alike. I know it’s Christmas because the house is filled with melodies from my favorite songs and there are tins of cookies in almost every room.

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This is the “small” tree at only 9 feet tall. Also, it comes apart in pieces and lives in a box.

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This is the ginormous tree that barely made it into the house and up our stairs when it was baled! It’s 10.5′ tall and more than 7′ across at the base. We might need to cut a hole in the side of our house to remove it.

Christmas is a time for laughter. Christmas is for expressing love and gratitude for everything that is right in our worlds. It’s a moment to reflect on the year behind us and the one to come.

It’s also for family. Of course, Scott couldn’t pass up a chance to fish on a spring-like Christmas Eve. But Steve, Elizabeth and I went for a hike in upper Buttermilk Falls.

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It may not feel like Christmas outside, but I feel it plenty on the inside.

If you celebrate, may your Christmas be filled with laughter and love and good chocolate. If you don’t celebrate, may you enjoy a few days of quiet and relaxation doing whatever makes you happy.

Merry Christmas to all and to all a good night!

-Jen

 

 

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