Earlier this year my sister-in-law started a business that makes German and Swiss toys that develop STEM skills readily available to those in the United States. (Simply thinking about the many language and paperwork issues she had to navigate her way through in order to do it makes me tired. Let’s just say that my sister-in-law is AWESOME.)
Many of you know that math, science, and engineering skills are not my strength. Neither are a lot of tech/computer skills. I’ve been attempting to rectify this on several fronts, but after talking with my sister-in-law, I decided that toys could be a fun way to help me to do it with less grr-RAHR. So, for the last few months I’ve been buying, testing, and reviewing some of the toys she offers on her site at Wasatch Inventors & Explorers.
Simply taking pictures and video and getting them on the computer has required me to get more this century with my tech/computer skills. It is remarkable what we can do nowadays, but I confess, I’m getting there through a lot of trial and error and grr-RAHR!
When I was younger, we went through several lean years where Christmas gifts for the kids were underwear, socks, and- one year- a new bath towel for each of us. These types of gifts get you looks when you answer your friends’ questions of “What did you get for Christmas?” but they were needed and (unintentionally) character building. All these years later, I still don’t take nice bath towels for granted. As an adult, I’ve come to see this as a real gift, especially since now we don’t just have nice towels, we have towels washed with fabric softener.
I remember the first time I experienced this wonder. I was in China, staying at the apartment of a super-kind and generous ex-pat with some of the members of my study abroad group the night before we flew back home. We spent the entire evening sharing and gushing about the luxuries we were experiencing: toilets! a shower head! silverware! a real mattress! (My bed in the concrete room I lived in with a roommate in Nanjing looked like a real bed, but my initial meeting with it soon taught me otherwise- pain immediately zinging up my spine as I sat down on it with an alarming *thud*. I felt like a fairytale character each time I slept on that bed… I became the princess in the “Princess and the Pea”, waking up bruised all over. *smile*)
Back to the towel. My roommate rushed up to me and another friend, pushing a bath towel against our faces. “Smell this! Feel this!” she cried. “The towels have been washed with fabric softener!”
I’ve looked at towels washed with fabric softener as one of life’s most delightful luxuries ever since.
I know, I know- what does all of this have to do with being a toy tester/reviewer and happiness? Because my friends, those experiences make my current experience much more astonishing and satisfying to me now.
Nearing forty I am experiencing toys I never knew about when I was young- and couldn’t have afforded if I had. It’s an interesting experience with a difficult tangle of thoughts and emotions immersed in it. As a little girl I loved the book Heidi. As an adult, I received a toy in a box that was shipped directly to me from Heidi’s Switzerland. That my friends, is awesome.
But what is also awesome is that I am not too old to play with it. I am not too old to learn from it. I am not too old to share the joy of the experience.
Because my uptime is limited and my hope-to-accomplish list is so long, I struggle to take time for fun. I try to use my time wisely and well. Something I’ve had to learn over this past year especially, is to purposely include time to explore, to daydream, and to have fun because it helps me do the necessary things better, with a better attitude and in a happier frame of mind.
By buying, testing, and reviewing toys I am taking time out of my everyday to explore, learn, and have fun. I also help my sister-in-law a little by doing it, and, by extension just a little further removed, people who have mental and psychological disabilities. Because the toy I mentioned receiving in the box from Switzerland, a musical marble run by Xyloba, is crafted in a factory that offers people with these kinds of disabilities the dignity of work.
These last few months I’ve been able to be something that as a child I never expected to be: a toy reviewer and tester. That would absolutely thrill my five-year-old self. It gives me an excited buzz as an adult. All of this, along with the memories of where I’ve been and how far I have come have, for me, been a special- and especially needed- bit of happy.
(If you are interested, one of my reviews is already up at http://www.wasatchie.com/blog There are more reviews coming over the next few months- some with audio and video even! The toys I am reviewing are built to last and are child and adult-friendly so they can be played with and enjoyed alone or as a family for years to come.)
I can take only a very small amount of credit for the completion of this project that I’ve had in mind for several years. This winter, my stepdad built a raised bed garden for me with dimensions that make it so that I can take care of it all while sitting down. He filled it with good soil, and then he and my mom went on a search for plants they thought I’d like to put in it, keeping their eye out for unusual varieties. Then, they helped me as I needed so that I could put the plants into the bed last Saturday.
A few weeks ago, Aldi had a special on stuffed clams on the half shell. We ate them over the past few weeks, washed and boiled the shells, and then I used Sharpies to write Shakespearean quotes on them to be placed near the relevant plants. Some references took some creative connecting. Dill, tomato, cucumbers, and eggplant didn’t register any hits on Open Source Shakespeare; but pickle, plant, and some of the variety names did- like Juliet and Rose and Black Cherry (all varieties of tomato plants).
My Shakespeare garden looks a bit bare at the moment but I’m not worried. I left plenty of space for my plants to grow because once my plants take hold, they have a tendency to turn Amazonian on me, like this English violet that began as a plant I could hold in one hand, and grew into one with individual leaves not quite the size of my hand:
That’s a quote about violets from Twelfth Night written in the clamshell, by the way.
With my gardening track record, several of the plants will die on me. I’ll fill in with my kitchen scrap gardening efforts as needed. Here’s part of my kitchen scrap onion plant that multiplied on me (with a quote from All’s Well That Ends Well- Mine eyes smell onion; I shall weep anon.).
Here’s a look at some other plants and quotes:
I’ll leave you with a famous quote that captures why I enjoy being out in nature and gardens:
An abundance of reasons to be happy.
I first discovered Jean Sibelius (among many other wonderful things) in Tennessee. I love libraries, but I will always have a special fondness for Nashville’s for this reason (along with the fact that it is housed in one of the most magnificently beautiful buildings I’ve ever been in- yes, I fall in love with beautiful buildings and hurt among low-roofed, might-as-well-be-windowless ones).
I returned to Georgia just in time to attend a performance of some of the works of Sibelius. I was on a date that afternoon I remember now as I think back on it, a date that I had only agreed to on the strict condition that the guy I was set up with would take me to this particular concert. (It was free- I’m not that mercernary.) My date was a tremendously good sport about it. He agreed to take me early and sat with me in the balcony through the entire rehearsal before following me down the stairs to the orchestra seats so that I could hear it from front and center during the actual concert. Not many guys have that kind of symphony sitting power. AND he let me enjoy the entire concert freely, without making passes. But I’m digressing.
That concert was a revelation to me, and I fell in love with the Sibelius Violin Concerto, never to recover.
It’s funny how we lay things we love aside, especially since these very things have the power to nurture us. I guess it happened with Sibelius for me around the same time that I had to quit playing in a community orchestra because my heart was acting up like anything a few years ago. That disappointment made anything connected to it feel like daggers and loss and I couldn’t bear losing anymore of me.
Then today happened. I was studying German a little in bed, and someone who was explaining a tricky bit (of which German has many) mentioned, what to him, was a very common proverb: Knowledge comes from what you add, wisdom from what you remove. I sat for several minutes completely dumbfounded because, thinking about it, he was right. Knowledge has come to me in many different ways, but wisdom has only come to me after losing someone or something important to me. For the first time in a while, I felt very, very lucky.
It made me think of someone who I have found to be funny, charming, and astoundingly wise. And guess what? This someone has suffered loss too, from a condition that makes his bones break easily. He’s in casts and hospitals a lot- but you wouldn’t know it from this:
Then tonight when I was looking at something else, a memory came back to me, and for the first time in a long time, I re-watched this:
… And I felt scrubbed clean on my insides.
Other people play this concerto, but no one else’s performance of it affects me as deeply as Christian Ferras’ does. Perhaps it is because, like Jean Sibelius, Christian Ferras suffered from dark moods that severely affected his work and his life- there is some connection- an inherent understanding of sorts between them- of something that is in music and in life because it has to be.
It’s dappled beauty. It’s dappled happiness.
Because the light times add to our lives and the dark times remove something from them; and frequently they are mixed up with each other, overlapping and competing for our focus and our hearts.
Somewhere amid the turmoil, the hurt, and the sorrow- if we allow it- great wisdom and tremendous beauty come.
Which is why the Sibelius Violin Concerto as played by Christian Ferras helps me to fall in love with Sibelius and life all over again.
Two years ago I wrote about the healing that was happening in Ethiopia at the Addis Ababa Fistula Hospital. A fistula is an injury sustained during childbirth that leaves a woman leaking urine and body waste through her vagina. Not only do these women suffer through a traumatic childbirth without adequate medical care, often losing their babies during delivery, but because of the fistula they are then outcasts and isolated, often losing feelings of value and self-worth and respect in the process.
The fact that fistulas can be fixed is a blessing. The people who devote their lives to helping these women heal physically, mentally, and emotionally are earthly angels to me.
I was near death before my first heart surgery. My mom has been reminding me of how sick I was then almost daily lately, as I’ve struggled with my heart acting up along with the return of my capillaries opening up leading me to bleed internally for no good reason. Neither of these things are fixable for me. They come, they go, they stay as they please. The doctors have done what they can for me. Living for me has meant learning to live with these things without becoming emotionally destroyed by my physical limitations. It isn’t easy, especially since these things tend to flare up the moment that a dream I’ve been working towards for a long time is nearly within reach for me. It’s incredibly frustrating.
Something that helps me heal is seeing the people who are out there, helping to heal others. My first heart surgeon was like this. When finances were becoming precarious for me and for my family, he made my mom and me a promise that I would get the care he would give to any member of his family whether we could pay for it or not- he would make it happen. He and his staff did.
They helped save my life then and because of the love with which they did it, they help save my life now. It’s a beautiful legacy.
I’ve been able to give a few piano lessons here and there over the last few months. The pay has made it possible for me to do something that I’ve wanted to do for years: I’ve finally been able to donate a little to help women who need healing and that same kind of love that I’ve been lucky enough to receive in my life. I mention this only because I’ve had several people ask what they can do for me. Right now, there really isn’t much that can be done- mostly I need to rest and allow my body the opportunity to heal the best that it can- but if you are so inclined and are in a position to give a little something financially, it would make me very happy to know that some very special women will receive the loving medical care they need to heal physically, mentally, and emotionally. The Fistula Foundation is an A-rated charity. They help train doctors, build operating rooms, buy medical supplies, and fund fistula surgeries in 19 African, Middle Eastern, and Asian countries. I hope you’ll consider it.
Because people who heal and who help others to heal are a heavenly form of happy.
The weather has done its best this year to kill off all my plants. Thankfully, I was able to share the fruits of them and even share some of the plants themselves with friends just the same. One of the sweetest messages I received on my phone last year was a photo of a plant I had given to a friend that had shot up and was producing like mad in my friend’s yard, which made her excited and very happy.
We’ve lugged our citrus trees and my mango plants in and out of the house many times this winter. The next pineapples I plant will be kept in large pots so that I can do the same with them (dastardly ice storm in a climate where you aren’t supposed to be!). I don’t mind starting over so much. I’m getting much better at my kitchen scraps taking root the first time (the blessing of many failed attempts in quick succession).
I love citrus trees. No place really feels like home for me without them. I got this idea of the good life early on, visiting my grandparents in Tarzana. Their backyard, like many of their neighbors’, smelled of pool, cement, dog, lawn and magnolia, citrus trees, and berry bushes. Add music, an ice rink, a personal library, and quiet to that and you’ll pretty much have my personal definition of heaven on earth. I got pretty close to that ideal when I lived in San Diego, Santa Barbara, and Fresno, and have struggled to find it ever since. Hence, why my mom buys citrus trees for me whenever she can.
We’ve built up our current “grove” to a lemon, a key lime, and a tangerine. Our lemon tree is the oldest and (currently) the most generous of the three. We had a harvest of over sixty-five lemons from it last year (I gave some of the branches and flowers from it to friends throughout the year, otherwise there would have been more). The lemons we get from it are fragrant and surprisingly sweet, as the heating repair man and his family will readily attest. My mom made lemon curd from some of them that was positively dee-lish and had one of the young men we know aching to come over to learn how to make some of his own with us.
I love the fruit but my delight of delights in citrus trees is in their blossoms. Elegant, white, with a fragrance that is fresh and transports me to many early happinesses, I love citrus flowers- especially those from lemon trees. In Fresno my bed was next to a window that allowed the scent-sations from our pink lemon tree to waft in to me. That coupled with watching the light awaken a watercolor painting above me to shades of day and dusk, made my recovery from my first heart surgery much easier for me than it otherwise would have been.
It’s difficult for me not to hope deep down when I have citrus flowers budding and bursting open about me, which has made the recent profusion of them very welcome in my life, especially recently.
I’ve been much closer to my ideal life several times before, years before, but I can’t really be a deep shade of miserable with so much life and beauty at my fingertips. It’s my mom’s and my stepdad’s gift to me with each new tree that they bring and are willing to tote in and out when the weather is maddening, because they understand and love me. It’s a very special bit of my happy in a place that otherwise rather refuses to feel like home to me.
Years ago when one of my nephews was just a baby, we had a game we liked to play together. Now that he is back from Poland, I had the chance to spend some time with him in person for the first time in a long time. He knows I’m his aunt, we’ve talked and Skyped over the past two years, but he didn’t remember me.
But then again, he kinda did.
Memory is a funny thing. I started playing the game I used to play with him with the toddlers in our family and he ran over to me like a shot. Something in him opened up, and in that moment he was that baby and that toddler with me all over again, remembering the love and the trust he felt being around me back then, and radiating that love and joy back to me now.
That’s why traditions and rituals are important. We don’t remember everything, but if done right, we remember the love.
I think about that in regards to a little girl I know who I helped for a time. Like me, she loves pretty glasses and goblets. One day when I gave her one filled with water, her mother worried a bit. She was little. She may break it. But I sensed in her a little of myself at that age and I remembered my great-grandmother and how she treated me then, trusting me with some of her special things from a very young age. I remember how that made me feel. I remembered the love. So I gave this little friend of mine the goblet. To her family’s astonishment, she still has it-intact. She drinks from it at the dinner table every night. In time, the goblet will almost assuredly break- life is like that- but hopefully the love and the joy she feels in these moments now will continue to come back with every sip she takes from a fancy glass for the rest of her life. I know that that’s how it has been for me.
My little friend, like my nephew, is likely too young to remember me at sight for the rest of her life. But she and my nephew are not too young to remember a game, a goblet, and more especially the gift of being understood and loved. The memory may be buried deep, but it’s in there. And that, like my memories of my great-grandmother, makes me very happy.
I taught myself to read when I was four and have read fairly easily and happily ever since- until the last few months that is. It’s been hurting a lot to read just lately. I often have pain after reading one page. War and Peace and numerous other books don’t read well that way. That put me in a bind with several of my projects. It’s likely that it will only get harder for me to read as time goes on. That is difficult. It makes me want to push and use what I have before I lose it, but being sick for so long I understand something else too.
Lots of movies that depict people who are seriously ill portray them living full days for the first time in their lives. You can live a filled-to-the-brim day here and there, but I don’t know of anyone, especially someone who is sick, who can keep that pace up for any length of time.
In the movie that best portrays what it really feels like to be seriously sick in life altering ways, The Doctor, one of the characters who is dying from cancer stops the man who is trying to help her get her “full day, crossing-off-the-list-of-something-she-wanted-to-do”. It turns out that she is tired of racing and pursuing. She just wants to enjoy where she is, now.
One of my biggest regrets is how I treated myself my senior year of college. I had been bleeding internally for nine months. I had surgical cancer tests over my Christmas break. I came back to finish my degree as organ after organ stopped working properly. My heart meds stopped working. I didn’t appreciate at the time just how sick I truly was, but I was consumed with grief and frustration that after so many years of working and planning I was not turning in work at the level I wanted to. I was not living up to my potential.
I rode myself so hard those last few months in ways I never would have dreamed of doing to anyone else. I finished, but at a high cost to myself both physically and emotionally. This last bout of really sick I realized I had an opportunity. Fun as it may be to watch people in movies get a chance to relive a pivotal moment in their life, this time getting it right, we don’t get that opportunity in real life. But we do get the chance to learn from those moments and alter how we live now. This time, I’ve tried to treat myself the way I wish I had treated my college senior self- with patience, gentleness, and compassion. It required changing some expectations I’ve had for myself.
I’ve come to the conclusion that for books with audiobooks available, I will listen to the audio versions of them and call those books read. I’m saving my eye time for ones I won’t be able to experience any other way but reading them slowly myself. I’ve also reached a point where I can appreciate that being able to read in short spurts can actually be a blessing. I absorb the ideas sometimes better that way. I think about them more deeply while I wait for my eyes to be up for the next reading of a page or a paragraph.
I’ve also had to come to terms with the fact that I am a woman who deludes and disillusions herself cyclically. I can beat myself and be beaten with a reality stick regularly and the dreams and delusions still manage to find a way up and out. And I cling to them willingly, knowing that they help me forward, even if it is only for a few hours or a few weeks. I go into it knowing full well that there will be disappointment later on. When it comes I struggle and cry it out, then, after a few days or a few weeks depending on the circumstance, dream and lead myself on yet again. And fail yet again. And try yet again. Because I’m still living and quitting is like killing yourself before your time.
I realized much of this consciously this afternoon, in front of a bookcase in a thrift shop. The disease that could blind me and that is making it hard for me to read should, realistically, make me stop looking at books. But my love for them is too deep. So there I was, waiting for my mom to finish, looking at the titles and dreaming of the possibilities. I grabbed one and held it. This is my shopping test. If holding an item while I shop makes me feel tired or iffy about it, I put it back. Then there was another one. Simplified Russian Method. The last few weeks I’ve been playing from Russian piano methods. The music I can read; the rest has been a closed book to me. I don’t like not being able to read a book about something that interests me. This is why I started studying German. This is why even as I struggle to read in English, I bought the book that would help me read Russian- because I’m crazy optimistic like that.
As a child, I was fascinated and concerned about what went on behind the Iron Curtain. I marvel and rejoice when I’ve had the chances to learn about, talk, and interact with people from countries like Estonia, Bulgaria, Russia, Poland, and Moldova- countries that once fell under the heading of the Soviet Union. Having access to them, their talents, their books, and their learning- what a blessing! Which is why I’ve added Russian to my languages that I want to be learning, and why I will be saving up for ice dance lesson DVDs from a Russian woman who coached the skaters I want to skate like, even though I’ve just recently been able to start walking again, and won’t have access to an ice rink for who knows how long. These things spark my soul, make me want to reach higher and try harder- but even if I never reach the heights to which I aspire, I am finally reaching a place where, like the woman with a brain tumor in The Doctor, I can also enjoy not chasing, but appreciating and enjoying and sharing what I have been given right now. And this time around, because of what I learned, there’s a lot less suffering and a lot more happy.
I know most people don’t see work as a gift, but it is. It was a gift to my grandfather when the WPA allowed him to work to feed his family during the Depression. This is where most welfare goes wrong I think: there is a dignity in work, a bit of shame being dependent and forever on the receiving end of things. We’re ultimately happiest when we can both give and receive. That’s my experience anyhow.
Someone who knows what it is like to work is Katie in The Farmer’s Daughter. For many years I wanted to grow up to be like her- so skilled and beautiful, honest and strong.
I love Loretta Young in this movie, but one of my favorite people in it is Charles Bickford as Mr. Clancy. He has dignity and wisdom and a sense of humor that I’ve always admired. He’s kind of the male equivalent of Hattie McDaniel to me (who steals the show for me in Margie and Gone with the Wind). I hear negative comments about people who work hard for a living and it sets off a hot button in me. I have little tolerance or patience for people who look down on those who cook and clean and care for people for a living. These people work hard, doing jobs many people do not have the inner strength and dignity to do well if they were in their place.
In the hospital, it was almost always the person who brought me my meals who, in those brief moments, comforted me and cared for me and saw and treated me as a person- not a patient. I don’t take that lightly. But I am digressing.
The fun in the movie The Farmer’s Daughter is sprinkled throughout. I couldn’t find clips of Mr. Clancy. *sigh* You’ll have to watch the movie to come to know and love him as I do, but there is a clip of a scene that I feel is very important and character building. It happens when Katie’s father, a Scandinavian immigrant farmer, calls her out on quitting and not standing up for what is true and right. As a great-granddaughter of Scandinavian immigrant farmers who eked out a living just barely, but felt blessed for the privilege to do it and to provide for their families, this clip has special meaning to me. I hope you enjoy it and it’s reference to what Congress should be, and so often, isn’t, and that you’ll remember that the ability to work is a blessing- one of the foundational elements of meaning and being truly happy.
Over Thanksgiving I was able to go walking up in the mountains of Arizona. Pine needles collected themselves in piles along the little used roads there. I think it was because of the recent snow that they had grown soft and spongy underfoot. It added some spring to my step each time I stepped on them so I sought them out all along my way. On the roadside, snow sparkled on grass like soapsuds or like sea foam that the ocean leaves behind on the sand sometimes. It was a double joy to see it. It was beautiful then, but it also reminded me of the beauty and calm stored away in my soul from walks I took along the shores of the Pacific and the Atlantic years before.
We got caught in a storm on our way to the cabin. They closed the highway we were on when traffic looked as though a toddler had taken his toy cars and thrown them at the freeway; cars and semis scattered and jack-knifed, spun-out and over-turned. Thankfully we eventually made it to an exit with a hotel safely that night. Arriving at the cabin a day later than planned, my stepdad lit a fire in the fireplace and we looked out the windows as the snow floated down delicately all around us. It’s the first time in my life that I felt like I was inside a snow globe. It was beautiful.
I’m an I-can-appreciate-and-enjoy-snow-for-two-or-three-days-a-year-so-long-as-I-don’t-have-to-drive-in-it kind of person. I like how a fresh snow can make drab and dirty landscapes glow and sparkle. I like how it softens the sound around us. Snow brings a different type of quiet with it. It’s always made me marvel.
I like how snow can be transformed into a dancing hula girl snowman complete with eyelashes and “grass” skirt courtesy of my mom’s imagination, pine cones, a bit of greenery, and pine needles.
I like being the first to leave footprints across its pristine, white canvas. It’s the closest I’ll ever get to that “first steps on the moon” kind of feeling and I delight in it.
I like how it slows me down and holds me firmly in the now. Snow is usually a rare treat where I’ve lived most. Living where I do, where we just aren’t prepared or equipped for it, when it snows, everything stops. It’s nice to have that once in a while.
Snow can be like New Year’s. It whites everything out and lets you think and start anew as it muffles out some of life’s noise and distractions before it melts and freshens the ground beneath it. At least that’s what it does here down South for me. When I lived North it did slow me down too, in those extras minutes I had to clear off my car in the morning, or those exceptionally cold mornings when it froze my car doors and locks shut. I don’t miss those mornings. But sometimes, I miss moon boots and electric blankets and cups of cocoa that mattered because they brought your taste buds and insides back to life- unfreezing you from the inside out.
So yeah, snow brings me a bit of happy, a bit of sparkle, a bit of still, and a bit of wonder to my life- now and then.
If you haven’t heard about Dinovember yet, take a look at this post. What an amazing project, and how lucky are those kids? We all need a bit of the magical in our lives.
My final semester of college, I was really sick- barely holding on sick. One day I came home to my room to find it had been invaded by a leprechaun who left green footprints on my floor and treats on my bed and dresser. That memory still makes me smile. It was how the lady I was living with at the time made St. Patrick’s Day a delight for me while showing an enormous amount of love.
Like these parents do for their children. Even if you don’t have kids, I think you will want to check it out to enjoy a bit of happy.