For a while when I was in elementary school, I would come home from school and turn on the tv to watch reruns of ridiculous shows. At the time, I’m not sure I realized they were reruns or ridiculous. The Dukes of Hazzard was one–please don’t judge me, I am well aware of how offensive it is now. And the Addams Family was another. I don’t remember much in the way of the plot of the Addams family, but I do know that hearing those first few bars of theme music would prompt an immediate snapping response. I didn’t realize until today that the Addams Family originally aired in the 60s, several years before I was born.

But today I was amused to see that the snapping response was nearly universal among members of the audience at the delightful Chalice Theatre production of the Addams Family musical.

The tv show theme song isn’t even in the musical, but just those first few measures, woven into he overture, are enough to stir the muscle memory of snapping.

Beyond the nostalgia, however, I really enjoyed the show because it featured a fantastic cast that included several friends of ours–mostly Zoe’s age. Many of them are already Chalice Theatre veterans who have acted in South Pacific, Shrek, and Peter and the Starcatcher. I love seeing their hard work and hearing them sing and watching them dance and so obviously have a great time performing. I love the intergenerational casts of Chalice shows and seeing some familiar faces in totally new roles. I love seeing new faces who light up the room. There was a teenage boy in tonight’s show who was a ballerina and danced en pointe with so much joy and passion, not to mention unbelievable strength and talent. I love the sets and the costumes and the fact that I’m surrounded in the audience by people I know. I love that my kids are completely captivated by these performances, and that they get to meet the actors afterward and congratulate their friends. I love the fact that all the snacks sold in the lobby are $1.

Although they are young and could change their minds, my kids have indicated that–like me–they love to watch theater but they are not inclined to appear on stage themselves. At least for now we are content to allow our friends to make the magic and we will simply be enchanted by it.

I just spit into a tube, repeatedly, until my saliva reached the wavy black line. I put the cap on the tube, releasing the blue stabilizing solution, and shook it. I put the tube in the plastic envelope, sealed it, and put the plastic envelope in the little postage paid box, and sealed that. Tomorrow I will mail the box to a lab in American Fork, Utah.

Magically, or miraculously, or you might even say through science, my quarter teaspoon of spit will reveal to me who my long-lost relatives are and just what I am made of, at least genetically speaking.

I confess I have already done this spit-in-a-tube activity before, and I received endless pages of reports that I did not quite understand about how I relate to neanderthals and confirming what I already knew that I am half Ashkenazi Jew and the rest a fine but certainly unexotic blend of Irish, Scottish, and German with some other Western European stuff thrown in.

I am repeating the exercise–through a different DNA testing company this time–because of an unexpected conversation I had last summer with the mother of one of my best friends. I was at a street festival in the neighborhood where I grew up, and my friend’s mom happened by. We ended up sitting on the curb for a while talking about how to mobilize democratic voters, and then the subject turned to one of her favorite hobbies–genealogy. I knew she had spent years conducting copious research into her family’s history, but I learned when we talked that she had also spit into several tubes to maximize the information she could gather from various testing services which might have access to different pieces of her genetic inheritance. She assured me that Ancestry.com was the most comprehensive in terms of helping you build a family tree and finding family members to nestle among the branches.

Did you know you can buy these DNA spitting kits all over the place now? I ordered mine online, but I recently saw them on a shelf at Target. Once scientists unlocked the human genome, we ran with it until vast stores of genetic information are as easy to get as it is to fill your red cart with over a hundred dollars worth of stuff you didn’t know you needed every time you shop there.

Here’s what I really want to know–what were the lives like of my great-grandparents who came from Romania and Hungary? Are there other descendants of them out there who I might meet? What could I discover about my Jewish roots? My dad has a small family. He has one surviving brother and one surviving first cousin. I know my Grandma had younger twin sisters, but I don’t know their names or their children’s names or anything else about them. I don’t know if my Grandma or Grandpa had cousins or if they did where they lived or if they had children. I know my Great-Grandfather was listed in census records as a peddler. What did he peddle? I desperately want to know.

I have no idea whether my questions are beyond the scope of the quarter teaspoon of spit that I have collected for analysis, but I cannot wait to find out.

Zoe’s English teacher announced this week the prospect of a new challenge–write at least 100 words each day for 100 days, beginning today, March 1. Apparently if you write every day for 100 days you become a Writing Centurion and you get to choose a t-shirt from Woot! Shirt. I can safely say this is the first time this school year that I have wished I were in sixth grade. Writing and t-shirts–two of my favorite things! So when Zoe said she was accepting her teacher’s invitation, I immediately said I would join her. This means you will be seeing a lot more words from me over the next 100 days. Maybe if you like what I write, you’ll buy me a punny t-shirt too!

March also happens to be National Reading Month, and reading is one of my other favorite things, up there with writing and t-shirts, so I am lined up to volunteer at both of my kids’ schools doing book-related activities. At Zeke’s school on Monday I am going to be a guest reader in his kindergarten class. I think I will read Mo Willems’ Nanette’s Baguette, which may not have the name recognition that Elephant and Piggie or the Pigeon do, but it is hilarious and reading it makes me so happy. I hope Zeke’s classmates share my feelings about Nanette and her baguette. (As an aside, I am ecstatic that Mo Willems was recently named the Kennedy Center’s first Education Artist in Residence, meaning we will have the opportunity to see some of his characters come to life at the Kennedy Center and perhaps meet him sometime over the next two years. He is, in my humble opinion, a creative genius.)

After I read to Zeke’s class, I will skip down the hall to the library to volunteer at the book fair. It should be obvious that book fairs are another thing that I love. I volunteered at the book fair at Zoe’s elementary school for all six of her years there and enjoyed every minute of it. Zoe’s librarian was marvelous and she and I exchanged book recommendations every time we saw each other. At the book fair I would often help kids look for good books and write down their wish lists, or help teachers or parents who were browsing. And between classes I would read books myself, and buy a few. And come back the next day. And buy a few. And then the kids would come in with me and they would choose books and we would buy a few. Book fairs are dangerous for me. But so satisfying. So I have high hopes for Zeke’s school book fair. Since this is his first year at the school I don’t know many teachers or kids besides the ones in his class, but hopefully I will get to know some in the library. For a few weeks I have been reading for an hour a week with some first graders at his school, so I’ll know them too. In any case, I will have the opportunity to walk around and look at and touch all those beautiful books.

On Tuesday I will be at Zoe’s school bright and early to help set up Booktopia, a day-long book giveaway where we will lay out 1,500 books on tables all over the gym (which we sorted by genre and boxed last week) and invite every reading and English class in the school to come in browse. Each student can choose a book and take it home for free. The PTA started this event when they discovered that many students at the school couldn’t afford to buy full-price books at the book fair, and that the book fair didn’t always have books that reflected the diversity of the student body. So the books we will give away at Booktopia will include a wide variety of new and used books selected to appeal to a wide variety of kids of all reading abilities and backgrounds. In middle school, parents definitely don’t have as much opportunity to hang out at school as in elementary school, so I’m looking forward to this chance to observe all the teachers and all the classes and hopefully connect some kids with some books they will love.

When Zoe’s school year started, I was surprised to learn that she had a reading class as well as an English class. Reading is mandatory for sixth graders, and I was skeptical because Zoe was already a great reader. But I soon realized that the class was not offering remedial help (although it does for those who need it) but pushing her and her classmates to read compelling and intriguing texts by amazing authors, and read critically and think about what she’s reading at a higher level. I have been incredibly impressed with the books she’s read in reading class, including Kwame Alexander’s The Crossover, The 57 Bus, Amal Unbound, and Child Soldier. Pretty much every time Zoe finishes a book, she brings it to me and says, “You’ve GOT to read this.” And I do the same with her, at least with young adult novels I read.

So when Zoe’s school announced a read-a-thon that kicked off today, I was all over it. I am so excited to support her in her reading and help her raise money for literacy programs at her school. If I had not become a writer, I definitely could have been a children’s librarian. I did spend several glorious months right out of college working at Barnes & Noble, which was unbelievably fun. I got to be around books all day! I got to tell people what books I thought they should read! (also we had to clean the toilets at closing time, but the books!).

Right now I’m reading a YA book called Saints and Misfits, about a Muslim girl who feels pulled between her secular friends and her Muslim community. She wears a hijab like her Mom, but her Dad (divorced from her mom and remarried) disapproves. It’s fascinating and beautifully written.

Zoe is eager to read my Day 1/100 sample, and I am pretty sure I’ve exceeded my 100 word requirement. I better save some of my words for the next 99 days.

button flowers

I painted and and cut and pasted these.

floatingyourlifewhereveriturnsacreddivine

randycollage

collage for Randy

zoecollage

collage for Zoe

zekecollage

collage for Zeke

betsycollage

collage for me

via Invocation for Christmas Eve

Given the number of corners of my house I have completely emptied, cleaned, and reorganized over the past couple weeks, I feel certain we must live in a geodesic dome. At first glance our house does not appear much tidier or emptier than it did before, although we have now put 11 bags of detritus out for the trash. I have been working so hard, and I feel like I must have made progress, but so much of it seems invisible.

It started when I was looking in my office closet for Hanukkah wrapping paper. This is the closet where everything is thrown or shoved when you don’t know what else to do with it. A closet where things have often literally cascaded out of it when you open the curtain or move one item. It was the abyss. When I attempted to retrieve the wrapping paper, I noticed that one of the overhead shelves was sagging. I thought the boxes on it must be too heavy. So I took them all down. It turns out the shelf had actually ripped out of the wall on one end. For some reason at that moment it seemed like an excellent idea to empty the entire closet. So I did. And I went through every crumpled cardboard box (and forced my husband to sort through his boxes as well. In one of them was a homemade wooden dagger he had no recollection of making or owning. In another was a scouting patch that reads “Totin’ Chip” and featured an image of an axe. He did not recall what that meant or how he had come to possess it). I found hundreds of postcards and letters–some handwritten on pages of notebook paper, some typed on notebook paper, and some printed on dot matrix printers with the perforated edges still intact–from friends and family members. I found tens of hundreds of pages of emails I had printed out during my semester in Oxford and from old boyfriends. I consolidated all the correspondence and put it in labeled file folders. I couldn’t bear to throw any of it away, except for a few cards and letters I found signed by people whose names brought no faces to mind. This included a couple letters from someone named Larry, who mentioned how much he missed me. I could think of no such Larry. Eventually I found a reference to this Larry in a letter from my friend Jonathan who lived upstairs from me when I lived in England. “Larry is still the same,” he wrote. But I still don’t know who he was…

I found an assortment of political bumper stickers that do not yet have significant value on eBay. But perhaps someday, and they don’t take up much room, so I’m hanging onto them. I found many, many copies of publications I wrote or edited in past jobs. I threw most of them away. I can’t even remember the last time a client requested a print copy of a writing sample. I have one of everything, just for the heck of it. I found binders that include every clip I ever wrote for my college newspaper, The Flat Hat. Zoe was impressed by those. I found a folder containing almost every report card I ever received from kindergarten through college, and the Old Testament part I course I took at Wesley Seminary and the continuing education course in typography that I took at the USDA grad school. I got As in both of those classes. I was surprised, however, that my grades overall were not as stellar as I had remembered. My story was always that I earned all As except for math from 4th through 12th grade, but that wasn’t always true. I definitely remembered that my grades at William and Mary were not particularly good, at least until my senior year. But apparently none of that has kept me from doing what I’ve always wanted to do with my life. No clients have ever asked what my GPA in college was, or what my SAT scores were. But I have them, just in case you need to know. I found report cards belonging to my dad and my Nana. She had much better grades than I did and she had to work in her family’s cotton fields a lot of the time she wasn’t in school. I found a million poems I wrote over many years, many of which I didn’t recognize. I had no idea I was so prolific. I found dozens of mix tapes that I made and that friends made for me. I don’t have a tape player anymore but I can just look at the labels and remember all the songs and everything they meant to me. And someday when my kids are grown I can create digital playlists with whatever technology exists then, like an mp3 chip implanted in my brain.

I found so many photos–most of which I just put in a big container to sort through after Christmas when I have more time–including many of people who I didn’t recognize, although they were taken at parties at the apartments I shared with my friend Melissa for several years. I texted her images with arrows pointing to the people asking if she could identify them. She said, “Are you sure this was at our apartment? I don’t know who these people are!”

I went to Target and stocked up on large plastic bins and disposed of all the cardboard boxes and now every container has a theme. They are neatly stacked in the closet. The shelf has been repaired (thanks, Chris Flanagan!) and I was able to easily slide the Christmas decoration bins back on the shelf after we put up the tree today. For the first time in years, I don’t have to worry about something falling on me when I open the closet.

Meanwhile, the kitchen cabinet that holds our glasses and mugs has been gradually inching out of the wall, threatening to shatter its contents all over the floor. We had to completely empty it out, as well as the neighboring cabinet containing all our plates and bowls, in order for our friendly neighborhood handyman–the aforementioned Chris–to take them down and shore them up and reinstall them. So we did that and when he was done I ripped out the gross old shelf liner and wiped everything down and went to Target (again) to get new shelf liner. In the process of doing all this, I found a lot of lids with no cups or containers, and broken water bottles, and bits and pieces of long departed kitchenware. That led me to clean out the tupperware cabinet, which always descends quickly into chaos but I have to fight the good fight. And now I have a big stack of lonely lids and unmatched bottoms waiting to be disposed of in an eco-friendly manner.

Somewhere in between the excitement of the closet and the cabinet, Zoe’s phone went missing. We are pretty sure it’s in the house, because she was using it last Saturday to film videos with her friend Andrea, and then we went to skate night but she didn’t bring it because she noticed the battery was down to 7%. But where she left it before we headed out remains a mystery. In attempts to solve it, we have cleaned out under her bed, which was a trove of wonders but contained no phone. We cleaned out under Zeke’s bed, which was mostly junk that I threw away, but which contained many unfinished activity books and a massive amount of paper and so many markers and a lot of happy meal toys that I tossed. There is now enough room under both beds for people to crawl in and hide, should the need arise. Because the phone still had not surfaced, Zoe and I cleaned out her area downstairs, including her desk, the game shelf, her Legos, her American Girls and their accessories, and the absurd amount of art supplies that the kids share. I made her consolidate all her slime and slime-making supplies into one large container. We threw away many empty bottles of glue and assorted items. We moved the couches. I mopped. I removed vast quantities of dust bunnies. We started to put Legos she had built on the bookshelf, but ran out of time. I started finding things on the bookshelf to get rid of, but we ran out of time. There’s still work to be done over there. Still no phone. Just in case she had set it down in the kitchen, I cleaned out the space under and around the kitchen cart, and on top of the refrigerator (we found a large red plastic bat and a red plastic golf club that had both been confiscated from Zeke probably two years ago when he was likely using them as weapons). We threw away some yucky old lunchboxes and consolidated half-full boxes of Cheerios. Still no phone, but my theory that somehow it could’ve ended up there was validated by the discovery of an old Arlington County car registration decal.

In the process of all the organization, I have emptied a drawer of my nightstand and a drawer in my office. I don’t remember ever possessing an empty drawer. And there are so many more drawers I haven’t yet explored! I am by no means done. There is still a pile of stuff on my desk that I haven’t figured out how to sort, and there’s a mountain of items to be sold or donated or freecycled taking up a lot of space in the hallway. Not to mention that we haven’t yet found Zoe’s phone. If you have any ideas about where it might be, please let us know, or better yet, come over and take a look! Chances are you will come across some unique and valuable items that you might want for yourself, and I will be delighted to give them to you. If you would like to make Christmas presents with glass bottles, we have some to spare. The more I clean, the more ruthless I am in my decisions about what to keep and what to get rid of. The persistent challenge is how to purge in a compassionate, responsible, and environmentally friendly way. I can’t just throw something perfectly useful in the garbage! Just because I don’t need it or want it doesn’t mean someone else won’t! So if there’s anything you’re in the market for, please let me know because we probably have an extra. And special thanks to the trash collectors who will be coming tomorrow morning to pick up several more bags than usual that are a significant weight off my shoulders.

Invocations

My daughter once taught me a game that her third grade teacher taught her called Fortunately Unfortunately. Someone starts a story and the next person continues with a twist of fate, either positive or negative. It can be very funny, and more philosophically a good reminder to count your blessings. There’s a story told by Stillwater the Panda in Jon Muth’s Zen Shorts with a similar moral.

I feel like our lives this weekend have been a litany of good fortune and misfortune. Not all of them are funny, but all of them are true.

Unfortunately my wallet fell out of my back pocket into the toilet. Fortunately I had only peed, and the $25 in cash remained miraculously dry.

Fortunately I accomplished a lot of cleaning and organizing. Unfortunately, I fell hard after mopping the floor because the soles of my feet were covered in lint and therefore slippery…

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Invocations

At 11pm, the grocery store is blissfully quiet, but not empty. I find my items: bacon, milk, laundry detergent, and two kinds of bread–healthy whole wheat and soft and delicious Martin’s potato bread.

At home everyone is asleep, or almost, and I set to work mashing the eggs I boiled the other day. The yolks are ringed with green, which I learn is from boiling them too long.

After I turned the stove off I set the timer for 20 minutes but then got distracted and abandoned the eggs for some other activity.

I mix in the mayonnaise and sprinkle salt and it’s all an odd shade of yellow green, but I don’t care. On the potato bread it tastes perfect.

I think about everyone who has made egg salad for me, and deviled eggs, and chicken salad, and meatloaf, and slaw with freshly grated cabbage and carrots, and macaroni…

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