The sound of one tree falling

I love taking pictures of trees, most often in autumn and winter.  Watching leaves turn a glorious riot of color before they drop to the ground is a gift I never tire of. But there’s something even more compelling when they’re gone, and every knot on every tree trunk, every crooked limb, shows itself.  Until snow comes, there’s no hiding from a sense of feeling exposed.

A few years back, we had a surprise snowstorm on Halloween.  Tree branches snapped. Entire trees toppled, this one across my driveway in the middle of the night.  Nature has her own way of pruning. I didn’t hear a thing.

Gardeners have their way of pruning, too, and I marvel at the precision with which a tree is taken down.  It takes a certain kind of fearlessness (coupled with skill) to be up in a tree, sawing away while helpers are on the ground, directing a branch with ropes.  The saw makes for a very grating noise, yes; then comes the thud.

The view from my kitchen deck is even more open now that the gorgeous ash tree I’ve photographed more than once over the years is gone. I take no credit for the way the light just happened to hit it on a day in late August. Even more mysterious is how turning it into my iPad wallpaper forever gave it a screenshot date. The original photograph is missing and I made a point of capturing newer images of that favorite tree, even if they don’t quite measure up. Maybe there’s a message here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These days have me hearing trees falling, groaning under the weight of a planet in distress. I spend a lot of time trying to reassure my daughter that all is not lost. Things change. The profit motive (not to mention the vindictive behavior of the psychopath-in- chief) that underscores all that’s being done to undermine the environmental progress we’ve made will give way to a stronger, sounder resistance.

A landscape filled with trees is riddled with metaphor. Light bends leaves, deep, sinewy roots are what keep a tree standing.

Look hard enough and you see trees doing things.

Leaning on one another. . .

Or looking more and more like the terrain in Stranger Things.

This morning was filled with mist and the chill of missing sunshine, neither of which keeps me from walking.

 

On the way back I decided it was time to take a photo or two of the space left by the majestic ash—which calls to mind a parable as wise as it is touching.  Shel Silverstein’s The Giving Tree takes a boy from innocence to old age in his relationship to a tree who (physically and metaphorically) gives pieces of herself in response to his needs. He swings from her branches, sleeps in her shade; she lets him cut branches when he needs to build a house and her trunk when he wants a boat in which to sail away.  In the end, when he’s old and tired and simply wants a place to sit and rest, she invites him to do just that on all that’s left of her.

Of course, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point to one more tree, dreamlike in its artfulness, that gets pride of place on the redesigned Home page of my website. Please take a peek if you haven’t already. Then consider the serendipity that brought me this Counting Crows cover of a Joni Mitchell song with these words:

They took all the trees
and put ’em in a tree museum
And they charged the people
A dollar and a half to see ’em 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why do weddings make me cry?

My daughter is getting married next May, and sometimes just the thought of it brings tears to my eyes. So happens spring will also bring publication of my novel—the culmination of years of writing, some publication, lots of rejection, and always, always the tenacity to keep at it, a bag of emotion all its own. Then there’s the sorry state of our country, not to mention the seasonal melancholy etched into every falling autumn leaf.

But this is mostly about weddings and the emotional undercurrent they give rise to. I was weeks from turning thirty-five when I got married, an age at which the thought of being ‘given away’ in a walk down some carpeted aisle didn’t quite cut it. My husband-to-be and I found a venue styled to look like a turn-of-the-century French ballroom. Very hip. Very Greenwich Village. Very us. We did all the legwork, thankful to have very accommodating parents with simple requests. In the mixed metaphor that was, and continues to be, our lives, we were married by an Orthodox rabbi. The wedding may have been larger than I would have liked, but my family was large. I say ‘was’ because the generation that would comprise my parents’ siblings, cousins, friends, etc., is mostly gone. My husband’s parents, whose circle of family and friends was much smaller by comparison, could care less about what would seem to be a proportional imbalance. They were just glad that their son was getting married, and to a nice Jewish girl, who would in two years’ time give them their first granddaughter to dote on.

And dote they did. And on a spring night barely six months from now, that first granddaughter will find herself under a makeshift Chuppah at a Malibu ranch. We’re counting on her only remaining grandparent to be at the wedding. She’s 91, sharp and healthy, even if a little frail. She lives in northern California, the wedding will be in southern California. My future son-in-law’s grandparents plan to fly in from New York.

Like my wedding, my daughter’s is looking to be larger than she would like, and we’ve all done our best to pare the guest list. This is never an easy task, and one that feels even more emotionally complicated in a time when friends are more like family than the relatives I feel distanced from.

You can’t go home again. But you can feel the ache of what that thing called home, for all the convoluted emotions it encompasses, gives rise to. “You will have only one story,” says Sarah Payne, the fictitious writer/mentor to Lucy Barton in Elizabeth Strout’s tender and touching novel, My Name Is Lucy Barton. “You’ll write your one story many ways.” I don’t know that I have only one story, but I do know that the complexity of mother-daughter relationships keeps surfacing (hopefully in different ways) in my fiction and essays. Then there’s the more general exploration of familial ties: what happens when that thing we think of as family disperses almost to the point of dissolving?

I tear up during the ceremony at any wedding I attend. Down-the-aisle love songs have a way of tugging at my heart, hitting that nerve that sits on the edge of love and loss in the way that weddings do.

For better or for worse, a wedding is an affirmation of love. It reminds us what it is to be young (or old) and truly in love.

It’s another link in a chain of rituals that bind us.

It’s a reminder that the circle of life is held together by new links forged from broken ones.

It tells us that our children are grown now, moving on.

All those months, the planning and attention to details—the venue, the food, the entertainment, the guest list, the dress (a tradition with a history all its own)—

—to be funneled into a celebration, one day only, that embodies the future and the past.

Suddenly it’s here. We lift our glasses to the bride and groom. We smile. We laugh. We cry. We dance.

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Ch-ch-ch-changes

An autumn morning, window open to the cool air. I settle myself on a gray cushion that puts me in the mindset of meditation, choose my music. No sooner do I close my eyes than I hear a thud (or two or three) that sounds alarming. How can I possibly stay put with Henny-Penny running through my brain? I get up, look out the window open to the deck below. Turns out what I’m hearing is the sound of one (or two or many) hickory nuts falling. Branches are dropping, too. I look up at the tree. A squirrel is flying from branch to branch. Another squirrel has landed on the deck railing. Autumn is their rush hour.

A few days of that thump-thump and it feels like old hat. I can do what meditation appears intended to help me do. Acknowledge the sounds, take in the thought, get back to the breathing, the moment.

So often so much easier said than done. I reassure my chattering brain with a story that speaks to my dilemma.

A student tells her master about her morning’s meditation experience. “My mind was clear,” she says. “Thoughts did not get in that way.” Her master’s response: “That is good.” The next day she has a different experience. “My mind would not quiet down,” she says. “I couldn’t stop thinking.” Her master’s response: “That is good.”

There’s a part of me (the expansive one, I call her) who trusts the wisdom here. Sit long enough to let the chattering brain slow down and you know it’s only good. No need to be hard on myself if one day’s attempt at meditation doesn’t quite bring serenity. It’s not about goals. It’s not about judgment. It’s about simply being in the moment to the best of my ability. Every day is different. Change is the only constant.

There’s another part of me (the contracted one, I call her) ruled by a mind afraid to lose even one thought.

Some days, the face of that horrible man with orange hair slips out of my consciousness almost as easily as he seems to have invaded it. Some days, the anxieties surrounding the future of our world, the anger and tears fueled by calculated acts of mass murder dissipate. This is not about denial. This is not about feeling helpless, a word I’m hearing too much lately. This (I think) is about giving in to a larger reality that knows everything changes. Day by day. Month my month. Year by year.

On any given day, when I’m out for a walk, there’s a certain tree on the road whose large leaves I marvel at, especially the way they appear to be shooting off branches from the lower end of the trunk. I think it’s a linden. Only when I finally decide to stop for a closer look do I see that this is a tree of two trunks, one truncated and giving rise to its own network of branches. Appearances can be deceiving.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Even with unnatural fluctuations in seasonal temperatures, leaves are turning. Soon enough autumn’s peak moment will come and go.  Trees will become a lacework of bare branches, though this winter will bring to my home panorama spruce and boxwood touches of green.

Then there’s the lawn itself, a long time coming. I marvel at how quickly seeds become grass.

 I look forward to a yard without mud puddles from melting snow. This has not been a situation of neglect. It’s more a question of living with a man for whom interior and exterior design are all of a piece. If you’re going to finally get around to the lawn, you do it with a vision. You do it with a sense of landscape as an extension of what you see through the windows and glass doors. My house has always been a work in progress, major renovation when we first moved in (1995), followed over the years by an addition (2008), more interior/exterior repairs and updates, a new kitchen just this past summer, and last but hardly least, landscaping.

Everything in its time.

Everything takes time—unloading the dishwasher, reading emails, checking in on Facebook and Twitter. Sorting real news from fake news. Doing laundry. Reading. Doing yoga. Going out for a walk. Sitting down to write. Some things feel as if they take too much of our time. Some things feel as if they’re never done. And how is it that those moments and events we look forward to months ahead of time—a concert, a visit from an out-of-town friend, a wedding, publication of book—seem to have arrived in a flash?

Everything changes.

Right now it’s raining. The wind is blowing. And those hickory nuts are falling fast and furiously. I’m tempted to take a break from writing, snap a few more photos. It’s what these times have programmed into us: capture the moment, iPhone at the ready, with or without ourselves in the picture. Because we can. If we wait too long the moment will pass, something will change. And in the instant it takes to snap a photo, how often do we stop to think about what we might be missing?

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Back to school

Seasonal lore tells us that March conjures the lion and the lamb, September those back-to-school rituals some of us loved, others not so much. The other night a mountain lion surfaced in a dream. I could give any number of reasons why this strong, sleek, beautiful creature paid a visit to my unconscious at this particular moment in time. More important, she (or he) got me thinking that the king of beasts has moved on to a different season, with a vengeance. With or without climate change to explain the ferocity of Harvey and Irma, hurricanes are a given in September.

Leaves have already begun to lose their vibrancy, which always brings on a touch of melancholy.  The Jewish New Year, with its message of repentance and renewal and all the memories evoked, is around the corner. Known as the Days of Awe but informally referred to as ‘the holidays’ in the solid, middle-class Jewish world I was raised in, they would either be early or late. That’s what you get when dates marked by a lunar calendar are measured in relation to the Gregorian (solar-based) calendar that rules our day-to-day secular lives. So be it. We live our lives according to the rituals that ground us. The calendar is a construct of convenience.

Even with the ache for all that’s gone from my life, I’m energized this time of year, revved up by the crispness of autumn. Ingrained patterns die hard. Those lazy, hazy days may have always been a welcome break from school days, but come September I’m headed (in my memory) to that windowless shop around the corner from my home, filled with the particular scent of fresh school supplies. Shopping for notebooks and briefcases (no backpacks back then), pencils and pencil cases meant a clean slate of things to learn.

As summers go, this one in the Northeast has had very few days, relative to summers past, of hot, sticky weather. We may still get a hurricane, hopefully not, but we’re bound to get a spell of summery days in late September, so often around ‘the holidays.’ If I can’t find a satisfactory answer to why we call it ‘Indian summer,’ I accept it as a Mother Nature’s reminder that shifting seasons are fluid.  This year brings a ‘late’ Jewish New Year, a day shy of the autumn equinox but always in sync with a full moon.

Memories are fluid, too, If you’re lucky, you get to soften with age and the hard memories that make the body contract with bitterness or anger loosen their grip. There’s no real wishing them away, there’s just the acceptance that the past may inform the present and future, but it doesn’t have to rule it. Maybe it’s true, you can’t go home again but you can pick and choose the memories that nourish the soul and soften the heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Several years back, I answered the back-to-school call by taking a graduate-level refresher course at Sarah Lawrence College on how to read a poem. We analyzed poems, delved into prosody, which brought new levels of insight into familiar and unfamiliar poems.

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness . . .

The very first lines of Keats’s “To Autumn” forever have the ring of a tongue-twister, and I think that’s the point. Cold air mixed with warm brings on the mist and with it the smell and taste and crispness of those first apples of the season. Senses are heightened with great poems, whether or not things make sense. The more I read this ode, the more I can’t help see the mix of emotion this time of year as part of the fabric of autumn.

Where are the songs of spring? Ay,  where are they?
Think not of them, thou hast thy music, too—

Leaves are dying, yes, but before they drop, the trees become bouquets that can only be classified as glorious.

 

 

 

 

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Stories begging to be told

Tell anyone you’re a writer and inevitably you hear these words—Oh do I have a story to tell! If only I knew how to get it all down. Maybe I could tell it to you and you could write it for me.

 “Writing isn’t particularly different from hibernation,” observes the polar bear/narrator in Yoko Tawada’s very inventive Memoirs of a Polar Bear. This is writing at its most artful, even playful, a story offering up both literary and social commentary, something to especially savor during this month in which we celebrate reading women in translation ((#WITMonth). The smaller the world seems, in terms of how we connect, the larger it gets. Diversity, in all its expression of form, feels more urgent than ever.

Some say it takes courage to write. For me it’s more surrender, not so much sweet as the kind that comes from all that quiet time spent wrestling with words/thoughts/worlds. Not that courage doesn’t play its part, especially when it comes to telling a story that’s been kept quiet for too long. Unless it’s journal writing, for your eyes only, to write is to imagine you have a story people just might want to read.

First comes a kind of liberation—there! I did it—but once it’s out, the same vulnerability that may have kept you from putting down the story in the first place exposes you now to a world that can be as forgiving as it can be harsh. Did that inner critic we thought so demanding mislead us? Did that muse who lit the fire dissolve in her own ashes?

More than courage, it’s humility that’s on my mind. Madeleine L’Engle expressed it so perfectly in A Circle of Quiet:

“I think that all artists, regardless of degree of talent, are a painful, paradoxical combination of certainty and uncertainty, of arrogance and humility, constantly in need of reassurance, and yet with a stubborn streak of faith in their validity, no matter what.” It’s not about pitting ourselves against the greats, she goes on to say. It’s about a way of looking at the universe.

We are a storytelling species, which means we all have stories to tell. Some are transcendent, some banal. Some are driven by the artful play of words, others by the raw power of the story.

Look anywhere, listen—really listen—to what people say, and a story idea is bound to take shape. The other side of that equation is the story that finds the writer, the one she is simply meant to tell.

Woman at Point Zero. Nawal El Saadawi is a feminist force of nature in her native Egypt and her novel was sparked by an encounter (in her role as psychiatrist) with a female prisoner condemned to be executed for murdering a man. Firdaus, the prisoner, entrusts her story of abuse, female genital circumcision, enslavement, and prostitution to El Saadawi, who shapes it into a compelling narrative that touches on issues that ultimately touch us all. El Saadawi may be the conduit but Firdaus is the hero who turns on its head the question of victimization.

Monkey’s Wedding. The time is 1953, the place Southern Rhodesia, the tensions between native populations and the white ruling class growing. Rossandra White spent part of her childhood in Zimbabwe, which makes it impossible not to see her in Elizabeth McKenzie, as spirited a young heroine as it gets. Central to the narrative is Elizabeth’s relationship with Turu, the son of a man who works for her family. And like the best of novels that straddle the YA/adult fiction fence, Monkey’s Wedding lets the wisdom of innocence ring through a complicated political and cultural scenario.

Veronica’s Grave. The opening pages of Barbara Donsky’s very moving memoir take us right into the mind of a young girl who can’t make heads or tails of her mother’s ‘disappearance.’ One day mommy is there, the next day she’s gone, no explanation. People are at her home, crying, still no explanation. And no mommy. A baby brother will surface soon enough, but still no mommy. Like all children, she will find ways to express the confusion, the pain, the anger, and Donsky does an especially skillful job of letting the narrator’s voice change as she herself is transformed.

All of which takes me full circle down a long and winding yellow brick road, with its twists and turns and archetypes and metaphors. Who hasn’t had at least one you’re-not-in-Kansas-anymore moment in his/her life? Who doesn’t need a little more courage, a little more heart, a little more wisdom sometimes, the secret of course being what that trio of beloved characters knows only too well: they’re nothing without each other. I don’t know if there’s no place like home in a world of displacement but I do know there’s no dearth of stories that begin or end there. Some need a little coaxing, others are simply begging to be told.

 

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Why I love my daughter

I count it among one of life’s gifts to have a daughter who enjoys doing things with me. Rock concerts. Hiking when we’re on vacation (even if she leaves me in the dust). Shopping.  Enjoying the sights and streets of NYC when she comes back East. But it’s something else, as deep in what it says about character and resilience as it is funny that has me moved to write about her.

Because she lives on the West Coast and I’m in New York, it’s not uncommon for me wake to texts written by her late at night.We’d had more than one conversation about the distressing direction of health care and insurance last week. Hard to offer reassurance when things are so tenuous politically and socially, conservative right-wing Republicans have more power than they deserve, and there’s a psychopath in the White House.  And, yet, when we talk a switch in my brain automatically turns me from worried mode to mama mode, in which I remind her that things are bad, yes, but we have to consider that resistance counts for a lot. After we talk, I send a text.

So when I turned on my phone Friday morning and saw there was text from her, I was so sure it was going to be about John McCain, a villain earlier in the week. Then came Thursday night, the tension, the mystery, the anxiety.  I had trouble falling asleep, I dreaded what Friday would bring in the wake of the Senate debate on the last of the three options to repeal the Affordable Care Act.

Here’s the text I woke up to.

I laughed.   Already in a better mood than I thought I’d be because of two persistent women who would not cave to party pressure augmented by a tweeting psychopath, and a man I’ve had mixed feelings about over the years, I reminded myself a small win is still a win.

I reminded myself, too, that my daughter has always been this way.  She unloads, tells me all the troubling things on her mind. Then her own neurological switch kicks in.

Survival strategies take many forms, and humor is one of the best.  Timothy Ferris makes a good case for laughter as a response to stress in an essay in his book, The Mind’s Sky: Human Intelligence in a Cosmic Context. We all need some comic relief.

I thought a little about John McCain, too.  His dramatic return in the throes of a terrible prognosis had so many seeing him as a hero. Humility in the face of death would not be a stretch when trying to understand his thumbs-down moment.  In truth, we all know the vote could have gone either way,

And I thought of two strong, remarkable women, Lisa Murkowski and Susan Collins, who I’m thankful are not getting (too) overshadowed by the vote heard around the world.

Then there’s my daughter. The greed that fuels the climate change deniers, the heartlessness at the heart of attempts to eviscerate Obamacare get her absolutely worked up. Factor in random personal frustrations and you could have a pretty miserable individual.  But a capacity for getting on with things, coupled with a sense of humor and an admirable resilience, always ends up winning the day.

And sometimes all it takes is a puppy or two to make her smile.

Patiently waiting for a Shake Shack poochini 😉

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Young at Heart

July 1985. I’m behind the counter of Farmhouse, Inc., an East Hampton design shop my husband opened with the man who would have been his partner had he not died. It’s Saturday night. We play Frank Sinatra music, always a draw.

It had all the markings of a good plan. Keith, my husband’s assistant in his NYC interior design business, wanted to open a design shop in East Hampton. He spent half his week in the city and the other half in Sag Harbor where he lived with his life partner, Peter, who had a thriving hair salon. The Hamptons had plenty of antiques shops but nothing focused on contemporary design. Lew liked the idea.

They found a space for rent, gave it a name: Farmhouse, Inc., a gallery of craft/tech. That was February 1985. Another person might rethink signing a lease with someone just diagnosed with HIV. But that other person would not have the spirit of the man I married. By springtime Keith had full-blown AIDS but was holding steady. We had a Memorial Day opening bash filled with friends (including local luminaries), and all the promise of a creative new venture.

 

If pictures truly are worth a thousand words, how’s this one for silliness and feeling young at heart? Please ignore the socks I’m wearing. It was a time. It was a look. Do not ignore the smile on the face of my dear friend, Regina, and me.

By early July Keith was gone.

Can’t say I would ever really fill Keith’s shoes, with all that he would have brought to the partnership but we gave it our best shot. The following July would find me very pregnant and overjoyed by my mother’s visit. Sara would be born a month later.

Why is this on my mind now?

Well first there’s the Frank Sinatra connection. Almost any song on the cassette we regularly played as customers browsed takes me back, but “Young at Heart” puts me there in a flash, the wistfulness of it, hand in hand with a melancholy undertone.

Then there’s the novel I would write, sparked by the need to make sense of a very troubling time. These were the early days of AIDS. Nobody knew what was really happening. Days felt shadowed with clouds.

More and more a sense of innocence lost took hold. All those years of sex/drugs/rock ‘n’ roll free love and now we have sex equated with death. What would the impact of that be on anyone coming of age in the ‘80s? I pictured a girl, a beloved uncle, the mysteries surrounding him. I pictured her born in the summer of ’69, coming of age in the ‘80s, a time when the mysteries give way to tragedy. How does a young person, in all her innocence, make sense of it all? How does she confront the ugliness of that thing we call homophobia?

How does she handle grief?

And, what if her own sexual awakening occurs while her uncle is dying?

There you have it, the seeds of Just like February, which will at last be published next April by Spark Press.

In the words of the young narrator’s quirky grandmother: “If you live long enough, you see everything.”

Speaking of which, here I am, another July years later, the kitchen renovation I recently wrote about brought to completion but forever holding all that’s contained in those moments defined by before and after.

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Space fantasy 2

As a young girl growing up in Brooklyn I craved space. How else to explain my taking up residence in the Loew’s Kings ladies’ room during movie intermissions? It had a plush sitting room where I could pretend I was holding court before (or after) going into the bathroom proper. Then there was the furniture department of Macy’s, down the street from our family candy store. I would wander over there, settle myself in any of the arranged living room settings. It was the cusp of the ‘60s, a time of social upheaval, yes, but the world clearly felt safe enough for a mother to give this kind of license to a ten-year-old.

An entire past comes to dwell in a new house, I wrote in a previous piece that touched on the places my imagination took me as a writer-in-the-making longing for a room of her own. Today I have that, and much more. And I still marvel at how any change, even for the better, is tinged with something gone.

My house, a veritable work-in-progress, is no longer new, but every phase of renovation brings a new way of being in it. This time—I could shout at last!—it’s a kitchen upgrade. The kitchen always had its charm—colorful cabinets, a floor like none other, which had messages (some coded) cleverly laid in decals by my husband. There’s history in these floors and walls of the warm home our house became.

But modernization and efficiency in storage were in order. Exciting, yes, to envision, even if it feels overwhelming: clearing out the kitchen, organizing the contents of drawers and cabinets into boxes for some semblance of easy access. It’s the little things—not wrapping each and every coffee mug in newspaper—that keep the ache at bay; we’re not moving out, we’re just moving things to another room.

In the interest of change, I’m experimenting with a little blog music more regularly. Click on the audio widget (upper right) and enjoy what you hear while considering ten things to remember when you renovate a kitchen:

  • It’s temporary.
  • You will cry as you pack boxes to put into your dining room and living room and wherever you can make them fit, and think about all that has taken place in the kitchen as it was.
  • You will feel disoriented. Which cardboard box did I put the boxes of pasta into? Where are my mixing spoons?
  • You will walk back and forth a lot, in need of things—a towel, a fork, a knife and cutting board—not within immediate reach.
  • You will remind yourself of the privilege that is your life and makes this upgrade a possibility—then take a step back to consider that, for too many people, this is not even an option.
  • You will suddenly remember how well you managed in that ridiculously tiny kitchen in your studio apartment, back when.
  • You will cry.
  • You may even curse.
  • You will be distracted from rituals and routines that require your focus: writing, reading, yoga, meditation.
  • If you’re lucky, you may even welcome the disorientation for whatever new insights it brings.
  • And when all is said and done, you’ll marvel at something that seemed to take so long becomes another thing completely in an instant.

So here you have it—a glimpse of what was/what is/what will be my spiffy, new kitchen.

 

The best (photo), I might add, is yet to come.

 

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