Photos and Poetry from a College Senior

I’m proud of my soon-to-be college graduate son, Spencer. He’s doing a great job navigating this odd spring of 2020. He’s currently living alone in his apartment finishing up his last semester at George Washington University without roomates, without celebration, his graduation ceremony cancelled. He’s travelled the globe these past four years as an International Business major and will be graduating summa cum laude. He’s passionate about philosophy (his minor), music and film. I think he’s a wonderful writer too.  Here are his images and reflections from the past two months in Washington DC.

**The featured image above is the Washington Monument taken from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Its usually packed with people. Below is outside Whole Foods on GWU campus — in the distance you can see the arch of the Foggy Bottom metro station.

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Days
Days,
Days like today
Where time slips like coins
Through cracks in the hours.
Ten minutes here, five there.
Never the hours,
No such thing as a sixty-cent coin.
No,
It’s nickels, dimes, quarters through a hole
In an old wooden porch.
Peeling white paint and rusted nails 
Too vivid for days like today.
There goes another
Little silver sliver,
I thought I was saving it for something.

Days,
Days like yesterday
Where it all makes sense.
A train on the tracks,
Going somewhere nice.
Hills roll by, 
Overgrown with the smell of summer.
Yeah,
Slowly pacing- chugging along.
And you, shoveling coal--
Firing the engine.
Getting where you’re going.
It makes it easier,
As it pieces together,
You roll along on your little adventure.

Days,
Who knows what the day is tomorrow. 
Coins through porches or coals in trains?
Maybe both, maybe neither.
Maybe the time won’t be fumbled.
Maybe not thrown to embers.
Maybe it won’t go anywhere at all.
Sitting in a field.
The day will be that:
Shining sun,
Green grass, and a breezy wind.
The day won’t have to be anything,
Except an old quilt and a turkey sandwich.
Ah,
Days like tomorrow.
2/21/20
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Attention
Due to recent
Coronavirus related worries
Your ambitions have been cancelled.

Please note,
This is a difficult situation
And the nervous center
Of your brain
Finds it hard to make this decision.

The administration believes
That due to the lack of restaurants
Open,
The absence of friends
Around,
The majority of rent
Due,

That it is totally ok
To just give up,
For like a few days.

We have laid out
Guidelines as follows
For acceptable behavior
During the course
Of this banal and slow
Moving car crash:

Sleeping until two is encouraged,
As is staying up until three.

Almost doing the dishes
But then sitting down and 
Inevitably staying there for hours
Instead is recommended.

Wandering aimlessly throughout
The rooms in your house.

Frequent and pointless facetimes,
Fun tip: this can be combined with any
Of the previous tips.

Ordering too much food

In other words,
Do what you normally do,
But feel more trapped doing it.

Thank you,
And we hope you have
A hazy and timeless day.

 03/23/20
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Your Hand-Held Hourglass

Today,
Time goes
Nowhere.

Moments are grains
Piled in the palm.

The wind
Will blow away
Your hand-held hourglass.

04.03.20

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These last two photos are of the main square in the heart of GWU campus, and a street off Du Pont circle.

Poetry and photography by Spencer W. Bracey

Spencer and his friend Max at the Great Wall of China, BC (before Corona).

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On Acceptance and Pear Trees

For the past 33 years or so, I’ve been guided by the Serenity Prayer when baffled or confused. So, you know, daily. I often use the short version of the prayer when pressed. I’ll share it with you. It’s handy to have when someone’s been snippy, or if an asshat cuts you off in traffic. In those times of little patience or time to speed talk your way through:

God Grant me the Serenity to

Accept the things I cannot change

Courage to change the things I can

And the Wisdom to know the difference.

You can use the short version, and just say “Oh, well.” And that covers it.

This week as we finally (finally!) stop being in the month of March and proceed into April (which surely won’t be as long, right?) I realized that during this pandemic I’ve been forcing myself to adhere to one part of that prayer, the changing things I can section. Granted, it’s my default position. Coming from a long line of pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstrappers whose mindset of “make it happen” is practically a religion, it’s hard not to try and muscle my way through things. The far side of that behavior is intense manipulation of others to get what you want, which isn’t pleasant for anyone. It also leads to never being good enough. A sticky wicket, in other words. (Have you also been watching way too much Brit Box during quarantine?)

Three weeks into this thing, and never once achieving all the things on the daily to-do list, I’ve realized that gripping onto the “changing things I can” portion of the serenity prayer isn’t working. It’s forced me into using my short version of the Serenity Prayer multiple times per day. I can’t change other people’s behavior; they will still congregate and have “quarantine parties.” Oh, well. My son’s college graduation will be postponed until next year. Oh, well. I can’t even get my 85 and 90-year-old parents to stay in their house. They’ve nicknamed me “The Warden,” and while they say it with a half-smile on their face, they resent the hell out of me, and sneak out and do inconsequential errands anyway. Oh, well. I can only change my own behavior.

Accepting things I cannot change feels unnatural, a lesser choice, the coward’s way out. The thought that if I tried harder something could be done gnaws like a rat behind the wall. It’s a struggle to accept things as they are and not try and fix them. It feels like losing. Yet its where peace is found. Accepting things is to see them clearly, and that’s when a path forward is revealed. It’s a gentler path than I’m used to walking. It includes fuzzy thinking, and naps in the afternoon, and not getting everything on my to-do list done. Very few of us currently alive on this planet have navigated a global pandemic before, so perhaps we can accept that and then move forward instead of making ourselves crazy with what could’ve been done, or what we should be doing.

I think that’s what is meant by giving yourself grace. Being in acceptance is understanding that going for strolls in your neighborhood is enough, I don’t need to jog the whole time. My dog loves those walks. No need to rearrange all the closets today. Maybe just the one shelf. Acceptance means I stop comparing myself to others, too. I love seeing clever people on Facebook making up new pandemic words to Disney songs and dressing up, so we all can laugh. It’s okay to just laugh and appreciate the gift of it, I don’t need to do one too. Besides, you for sure don’t want to hear me sing. I accepted that one back in 2nd grade.

On my long ambles through the neighborhood I see all sorts of gardens. There are apartments with cheery little window pots all the way up to huge 12,000 square foot homes that have immaculate gardens and clipped hedges formed into mazes. My personal garden consists of two small pear sprouts and another little plant on the floor of my living room. The baby pear trees have a good story behind them. They’re from a single pear produced by a long-suffering tree that sat in a pot for at least two years too long at our old rental house in Johnson City. It made a few hopeful green leaves each spring but no fruit. It endured the winters huddled against the side of the house. It’d lost most of its upper branches to some sort of black rot. But it was hanging in there, and as I’m sentimental about living things, we tossed it on the back of the truck last-minute when we moved to Dallas.

We dropped it off at my parent’s house before taking the rest of our things to the apartment, so it survived The Fire. They planted it in their yard. It sat in its new home doing very little for a year, not dejected exactly, just tired from the move and the strangeness of having its roots unencumbered by pot sides. Perhaps learning to accept its new place. Last year the little tree rallied and with a massive effort produced a single, perfect pear. My mom and I shared it when it got ripe, before the birds got it, and to the little tree’s credit, it was sweet and delicious.

I saved the two viable seeds from it, and stored them in a baggie filled with dirt in my fridge for four months like I saw on a YouTube video. The two seeds had just started sprouting when I planted them at the end of January in the pots in my living room and watered and sunned them regularly. Now we have two baby pear trees making leaves and growing very slowly. But growing they are. I talk to them daily and tell them they are the very best pear trees in my living room, and they seem to like that. Just having them there makes me happy, and reminds me one more time that we are indeed human beings, not human doings, and that accepting things I cannot change just might be okay for today.

 

On “Jogging” and Gold Stars

March 3rd marked the third anniversary of a condo fire that burned up every last thing we ever owned. It was made worse because we’d just moved to Dallas ten days prior to The Fire and didn’t know where anything was or how to get there. Being upended was disconcerting and weird, and time was distorted into feeling endless (why is it still March?) and evaporative (how is it 4pm already?) at the same time. Most of us have this feeling in our current Coronavirus lockdown. I wrote a book about dealing with being upended and uncomfortable. It might help you, as it’s often funny, a guideline to getting to the other side of a bad bit. Plus yum comfort food recipes, so you really can’t go wrong.*

Being isolated and having people-oriented activities curtailed isn’t particularly hard for me yet, except for one thing which I’ll get to in a minute. I like being by myself. In fancy-shmancy terms, I’d raise my hand and qualify as an extroverted introvert. I like people on average, and can handle large crowds if necessary, but must return to solitude to recharge. Recharge in this example means that if I don’t get peace and quiet, I may rip your head off after first removing your arms and legs as you lie pinned like a hapless butterfly, thanks. I chalk these violent tendencies that crop up when too long in the company of others to being both an only child and cats-eye-glasses-wearing/teacher’s pet unpopular for my first 16 years or so on the planet.

The one thing I truly miss in these self-insulating times is swimming. It’s my exercise of choice, the one that helps my mind as much as my fitness level. All the pools I use are in public buildings, so that option is closed. Faced with becoming chronically cranky and doughy, I’m forced to take the only option open: “jogging.” It’s in parentheses because what I do barely qualifies as real jogging. It’s more like a shuffle where my feet barely clear the road, and involves a lot of heavy breathing. I haven’t “jogged” for a long time and was never very good at it. Plus I despise sweating. That’s probably why I like the pool, you can’t tell you’re sweating in there, you just feel all glow-y and happy when you’re done. Wet, but a different type of wet.

My first runs that weren’t part of some dumb gym class happened at the tail end of college. I worked as a server** at La Tour, a ritzy restaurant in the Park Hyatt hotel opposite the old Water Tower in Chicago. Every other Saturday we’d get a whippet-thin man in for breakfast who was a bit of an anomaly at the time – he was an ultra-distance marathoner. He’d order up sixteen large pancakes (4 regular orders), no syrup, just butter and steadily work his way through the entire stack, leaving nary a crumb. He was carb-loading, which a thing back then. I wouldn’t think it is now, but that’s what he was doing prior to the long 80 to 100-mile runs he did every other Sunday. He confided in me that he always just ate one meal a day, but at that meal he ate anything he wanted. Of course this idea inspired me. Not the running forever part, but the eat anything I want bit. I learned three core things after a steady running effort for a few months: a. 6 miles was far enough for me, b. clearly my body would never ever take on whippet-form, and c. that eating just once a day is no fun at all.

Since that time, I’ve periodically gone back to lacing up my sneakers and heading out to “jog.” It’s not pretty. While my efforts aren’t as awkward as that of a turtle upside down on its back, waving its little reptilian legs in a futile manner to right itself, hoping one of its turtle friends will hustle over and help it flip back over again, it’s close. I don’t like being sweaty either, and you have to do it early in the day, so three strikes against “jogging.” Luckily, there are more upsides to it than down.

I like being out in nature. I don’t wear headphones, so I can hear the birds singing, although there seem to be less of them than there were a few years ago. I also don’t wear my glasses, as they slip down my nose in a most annoying fashion because, you know, that sweating thing. With no glasses, everything is pleasantly indistinct, with blobs of color like an Impressionist painting. I wonder if all of them were nearsighted. It’s like having my own living blurry art gallery that I am moving ever-so-slowly through. I also like saying hello to everyone else out there slogging along, it gives me a sense of community, and I feel like I’m doing everyone a good deed being the worst one out there, and everyone can feel good about themselves in comparison.

The best bit as a recovering mean-to-myself critical person is that my self-talk through the process is unwaveringly positive. I don’t expect anything of myself other than finishing. I talk my way through each jog. “Okay now just get to the mailbox, now to that set of trees, you can do it. You can get to that crack in the sidewalk for sure! You did it! Whoo!  Okay now just to that curve in the road. You made the stop sign! Great job, I’m so proud of you.” It’s my verbal version of those gold and blue and red stars we used to get on our papers in grade school. If you’re old enough, you’ll remember these. They used to come in the licking version, and then later switched to self-sticking. I loved getting those gold stars as an affirmation of a job well done. Also the endorphin rush after you’re done lasts all day. There’s a sense of accomplishment in doing something hard, even if it was done ungracefully. I hope you’re finding ways to get yourself gold stars, perhaps trying something new or hard you’re willing to do awkwardly for a while. If you are, let me know, I find that so inspiring. Or if you need a little push to get yourself righted, I’m happy to come do that for you too.

*My book, “On Rescue Dogs and Losing Everything” is available on Amazon in kindle or paperback form. Half of all proceeds go to support animal shelters and rescues.

**you know it’s a fancy restaurant when you’re termed a “server” instead of a plain old waitress, or hash-slinger.

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My first book cover!

On Being Susceptible and Plant Based Diets

I’ve become susceptible to marketing strategies. This disappoints me. Either I’m becoming a softie as I glide past the middle part of middle age or companies have gotten better at tugging my heartstrings/breaking down my walls/making me think I need stuff. I used to be made of sterner stuff, and staved off their tricks. I’d smile knowingly when an ad declared “#1 choice of Moms” for example. Really? Which moms? Did you ask a lot of moms, or just five moms and three of them when pushed to answer said it was kind of maybe better? Or when ads proclaimed things using words like bigger or better. Better or bigger than WHAT, I’d ask myself. What is the actual comparison?

Those days are gone. The other night I made the mistake of watching “The Gamechangers” on Netflix with my husband. We’d finished binging “The Crown” and needed something new. It had been recommended by several work colleagues. “The Gamechangers” is a well-made documentary that does a good job of exploring a myriad of reasons to go Vegan, and speaks from an athlete/recovery point of view. Recovery from sports injury (or any injury really) as I age holds my attention. My heating pad is becoming my new best friend and I’m not sure I’m comfortable with our relationship.

This documentary uses athletes, and environmentally minded folks, and some famous manly men, along with science to make the case for going Vegan. Oh, my apologies. It’s not called that anymore. You “go plant-based” now. Which does sound more fun than being Vegan. Vegan conjures up visions of waifs in saffron robes living on lotus roots and air, which isn’t necessarily inviting, or you know, athletic. Going on a plant-based diet on the other hand, sounds sustainable and cool. Like overnight my muscles would gain definition and I’d be described as willowy. I could then  pull off wearing hemp clothing, and using charcoal toothpaste wouldn’t weird me out.

I’ve been Vegan on and off before, once for a solid three years in my early 30s. I joke that all the chopping got to me, so I stopped. I do have a vivid memory of standing at the counter, knife in hand ready to chop yet another carrot, and not being able to do it for one more minute. What is more truthful is that one day I wanted a real cheese pizza more than a vegan its-trying-hard-to-be-cheese-but-failing pizza, and began the slide down the slippery slope. I have issues with vegan cheese, as it melts and looks like cheese but then utterly (udderly!) never tastes like it at all.

So I watched the documentary, got roped in, and have been on a plant-based diet for a week and a half. I’m facing fake cheese again. While I admit that I’m making the unhealthy choice of guac and chips and salsa as a perfectly acceptable vegan meal, I’m balancing that out with vegan recipes. I made a cashew cheese sauce (colored with chopped cooked carrots – it was probably what I was making when I threw in the towel last time) with the terribly-named Nutritional Yeast as the cheese imposter that actually does do a fair imitation of cheese sauce if you are craving comfort food. I also made a lentil-oatmeal “meatloaf” that tastes good if you put enough ketchup on it. Both of those recipes came from the “Gamechangers” website.

There are four good things that have happened since I got suckered have embraced a plant-based diet one more time. The first is that I discovered there’s a gadget that goes into my blender that chops up nuts in a jiffy. It’s fun to use. The second is that I’ve been to three parties (‘tis the season) and have had no difficulties enjoying myself or finding food to eat. Granted, I did bring along a salad (wild greens with raspberries, walnuts and pomegranates with a raspberry vinaigrette) just in case, but I was fine.

The third good thing is the smugness I feel walking into Sprouts and filling my reusable bags from large bins containing lentils and nuts and other Healthy Items. (I’ve also been cutting back on my plastic use. Single-use plastic was the thing I gave up for Lent this year. I’m not Catholic, but it always seems like a good idea.) The final good thing that has happened is that I dropped over two pounds and three inches in my first week of plant-based eating, and I wasn’t exercising. I know, it’s so horribly vain. Sure is a nice side effect though. I’ll keep you posted on how it all goes, I’m committing to doing this for six months straight. There, I’ve said it. No going back now.

VEGAN OAT AND LENTIL “MEATLOAF”
15 minutes assembly, 55 minutes to cook, serves 6

Chop: 2 stalks celery, ½ onion and 2 cloves of garlic. Sautee in a little water until soft and set aside to cool.
Cook up some brown or green lentils (not red, they get mushy) in your instant pot – 2 parts water to 1 part lentils, 15 minutes on high and let it vent on its own. You’ll use about a cup cooked lentils.
Mush together: 10 oz of firm tofu drained, the lentils and sautéed veggies, and 1 ½ cups quick cooking oatmeal in a bowl.
Add 3 tablespoons soy sauce, 2 tablespoons ketchup, 1 tablespoon Dijon mustard, some chopped parsley, and a ½ teaspoon each of thyme, rosemary and sage (I didn’t have rosemary or sage, and it was fine) and mush together some more.
Pat firmly into a parchment-lined loaf pan or 8×8 square pan and top with a layer of ketchup. Bake at 375 for about 55 minutes or until a toothpick in center comes out clean.
#eatlikeagamechanger