Delayed reaction

Sometimes I just can’t tell when or how something is affecting me. It’s just truly a challenge to be in touch with your feelings all the time. Who has time for that? I’m too busy working full-time, taking care of the dog, taking care of the house and yard, taking care of my physical needs, etc., etc.

The past two days have been rough for me, and I’m only starting to figure it out now. My aunt is dying. This is upsetting to me on multiple levels.

See? It should be so simple to figure out. Why has it taken me the better part of a week to get to this realization, though? And even now that I’m understanding my reaction better, what can I do about it?

I first found out about my aunt’s condition in February. She had noticed some odd neurological problems a few months earlier and so the brain tumor was discovered. The neurologist recommended chemotherapy and radiation, and she completed the treatments in early June. Last week she returned to the hospital with new symptoms and they checked the tumor again. It had gotten larger. She was offered hospice and told she had two to six months to live. Those are the facts.

My aunt is in her mid-sixties and has lived a blameless and clean life. She’s a nun in the Dominican order, and entered the convent after high school. She has devoted her life to her god and for many years she worked in the convent’s mother house running the kitchens. My family used to visit her there and I found the spacious buildings, park-like property, and dozens of doting women a wonderful treat. One summer I spent several weeks staying at the mother house with her, and my parents were thrilled that I returned with a photo of me wearing the head-piece of her habit. I guess they thought I may join the convent, too.

I have an issue with dogma and am not religious, but when I was traveling through Spain in March I visited several churches and cathedrals. In each one, I stopped to reflect on my aunt and her condition. I can say that I even prayed for her a few times, although my prayers were more exhortations than humble requests. In Cordoba I recall kneeling in the Mezquita cathedral, staring at the altar and thinking, “She’s devoted her life to serving you because she believes in you so much. The least you can do is not treat her like shit.”

Next Monday, Independence Day, I’ll get to see her. Most likely it will be the last time. That’s what she’s planning, anyway: a final visit with all the nieces and nephews and grand-nieces/nephews, and grand-grand nieces/nephews before she dies. (Catholic families are typically large; I have nine cousins who each started families young. I’ve lost track of how many second and third cousins I have, quite frankly.) She’ll travel through Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Tennessee to visit the clan. My other aunt — her twin sister, and also a nun — will be driving and watching over her.

I haven’t even lost her yet, but I’m grieving. I’ve been feeling exhausted and reactive the last two days and had no idea why until today.

It’s not just that I’ll be losing an aunt that is stirring me up. I also can’t help but project myself into her situation. I think about how cheated I would feel to have wasted so many years. Life is finite; why am I not spending my days doing something I really love and am passionate about?

During my long drive last weekend I had some time to talk with Ellen about how drained and unmotivated I’ve been feeling. My garden is pathetic this year, and I haven’t been doing as much cooking as I’d like. I’m not writing very much, either. When I get home from work at night, I just want to collapse on the couch or into bed. This is because I’m not getting any energy back from my work. I’m not enjoying myself, or feeling a sense of accomplishment. It just seems to suck the life out of me every day, and I spend the evenings and weekends trying to restore myself to some balance.

I’ve decided to seek out a career counselor and start figuring out what to do with myself for the next few years. Hopefully when I reach the point that I need to say good-bye to my friends and family I’ll feel good about what I’ve been doing with my limited time.

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A foraging I go

My friend Ellen is a goddess when it comes to food.

I know that may seem like a strong word to use for a person, but what else can I call someone who has converted her entire city lot to an edible landscape, processed half a hog in her kitchen, makes her own beer and soda syrups, and has an outdoor, wood-fired pizza oven? We first met online, crossing paths because we both wrote blogs about gardening and keeping chickens in our city backyards. When we figured out that we lived only about a mile or two away from each other and that we both liked to knit, too, it seemed that it was inevitable that we become friends. So when Ellen suggested we take a day trip out to southwest Michigan to pick elderberry flowers I thought: why not?

We got an early start yesterday morning, leaving her house at 7:30 AM for what should have been a less than three hour drive. Unfortunately getting through the traffic mess created by an early morning accident that had shut down the busiest section of expressway in the city delayed us nearly an hour. We finally made it to the fruit orchard in South Haven, Michigan run by Ellen’s friend, Pete, by late morning. A short walk around the property brought us to a small stand of elderberry shrubs in flower.

But we could only look at these plants as examples since they were planted by Pete so he could sell their fruit at market. We were supposed to connect up with another person — a neighbor of Pete’s called Fritz — who could guide us to a place where we could forage for elderberry flowers. Finding Fritz took another 30 minutes or so, and he kindly invited us in his house as he called another neighbor who had lots of elderberry shrubs on his property. Unfortunately, the neighbor didn’t want us coming over to pick flowers, so we had to move on to Plan B: picking flowers from the shrubs growing in the ditches alongside the county roads.

Fritz got us started off by showing us a road where a few elderberry shrubs were in bloom and informing us that anything within 30 feet of the road was county property. For the next two hours, we drove up and down county roads (some paved, some not) looking for elderberry shrubs, tramping through tall grass and weeds on sloping ground, and filling paper grocery bags with flower umbels. In total we collected one full shopping bag of umbrels and only had one minor slip and fall incident where Ellen tumbled to within a few inches of a ditch full of stagnant water.

Elderberry flowers

Ellen gathering elderberry flower umbels to make into wine or cordial.

During the course of the day, I learned quite a bit about what Ellen kept referring to as “nature’s pharmacy.” Elderberry flowers and and fruit seem to be quite valuable to many cultures. Here they’re treated like a weed and a pest. Fritz told us that there used to be many more elderberry shrubs in the area, but last year the county chopped many down as they cleaned out the ditches.

After spending a couple hours driving around and looking for them, Ellen and I became pros at spotting elderberry shrubs. All the way home we had our eyes trained on the greenery surrounding the expressways. Every once in a while one of us would exclaim, “There! Look!” or “Oh! That’s a HUGE patch!”

It seems elderberry does quite well alongside the highways. It grows best in full sun so is only found on the edges of forests. It likes moist soil and can be found in marshy conditions. We even spotted a few large patches of it alongside the Kennedy Expressway as we drove north through the city. Now that we know the conditions in which elderberry thrives, we’re plotting how to stealthily cultivate it in the parks and forest preserves of Chicago.

Over the next week or two, there will be more elderberry flowers available for the taking. Then we’ll have to patiently wait until the fall to harvest berries.

I’m sure Ellen will make a delicious cordial or wine with the flowers, but I’m waiting for the berries. Some elderberry syrup seems like just the thing to have on hand during winter cold and flu season. Until then, I’ll keep scouting the neighborhood for the shrubs, biding my time.

Have you ever foraged for anything?

Home maintenance

I knew it had been a while since my last post, but it was a shock to open WordPress and see that I haven’t written in six weeks! Wow!

All I can say to account for the time is that I’ve been taking care of myself in the spare time outside of work. That self care did not include writing, obviously, but it was filled with many household chores such as meal prep, cleaning, gardening, and scheduling home repair projects. And it’s paid off. As I sit on my back porch sipping coffee this morning, I love seeing my perennial beds full, lush, and looking marvelous with all that costly mulch, and the general tidiness of the property is heartening.

The entire tax refund will be completely consumed by home maintenance, but that’s OK with me. The peeling paint on the garage was addressed, the rotten fence post replaced, and the flashing on the front of the house touched up. Landscaping took the biggest chunk of it: weed clean up and applying seven cubic yards of mulch is not cheap, even if it the mulch is not the high-end shredded bark. (The landscaping guy couldn’t believe I wanted the lower cost “playground mulch” applied to all perennial beds, but I insisted. It’s not just that I’m trying to save money; I actually like how it looks.) We’ve had so much rain this spring that the weeds were a bit crazy despite my careful hand pulling a few weeks ago.

Speaking of rain, I’m happy that the spot tuck-pointing and extra downspouts I sprang for last year seem to have done the trick: I found no small puddles in the basement after the heavy rains, and the dining room wall has remained dry. Within the next week or two I’ll use up the last of the tax refund repairing that plaster wall in the dining room. (Thank goodness the integrity of the plaster seems good and it is not loose; it will only require lots of scraping, skimming, and then re-painting.) I’ll just have to wait a few months to replace the ruined window treatments. (Let’s I hope I get a bonus this year, OK?)

At least the rain has not caused me huge problems as it did my neighbor next door. Poor Mila has been having a very hard time with all the rain this spring. Her basement (which she repeatedly said has been dry for the past 30 years she’s lived in the house) kept getting water in it after each rain. Every time the amount of water increased, and after a few weeks of this she said she was getting “black mud” coming in, too. I saw her one evening as I was dashing off to meet a friend after work and she looked tired and miserable. She was talking with two men about the basement problem.

I did not care for the way these guys talked to me in general and said that my own downspouts were part of the problem. “Who told you to put your downspouts like this?,” they said. “The city,” I responded. “Who?” “Um…the mayor?” What jerks. As a friend pointed out, a licensed contractor had done the actual work, following city guidelines to disconnect the downspouts from the sewer. For the past five years, those downspouts had been directing water into the four-foot wide perennial bed between my house and her sidewalk and this was the first time I’d heard of there being problems. (It’s common for older houses here in Chicago to have their downspouts directed into pipes that connect to the sewers. Several years ago the city asked that people correct this wherever possible and instead let the rain dissipate into the ground instead of sending it to the treatment facility.)

But what was going on here really was more an issue of perception: my elderly neighbor was exhausted and distressed and I would do whatever I could to help her. So, $200 of my tax refund went to the handyman to come out and reconnect the downspouts to the sewer. Of course, she still had water problems with her basement.

A week after my downspouts were changed, she found the source of the problem in a most dramatic way. After a rainy night, she went down to check her basement and found a significant portion of the floor covered with water. She also saw water bubbling up from the floor. And so the main problem was diagnosed: a broken sewer line. When her sewer pipe was replaced the next day, I saw a section of the pipe they had pulled out. It had a tree root the size of my wrist in it. I asked one of the workers about it, and he said it was the roots that had broken the pipe. “When was the last time you had your sewer rodded?” he asked me. Never. In the nearly 10 years I’ve lived in this house, I’d never had it done.

Another $800 from the tax refund went to pay the company to clean my catch basin, rod the sewer line, and clear the tree roots out of the drain near the basement door. I may have been able to shop around and drop that price a bit more, but I just wanted it done fast. The drain near the basement door definitely needed cleaning. After a very heavy rain a few days after her sewer work, some water came in under that door because the drain was running so slow. I didn’t want to wait another week or two as I made time to collect bids and schedule the work. I just wanted it done, so I found the card the worker had given me and called the company the very next day.

As I stood on the (covered) back porch one evening last week and watched another heavy downpour, I was glad to observe that all that water was being managed well. The drain near the basement door was working fine, all the gutters B and I had cleaned recently were draining, and all the downspouts were directing water properly. And the repairs I’d had done were a damn sight less than the money my poor neighbor had to scrape up to replace her sewer pipe.

As much as a I love my house and my garden, it’s discouraging to keep hearing about property values continuing to decline. Within the past week I heard one comment on the radio that home prices in Chicago are at 2001 levels. Damn. Mark and I bought this house in July 2001, and if it’s value is now about the same, I’ve lost a lot of home equity. I’m not underwater, but considering that I had to pay out half the value of the equity earned from 2001 to 2009 to Mark in our divorce settlement, the value of my part of the settlement (which was tied up in the house) has decreased substantially.

When I hear depressing reports like that I sometimes wonder why I continue to pay for things like exterior painting, landscaping, and fixing peeling plaster walls. But this is my home. One thing that that can’t have a value assigned to it is the pleasure I get living in comfortable house; a house where I can sit on the back porch on a cool, grey morning, dog at my side, sipping coffee as I admire the beauty and aroma of the Zepherine Drouhin roses on the side of the garage.