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Life: Just a spin of the rainbow dial?

photoI recently downloaded a version of the board game “LIFE” from the app store. It’s fun and vibrant with jazzy little cars that speed along a winding road past lakes (with moving boats!), apple trees, and lit houses. At certain points along the path, you must stop and pick a career, salary, and house. Hitting the “Congratulations, twins!” square always seems to mean they’re identical. And by the middle of the game, I often find myself upgrading to a mega-mansion before retiring to Millionaire Estates.

Then, if I’m lucky enough to win, a scrapbook of my life flashes across the screen. It shows me my college years, my job, husband, children, house, and a few of my most noteworthy activities. In under 30 minutes I’ve lived 85 successful years and even snuck in a trip to the Great Wall of China.

But life’s rarely that neat and concise. There are an overwhelming amount of choices to be made, and unfortunately, no neat stack of cards to choose from.

Two weeks ago, I found myself standing in the middle of the daunting display floor know as Ashley’s Furniture HomeStore. I was unsure which was the best couch or bed to pick for my new apartment. The place was vast and overflowing with vases and mirrors and dining room sets. Small children scrambled from one gray ottoman to the next, lost in a safari of wooden legs and desk drawers. Tired from a 2.5 hour drive up to my new university home, I flopped on one couch after another, determining that they were either too hard or too squishy or lacking tall enough backs. I felt like Goldilocks.

Yet even after the furniture’s all picked out, sometimes you wait for hours for the furniture delivery man only to find out a salesman sold the coffee table you’d already bought to someone else. Sometimes the full-length mirror breaks apart when you try to screw nails into its back. Sometimes you come to the realization that your legs will never touch the floor at the dining table unless you go out and buy a shorter chair.

But beside the glitches, there have been fun trips to pick out paintings of Paris and pleasant afternoons lining kitchen drawers with decorative paper. I’m organizing my space and looking forward to welcoming guests into it – yes, the futon is already bought.

These days, I am more well acquainted with the Home section of Target and TJ Maxx than I ever planned to be. I’ve watched pushy old ladies practically ram into my shopping cart if I’m in the way of their pursuit of a half-off “Grandma loves me” picture frame. I’ve spent days fussing over shower curtains and dish towels, strainers, and lamps.

It was up in my parent’s attic that a certain realization hit me though. I was looking into the dusty eyes of old stuffed animals and pawing at frilly dresses that haven’t seen sunlight since I was seven. It turned out that the abstract paintings up there weren’t what I had in mind for a blank wall in my apartment. But looking at the bags and boxes full of years of memories, I realized all the “stuff” does have some purpose. It’s a connection to the past. Proof that we were once different people with different priorities living in an alternate reality. No, the doll house with its pink roof and happy Milton Bradley family is no longer my most prized possession. But it once was.

Those old objects freeze time for me and for all of us. It’s like the first time you read about a favorite character’s death in a beloved children’s book. I recall being devastated when Sirius Black slips beyond the veil in Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, while his cousin-murderer, Bellatrix, cackles in victory. Reading the book again, however, brought him back to life, at least for a little while. Once I knew how the story ended, I could return to it and the Potter books that preceded it and relive the parts I most enjoyed without fear of the unknown future. Harry may be in his mid-thirties with three kids, starting to go gray, and weary from his Auror work – at least according to Rita Skeeter’s latest article. But when I open the pages of those books now, I’m 11 again and so is he. And we’re waiting to board the scarlet steam engine that will take us to Hogwarts and a world of fantastic adventure.

It’s the same with your old clothes, toys and trinkets. When they’re in your hands, you too remember all the versions of yourself you have been.

I know the Potter books will grace my apartment’s book shelves. Just as I’m sure that laughter from reruns of “The Golden Girls” will reverberate off my walls, too. In that cozy Miami kitchen where Dorothy, Blanche, Rose and Sophia came together in the 1980s to share secrets and cheesecake, there is comfort. I know and love all the show’s wacky plot lines, from a trip to the sperm bank with Blanche’s daughter to Rose taking in a “show chicken” who plays the piano. I grin when Stan shows up broke again at the front door or Sophia begins a story with her trademark, “Picture it: Sicily.” I love the women’s silk floral dressing gowns and interdependence on each other. I love how they still have vibrant social lives, an obsession with men and a fearless attitude that allows them to tackle hobbies like tap dancing and pursue careers as teachers, art directors, consumer reporters and counselors. Yet at the end of it all, their world is contained and, though incredibly fun, predictable. Sometimes, all you really need is 30 minutes of comedy and closeness when your own life seems uncertain.

I’m moving down a winding road, strapped into my little LIFE car, and I don’t know where the bumps or best parts of the journey will be yet. It can be daunting – like staring at a blank page when you know that to be a writer you just need to start writing. But in these types of situations, you’ve just got to rev the engine and find out what lies ahead for you.

 

Summer dreams ripped at the seams

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Olivia Newton-John and John Travolta sing about the carefree days of the summer leading up to their senior year in “Grease.”

And as every school-age kid knows, summer is a golden idol to be worshiped, a magical span of days where time stands still, tans are perfected, and that small stack of pop fiction finally gets thumbed through. Having worked through the past three summers since graduation, this is my first summer off like a student again. It’s a little odd to have the freedom to wake up when I’d like, spend an afternoon at the pool, or go on a vacation without having to check in with HR for scheduling.

Over the last semester, I’ve worked as a tutor to 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade elementary kids, helping them with their math and reading skills. During one of my last days in the classroom, I asked a girl named Avery what she was most looking forward to about summer. Her answer stunned me and sent me through a time warp.

It resembled exactly the summers I’d whiled away about 10 years ago at my grandmother’s apartment complex. Young Avery was looking forward to taking one of her best friends to her grandma’s house for a week (she just wasn’t sure which one yet) and watching whatever she wanted on TV, swimming in the community pool, and walking to the nearby grocery store to buy ice pops. So simple. So summer.

My own youthful summers were varied, but a portion of them were spent at my grandma’s apartment complex, Strawberry Hill. The name sounded like poetry to me. The quaint brick columns at the entrances even had little tiles with strawberries wrapped in ivy embedded in them. I’d hang out with my oldest friend Dayna (since both our grandmothers lived there). We would hit a tennis ball back and forth on the courts and memorize the Sorting Hat’s songs in the Harry Potter series. “A thousand years or more ago when I was newly sewn / There lived four wizards of renown whose names are still well known.” Absolutely low-key and deliciously dorky. Our grandmothers smiled politely and looked confused when we sang out J.K. Rowling’s words to the tune of “Gilligan’s Island” as they sat on the couch.

And I can still remember shouting out the answers to trivia questions we made up as I jumped off the fanciest pool’s ledge and into the white-blue water as Dayna called back, “Yup, you got it!” just as I splashed down.

Once, I bought a needlepoint kit from Michael’s craft store, and, a diligent follower of instructions, my grandma pulled out a pink basin and soaked all the thread in water before we got started. I’m not if that helped the stitch work or not, but my aunt found it hilarious. Other times grandma would drop balls of dough into boiling water to make European-style doughnuts. I’d name them after boys in my classes, and whichever dough ball rose to the top first represented the boy I’d eventually marry.

A nearby Fresh Market was a beautifully cold and darkened world for two girls to escape into. It was full of classical music, fragrant blooms near the automatic doors, and a mouth-watering display case of baked goods. It takes so little to make kids happy. Cannolis and fudge brownies are an easy place to start.

Last year, Dayna and I happened to be back in the area and drove through to say hello to her grandmother. Afterward, we walked past the tennis courts and along a sloping sidewalk through groves of thick oak trees toward the small playground that still sat nestled against a hill side. The steep, silver slide that hurdled us down to slam into the grass remained. So did the gymnastic bars and little cars and airplanes resting on thickly coiled springs for toddlers to bounce on.

But we weren’t little anymore. When did we get so big? I didn’t know, and I don’t think she did either. It happened slowly, most likely when we weren’t looking. Pieces of that childhood carefree innocence, curiosity and sheer delight over the simple things still live on. But the magic of life has lost a little luster, to be sure.

Sometimes I long for the impossibly hot summer days spent watching Nickelodeon shows like “Salute Your Shorts” and “Guts” with my toes dangling off my bed. It beats figuring out student health insurance and fellowship agreements, not to mention planning out how to buy furniture for and setting up an apartment. I’m not sure how exactly to set up a router either, and I’m not too keen on learning at the moment. I’ll just pray all my meals turn out edible, my car runs smoothly at all times, and I never shrink an article of clothing. See? No fun at all.

So for the next few weeks, I’m going to read and write and swim and see a few movies. I’m going to forget all about being an independent adult. And maybe Dayna and I will have to plan a trip to The Wizarding World of Harry Potter next summer.

 

 

 

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