10 years ago, I started Tales from the Laundry Room on a different platform. I forgot about it. The internet didn’t. Enjoy.
The unnatural lighting painted a yellow glow over the computer. Janine’s eyes hurt, her head hurt. Fatigue is what they call it; she calls it burnout. With only one exam left, she should push through but she couldn’t. It’d been two days since she locked herself in this closet of a room. Pale yellow cinderblock walls decorated with spare ticky-tack and posters of Bob Marley. There was space for two beds, two desks, two closets, and one window. A window that looked at a red brick building identical to hers. There was just enough of a view to distinguish day from night. She closed her eyes, just for a minute.
Jumping to her feet with a start, Janine’s heart rushed to catch up to her breathing. It had only been a minute, right? Checking the light level outside the window, Janine’s worst fear was true: nighttime. Had it been hours? She placed her hand on her desk to steady herself. With her other hand, Janine slid the chair back only to have it bump up against the pile of books and papers strewn on the floor. She pushed a little harder so the leg of the stiff wooden chair could clear a path.
Closing her eyes again, she took yoga breaths: slow inhale, slower exhale, breath in, breathe out. Janine opened her eyes. They began to refocus. The clock said 8:02. The dining hall was closed; her stomach growled. She needed food, any food. Leftover pizza, burrito, tofu burger, and a Coke. Not a Diet Coke, a real Coke. Something with sugar and caffeine.
Janine looked around the stark room. Her roommate had already left for the semester taking with her things that would normally be left lying around. Only Janine’s things remained: dirty laundry, shoes, makeup, books, and one final exam. Although the exam may not physically be sitting in the room, it permeated the space the way the smell of fried fish lingers days after it’s been eaten.
Textbooks, reference books, handwritten notebooks, index cards scattered all over making it difficult for Janine to find space for her bare feet to step. She shuffled her way to her dirty laundry in search of a dollar or a quarter, heck, a handful of nickels. She bent down to dig in the pockets of her jeans, lint. She found another pair, held them up and shook them listening for the faint jingle of change. Nothing. With a deep sigh, Janine looked around the room then stumbled back to the desk. Maybe in a drawer? She pulled a little too hard and it flew off the rails, spilling its contents onto the floor.
Pens, pencils, and blank index cards littered the already messy room. Ugg. Nothing. She pulled the next drawer with a little less emphasis. It squeaked open an inch. She tugged again, another inch. Once again, she pulled, it opened, catching it before it also tumbled its contents. No change.
Janine began to feel desperate. Without concern for the papers and cards on the floor, Janine took two quick steps towards her roommate’s identical desk. She flung open the top drawer, nothing. She yanked at the second drawer, ching. She heard a ching.
As she pulled the drawer wide open, she saw money. One penny, two dimes, a nickel, and a quarter, 51 cents. Janine scooped up the money and pushed it into her pocket. In two more steps, she reached her dorm room door and without regard for locking it, she left, barefoot, to race to the soda machine. The rest of the world may charge $1.50 for a Coke, but at DU, sodas only cost 50¢.
The house is a mess. Chili is cooking on the stovetop. I’m wearing a holey t-shirt and jogging shorts.
“Alison, go get dressed.”
It was practical advice. Over 30 people were expected to arrive in 30 minutes, but Transformer robots were strewn all over the living room and kitchen.
“Alison, no one cares if there are toys lying around. Go fix yourself up. You’ll feel better.”
I probably looked like a deer in headlights. “But the mess?”
“I promise. People aren’t coming to see a clean house,” my mom said calmly, holding her 2-year-old grandchild on her hip. “No worries.”
I glanced at the simmering mess in the kitchen. Chili bubbled and popped; onion skins still laid on the countertop.
With permission, I ran upstairs to shower and change. I was excited, how often do you celebrate the 5th birthday of your oldest child. And just as Mom promised, no one cared about the mess.
I recently participated in an online survey: Would you rather have a clean house or make memories in a messy house? I selected memories and noticed that 77% of participants agreed with me.
But what about those who would rather have a clean house?
I’m reminded of my journey as a mother. I used to fear that people would judge me, my ability to be a good mom and caregiver to my children, by my kitchen floor. The thought would overwhelm me: tumble fur roamed the corners as we walked by, splattered yogurt left over from a dropped spoon clung to the baseboards, toys from Happy Meals discarded haphazardly under the chairs.
The kitchen wasn’t bad. Dishes were clean. Windows were washed. Food was put away. It was my mom’s comment that changed my perspective.
People aren’t coming to see my clean house. They are coming to make memories. In the wise words of journalist Hunter S. Thompson, “Life should not be a journey to the grave with the intention of arriving safely in a pretty and well preserved body, but rather to skid in broadside in a cloud of smoke, thoroughly used up, totally worn out, and loudly proclaiming ‘Wow! What a Ride!’”
Over this Thanksgiving season, I hope you make memories with those you love in a messy house.
“But what if I fail?”
A few years ago, I jumped on the Impostor Syndrome bandwagon, wrote a blog article about looking yourself in the mirror and saying, “I believe in me!” But I’ve recently changed my mind that the idea of the Impostor Syndrome, the belief that you are not the real deal, is another excuse to blame others rather than actually accomplishing all you should.
We tell ourselves stories. We aren’t good enough or that we’ll never make it. We look in the mirror and wonder, when will it be my time? Here’s the good news, you’re already there. No one on Earth has had the same experiences you’ve had—and that’s why you aren’t an impostor. You are the subject matter expert on the sum of your experiences.
In 1998, with only an undergrad degree, I accepted a position as a “emergency” literature professor for a college on a military base. As I entered the classroom, I noticed the varied ages of students. Some soon ready to retire from their military careers and some fresh out of high school.
“What if I fail,” I repeated the question to my mom the night before.
“You won’t. And,” she added, “as long as you stay one week ahead of your students, you’ll always be a week ahead.”
This logic assuaged my fears but didn’t take away my worry that I was an impostor.
My first day in the classroom invigorated me. I realized that I could have daring conversations about literature with my students and leave confident in my knowledge that I was an expert. I learned that one of my students had spent his time during Desert Storm as a base librarian and had read hundreds of books. Another was a general’s aid and responsible for a variety of international communications with world leaders. A third was a tank mechanic. I engaged my students with lessons on literature and writing, and they regaled me with interesting stories from their own fields of expertise.
Lorne Michaels, creator of Saturday Night Live once said, “If you’re the smartest person in the room, then you’re in the wrong room.” There should always be the desire for growth and a willingness to learn. The impostor syndrome is born when we feed doubt to our ego. Instead, have confidence in knowing that you are the best you the world will ever meet. The next time you feel like an impostor, just look in the mirror because you will be the one smiling back. And that, my friends, is the real deal.
Imagine your favorite photograph.
Close your eyes and relive it.
Remember the sound of children as they run through the waves on a blustery winter’s day.
Dressed in sweatshirts, they hunt for seashells and look for dolphins swimming in the distance while the splash of salt water tickles your lips.
“Squirrel!” I typed and hit send. My email disappeared into the ethernet. My colleague on the other end quickly responded, “What?” She didn’t understand my pop-culture reference to the distractions that keep us off track. Squirrels, those little pesky little ideas that run around in our heads and distract us like squirrels crossing the street, which way should I go?
Linda Samuels, the person who had responded, recently introduced me to the concept of full-cycle thinking. She explained it like this: We have laundry. We wash, fold, and put away the laundry. Hopefully. This is a full cycle. I paused and thought of my own laundry, that which often sits in a basket long after it’s been cleaned because, well, SQUIRREL!
As a young mother, a doctor explained to me that the inability to remain focused on a single task is considered Attention Deficit Disorder. Clearly, I had a child (well two) with attention issues (remember that mom you saw chasing two young boys through, under, and around the racks at the department store? That was me). What I now know is that I, too, share in this issue. My full-cycle thinking is often interrupted by squirrels—Respond to an email, wait, another email, oh, look an invitation to listen to a podcast, hmmm, who is that guest, oh, what’s an ocularist, I should look that up–oh it’s someone who fits individuals with a prosthetic eye, cool, when did I last have my eyes examined?
My rudimentary solution for this problem is to remain as organized as possible (enter Linda Samuels, my colleague and professional organizer). When I remove the clutter from my desk, inbox, and close the open tabs on my computer (there are currently 18), I stay nearer to my daily goals. Some days I’m amazed I complete anything, and others, well, there is always tomorrow.
As I begin this new year with lofty ambitions, I want to remind myself that setting a realistic bar and feeling success daily is much more satisfying that imagining some distant pedestal that I might one day reach. Goals should be obtainable; understanding our own work patterns helps. Decluttering is a daily task for me, but so is brushing me teeth—both are actions I begin and end each day with. Trust me, decluttering is not a goal, it’s a lifestyle for someone who needs to tame the fuzzy rodents in her head.
Now it’s time to make an eye appointment. Oh, lookie, SQUIRREL!
“Quick, get a towel!”
I ignored the plea and continued to fill the washing machine with white sheets.
I shut the washer door, glancing into the kitchen just in time to see a brown dog lopping toward me at top speed.
“Jameson!” The dog bounded onto its rear legs to give me a full-body embrace: tail wagging, paws on shoulders, nose to nose. The jubilance continued as the dog raced back toward my husband, slopping wet mud with each step. My white dog was covered in muck.
While this transformation from white to brown and back again is easily remedied, Jameson has a sordid past. We lost the last of our three senior dogs the year before, and I longed for a ball of fluff. Once I convinced my husband that he, too, needed a dog, I began my search for a Golden Retriever rescue. Unfortunately, the wait was unbearable.
“Why don’t you check Craig’s List?” my son asked.
I was skeptical. Only bad things happen on Craig’s List—people are cheated, mistreated, and sometimes robbed! I’d even heard a story that required a trade at a police station to ensure top-notch “security.”
But curiosity got the better of me. Just a little search and jackpot! A male English cream golden retriever puppy with papers (for an extra charge) topped the list. I texted the number, received photos of the pup, mom, and dad in reply: all a beautiful soft butter color, floppy ears, and bright round eyes. I grabbed my purse (and son—it was Craig’s List after all) and headed to a nearby Checkers restaurant to get Jameson.
The name Jameson derived from the shade of most Goldens—a goldish, reddish, whiskey color. The name had been a joke at first until it wasn’t.
The woman who placed the ad exited her Jaguar and set a white cotton ball onto the ground. A six-week-old, 8-pound male sweety pie stumbled over the grass to sit on my lap. It was love at first sight and the last puppy! The woman handed me Jameson’s shot record. I slapped a fat wad of $20s in her fist (after driving to an ATM because, apparently, Craig’s List is a cash thing), and Jameson was the newest member of Club Nissen.
At our first puppy well-visit, the tech asked, “Name?”
“No, this is a female.”
“No, it’s a male,” I confidently responded. How could the vet tech be wrong? This wasn’t my first dog; I know the difference between a male and a female.
“Nope, I’m pretty sure this is a female.” She flipped Jameson upside down to prove her point.
My face turned a slow crimson, “Really?”
“You can call her Jamie! And look at this, double rear dewclaws. Sometimes that happens, but not often.”
I left with a sinking feeling. Was something wrong with my pup?
A few months later, my beautiful Jameson, dressed in a pink collar, started to show signs of other Golden defects. A tail that didn’t hang right (it curled!). Long froglike hind legs, which turned inward at their ankles. Was that the beginning of hip dysplasia? Almond-shaped eyes. A body covered in dark pigment spots and her fur—a pure white—unlike her creamy Craig’s List parents. We were concerned.
Eventually, a random comment from a West Texas campground custodian said she resembled an Akbash. “An Ak what?” we asked. Then we found her Google siblings: The frog legs, the curled tail, the pure white fur with biscuit-colored ears, double dewclaws, and a spotted underbelly. Akbash, a rare Turkish herding dog. Her brethren were bred as Livestock Guarding Dogs to watch the herds and warn of danger. Jameson would make her ancestors proud when she sits on the stairs and howls at passersby.
Our neighbors might disagree with her assessment of what danger they possess, but nonetheless, she deserves an A+. Even digging (to keep themselves warm or cool while working) is considered a natural tendency for these independent, patient, watchers of their flock.
While at one point, I longed for another Golden Retriever (with papers!), I’ve learned a valuable lesson. That my dog—no matter the breed—is perfect for me. As for Craig’s List? I think I’ll leave my experience in the parking lot of Checkers.
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“That is the ugliest piece of pottery I have ever seen!” My ceramics teacher glanced at the basket I held in front of me as he turned on his heel to talk to the next student.
The comment was brief, brisk, and cruel. My beautiful woven clay Easter basket with bright, cheerful yellows and pinks and baby blues sat in my hands exactly the way I wanted it. I envisioned it stuffed with overflowing green Easter grass, some hand-painted eggs, and my mom’s smile on Easter morning.
Instead, I headed toward the paints to select every angry color I could find. Metallic blacks and browns haphazardly brushed onto every crevasse covering the pale pastels. I wanted to keep painting repulsive red, grungy green, bitter blue. My vision smashed by one sentence, as if it were a bowl tipped casually to a cement floor, broken into a thousand shards.
I no longer cared about my basket or the class or the teacher. I would be a high school graduate in a few short months and told myself I would never look back again.
The next day, my creation sat next to all the others as students picked through the various pieces to find their own designs. It wasn’t as ugly as I had hoped. There was a copper shimmer that caught the light and a reflective nickel that created movement if you tipped the basket left or right.
“Much better,” the teacher said as I, once again, held the basket in my hands.
Maybe my teacher wanted me to be an artist. Maybe he hoped that I wanted to be an artist. Maybe all I wanted was an easy class to while away the time prior to the next chapter of my life.
For years, the basket sat on a shelf in my parent’s guest bathroom, the perch it received after I presented it to Mom on Easter morning. It had never been filled with eggs dipped in happy colors. To me, it was filled with a reminder that words have power. They have the power to scorn as well as the power to shine.
My parents no longer have that house, and I no longer have that basket. But if I did, I’d fill it with my collection of ceramic Easter eggs, each lovingly made, each with a craftsman’s signature. My basket was designed to hold pretty things, not painful words.
That gives me an idea…maybe I should sign up for a pottery class.