Saturday, August 20, 2011

“Deep Cleaning”

At the end of every summer, I tear through every room and clean the house to the military standards of my childhood. My personal war against dirt requires vinegar, bleach, and Orange Oil. I break all of the attachments for the vacuum cleaner, gather my feather duster, and pull out the steam mop. I muster all of my energy as I attack each room for a floor to ceiling assault.
            I don’t simply clean the rooms. Every drawer and closet receives personal scrutiny. I spend hours checking all the pens in the desks, sorting through papers scrunched into drawers, and make the executive decision:  KEEP, GIVE AWAY, THROW-AWAY. As I sweep from room to room, I swap out knickknacks to freshen up an area. My teapot collection migrated from the kitchen into the family room several days ago. That movement means each pot goes through a thorough washing before finding a new perch. This assures everything gets cleaned.
            My closet gets special attention during this offensive against dirt and clutter. I dump all my clothes onto the bed, a seemingly insurmountable mound, and begin the process of KEEP, GIVE AWAY, THROW-AWAY all over again. The clothing I keep, I check for missing buttons or pulled hems and take care of any small mending. I find an excellent movie on television, angle the ironing board in the perfect spot, and iron or press every item of clothing. My obsessive organizational oddities kick into full gear at this point. I don’t simply rehang my outfits into the closet. I decide on my strategy for order for the next few months and regulate my closet to that standard. Some years, my clothing becomes color and fabric coordinated. All red tops and blouses lined up neatly ranging from t-shirts to long sleeve silk. The blues, purples, whites, blacks all grouped neatly together. Following the tops are my skirts, then suits and finally pants. I organize them in this fashion because the floor of my closet has a cubby for organizing my shoes and I want clearance for easy access to that area. My shoes receive similar inspection as I decide to KEEP, GIVE AWAY, THROW-AWAY once again. I rotate summer flip-flops back into boxes, keeping out only one pair as I pull out dress sandals. All white shoes will shift back into boxes by Labor Day—another leftover rule of childhood. My deep cleaning stops only when I complete the garage. Then all of the items I’ve put into the donate pile get loaded into the car and taken to Goodwill.
Year after year, I’ve run through this drill as the last cleaning spree before I returned to school or work. I do a similar cleaning over the Christmas holidays because I’m redecorating every room, and a smaller raid through the house over Spring Break. This year, however, my cleaning strike appears more hit-n-miss. I started in the kitchen and family rooms instead of my bedroom. I haven’t opened a drawer or assailed my closet. At the end of last summer, the obsession to deep clean even though I wasn’t returning to work nagged me into my routine. The realization that I’m actually retired—and can do this type of cleaning anytime I want sank into my consciousness a few days ago. I don’t have to conquer my entire house within a few days. I know I won’t shake off the deep cleaning bug just because I’m retired, but I can select a different schedule than sweating out the August heat to clean the garage!

Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Friday, August 19, 2011

“A New Journal”

            My freshman year in high school, I participated in a peer counseling program. The extensive training took place in a local hotel. The students who volunteered for the program, along with the faculty members involved, underwent eight hour sessions in counseling and therapy techniques for an entire week. At the end of my training, I could work in our campus “Rap Room” where other students could come in for confidential counseling. This multifaceted instruction knitted the peer counselors into a tight group as we learned about ourselves and each other. I don’t know if the teachers and administrators realized the depth of the therapy sessions we received, but that week profoundly affected my life. My goal to go to Texas A&M to eventually try for the veterinarian program altered forever into a love of studying behavior.
            The peer counseling training impacted me in another way because during that week I met another student, a senior, who kept a journal. In the months that we set up our counseling program back on our campus, this other student shared her journals with me. Her provocative poetry and insightful musings amused me. I fell in love with the idea of recording my life, my feelings, and my interpretations—myself—into the pages of a spiral notebook. So back in 1972, I started my first journal. I wrote about everything and nothing. All of the disappointments of high school lay neatly recorded in these little unassuming spirals. All of my first attempts at poetry, often with explanations, reside within these pages. All of the self-doubts and insecurities of living alone, starting college, and falling in love live within these volumes. Somewhere along the line, I shifted from spiral notebooks to folders crammed with so much notebook paper that the brads barely punch through and fold back.
            I never hid my journals, and occasionally I’d read a piece to my parents or a friend. Usually, my most current journal sat upon my desk for easy access in case I wanted to scribble down a thought or vent an emotion. The first time David came down to meet my family, I had to work. Being at loose ends, David decided to read my journal. My mother walked in and found him stretched across the bed, and stood in shocked silence. No one in our family would ever invade the private space of another family member, so to find David perusing my journals seemed wrong to her. David told me, of course, of his faux pas as soon as I returned home. Although I wasn’t upset, I don’t believe he’s ever picked up my journal since that one day.
            Eventually, a friend witnessed me scribbling in one of my folders and asked about it. When I explained to her that I’d been journaling since high school, she decided the folders and spirals needed replacements, and she bought me my first bound journal as a Thank You gift. I remember holding the small volume in my hands, flipping through the colorful pages with their decorated corners. My fingers itched to write!
            Last night, I started Volume 72 of my journal. Almost thirty-nine years (to the day) from when I composed my first entry. This volume wraps a giant marigold around the spine and over the front and back covers, exploding in bright orange and yellow. My pulse quickened as I put pen to virgin paper, and once I started writing I couldn’t stop. I didn’t want to stop. I never know what thoughts and feelings my journals will hold. The unpredictability of life assures that this newest addition to my collection will center me through my heartbreaks and celebrate with me in my joys.    

Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Thursday, August 18, 2011

“Tiny Houses”

Our "Tiny House" in Leakey, Texas

            Recently, a friend brought little, itty-bitty houses to my attention through various postings on Facebook. These tiny houses, and their inhabitants, fascinate me. The first video I watched chronicled a family of three who downsized into hundreds of square feet. Since then, I’ve viewed several other videos on individuals and families making the decision to “Simplify, simplify.” I envy these people who’ve somehow pulled away from their attachments to belongings. I don’t hoard, but I do have collections. Every item carries a specific memory, and although logic tells me that the memory won’t fade if I donate the item, my heart feels otherwise. So when I see others scale down their possessions to simple necessities, I feel awe. I don’t like to think that I define myself by what I own, but I can’t imagine not having my books, teapots, or Christmas ornaments.
Inside our--dining/living/bed areas!

Some people would find these little houses confining, but I understand the womblike comfort of a small space. My enchantment with little rooms goes back to my childhood. No matter where we lived, I always selected the smallest room as my own. I’d pack it with a twin bed, bookcases and desk. I’d put shelves on the walls to take advantage of the vertical areas many people overlook. By candlelight, these rooms felt cozy and calming.

Bath, kitchen, & dining areas!
Every time we go to our cabin in Leakey, I light candles and draw the shades to make the one room cabin welcoming and warm. I daydream about living up there permanently. The one room contains every necessity—kitchen, dining, living, sleeping areas. What else, really, do we need? And if I want space, all I have to do is step outside.
Candlelight and comfort
Logic kicks in eventually, and I realize I’m not ready to walk away from everything forever. Living sparsely for a cluster of days at a time tempts me. I’m charmed by the plainness of our days when I know I can return home. Could I make the change to the degree of these other people? Could I live a home that’s several hundred square feet forever? Is a tiny house in our future?

Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

“First Grade Drop-Out”

            I started first grade at the age of five. Our school had no kindergarten and instead offered an option to start children a year early. My mother took advantage of this program as she played single parent while my father had an extended TDY overseas. With a three month old baby at home, she thought it less stressful to have me at school with my sister. Little did she know!
            My parents didn’t believe in frequent spanking. We really had to mess up before we’d get a smack on the rump. My first real encounters with corporeal punishment happened in the front of my first grade classroom. The gargantuan teacher would swoop down an aisle, capture a student by the arm within her talons, and drag an unsuspecting child to the front of the room. With her free hand, she’d reach for her favorite instrument of torture—the paddle. Thwack, thwack, thwack, thwack! Then she’d send the crying kid to the office. I’d cringe in my chair, forever fearful of doing something to attract an attack. I never witnessed the behavior of my peers that caused the swoop, drag, thwack attack; so I lived in perpetual fear that one day I’d be the one in the front of the room.
            By October, I cried every morning before going to school. If my teacher walked down my row, I had one of two reactions—I peed my pants, or I fled the room. Much to my sister’s embarrassment, my favorite sanctuary became her fifth grade classroom. Her teacher, a kind soul, would suggest that Paula calm me down and take me back to my own room.
            One day, my panicked flight proved more than my teacher could endure, and she chased me down the hallway yelling, “Stop! Stop that girl!” as I skidded around the corner and tumbled into my sister’s room.
            “Paula! Don’t let that battle axe get me!” I screamed as I threw myself into my sister’s arms.
            By that time, my teacher gained momentum and bulled down the hallway. Nostrils flaring, she grabbed my arm and swung me into the air. “You will NOT have your sister help you today!” she declared as she stomped to the principal’s office with my sister trailing timidly behind us. I cemented my heels into the polished floor in resistance, but all to no avail.
            When we reached the office, my hysteria matched my teacher’s venom, with both of us overshadowing Paula’s mortification. I remember the instruction to sit and be quiet. I remember clutching my sister’s hand for support, I remember hearing the teacher’s voice rising heatedly behind the principal’s closed door. It didn’t take long for my mother to arrive, juggling Charles in a stroller. She shot us a concerned look and vanished behind the principal’s door.
            Eventually, the door opened and my mother’s tight lipped expression revealed nothing. She hugged Paula, thanked her for taking care of me, and sent her back to her classroom. Then she took me into the bathroom to wash the tears from my face.
            “Elizabeth Anne,” she began. “You will go back into that classroom, and you will stay in your chair. You will no longer run to Paula’s room. If you don’t do as I say, I’ll give you a spanking.”
            Defiance flooded my heart. I turned away from my mother and bent over, pulling my dress and petticoats up over my rump, I declared, “Then spank me!”
            My mother’s hand hit hard and true, but I still refused to go back into that classroom. This time my panic wrenched me into vomiting. At that point, my mother realized just how deep my fear ran. She returned to the principal’s office and retreated behind the door. I learned later that she pled for him to assign me to a different teacher. He responded, “I’m not letting a first grader, or her mother, run my school!”  
            The next morning, my hysteria made me so ill that my mother kept me home. I knew that the teacher would spank me if I stepped into her classroom again. No amount of reasoning or pleading could convince me otherwise, and another phone call to the school requesting a different teacher for me met with denial.
            My mother sought the advice of my sister’s teacher, a first-hand witness to much of the drama. Since the principal refused to move me to another class, this other teacher suggested that my mother withdraw me from the school. She felt my young age, a new baby in the home, a missing father, and a “strict” teacher spelled nothing but trauma for me.
            During that entire school year, my mother made me do assignments at home. She taught me to read. She drilled me on writing my letters and numbers. She had me bundle popsicle sticks to learn to count, add and multiply. I wrote my first stories while sitting at the kitchen table. She wanted to make certain that I realized I still attended school—her school. The next year, a little maturity and the right teacher made all the difference for me, and because of the foundation laid by my mother, I reentered first grade at the head of my class.

Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

“Then There’s the Heat”

            My mother’s wilted every summer for as long as I can remember. Even when we lived up north, she had window units in her bedroom and in the living room. I never thought about it much, but most of my friends’ homes didn’t have air conditioners. Once we moved to Texas, the hot summers waged full battle against Mom. Fortunately, the houses down here had central air, so she didn’t restrict herself to one room of the house. The early mornings became Mom’s time to do anything outside—watering, gardening, laundry. Many days the laundry hung on the line by six in the morning. One of us kids pulled it down in the afternoon. I never thought much about it, but any outside activity of my mother’s that didn’t get done in the morning could wait until evening.
            My mother melted when my parents moved to the higher humidity in League City, Texas. Situated right between Galveston and Houston, the little town becomes a sauna from May through October. Add pollution to the mix, and my mother suffered tremendously. She much rather preferred her San Antonio allergies to the Houston crud! Everyone knew that Mom would move straight back to San Antonio after Dad died because she could tolerate the subtle summer differences better here.
            The record breaking heat of this summer smacks down the average person. For my mother, it means she restricts herself to the house even more. Before this summer, Mom liked weekly outings to a store or restaurant, but the triple digit temperatures force her to remain inside. Mom hasn’t left the house since the first week of July. I don’t know if it’s her age, or Huntington’s, or her lifelong struggle with heat that keeps her homebound.  This week she needs to have blood drawn, which means a trip to the lab. Next week she has a doctor’s appointment. I suspect she’ll ask me to postpone both until the end of September in the hope that fall will eventually arrive in central Texas.
Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman   

Monday, August 15, 2011


            Writing, most days, comes easily to me. I sit with pen and spiral notebook and jot ideas, or I face the almighty blank screen of my laptop and wait for my muse to guide my words. One thought may snag my attention, and I’ll obsess over the concept until I create something. Not every piece I produce meets my inner critic’s standards of “quality,” but I ignore that negatively nagging voice and push through until I have something on the page.    
            If I pen about a memory, then I become a medium who channels the past into the present. Recounting a recollection proves the easiest type of writing for me. I spent most of my years as I writing teacher modeling for my students the layers of personal narratives. I’d have my students stretch out on the floor and do a visualization activity where they’d revisit an experience. Classroom darkened to reduce visual input, relaxation music playing in the background, and my own voice barely above a whisper, I’d coach my students into their selected memories. I’d take them through all of the senses one-by-one, asking them to take note of specific images within their memory. When I’d let them open their eyes, they would scribble their remembrances as quickly as possible.   
“Get the skeleton of the event down on paper,” I’d preach. “We’ll go back later and add the other layers. I’ll give you the tools you need.”
And I’d teach them about simile, metaphor, personification and imagery. I’d model my own paper on the board or overhead (and later through my laptop and projector,) fleshing out my skeletal first draft until eventually I finished my narrative. Sometimes, I’d show my students how to take the prose narrative and convert it into a poem by lifting out those special words and phrases that brought life to the piece and utilizing them in a different way.
            Some days, writing becomes a laborious endeavor, like today. I flit from idea to idea so quickly that nothing makes it to the page. My brainstormed list bores me, and fatigue prevents me from tapping into my childhood. The current news either depresses me or angers me, and either way I can’t muster the momentum to tackle politics. (Perry will have to wait for another day.) Poetry takes even more energy and focus, so I know it’s a long shot that I’ll suddenly whip out a snazzy rhyme or thought provoking verse.
            After a million false starts, I decided to let my mind meander to find its own revelations, but stumbled upon no wonderful Inspiration. Instead, I typed in several possible titles, rejected a few beginnings, and finally decided I’d record the silence of my muse, for she hasn’t whispered a single word to me as I sit and write.
            Do you hear the silence?

Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman

Sunday, August 14, 2011


            For years my son, Paul, searched for a white Pomeranian because he wanted the contrast of a white haired dog with his own dark hair. I’m not certain what drew us into our local pet shop, but about eighteen months ago, we entered the store. I headed over to the puppies and kittens while Paul lingered around the snakes. When I saw two white puppies, labeled as Pomeranian, playing in their pen, I knew Paul’s quest had ended. One of the puppies had more cream within his coat, but the other was almost entirely white. Paul cradled that puppy in his arms, trying to decide if he should bring the puppy home. Not wanting to make an impulse buy, Paul reluctantly returned the pup to the store clerk. It didn’t take him long, though, to return to the store and nestle the dog within his arms again. We bought all the new puppy items we needed: brush, bed, ceramic bowls (with skull decorations), food, shampoo, and toys. The white fluff became a member of our family.

            After a few dips in the pond out back, someone suggested the name Koi for the puppy. Suddenly, we would all go Koi fishing as we dangled toys and ropes before the puppy to tempt him. Within days, Koi attached himself to Bridget. The older dog tolerated Koi’s too hard snips on her legs and ears. She allowed him to follow her through her daily routine and made room for him at the foot of our bed.

            All of our pets have distinctive personalities. Rambunctious describes Koi perfectly. Our laid-back cat, Sassy, still keeps her distance from Koi’s tumble and tackle play. Padme, our other cat, has a commanding aura. I’ve seen her bat Koi aside even though he outweighs her by quite a few pounds. Bridget, at first, indulged the high energy of the puppy. Like any momma dog, she let him nip and swipe at her tail. Some evenings, she’d recline on her pillows on the couch and give me this bewildered look, and I suspected she wondered when the puppy would go home. Eventually, she pulled him into the unusual pack that we call family.

            Koi communicates through “talking” in sharp yips. An intelligent puppy, he noted easily where we kept the Milk Bones we used for training. When first going through training, he’d run to the tin and jump against the cabinet demanding his reward for performing the desired behavior: sit, come, leave it. During the day, he’ll yip a few times if he wants a treat, jump against the counter, and yip again. Both dogs love chewing on rawhide sticks, which I decided to store in the bottom drawer of the kitchen desk. Paul showed Koi the stash one day, and the puppy learned to open the drawer within minutes. Fortunately, he’s never made off with the stash. He’ll bark at the open drawer until one of us comes and hands him the stick.

            Kio mastered the art of flirtation early in his puppyhood. He’ll tilt his head left, then right and give his fluffy tail a little twirl in order to get his way. If you ask him, “Are you my friend?” he’ll give you a head bump and lick your cheek, looking very dashing and coy. When my mother moved in with us last fall, Paul rented a house in our neighborhood. The house had a “No Pets” clause, so Koi still lives here with us. We’re glad that we get to continue enjoying his charming energy.

Copyright 2011 Elizabeth Abrams Chapman