welcome-matHaving houseguests sets off a frenzy of cleaning and preparing, causing me to look around my home more critically and wonder “how are we living like this?” The quiet collections of dust and crumbs, the piles of unfolded clothes, and stacks of papers seem to suddenly appear in bright spotlights everywhere I turn. When did the Cat in the Hat, along with Thing One and Thing Two sneak in and do all of this?

Our modest second bedroom is perfect for a guest, but it is also a magnet for all of the detritus that doesn’t have a home, or that I drop in a weak moment and should have put away. The room acts as an office, so bills and paperwork naturally accumulate – until every surface is covered. It’s so much easier to close the door than straighten and file. So now it is transformed back to a bedroom – the bed is fitted with linens, space is cleared for a suitcase, and there’s a slot in the closet to hang a coat.

Over the years I’ve been happy to have our children’s friends come over to our house. Beyond being hospitable, it’s a great way to get to know the kids, putting faces with the names I’d hear about from school or camp. Whether for an after school study session, dinner, or the occasional slumber party, it was fun to have people over. Some kids came so often they might call me mom, hug me, or even help with small chores.

We’ve also had guests for extended periods, hosting foreign students or teachers. The biggest commitment was to a wonderful Vietnamese student who lived with us for 4 months. Her arrival coincided with our son’s departure for college – threatening to make him feel that we replaced him – but it was a special experience, and gave our daughter a sister.

This weekend we welcome a friend of our son’s, visiting Chicago for a few days. He’s stayed with us before and we are happy to see him again. We aren’t running a bed and breakfast, nor are we an Airbnb property – it’s just nice to help out a young man finding his way after college.

Spring is here, the official start of the season for visiting Chicago. Come on down – we’ve got a spare room ready.




plate_spinningEvery week, I’m figuring out how to spread my time across multiple work, home, and personal tasks. Limited time, and seemingly limitless things to do.  Work, volunteering, cooking, laundry, and cleaning. Keeping up with my kids, husband, and friends. Managing my career, reading, knitting that sweater, and – oh yes – relaxing. My favorite tool for this puzzle is the list.

I keep lots of lists:  the grocery, the week’s menu, books I want to read, places to visit, movies to watch, home projects. I don’t trust my memory, so I’m always jotting something down. Pockets, purses, and backpacks are brimming with lists scribbled onto envelopes or full-sized sheets.

If the list gets long, or the tasks too complex, I sometimes augment with a schedule. Serious business. Planning out half-hour increments of the day so that I get to everything, or do things in the best order. This is reserved for projects of high importance and a short timeline – a Derby party, moving, a 200 page book due tomorrow. I’m reminded of a scene from the Ed Sullivan Show, the entertainer in constant motion spinning plates on long poles, each requiring some attention.

One Saturday morning, instead of asking what we were going to do that day, my 10-year old son asked me “what’s on your list today?” I’d like to think that my response was to put the list down and be completely spontaneous. At the very least I hope we added something fun to the list.

I went to graduate school at night while working full time, but the luxury of taking a single class during the semester was my favorite part. I could focus on one subject. This never happened in college, and hasn’t seemed to happen since. Juggling is the norm, the overarching life skill that is built into everything we do in school, and for long after.

My lists bring order to the swirl of things, and provide a gauge to measure progress. It’s satisfying to checks things off, and feel accomplished. For a moment, and then I have this odd feeling of not knowing what to do next. Fortunately, new lists always spring up.  So, now I can check off “write blog post” – ahh!



Can You Wait?

people in lineAround 5:30 the train platform is jammed. Everyone presses toward the doors of the arriving train as if there was a Guinness World Record we could set. A feeble announcement comes over the speaker – “there’s another train right behind us” – but no one backs out of the train car. We’d rather be crammed in like sardines than wait another 5 minutes. In a big city, it’s logical to expect that lines will be longer, venues popular, rush hour more clogged with volume. But have we always responded with such impatience? The instant the traffic light turns green, cars are honking, cabs nose into pedestrian crossings. Any delay is met with groans or anger. We’re all on our way somewhere, but it seems like only some of us can take waiting in stride.

We should be good at waiting because we do it all the time. We wait in line for everyday things: coffee, an elevator, the movies. Some lines we join on purpose – camping out for the next release of an iPhone, or concert tickets – and some waits are a certainty that we dread – being on hold, and the DMV.

Waiting can be unbearable without an explanation. Traffic is stopped and we can’t see the accident or road work that is causing it. I’m on time for my appointment, but the doctor comes 45 minutes later. When the waiting has order or structure, it’s easier to take. My deli counter ticket says 94 and the display says “Now Serving #76″ but it’s orderly and democratic.

I walk briskly, following an internal rhythm, watching my footing around puddles and curbs. Others on the sidewalk don’t share my pace as they are burdened with shopping bags, or have their head down in their phones. I’m zigging and zagging to get around them, and yet, we’re all stopped at the red light together.

If waiting is inevitable, let’s make the most of it. Catch up on celebrity news in the grocery check-out. Listen to a book while you commute. Watch what a toddler does in the airport. Count the variety of colored rain boots you see on a wet morning. When you can’t do anything else, you can always look around and notice.

Scent of the City

Willy-WonkaI’ve seen Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory a few times, and wondered what it would be like to stroll next to a chocolate river, pluck candy berries from the bushes, and watch the Oompa Loompas frolic. But, having never seen the movie in a theatre enhanced by Smell-O-Vision, I didn’t know what that scene smelled like – until now. Coming out of our condo some mornings, the air smells like chocolate. A wonderful, rich scent – as if someone has made a giant fondue. Looking around, there are no open kitchen windows, no pans of cooling fudge. When you think of big cities, you imagine bright lights, tall buildings and the sound of traffic, but do you imagine a scent? Turns out there is a chocolate factory in the city, and a website that tracks where you can smell the chocolate on any given day.

Last week I caught a whiff of donut glaze from the neighborhood bakery. I was transported to a Sunday morning in Plehn’s Bakery, my ten year old nose pressed against the display case, waiting for our apricot kuchen to be boxed and tied up with string. Like Proust’s madeleine, just the suggestion of that kuchen sends me back.

I do so much more walking in the city that I ever did in the suburbs; part of my daily commute, an errand, or an add-on to my work-out. It’s fun to take in the sights, the progress of a construction project, or flowering trees starting to bloom. The appearance or reoccurrence of scents is often seasonal – the neighbor’s grill, new mulch, or the outdoor seating area of a restaurant. But other scents are around all the time. That musty, wet smell as you walk down the stairs to some train stations, the frat house beer smell outside the corner bar, the earthy smell of fallen leaves. All parts of the vibrant outside world. Then the wind blows through and clears it all out for another day.