Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Clutter control

Lord, please don't let me die until I’ve got my STUFF in order. I can’t go until things are in order because I don’t want my kids to resent me forever. Honestly, I’ve been aware of it and I’ve been conscientiously working on eliminating all the superfluous things in my life but two recent incidents have convicted me of the curse of too much crap on the next generation.

[Please note that this photo is someone else's clutter--not mine! For that I am so grateful.]
The first thing that convicted me was an estate sale I went to last weekend. I wasn’t heading for the sale but I saw the signs on my way to run errands on Saturday and decided on the spur of the moment to check it out. The sale was in a modest little rambler on a major thoroughfare in my little suburban town. It was the second day of the sale but there was still a huge conglomeration of STUFF left. The kitchen was tiny and very outdated. But there were several complete sets of dishes, a collection of beer steins, and a pile of beat-up cake pans. The linen closet was full of worn and tired, but professionally laundered, linens—sheets and pillowcases and chenille bedspreads and multicolored towels. On the bottom shelf of the linen closet was a box of various ointments and hand creams. It gave me the willies.

There were closets stuffed full of clothes and shoes that had obviously belonged to an old man and an old woman. The man must have been exceptionally small—his clothes looked like old man clothes that would fit a pre-teen boy, including small, but shined black shoes. The woman’s clothes were small too—little house dresses and slips and hats. And one room—the sewing room, I suppose—had boxes and boxes of fabric remnants and old patterns.

But it was the basement that made me want to cry. It was an unfinished below-ground basement, moldy, with cinderblock walls and rows of makeshift wooden shelves. There were hundreds of yellowed paperback books and shelves of hardback books, including Bibles and college textbooks with titles like World Civilization and Principles of Economics. Boxes of comic books, piles of old magazines, a table full of board games, and a crate of ice skates. Children’s bicycles, ratty old Christmas decorations, crutches, an old stove (older than the one in the kitchen), and two home-made puppet stages complete with curtains. All of it gave me the willies.

I presume the old couple had either moved to some sort of senior care facility or they were really gone. If they had just moved they left most of their clothes and their creams and ointments behind. Obviously it must have been a long time since they had children in the house. Why did they keep all the toys and the textbooks, the old ratty sheets and cake pans, the boxes of fabric remnants?

And on the following day, I visited my mother. I can rarely visit my mother without having some sort of cleaning/reorganizing chore. My sister and I regularly clean out her closet or her kitchen or just cull through her STUFF and put it in her storage unit. On Sunday she wanted us to reorganize her file drawers. My sister and I were sputtering, moaning, and saying things like, “Mom, why is the bill for Dad’s funeral in the Verizon file?” And, “You know, I don’t really think you need to save the program for this wedding since they’ve divorced and married other people.” Papers were flying. Several times we thought we were finished when Mom said, “Well, there’s another box,” or “what about the chest in the bottom of my closet that’s full of bank statements?” We had a huge pile of papers to be shredded and two large trash bags of papers to be thrown away.

I’ve been pretty good about staying organized and not hanging on to too much STUFF. But in the past few days, seeing how much people can accumulate and how easy it is to get disorganized has convinced me that one of the best things I can do for my kids is to simplify my possessions and my financial affairs. I don’t want to think that one day they will be cursing me, saying how in the world did she accumulate so much crap? They’ll have other reasons to curse me, I suppose, but I don’t want them to get the willies sorting through the accumulated STUFF from my long and crazy life.

Thursday, January 24, 2013


Smitten Kitchen posted yet another lentil soup recipe on her blog the other day. It made me chuckle, remembering that my late/former/ex-husband would never eat lentils. His reason for not eating lentils was that he didn't like the word--it sounded too much like yentl. Don't ask me to explain. His rationalizations often eluded me. I was a mere mortal.

So for all those years in the kitchen I never cooked lentils. But now I'm unmarried, making up for lost time, and so wild and crazy that I cook many different colors of lentils in a variety of dishes. Some people get sports cars or artificial breasts or they get into line dancing when they're newly single. I start cooking lentils.

I'm not going to re-post Smitten Kitchen's recipe--Lentil Soup with Sausage, Chard, and Garlic--because you can go directly to the source at I highly recommend you try it--it's warm and comforting and quite beautiful in its homely lentily way. I used kale because I couldn't find Swiss chard in the grocery store. The only variation I made was to slice the sausages instead of removing the casing and crumbling the meat. And--horror--I did not do the toasted garlic topping that was highly recommended. It might be great but I fear garlic in large quantities.

My late/former/ex-husband wouldn't let me cook with garlic at all. He claimed he was allergic to garlic. It's a wonder I cooked anything when I was married. No lentils, no garlic, no avocado or tuna or Brussels sprouts or buckwheat or anything spicy. I think I'm going to search for a recipe for a firey hot tuna buckwheat casserole with Brussels sprouts and avocado and lots of garlic. That'll show him.

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Chicken couscous

We're in the depths of winter--frigid just like it's supposed to be in January. It only means we're that much closer to spring. I haven't been to the farm market for a few weeks--our fabulous outdoor local farm market that stays open all through the winter. I love their undaunted spirit and I am determined to go this weekend, maybe see what I can find to make lentil soup . . . or perhaps it's a good time for couscous.

I have no idea where I got this chicken couscous recipe in the beginning. It has been revised so many times I'm not sure the original would be recognizable. Every time I make it I change things--different vegetables or dried fruit, variations in spices, maybe a different sausage. But still, no matter what the variations, it's warm and satisfying on a cold day.

Chicken Couscous

1 can (32 oz) whole tomatoes
¼ cup olive oil
3 cloves chopped garlic
2 medium chopped onions
2 – 3 baking potatoes, washed, cut into ½ inch chunks with skin on
2 carrots cut into ½ inch chunks
½ bottle beer
½ cup dried sweetened cranberries
1 teaspoon cinnamon
1 teaspoon cumin
¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper

Simmer uncovered in large pot until potatoes and carrots are tender, about 45 minutes.


4 chicken breasts—precooked and broken into large chunks
1 pound hot sausage (I use chicken or turkey andouille) cooked and cut into slices
1 can (16 oz) garbanzo beans
½ cup sliced calamata olives

Simmer 20-30 minutes.

Cook 1 package couscous and serve chicken mixture over couscous.

Makes 6 servings.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013


I’m in one of those phases when I couldn’t pray if you paid me. The other night I was trying to go to sleep but feeling like I really, really needed to communicate with God. My mind started drifting, not to sleep of course, but thinking about my grocery list and wondering how I would manage packing my household and moving across the country. So I reigned myself in, pleading with God to still my mind and let me sleep. And I prayed, like a child, “Now I lay me down to sleep . . . if I should die before I wake, I pray the Lord my soul to take.” No, stop! Can prayer be a means of torture? Could someone please explain to me why little children were taught that prayer? I’ve seen vintage embroidered things hanging on children’s walls with that prayer on them. Child abuse! They might as well have painted the on the wall the angel of death, with his deadly sickle. They could have put a live shark under the bed. My son feared having a shark under his bed. Perhaps his fears were justified. I was awake until after 4 a.m. thinking the Lord might take my soul if I should die before I wake. And what would happen to that soul of mine since I’m in a doubting phase? As dawn was approaching I finally gave in and thought it might be a relief to die before I wake. The alternate way of handing that dilemma is NEVER go to sleep.

But I’m feeling like a poor excuse for a Christian, like I have no business writing a blog that has anything to do with prayer. I’m a phony, a sham, don’t pay attention to anything I say.

The truth is sometimes I don’t know if I even believe. I want to believe, trust me. My life would be infinitely better if I believed beyond a reasonable doubt. I want there to be a God—a real God with a capital letter G, not just some higher power sort of god who exists in nature and who is just another word for love. No. I’m not interested in the “spiritual but not religious” kind of god. I want God the Father and God the Son and God the Holy Spirit—the whole Trinity of the one God. (A concept I can neither understand or explain but I love because it is so mysterious.)

No, it’s not working. I need to feel some communication. I need to feel that God is like my imaginary neighbor Manny (short for Emmanuel)—a guy who can tell you what’s wrong with you lawn, and change your flat tire, and tell you to be patient because things will get better. He’s a sweet guy, Manny. When my brother was murdered and I didn’t think I could drive 50 miles to my mother’s house to tell her, I would have gone knocking on Manny’s door. And Manny would have driven me to Maryland and explained to me that God is good, always good, and that God’s heart was broken just seeing my pain.

And Manny would sit down with me now, make me a cup of tea and tell me that I’m not alone. He would give me good advice when I ask him for it, and he would listen quietly when I just need to vent. And he when he tells me not to be afraid, miraculously I won’t be afraid.

I’m a believer with doubts. Sometimes big doubts, at other times smaller doubts. I know that the way through this is just to pray, to throw myself into the arms of a loving God and trust that He will catch me.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013


"Jesus wept.” John 11:35
Memorization of Bible verses most definitely is not my forte.  But this one I can memorize. There—snap—I just did it. “Jesus wept.”
But finding a Bible verse to memorize is low on my list of priorities. It’s more useful for me to find Bible verses that tell me something about the character of Jesus, that give me something to hang on to when life is hard and dark, when I question God’s goodness and purpose. Memorization isn’t nearly as important to me as understanding.
This particular instance of Jesus weeping comes from the account of the death of his friend Lazarus. Martha and Mary, the sisters of Lazarus, had sent for Jesus when their brother was ailing, but Jesus saw no urgency to rush to Nazareth. When he finally did arrive, Lazarus was dead and had been in the tomb for four days, starting to smell rotten. This is when Jesus wept.

Jesus knew that he could raise Lazarus from the dead. But he didn’t get cocky and brush aside his own grief and the grief of his friends at the death of their brother. Jesus fully accepted his humanity and felt the pain of losing someone he loved. He understood how we feel when we are helpless, powerless to escape the sadness of life. Just like us, he wept. I take some solace in knowing that, because I know that he gets it. Yes, Jesus can see the big picture when I can’t. He knows that death is part of the cycle of life and he knows that there is a big unseen eternal live beyond this frail human life. But, even though he knows that, and even though he knew he would raise Lazarus from the dead, he wept.

So when I’m crying, inconsolable in my grief, all I have to do is remember that one Bible verse that I just memorized—Jesus wept.

One old man

Fred’s wife had died in the previous year and he began to lose control of his drinking. He checked himself into the addiction treatment center where I was an intern specializing in geriatric addiction.

I was doing his intake assessment. He was an elderly white man with sparse gray hair. He was wearing a cardigan sweater and a flannel shirt and was ashamed to find himself in this predicament.
I rattled off the standard question: How much have you been drinking, for how long? Have you used cocaine, heroin, benzodiazepines? Have you ever had a blackout? Have you ever been violent while under the influence? Have you ever murdered someone?

Fred gave me all the standard answers. He had only used alcohol—no illicit or prescription drugs—and his use had increased dramatically in the year since his wife died. Sadly, this is a rather typical scenario for older people who become widowed. They drink alone at home to try to assuage their grief, to fill the loneliness.
His responses were all routine until we came to the murder question. He was speaking slowly, quietly, not making eye contact. He looked away. I wasn’t sure he heard me, so I asked again, “Have you ever murdered someone?”

He took a deep breath and looked out the window. “Yes,” he said, “maybe I did.”

I said nothing. I had never been trained, never expected anyone to answer yes to that question.

He began to explain. He had been in Italy in World War II, patrolling the streets of a small town. He turned a corner and came face-to-face with a German soldier. They looked into one another’s eyes and Fred pulled the trigger on his rifle before the German soldier had a chance to shoot. The German soldier died instantly. Fred went through the German’s things and found a photograph of the man with a woman and a small child. Fred thought he might have killed others before in skirmishes with enemy troops, but he never knew for sure. But this time, in a small town in Italy, he looked into the German soldier’s eyes and killed him. The image haunted him for 50 years.

“I don’t know how to answer that question,” he said, “I’ve been asking myself that question for 50 years.”

Friday, January 11, 2013

Letter to Vice President Biden

Much of the news in the past few days has focused on work Vice President Biden has been doing to change government policy to reduce gun violence. I met him a couple of years ago and decided I needed to write him a letter telling him about my family's experience with gun violence. Here's what I wrote:

January 9, 2013

The Vice President
Old Executive Office Building
Washington, DC 20501

Dear Mr. Vice President:

It breaks my heart to know that our country has such horrific gun violence. The United States of American should not lead the civilized world in gun deaths. What does that say about us as a nation, as a people?

Let me tell you a story about gun violence that will put faces on the issue for you. A couple of years ago I met you and Dr. Biden at a Vice President’s Residence staff party. I was a guest of my brother, Michael Xander, your head gardener. Mike and I had a little brother, Mark Xander, who lived on the Maryland Eastern Shore, in Queen Anne County. In April 2011, Mark was murdered, shot in the back at point-blank range by his next-door neighbor. Mark was unarmed, trimming the shrubs in his front yard. The neighbor was angry because Mark’s dog wandered into his yard. Our brother died because an angry man—a man who should not have owned a gun—acted impulsively and with deep rage. My brother had a wife and two sons. He had a mother, two sisters, two brothers, and a thousand friends. He was a hard worker who held two jobs (working at K-Mart and detailing cars and boats) to support his family.

The man who killed our brother was a retired Baltimore cop but he had many run-ins with the local law and his license to carry a gun had been revoked. But he found a judge in Baltimore to reinstate his license.

Even before my brother was murdered I felt that there were too many guns in this country, weapons designed not for hunting but for war, and that many guns were in the hands of dangerous people. Then my brother was murdered and I personally felt the horror of losing someone I love to gun violence. I understand what people in Columbine, Aurora, Newtown, and nearly every place in this country feel when someone they love is murdered. Senseless isn’t a good enough word. I can’t find a word to describe it, but I can tell you that our family will never be the same.

Our country should not be controlled by the bullies who lead the National Rifle Association. I want to thank you for your efforts to reduce this plague on our nation. And I pray that you will be successful.

Most respectfully,

Donna Xander

Wednesday, January 9, 2013


It's cold and grey outside. The sun comes up late and goes down early. So this is the perfect time for me to think about painting a room blue. Dark blue. Navy blue. Something cold and somber. Cheery, eh?

I've always loved navy blue. Way back in high school my friend Jeannie and I used to joke that our entire wardrobes consisted of navy blue items. A navy blue pleated skirt, a navy blue sweater, navy blue knee socks were the extent of our fashion exploration. Eventually I veered off and wore jeans (dark blue, of course) and desert boots.

So I'm still in my navy blue phase. In my old house I painted the foyer navy blue and I loved it. And now that the thought has entered my brain there will be no rest. I'm working on my house now so I might as well paint a room navy blue. Both my guest room and my office currently are a pale blue, sort of the color of a faded chambray shirt. The guest room is okay but my office paint is looking a little tired. So I went searching on Pinterest for navy blue walls. The thing that freaks me out is that the dhurrie rug in two of these photos is a rug I already own. It must be fate. Hmmm. . . .


Tuesday, January 8, 2013


Go ahead—make me an offer I can’t refuse!

It’s that fickle trickster, the real estate market. I live in McLean, Virginia, a close-in suburb of Washington, DC. It doesn’t matter that I live in the cheapest housing in my zip code—the value of housing is still astronomical. I’m in the cheap seats, but still in the highest rated local school district, so my measly little 1967 vintage townhouse is worth a relative fortune.
I bought the house 15 years ago from the estate of the original owner. Very little had been updated and over the years I’ve done a lot of work on the house. It’s quite charming, if I do say so myself. But is it worth nearly $800,000?

A renovated house down the street, almost identical to mine, just went on the market for $799,999. If my house sold for even close to that price, I would have lots of equity. What I could do with that money! I could buy a really nice Airstream and live anywhere I want. I could move either to Austin or Seattle to live near my grandchildren. Or I could move the Airstream back and forth between Austin and Seattle.

Merely thinking about the logistics of moving makes me freeze. I turn into a dithering fool. I think about culling through my stuff, I think about packing, I think about how much trouble it would be to have my mail forwarded. Really—starting over again in another city would be a daunting task for an old woman. I’ve lived in the Washington area my entire life. I know my way around. I have a good dentist and I’m not afraid to drive on the beltway.

But then I think about what it would mean for me never to move. I didn’t even go away to college so I’ve lived here my entire life. Have I no sense of adventure? If I don’t go soon, I’ll only go when my kids take me kicking and screaming to “the home.” My daughter assures me that “the home” in Austin has good air conditioning. I love redoing houses and I think I have one more house in me. But these high real estate prices mean I can’t afford to do another house in the Washington area.

So I'm thinking about it hard while I get my house ready to put on the market, perhaps in the spring. Maybe I'll just jump at the opportunity, take the money, and run. Or maybe I'll be too afraid.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Mercy and Venus

I haven't done this for ages--an old-fashioned writing exercise. This is the one where I blindly pick a book off a shelf, open to a random page and a random sentence. I then write something and end up at the sentence. I don't fuss with paragraphs, don't go back and edit. I don't know where it's going until I get there. I'm back in my alter ego--12-year-old precocious girl in the 1960s living in a fictional place she calls Breezy.

Ken Follett, The Pillars of the Earth, p. 753. “It was an odd moment for such reflections.”

 “Mercy, mercy, mercy me!” Sherry screamed, louder with every mercy. I knew it was bad, a three mercy bad was the highest form of terror I had ever heard come out of Sherry’s mouth. Of course, Sherry didn’t talk all that much. She nodded a lot, tsked every once in a while, sometimes mumbled faint praises to the Lord when she was pleased. Sherry never wanted to be noticed. She was born with a funny little flipper where her right arm was supposed to be. It was only half the size of a regular arm and at the end there was something that looked like two fingers glued together with one long curvy fingernail. Once I got up the nerve to ask her how she got that way and she said her mother took some medicine when she was pregnant and it warped her. When we were in grade school we did square dancing for PE. Believe me, Sherry never would have chosen to do square dancing. She said she would hate Sister Patrick Joseph for the rest of her life for forcing her to do square dancing. As expected, square dancing was a nightmare for a girl with a flipper where her right arm should be because no one wanted to do-si-do with Sherry, not when it involved holding the dreaded flipper. Sherry lived with her grandma and grandpa. Her mama—the one who took the medicine that caused the flipper—was a stewardess for Eastern Airlines. In our minds, her mama had the most glamorous life we could imagine so it wasn’t surprising that she didn’t come back to Breezy that much. Why would you spend time in Breezy when you could be flying to Las Vegas and Kansas City and maybe even to Paris? She sent nice gifts to Sherry though, like that beautiful music box that looked like blue pearls with a ballerina inside. Sherry’s grandma worked down at the Acme grocery store and her grandpa just sat in the chair all day in front of the TV. Her grandpa wasn’t quite all there. Actually, he was mostly not all there. Sherry said he used to be really smart and he read a lot of books and he used to be able to fix anything. But not anymore. He just sat in the chair eating Cheetos and watching The Price Is Right and cursing up a blue streak. He had curse words that we didn’t even know what they meant but we were sure from the way he said them that they were bad. So that Saturday afternoon Sherry and I were sitting on the front porch playing her new record. We took a long extension cord and plugged it into Sherry’s record player and played “Venus” over and over again. We loved Frankie Avalon and we were memorizing every word to the song. We didn’t pay much attention when we heard the screen door slam shut, but eventually Sherry looked toward the door and saw her grandpa walking on the front lawn, heading for the street. He was totally naked. I mean he was wearing nothing but his false teeth. That’s when Sherry screamed the triple mercy. She tried stopping him, pulling his arm with her only functional arm. She screamed for me to help her. What was I supposed to do with a naked old man? She tripped him and he fell face down on the grass. She said I needed to hold him there while she ran for help. So there I was, sitting on the lawn on top of an old man’s naked butt while Frankie Avalon sang Venus. The old man was grunting and cursing but he wasn’t trying that hard to get up. I hoped I wouldn’t suffocate him and I wondered if it was a sin for him to be walking around naked and if he would go to hell for cursing so much. It was an odd moment for such reflections.