My blog has a life of its own.

It’s been awhile since I posted on my blog, but judging by the site statistics, it appears my blog has gone on living a life of its own, with people visiting even while I’ve been away. I hope you made yourself comfortable.  I’ll be back soon with updates about what has been going on during this incredibly busy year.

In the meantime, we might as well dance!

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A traditional American Thanksgiving festival

How did we arrive at Thanksgiving so soon? Granted, it’s early this year, coming on the twenty-second of the month, but still. It’s hard to believe it’s even November, let alone Thanksgiving. Naturally, I’ve been thinking of Thanksgivings past and trying to figure out what traditions, if any, have carried over into the present, but I’m having a hard time coming up with a single image that represents Thanksgiving.

My maternal grandparents usually went out for Chinese food on Thanksgiving. They both taught college and didn’t want to spend their time off cooking a big meal and then cleaning up after. Besides, they probably had papers to grade over the long weekend.

My paternal grandparents ran grocery stores and restaurants, so fixing big meals was no big deal for them. Mammaw made six to eight pies every morning before breakfast to take down to the restaurant to sell. I’m guessing they prepared their own turkey dinner “with all the fixin’s” at the grocery store, along with the other Thanksgiving dinners they catered.

What is tradition, anyway? If it means doing the same thing in the same way year after year, we certainly don’t have that. Most of my images of big family gatherings and tables laden with food–turkey with dressing, pumpkin pies, mashed potatoes and gravy–seem to be from movies, such as Home for the Holidays, about families that were even more dysfunctional than ours. But a few years do stand out from the rest.

There was the year my first husband and I hopped in our 1967 VW bug with our large dog (part collie and part shepherd) and drove 600 miles to South Carolina to spend Thanksgiving with my dad. The thing we didn’t realize was that dad and his wife Wanda were both on “the night shift.” The day we arrived he stayed up all night cooking the turkey, and when Wanda got off work at 7:00 a.m., she made the side dishes and pies. We ate about 11:00 and Immediately after we finished eating, they both got up from the table and went straight to bed.We didn’t see them again until 10:00 that night. In the meantime, Wanda’s son came in and ate all of the leftover turkey. After several days, we were ready to get home, but the engine threw a rod about an hour down the road and we were forced to return to dad’s trailer until we could make arrangements to get home.

Or the year we got caught in a terrible snowstorm on our way to visit friends in Holland, Michigan. We were driving a rambler at the time, which had some sort of vacuum-operated windshield wipers that worked perfectly fine when you were sitting in a snowbank but not at all when you were driving at any speed down the highway. However, I do have fond memories of a beautiful walk in the snowy woods with our friends and their four children after we finally arrived.

After we moved to Missouri, we usually drove back home to Kentucky for Thanksgiving, but sometimes we stayed at home, depending I suppose on the weather and how busy things were at school. I remember my mom and stepfather Ralph and my aunt and uncle coming to our house one time. I also remember a time or two when my first son Matthew was little, and I was in graduate school and teaching four sections of composition, we decided to go out for turkey dinner. Matthew was impressed with the white table cloths, the crystal goblets for his coke, and the enormous sparkling Christmas tree. I was just thinking my grandparents had had the right idea.

My in-laws Bill and Ann were big on tradition, and we spent several Thanksgivings at their place. They were big noisy affairs, with all of us crowded into a relatively small house, the kids wearing Indian headdresses made out of construction paper, the football game running in the background, and everyone talking at once. And lots and lots of food. Apparently Granny felt obligated to make extra dishes to cater to everyone’s tastes. She made two kinds of salads, one with and one without nuts. She made stewed oysters for her husband, which no one else would eat. She made several kinds of pie. But we all just lied to Uncle Tommy and told him the squash casserole was made with sweet potatoes (because he claimed he didn’t like squash).

Thanksgivings at my mother’s house were quieter affairs, with only the number of people who could fit around their dining room table easily and have a good dinner conversation. We would usually have turkey, dressing, mashed potatoes, gravy, dinner rolls made from my aunt Grace’s recipe, broccoli, corn pudding, cranberry salad, and pie. We might take a second helping of our favorites, but we tried not to stuff ourselves. The day after Thanksgiving, we would go visit friends (former students of mom’s and Ralph’s) who lived way out in the country in a cabin they had built themselves, and we would take long walks and tell stories.

Then there was the year my younger son Isaac and I met mom in Rome, Italy, for Thanksgiving. Isaac and I had been joking for months about going to Italy for a good cup of cappuccino, so one day I thought I would check online and see how much that would actually cost. Turns out Expedia had a special for $850 each, which included the flight and four nights in a hotel, so we just decided to do it. Mom was in England that year on sabbatical, so I asked her, only half joking, if she wanted to meet us in Rome. And she did! It was awesome.

Another year Isaac and I spent Thanksgiving visiting friends who were on sabbatical in Tampere, Finland. That was also awesome. Our friends wanted to share a traditional American Thanksgiving with some of the Finns they had met that year, but they were not quite prepared for the challenges of finding all the ingredients they would need (canned pumpkin proved to be an especial challenge) or for the discomfort of carrying a frozen turkey in a backpack on the long walk home in the dark.

One year we went to Rochester, New York, and my son Matthew and his college roommates cooked Thanksgiving dinner. They exhausted themselves with the effort, and the rest of the visit is somewhat of a blur, although I do remember we got to meet his friends, including one he called “the troll who lives under the stairs.”

Another year we invited some international students to our house for what they called a “traditional American Thanksgiving festival.” They were very interested in all the food and how it was prepared, but they were troubled by the arrangement of our tables. We had pushed a rectangular table up against our oval table, so we could all sit together, but that meant there was no clear “head of the table.” At one point during dinner, the Chinese student said, “Do you mind if I ask how all of you are related?” We all paused and looked at each other, and laughed because we certainly were not your traditional American family. Jim and I were not yet married; around our Thanksgiving table that day we had my mother, my niece, my younger son, Jim’s sister, her boyfriend, a young woman from China, and another woman from Korea. And as my son so astutely observed, “None of us have the same last name!” No wonder the students were confused.

This year we are all spread out again but thankful for memories and family and friends.

My dad and Wanda are still in South Carolina. They are only having six people at dinner, dad says. Wanda’s son (who ate the whole leftover turkey that time) can’t come this year because of some industrial accident at his plant.

My niece and her two children drove from Pennsylvania to Kentucky to spend the weekend with mom.

My brother is probably having a big loud get-together with his wife’s children and grandchildren in Florida.

My son Isaac and his wife Sandra are in Oregon; they are having one couple over for dinner.

My son Matthew is in Georgia “hanging out with peoples.”

We are making a pumpkin pie and taking it to Hank and Marie’s, who always host a potluck dinner and Irish music session at their house for anyone who needs a home to go to.

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If dancing makes you smarter, we must be geniuses…

I keep reading articles about how dancing can help improve memory and brain function and ward off the effects of aging. That makes perfect sense to me. I don’t know that any of these brain studies have focused on square dancing or other called dances, such as contra dancing or English country dancing, but it seems to me that those particular forms of dance would have even more benefits than other forms of dance. Not only are you moving your body in time to the music and getting all that good oxygen to the brain, but you must also listen to the caller and process verbal instructions, making quick decisions about what move comes next and responding to the other dancers. Furthermore, while you are doing a “left-hand allemande your corner” or “partner by the right” or “ladies chain,” you are exercising your brain as well as your body. If that doesn’t get the left brain and the right brain working in coordination to build new pathways, I don’t know what would. And then when you add in the social benefits of being in a room full of other dancers who are smiling the whole time, what’s not to like? But don’t take my word for it. Here’s the research: Dancing Makes You Smarter

Anyone who knows us knows we love to dance. We usually try to dance two to three times a month at our regular contra dances on the first and third Fridays and our regular square dance on the second Saturday of each month. But this fall has been even busier than usual. There have been several weekends where we danced Friday, Saturday, and Sunday. For example, last weekend, we went to an English country dance on Friday, a square dance on Saturday, and a school dance on Sunday. On top of that, we also play in a couple of dance bands and Jim calls many dances, so when we’re not actually dancing, we’re still heavily involved in the dance community, playing, calling, rehearsing with the bands, holding callers jam sessions, or just jamming with other musicians.

And that’s not counting the annual dance weekends held in various places around the state, such as Pilgrim’s Progress in Lawrence, Kansas, or the special dances my husband is asked to call, such as the street dance at the Urban Farm harvest celebration last August, the barn dance held in connection with a teen’s birthday celebration, the private house-warming party for a young couple who were celebrating their commitment to each other, the wedding dances, the high-school “proms” for home schoolers, the square dance and cake walk for First Night, and the costume balls for the children’s department at the public library.

We also enjoy traveling to other dance communities when we get a chance. This fall we drove to Fairfield, Iowa, one weekend for Jim to call a contra dance; our friends Dave, Amber, and Nate played for that dance. Unfortunately, we can’t get to all of the dances we would like to attend. It has been ages since we have made it to a dance in Kansas City or St. Louis. We missed Solefest in Springfield around Halloween. Last Saturday we missed two of our favorite dances that were happening the same night as the Hallsville square dance–one in the village of Elsah, Illinois, and another held in a gorgeous old mercantile building in McKittrick, Missouri.

Although I love variety in all things, I have to admit that the monthly square dances at Hallsville are my favorite. Master fiddler John White started these dances about ten years ago, modeling them after old-time square dances he remembered from years past, where the community would gather on a Saturday night at the one-room school (Lily Dale), fire up the wood stove, get out their fiddles and banjos and mandolins and guitars, and make their own fun. At first it was just the musicians who would gather to play, but as anyone who has ever heard old-time fiddle music knows, you can’t help but get up and dance once the music starts. John tells stories of how they would push the school desks back against the walls and lay their coats over them, and the babies would sleep while their parents and grandparents made music and danced late into the night.

At the Hallsville square dances, we dance in a functional but not particularly attractive building with a concrete floor, with central heat and air conditioning, and with metal folding chairs rather than school desks against the walls. But we still come together as a community–children, parents, and grandparents alike–and make our own fun. It is the epitome of “good clean fun.” The activities start about 4:00 in the afternoon, with an old-time jam that can include master fiddlers in their seventies, as well as young children who are learning some of the old tunes from John, and all ages in between. After the jam, more people show up for the carry-in dinner. John’s wife Betty, who taught school for many years, always decorates the hall in themes appropriate for the season. This month she spread brown and orange and yellow cloths on all the tables, and she brought her band of banjo- and fiddle-playing battery-operated singing and dancing turkeys for the counter near the food table, along with a large inflatable turkey.

Dinner ends about 7:00, and after dinner, the musicians pick up their instruments again, and the dancers line up for the Virginia Reel, a favorite among the children (some of whom have even learned to call the dance themselves when Jim and the other callers are not there). After the Virginia Reel, if we have a large enough group of dancers, we might do a circle dance or an Appalachian square, often ending with a figure called Wind the Ball. Then we start the regular squares. Sometimes we will have several callers present at the dance, so they will each call from within their own square. Other times Jim will put on his headset and call for the entire hall. Sometimes we dance squares that everyone knows, so we don’t need a caller. Some of the favorites include Texas Star, Two Little Hobos, Right Hand High, Little Sisters, Sally Goodin, Grandpa’s Baby, Grapevine Twist. In between square dances, the band will play a waltz or a polka or a schottische or a Two Step, depending on which musicians are there and what they feel like playing. Sometimes people will get up and do some clog dancing.

Like many other old-time square dances that, unfortunately, have become less common over the years, the Hallsville square dance is a place where people of all ages come together just for fun. There is no “club.” You don’t have to pass a series of lessons to join in. You don’t need to wear fancy outfits. There is no admission cost and no paid performers. We all just pitch in and make our own fun. And if we’re also building brain cells in the process, that’s all the better!

Here is a taste of what it’s like to be part of a rich tradition that is still alive and well in the twenty-first century.

The happiest and the saddest day…

Every year on my birthday, for years and years, my mammaw would call to tell me she was thinking about me. She would always start off by saying, “This was the happiest and the saddest day of my life.” And then she would tell me about how my pappaw woke up the morning I turned six and said to her, “Today is our girl’s birthday.” And I could see in my mind’s eye the “life-size” doll that he had planned to give me, a “fashion doll” in a frilly formal gown, leaning against the wall in the corner of their upstairs apartment in Salyersville, Kentucky. At six years old, I preferred baby dolls but was fascinated that this doll, dressed in someone’s idea of a glamorous gown, could stand shoulder to shoulder with me.

I was the first grandchild and the only girl in the family for a long time. Eventually there would be eighteen of us cousins, but on that happiest and saddest day, the day my pappaw died, my sixth birthday, there were only four of us–me, my brother, and our cousins Randy and Timmy. What I know about that day is that my father was on his way back to Norfolk, where he was stationed in the Navy. I also know that dad and pappaw had parted on bad terms (they had recently fought, with dad refusing to get out of the Navy and take over the family grocery store). On the morning I turned six, pappaw suffered chest pains so severe that the family decided to drive to the nearest clinic, about an hour and a half over winding mountain roads.

These days doctors can save many people in my pappaw’s situation by putting in a stent or replacing a valve or performing a bypass or any number of other procedures that are so common we take them for granted. But back then, there was nothing to be done. My pappaw, who was only 49 at the time, died later that day. I don’t know if he died there at the clinic and the family had to bring him home somehow, or if he came home first with some sort of medication and then died later. I should ask my father about that. There was also at the time no email, no cellphones, no text messaging, no way to contact my dad and tell him he needed to turn around and come back for his father’s funeral, other than to send a Red Cross message, which he found on the pillow of his bunk when he returned to base. He thought it would be good news telling him his younger sister had had her baby, and he was shocked and saddened to read the contents of the brief message.

In my imagination, dad arrived by plane, in his dress white uniform, and I was thrilled to see him coming back to me so soon after he had left. But I couldn’t understand why he was crying. It was the first time I remember seeing him cry. The next thing I remember was my pappaw lying in a box in a formal living room for the visitation and all my aunts and uncles and great grandparents and second and third cousins, and cousins twice removed, and other people I didn’t know standing around in dark suits and Sunday go-to-meeting clothes, telling stories and occasionally laughing. At one point mammaw took me in to kiss pappaw goodbye, which seemed like the most natural thing to do and did not freak me out at all, although my mother, when she found out, was beside herself with worry over how it might damage me psychologically.

It has been nearly nine years since mammaw died. Although she remarried a widower who had twelve children of his own and remained married to him until he died, mammaw is now buried beside pappaw in the family plot, along with my baby cousin Connie, who died when she was only three days old. After all these years, I miss hearing mammaw tell me about her happiest and saddest day. Although everyone in the family obviously knew the facts of the matter–that pappaw died on my birthday–no one else ever brought it up. They did their best to let me have my special day and not mess it up with sad stories. But this year, when my dad called to wish me a happy birthday, it was as though he were channeling his mother, when he said, “You know this is a happy and sad day for me.”

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Oh crazy daddy of death dance cruelly for us…

All weekend the wind blew steadily and I found myself reciting a poem by ee cummings that we used to perform in college when I was in a group called Wordmasters, which did Readers Theater. We began the poem in a rush with the line, “a wind has blown the rain away and blown the sky away and all the leaves away,” then stopped suddenly with the line, “and the trees stand,” all twenty of us, dressed in bell-bottom corduroy pants and black turtle-neck sweaters, standing like trees on the bare stage. When I re-read the poem to myself, I still hear the inflections and the chorus of young voices from my fellow Wordmasters, the way we stretched out some words, “oh wind wind wind” and spoke other lines all in one breath, “oh crazy daddy of death dance cruelly for us and start the last leaf whirling in the final breath of air.”

The fall color in Missouri this year was much better than any of us expected, after the long drought. With no rain to speak of and temperatures above ninety degrees for much of the summer, I expected the leaves would just shrivel up and fall off one night with no fanfare, but instead we have had brilliant reds and yellows and oranges for weeks on end, along with many warm and sunny days. It has been the prettiest and warmest fall I can remember, following the earliest spring, the hottest and driest summer. I can’t help but wonder what winter will bring. I do hope we get some snow, although maybe not quite as much as we got a couple years ago, when the University was forced to cancel classes for the first time in history.

One of the things I love most about the Midwest is the clear distinction between seasons and the opportunity to witness the changes from one season to the next. Although I don’t spend as much time in nature as I would like, I try to get outside some each day and I try to pay attention to the subtle and not-so-subtle changes going on around me. This weekend marked one of those drastic turns toward winter. Saturday was sunny and seventy-five degrees. Sunday brought rain and steadily falling temperatures. By Monday it was down in the twenties, the sky was clear, and the trees were bare, just as cummings had described in his poem.

Believing that Saturday might be one of the last warm days for a while, we took the opportunity to go feed the bees one more time before winter sets in. One of the things I love best about beekeeping is having to think in a very personal way about such things as weather and climate and food supplies and the way we are all connected. This year has been hard on the bees. The spring flowers bloomed earlier than usual, so the main honey flow was over before the new queens were delivered. Then came the long dry summer, with no rain and thus no nectar to speak of.

This year we started three new hives, which we placed at a friend’s farm, next to a big field of clover. For a while they were, how shall I say, “in clover,” building new white comb, bringing in nectar, and filling the hexagonal cells with glistening liquid. The new queens were laying well, baby bees were emerging daily, the field bees were flying and bringing in pollen and nectar. Then came the drought, and all the clover dried up, and the bees languished. One of the hives must have decided it was the queen’s fault they were suffering, so they killed her and raised their own. By summer’s end, the hive was weak and desultory, and we knew they were not going to make it without some help from us. We ordered a new queen, although it was late in the season for that, and began feeding the hive sugar water to help build them up. The other hives were doing somewhat better, but we also fed them with sugar syrup to boost their honey stores, and we decided not to harvest any honey this year in order to give all the hives a better chance of making it through the winter. This is the first time in twelve years that we have not had a honey harvest. Although we should have plenty of honey left from past harvests to get through the winter, it seems strange and sad to have skipped this annual ritual.

Thinking of my son on Veterans Day

On this day, my heart goes out to all the veterans and their families, especially those who have fought the longest wars in American history and continue to fight their own personal battles as they struggle to fit back in to a civilian world. I ache for the ones who can’t find jobs in this bad economy; who have trouble relating to the trivial concerns of civilian life; who have no response to the accusation from a spouse who says, “you’re not the person I married”; who seem to overreact when their kids fight over the video game controller; who withdraw into themselves; who feel inexplicably angry when someone thanks them for their service; who drink to try to take the edge off; who can’t sleep; who suffer from nightmares; who can’t sit through a movie in a darkened theater. I marvel at the discipline it takes to push through physical and mental pain as they learn to live with missing limbs and traumatic brain injuries. I feel incredibly guilty for all those times I felt too overwhelmed to think about the ongoing wars but had the luxury to be able to turn them off for a while–something none of the active duty service members or veterans could ever do.

When my son joined the Army just after 9-11, under a deferred enlistment program, I was heartbroken and at the same time immensely proud of him. I admired his courage, his desire to do something in response to the attack on the Twin Towers and the Pentagon, his willingness to sacrifice his own personal safety and comfort in the service of something larger than himself. If he had been a passenger on one of those doomed planes that day, he very well might have tackled the hijackers himself. He was a senior at Rochester Institute of Technology in New York at the time, majoring in criminal justice, and many of his friends and classmates knew someone personally who worked in the Towers or lived nearby or were in other ways directly affected by the attacks. Like many others of my son’s generation, they felt they had to take action; they couldn’t just sit around and do nothing after we had been attacked. I can only imagine the reactions in the residence halls and dining halls and classrooms that day in September in New York, when news of the attack first reached them. We were all so naive at the time and had no idea where things would lead.

Now, ten years and three deployments later, I still struggle to make sense of what has happened and what it means to us as a family, to our country, and to the world at large, but every day my admiration for my son grows stronger. He has lately begun to make the most incredible works of art. He creates mosaics using photos of the 6600+ servicemen and -women who have died in Iraq and Afghanistan. He arranges the faces of the dead to form large images of people and places he saw while deployed. I think his art is all the more powerful because for so many years he preferred the “practical arts” over other more expressive arts, and he tends to keep his feelings to himself. But now that he has opened this window into his experiences, I am blown away by their power. I will probably never know everything he has witnessed or hear all the stories he tells himself–he still tries to protect his mom that way–but I wish with all my heart that I could do something to lighten his load and let him and all the other veterans know how very sorry I am for what we put them through.

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Glorious weekend!

Don’t get me wrong. Even though this week was busier than I like–with something to do every evening after work–I had a great week. I had interesting things to do at the office, I learned something new every day, I played a lot of music, I got together with friends, I heard some good stories, I walked in the sunshine. I am just really glad it is Saturday, and I have the whole day ahead of me to catch up some things around the house and garden that I have let go for lack of time. Since the weather is predicted to be warm and sunny today, I need to make sure I spend plenty of time outside before the temperature drops tomorrow, even though the house is a complete wreck.

For weeks it seems, we have been running into the house after work, dropping things on the nearest flat surface, and running back out. It looks like crazy people live here. (I don’t even have children to blame for the mess.) There are two keyboards, two stands, a bench, a banjo, and a large canvas bag of dance cards and dance shoes in the middle of the living room floor. What is that about? We literally have no space on the dining room table to put our plates down when it’s time to eat. And the kitchen counter? Forget about it! It looks like the bottom of a hamster cage. Now that the political ads and the brochures from the cable companies have slowed down, the Christmas catalogs have started to arrive in force.

Jim and I switch off kitchen duties week by week. Lucky for me, last week was Jim’s turn to plan the menus, make the grocery list, cook, and clean up. Starting tomorrow it’s my week. On busy weeks like we’ve had recently, whoever is in the kitchen often ends up cooking one big meal and then reheating leftovers the rest of the week. Last week Jim made a delicious squash casserole and a three-bean casserole (both from Moosewood recipes), which got us through the whole week. The week before I made a roast in the crock pot, and we ate from it all week. Sometimes we try to disguise the leftovers (e.g., shred the beef and add sauteed onions and green peppers and roll it all in a tortilla; add extra carrots and potatoes and turn the roast into a stew). But the last two weeks, we just shamelessly heated the same dishes over and over until we had finished them off.

We are both pretty happy with the way we share kitchen duties and have been doing it this way for several years. It kind of sucks the week you’re doing everything, but then you get a whole week off where you don’t have to think about what to eat or make any motions toward cooking or feel guilty about not cleaning up after a meal. We do usually try to go to the grocery together, but the person who is in charge that week pushes the cart. We also do a good job sharing laundry, although we are not as organized about who does what when. One of us will wash and dry everything, but we each fold our own clothes. But in the fourteen years we have been together we have never worked out a system for taking care of other household chores, which could explain a lot about why the house is in the shape it’s in!

I used to think I had to dust and vacuum and mop and clean the bathrooms every Saturday, but I’ve since learned that is a complete myth. Possibly I was trying to impress my children at the time or trying to live up to some idealized view of how a good wife and mother should act (never mind that I held full-time jobs the whole time I was raising children). But lately I haven’t cared about dust and dirt as much as clutter, so I have started (again) to try to get rid of stuff I don’t need. My goal at some point is to have only things that are both useful and beautiful, but I am a very long way from meeting that goal. Still, one thing I have learned is that as long as I am making steady movement toward a goal, I will eventually get there. Even if I only knit one row a day (or one row a week), that is one row closer to finishing the project. It took me a year to make the last sweater. So far I have been working for two and a half years on an afghan for my son and his wife. But I’m getting there.

So…today. What to do? How to spend my precious allotment of time? Sitting here in my favorite chair, drinking my morning tea, I can already feel myself being torn in many different directions, making mental to-do lists that would be impossible to accomplish in a week (let alone a day). Lately when I feel overwhelmed and indecisive, I set a timer for 25 or 30 minutes and just start doing whatever first catches my attention. When the timer goes off, I am always surprised at how much I can accomplish in such a short time. I am also usually re-energized, ready to set the timer again.

Sometimes I work room by room (25 minutes in the living room, then 25 minutes in the den). Sometimes I work project by project (25 minutes straightening the linen closet or organizing my sewing supplies, followed by 25 minutes of raking leaves). This strategy (based on the Pomodoro system) works well when I have a whole lot of different kinds of things I want to do, but any one of them could take all day. It also works well for reminding me to take regular breaks and to tackle projects in smaller chunks. Rather than jump in and try to declutter the entire house in one weekend (which is impossible; I know because I’ve tried!), I focus on one drawer or one shelf or one task at a time. And then I remind myself that it’s like knitting. I might not have an immaculate, clutter-free, and well-decorated house by the end of the day, but I’ll be that much closer to my goals.

Wish me luck!