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Treasure Trove

More than a month has passed since the summer solstice. Daylight is officially narrowing and the universe is whispering,  c a r p e   d i e m ! Time is in full throttle fast forward mode, and I’m over here looking for the pause button to take a closer look. I’m doing my best to taste it all, but new courses keep coming as I’m still blowing on my first bite, waiting for it to cool. There’s another four-top and the waiter is itching to clear the table, but I’m still working on my plate. It’s like I’m in a store and the salesperson keeps peppering me with questions: What are you looking for? I’m just looking, I insist. Can’t I just look? Evidently there isn’t time. Days fly by and big things keep happening.

A few months ago, I woke in the middle of the night to the sound of my dog’s limbs flailing and her writhing on the floor beside my bed. After an interminable who knows how many seconds, she stopped and stood up, drunk and disoriented. I carried my 62-pound girl down the 22 stairs, and once outside, she slowly returned to normal, clueless as to what had happened. She did her business and we went back to bed. The next morning our vet ordered labs to check kidney and liver levels and sent me away with the name of a neurologist we should see just in case.

A couple of hours after we got home it happened again, this time more violent, scarier and for longer. She frothed at the mouth, writhed frantically and then stopped, eyes blank, staring ahead. You’d swear she was gone, but in the seconds that followed, she was back, soaked in her own froth, but back nonetheless. I was hysterical on the phone with our vet who explained that two or more seizures in 24 hours are cluster seizures, and we need to get to the neurologist now. So off we went just as rush hour began to form, up I-285 to an animal hospital called Blue Pearl. Whomever named the place did a great job, as I had beautiful pictures in my head, as if we were driving to Oz, heaven or even just a soothing spa for the infirmed.

Once there, I was still a tear stained mess, but the hospital was comforting and matter of fact; we were just another routine check in, another dog who would stay the night, another owner who would pay in the thousands. I said my goodbyes in her crate, climbing in and lying next to her, and was reassured to see a beautiful lab just across the aisle also with an IV in his arm, calmly hunkered down for the night. Nothing else for them to do but lie down and stare at each other across the aisle. Like leaving your child at college for the first time and finding you like his roommate. The lab’s sweet face also helped drown out the sorrowful moans of the dog three crates down, who was either in crazy pain, scared or just terribly missing its person.

This same week was graduation week and the next two days buzzed with my son’s pre-graduation party, high school graduation and family dinner after. I wanted to get fully lost in the happy celebrations, but I kept one foot back at Blue Pearl thinking of Lucie, whom I assumed gave similar thought to this sudden and worrisome turn of events. My sister reminded me she’s a dog and doesn’t ruminate like her owner does, which helped. The hospital began their tests, first a CAT scan, then a spinal to detect inflammation (aka cancer), coupled with a complete neurological workup. After an interminable day and a half wait, I got the call: no tumor, no cancer, and instead the best possible diagnosis we could hope for (and highly unlikely per our vet and the neurologists): late onset epilepsy which requires twice daily medication. We dodged a bullet. Big exhale.

As if overnight, though, she is aging. Her haunches don’t have the range they once did, and at bedtime I hear her sighing trying to get comfortable. She still smiles big toothy smiles and gives us kisses, and whenever she hears keys, she’s up by the door ready for a car ride. Her smile says thank you, I love you to the moon and back, and never says I’m in pain, I’m sad or disappointed.

After graduation we migrated to Jekyll Island, Ga. for my husband’s annual conference there. It’s our annual happy place, a free mini 3-day vacation which ushers summer in. I got the email one night as we were driving home from dinner, that my mom’s twin brother in California died. Alzheimer’s. The car was loud with post dinner chatter, but as I read the email my aunt sent about my Uncle Pete, I wished for a phone call instead, something more personal. I sent flowers to my aunt and cards to each of my cousins. Even though I rarely saw them on the west coast, a door I wasn’t ready to close had closed on its own.

Speaking of doors, last month I came home to our back door kicked open, cats missing, drawers flung open and an empty spot on my dresser where my jewelry box sat. They only took my jewelry box and thankfully the pieces I wear most were hidden elsewhere. But still, the guy who kicked in our door and splintered our 150+ year molding is now carrying my memories of which he has no clue the sentimental value. My mom’s sterling charm bracelet held loads of charms among them three silver placards each bearing her children’s names in script, James, Anne and Susan. There was a lobster charm because she grew up on the north shore and a cocktail shaker too, because who doesn’t love a good cocktail? My bracelet had fewer charms which included a Christmas tree, a heart locket and a church with a small hole in the steeple. If you held it up to the light you could read the ten commandments inside. Thou Shalt Not Steal, remember that one?

July arrived and brought a big dose of happy travel and new experiences. Seventeen days in Portugal and Spain put life as we knew it on hold, giving me that pause button I’d been looking for. We covered lots of ground, walked cobblestone streets, ate new foods and I spoke loads of Spanish. I’ve tried to record it, jotting down menu items we loved and taking pictures. Mostly, though, I’ll remember being together all that time, navigating brand new places and while not loving every minute of every day, loving that each was chock full of new memories in the making.

The playful whir of baccalaureate, graduation and travel have long passed, replaced by the important work of college class registration, tuition payments and soccer and high school details. Long languid summer days at the pool or grilling outside haven’t yet started and they just might get skipped this year. But the birds are singing loudly all day long, the squirrels aren’t stealing the tomatoes ripening on the vine and if that alone isn’t cause for celebration, the lighting bugs put on a Disney-worthy show each night, filling the yard with twinkling stars.

Tomorrow my younger son starts 11thgrade. In two weeks, I’ll leave to drive my older one to college, climbing up a half dozen states to New York to settle him in. I can’t predict how it will all go, how life’s new normal will be, and I’ll admit sometimes I worry. I guess that comes with the territory. But I can say how grateful I am for all of it, for these precious creatures I’m with.

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My peeps, many years ago

 

Starbucks, Theta Tau…. Who Art Thou?

I know I need to stop turning on the news, but I want to see what’s happening, and so I watch. Like turning to look at a bad accident on the highway, you know it’s wrong, but you do it anyway. Seems there’ve been more wrongs than rights in the news of late, and it’s getting to me, leaving behind unsettling, unanswerable questions.

Do we even know what wrong looks like anymore?

I can’t imagine that some of us were born separatists who from the get go spread evil, fear, and injustice. It’s the age-old nurture nature debate, but just how do closed-minded beer funneling, latte serving elitists evolve? Do we even know what wrong looks like anymore, assuming we once did? Maybe we’re bored outcasts who need attention but can’t figure out how or where we fit in. Or some of us are just bad people who don’t know better. Should we be blessing our own hearts?

Show me the benefits of ridiculing others — people of color, different religions, mentally challenged or a different sexual orientation — because I can’t see any. Maybe it’s an addictive high you get from onlookers’ laughs that helps you feel you belong, from putting people down so your own status can rise, or scoring friends from daring to go too far, shaming people and mimicking the most vulnerable. Surely you didn’t know what you were doing, someone put you up to it, it was the alcohol, the moment, it wasn’t really wrong. Was it?

Mean people suck. Always have, always will.

Wake up, Syracuse frat boys, it’s time to sober up and be accountable. Look at the chances and choices laid out before you, and then look at others’. They want what you want — a job, a family, security, health, a home and friends – and they want to be happy, but lucky for them they don’t have what you have — the bias, the sense of entitlement, the dispiriting lack of curiosity. They may not know it yet, but in many ways they’re rich from the bits they get, which they savor and, I’m guessing, share. How about you, other than laughs at others’ expense, what do you share? As for the Philly Starbucks manager, was it fear that made you call the police, hoping they’d rescue you from your own prejudices and suspicions? When they came running, did it work? Is it over or are you still scared?

You who poke and prod at society’s most defenseless and then smirking, star in your own social media film, are you just misfits, starved of courage? As you look around for a clean napkin to blot the cappuccino foam from your lip, have you given any thought to where you’re going or what kind of person you want to be? When the barista goes home, the beer runs out, when the party’s over and the guys crash, when the girl moves on and it’s just you standing there, what will you do then? Is it really 2018? Certain we’ve moved farther than this by now. Wake me up when the storm has passed.

Life defined is the quality that distinguishes a vital and functional being from a dead body. Is there no more life in Greek life if some of its members appear so void of it, so dysfunctional? It’s not about tolerance, but inclusivity, not because your campus or workplace says so, but because somewhere deep down, you want it, know it’s right, and learned it long ago. Or maybe you should have. It’s instinctive, it’s decent, but has to be regarded important enough to live it.

What happens when bad news breaks and campus and coffee shop ratings plunge? You enroll in unconscious bias training, of course. That people must un-learn their own biases should tell us something’s not getting done at home, we aren’t being taught the things we should. Calling the cops in two minutes because two black men are waiting in your coffee shop isn’t just unwarranted, it’s outrageous. It’s fear rearing its ugly head. Again. A toxic culture has been brewing, and Starbuck’s isn’t the only place you’ll find it.

What are we afraid of? What were these black men going to do to you or to your customers, or maybe it was your image at risk. Did they have guns, threaten people, or did they do the unthinkable, park their black bodies in your chairs as they sat and waited. Did they look in your eyes like they didn’t belong, or did you first look in theirs and think that? Was the color of their skin all you needed to make that call?

Can this fear be trained out of you?

I’m afraid tolerance alone doesn’t cut it. We’d be wise to stop doling out A+s for human decency that should instead garner a B/B+ at best. Let’s aim higher and no, I’m not talking about firearms. I’m tired of bad behavior filling the news and the occasional acts of kindness applauded at a level as if no one has seen the likes of them before.

I’m referring to a national news segment on a man from my own state getting out of his car during rush hour to help an elderly gentleman with a walker cross the road. While I commend this Good Samaritan for being generous, I’d like to think there are others who would’ve done the same. What if you saw a frail individual like this? Would you stop or just go around him as if you were dodging a pothole? Maybe you’d turn up your music and miss the opportunity entirely. We’re all trying to cross the busy street and get somewhere and on any given day, one of us sure could use a hand. It’s not a story. It’s kindness.

Is it possible the focus on labelling and categorizing each other will one day give way to encouragement, service and support? That this single story of someone helping someone else is such a rare find, something we still talk about weeks later, tells me we’re focused on the wrong stuff, the sensational crap on TV at dinner, sexy sound bites to accompany our own. What if we stopped and reset. There are no do-overs, but there is today and tomorrow and the next.

Mean people suck, always have, always will. With enough practice, this cycle could break across generations, within cultures, on campuses and at work, in homes and places of worship, and we could stop separating ourselves from each other and choose to collectively do more good. We are equals on this earth, different but equally worthy and of worth. It’s a privilege to be connected here on this planet and if we can put down our biases, weapons and fears, maybe that’ll free up a hand for lifting each other up. It’s not all Greek to me. You?

Who’s Behind You?

anneFor as long as I can remember, I’ve followed behind Anne; she’s been my guide, and I’ve always learned something from her outlook and opinion. I still do. Growing up, she was sensitive yet cool, never too tucked, too preppy, too anything. She just flowed – her long lean body and soft voice carried her in a way I liked, which was so different from my own. I may have arrived two years after her, but from the start, she was behind me, my sister and built-in friend.

She helped me in high school, giving my outfits the once over. We’d stand in front of my long mirror and she’d go to work so I could appear less matchy matchy and more put together, without looking like I’d tried. She lifted my tightly tucked-in shirt so it billowed slightly over my hips, pulled my jeans down some from my waist, and suggested I lose the grosgrain headband, and let my hair fall, framing my face. I trusted her in these “what not to wear” sessions, and afterward, left the house more confident. I think she rather enjoyed having me as her project, too.

Years earlier, I remember us standing at the base of the stairs in our house, two little girls with baby dolls on our hips waiting for an elevator at the pretend “Woody Club.” We were always good at improvising and could take the other’s lead, wherever our imaginations took us. The Club’s proprietor, Susan Woody, must have smirked to herself, seeing us lapping up the accommodations since she, unlike her “guests”, filled her day paying bills and folding laundry before heading out in her Bermuda shorts to water and weed. I always assumed that one day Anne and I would live in the same city and raise our kids together, but thanks to photos, phone and email, in some ways we kind of did.

Growing up, we had goldfish that never seemed to live very long. I don’t know why we didn’t add a pump and filter to their bowls, but no one else did, either. Where were our parents during these life and death decisions? The fish invariably died, and we held funerals in our woods. Anne would arrive for the service wearing a stole around her neck, impressively ecclesiastical, and somehow found a prayer book to bring along. We’d have a moment of silence, say a prayer and then something nice about the fish before laying it to rest on a cotton square in a cardboard Rich’s jewelry box. I guess we never dug deep enough because usually after a few days, the fish was gone, risen perhaps like Jesus, cotton strewn at the tomb. It was always a horrifying discovery, but because we both lived it, it was easier.

At night I often sneaked into Anne’s room and into her bed, a double white spool bed with exposed squeaky box springs. It was springy, cozy and familiar, far different than my own twin bed where I felt alone and far away from the family. My mom always said I should sleep in my own room, but I knew what I needed, and that was to be close to Anne, so I usually tiptoed to hers.

Anne and I loved cooking and we made all kinds of things but mostly we made tollhouse cookies, crepes and hand-cut French fries. We let our mom sample the successes, and the failures went straight in the trash. One time we cooked our parents a multi-course dinner — shrimp bisque, cube steak and I don’t remember what for a vegetable and dessert. Shrimp bisque is tricky, or at least that was our experience. We earned Girl Scout badges for our efforts, and for their part, our parents learned patience, waiting hours between courses, smiling politely sipping their bourbon. Even though the meal was a flop, Anne and I still compare recipes, new foods and a shared fascination with cooking.

I’ve never had to explain our family to Anne; she’s lived it all, including wearing those matching outfits we often were dressed in. Like my brother and me, she also died of embarrassment when our friends were over and Lad, our aging, flatulent German Shepherd, released huge silent stinky clouds into the room. At family picnics, I remember shielding her from the dreaded egg-laden potato salad, and even though she liked hoarding boxes of Girl Scout cookies in her desk, she’d usually let me have my own sleeve of Thin Mints. It’s been a shared back and forth, giving and getting.

I’ve been thinking about Anne lately since we spent Spring break together at the beach. I don’t remember us ever having a whole week together as adults, and I don’t think planning our parents’ funerals should count. Our beach week unfolded slowly, doing nothing and talking about everything. We drank wine over stories, laughs and the most remote memories, and cooked constantly and fed people. Our dynamic has refreshingly little push and pull, and is simply comfortable and easy, with wine refills, jokes and continued wonder at how we’ve remembered the things we have.

On the last day, we rode the kids’ bikes, which had seats set super high, and fortunately for 5’10” Anne, she pedaled comfortably for a change. Following behind her, I took this photo of her, 56, ever the young girl, cropped shirt billowing in the breeze, curls trailing down her back. We darted in and out of streets with no agenda, riding beside each another when we wanted to talk and single file when we didn’t. It was like we no longer lived 700 miles away from the other, and were just two sisters out riding bikes, like before.

Anne’s a Gemini full of decisions, sometimes unable to decide, but she’s steady, graceful and always there for me, her chatty loving Leo sister. She wears the moonstone ring I gave her on her middle finger and a pearl necklace we saw and bought together, both birthstones for her June 8 birthday. She’s a constant, my lighthouse, my insides. I trust her and no matter what, she listens and loves me, not in spite of who I am but because of it. There’s a difference.

Not everyone is lucky enough to have a sister or someone they can call their person, and maybe it’s because I’m looking for them, but for years, I’ve seen folks who are ready and willing to step up. It’s the grocery store worker who grabs a cart when he notices that my arms are too full, or the hands-on work colleague who selflessly offered to watch our toddlers so my husband and I could get away. It’s the friend who emails job postings to nudge me along, or the person who always texts right back, invites me over, holds the door, gives a hand, a compliment or a ride when I least expect it (and most need it). It’s whoever lifts you up, be it stranger or friend, who notices and connects with you. We all need a reminder that we matter and a place alongside people that feels like home, somewhere we belong. So, look around and find them. Chances are, they’re looking too.

 

The Art of Letting Go

Restraints

A friend of mine broke her finger a few weeks ago. She was at the dog park and ready to leave when her lab decided to romp with the new batch of dogs arriving. He lunged playfully toward them and she instinctively pulled on the leash, forgetting for a moment they were in an enclosed space and it was safe to let go. That brief tug of war found the leash wrapped around her fourth finger, fracturing it. Had she released him, the worse thing is her dog would’ve played longer dragging its leash and she’d leave later than she wanted. Holding on, she endured a lot of pain and trouble, and now weeks later is still feeling the effects.

I similarly tussled with a lead, but it was a ski rope years ago when I was first learning. Friends in the boat taught me the circular arm motion to signal I wanted to turn around and go back, and the thumb up or down was to go faster or slower. I didn’t get up the first few times, but eventually I did. The one instruction I didn’t have but wish I’d been given (and which I now readily pass on) is to let go of the rope. Letting go wasn’t instinctive for me, like it is for most people, and after an impressive loop around the lake, I went down. Water rushed in and travelled so high up my nose my brain hurt. I held on for dear life, a soggy deflated dinghy being dragged against its will. I’m not sure if it was 30 seconds or just a few, but it felt like an eternity. You may be laughing right about now, but it was terrifying being dragged and not knowing how to stop it or if it would end at all. Somehow, I ended up releasing my grip and in that instant, everything changed: the noise melted away, I was perfectly still, and my friends returned.

Expectations

As a child, growing up we went to church downtown most every Sunday. There was a lot to do to get ready: the hair braiding, dress pressing, patent leather shoe locating, rushing around for this and that – and that was just my part of the 5-person family routine. This all after a packed week of school and tennis practice and homework and getting up early every other Saturday to clean my grandmother’s apartment. At church I was all in: I sang in the choir, did the father daughter offering collection and became confirmed. I especially loved working in the soup kitchen, feeding all those hungry grateful people, and later myself nibbling on crunchy buttered toast leftover from breakfast. Each Sunday my family would arrive at church all pressed and pretty, but we kids grew tired of revving up for this mandatory rushed routine. Now with children of my own, I’ve watched as other families have settled into their church ritual, hunting down boys’ khakis to replace their preferred sweat pants and girls posing after church outside in sweet Easter dresses and cuffed lacey socks, now slouched and at different heights. I always felt a little guilty we weren’t regulars at church, but I’ve let go of that image as how our Sundays ought to be. We are happy with our once or twice a year visit. It’s joyful and hopeful, especially at Christmas and Easter, and it works for us. We don’t have to go every Sunday to benefit or to belong. We can let that go.

Control

When my second child was born, I was determined to give birth naturally since I hadn’t with my first. I kept nervously watching the clock as my chances for an epidural diminished with each passing hour. I worked hard breathing through the pain, recovering and then gearing up for the next contraction, which was always near. Finally, the baby was coming and there was no more control, no more knowing what was ahead or even thinking about what to watch for. This was a free fall from an airplane without the promise of a parachute, I was in the first car on a roller coaster with a bottomless track, this was blind trust. I writhed, I shook, I screamed and then it was over. Actually, it was just beginning. The shaking stopped and I opened my eyes and held my sweet swaddled baby boy. I had let go, stopped watching the clock and let my body open up for my baby. And what do you know? It did exactly what it needed to do. And did it perfectly.

Things

Recently I sold a drop leaf table that belonged to my parents. We used it in our own kitchen and it served us well for years.  In time, though, the sentiment had become less sentimental since they had divorced and were now both deceased, and with so many dark wooden cabinets in our kitchen, the table’s dark color felt overwhelming and drab. When I finally did a light renovation of our kitchen, removing wallpaper and painting, I found another table that worked better in the room. Moving on from the rectangular and traditional honey maple table, the new one was round and painted white, and chairs tucked under it neatly. As I moved the old table into another room and brought in the new one, I realized I had held on to this furniture probably longer than I should have, longer than I enjoyed it for and it never felt like my own taste. That it was a family piece, that my parents loved it in some ways pressured me into believing I needed to use it as they had. After much debate, we agreed to let it go and a nice woman bought it for a fair price. I helped her move it to her car and as she drove away, the weight lifted. No worries of storing it or working it into our already crowded rooms. Someone else would now love it just like my parents had. And that was ok.

Friendships

In the last few years I’ve seen several friendships change, relationships I was certain never would. I’ve spent time replaying conversations and emails and texts trying to understand their evolution and how I can be kinder, a better listener and less critical of others and myself. For years I’ve held tight to how things used to be, yet I’m realizing these friendships are evolving as things naturally do. The conversations are different, the emails are fewer or less predictable, and the frequent need to connect has been replaced with busier schedules, time apart and new friendships forged. Some relationships move in a different direction and it might be time to let go a little and see what unfolds.

Family

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It’s a happy coincidence that I chose to post this blog today, February 27th, my son’s 18th birthday. This will be a year of letting go for me, for all of us. As he heads off to college, there will be the inclination to hold on just a little longer, a little tighter. But as much as I love and will miss him, I love him enough to let him go. I will be watching him fly to new and interesting places and heights. Just like the butterflies we had years ago that grew from larvae. Seeing them evolve into colorful butterflies was spectacular, yet the day they left to explore the world on their own was bittersweet. Just as it was watching the baby birds fly from their nest tucked in our porch soffit. These birds I had watched each day, and I noticed when their egg first cracked open and a determined beak poked through.

Letting go is not just about our stuff or situations. It’s about doing away with views of how things should be, how they could look or trying to talk yourself into something you know down deep you don’t want or never did. It’s about uncurling your fists long enough to release your fingers and wrap them around what you decide is next. It’s about not always looking back so you don’t miss what’s ahead. It’s the best of both worlds, really. One door closes, another opens.

 

Lamb Vindaloo… who knew?

IMG_5877Back when they first opened stores in Atlanta some 12 years ago, I wasn’t one of the early ones in line, excited to check out this California-based newfangled place with cedarplank walls and tasting stations, where the bell ringing checkout people dressed in Hawaiian shirts. I suppose I like Jimmy Buffet and carefree island living, but this is land-locked Atlanta and let’s just get our groceries and get on with it. The cynic in me wondered what were these employees hiding behind their energized smiles, easy breezy floral shirts and hyper happy approach to selling food? And exactly why were they trying to involve me? They reminded me of what I thought Disney World was like, where everyone is waving and happy, and the always blooming flowers never need water. Where the promise that the magic will sprinkle over me too is real, if I can only believe. Like Santa and the Tooth Fairy.

I generally like to keep a low profile when buying groceries and get in and out quickly and unnoticed. Yet the only thing these people full of company culture and tasty samples wanted was to share the love. Friends did too, and when they learned I still hadn’t gone, they couldn’t process why I’d rob myself of this experience any longer.

I kept running into people who had been drinking this island-spiked Kool-Aid and who were transformed; they’d seen a revolutionary shopping experience, and they were all in. I insisted on being contrary and instead stayed away. It was like when the movie Dances with Wolves came out and everyone immediately ran out to see it and then gushed over the film. I couldn’t bring myself to sign up for the 3-hour and 56-minute epic that everyone insisted I see, despite the extended time to enjoy looking at Kevin Costner. He won me over in Field of Dreams the year before, but beyond the crazy popularity of this way too long film, I didn’t want to deal with potential disappointment seeing him in a lesser role.

I did go into this store a few times and felt a little out of place, as I didn’t feel shiny and happy and wasn’t going to allow any joy to wash over me. The experience was lost on me and it seemed I shouldn’t be there. Hell bent on discovering this place solo through my own lens, I picked up only the bare essentials each time working from my list, which meant skipping the sample stations and the quippy descriptions next to various signature products. I wanted to save money and come away with good food but was resistant to leaning into the experience despite the hold this place had on everyone — restaurant foodies, fast foodies, even non-foodies, and serious home cooks too.

After a few more visits that left me both over- and under-whelmed, I went back to my usual nearby stores, a fabulous but freezing super stocked world farmers market and the consistent customer-focused Florida based grocery chain where shopping is a pleasure. I cooked a lot – then and now — and was averse to buying packaged food experiences to stow in my freezer, even though with all the talk, these were beginning to sound like actual players. Maybe I worried by stocking these items, I’d get lazy with my cooking from scratch and move toward the easy freezer to microwave dinner dance so many choose. Not sure who I was trying to impress, other than myself.

More months passed, and more chatter about these great prepared foods, organic produce, breads and flowers, yada yada, so I returned to try again. I saw surprisingly affordable gorgeous cut flower bouquets, tiny pots with healthy shoots and buds about to bloom, and enormous eucalyptus stems — the rare flat leaf variety you only find at a florist, and once I reached for a bunch to take home, it seems I, too, was smitten.

The breads came next and a chocolate Brooklyn babka was calling my name. It wasn’t their last babka, but it was my first. You just can’t beat a babka, can you?  Next up along the produce aisle were the hard to find haricot vert, the skinny tender perfect green beans. Prebagged with dozens neatly stacked inside, these beans were a gorgeous healthy green, with pointy tips intact. I found plenty of loose organic produce, too, and other packaged items, which unlike that from other stores looked surprisingly fresh. Moving along, I started filling my cart as I mentally tabulated future menus. There was peppered turkey bacon to try and other interesting meats, with no shortage of affordable organic options.

I rounded the corner through dairy (btw thrice I’ve bought 2% organic milk here to find it“not quite right,” so don’t recommend) and onto the frozen foods, and the noise of the bells, chatter and cartoon-like signage began to sink into the background, and the foods came into focus. I began taking the advice of hand-scrawled tags taped to shelf edges, which gave a personal rating of the inventory, like liquor stores do in their wine aisles. I passed gorgeous butternut squash ravioli and arugula parmigiano reggiano ravioli in the refrigerated section, which I’ve bought repeatedly. Get them and enjoy with a green salad and glass of wine and someone to share.

A friend raved about the organic coffee and like a kid in a candy store, I stood on tiptoes reaching for this and scores of other things I couldn’t wait to bring home and try. I liked the can graphics and could almost smell the grounds; imagining my next pot of coffee made me incredibly happy. There were shampoos, too, and minimal ingredient soaps, which I also grabbed. It was like you were on a game show and they told you to fill your cart with whichever items you want in 45 minutes, with a challenge that you couldn’t exceed $200. This is easier here than you may think as just once in all my years of going have I exceeded $200, despite an impressive effort.

The frozen section was filled with those I don’t have time to cook and this is actually tasty boxed and bagged entrees. Mandarin orange chicken, that dark meat-only sweet and sour dish that you don’t really love, but your kids adore, takes just 25 minutes to make, including your own rice you cook separately. Lemongrass sticks, chicken chile verde burritos and chicken cilantro mini wontons (yes, we eat too much chicken) all are lined up flirting with you to take them home. And you do.

Probably la crème de la crème of freezer items for me are three things. 1) Trader Giotti’s (seriously folks, imported from Italy) generous personal sized cheese pizza, with sliced tomatoes and, get this, it’s gluten free! Believe me, I adore traditional gluten pizzas, but this stands apart from their other pies. Lovely cornmeal dusts the bottom of the crust and the tomatoes taste like summer; it’s simply amazing. Didn’t see it last time I went, though, and praying they haven’t discontinued this, as they have several items I adored. 2) Chocolate Croissants. These, folks, are Christmas morning breakfast worthy but enjoy them anytime. You sit them out the night before, they rise a little and then you bake them the next morning. Seriously good. Not over-chocolatey, no harsh bitter dark chocolate taste, either. Just perfection, plain and simple. 3) Lamb Vindaloo. You’ve had vindaloo and love it in restaurants. And you may be one of those rare birds that love lamb, like me. Often lamb dishes require that you edit the meat, spend loads of time cutting the fat away only to discover that you’re left with little meat to eat. This dish is spiced perfectly and has loads of big chunks of pre-edited lamb that is succulent and ever so perfect. Get it and savor it. And for god’s sake if you don’t like lamb, you really need to, for this dish alone will convert you.

Next up, loads of nuts – raw, roasted or salted — were gorgeous and easy enough, and further down the aisle, good quality store brand crackers and cereal challenged me with more decisions to make. There was a good sized wine section including the famous two buck chuck variety, but I never have explored their wines except once when I bought a $5 bottle. Suffice it to say, you get what you pay for. Learn the wines or skip ‘em.

In the store’s back corner they were giving out coffee cake samples – made from a box! – which were divine as is their boxed gingerbread. Seriously, don’t bother trying to replicate the gingerbread from scratch. Make it and get their lemon curd and some cream cheese and go to town. And there was free coffee with cream, with which to swallow it down. No pressure to buy. Just bask in the love.

Fast forward to just the other day when I had time to kill and needed a little birthday gift for a dear family friend. Just inside the door there it was, a $2.99 baby daffodil plant with one beautiful open and fragrant bloom and others on the way, perfect to go with the card I already had. Of course, since I was there I had to pick up a few things. Another chocolate babka (it had been a while since I’d eaten one or watched a Seinfeld for that matter), more peppered turkey bacon, bagged organic apples (nary a dent!), bagged oranges and enormous croissants made with half a dozen ingredients, if that.

As I left with a cart carrying double bagged perfectly packed brown grocery bags, the cashier I’d seen for years sent me off with a “Take care, love” goodbye and off I went, carrying and sharing the love until I return to Trader Joe’s next time.

Why review a place that’s been here for so many years? I think I’m reviewing myself more, looking around and realizing it’s time to participate. Sharing our lenses on life and food and love is far more delicious that living inside ourselves. Because at the end of the day we all want the same things, don’t we? Like my friends have for years, these days I often trade Trader Joe’s stories and give and get new ideas on wonderful foods to choose. Would love to hear your favorites, too, so feel free to leave a comment. With love, S.