Prepare the Way, Now

The dog’s leg kept time with the music, stretching for that unreachable itch caused by winter dry skin. Two of our girls decorate the Christmas tree with a friend as the oldest skips the “festivities” to be at a sleepover. I subtly rearrange the lights on the tree after the branches fall, promising not to relive those childhood “discussions” of too many bare patches etc. Why was setting up a tree so hard in the 70s? For starters, the stand was so minuscule a seedling could not be held in that thing. And the dish was so small it had to be watered everyday. Being the smallest, I was always nominated for the job, each day shimmying on my tummy under the branches and reaching out one arm to get the measuring cup of water without poking my eye on a stray branch.  The lights brought endless torture as well, gently being pulled out of a cardboard box, in a mess of 10,000 knots. My brother performed the detangling surgery, plugged in the primary color balls, and crossed his fingers they would light. If not, John had to discover the culprit by unscrewing each bulb until the defect was found.  And the fishing wire! Stretched around the top of the tree to ensure it wouldn’t tip over (see previous sentence regarding stand). No wonder so many used fake trees.

My parents gave us an ornament each year, specifically selected according to our activities. My Mom always said it was so we wouldn’t have to buy plain glass balls and tinsel when we had our own first trees. Nursey-Tursey, purchased the year my head was cracked open getting a drink from our bird bath, is still my favorite to hang. She is cardboard felt with an army green cape trimmed in gold and hangs, not by hook, but metal wire wrapped around the branch. There is the wooden girl on a horse representing the two years I was a rider, and the one designed by my grandmother, made of cinnamon sticks tied together with plaid ribbon and a cardinal sitting on top. My girl scout troop made hundreds to sell at our church bazaar. But my favorite is the tree topper, a gold star, brought from Ethiopia by my grandfather, PopPop. No matter how frazzled the family dynamic was by the challenging tree process, we could all pause and smile as my Dad climbed the step ladder and placed the magical symbol on top.

This morning, I coerced asked my husband to help put stamps on our late Christmas cards which I had already photographed, designed, stuffed, and addressed while making soup for 18 of his coworkers and 12 teachers as well as decorate the whole house so we could share a moment of quiet during this crazy advent season. He asked if the writing on the stamp, a small yellow blur to him, went on the bottom or top. We looked at each other and laughed; we are getting old.  We have succumbed to printing address labels because your an idiot if you think the handwritten one gets appreciated more valuing the efficiency and willingness of young ones to help. I remember many trips up 95 sitting in the back of a station wagon with my mother and her 5 X 7 address cards. The collection started with her marriage, each one showing a system capturing a wealth of information. Name, wedding gift given and when the thank you was written, address -many crossed out and rewritten multiple times, and dates of years a card was sent, circled if reciprocated. Of course, many of the names were familiar but I loved coming across the ones I did not know, asking to be told of a past of which I was not part. They represent a time in my parents lives when they were fresh, two east coast preppies living in Monterey, CA. They walked to the corner of their block and watched people on the streets for entertainment. There was one friend, native to my mother’s new world, who would not go out when it rained. My Mother did not grasp the logic of a cancelled lunch until her friend explained it only rains once a month in SoCal so why risk messing up a hairstyle?  The place where my toe-head brother would ride in the grocery cart, pointing to women with stripped hair, and say: “look Mommy, they want to look like me”.  As the miles ticked by, our stack grew smaller and we began to believe the cards would be mailed on time. Occasionally her eyes would well with tears and I would demand why she was sad at a time that only means happiness and excitement to a child. I now understand.

My own address labels show the fragility of life. Some joyfully add a new last name or another child to the family. But some are edited in sadness. The removal of a husband’s name who walked out last week. Not knowing where to send my college roomie’s card because her 43 year old husband has cancer and no longer qualifies for the clinical trial after a stroke two days ago. The total inappropriateness of excluding a friend’s partner because I don’t know his last name though they have been together for ten years. Removal of the last relative in Camden who sold the family homestead last summer. And the benign removal of names or addresses of those we just don’t keep up with anymore.

It is almost a year since the heart attack. As we sit together, I silently reflect on how far we have come and yet. We still make each other crazy. We struggle over money and dreams and goals and ego and words and time and logistics and family and stress and a new refrigerator and who does more and who loves more and the leaky basement that needs to be converted to a teen room that will never be converted to a teen room and how the heart attack happened to us all. One child is in therapy, learning to process emotions and fear and math and all the other parts of growing up after experiencing a momentous event usually reserved for adults. And the other two truck along but carry a hole in their hearts of what may be. For the first time I can see, we have a chance to fill that hole with good. With Love and Hope. Just like the little baby in a manger did so long ago. Advent doesn’t really feel about waiting. Love now.

Freedom

My father’s 10 -speed is purple which always struck me as odd. In the 70s, long before men wore pink or ate quiche, their color choices were red, blue or green, maybe yellow. But my Dad’s purple bike was really fast and super cool. The skinny tires looked too narrow for balancing and the bike seat had no padding. The leather looked more like a stretched, dried-out, shoe than a place to rest a backside. The handle bars had brakes on the bottom and I never really understood why a machine would be designed to aim your glance at the road below instead of the road in front. My Dad knew the terms for the bike too like brake caliper and rear derrailleur which meant nothing more to me than the front thingy for stopping or the back thingy for easier pedaling. As the wheels gracefully spin round, he glided on the road, cutting through the air with a smile. His dismounts terrified me as he would bring both legs to one side while the bike was moving and balance one foot on one pedal until he squeezed the handle bars and jumped off without breaking stride. That bike was the first time I realized my father used to be less practical -less of a navy guy- who left each morning in uniform and returned later, unable to disclose anything from the office because it was top secret.

On this veterans day my youngest learned to ride a two-wheeler. I believe her launch was delayed because she had semi-freedom on her scooter and thus did not need to brave skinned knees or elbows in order to travel around the neighborhood. But sometimes waiting proves to be more efficient. Cheyney set out today on a bike with no training wheels and was fluent by the third try. Learning to ride is a bit counter intuitive; in order to balance, the bike must go faster than a new rider is comfortable with. And that is why the milestone is so huge. My favorite part is always watching their faces, the confidence overriding the terror and the sheer joy of doing something they once found impossible.cheyney bike

Anna, Cheyney, and I set out on the greenway today to master our new found skill. Anna coached and waited patiently while I kept Roy from herding his girls closer together. The advice we gave Cheyney to get her riding down the path sums up every life lesson I hold important. As the second, third, and fourth profound statement came out of my mouth I thought, I have to write this down. So with forgiveness to Robert Fulghum and his amazing poem about Kindergarten, Everything I need to teach my kids, I told them while riding a bike. Here they are:

1. Get Your Wheel Straight.  You will never get started, if you don’t begin by aiming where you want to go. Cheyney’s pink Barbie bike with fat white tires, never got going when the front tire was crooked. She would swerve left and right like a drunk sailor, plant her feet on the ground, and stop in frustration before every getting the pedals moving. If you don’t start in the right direction, there are too many things going haywire to ever set right. Figure out which is your best foot to start forward. Survey the path ahead of you. Check for traffic. Begin when you are ready.

2. Pedal Fast in the Beginning. Most times it is more comfortable to start things slow, like walk before you run. But a bike needs enough momentum to carry the rider over weight shifts or twigs rudely interrupting the path and over correcting mistakes. Going faster in the face of fear is the only way a bike works. Work hard, go fast, trust your strength. Then coast once momentum is on your side.

3. Don’t Look Back. Nothing makes you fall faster than looking behind you.

4. Enjoy the ride. The scenery. The wind in your face. The burning in your thighs. The speed. The independence. The freedom. Everything. Enjoy it.

5. Don’t forget to tell your Mother where you are going. Beacuse now you are free and we worry. About wipeouts, about cars, about how one day you really will be gone and won’t come back. And I know this is inevitable and what we are preparing you for but damn it hurts to watch you go.

Successories

It’s May.  I have figured out why May puts the may in MAYHEM: these end of the year events are not optional. Our kids love this stuff and they want us to love it too. You cannot skip the kindergarten animal paradeIMG_0263 or the second-grade choral recital. You cannot opt out of the two day soccer tournament or the fourth dance recital, the sports banquet and team barbecue, field day, prize day, or the umpteenth dress rehearsal. And while we celebrate all things and test all knowledge, we begin the summer routine. Afternoon swim team practices, mock meets, tennis clinics. Lord help you if you did not sign up for summer camp back in February.  Last March, I could not believe my luck when I found an art camp near my house sponsored by the city parks & rec department. It runs from 9-4, accepts all my kids ages and costs a mere $80 per child. When I jumped through the hoops of registering my family by submitting water bills and possibly a social security number, I knew for sure we would get three spots despite my delay because the process was so hard. Two days later I was notified we were numbers 76,77,and 78 on the wait list. Did I mention there are only 20 spots available to begin with?  Sometimes I wonder if A.C. Moore is competing with Lowe’s for how many trips to the same store one family can make. School projects versus yard work. Felt versus mulch. Glitter and paint take on flowers in an epic throw-down. If December becomes too much we simply say, I am going back to the reason for the season- skipping the cocktail party, cookie exchange, midnight shop-o-rama. But you cannot do this in May because it’s all about the kids. We need to support, cheer, revel, in the celebration with them.  May is pedal to the medal toward the finish line. Our kids get put on display for all they have accomplished throughout the year. u8 team photoSomewhere, someone decided to reward all our hard work with, well, more hard work. And on top of the parties that require $5 for special pizza lunch and enough memory to sign-up, purchase and then actually get 42 plastic spoons to the classroom by some magical date, our kids are being tested: projects, EOGs, AP exams. It’s a merry-go-round where the horse sends you up and down, round and round all while getting no where.

I cannot believe I have stolen a moment to view facebook in this month when all the “school wrap-up” makes Christmas look like a vacation. But two of my girls have had the throw up bug -not acceptable in May- and I have been chained to in the house for four days. As an extreme extrovert, it is hard to be home with someone who doesn’t have the energy to sit up let alone talk to me. So in order to avoid the vacuum (I don’t want the sound to disturb my patience patients)or clean out my closet, I visit with my virtual friends. And I see lots of the markings of MAYhem. I am a major culprit in this department so please do not accuse me of being judge/mental.  But these visual timelines sometimes feel like we are reinforcing the notion: we are what we do. Or worse, we are what our children do.

KIDS ARE NOT SUCCESSORIES! Kids cannot be worn on your forearm like the latest purse trend you just got off the internet. Kids are people in process. They are trying new skills, new math, and new feelings all at one time. They are tired and hot and thirsty. They are learning about falling short or making the team. They are trying to remember those reading skills they learned back in October when they were jacked up on Halloween candy. They are learning how to say sorry or how to let a friend go -either because they are moving to a new city or they are just moving on. They are molding, defining, choosing who they will become. This is huge stuff! As adults, we know life is a series of peaks and valleys, successes and failures, ends and beginnings. Of trying again or trying something new. We own our destiny. Hopefully by now we have learned the measure of who we are is not what we get in life but what we do with what we are given (thank you Marshall Waterman).  We know failure is often the beginning of something better. But sometimes, particularly in May, it feels like we are more proud of what our kids do than who they are becoming. Perhaps it’s because who they are cannot be pinned down in a photograph. Or maybe it’s because we still have so much hope for our kids and their future.DSC_0033_2

About a week ago, we were crammed into the stinky school gym like circus animals on a train. It was hot and listless and most who had a chair had a child sitting on their lap. A nice clear aisle was maintained and some of the students were sitting crisscross applesauce waiting to see their friends perform. One Dad, who was over six feet tall, decided he would have a better view for his camera if he stood in the aisle, about four rows back from the stage. Before the program began, another Dad decided to be the conscience the photographer had clearly left at home. In a not-so-nice way, he told the culprit to move to the back. When the photographer rudely dismissed the request, audience-cop stood directly in front of his screen. For a moment, we thought it was going to come to blows. This was going to be a better show than I came for! After the first song, a Mom (okay it was me) said “I can’t see my child. Would you please move?” Audience-cop shouted: “he is too stupid to move!” Now I was in the middle of the testosterone test. I said “I doubt that but it would sure be great to see my child sing.” Photographer complied and filmed from the back of the room. Crisis averted.

Sometimes we get so concerned about recording a memory, we lose the moment itself. And we lose our common decency. We opt for “been there, done that, got the tee shirt” in order to move on to the next thing. Our plates are  full and our gas tanks are empty from running around town picking up stuff and dropping off people. I am not sure how my Mom did it without a phone to tell her where and when to be or remind her what she offered to bring. As we race through May, I think about the kids who don’t have the support systems showing up for them. I wonder what summer will be like without school, where they are fed and nurtured and loved. And I feel sadness for the parents who want to be there but can’t because of a demanding job or not owning a car or being controlled by a drug habit.  Our kids are watching us as much as we are watching them.  They are seeing how to act under stress, when to let jerks be jerks, how to cram it all in, how to smile while working hard, how to be your best or when to choose good enough.IMG_0262 When to be five minutes late instead of running the red light.  They are learning where to spend their energy.

As we race from event to event, plastic spoons in hand, cameras left on the kitchen counter, remember you are not defined by your kid’s college acceptance letter. We are not defined by their arabesque, their soccer dribbling, or even by how many books they will read over the summer. Neither are the children. These are simply events to accomplish and/or enjoy. We are defined by how we treat one another and how we build community. If we don’t want our children to be embarrassed by the minivan in middle school, then we better not judge them on how big they smiled on stage. Because in a few years they will be in the driver seat, literally and figuratively. They will choose friends and media and freedom. That is what this grand show has been all about. Getting our children ready to fly in the great big world. Preparing them for mistakes without a safety net. Their success and failure will be all theirs. And we will have to make our own successories, the ones about us and the gratitude we shared. Enjoy the MAYHEM and remember to keep your eyes on the prize; not the blue ribbon, but the ones you get the privilege of watching.

 

 

Julian of Norwich

My husband was cracked open to fix his heart. His chest and leg hair shaved, holes drilled in the leg, skin sliced, and sternum sawed to get to the four pound muscle of life. And while his dry bones have been knit back together by a skilled surgeon and steel thread, the rest of us seem to be falling apart.

Yesterday I noticed soft, fine wrinkles on my cheek, creases created by a pillow. But they were there again today and now, forever. I have lost weight and hope and faith. I have found friends and love and God again. I have wailed and gnashed teeth and prayed. I have mothered and run. Written thank you notes and called my people. I have been trying to practice radical self-care. But how is there time or energy or money? I have been a single parent for three weeks now and having to do it in whispered tones. The quiet is not working and we have lashed out at one another, trying to process our pain and fear and life, leaving new scars in the process.I have not bothered with the asking of why. It does not matter to me. I cry out for the how. How do I dream again? How will I laugh or love or wait? How can I take the pain away? How do I stay kind and open to the good? My strength and energy can carry this load but I am tired and I am chasing the light, the sign of what I will become.

When the snow had melted but the girls were still home, we had tired of the outdoors. The brown mud and goosh had overtaken the crisp cold white. Coco and Anna created fluorescent cookies from play-dough. A photo-shoot ensued for Hen House linens, my girls constantly questing for fame. The colorful napkins designed by our survivor friend Katherine were placed near the art and the girls stepped outside to be in the background of the picture. As I snapped the shutter, trying to capture their vision, they began to hug one another outside. A casual arm draped over the shoulder, a kiss on the cheek and a smile. Laughter and goofiness and love was uncovered and shared –a sliver of hope breaking through the crack of our hearts. And I pressed the button as fast as I could, wanting to make this fleeting moment of love permanent. It ended as quickly as it began. But the hope remained. And the tiniest of hymns cracked through the fuzz of my head: “Love like a yellow daffodil coming through the snow. Love like a yellow daffodil is Lord of all I know. Ring out bells of Norwich and let the winter go. All will be well again I know.”

Girl Scout Camping

Camping

When I was a girl scout in fifth -grade, my troop went camping. Our leader, Mrs. Condon, an army wife back from tour in Germany, had camped with her family all over Europe and wanted us to have the experience. In the meetings leading up to the trip, we prepared. We made sit-upons out of newspaper and shower curtains: mine was a textured opalescent pink, threaded together by royal blue yarn. We learned how to detect poisonous plants, hike without stepping on snakes, wash dishes in a mess line to minimize our water and detergent impact. We were taught to hang our provisions from a tree so bears or varmints would not have access to our supplies. In the woods, we were required to carry our water container everywhere we went. I borrowed my older brother’s tin canteen, with the screw top lid attached by chain. It had two dents on the side where he had dropped it years before and a long canvas strap that crossed over my chest. The water stayed cold and crisp, the contents shockingly refreshing.

I am in my own wilderness now, staying alert for snakes and bears and things that give me a rash. The only place I find peace is outside, in nature, among trees and wind. It is there I know I cannot control a damn thing. I am not responsible for decisions or strength or driving. I can breathe and release my thoughts that have knotted around my brain and heart. I am made to feel small but part of something big.
We have a reusable grocery bag stuffed to the top with get-well cards for Greg that arrived from all over the world. We have a calendar coordinating meals and visits and errands, an army of people dying to help. And we have a congregation praying and loving and carrying on. The problem is not in finding help; it is in accepting it, of being the person in need. My days tiptoe the tight-rope of strength for my family and desperate sadness for myself. We have all had our hearts broken open and worked on. As God slowly knits us back together, I will sit and drink and ask to be open.

The Bridge to Nowhere

The voice from the wall of TVs bounced off a linoleum floor, creating an echo of manufactured sound. As my 10 year old and I weave through the aisles of Target’s electronic section, I began to feel depressed. She was insistent on buying a friend a “Call of Duty” game for her birthday. I had casually said ok to this a few days before, feeling sure we could come up with something more creative, more personal, more interactive, more…anything.

When I saw the cover, and the price, I had no problem saying no. We (I) will not purchase this game. I will not support video violence or the glory of war or the disconnect between shooting something through a screen. But that is another blog.

Coco’s response came without words. Rather the glare of her eyes conveyed her disappointment and disgust. She was telling me I had become outdated, a fuddyduddy; a person out of touch and irrelevant. I remember converting my own mother to this status. I was younger and it was 1977. Dorothy Hamill had won an Olympic gold medal and the heart of every young girl in America. Like many in my kindergarten class, I chopped my hair to look just like hers. Really it was a glorified bowl cut requiring a curling iron to finish the ends. While shopping with my mother, I noticed “Dorothy Hamill Shampoo” which of course I needed to perfect my look. My mother refused to waste the money so I staged a sit-in right there in aisle 7 of the store. My mother, always sensible and strong, left me there to finish her shopping. Once her purchases were complete, she  came back to see if I was coming home with her or staying with the comfort a bottle of shampoo could provide. It was lunchtime so I begrudgingly headed to the green station wagon, defeated and annoyed. She didn’t get it, never would.

What I didn’t realize was she did know. She knew what it was like to put hope in a product only to be denied access or worse yet, disappointed by it’s failure to live up to the marketing promises. What my mother was subtly teaching me was to trust in myself. It didn’t feel like that at the time but looking back I can see she was showing me I am so much more than what I buy or what my hair looks like.

And thank God she did. Because middle school and magazines and society have been trying to beat this lesson out of me for 37 years. Don’t get me wrong, I like things. They are shiny and fun and pretty. I made a career out of marketing. I like fashion and style and I firmly believe in a need to express oneself through these attributes. But if you put too much stock in these things, you will end up losing your own compass.

Today I found a quote from Lupito Nyong’o of 12 Years a Slave from before her Oscar win. It sums up everything I want to teach my girls. It is everything I want to live and embrace and surround myself with. It is why Nyong’o can win an Oscar in the first role she has ever played on the big screen. It is Truth. Here is the link to the whole speech but what she speaks to is the lesson on beauty her own mother taught her. She says: “You can’t eat beauty. It doesn’t feed you. Beauty is not a thing you can acquire or consume. It is something you have to be. What actually sustains us is compassion.”

That is what my mother was saying to me in aisle 7. And that is what I am trying to say to Coco in the electronics department and every other day of the year. If not buying a war game means your won’t be cool, then so be it. If speaking up for yourself makes you unpopular, oh well. If our family rules don’t align with others, you can blame me. It may have been more eloquent if I had a british accent for delivery.

Coco and I ended up purchasing the movie Pitch Perfect and some candy for her friend. There are some swear words in it and I think one character is recovering from bulimia. I wish we had put more effort into finding something less generic, something with more of a soul. At least this choice has a cappella singing and the story comes full circle on an over-controlling Queen Bee who gives way to creativity. It was a step in the right direction.

I know my daughter is convinced I am sabotaging her ability to be cool. I vacillate between having principals and being tired. Will my “No” make a difference in the kind of people I raise? Hopefully. Perhaps one day they will see they aren’t road blocks but stepping stones. I don’t begin to think she will thank me. But she may, eventually, understand why.

Like Sands through the Hour Glass…

By 8:15 this morning we were off kilter. School had been cancelled the night before do to a forecast of snow. I wrote notes for the girls, knowing they would wake with a start and the grumps, angry I had not allowed enough time for some mind sucking television. I was hoping to start the day right, to pretend we were normal for 30 minutes. That waking to our new reality did not have to be a dramatic situation. It didn’t work.

While there was no school, there was also no snow. It was cold and grey, the sky pregnant with promise, but no guarantees. We had family in town and volunteers lined up to help. By 9:15 we were all staring at each other. Dunkin Donuts had run out of munchkins and Cheyney declared a hunger strike as determined as Ghandi. In an effort to stay ahead of the day, I tossed Greg’s pants in with Cheyneys sheets, a daily occurrence as she tries to end the pull-up trend. While I removed the belt and searched the pockets, I did not look carefully enough and placed Greg’s phone in the washer with the rest of the bundle. He kindly announced my oversight as I mumbled to myself one should empty their own pockets before placing pants in the hamper. As I stormed out of the house, two children yelled at me and Greg inquired where I was going. “Out” I replied. I felt like a rebellious teenager, armed with a car and attitude screaming get me the hell away from all this that pulls me down.

I circled the regular route wondering where I could park my angry self for a day at the “office”. Since I had already purchased coffee with the donut debacle, I could not stop at my usual haunts. For the second time in a week, I found myself in the public library parking lot. While I searched for a spot, I noticed mothers with children and bags filled with books. I had stumbled upon toddler story time and began to weep.

When we moved to Raleigh 10 years ago, my one child was less than a year old. As my husband set out to work each day, as his own boss with his own parish, I stayed home for the first time since maternity leave. I unpacked boxes and arranged furniture, wondering when I would make a friend, find the perfect park, create my new routine. Somehow I found story time and  it became our first regular thing in Raleigh. Sue-Kitty started each week with the same songs about A for Alligator and D for when we all sat down. Coco named her this because of the puppet she used each week, carefully hidden in a basket until the stories were over. Kitty would pop her head out to signal “stamp time” and the children would line up, arms extended and wrists exposed, to see what mark would be left on them. We never missed a week and often stayed at the library for 2 hours, browsing and reading, spending time together because we had nothing else to do. When Anna arrived a year later it became more challenging to arrive on time or stay after but somehow we were still regulars. By the time Cheyney was born, our schedule did not mesh up and we rarely made it to Sue Kitty’s class. Her temperament wasn’t quite right for the quiet solitude reading required, still isn’t. Gradually our names and faces faded from the librarians vernacular just as I had in college. My freshman year I was on a first name basis with Pulitzer Prize winning professors  but did not know who I would ask for a grad school recommendation four years later. The distance gradually built up in baby steps. As the Moms struggled to hold hands with their children crossing the parking lot, I was reminded me of simpler times and problems.

How did I get here? A working mother of three -with a husband recovering from bypass surgery – who storms out of the house leaving everyone to sort it out for themselves? One step at a time I suppose. I feel trapped between the kindness of friends who long to comfort and the cold aloneness of no longer fitting in. Of wanting to be part of the happy but not being able to step both feet in. Of knowing that even if things feel okay for 10 minutes it is only because I am too scattered to remember the hell I am living. The kids have lashed out, mostly at me (who else is there?), saying I am stupid and the worst and slamming doors and kicking and screaming. They fight over who has been in the bathtub longer, who gets to use the hairbrush first, who picks the show. I know this is misdirected fear. I feel the exact same way. I don’t want to be living this either. For the first time in my life, I want to go backward not forward. I want to pretend none of this happened and that the rest of our lives will not be forever changed. But the only way out is through. And I suppose that is how we will get out of it, one step at a time.

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