Happy Halloween

 

Austin

“If you knew that your life was merely a phase or short, short segment of your entire existence, how would you live? Knowing nothing ‘real’ was at risk, what would you do? You’d live a gigantic, bold, fun, dazzling life. You know you would. That’s what the ghosts want us to do – all the exciting things they no longer can.”  Chuck Palahniuk

I took the picture in the Oakwood Cemetery, Austin, TX.

Santa Made Me This Way

IMG_3285

Last night, before bed, I overheard a commercial on TV for a lighting company reminding me that it was time to schedule an appointment for my holiday decorating needs. The suggestion sounded like a glass splintering on concrete after having been inadvertently knocked off the counter.

In my house no one is allowed to say the word Ch******s until after Thanksgiving. I don’t take before-pre-season advertisements for holiday lighting needs well. It’s not that I’m not celebratory, I am.  I don’t have a problem with any other holiday except for Ch******s.

If I’m to place blame, it was Santa’s fault.

When my first child, Leo, was born I didn’t give Santa a second thought. I happily suited up. My husband doesn’t have any strong seasonal leanings and did not harbor a secret desire to learn the Santa trade. It was a solo venture that started out with tremendous enthusiasm.

At about age five, Leo began asking questions about the man who entered our home and left presents. At first I squirmed and affirmed his existence but eventually came clean and revealed the woman behind the Ho Ho Ho.

Leo did not take it well. He didn’t care that Santa wasn’t real, he had that already figured that out. It mattered to him that I had lied.

Eli was a baby at the time and I had to choose whether or not to continue with the Santa charade. I decided to re-package Santa as a symbol of wonderment, gratitude, and generosity. I wasn’t going to lie. Instead, I was vague and confusing as I spoke of this half-man, half-symbol.

A contrary skeptic from birth, Eli never bought my Santa-Symbol-Being. As long as there were filled stockings, cookies and presents, he was good to go. Meanwhile, my holiday spirit was fading like a Santa suit in the sun.

It wasn’t until two years later when my twin girls were born that my Santa dilemma took on a new urgency. When their first Christmas came around, the feminist in me could not serve up to my daughters the notion that an old, fat, white guy came down the chimney and gave them presents because they were GOOD.

No way!

Here’s the rub. The girls really wanted to believe in Santa. They wanted the whole shebang. So very reluctantly, I kept one leg in the suit while continuing to be vague and confusing. This time, though, I was way more grumpy about the situation.

Finally, to my delight, I began hearing Santa push back from the girls in 2nd grade. There were rumors at school that the whole thing was parent run. I jumped on it and spilled the beans.

They didn’t care. They had been listening to my Santa rants since they were little so they were not surprised.

I have been living Santa-free for the better part of eight years so you’d think I would have re-embraced the holiday season.  In earnest, I’ve tried to establish new family traditions by stressing the importance of experiences over stuff and adding more volunteer time to the calendar, but my heart is just not in it. My teenagers have decided that our family’s lack of holiday cheer is my fault.

Of course, they look right past Santa, and blame the mother.

You can imagine how surprised I was when I saw my first flicker of holiday hope this past summer. Leo gave me a glimpse of a future that I never considered. His girlfriend’s mother is a holiday dream come true – better than any Santa.

And she is real!

She embraces and is successful at all things Ch******s and entertaining. She is sophisticated and creates interesting and delicious events that people admire and want to attend!

It doesn’t stop there.

She has a catering business on the side, just because she loves to cook, AND has a professional kitchen in her basement. She’s an accomplished tablescaper (a word that I didn’t even know existed until this summer) and an expert on French food and wine.

My son has been to her house in Chicago and has verified it all.

Who knew that the cure to my holiday brokenness may actually come through my children, the very people who let Santa into our house. I have four kids, so the odds are pretty good that one of them will eventually partner with someone whose mom, or dad, wants to be in charge of the holidays.

I will gladly be the in-law who gives all the holidays over to my kid’s partner’s parents. They can invite me or not, that’s their choice. Just don’t make me put up another ch******s tree.

My son and his girlfriend are both so young and are just finishing college and beginning their lives. I obviously do not want to pressure either of them, but if I had my way and willed my selfish-not-so-normal holiday fantasy into being, they would get married tomorrow  …  before the holidays

I took the picture at the Blue Santa Parade, Austin, TX.

Planting a Winter Garden

IMG_8326

A Texas winter garden is an odd collection of delicate leafy greens and weather-hearty root vegetables like carrots, turnips, and beets. There’s also cabbages, brussels sprouts, and broccoli, who like the more delicate salad bowl greens, do not care for the heat, but are far more capable in the cold.

Maybe it’s the New Englander in me who grew up with turnips and the like, but I think of root vegetables as my kindred spirits in the garden. I tend to be drawn to those with not so obvious treasures.

It’s not hard to be radiant rainbow chard, prolific arugula, or tender lettuce showing off in the tamed, affectionate October sun. They remind me of youth and fade fast when faced with minor fluctuations in temperature.

The root vegetables are more like the later decades of life. They soak up the same soothing sun but with practical, more industrious looking leaves.

Their business is inward as tri-colored carrots drill deep into the soil; purple collared, moonlight white turnips nestle and grow round; and beets, with their earthy redness, lay waiting, painterly, to stain finger and lips.

The picture is of the garden I planted this weekend at Sunshine Community Gardens

Note:  I haven’t written much over the last four months. Our summer was about integrating a long-awaited closure with many beginnings. My silence was a needed stillness to reboot and figure out our new operating system.

Tiger Cub in the Museum

a story that ends with everything that you need to know about parenting

DSCN4201

We moved from Austin to Minneapolis when I was six months pregnant with our first child, Leo, who is now a junior in college. He was born the day before Thanksgiving as the snow began to fall.  It didn’t take me long to realize that I needed to find indoor escapes to survive the dark arctic months with a new baby, and as a recent transplant, a limited friend list.

We lived in a neighborhood called the Wedge, in a second floor duplex near the Minneapolis Institute of Art. The museum immediately became my go-to place to take Leo.  I’ve always loved art museums, as much, if not more, for the building and their sublime interior spaces.

The Institute is a stunning merger of the original neoclassical building with several minimalistic expansions. All visitors pass through a huge open entrance that connects the historic with the modern.

The space is a perfect balance of clean lines, beautiful wide-stepped staircases, and an enormous wall of windows showcasing the Minneapolis skyline in the distance. Because it’s the transitional area between the galleries, there’s a collage of works from various cultures and periods. The normal museum rules don’t apply. It’s designed as a place to meet and talk.

As Leo got older and began walking we sometimes would never leave this entrance. For hours, I would follow him up and down the stairs. He would run around the protected statutes and pause to watch people across the street in the park.

Leo was like a tiger cub, cute and playful when he was baby, but then his need for stimulation became almost insatiable. By the time he was two it was becoming apparent that he needed to be out in the wild with his big paws and newfound strength and volition.

I can remember exactly what he was wearing on the day that he outgrew the museum: red thick sweatpants, a horizontally striped shirt of primary colors, and wide square-looking velcro sneakers with the same bright pattern.

Matthew and I had taken Leo to the Institute on a cranky Sunday morning. It had been snowing for days and the museum was particularly quiet. Leo was fidgety but started his usual routine of climbing the stairs while singing and talking to himself.

I noticed he had a look that I didn’t quite recognize. He wandered over toward the entrance into the modern wing. Matthew and I were leaning against the wall of windows. I looked over and immediately identified what previously I could not name. In real time, my tiger cub transformed into a bull.

This is when my memory goes into slow motion.

Leo returned my stare and I swear his nostrils flared. He started running full speed, with all the pent-up frustration that he brought with him to the museum. Hands out straight in front of him, he was heading toward the wall length canvas on the other side of the room. I don’t remember the artist but it was one of those towering Rothko-esque pieces. The visual that remains in my mind is of a candy apple red rectangle baiting the approaching bull.

Matthew and I pierced the silence with our screaming pleas for him to stop, but our feet felt paralyzed. The guard in the corner was equally stuck to the floor, his mouth open. The three of us glanced at each other and then back at Leo on his determined course.

He never slowed down, not for a moment.  He was a blur of color bolting across the room toward the perfect stillness of the equally colorful canvas. We all knew that he was going to make contact. My pulse quickened, with the certainty that our financial ruin would begin that morning.

Fear gave me magnifying vision that zoomed in on his chubby, sweaty toddler hands as they hit the painting about four inches from the bottom. I saw the canvas give and then shut my eyes. The contact was so powerful that Leo was knocked back and staggered, but the bull did not fall.

Matthew, the guard, and I had finally unglued our feet and were kneeling next to Leo, scanning the painting for damage.

Nothing.

No holes. No indentations. No grimy hand prints. I was waiting for alarms to ring and an army of museum secret service to swarm, all the while worrying that the painting might still explode or fall off the wall in an aftershock.

Nothing.

The guard half-heartedly admonished us and let us leave without filing a report or even taking our names. There was an unspoken mutual relief at our miraculous good fortune.

It’s hard to believe that moment was twenty years ago. It has become the anchoring reference point for our extensive, and growing, list of ridiculous parenting situations. What we didn’t know at the time was that the incident at museum captured everything we ever needed to know about parenting but took two decades to learn.

Each child comes into this world with a unique temperament and plan of their own.

Control is an illusion.

Your children will do and say things that that you can never prepare for or fully understand.

The best we can do as parents is to shout out directions from the sidelines–sometimes your kids will hear you, but most often not.

You have to be willing to improvise when helping to pick up the pieces, even when you’re scared.

Mercifully, most of the close calls are just that, and there’s the gift of another day with another chance to get it right.

Limbo

IMG_6599

On the rare occasions when I travel alone, I’m reminded of how much I love airports. I don’t mind the endless sitting and waiting. It’s not in my nature, but I actually welcome the chance to be still.

I’m most content with a full schedule, and usually found in motion or on a mission. I have never been good at resting, sleeping, or relaxing. Travel is my secret limbo where I allow myself to slow down. A place where I do not hold myself accountable to the tyrannical voice in my head that tells me to keep going.

My maternal grandparents lived just a few hours away by the ocean, and my dad’s parents had a summer place on Lake George. It made it so that every family vacation was a drive, not a flight, away.

I never went on an airplane, nor even visited an airport, until I was fourteen years old.

It’s hard to imagine these days, but I grew up in an era where most people travelled when they were old.  If you were fortunate and planned well, travel was the highlight of the last stage of life that began after the gold watch and a retirement party.

My first flight took me to St. Simons, Georgia, to visit both sets of grandparents who were wintering in the same complex. I was in eighth grade, the last year of my bleak middle school run. I was that odd kid, the one that hovered on the outside ring and was picked-on more often than not.

I was underwhelmed  that the ticket was just a piece of paper. I had envisioned a golden ticket like the one that let Charlie into the Chocolate Factory.  My disappointment was soon replaced; as the fasten seat belt sign dinged off and the smokers lit up, I remember thinking that flying was what a fresh start felt like.

It was then that I knew I could choose to go anywhere and begin again.

Big things happen on the edges of airports – lovers reunite, grandparents meet grandbabies, business people put on the hustle, and vacationers and students come and go.  But once past the ticketed-passengers-only gate we become equals, souls suspended, hovering just above real life, in travel limbo. We are not attached to anything more than what we can put in a suitcase, and for a brief respite, we’ll soon be a mile above the world’s problems.

It’s the spontaneous conversations that occur while waiting to board that I like best. If you are sitting next to me and you want to talk, I will gladly be witness to your story. I’m the person who really does wants to see the picture of your cat, the kids, or your garage remodel.  When I’m traveling alone, I have the time and I’m truly interested.

Every once in a while I’m surprised with a confessional conversation that can only happen when you travel solo. The ones that occur on long evening flights. Except for the sporadic halos of light beaming down on the crowns of a few readers’ heads, the cabin is dark and most of the passengers are asleep.

It’s then when you discover that you’re serendipitously seated next to a person who could be a best friend if they lived in your city. You and your new limbo friend have to cram a lifetime of conversation in before you land.

What’s said in travel limbo, stays in travel limbo.

Of course most of the time when I travel, I quietly read and don’t bother anyone. Even then, just the notion of sitting alone among a plane full of strangers, being served terrible coffee and tomato juice, while flying through the air in a metal tube is thrill enough. It never gets old for me.

On my most recent flight alone, our plane was the last to land that evening. We were the only people walking through the terminal gate area, transitioning through the final hushed moments of travel limbo.  I turned to take the elevator down to the curbside and was jolted by the light and all people waiting to be picked up, like baggage on the carousel.

In an instant, I was no longer in limbo.

Almost four decades separate me from my middle school misery, but I’ve never lost my initial reverence for the curative nature of a plane flight. Today travel is less escapist and more of a dive into the present, an exercise that holds the limitless potential of new people and places, the kind that gave me hope on that first flight to Georgia.


I took the photo on my most recent flight from Grand Rapids, Michigan to Austin, Texas.

https://daysinthefifities.com/2013/12/28/day-fifty-sleep/

A Life Is Like A Garden

IMG_6446

Leonard Nimoy’s final Twitter posting last week read, “A life is like a garden, perfect moments can be had, but not preserved, except in memory.”

This morning I thought about his tweet as I pulled weeds in the cold mist, feeling the freezing mud soak through my gloves. To me it sounds like a summary statement of eighty-three years of living rather than instructions on how to live.

The day’s harvest of beets, kale, and brussels sprouts, the hardy show-offs of the winter garden, lay on my cement bench. The warm decay from the compost pile rose up, making itself visible in the light drizzle. The chickens, more vocal than usual, were complaining that they’re ready for spring.

A perfect moment.

A garden is at peace with time’s passage. Winter vegetables will bolt and wither as gardeners dream of summer tomatoes, again and again. Each cycle is unique, the victories and the disappointments, and the hard work in between.  Life will push through the soil whether a garden is tended to, or not.

Something will grow.

To plant, or not.

To cultivate, or not.

To look for and embrace those perfect moments, or not.

Something will grow.

 

DIY Lent

IMG_6415

I grew up wedding-and-funeral Episcopalian in a predominately Catholic small town in the northeast.  More than anything I wanted to go to catechism with my friends and get in on the mysterious spiritual goodies that I imagined being doled out every Wednesday after school. I wanted the rituals, the Friday night fish dinners, and the white confirmation dress.

Although as an adult, I’m not a practicing anything, each year I find myself designing a homemade, DIY version of Lent.  I’m drawn to the story of Jesus having to wrestling his demons, literally and figuratively, alone in the desert for forty days to find the clarity and strength to go forward with his purpose.

Most religions have a prescribed season for spiritual re-booting. Lent promises redemption if we can embrace and accept our mortality.  It’s the ultimate, no-frills, badass instruction guide on how to be human and find our best selves through our weaknesses. Jesus was not a wimp.

The season arrives on the calendar just as my lofty, good-intentioned New Year’s resolutions fade. The new year promises a quick fix while Lent is the real deal – transformation through disciplined action.

I believe that true freedom, not the mindless kind that comes with passivity or the jagged edge from defiance, can only develop with discipline. It’s about confronting duality to find balance.

Too often I’m like a fish jumping at every bait that dangles above the water – habits, teenage drama, the internet, even happiness. We all know the feeling of twisting and flailing on the line, hook-in-the-cheek caught.

Prayer, fasting, and service – the traditional pillars of Lent – provide a container to hold my wandering attention span. There’s a nurturing austerity inherent in the season that helps me filter the distractions of everyday life.  I ask myself to make changes, to look within, to try something different, to think about my purpose in the the context of my mortality.

This year my desert is the Oakwood Cemetery. Dating back to the 1850s, it sprawls out over forty acres on the east side with a view of downtown. It’s the resting place of paupers and city founders alike. It’s on my route to the kids’ school.

After drop off, I drive into the cemetery, park the car, and look out toward the capitol and at the cranes that are building new spaces for the living. I sit, usually for ten minutes or so, and think about that fine line between life and death.

I’ve been terrified of death my entire life.  Ironically my father’s dementia has made me less afraid.  When I watch him dissolve away slowly, I realize that I need to be careful about how tightly I hold on to my own story, much of which researchers tell us is distorted and fabricated in our minds.  My father has shown me that the story of the Self is an illusion, and when it fades, all that’s left is the soft animal, a human being who will die.

My prayer and meditating this DIY Lent is about learning to live fully in celebration of the finite experience of being human.  It’s a committed, day-to-day effort that requires gratitude, moderation, and insight.  My fasting takes the form of not giving in to the fearful, toxic thoughts. I want to build each day from a foundation of kindness, patience and community.  If I can manage to do so, more days than not, then my story will take care of itself.

 

I took the photo last week where I park in the Oakwood Cemetery

 

The Raison Stage

Bunch of grapes and raisins

“First you start out like a grape, small and sour, like a whiny three year old, then you get bigger and bigger, and juicier and juicier. When you are juicy enough, you start growing into the raisin stage. The raisin stage isn’t so bad. You are wrinkly but sweet and then you are made into an oatmeal cookie and it’s all over.” –  My daughter Lila’s Raison Theory of Life

Fifty-one looks like a scary number. I’ve been barreling toward my birthday with all the genuine optimism I can muster. I know I’m surrounded with so many blessings. I truly feel it.

However, with less than a month to ground zero I’m starting to lose my enthusiasm. Fifty-one. The word makes me grimace. It sounds old.

I’m having one of those days where I willingly pile a lifetime of regrets, wasted days, faded loves, squandered opportunities, and loss on my chest like heavy stones. I can’t breathe.

So much stupidity. Not enough courage. Days I can’t get back. People I can’t touch.

I will rally. But for this moment I take a certain comfort in laying under the stones. I want to hold on to them, feel their heaviness, and remember every mistake, misstep and careless gesture.

The weight is a summons to live purposefully. To have more courage. To find the acceptance to leave the stones on the ground and not burden what’s left.

To live the sweetness.

 

Another Minivan, Please

P1000364

When I was a newly minted parent, living in downtown Minneapolis, I balked at minivan ownership. I thought that it was much more hip to drive our old Tercel that didn’t have heat. During the winter, which is all year long in Minnesota, we used to dress Leo as if we were going on an arctic mission to get to his daycare. Many mornings we had ice on the inside windshield and we could see our breath as we drove to work.

Nothing says hip like frostbite.

Today I consider my minivan my mobile home. It has seen me through four kids’ activities, sports, road trips, and general family upkeep and maintenance. It’s part living room, garden shed, confessional, dressing area, study hall, storage unit and kitchen. Everyone talks about the importance of eating meal togethers; well, in our family much of that necessary togetherness takes place in the minivan.

I was expecting to own one, ONLY ONE, minivan.  I planned to drive it until the last day of my pre-college parenting duties and park it next to the empty nest. Like cinderella’s carriage, it would turn into a biodegradable pumpkin overnight, or a Volvo C30 hatchback.

The minivan had other plans.  On a return trip from Houston after celebrating my twin nieces’ third birthday the minivan sputtered at a stoplight on the feeder road. It had been showing signs of decline before the trip, but surely with a little duct tape and WD40 it would drive me across the finish line.

I’m fifty, I understand wear and tear.

We did what all non-mechanical people do – opened the hood and jiggled tubes and cables. Our low-tech placebo seemed to resolve the issue, until the next stoplight, when we saw smoke. I’ll skip over the hours of sitting on the side of I-10 while mulling over our options with the helpful people at AAA.

If you believe in divine intervention, the powers-that-be wanted us to have another minivan. We learned from the kind voice on the other end of our AAA lifeline that we were less than a half mile from the Honda dealership in Katy and, better yet,  the first mile of towing was free.

Matthew, our two daughters, and I all smushed into the cab of the tow truck and the burly talkative mechanic brought us and our broken minivan to the dealership. It only took minutes to get the scrap-heap terminal diagnosis.

Three hours had passed since the beginning of the end of our minivan. It was now six-thirty in the evening and we needed to get back to Austin to our dogs and Sunday night homework.

Matthew and I had a quick huddle. We told the salesman that we would trade in the old van and buy another if he could do it in an hour – seriously.  No bullshit, just sell us a minivan and let us get on down the road.

We were minivan refugees and didn’t care what they threw at us. We were going to be tougher.

My husband is a math genius so he quickly won the wonky financial back-room shell game. He’s barnacle stubborn and actually likes reading the fine print. I gave the girls permission to do gymnastics in the long hall of the waiting area and agreed to their request to drink the coffee in the hospitality station. We did our best to be polite and respectful but we really needed to get home.

We said please.

We were shown the only three minivans on the lot that met our specifications. The first was metallic navy blue, the second was white with same color interior and looked like a giant wheeled marshmallow, and the third was the most hideous shade of bodily fluid brown. Ninety minutes later we were driving our metallic navy blue minivan into the night toward Austin.

It wasn’t an hour but pretty darn close.  

 

The photo was taken in Galveston, years back, in our first minivan. My son is running after us as his friend, Quinlin, races me to the beach.

Just Another Morning

IMG_5885

3:37 am

The dogs are scratching at the back door and poised, once again, to pursue the possum family who lives under our shed. It’s a good deal for the dogs, all the challenge of a wildlife encounter and yet the game is rigged and they always win. Otis, sweetly dim, doesn’t understand his role in the ever-looping possum death-and-resurrection act. Opal, the brains of the pair, has it figured out and is still an eager participant in the nightly ritual.

I’m prepared for the predictability of their canine missions because I wake up at 3:20am more nights than not. It’s the exact time of my last night feeding when I nursed our twins. It doesn’t matter that it was twelve years ago, my body still remembers.

3:52 am

The dogs’ storming of the backyard cues our dieting orange cat to lumberingly leap up on to our bed. She begins kneading my belly while practicing for the world’s loudest purring contest. She wants food and her face rubbed.

4:20 am

My husband, Matthew, decides to come to bed. He can sleep anywhere at anytime, on command. This sleep superpower allows him to keep odd hours and often he works late into the night. It’s like a parade coming through our bedroom. His toothbrushing process is unexplainably noisy and bright. The dogs burst into our room and immediately remember the menacing possums.

Thirty seconds later, utilizing his sleep superpower, Matthew is in a deep slumber and I’m awake, waiting to let the dogs back in the house. Eventually, the dogs scratch to come in and curl up on their bed next to us. They also have Matthew’s sleep superpower.

I’m a fragile sleeper. Ideally I need blackhole-like darkness and silence, as well as a constant room temperature of sixty-eight degrees. I found my perfect sleep environment only once. It was on a cruise ship, of all places.  Surprisingly, my tiny room at the bottom of the ship hit every one of my sleep metrics and added another to the list.  A gentle hammock-like rocking is now another must have for my sleep utopia.

4:30 am

I remember that my daughter’s jeans are still wet in the washer and decide that I better get up and start the dryer so she doesn’t suffer another mother-induced fashion nightmare. Yes, she is in middle school. I make coffee and feed our ravenous dieting cat. There are a few dishes to finish from last night and I catch up on emails. It’s quiet, dark and cold so I should be sleeping but I’ve had too much coffee.

5:30 am

I continue to putter and start on my to-do list. This is the calmest, most productive part of my day and the only moment when I’m not surrounded by animals and people.

5:50 am

I’m instinctively fidgety because my body knows what’s coming. It’s time to rouse the three teenagers sleeping upstairs which begins our daily version of the Jerry Springer show. Each of my children wakes tired, argumentative, and usually mad at me for a reason yet to be discovered. One of our daughters is ridiculously organized and driven crazy by her twin sister whose optimal morning functioning hovers at feral. The feral child’s morning routine has me yelling, marine-sergeant-style, at every turn in the process.

Our fifteen-year-old son gets up eight minutes before we pile into the car. He and I argue every morning about him cutting it too close. More often than not he’s the first kid ready. He sits on the couch, the victor, waiting and gloating.

The rest is a blur of breakfast choice complaining, signing papers I don’t read, a million items lost and mostly found, and bad lunch-making reviews. It all comes to a crescendo with me hollering out the countdown to the minivan’s departure.

Matthew is up now and has words of sunshine and happiness for the kids as they finish loading their backpacks. Somehow he is always the good guy. He’s miraculously rested after his micro-nap. In contrast, my head is spinning as the kids exchange last minute barbs and we push through the front door.

6:55 am

The minivan pulls away from the curb while the automatic side door is still closing. Our organized daughter continues her lecture on my soft, ineffective parenting style. After a few merciful miles into the drive, the girls find their way to a truce and recap yesterday’s lunchroom conversation.  Eli, sitting in the passenger seat, informs me that now that he’s taken Driver’s Ed he realizes that I’m a terrible driver and that if he was a cop he would follow me around all day and give me tickets.

7:18 am

I drop off the kids and breathe deeply in the splendor of my empty minivan. I spend the drive back home thinking about ways to tweak our morning routine to go more smoothly.  All my analysis and best plans don’t have a chance. Animals, teenagers and parents of teenagers are not rational beings and time management theories do not apply to this stage of life.

My twenty-one-year-old son serves as the light at the end of the tunnel. As a teenager, he was just as surly and pushed back with as much gusto. Today he is a well-adjusted, functioning young adult who actually likes my husband and me. Resigned to five more years of morning anarchy, I remind myself that kinder, awake teenagers will return home this afternoon.

 

I took the photo at Graffiti Park, Austin, TX.

 

The Walk-In Fridge

refrigerated-backroom

I visualize January 1st as a doorway with heavy vinyl strips in the entrance like the kind you see in a professional walk-in refrigerator. During my teens and early twenties I worked at a lot of restaurants. The walk-in fridge was like a sanctuary behind the chaos in the kitchen. I would push through the tentacle-like tangle of plastic and stand still, surrounded by crates of food and a perfect coolness.

It was a dramatic difference from the hustle and sweatiness of waiting tables – a rare moment to pause while getting those little creams in plastic containers for the set-up station.

My younger self envisioned a more poetic threshold to the new year, one imbued with magical powers. I fantasized that January 1st would erase all my idiosyncrasies that kept me from my long list of yet-to-be-accomplished goals. I would become a different person, my best self.

My practical, walk-in fridge version of New Year’s Day came to me in my late forties and I’ve stuck to it ever since.  Today I see January 1st as a sanctuary behind the choas in my mind.  It’s a space to pause, figure out what I need for my set-up station, and then back to hustle and sweatiness of real life.

There are three guidelines to the Walk-in Fridge New Year’s Day:

One: You’re the same person before and after the walk-in.

I use the moment to embrace my totality and not annihilate my very being. I’m never going to completely rid myself of procrastination, Peanut M&Ms, or quick boredom. Whether it’s physical or mental, I try to spend less time thinking about what I can’t fix. From this perspective it’s easier to muster my good intentions and energy to make a couple of changes that I can truly achieve. I’ve learned to work with my positive attributes and not come from a place of deficit.

Two: Pick just a few things to bring back to your set-up station.

Think of the changes that you want to make as assets that will eventually make your set-up station better. Use your time in the walk-in wisely – lovingly pick the items that you REALLY need to bring back with you. If you need more salad dressing don’t bring back lemon wedges. Choose only a couple of items. If you overload yourself, you will drop everything.

Three: Once you leave the walk-in, the work is hard.

It’s been a long reckoning for me but I have come to the conclusion that discipline and stick-to-it-ness are the keys to life. It sounds boring and punitive but I have found it liberating. Showing up for your life will get you three-fourths of the way to your goal.

The only way I can sustain focus is through simple mindfulness. Again, sounds easy but it’s hard work. When I’m being mindful about how I treat other people and how I take care of my body and emotions, my life just goes better.

Ultimately change is an inside job. If you can make one modification in 2015, have it be that you treat yourself like an ally and not an enemy. Be kind to yourself while you are working hard. And remember, it doesn’t have to be January 1st to go back into the perfect coolness of the walk-in to pause and regroup.

Progress not perfection.

You Can’t Go Home Again, But You Can Visit

IMG_5266

Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.  ― Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again

Most of the time I feel like an expatriate without a homeland.  My life has been divided right down the middle, with the first twenty-five years in New England and New York City and the second half in Austin with a three-year spawning hiccup in Minneapolis.

I don’t feel like a New Englander or a Texan.  I’m an Inbetweener.

It’s not a bad thing. I find the lack of attachment to place liberating. Up until the time I married Matthew, almost twenty-three years ago, I was a chronic geographic Houdini. When we meet, I was months away from a move to Alaska.  Back in those days, a spontaneous change of scenery could fix just about anything.

Slip away, no goodbyes, and off to a new life.

It’s been over two decades since I’ve disappeared to somewhere new, but that doesn’t mean the urge has left. It’s just under the surface. To this day, I think about escape plans like other people play word jumbles or crossword puzzles.  I have a brain full of blueprints of lives imagined.

It’s just a habit, a mental exercise.

My husband does not share my restlessness and his hardwiring has him happy to stay put with our kids, animals and the internet.  Although he respects my wanderlust, he prefers that when I travel I take at least one of our kids as an insurance policy that I’ll return home – sort of like an alcoholic might take their sponsor to a cocktail party.

Day trips to state parks and what on the surface looks like boring out-of-town gymnastics events are the mainstays to my anti-bolting program, but a summer vacation road trip is the best preventative and has a far longer therapeutic half-life. That being said, most of my days belong to Texas and although I do not feel like a Texan I have acclimated well.

That’s why I was so surprised to feel like such a down-to-my-soul New Englander when I arrived in Maine last week to visit my parents. They retired to the small beach community where six generations of my maternal line have summered or lived.

For years, the beach has not felt like home to me.  The characters who had populated my childhood have died, moved on, or their families sold the summer cottages to new families who tore them down and built big winterized homes. Every time I returned, the community that I knew was fading and evolving, as everything does, but it didn’t feel like my place.

My children are Texans and do not have the primordial smell of the sea imprinted on their biology like I do.  I used to feel guilty that I didn’t try harder to cultivate in them an understanding of where I came from, or as my grandmother would say, where my people came from.

I used to think I should have coaxed them into becoming New Englanders.  Now I believe that we are all here to find a place of our own.  We do not belong to each other.  Instead, our sense of identity is an inside job.   Like Ram Dass says, “we’re all just walking each other home.”

When I arrived in Maine last week something was different.  I felt the pull of my past as well as the generational forward momentum everywhere in the landscape. It was off-season and the summer people and vacationers were gone.  The autumn solitude that replaced the hustle of the busy season was so exquisite that I had to swallow hard and close my eyes as not to cry.

The beach and marshes looked like the backdrop of Emily Bronte’s Wuthering Heights; and as in the novel, the sense of place became the central character in my experience, like it was when we were kids stomping through the squishy sand bars exposed during low tide.

At that moment, I knew that I belonged to the smooth granite stones on Timber Island; the bright blue October sky, the umber fertile-decay of the kelp washed on the soft white sands; the slender, reed-like grasses of the dunes; and the salty cobalt ocean that turns lips blue even in August.

I walked along the water’s edge alone, remembering what it felt like to be home.

For Ilaria

“All things belonging to the earth will never change-the leaf, the blade, the flower, the wind that cries and sleeps and wakes again, the trees whose stiff arms clash and tremble in the dark, and the dust of lovers long since buried in the earth-all things proceeding from the earth to seasons, all things that lapse and change and come again upon the earth-these things will always be the same, for they come up from the earth that never changes, they go back into the earth that lasts forever. Only the earth endures, but it endures forever.”  ― Thomas Wolfe, You Can’t Go Home Again

 

The Fall Garden

IMG_4931 2

“Then there are those who plant. They endure storms and all the vicissitudes of the seasons, and they rarely rest. But unlike a building, a garden never stops growing. And while it requires the gardener’s constant attention, it also allows life for the gardener to be a great adventure.”  Paul Coelho

When I was kid, autumn was my favorite season.  For most of the summer, I stayed with my grandparents in Maine.  Back then, school started after Labor Day and I returned home to Massachusetts well into September.  I loved the subtle melancholy cool of late August nights that announced fall’s return with its promise of color and bright skies that would eventually descend into cold grey and darkness.  I felt the descent.  Even as a child, autumn made me aware of life’s brilliant decay.

Spring’s showy resurrection green was never as compelling.

I’ve lived in Austin for twenty-five years, half my life thus far.  In an alchemy of getting older and the seasonal cycle of Central Texas, my feelings about autumn have reversed course.  It’s still my favorite season, but now I feel the restorative ascent that comes with the end of a Texas summer.

For me, a fall vegetable garden is the epitome of renewal.

October marks my first year at the community garden.  My 10×10 plot is surrounded by two-hundred other gardeners.  Last year I got a late start on my fall garden and spent most of my time settling in and trying to rediscover my green thumb. The prior gardeners’ presence lingered and made me respectfully conservative with my plans.

I made it through winter’s oddly frequent freezing snaps and managed to save most of my cabbages, kale, artichokes and beets. By the time spring arrived, the hundred-square feet of dirt was mine.  I had the best spring and summer yields of my haphazard gardening history.

Finally, autumn has arrived to pull back summer’s blanket of relentless heat and scorching sunlight that squeezes the color out of the world.  Even the old timers, the hearty, smiling, veteran gardeners who generously mentor me in the ways of growing, let their plots burn up in the August sun.

It’s the ever-so-slight crispness of late September mornings that summons us back to the garden.  It’s not the garden we abandoned with its verdant organized rows of domesticated nature.  Entropy rules the universe and nowhere is it more obvious than an untended garden.

Tomato plants are shackled in cages, slumped life-less and brown.  Every inch of soil is host to the wild plants that have stealthy roots, burs and stinging stickers to remind you of their tenacity.  They choke out the few remaining peppers and hide the cucumber and squash carcasses.

Autumn in Central Texas is not as conspicious as its New England counterpart. Instead of bedazzling the landscape before a winter’s sleep,  it tempers the extremes of summer and offers up the quiet possibility of balance before the darkness.

I approach the fall garden as a re-awakening.  It challenges me to try again.  To pick up a shovel and turn the earth, to sift through the chaos patiently and restore order. It doesn’t matter that the cycle will go around again, it’s the effort that has meaning. The time spent doing serves the ascent.

How I Happened to Paint My House Orange

photo 2

I painted our house orange for a day – traffic cone orange – Candy Corn to be accurate.  It was a premeditated decision.  I developed the plan with Jimmy at the local hardware store and Eric the contractor.  I brushed aside their concerns that my paint choice was too bright or that maybe the Canary yellow trim I picked was too much.

Did I mention the neon lime green I chose for the sheds in the backyard?

I’m a month and a half into a summer spent primarily amongst teens and tweens – specifically an almost-fifteen-year-old-boy, soon-to-be-thirteen-year-old twin girls, and an adolescent English Bulldog.  Unlike last summer, there are no marvelous plans for adventure. I knew the facts going into the season.  As I predicted in my January blog post, Belly of the Whale, this year is about standing still, fixing what’s broken and finding North.

Juxtaposed to this backdrop are my kids and dog who shape change from child/puppy to teen/dog in unpredictable and unsynchronized cycles.  There is always a creature in crisis and several days out of each week this summer Otis has forgotten that he’s house trained.  I caught him in the middle of the night relieving himself at the top of the mountain-esque pile of clean laundry next to my bed. Apparently it was easier for him to make the climb than ask to go out.

This summer our tribe is particularly messy and we have to watch where we step.

I have found that as the kids become teenagers is when I truly see my genetic cards on the table –  face up. The good, the challenging and the parts that make me grimace.  If you’re a parent of teens you know what I’m talking about.

When they’re young you still believe in the blank slate.  When they become teenagers, you’re hit on the head by the apple falling from the tree and there are moments when the knowing identification and transference will make you nauseous. You’d like to give them warning but it’s their hand to play this time around.  It can be a difficult game to watch in the teen years.

It takes an incredible amount of my energy to hold space for three changelings and an English Bulldog with an alpha attitude.  I bike and run in the early morning as a daily inoculation against the teen invasion that I face everyday – it’s like I’m in one of those zombie movies where they just keep coming.  Our zombies have reached the age where they’ve realized that there aren’t any parenting tools that can take them down.

The All-Powerful-Parent magic trick has been revealed for what it is – two flawed middle-aged human beings with good intentions but who are running out of steam. The Zombies sense their power and I’m the starring victim in the movie.  The embarrassing mom they love and loathe in equal parts. The epic push/pull of emerging independence has begun.

In order to keep my sanity, my summer has been built around a to-do-list approach to survival.  A to-do-list is a leash for my wandering brain.  It helps me to see a path through the zombie attacks and the summer doldrums.  There are micro to-do-lists for each day and macro lists for big summer projects.

This brings me back to my orange house.  Painting the exterior of our house was number one on the Macro List.

We have lived in our current house for two years.  The previous owners painted it a bank lobby forest green with burgundy trim.  The inside was painted rain cloud grey which I remedied before we moved-in with a warm white and healthy doses of raspberry, yellow, orange, and melon green

As previously stated, it has been a couple of months of genetic payback and checking off lists.  I’ve been feeling a growing pressure to liven things up a bit.  The kids’ life stage and a little summer stagnation awakened the repressed adolescent in me who needed to make an over-the-top identity statement.  A declaration that I may be middle aged but I’m still alive.  Little did I know I was going to let it all out on the exterior of my house.  Bright orange, yellow and lime green.

Hear me roar!

I met with the painter and the contractor the night before with my color chips.  The painter smiled a happy grin and said that the house will look like a piñata. Sounded better than a bank lobby to me.  The next morning the contractor called from the hardware store and asked me one last time if was certain that I wanted orange, that particular orange.

Yes!

I stayed around in the morning, just long enough for one half of one side of the house to be painted orange.  It looked good. Ha! It was going to be just fine after all.

Hear me roar!

A busy schedule had me on the go and I didn’t make it back to the house until mid-afternoon.  What I saw when I turned the corner onto our street was an orange mistake of radioactive proportions.  Our house was pulsating under a glowing orb that ricocheted off the homes on either side.  I had created an orange force field that encompassed half the street.

If it wasn’t my house, I would have considered it to be quite awe-inspiring.

The young couple next door later told me that they thought they were experiencing the apocalypse when they walked into their kitchen that afternoon.  Meanwhile on the other side of our house, the sorority girls didn’t even notice.  We tolerate their late night  karaoke parties and yappy dogs so a little orange wasn’t going to mess with our arrangement.

The rest of the neighbors tried not to make eye contact.

I was greeted by the painter who still had a big smile on his face. This time he told me that my house was Hot, Hot, Hot as he opened and closed his fists like sunbursts with each word. Between my kindergarten level Spanish and his earnest attempt with English, I frantically told him to stop painting my house orange.

Please, for the love of god, no second coat.

My heart was beating irregularly.  The kids, back from driver’s ed and gymnastics practice, were horrified.  Eli thought our house looked like a package of Skittles and then said that he wouldn’t live in an orange house. I kept circling the property trying to find the right angle that would give me hope that I didn’t make a nuclear orange blunder.

To close my eyes was the only immediate remedy.

Always one to be solution focused, I called the contractor and told him of my mistake and then loaded up Georgia, my most color-coordinated child, in the minivan and headed off to find a way out of this orange morass.

Our neighborhood hardware store has an interactive program that scans paint chips and gives a mock up of the colors on a digital model house.  We poured over color pairings that could bring our little piece of the world back into homeostasis.  We settle for the first combination that I chose before my middle-age crisis inspired orange fiasco.

Holly Glen with Purity White trim.  Feeling like colorist superheroes, we had two test quarts made up and headed back to the house.

When the news spread in our neighborhood that we were not keeping the orange, my quiet neighbor across the street came over with his iPad to show me a couple of his wife’s alternative color suggestions, all creams and beiges.   I told him that I had picked Holly Glen and was hoping that it was not too close to their color.

He didn’t care.  He just wanted the orange force field to be turned off.

Mercifully, the universe conspired to protect me from my folly by having the paint spraying hose break and a delay at the hardware store gave us a window that prevented the last three gallons of orange paint from being made.

Within 24 hours the exterior of our house flipped to the opposite side of the color wheel and all evidence of the orange was gone except for the gravel in my garden path where the paint spraying hose burst.   I did keep the neon green sheds and painted the front porch swing the same color.

Hear me roar.

IMG_4493

Link to Belly of the Whale:  https://ebreston.wordpress.com/?s=belly+of+the+whale&submit=Search

Control

sufi-saying

I’m so sick of my nagging self. I woke up at four in the morning yesterday, sat up and promised Ruby, our orange cat staring at me from the foot of the bed, that I would not let one negative word come out of my mouth for twenty-four hours.

Given my mood, that was the best I could do.

Usually a glass-half-full kind of person, I’ve been taking note of how obnoxious and short tempered I’ve been with my family.  Some of it’s due to the end of the school year event-a-thon, but there are tectonic changes too. The kind that involve big issues and life transitions.

It all begins with a thought. Control is a possession that starts from behind my eyes, scanning for weaknesses and problems that may arise in the upcoming chapters of my What If Manifesto.  It reads like one of those Worst Case Scenario guides but is much darker and survival is not guaranteed.

I can keep the demon contained for only so long. I get restless and quiet. It’s never a good sign when the kids start asking me what’s wrong.

It’s downhill from there. The glass-half-full version of me stands to the side and shakes her head as the glass-broken-in-shards version is sighing, complaining and enlightening each family member about how they could improve their lives.

“I’m just trying to help,” I say with that crazed look in my eyes.

This is familiar ground for me.  Although I’m now more adept at negotiating a truce with the demon, a couple of weeks ago I just waved the snarling creature in for a visit.  When I get this cozy with Control, I feel like I did as a kid swinging on the monkey bars in the summer.  I’m holding on by one hand, not yet within reach of the next rung, and worried that I’m losing my sweaty grip.

I delude myself into thinking that I can keep myself and everyone I love from slipping.

Control tells me that it is my job to protect my family members from themselves while I conjure up their next rung so they won’t precariously fling themselves into the future. That’s where my minds goes when it’s presented with a larger than usual serving of uncertainty.

Life according to my What If Manifesto.

It’s an exhausting mental exercise.  Fortunately, I have been given children and a husband who are skilled exorcists and balk when my head spins.  My oldest son, making a brief pitstop home between the end of his sophomore year and an internship abroad, doesn’t much give much of a hoot about my manifesto. He’s twenty.  What could go wrong?  The other three are even less impressed with my hectoring.

It turns out that they all actually listened to my advice over the years.

Since they could understand, I’ve told the kids that they’re always just one thought away from changing their perspective.  I’ve reminded them over and over that their worldview and actions arise from what they think and that the fastest way out of the mental weeds is a change of attitude.

I made it through the first twenty-four hours and decided to try for another day. This time I voiced my intention to my family and not just the cat.  I created a new context and offered an apology. I’m still feeling on shaky ground with serenity but have managed to make use of that game changing, millisecond pause before my thoughts become words.

Are my words true?  Are my words necessary?  Are my words kind?

Control evaporates in the face of such simplicity.  So far everyone is making it across the monkey bars just fine.

 

Ten Thing Every Kindergarten Parent Should Know

Suggestions from my 15 years in elementary school

IMG_0632

Elementary school is a lot like going down the Raging River Ride at Schlitterbahn Water Park.  While holding an inner tube, you and your child climb the stairs of the entry tower to launch into the headwaters with a confused mass of strangers.  You push each other along to get started.  Tip-overs, tears and unexpected separations occur but it all works out and everyone is back in their tubes smiling. There are lifeguards along the way.

Small talk begins with those around you and in an instant a floating community is created.  You feel more relaxed.  By the middle of the ride you hit a slow patch and stop paying attention.  Then, without notice, things pick-up again and you have to hold on tight.  It’s one of the longest rides at the park but you’re still surprised when you reach the end with a sudden splash down. Your turn is over … that is unless you have another child, and then you pick up your tube and get back in line again.

Below is my list of ten things that I wish someone had told me on the way up the tower the first time.

1)  Lurking somewhere among the teary-eyed group of parents standing in the hall on the first day of kindergarten are your best friends that you haven’t met yet.  You will raise your children with these people and love them with a gratitude that you don’t understand now.  It’s commonplace to say that it takes a village to raise a child, but elementary school is about as close to a village as most of us get.

2) You will serendipitously encounter teachers whose particular superpower matches your child’s moment of crisis.  The teacher will not wear a cape so be on the lookout for remarkable progress in your child, emotionally or academically, that you know in your heart didn’t have anything to do with you.

3) Get out of your helicopter – parenting is best done on the ground with a little distance.  Let your kids wander and make mistakes.  Be an advocate for your child, when necessary, and bring solutions to the table not anger.

4) Unless you have a mutant parenting gene, science fair projects will bring you to your knees.  Both you and your child will cry. This is normal.

5)  We are all visitors passing through. I’ve watched people move on from our small elementary school whose absence I thought would bring doom. Instead, new faces replace the old, the culture evolves and the school continues to hum along.  With that in mind, have good guest behavior – help out, be curious, listen, and work to make things better for everyone.  Enjoy your stay.  It will end.

6) The teachers, principals and support staff won’t tell you that they are running at 150%, neither will the parent volunteers who fill in the gaps. Kindness and appreciation go a long way.   Remember to say “thank you” to the people who teach, nurture, feed, and clean up after your kids.  Volunteer or donate when you can, every little bit helps.

7) Watching your child and their friends grow from kindergarteners to pre-teens is a privilege.  You will come to understand the softening eyes of every old person who says that they remember you when you were young. Pay attention and take a lot of pictures.

8) Be mindful of the sweetness – the handholding and toothless beaming grins – it won’t last forever.  You too will become an embarrassment to your child and be replaced by texts, over-scheduling, clubs, sports, and friends.  Now are the years to chaperone field trips and go to school plays, learning celebrations and festivals.

9) Don’t save every piece of paper that your child touches.  Keep a few choice pictures and projects from each year.  Your college-aged kid only wants a couple of pieces of elementary school memorabilia and the emotional hurdle of getting rid of the rest is a mighty high bar to get over.  Save yourself the anguish.  Trust me on this – I kept my children’s first bandaids.

10)  Raising children makes you vulnerable and you will experience emotions that you didn’t know were in your range.  Don’t be scared, you are actually getting stronger and more resilient. You will earn a tougher skin and a bigger heart.  Be open to all that you can learn from the people around you. Your child isn’t the only one growing up.

After four kids and fifteen consecutive years as an elementary school parent, I’m in the holding tight part of my LAST ride down the Raging River. The splashdown will officially occur on June 5th, at my daughter’s sixth grade graduation.  I’m telling myself that I’m ready to move on; but I know that when my turn is really over, I’ll be a blubbering wreck as I lay my tube down and shuffle off in a new direction toward a different ride.

 

A Note From My Mother

I was born on Friday, February, 14,1964 in Waterville, Maine. That makes me fifty today.  I harbored a hope that a new decade would make me feel different, like discovering a latent super power.

Instead the morning greeted me like most.  I wrangled our teenagers up and off to school.  Leo texted me Happy Birthday, no call.  Lila annoyed me as she finished her math homework in the car, even though I promised myself I would be more patient in my fifties.

I guess patience is not my latent super power.

The plan for today is to lay low because of the marathon this weekend. I need to conserve my physical and mental energy. Tonight Matthew and I are going out to listen to music. Later this spring, I’m taking a short trip with a friend to mark this milestone.

I have absolutely nothing to complain about, I know.

That’s why I feel so terribly guilty for emotionally flailing today.  I didn’t expect this. It began with the ordinariness and gained momentum when my mom called.  I started to cry.  She said exactly what I needed to hear.  She reminded me that the big birthdays with zero’s need time for grieving as well as celebration.  My mom gave me permission to meet fifty on my terms.  I didn’t have to be happy.

I’ve flailed about all day, with breaks to be grateful and laugh with friends.  It’s OK though, I have a note from my mother.

Fifty.  Downtown Austin.

“Look, I really don’t want to wax philosophic, but I will say that if you’re alive, you’ve got to flap your arms and legs, you got to jump around a lot, you got to make a lot of noise, because life is the very opposite of death. And therefore, as I see it, if you’re quiet, you’re not living. You’ve got to be noisy, or at least your thoughts should be noisy, colorful and lively.”  ― Mel Brooks —