Rebuilding

I like the fall. I like the mountains with their red, orange and yellow colors. I like how the days get cold and force you to wear sweaters. I even like those lingering gray days that last until spring when you see mostly branches, and it feels almost lonely as it begs you to stay inside.  But that’s not why we started to have a Halloween party. Four years ago when I looked excessively pregnant and was truly about to deliver we held our fall party on the end unit town house on the last edge of Old Town. I think we realized it was likely the last time our home would be clean and definitely the last time we’d enjoy socializing.

Every year we go through this process of will we or won’t we hold something. One year we skipped it, twice I was pregnant, and on the third I was sure it would be fun. This year we debated. I’m learning with kids how fast the scenery changes from play dates to preschool and even who is around in this transient town. This year we wondered who would come. We changed our perspective a little as we debated the will we or won’t we make it a tradition and began referring to it as our service. We’d laugh as we said it because even from the beginning we knew no one got more from it than us. Still it’s nice to feel like you can do something. It’s easier to take on the hard work when the hard serves more than just you.

So we invited everyone the way my husband does: the neighbors, the old play group, someone who just had their second child and could probably use some warm food, new school friends and someone we saw at church after a long time. I worried the way I do: the floor could be cleaner, the decorations were never unpacked, I botched the caramel apples, I should have made more food.

We bought this house not long after that first party and since then we’ve been rebuilding. We’ve taken out all of the floors, the dining room and kitchen walls and a corner of the basement along with most of the front yard. We have replaced every window and door. We still need a new stove, backsplash in the kitchen, an accent wall in the living room and a functioning master bath. All of these are good reasons to buckle down, work harder, and not welcome in anyone.

Every year I wonder if there’s enough room, but we make the best of our space. We’ve squeeze into corners. We’ve gathered blankets to make space for entertainment outdoors. Somehow we make it work in whatever state the house is in because it isn’t about that. There is something about Halloween. It’s never been my favorite. It’s about death and pretending to be someone you aren’t. That’s not really my thing. I’ve always thought it was a bit creepy. But in this neighborhood it’s this fun evening when everyone is walking around. So in our second year we caught on to the vibe. Sure we put out the candy and we walk around, but we also open the door.

Whether it’s warm or cold, the lights are on and the door is open. There is some soup on the stove. There’s a place to go for people who need one; the ones who find it convenient, the ones who come for us. Every year since we started Halloween has become a reminder of what hard work is for. We aren’t in it alone. We welcome new preschool classmates; old friends from play groups; the neighbor who comes when I call and say, “toddler tells me his chest hurts”, the same ones who once delivered Christmas dinner; the neighbor who has fixed the HVAC and replaced our water heater, the ones who are funny and caring and a whole bunch we want to know more. These people are amazing.  I love this quirky modern, old-fashioned town.

It’s December, two weeks till Christmas, and yet here I am thinking about Halloween. Because I know this next year is a time for rebuilding. It’s going to be immensely hard. This was a week of sickness in our house: a root canal, another ear infection and someone just puked (three times). It’s easy to get overwhelmed. There will be less cookie trays this year. I will be less thoughtful about presents. But we will focus on the right things. This was also the week where the stories from Aleppo threatened to break us. It has been a week or so since the Standing Rock pipeline stalled, not yet answering the question of whether people are worth more in America than oil. The tally is still running in the surge in hate crimes which just inched passed 1,000 in the month since the election.

I’m not an expert in construction, but I’ve been in places like this before. It will hurt; this finding common goals. The tasks will feel endless. There will always be more work to do. When we walk this Earth we must remember to treat every place as our home.  We have the power to rebuild it and we are called to especially when it feels scary or broken.  Details will matter like who we let in the front door, if we leave it open, put something on the stove, find space for all the people, try and ready even the darkest corner. It will matter.  This year amid all the coming deconstruction and all the pain that it can bring, I’ll be thinking about Halloween and the hope that can find us in unexpected places.

Because hope is still the most powerful thing.

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Election 2016

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I don’t want to write this. I never wanted to write this. I remember being a child and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up. I remember thinking happy. I remember being a literature major and being asked if I wanted to be a writer and thinking, “I do not.” How many happy writers do you know? I don’t remember studying many. Writers that we remember may be talented, but often live at a trying time in history or survive trying circumstances. I never wanted any of that. I wanted happy. I wanted predictable. I wanted safe. Even then I knew those weren’t guaranteed. In my twenties when life got both comfortable and difficult, I remember discussing what I might enjoy as a career, in what profession I might succeed. My husband and I discussed writing. I said I liked it, but it was too risky, didn’t pay well enough and I understood that the truth I would speak might hurt others. I understood that if I embraced and demonstrated my whole self it might limit my professional offerings. I was afraid of more limits. I was afraid to cause pain. I was silent.

When I began to write this it was November 9, 2016, a day I believe will go down in history, a day I believe America will be remembered for going down on the wrong side of history. I’ll be honest; I cried. I cried when I read the headline. I cried when I kept searching to see if it was correct. I cried when my kids weren’t looking. I cried when I looked at them. I cried when everyone in the gym and the carpool line were looking. I cried when I thought about the people who feared being left out. I cried for women- for all that this meant to them. I cried for the LGBT for all that could be taken from them. I cried for Muslims who wondered what would be left for them. I cried for the concept of race. I cried for the pervasiveness of hate. I cried about the future. I cried about how expensive education and health care will be. I cried for the people who would have to pay it. I cried for the people who wouldn’t be able to. I cried for what the world would think. I cried for what it might mean for the world. I cried in the way that I usually reserve for outbursts years after personal tragedy-not my usual tears for Hallmark movies, those old Folgers commercials and anything Gilmore.

At our house when the election results were reported I was pretending to sleep. My son woke sometime before 3 looking for comfort. My daughter repeatedly woke unable to find restful sleep. It was almost comically foreshadowing bad. Even the writing of this essay came in the wee hours of the night and the stolen hours of this morning between birthday preparations for my son and a seriously exhausting session of attempting to contain my crib-escaping daughter. It couldn’t come fast enough. It was often interrupted because something was leaking, someone missed the toilet, someone was hangry, and someone couldn’t sleep. I have found that life changing events come in unexpected places. They feel large and time feels small.  They happen when we don’t have time to think, when we feel vulnerable, when we have other battles, when there is no cavalry coming to save us, when we can feel ourselves giving in to the idea that we don’t have time for this, we can’t deal with this.

Make time to think about this election. I think we can all agree when in her concession speech Hilary Clinton said, “This is painful, and it will be for a long time.” She was right. We might just not agree on what is painful, but agreeing is a start. Many Trump supporters have felt left out for years. Many have felt forgotten, under- and un-represented, many have felt they were not comfortable with the “progress” being made.  For many Hilary Clinton supporters the election results signal that they are about to be excluded again.

It is not lost on me that I am writing this on my son’s fourth birthday. It is not lost on me that in his birth, in all of the light and hope that new life gives, I started writing. I started owning my stories. I started understanding that my silence to prevent someone else’s pain did not give rise to growth. It did not allow me to move on. It did not allow them to grow up. But most importantly it did not create a world where everyone was comfortable. For me it was the beginning of sitting in the uncomfortable, of setting boundaries, of making steps toward a joyful life.

In these post-election days I am struggling to find hope. I don’t see it in ousting politicians from politics or in retaining politicians who do not compromise. I do not see it in Donald Trump either. I do not see it in today’s headlines or in his career of hateful rhetoric, but I have seen some good people choose Trump. I couldn’t stop reading headlines or Facebook in these last few months. Many headlines and several people’s posts made my heart sink. I was aware he could win. Maybe for some a pro-life stance was enough. Maybe for some Clinton seemed corrupt. Maybe for some more manufacturing jobs were right. Still, I thought there was too much to overlook. In a post I read by a long ago friend, a mother of two, I saw her support touting Trump. Twenty-something years ago I watched her stand up to someone who had done wrong and for another when no one else would help. She looked out for others when they were alone and told the truth when it hurt her. I admired her. I have hope in the person she might be, and if things get hard in the choices she might make.

The results of this election for Trump fans and Hilary haters was exactly the miracle they were praying for; and for Hillary fans and Trump haters exactly the nightmare they thought couldn’t happen. Significant moments in our lives do not come in the way that we think they will.  God is funny and he is wise.  Few of us will ever stand in a board room with prepared remarks and have that Michelle Obama New Hampshire moment where we embody what so many in the world are thinking. Few of us will ever have a platform where it seems like everyone is listening.

Chances are our personal significant moments to make sense of this election will likely not be our own New Hampshire moments. They might be in the simple act of reflection. They could be in the act of staying here, providing someone else a safe place, or standing up for what’s right. A significant moment could easily happen when we need to address a passing comment in the bathroom at a restaurant, during the 5 minutes before the business meeting starts; it could be a change in the way we teach our kids to talk; or in who we invite to our parties. It’s not whether or not you think you’re more likely to have significant life changing moments under Trump. It’s that an awful lot of people are worried they will have bad ones. I am asking you all to notice them-scratch that- I am counting on you to act kindly in them. I’m asking you to do what’s hard, what you might have hoped wouldn’t need to be your legacy.

In people collectively, I still have faith. I still believe we can be better than hate. It’s about being the people that we want to be for our children even when no one is looking. If I could give my children any gift it would have be that no matter their choices they have the possibility for happiness, safety and security. Every mother wants to offer that.

Honestly I don’t know how to end this. Normally when I write I like to weave and tuck and carefully place words, but this ending isn’t neat. So I’ll just say: whatever side you landed on in this election, I hope today you’ll be kind. The only way to ease pain is to walk through it. I hope we keep walking toward a joyful life. I hope we keep talking because I don’t believe any good comes from silence.

*There are many resources available if you are having trouble finding your words or processing your feelings. If you’re in Northern Virginia and are looking for assistance you can check out the Center for Pastoral Counseling of Virginia. (http://pastoralcounseling.com/)

 

Smothered

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I am smothered with children.  I slide down the stairs with one who has koala wrapped herself to my chest the other has hooked his arm around my knee and slides beside me. This is my compromise. I call it our train. My three year old cried for a ride. Every once in a while he feels like he has been replaced in mommy’s arms and takes a stand for a ride down the stairs. My one year old cries because now she knows in my arms wasn’t always her place. Sometimes she will even be put down.

It’s Friday of Memorial Day weekend and husband is off for a golf weekend. Before the hate mail starts he has never taken a weekend away from us before. For my birthday he offered me the same, to take a weekend away and enjoy some of my favorite things, to revisit a sense of self without people hanging on me. It has been 16 months since my youngest was born. Though my husband often spends time on Saturday mornings with the kids I have been a nonstop source of food and comfort for 16 months.  Yes, you might guess that I am tired, periodically cranky and sometimes unkept.  Someday maybe I will take that trip, but today I find some satisfaction in my growth.  I don’t begrudge him his adventure because my choices keep me here.

Some days it’s ridiculously hard to see the positive of being needed all day. Some days one year old cries more than giggles, nurses more than she needs to eat, demands all of my attention. Somedays three year old gets divided attention, tests me more than listens, gets my impatient correction rather than skill building inspiration. Some nights she gets up three times and he sneaks in my bed at 5AM.  Some days I struggle to accept the life in which I am living. I get stuck in frustration that comes with my expectations. Like the notion that toddlers will get in the car or stay in the cart. I know better. Don’t expect that. Of course they want to explore. They are curious, learning creatures. In theory that’s beautiful. In 90 degree Virginia when one has to poop and the other has to nap- you guessed it: frustrating!

But, today I reframe because life is about perspective. I lean into the happy times not the hard tasks of being here. I focus on living the life that I’m in, not wishing away discomfort.

Life is a journey of letting go. Few things teach that more kindly than parenthood.  Gone is my yoga body. It’s been replaced by the tummy my toddlers punched out. The tummy they fight over when at 6AM they huddle in my bed deciding whether they want to embrace the day or seek comfort from it.  I’ll take this pudgy tummy that brings life and comforts it.

These silly legs I never did like used to run on trails for miles and miles. Now they have the power to raise both children, travel for blocks, up and over hills. I love that they can go without rest when my kids are about.

The heart that once was strong now often aches for fear and hope about their fate.

War wounds from a life well lived. Though the threats to me are less steep than those a soldier might face, we both know the value of life. We hold onto it and know that beauty often comes from the bandaged; bent but not broken.

I was offered freedom from people hanging on me. But, people do hang on me. I’m not wishing for that solitary adventure just yet. I am leaning into this one: this life changing, body battering motherhood.

Time has passed and husband is home. A summer storm comes roaring through and when it passes we walk through the forest with sun shining through it. It catches on leaves and glistens on branches. The toddlers chase each other up a hill. Two sets of perfect arms and legs just starting their adventure. I, of course, am behind with husband smiling. There is joy in this moment; on the journey we are living. I am ok with joy making its mark.

An open letter to my gay and Muslim friends in light of Orlando:

For once I had a post ready for this week. I even thought I had a photo. Reflecting on Orlando is more important. I want you to know I’m thinking of you and I’m thinking of why I’m thinking about you.

When I was taking one of my writing composition courses in college I remember one of my professors teaching. She said to root your writing in details. In communicating specifics of our own experience we allow others with different experiences to connect with us. I remember thinking for heaven sakes no one cares what type of tea I was drinking, or what color dress I was wearing, or even what year it was when I wrote this. Then I read other people’s work. Time and time again I cared about the details. I still remember stories I thought were of no interest to me. A person so unlike me, a writing style I didn’t particularly care for, a subject I didn’t think I wanted to know about. Time and time again when they showed me their world I always fell in. I started to know them. I started to appreciate what they cared about.  There are days when I don’t remember breakfast, but 13 maybe 15 years later I remember their stories: A boy’s vacation to Barefoot Landing ruined by a fire alarm, a girl’s mathematical learning disorder the college dean dismissed… I carry their stories in me.

I encourage you: tell your stories. Throughout all of time in the human existence that is all that has ever mattered.  When you think about the bones of the story of human life they are always the same: we are born, we grow, we die. That’s it. That’s all there ever is. The rest is just details. The heart of us is details.

I am a broad strokes kind of girl, which I supposed it is why I am thinking of you all. Though it’s your story, the bones of it are like mine. It’s not ok to me that either of you feel unsafe to be gay or to be Muslim. Like many Americans I come from immigrants. They were Germans in America during the world wars, how unfortunate I suppose. There was hate for them too I know.

I admit, I ask myself why there was a shooting in Orlando.  You already know you are not the first to be persecuted in mass shootings or public distrust. Maybe the fact that it happened (s) after all of the suffering humans have already seen makes it feel crueler. I worry about the questions you’re asking yourself.  How could it still happen? Why to you, to someone like you? Do you deserve it?

I don’t know the details of why.  I believe if it could happen to someone like you it could also happen to someone like me.  You don’t deserve it. No one deserves it.

In our time, we focus on the wrong details.  We identify differences and we evaluate the threat they pose us.  We concentrate on how to catch, punish, or shame someone who has done, or might do, something we perceive to be wrong.

You might want to withdraw from this crazy world- let it work itself out- I know I sometimes do. I want to remove myself from the world’s dysfunction. Focus on something small, something beautiful: my kids, a flower, the way the sun sets, a bowl of ice cream. Please don’t. Focus out. Live your story and tell it.

I believe we can shift what’s out of focus. We can change the experiences that created someone with so much hate. Our interactions with others; our choice for kindness; our search to understand, to hear, to honor others, our example is a victory and a protection. It’s the world we can leave even if it isn’t the one we live in.

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Leaves

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As I work to finish a new post for this blog I am reminded of another essay I wrote 2 years ago, but never published. I suppose it was more negative than I wanted to focus on, but it feels like it was laying the groundwork for the essay I’m working on now. A TBT post from March 2014:

It’s one of those beautiful Virginia days- teasing me that Spring is a breath away despite the fact that just last week 15-18 inches of snow kept my little man and I house bound. An early morning rain and the 54 degree temperature has the snow melting fast and the confused and hungry birds who thought they migrated South fervently picking at the now exposed patches of soggy grass. Before I head outside to enjoy my faux-Spring I watch a segment on the Today show where NBC’s Chief Medical Editor, Nancy Snyderman, stated in the segment How Loneliness Can Be Bad for Your Health that “We are herd animals and we need each other”. Darn straight Nancy. As a self-proclaimed sensitive soul and former health professional I am fascinated by the interplay of psychological and social aspects and how they affect people, but I’ve never been as sensitive to the lasting impact of our American culture’s self-imposed spurning of actual human contact as I am now that I’m a mother.

I woke my little one up and coaxed him into a good mood with promises of an adventure. We’d been mostly house bound for the last week, because as all Virginian’s know our best asset is not how we prepare the roads after or drive in snow. I chased him around the couch giggling. I folded the bed sheets over his head. After a week inside I had only these few indoor games that held his attention so I dressed him for the snow adventure. I slid him from hip to hip as I fumbled to find which pocket I had hidden the key to lock the house door. We admired the Blue Jay on the tree my son was facing as I finally clicked the lock. We listened to the Blue Jay’s song. I never noticed how different its song was from the bird songs familiar to me growing up in the mountains of western Pennsylvania.

When my son and I are outside like this I talk about how beautiful a bird’s song is, or how striking the blue sky is, how amazing the leaves are when they turn green to yellow to red or orange in the autumn, and what the birds or the squirrels are doing. I provide words for the amazing world we live in as he learns language. Before he was born I learned not to hope for any outcome in his life, still I hope to pass on a wonder of nature and a love of life.

I carry him down the path that leads to miles of wooded trails behind our house. The snow is heavy. Like most people, it has a thin layer of crust over a thick blanket, softly melting. The asphalt of the path has melted most of the snow except for the steep winding section near our house. It’s slick so I insist on carrying him. He doesn’t object. I feel the delicate balance slipping as I walk down the snow covered stairs and head toward the bridge over the stream. I wonder if I made the wrong decision to carry him. As the incline steadies, I feel firmly footed once again. Then he’s off. It’s like he somehow knows that it’s safe to walk. This child of mine, this great adventurer has a fierce sense of calculated risks. He is so physically smart it blows me away. He was walking at nine months. Now at 15 he can run down hills, around obstacles, seemingly able to stop on a stone, slow himself when he’s feeling reckless. That’s what’s amazing to me.  While he seems to have no fear he is also so conscious to avoid life challenging recklessness.

He loves leaves- so easy to pick up, so interesting in the breeze, so made for little hands to clean up imaginary messes on sidewalks and street pavements. I can’t now remember the first time he picked one up. I can remember the last. We were walking along the path I dug where the sidewalk used to be in front of our house. The 15 inch snow was then half way up his proud little belly. He looked and shuffled. Eventually grabbed what I couldn’t see, a leaf under the snow, a sign that life can lie hidden under the heavy blanket of suffocating white.

My hope finder, again with his leaf, looked up to find a man slowly jogging past. “Dada” he called. Because, while a genius who knows many words, like other 15 month old geniuses words have a looser connotation for them than they do for us.  So by “Dada”, he meant not my Dada, but man that I want. While that man ran off without even a smile, foot heavy to crush the crunchy snow which he missed while crushing the hope of a small child who ran eagerly after him. I silently raged behind the hugs and kisses and poor explanations I used to cover over our unnatural social norm of ignoring life. He stood slightly confused; watching the hope of an encounter pass as the man jogged down a hill on which I hoped he’d fall. By the time we strolled down two hills and over “second bridge,” my pain for my son still raw, but his glee restored by several sticks. I placed hope in an old lady walking her dog in the distance. When she walked closer my son giggled and clapped, walked toward her with a bouncy kind of march. I knew he was hoping to meet her and pet her dog. I knew, as she appeared to not be talking on the phone she held to her ear, as she started to hold tightly to her leash, that she had no intention of stopping. Inspired by my extrovert’s innate desire to connect with another I asked, “Could he pet the dog?” While she nodded yes, she also walked away without the hesitation that my son held onto as his quick brain learned not to engage or to stop and admire life in all of its forms. I, meanwhile, barely contained a, “where the HECK are you Nancy? Speak your truth about our nature as herd animals! What is wrong with these people who don’t stop to look at the wonder of life?” I let him run after her because I won’t hold him back from trying to reach another. I do slow him down. I try to synchronize our experience; ask myself if he should conform so the imprint on his heart is lighter each time he’s ignored. I wonder how quickly people are made by the choices we so often unknowingly make.

Inside I also connect with my fingers, but to people in faraway places, visible only through a screen. Once classmates, coworkers and friends existed in my daily life, but now they drift into a safe distance where we no longer need to acknowledge the actions of the other. In passive interactions I sift through status updates and newsfeeds. Many old friends fall by the wayside, and in exchange I find my leaves. Families of Tay-Sach’s babies holding out for the hope that I cling to, so hard to hold onto as they weather the storm of scientific impossibilities while they fight for the lives of babies born and unborn. Without a step, without a word, even with every skill lost they still make the smallest breath hopeful, brighten even the darkest day. In the face of an unthinkable fate, they bring out people’s kindness with each one of their needs. Thank you chromosome 15, but for the genes of my husband my son would also be one of those leaves.

Two days after my last outing the sun is stronger, the snow and ice nearly fully thawed. My son started to climb up the hill the man didn’t fall down with his heavy tread. I watched as my son again looked for leaves. Neither of us turned when we heard someone approaching from behind. A gray haired woman in a long black trench coat and soft soled slip on black momma shoes stopped. My son looked up into kind eyes. She began to speak.  With a slower smile he offered his leaf. Wanting to encourage this follower of Nancy I began to explain how much it meant to me that she stopped. My son mastered the difficult task of actually sharing his leaf with our cloaked friend who explained she had three once young children. Turning her attention to my son, but with words for me, she offered the leaf back explaining that she understood a child’s love of giving and how it seemed wrong to then just toss the leaf away. He, having happily given it, did not take it back. I accepted it.  The meaning of which, not lost on me.

Daddy on Duty Y’all

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And I am not saying a thing because:

  1. While daddy dressed baby I was free to work on my business. No matter what fashion writers tell you no outfit is worth more than a little freedom.
  2. She’s dressed.
  3. Daddy will get bonus points for mentioning that he read this post.

Shout out:  Red and gray sock (righty) thank you for giving up your freedom to entertain said baby while daddy took toddler to get his hair cut with all the other toddlers in this fine state of VA who seemed to be out getting their hair cut. I hope you meet some nice lefty about your size in the local mall lost and found because I don’t intend to come looking for you. This mom’s a survivor.