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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Leaves

leaves slide

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.

Zombie Apocalypse

stream

If you know my husband you know that it’s a form of endearment if he wants you around for the Zombie Apocalypse. He’ll say things like, ” That new neighbor looks like a piece of work. He’s got a pick up truck with fishing and gun stickers on it. Not really sure what I think about my neighbor having a gun, but I bet he’ll be helpful during the Zombie Apocalypse…I better go meet him.” I’m not sure if he really thinks the Zombie Apocalypse will come to pass, but he sure does talk about it a lot. For example according to him, I will be really valuable during the zombie apocalypse because of my stealthiness. When he appreciates this quality in me he calls me a ninja; when he doesn’t, he asks if I’m an assassin. “I’ll never tell.” I say.

We got snowed in for the blizzard of 2016 and I have yet to be accused of being an assassin, which I think is evidence of things going well. Given my need for exercise, nature, and quiet we agreed I’d trek through the paths to the store while he manned the fort.

There’s something about the woods I love. Unlike the roads already covered in ash, the tree lined paths glisten with snow in the days after the storm. Today, the grey clouds gave way to blue sunny skies. The patted down paths twisting and turning through neighborhoods and shopping plazas feel more personal than the roadways somehow. I bump into a mommy friend with her daughter. They are thoroughly cold and worn out from sledding which makes me smile.

Then I arrive at the grocery store and looked around,

no milk

again

no veggie 1

and again.

no veggie 2

 

With just an image or two, the quickly setting sun, and a suggestion of an inevitable outcome repeated a few thousand times utopia quickly turns to dystopia.

I ran into two mommies at the checkout that I knew, but, I noted,  the beauty of interconnectedness is lost in fear. The impromptu rescue party of husband and kiddos seemed equal suspicious, given my explicit directions to hold down the fort.

I couldn’t help but feel heavier on the way home: four grocery bags, a toddler, a husband and a baby. We made our way through unlit paths and focused on not tripping on now crunchy snow. The sled was broken, toddler’s gloves were sokin’, the kids were cold.I worried about dropping the baby in the carrier as the toddler and grocery bags alternated falling from the sled into the snow.

We try to laugh in our house. I don’t really think I need to worry about zombies chasing me through the snow. But when I got home I did allow myself a hearty minute to focus on the power of suggestion and the subtle pervasiveness of hate and fear.

Several years ago my husband and I started on a journey to lighten the load of what weighs us down. Sometimes that’s been things, and sometimes it’s been people. Either way it has been hard to seek hope rather than fortify against fear.  But in light of living in the shadow of the Zombie Apocalypse-I’m so glad we have.

 

 

 

Snowy mornings

snowyam

For 1,000 different reasons there’s still no place I’d rather be snow bound than this little town.

Neighbors who build igloos, friends who walk the trails bringing snow gear, unexpected stop-ins, pots of hot chocolate, sledding on the neighboring hill…

Trading notes on what’s open, sharing ingredients so everyone has food…

Counting my blessings and not my curses.

28″ of snow fall

#snowdayhoneymoonphase

#nextphasecabinfever

#Blizzard2016

#Snowzilla

 

Baby Girl’s First Snow Day

Snow day 2016

Baby girl and her dollies looking at their first snow day.They are clearly in awe of the depth of this experience. Yes, that is earth you see through the snow.

On an unrelated note there was apparently a rush on eggs at the Trader Joe’s yesterday. Please explain this to me. Do other people sit around eating dozens of hard boiled eggs on snow days?

#eggfreehome #theydoitdifferentdownSouth #perspective

My Story Hangs

Copyright Alex Chalkley photography

Copyright Alex Chalkley Photography

My son punched his way into this world with fist extended, was laid upon my chest, caressed my cheek, looked me in the eye and seemed to say everything that mattered. Hello. I love you. In that instant I was in love with his fast breathing, his puffy face, his tenderness and his ferocity.  I will forever see him through the lens of our first introduction.

On the walls of my home, my story hangs. A three-month-old stares at me from a picture over the bar.  I focus on his deep blue eyes and that crooked grin he still sometimes flashes. In the background I see my hug and the soft blue fuzz of a coverall protecting him from the February breeze on the Old Town waterfront.  He was an agreeable model despite the cold. He slept in a stroller and on a blanket; smiled in our arms and even attempted to walk alone.

His eyes changed. They are still magnetic, but I can see that by a year and a half those deep blue eyes are something different. Once dark and solid, there is only a dark blue ring that surrounds what looks like a frozen ocean. I wonder if they’ll last. This picture pierces me. This picture hangs near the center of the living room wall. This link between my baby and my almost boy. I stare at that living room picture every day at least 100 times.  I try to describe the color of that blue, the white of his face, his whitish blond hair. I try to remember that day.

On the trails of the battlefield at Manassas, he ran. He picked up pebbles. He shared with giggles. He pushed his red sports car and watched how it would roll. He snuggled on daddy’s lap for a story to be told. He was full of baby chubs and loving kindness. When he looked at Miss Alex while giving her flowers and seemed to wonder what her reaction would be, it was 100 years of my future heart breaking I was feeling when I at last realized how intertwined we really are.

On the wall of my home, our story hangs. Those battlefield memories mark the time, I realize, is now gone. Those moments seemed so infinite and tangible, but proved illusive, like fingers trying to catch the golden sun. It was a day in mid May, comfortable as the trees swayed to let in then shield us from the morning sun. It marked the beginning of listening to instructions and the end of needing Mommy to yell, “rough terrain” ahead. It was  long after running backwards had been accomplished, just after all words in books were repeated and around the time that a wakeful toddler would tell me with a sob that baby needs his pa.

But between there and here are millions of moments, thousands of pieces of him, hundreds of things I’d do anything not to forget.

He climbs up next to me on the couch. His arms and legs are impossibly long now and missing that baby chub. He asks what I’m doing and if I want to play with him. Of course, I smile. His red race car now rolls through the land of imagination. Lego Mommy and Daddy take turns driving it over the curves of the couch before it becomes a hay baler for farmer Greenie to mow the cushion fields.  Once gifted pebbles have turned into life lessons about what we toss and what we hold. Meanwhile books still edge out television in our household.

When day is done and I sit alone, I know these memories will fade. Others I’ve forgotten will come into focus. As time goes on these images with their stories and their sweet composition will mean 1,000 things I can’t yet predict. Reminders of the beginnings of some things, moments that mark the end of others: a month before the death of a cousin, weeks before a pudgy tummy holds another baby. These images mark time. They document stories unfolding;stories like pebbles that mark a path that’s coming to light.

I will admire these pictures that hang from my wall, bathed in light that shines on meaning of feelings even now I can barely trace. We will live more. We will take more. We will try to remember what they meant and how they felt. We will tell stories. We will pass on pictures and with them a history that roots us in the earth, that sways from the winds, that grows with care and bends toward the light.

* A big thank you to Alex Chalkley for capturing our memories in your pictures.