My Midlife, Middle School Experience

Hello, stark, college dorm room!

Hello, stark, college dorm room!

This past weekend I traveled to Baltimore for the BlogU Conference I impulsively signed up for months ago. As I was packing on Thursday, loading my suitcase with business cards, business casual attire, and an awkward middle school costume for the Saturday night party, I was cautiously optimistic. From the exchanges I had with a few of the attendees on Facebook in the weeks leading up to the conference, I had every reason to believe that new friends were on the horizon. I was looking forward to learning, networking, and growing my blog. I knew that masquerading as a successful blogger would be tough. Some of the attendees have readerships in the hundreds of thousands. Last time I checked, I had 1,549 followers. And that number seems shockingly high and inaccurate to me. Still, I was up for an adventure, so I boarded my flight and practiced my “I can be an outgoing introvert” mindset over and over for 1,500 aeronautical miles.

Upon landing in Baltimore, I learned a couple other attendees had arrived late after delayed flights and had missed their rides. Because I had a rental car reserved for myself, I offered to be their shuttle, figuring it would be a chance to make some friends before even getting my official name badge and conference schedule. One of my biggest reservations about attending the conference alone was an image I had of myself wandering around lost and friendless in the cafeteria like a middle school outcast. Perhaps offering a ride would keep me from that fate. Alas, that was not the case. When the three of us arrived and checked in, we went our separate ways. It’s okay, I told myself. There are a couple hundred folks here. My tribe is here somewhere. I shall find them eventually. 

I went to dinner on Friday night alone. The cafeteria at Notre Dame of Maryland was packed when I got there midway through meal service, its large, round, communal tables filled with chattering ladies of all shapes and sizes. I grabbed a plate, threw together a Caesar salad, filled another plate with halfway overdone-halfway underdone roasted vegetables, and began the hunt for a place to sit. I was overwhelmed. It seemed every person at the conference was there and successfully friended. I began to feel the fingers on my right hand forming the L-shape I knew belonged on my forehead. Conspicuously unfriended, I hastened to a nearby table where three women were engaged in animated conversation while a fourth woman sat to the side. Here’s another lonely soul just waiting to be my tribe, I imagined. We introduced ourselves and struck up polite conversation. Because she had finished her meal, she carried the lion’s share of the exchange while I scarfed down my veggies. As mealtime began to wind down, I realized I hadn’t had much opportunity to share about my blog. I was out of time, though, so I excused myself to prepare for the evening session. I kept telling myself that the introductions would become easier and my next meal would be at a table filled with new friends. It was early. There was plenty of time.

Perhaps I am as unfriendly looking as this sawtooth shark?

Perhaps I am as unfriendly looking as this sawtooth shark?

That night the conference hosted a pep rally. Writers who had won the submissions contest got to read their poignant and emotional pieces. During the break, I had the opportunity to touch base with a couple more bloggers. It felt good to share mom and writing experiences with women who could relate. When the program ended, I headed back to the dorm for the Open Mic session where we would put our names into a bowl and take turns reading our work. By the time I got to the lounge where we were meeting, though, it was standing room only and women were already sharing. The bowl to add your name to was at the front of the room through a maze of women seated in chairs and on the floor, placed on the floor directly in front of the gal at the mic. I didn’t want to be remembered as the rude woman who interrupted the speaker by stepping over other people to drop my name in the bowl, so I stood at the back sandwiched between a wall and a table for a while, just listening, before finally accepting that I had missed the boat on this event. I went back to my dorm room, mentally exhausted and ready for some introvert, alone time.

After a restless and wretched night of sleep on a squishy dorm bed, I hauled myself into the bathroom I was sharing. The other gal had left her Sonicare, her empty coffee cups, and a gob of chocolate-tinted toothpaste spit in the sink for me. I chose to assume this was because she didn’t realize it was a Jack-and-Jill bathroom. I locked the door, donned my shower shoes, and washed the dorm room off of me before driving to Starbucks for the most highly caffeinated latte imaginable. As I sat through the first two lectures of the morning, I eyed my fellow classmates looking for a like-minded soul. I suppose that would have come in the form of a carefully hidden yawn or a surreptitious glance at an iPhone. I saw none of that. Everyone was engaged, taking notes, and asking questions. The classes offered useful tips and I hastily scribbled just-barely-legible notes into my notebook, but the feeling that I was way out of my league persisted. I began to wonder if perhaps this wasn’t the best conference for me.

I stumbled into lunch in a state somewhere between dread and resignation. I once again wandered around alone, looking for a friendly face to welcome me to a table. No such luck. After sauntering casually with my food for a minute that seemed to be ten, I found an empty table and settled in alone. I checked my flesh for signs of leprosy and found none. Still, I had to wonder. I sniffed my armpits. Yes. There was deodorant there. I finished lunch and went back to the dorm room to freshen up just in case. On my way back to the classrooms for afternoon sessions, I set off a fire alarm on a poorly marked emergency exit. As I sped up my pace, praying no one would realize I was the goof who caused the ruckus, I decided my transformation from middle age nobody to middle school loser was complete.

I finished the next two sessions in a daze. In the 24 hours I was there, I made zero new friends despite putting myself out there as much as my reserved self could. The thought of sleeping in the dorm bed and sharing the bathroom again depressed me. I pulled up Expedia on my smartphone and booked a hotel room 15 minutes away. I didn’t need a Middle School To The Max party to feel any more unpopular than I already felt. Some takeout, a bottle of wine, and a private bath were all I needed to remind myself I was a grown adult and not a middle school reject.

Sunset on the flight home…all is right with the world.

Sunset on the flight home…all is right with the world.

That night while I was relaxing at the hotel and finishing up a blog post, against all odds, another attendee (one whom I hadn’t even met yet) reached out to me on the conference Facebook page wondering where I was. I was shocked. You know that scene in Pretty in Pink where the cute girl at prom motions to Duckie and he turns around to see if she’s talking to him? That’s how I felt. I quickly responded, telling her only that I was “out of sorts” and offering to meet up at the closing session the next morning. That’s what we did. As the conference drew to a close, my new friend, Martha, another blogger about mindfulness and zen, and I decided to drive into Baltimore to visit the National Aquarium and consume a crab cake lunch. The conversation was effortless and affirming and exactly what I needed. I pulled the thumb and forefinger L away from my forehead. I had found my tribe. That it was a tribe of one seemed perfectly fitting for this introvert.

My experiences at the conference were, I’m sure, vastly different from most of the attendees. Most of them are successful and gifted writers, humorists, and mommy bloggers on a mission. The conference, while not quite my milieu, offered loads of helpful information I will be able to incorporate into my publishing experience going forward. My blog may never have hundreds of thousands of followers. I may never make a living from it. What I realize now, though, is that those things don’t matter to me and they never really have. My plan from the start was to use writing to learn more about myself, to share what I experience with others to prove our common connections, and to find greater peace and stillness in my present. In those ways, I’m already a successful blogger.

Aging Is Not For Sissies

 

Celebrating 47 years

 I recently had the good fortune of marking 47 years off the calendar. After so many journeys around the sun, I’ve become much more adept at celebrating in a way that suits me. This year that included a hot, uninterrupted shower, a venti latte accompanied by a cinnamon roll, some light shopping followed by a leisurely drive into the hills, a pedicure, and a picnic and concert at Red Rocks. And while I could not keep Mother Nature in line (the cranky bitch caused a thirty-minute storm with extreme lightning and heavy rain that delayed our outdoor concert and forced us to seek shelter in our car), overall my day was damn near perfect, securing my position as my number one, all-time-favorite, personal birthday-party planner.

The 1980s sex symbol, Bo Derek, recently said in an interview that aging is not for sissies. Although Bo has about ten years on me, I concur with her assessment. While 40 freaked me out seven years ago, what has happened to me physically since that reaching that milestone makes me shudder. I’ve acquired floppy arm syndrome, crepe-y neck, and sagging knees. Stray chin hairs pop up like wretched dandelions that require immediate plucking under the magnification of a lighted mirror to aid my tired eyes. The gal who used to roll out of bed and attend her college classes somehow managing a bright complexion without makeup is gone. It takes twice the effort and the bankroll to maintain half the fresh-faced appearance I exuded a decade or two ago. I try not to think about it too much, but the reflection in ubiquitous glass reminds me anyway. My inescapable doppelgänger follows me everywhere. Damn her.

As I drove up into the foothills the other day, though, I had something of an epiphany about my age. Even with all the physical changes in me that are less than grand, I like myself. So much. I am more genuinely me now than I have ever before been because I have stopped putting other’s agendas for me ahead of my own. I have accepted my negatives and begun acknowledging and owning my positives. I no longer heed the caterwauling of naysayers. I spent my first forty years becoming what I thought I was supposed to be. I will spend the next forty years excavating the me that lies buried under the sediment of other’s wishes. I grew up a closed-off, fearful Chicken Little, but that’s not who I was meant to be, and it’s not who I will stay. While I am good as is, warts and all, I am open to growth and positive change. If others don’t approve of my new direction, I will leave them in the dust as I speed away and watch their figures fade in my rear view window. Moving on.

To my friends who are a few years ahead of me on this journey, thanks for talking me through my midlife insanity and reassuring me that I would emerge better for it. You were right. It does get better. Little things are easier to let go. There’s freedom in relinquishing baggage and traveling light. And the more baggage I drop, the happier I become. To my friends who are a few years behind me, hang in there. I go before you as proof that the stress, change, and angst you’re experiencing are survivable. The slow, steady climb at midlife is the precursor to the feet-off-the-pedals coast that follows. And, yes. I know you don’t want to hear it. I didn’t want to hear it either, but that didn’t make it any less true. 

I’m in life for the long haul, for as long as I’ve got, through the messy and the beautiful and the complicated and the serene. I am not afraid of getting older, anymore. I am afraid of not getting older. There is so much of life I was uncomfortable about experiencing when I was young and chicken-hearted. I am braver now. Oh, sure. Doubt still finds me, but now it comes in the muffled whisper of a pesky librarian rather than the soul-shaking shouts of a doomsday soothsayer. I know the potential for growth still exists, and I know it ain’t over until the Fat Lady sings. I’m not going out quietly. Look for me. I’ll be the old lady laughing too loud, hugging too long, and crossing things off my bucket list. I’m many things, but I’m no sissy.

Grace Is

 

Can you spoy my beach-crazy son?

 I am sitting on Carmel Beach watching my almost 14-year-old son play at the water’s edge. His tic, a nervous hand flapping that is tied to his ADHD, is on high speed. When he was younger, I spent inordinate amounts of time trying to break him of it, chiding him to “stop flapping,” but he can’t voluntarily cease doing what he doesn’t realize he’s doing. Now I see the flapping for what it is…an honest, outward display of his inner enthusiasm and excitement. For a landlocked, Colorado boy, there must be no greater joy than feeling the surf nibble at your toes. 

Although there are a dozen places in Carmel I would prefer to be right now (like, say, a quaint shop or a charming bakery), I am resting on a beach wearing jeans and a full rain coat. I have my feet covered in the sand and am struggling to keep warm this breezy, 57-degree, final afternoon in May. This is not my ideal beach day. We’re about twenty-degrees of separation from my ideal.

But we’re here, present, accounted for, and undeniably alive. He’s about a hundred yards away from me. Every few minutes he looks for me and waves. It could be my favorite Mom thing ever. We’re separate but together and sharing our day. We’re going on two hours here now. My iPhone battery is dying while I write this, and Joe’s flapping hands conduct a symphony of oceanic waves. It’s not my ideal day, but it’s close. 

Life is beautiful and perfect in its imperfections. People say grace happens, but grace is. If you sit still long enough, it finds you.

My Tibetan Monk Cupcake Lesson

Image

They were necessary and then they weren’t. Om.

Tomorrow is our youngest son’s birthday. Don’t ask me how it’s possible, but the little guy will turn 12 at 11:18 tomorrow night. When I was pregnant with him, Denver was hit with a massive, March snowstorm. We were trapped indoors with a toddler for three days with 54″ of snow in our yard. Thirty-one weeks pregnant, dying to get out, and stubborn as a mule, I refused to let my husband do all the shoveling and my fat, reflux-tortured, pregnant self landed a sentence of five weeks on bed rest. While I was reclined on the sofa, I would rub my belly and tell the little being in there that he (I was determined he was a he) could not be born before May 21st because I had been promised another Gemini son and this Gemini mother was determined to get what she was promised. I repeated to him over and over the date of May 21st and told him I did not want to meet him before that date. Luke, being a natural-born pleaser with minimal patience, arrived as ordered on May 21st just before midnight. Since then, I’ve spent my days ensuring I am as good to him as he has been to me.

Yesterday, Luke requested birthday cupcakes for his classmates. Noting that one classmate is allergic to gluten, Luke asked that I provide gluten-free cupcakes so George could participate in the party too. I thought about heading to the bakery to purchase cupcakes, but decided that today was a perfect day for baking. It was cold and rainy yet again, and our house would benefit from a hot oven and the smell of baked goods on such a gloomy day. So this morning I headed to Target and swiped up gluten-free yellow and devil’s food cake mixes, butter, and powdered sugar and headed home to commence baking.

I ended up with 48 cupcakes and, while they cooled, I whipped up some homemade, vanilla buttercream icing. I pulled out the natural food coloring and tinted the frosting Luke’s favorite color. Using my pastry bag, I lovingly piped beautiful swirls of orange. I stood back to survey my work. For someone who bakes as infrequently as I do these days, I thought I’d done quite well. As I was getting ready to pack them into cupcake tins so I could haul them to school in the morning, an unwanted thought began knocking on my brain. I tried to barricade the door so it could not get in, but it was powerful and the door came down under its weight. Due to food allergies, no homemade baked goods will be permitted in the classrooms anymore. Son of a bitch.

That was the first of a plethora of expletives that escaped my mouth as I stood there facing 48 cupcakes that could neither go to school nor in my mouth. I had spent three hours mixing, baking, transferring, cooling, measuring, monitoring, beating, coloring, and decorating this confections. Three hours I could never get back. Three hours I could have used wisely on other necessary pursuits. My chagrin escaped in a semi-controlled, adult tantrum, witnessed only by my dog who decided it would be in her best interest to vacate the vicinity post haste.

The meltdown moved on like a fast-moving thunderstorm on a hot summer’s day, and I took a deep breath. I remembered the Tibetan monks who create and destroy sand mandalas as part of their symbolic meditation on the transitory nature of material life. The monks use colored sand to create intricate works of art. For days and sometimes weeks, they work tirelessly as a group on these stunning creations, chanting and meditating over them to bring out the healing energies of the deities represented within the mandala. Once the mandala is finished, in an equally ordered and painstaking manner, they dismantle their work of art, pour it into a jar, and release the sand into a river so the healing powers held within each grain of sand can flow toward the ocean and disperse their positivity.

This afternoon, the cupcakes were my mandala. I diligently created them. And during their birth, I had been fully present in the moment, incorporating all my love for my son into my task. The cupcakes were not about me, and they were not for me. They were an act of love, positive energy, and goodwill. I chanted a mental Om, scraped the superfluous icing into the disposal, washed the dishes, and wiped down the counters. I packed up 24 cupcakes and launched the rest into the trash lest they end up in my belly. We will share the spoils with friends tomorrow. But today I will recognize this experience for what it is, a sticky-note reminder that life is full of discomfort, disappointment, suffering, and change. To find peace, I’ve got to learn to let go and let my inner Tibetan monk guide my thoughts. I wonder how I can get him to the surface more often? Maybe he likes cupcakes?

Imagination Or Not, A Shark Is Not a Plane

In a world of his own

In a world of his own

I caught our son Joe out behind our house the other evening and snapped this photo when he wasn’t looking. As much as he loves hanging out with friends, sometimes his deep thinking mind needs space. When that happens, he heads outside by himself for a while. This night he was out near the open space on the dirt path with a small, metal plane that his brother bought from the school store. Sometimes, when he can’t find his favorite plane, he uses a stand in…a Lego creation, a rubbery toy shark, a game console remote. I’ve even seen him use a pen taken from a hotel room as his imaginary ship. I’ve often wondered what he’s thinking about when he’s out there. For as much as he talks about Pokémon, I assume that he retreats into that world. But, he’s also a kid who reads atlases for fun, so there’s that. And he recently mentioned, out of the blue, a documentary he watched about a year ago on Netflix about transgender individuals and their struggles. Though he is honest and straight-forward about so many things, his mind is a lockbox. Try though I might to understand him, he remains a mystery to me.

Tonight, out of sheer curiosity after looking again at the photo I took on my iPhone, I asked him what he’s thinking about when he’s out there flying whatever it is he is flying. He told me he is making up stories, and the planes, game remotes, Lego ships, and even the pens are the impetus for the stories. They are the aircraft in his make-believe world.

“So…when I saw you out there with the rubber shark earlier today, was that an airplane too?” I asked. This made perfect sense to me because every other item he’s used has been a plane.

“No. It’s a shark. That would be ridiculous,” he replied.

“Of course,” I answered. “How silly of me.”

Sometimes I forget who I am talking to. Joe is creative, but he is also a bona fide intellectual working on becoming more so each day. When he was 5, he was talking to me about God and shared this bit of hopeful wisdom. “I’m not all knowing yet. But I am knowing.” And that he is.

He’ll be 14 in less than a month, and I turn into a weepy mess whenever that thought enters my head. In five years, I will be throwing a graduation party for him. I’m not sure where the time has gone, but damn if that kid hasn’t taught me more about volcanoes, reptiles, prehistory, geography, sharks, and love than I ever thought I could know. The part about sharks not flying, though? That part I knew on my own years ago, before he even mentioned it.

The Handbook for 5th Grade Dating

One for the scrapbook

One for the scrapbook

A couple days ago, I wrote about a note that my son had found dropped into his locker at school. Oh…the days of passing notes at school, especially notes that were dropped surreptitiously into lockers. Remember those days? When one folded piece of paper could set in motion a new romance? When a handwritten note could change your fate? The note Luke found was not a declaration but an inquiry, an inquiry which required him to check this box. He had an entire long weekend to ponder his answers. We discussed his options. Early on Monday morning, he reached for the note, took it over to the table, and privately recorded his responses. I watched him fold up the note and put it into his backpack. When we reached school, he made the bold pronouncement that later that day he would probably have a girlfriend. His older brother reiterated that the whole situation was depressing. And I drove off feeling a little bit vicariously giddy about it all.

Well, Luke got into the car yesterday with no news. Wanting to keep the whole affair a secret, he had tossed the note back into her locker rather than handing it to her in class. Now he would have to wait one more night to find out what effect his response had. He was playing it cool and maybe he was actually relaxed about it, but the suspense was killing me.

Today as Luke ran out to the car, there was an extra, nearly-imperceptible-to-anyone-but-a-mother bounce in his step. I could tell he had the news he wanted in his hands. He climbed into the car.

“So…do you have a girlfriend?” I asked.

“Yes,” he answered with the sweetest little grin.

He handed me the note. I hadn’t seen it since he had taken it off the counter, so I wasn’t quite sure what he was showing me. As far as I knew, he had simply answered her questions by adding checkmarks. I wondered what she had added. Turns out it wasn’t what she added that made the note interesting. It was what he added. Luke had answered her question about having a girlfriend with a check-marked no, and then added yes/no check boxes of his own under these three words: Or do I? She had checked yes.

I have to hand it to my son. He’d found a way to get the answer he wanted without any help from his parents. His question to her was both flirtatious and charming. What 5th grade girl wouldn’t love that question after having received all the right answers to her own questions? And by making her respond on that same note, he’d worked it out so he could keep it forever as proof. He told me he’d wanted to be sure he’d end up with the note for posterity. The kid is a genius. I wondered if the poor girl had a clue what she was getting herself into.

On the drive home, I asked Luke what it means to be boyfriend/girlfriend in 5th grade. I had no experience with such things when I was that age, so my curiosity was piqued.

“So, do you kiss?” I asked.

“NOOOOOOO!” Luke replied in his most appalled voice. “We’re in 5th grade! We’re too young for that.”

This was good news. I was not ready for kissing.

“So, what do you do then?”

“You hang out. You talk on the phone. You just get to know each other better,” Luke explained.

“Do you go on dates? Am I going to have to drive you to the movies?”

“Yes,” he said, “but you’ll come in. You can sit in the theater with us but not in the same row.”

“Gotcha,” I replied, feeling a whole lot better about Luke and his new girlfriend.

For the rest of the ride home, we talked about what would be the best way to keep their new relationship status on the down low from the rest of the class. They haven’t had a chance to talk much since their declaration of like, so we discussed how he could ask if it might be all right to call her on the phone so they could talk in private. You know in Despicable Me how Agnes says, “He’s so fluffy I’m going to die?” Well, that adequately sums up how cute I find Luke’s new interest in romance.

When we decided to have children, I never gave much thought to this part of parenting. I pictured changing foul diapers and spoon feeding infants. I imagined taking them to the zoo and being the Tooth Fairy. But I didn’t imagine that someday I might be dispensing relationship advice. Maybe it’s because that was so far into the future? Maybe it’s because I never sought dating advice from my own parents? I’m happy that Luke is willing to talk to me. It means he feels I’m approachable. I know he’s only 12 and his openness might wain as he inches further into adulthood, but I feel we’re off to a good start. I’m excited for what the future holds for Luke. And I sure hope I like his new girlfriend. I imagine I will. After all, she has phenomenal taste.

The World Is Full Of Loveliness

Ruby's tree

Ruby under her tree

A couple weekends ago, I noticed our dog was staring a little too zealously at the dwarf blue spruce tree near our back patio. Ruby counts that tree as her personal property. Since the first night that she arrived at our home, a tiny border collie puppy accustomed to life outdoors, she’s claimed ownership for that tree and used it as a protected spot for sleeping. She guards her tree like an old man sitting on his porch and waiting for the next interloper to happen by so he can angrily shout, “Get off my lawn!” But in the spring, nearly every year for the past 11 years, a few renegade birds have chosen to brave the threat of dog, and employ the dense, weighty branches of that tree, branches that barely sway in the wind and provide excellent coverage from rain, as their prime nesting spot. In years past, many nests have been built, many eggs have been hatched. One year, our dog Buddy made a meal of two sparrows from one of those nests and broke my heart. I didn’t care if he was a bird dog. That was bad form. The sight of Ruby staring with a bit too much interest into the middle branches of the spruce gave me PTSD. There were more birds there. Birds Ruby was interested in ingesting.

I shooed her away and started poking around to determine the source of her interest. About midway through the tree on the back side, I found her draw. There among the clustered branches was a Eurasian collared dove sitting on a nest. It eyed me cautiously. I began to move some branches to see if I could catch a glimpse into the nest, and with that the bird flew to a nearby tree to watch me. I used one hand to hold the branches down and my other hand to position my phone for a photo. My suspicions were confirmed. Two small, white eggs sat cradled in the center of a nest made from fallen, Austrian-pine needles. I grabbed Ruby and headed back indoors, curiosity satisfied. I waited about fifteen minutes then snuck back within viewing range of the tree to make sure the nesting bird had returned. The bird was there.

The eggs that gave way to birds.

The eggs that gave way to birds.

Over the next couple weeks, I watched the nest waiting to see if the eggs had hatched. We had a cold, rainy and snowy spell in Denver, and I was anxious about my little yard guests. When the sun finally returned today after a nearly 6-day hiatus to dry our drenched yard, I went out to check the nest. There was a bird on it again. My presence shooed it away, and I peered in and found the two eggs replaced by two dark-colored birds with sparse and pale-yellow feathers. I had to do a double take because the birds, at least I thought they were birds, looked more like threadbare tennis balls with the fuzz nearly rubbed off. With the snow melting from the weekend, the temperature was hovering around 45 degrees so I hurried inside, not wanting those babies to be left in the cold for a second longer than necessary. When I checked on the nest shortly thereafter, the father bird (it is the male birds, I read, that nest during the day while the female remains on the nest at night) was in place on top of the babies. All was right with the world. Good papa.

I’m going to be keeping my eye on Ruby over the next few weeks as the baby birds head toward their fledgling state. I’m not up for once again finding out my dog opted for take out rather than nightly kibble. I’d like to know that I helped keep these babies in my yard safe. After all, their parents chose our sturdy, protective spruce tree within close proximity of our perpetually stocked sunflower-seed feeder to raise their brood. Clearly, this shows they have wisdom, not to mention inimitable taste.

Tonight, a friend shared a news story about a toddler boy who was beaten to death in Utah, the apparent victim of anger related to his not toilet training quickly enough. I tried to read the article, but never made it past the title and the first line. I just couldn’t stomach it. When I think back to when my precious sons were three and pooping behind the couch and using their spray hose to put out pretend fires on our heavily textured bathroom walls, certainly there were times when I was frustrated. It happens to the best of us. Luckily, most of us are able to cope. Yet, we humans are animals sometimes. While we have the capacity for great good, we also have the capacity for murder. When events like this hit the news, I think about the birds that have nested in my tree. I appreciate the work they are putting into their parenting gig. Even if it is only instinct, it’s a beautiful ritual that plays out every spring, nature setting an example of patience, dedication, and duty in parenting. Maybe that’s why I am drawn to the doves in our tree. They’re a reminder of the good in the world when we’re focusing on the bad can crush the soul.

*****************

He doesn’t know the world at all
Who stays in his nest and doesn’t go out.
He doesn’t know what birds know best
Nor what I want to sing about,
That the world is full of loveliness.

When dewdrops sparkle in the grass
And earth’s aflood with morning light,
A blackbird sings upon a bush
To greet the dawning after night.
Then I know how fine it is to live.

Hey, try to open up your heart
To beauty; go to the woods someday
And weave a wreath of memory there.
Then if the tears obscure your way
You’ll know how wonderful it is
To be alive. 

–Anonymous child in Theresienstadt Concentration Camp, 1941

Check This Box

Cutest note ever

Spring is in the air. The songbirds have returned to my bird-feeder welfare state. Tulips are in blooming underneath our spring snow. The flowering trees have kicked my allergies into overdrive. We’re solidly entrenched in the season of new beginnings and hope, which is why I was not at all surprised when the other day my youngest climbed into my car after school smiling quite sheepishly, holding in his hand a folded paper note with a smiley face painted on the outside.

He was whispering rather excitedly to his brother and his brother, in turn, was whispering back. Their hushed conversation was both animated and intense. I had a good idea what was going on based on conversations we’d been having for weeks, but I waited to be included. Finally, Joe’s excitement spilled over.

“Luke got a note from Maddy,” he gushed. Then he added, “It’s depressing.”

“How is it depressing exactly?”

“It just highlights my many failed attempts with girls,” Joe said.

“How many attempts?” I asked. This was all news to me.

“Eight,” he replied instantly with complete assurity.

“Okay. Can we talk about that in a minute? This isn’t about you. It’s about Luke. Let him tell his own story,” I chided. “What’s going on, Luke?”

“Well, after school I found this note in my locker,” he replied, handing me the piece of paper.

It was your garden variety, grade-school note. With carefully chosen words, the author was attempting to ascertain Luke’s level of interest in her. The innocence of the note made me smile. Any note with a “check this box” format wins my heart every time, and this note had two different questions with corresponding boxes. Add to it the charming spelling irregularities of dyslexia and you’ve got about the sweetest correspondence ever. I handed it back to Luke.

“So, how are you going to respond?” I asked

“I’m not sure,” he said.

“I thought you like Maddy,” I replied.

“I do. I’m just nervous. What if I tell her I like her and she doesn’t like me?”

“She wouldn’t have bothered to write the note if she didn’t like you,” I told him. “Girls generally don’t bother with guys they don’t like. We try to avoid them. Trust me.”

“Well, then, I think I will answer yes to the liking her question. But I don’t know what to say about the question of if I have a girlfriend,” he said.

Do you have a girlfriend?” I inquired knowing full well the answer.

“No, but…,” he paused.

“You are afraid to put yourself out there?” I asked.

“Kind of,” he said.

“I can tell you this. If you like her, you shouldn’t play games. Be honest.”

“Okay. I will tell her I don’t have a girlfriend then.”

“Or…or you could make a third box to check that says Not Yet. That would let her know you’re hoping she will be your girlfriend,” I suggested, digging way back into my memories of flirting protocol. “That puts the ball back in her court,” I said, “but still keeps you safe because it’s not a definitive answer.”

“Yes. I like that,” he replied with clear relief that there was a way to respond that didn’t leave him completely vulnerable.

He folded up the note, put it away, and Joe used the opportunity to begin his lamentation about his 12-year-old brother’s third success in dating while he still only had one success, way back in kindergarten, and he’s almost fourteen. It’s hard to be Joe.

I’m grateful that my sons are willing to talk to me about girls, at least thus far. The world of interpersonal relationships is a minefield. I hope to keep the lines of communication open with them as they negotiate their way through it. They know I am an old lady, but they also know I dated plenty before I married their dad. I have shared some of my stories of heartbreak, embarrassment, rejection, and shame so they know I have been there and can commiserate. It will be difficult to stand by during the tragedy of their first broken heart but, for now, I’m enjoying the check-this-box phase of newly sprung love or, in this case, like.

True Story…And That’s No Bull

 

Park at your own risk…including damage by stubborn bulls

Life is funny. There you are, going along on autopilot, head down, cruising blindly through your day when suddenly something completely unexpected happens to remind you that you’re alive. 

The day started out as our typical travel day. We were up at the butt-crack of dawn to head to the airport. Got there early, checked one bag, cruised through TSA-Pre and were sitting at our gate guzzling lattes with an hour to spare before our flight. (Don’t get me started on how early my husband finds it necessary to head to the airport. It’s been a 20-year battle for which I’ve only ever managed to negotiate a 15-minute delay in the alarm clock.) Flight took off and landed on time, we breezed through the rental car counter, and were quickly on our way to a top-rated, Trip Advisor restaurant for a Montana-sky-sized breakfast. So far, so good. 

During breakfast we discussed our options for the day. It is rainy and cool here in Billings, so we decided to take a scenic drive to see some pictographs. The drive took fifteen minutes. Fifteen minutes. Why is everything so much closer in a smaller town? So much for killing time before our family dinner meet up. As we checked in at the visitor center, we discovered the cave where the pictographs can be viewed was closed due to a rock slide earlier in the year. Bummer. We took a short walk around, but decided that cold and wet was no way to spend vacation. We got back in the car and discussed an art museum visit and a mansion tour. Both options were met with grunts and eye rolls. We negotiated a settlement. We would check in early at the hotel and, if the boys let their exhausted parents catch a quick nap, we would hit the pool. It was the most optimistic and ambitious plan we had all day.

The boys let us sleep about thirty minutes and then began their pacing. I could hear the drum beats getting louder and more insistent. The natives were getting restless. I gave in to the increasing volume, sat up to offer an ultimatum, and spied out the window a man on horseback in the hotel parking lot. Only in Montana. I mentioned it to the boys who ran to the window.

“There are three guys on horseback out here!” Luke exclaimed.

“What the….there are cops out here with rifles!” Joe added.

“What?” I questioned. “Are the rifles drawn?”

“Yes!” Joe exclaimed. 

This piqued Safety Dad’s interest. He went over to the window to investigate. I gave up and crawled back under the covers, hoping to extract a few more precious moments of rest. 

“There’s something on the ground back there behind the horse trailer,” I heard Steve report from the depths of my semi-conscious state. “The police keep walking back there and taking photos.”

I turned over toward the window and opened my eyes. They were all three lined up at the window, staring out of the partially drawn curtains like nosey neighbors.

“Why don’t you go walk around the hotel and see if you can figure out what is going on?” I suggested, hoping they would all leave so I could get some decent sleep.

Does this qualify as an Act of God?

Steve’s phone rang. He looked at it and mentioned it was a local number. I sensed something was amiss. The only person in Billings who would be calling us did not know we were here. Fifteen seconds into the call and I had determined we were involved in whatever was going on outside.

“I’ve got to go downstairs and meet a police officer,” he said. “Apparently a bull hit our car.”

“What?” I said, jumping out of bed. He repeated himself as means of explanation.

“I’ve gotta see this,” I said.

I started pulling on street clothes while the boys began grilling their dad about the phone call. Steve was anxious to get downstairs so we rushed out while I was still pulling on my sweater and boots. We headed down the stairs, four people armed with three iPhones for photos and social media updates.

We popped the fire door to the parking lot and saw a fire truck, wet, soapy pavement, and the rental car we had left in perfect condition looking no longer perfect. The hood was dented, the grill was cracked, and the plate had been knocked askew. Damn. Should have sprung for the rental car damage waiver. An officer approached us and told us that a bull had gotten loose from the stockyard downtown, run amok for miles, and ended up in the parking lot of the Hampton Inn. They had to put the frothing beast down. After they shot him, the bull lurched and fell onto our car for a moment before his last bit of adrenalin kicked in and he took off running around the corner to the other side of the hotel where he eventually died on a grassy lawn. You had to give it to the bull who saw the writing on the wall in the stockyard and stubbornly determined he would rather not end his life in a slaughterhouse and chose one last adventure instead. I tried to imagine us explaining it all to the rental car company, though. Dog ate my homework. Bull fell on my rental car. 

Went out with a bang and not as a steak

Fire personnel were hosing off the sidewalks and parking lot, leading us to discern that the bull left a bloody trail before succumbing to his fatal wounds. The officer gave us a business card with his name and a case number, and we headed back inside to figure out how we’d be paying for the damage to the car. Steve waives insurance coverage every time we rent a car, citing that our credit card will insure us if necessary. I guess we’ll find out soon enough if that is true. In the meantime, we finish our trip here with a big, old bull-dent in the hood of our Nissan Sentra. And to think we’d fretted about the little paint scrape over the gas tank when we conducted the vehicle once-over before driving off the Alamo lot. 

When I woke up on Friday morning, I could never have guessed that our rental car would be a victim of the running of the bull. Life is stranger than fiction…or at least as strange. I am convinced that things like this happen once in a while to remind you you’re alive. If only occasionally, life can be unpredictable. Pay attention, people. You just never know.

And The Award For Scariest Mother Goes To…

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A smile in the Chair of Nightmares

Yesterday was dental appointment day for my sons. I approach my sons’ dental appointments with a terror roughly equal to water board torture. They have a long, sordid history of horrific dental appointments that has nothing to do with cavities or tooth decay of any kind. Despite their natural, boyish tendency to eat too much junk and skip brushing and flossing, neither of my sons have ever had a cavity. (Why, yes. I am currently knocking on wood.) Still…their dental appointments are tantamount to a Wes Craven film. That I have continued to set up and show up with my sons for two dental appointments per year should be a testament to what a devoted mother I am. What I discovered yesterday, however, is that my patting myself on the back may have been premature. Apparently, I not only write, direct, and produce these dental horror films for my sons, I star in them too.

Our son with ADHD has traditionally fidgeted, flopped, and inadvertently smacked dental hygienist after dental hygienist with his flailing hands. At past appointments, I have been told to hold both his hands for fear he will whack the dentist while he’s holding sharp implements in my son’s mouth. This behavior has decreased over time with the addition of ADHD medication and the increasing maturity of my son. My youngest has a completely different issue. He has an insanely sensitive gag reflex, which is partly physical and partly mental. The kid can look at something he finds unappealing and vomit. This has made eating out at buffet restaurants verboten. Before he was six, Luke had vomited on a hygienist twice. We were told he would grow out of it, but continual gagging with both the hygienist and dentist meant he didn’t have his first real dental cleaning until he was 10. And we sedated him with nitrous to get him through that appointment. He is nearly 12 and he has not been able to have a bite-wing x-ray taken. All these repeated, negative experiences have made him a nervous patient and me an anxiety case.

Because of this, we usually get the dental hygienist with the most experience. While she has the most experience, after repeated episodes with our son she no longer has the most patience with him. To that end, she didn’t see him at all last year, a fact I imagine was fine with her. I sat with Luke for a while as she explained what she was going to be doing. She put the weighted blanket on him to help calm his nervous system and got to work. A minute or two into the process, I decided to go check on Joe in the next room. When I returned five minutes later, she wasn’t quite done with the cleaning. I heard her telling him to relax. Then she told me to get some paper towels. As I was reaching for the paper towels, he began throwing up. He puked on himself, the weighted blanket, and his dental bib. My heart sank. We’d gone two years since his last episode and I had hoped those crappy days were behind us. They weren’t. She finished up the appointment, the dentist came in and checked his mouth, and she summarily dismissed us.

As I was at the counter paying $275 for the torture we’d just endured and feeling disheartened and frustrated, the hygienist reappeared and asked if she could speak with me. She led me to another room for a private conversation. My dread grew.

“I talked with the doctor,” she started, “and he and I think it would be in Luke’s best interest if you sit in the waiting room for his future appointments. When you’re not there, we have more authority and he tends to do better.”

This made perfect sense to me. For years I would have been more than happy to sit in the waiting room playing Words With Friends on my iPhone while they dealt with my sons privately. Sadly, they have always asked me to come back with them because of their issues.

“I agree,” I told her, feeling some relief. “I think that’s a good idea. We can definitely do that next time.”

Now, if she’d left the conversation there, I would have been fine. But she continued.

“You know, when you left the room, he relaxed. I was able to get through most of the cleaning without any issue. I got through all his teeth except one. He was doing great until you came back in the room. When you came back in the room, he threw up. We think you are causing him to stress out and throw up. Every time he throws up, it’s a setback for us in trying to break his cycle of negative dental experiences. We’ll be starting all over next time.”

An arrow pierced my heart. My stomach knotted up. I clenched my jaw as I noticed the tears welling up. I turned away from her. I swallowed hard. I knew there was truth in what she was saying, but it hurt. All the times I’d sat with him thinking I was calming him, all the times I held his hands and stroked his hair, and here I was…the stress-neutralizing equivalent of Attila the Hun. I felt judged. I felt insulted. But most of all, I felt sad. Not only had I not been helping all these years, I’d been making things worse. Now I wanted to vomit.

I choked my way through the rest of the conversation, acknowledged that I would not be present going forward, and stumbled back to the check out counter. The poor receptionist there started talking to me about sealant costs for my oldest son’s teeth.

“I’m 90% certain that we won’t be doing sealants on my son’s teeth,” I told her aggressively. “He’s had no cavities and we’re not spending $650 on the off-chance that he starts getting them now.”

“Well…insurance should cover some of the cost,” she offered, still trying to sell me when I was struggling to hold back tears and was dying to escape. “I’ll call insurance and see what they might cover.”

“Go ahead if you want to, but I don’t think we’ll be changing our minds,” I spat back. I knew I was taking out my anger, hurt, and frustration on her, but it felt good and I needed to release some of my negative energy before I exploded. I took my paperwork, scheduled the next miserable appointment, and skulked out.

The kids were waiting for me outside. Luke told me he was sorry for barfing on the hygienist. I told him he didn’t need to apologize. It was my fault. I barely made it into the car before the tears began flowing. I quietly cried for the 15-minute drive home, reflecting on what I’ve put my son through while thinking I was being helpful. I’d increased his anxiety to the point where my presence had made him sick. I couldn’t think of anything I wanted less as a parent than to make my son afraid and uncomfortable. Growing up, I often felt anxious with others, especially people in authority, because I knew what was expected of me and I knew I was supposed to be a good girl. Here I had thought I was breaking the cycle of fear, yet all the while I was repeating it. I suddenly understood the penitentes of New Mexico who self-flagellate.

I’ve been working all day today to forgive myself. I understand that my anxiety level in the dental appointments was precipitated by real events that I have witnessed over the years, events that I had not caused. Originally, Luke’s vomiting on the hygienist was gag-reflex induced. But every time that happened, every time I ended up with my son’s lunch in my hands after trying to save the hygienist from that same fate, my apprehension grew. It accumulated like flood water at the back of a dam. Eventually, it was bound to spill over onto my son, and it did. I apologized to Luke last night for making him feel stressed out when he was only ever being himself. I told him that I understood how hard he has been working to hold it together so he would not embarrass or disappoint me and how wrong it was of me to expect him to live with my anxiety. I reassured him that things would be better going forward.

If there’s an upside to all of this, during their next appointment while their father is with them at the dentist, I will be sitting on the couch at home drinking a glass of wine and watching Netflix. If the hygienist is correct, we should all be better off for it. If she’s not correct, at least I’ll be sitting on our couch drinking a glass of wine and watching Netflix when the blame comes down.