Month: March 2015

May You Live All The Days Of Your Life

The beast enjoying the fresh snow

The beast enjoying the fresh snow

“May you live all the days of your life.” ~Jonathan Swift

I love this quote. It’s so simple yet eloquent and profound. I mean, every day that you’re alive, you could argue that you’re living. But are you truly living? What does it mean to live versus to be alive? There have been plenty of days in my life when I’ve gone through the motions. I existed. And I was alive in only the most basic sense. I wasn’t living fully, deliberately, or honestly. Living honestly lies in experiencing the senses, feeling your emotions, promoting your consciousness. It lies in the awareness of the present moment and in appreciation for it. It lies in a daily choice to be open, enthusiastic, and mindful.

A few weeks ago, we were buried under February snow. It was cold. I spent most of the month of February this year as I do every year…holed up in my bed under blankets, sipping tea, binge watching shows on Netflix, scarcely moving from my spot, trying to convince myself I was not depressed. February is my annual, 28-day hibernation. One day, though, we had a lovely respite from overcast skies. The snow had stopped, the clouds had cleared the way for swaths of blue, and something called to me to live.

It was 10 degrees when I left my house, bundled in my ski gear, wearing snowshoes, and hauling additional gear. I had no problem coaxing the dog who had been housebound with me out onto the open space for an expedition. Her enthusiasm and joy kept me moving on each time I stopped to catch my breath, enjoy the view, and question my sanity. I was alone and, with no one to challenge me, this walk that would normally take me 15 minutes on a summer day took me close to 25. I was in no hurry. I had no plans other than this one.

Just a girl, her dog, and a sled

Just a girl, her dog, and a sled

When I reached the first hill, I kicked off my Crescent Moon snowshoes and began climbing. Against all logic and better judgment, I’d hauled my son’s bright yellow Zipfy sled out there with me, fully intent on some perpetrating some childlike behavior. You see, the day before school had been cancelled due to snow, and I had watched longingly from my kitchen window as some neighborhood children climbed that normally silent hill and put their mark upon the pristine landscape. My sons sled a lot in our neighborhood during snow season, nearly every afternoon when the weather allows it, but I have never joined them. I’m the mom. I have responsibilities. They would think it was too weird. And I am getting on in years and might break some bones, right?

Upon reaching the top of the hill, I threw the sled down and climbed on. My dog was poised in front of me. She’s a border collie. She loves to herd things. She planned on herding me all the way down the hill. When I finally summoned the nerve, I inched forward with my feet and began sliding down that very steep hill. If it felt steep on the climb up, it felt steeper on the ride down. The dog bounded in and out of my path as I careened down the slope picking up speed. Before I realized it, I had neared the bottom of the hill and noticed what I had not seen before. Those little stinkers had built a ramp. I hit it at full velocity, whooshed into the air, and dropped some obscenities as the sled and I collided with the ground with enough force that I wondered if my neighbor felt the tremor in her home. My face was covered in snow. I felt snow down my shirt. I surrendered into the earth and laughed at the absurdity of a nearly 47-year-old woman collapsed by herself on a deserted sledding hill at noon on a Friday. What kind of crazy woman does that?

I stayed on that hill for about a half an hour longer, hiking up repeatedly so I could retrace the path the children had carved out for me as well as fashion a few lanes of my own. The dog challenged my efforts, lunging at me sporadically while I lurched and swayed my way down the hill in an attempt to avoid running her over. Each time I wiped out. Each run found me increasingly covered in snow. When I’d had enough, I sat and began petting the dog, noticing the chunks of snow in my soaking wet hair, breathing steadily and consciously, feeling gratitude for the time, energy, health, and means to spend an hour of my day outdoors, frivolously free from the mundane.

Seeing that quote today reminded me of my sledding adventure. We adults don’t indulge in living often enough. Swallowed by routine and obligation, we stagnate. We place responsibility over fun, whimsy, and novelty. To make this earthly journey worthwhile, though, we need to remember to let go on occasion. Joy is not just for children and border collies. We need to have our own sledding days, to bear witness to the beauty of nature, to smell the moisture in the air, to feel the sun on our face and the snow down our shirt, to taste the blood from our lip when we bite it on a hard landing, and to laugh out loud at ourselves. That is living.

The Gremlin and The Missing Ski Sock

One lonely, Smartwool, shark-festooned ski sock. Just one.

One boy’s lonely, Smartwool, shark-themed ski sock. Just one. It breaks my heart.

Last Wednesday morning, before our son left for his three-day adventure at Outdoor Lab, we unpacked and repacked his gear bag a final time. I wanted to make sure that he knew where everything was and to verify again against the packing checklist provided by the camp that he had everything he needed. I also secretly hoped it would increase the chance that he would come home with everything that was originally packed in the bag. The probability that Joe would come home sans at least one item was high. This is the kid who has famously come home wearing only one shoe. One shoe. Don’t even ask. But hope springs eternal, and I am always optimistic that the kid might just surprise me someday. And I like to set him up for success, so we discussed the bag, its contents, and my expectations.

“Listen,” I said, “The only things in this bag that I really care about are your ski socks. I mean, I’d prefer you come home with everything, but the ski socks are at the top of my list of items I’d like to see returned on Friday, okay?”

To be honest, I wasn’t exactly sure why I was telling him about the socks. They weren’t the most expensive item he was packing or the most important. I suppose I was thinking about the plans we had to ski early on Saturday morning and simply hoping to avoid a last-minute, Friday-night trip to REI before closing to replace yet another pair of ski socks.

“Okay,” he replied, messing with the flashlight he was packing.

“I was thinking that one sure way to make sure the ski socks make it home is if you wait to wear them until Friday. Then they will be on your feet when you return. Just keep them in your bag and wear them Friday.”

“Okay,” he answered again, clearly listening to me with a quarter of his left ear only. Teenage boys can be such great listeners and even more impressive conversationalists.

Having given him what I envisioned were adequate tools and preparation, I sent him off to Outdoor Lab with relative peace of mind.

Friday afternoon when he arrived back from camp, exhausted and disheveled, the first thing he said to me before even getting into the car with his gear was, “I’m not sure I have both of my ski socks.”

I glared at him.

“I mean, I think they both might be in the bag, but I only remember for sure seeing one of them.”

I glowered.

“You’d better hope they are both there,” I said.

“I’ll check while we’re waiting for Luke,” he said as he began rifling through his belongings in the back of the car.

Of course, there were not two socks. Why would there be? It had been my only request. If you say you want something, you’re about 100% certain to miss out on that exact thing. Call it Murphy’s Law. Call it a jinx upon yourself. Whatever. I’d set myself up for certain disappointment when I made that request. You’d think by now I would know better than to verbalize anything like wishes.

Now, I’d like to say that I was totally zen about the revelation of the missing sock. I’d like to say that I took it in stride, like a patient, understanding, and loving mother. I’d like to say that my yoga training reminded me to take a deep breath and have the presence of mind to realize it’s just a damn sock. I’d like to say those things. I can’t. Truth is that, after I too checked the bag to substantiate the missing sock, I went the teensiest bit ballistic. Let’s just say that my response was less Buddha-esque and more Godzilla destroying Tokyo. I’m not proud of it, but after 46 years I’ve had to admit that I am actually human and capable of a great deal of ill-advised moves. This was one of those times.

After my little meltdown, I left Joe to sit in his corner and stew while I retreated to mine. I’m sure he was mentally shoving dirty socks in my mouth while I sat indignant, annoyed, and pouting. It was the principle of the thing, right? Sure. It was one sock, but these kids have cost us a fortune with the vortex they’ve created into which one sock from each pair of socks they own continually seems to disappear. As I took some deep breaths and let go of some of my righteous indignation, perspective began to creep in. It was a sock. What was I doing? Why did I care so much about it? I tried to ascertain what the loss of one, grey, Smartwool, shark-emblazoned sock represented because clearly it went way more than wool deep with me.

I walked to Joe’s room, knocked, and waited to be invited in. I sat down and told him my truth.

“You see, Joe, the thing is that part of my job as Mom is keeping things in this house together for our family. I’m Chief Equipment Manager. I’ve spent fourteen years doing things like making sure each deck of cards has 52 members, each DVD and video game is in its case, and each person has enough basics like socks, underwear, and pants without holes. It sounds crazy, but someone has to do it. Every time a sock goes missing, it’s like someone’s chipping away at my efficacy as household manager. At the end of the day, when you take off two socks and toss them aside because you don’t care and can’t be bothered to put them together into the hamper, I feel like there’s no respect for how hard I work to keep us all together and functioning. I’m sure it doesn’t make any sense to you. It is just a sock, but somehow it’s more than that to me. I am sorry for yelling at you, though. I overreacted.”

He looked at me thoughtfully and apologized too.

I’m not sure he completely understood what I was getting at, but he was making an effort. He might be a little more careful with his belongings…at least for a few days while the memory of my tirade is still fresh in his mind and the loss of two week’s worth of his allowance to buy a new pair of $20 ski socks is still stinging a bit.

A wise friend of mine has taught me that most of the time when we lose our shit over a little thing, like a sock, for example, there’s a gremlin hiding there. The gremlin is a much more dangerous but largely unacknowledged beast that takes that little thing and through the magic of mind-trickery and shadow puppetry turns it into deceptively larger but illusionary creature. My gremlins often creep out when I feel undervalued, invisible, and inadequate. This sock monster was a perfect illustration of how much work I have yet to do on combatting and ultimately containing my gremlins. Sooner or later, I hope I will learn not to give my gremlins water, feed them after midnight, or expose them to light.

Getting Schooled

All geared up for adventure

All geared up for adventure

Our son, Joe, has been counting down the days to his first-ever Outdoor Lab excursion with school. Outdoor Lab is sleep-away science camp for middle schoolers. Students head to the mountains for some outdoor education that involves daytime field work in science-related topics followed by nights spent sleeping in cabins with teachers and classmates. Joe class would be studying “snow science.” For most kids in our county, Outdoor Lab occurs in 6th grade. Joe’s private school sends kids to Keystone Science School during 7th and 8th grades. Joe has had to wait this extra year to attend. He’s heard his friends talk about it since last year and he was dying for his chance to go.

Weeks ago, he started telling me that he was afraid he would get sick and not be able to make the trip. He worked in extra hand washings every day. As his teachers prepared the class for what to expect, what to pack, and what would be expected of them, Joe would come home filled with details and brimming with expectation. Yesterday afternoon he and I pulled out the packing list, found an appropriate duffel bag and backpack, and located a mummy sleeping bag. Then we set about picking out the right clothing and gathering up gear. 1 pair long underwear. 1 pair ski goggles. 1 pair sunglasses. Sunscreen not less than 35 SPF. Lip balm not less than 15 SPF. 2 water bottles. 1 flashlight. 2-3 pairs synthetic or wool…not cotton..socks. Systematically, we crossed each item off the list as we placed it into the duffel bag he would have to carry from the bus drop off point to the cabin. He was adamant that it all must fit into one bag and that it would have to be easy for him to carry. At the end of the night, we had a medium-sized duffel jam packed with every item on the school’s list, a backpack loaded with sun gear appropriate for hiking at 10,000 feet, and a child who was complaining that time was moving too slowly.

I tucked him and his brother in for the night and fell exhausted into my bed. Of course, Joe woke me up three times between midnight and 4 a.m. and only on the third wake up call admitted to being the tiniest bit nervous about sleeping away from home without his family. We chatted a bit about how everything would be fine, about how being nervous was normal the first time away from home, and about how amazing it would be. I told him I would miss him but he’d be home with us soon. He fell back asleep quickly after we spoke. I stayed awake for another hour and a half thinking about him. My little family of four is my entire world. I was struggling as I tried envisioning us as a trio and not a quartet.

When Joe woke me up at 6:35 (ten minutes before my alarm clock would have summoned me and less than an hour after I’d finally fallen back to sleep), he had already showered and dressed and had played on his iPad for an hour. He spent the morning rushing around, talking excitedly, ready to get out the door. I dragged my feet a bit as it sunk in that he was actually leaving. I packed his lunch slowly, drawing out our last bit of time together for three days. I gave him some cashews to try in his lunch. He chewed one, swallowed it, and then began panicking, imagining that he was going to have an allergic reaction to it and not be able to go. I reassured him that if he had a reaction to the nuts (which he wouldn’t because he’s not allergic to tree nuts or anything else for that matter), the teachers would give him a Benadryl and he’d live another day. I started to wonder if his ingenious plan was to drive me insane so I would not miss him.

When we got to school, we saw many of his classmates had already checked in. The drop-off space was filled with all manner of packed items. There were rolling suitcases, sleeping bags packed in square, plastic, comforter bags, and large, garden-sized trash bags filled with supplies. I started to wonder if I was the only one who had obsessed to ensure my son had all the requested gear neatly packed exactly as specified. The principal came over and told me that Joe won the award for Best Packed Bags. I guess that means I am still a prize-winning rule follower.

I gave him a big hug and snapped a quick photo of him weighed down by his perfect bag. He looked so grown up just then, standing there squinting in the morning sun on the east side of the school. I watched him as he walked toward the stairs for class, quietly sending him all the positivity and love in my heart. I held it together as I had promised him and didn’t even tear up until I was exiting the school parking lot. I breathed a sigh of relief when the school messaged that the group had arrived safely at Keystone.

I’ve been wrong thinking of this as Joe’s adventure. It’s my adventure too. After thirteen years, Joe is off learning how to be Joe without my help. And I’m here learning that he’s not mine. There’s genius in this Outdoor Lab concept. The kids aren’t the only ones getting an education and important life experience. Looks like Joe and I are both getting schooled this week.

Beyond The Winter Of Our Discontent

“Our winters are very long here, very long and very monotonous. But we don’t complain about it downstairs, we’re shielded against the winter. Oh, spring does come eventually, and summer, and they last for a while, but now, looking back, spring and summer seem too short, as if they were not much more than a couple of days…” ~Franz Kafka

Winter with my boys (2005)

Winter with my boys (2005)

Parenting is an intriguing journey. When I think back on my life to a time before I was someone’s mother, it is barely recognizable. I feel I’ve lived an entirely new life since those days pre-children. I’ve come to realize that parenting is not unlike a 365-day trip around the sun through the seasons. And just as you turn the calendar on a new year and suddenly find December on the next leaf, the important job of parenting too passes in a blur.

When we were expecting our first child, the freewheeling fall days of our life as married couple floated off, crisp leaves gathering under our feet, and we braced for the brisk change parenthood would bring. We geared up. We prepared for rough weather. And when our sons arrived, we immediately found ourselves housebound in a snowstorm of diapers, feedings, and nap times. A trip to the grocery store alone was my sunny day. A date night was a beach vacation with umbrella drinks. Most of the time we were holed up at home, trying to dig out from under Thomas the Tank Engine, wooden blocks, and plush animals. We uncovered solace in movie evenings with Nemo and Mr. Incredible and Lightning McQueen, which were followed by family sleepover nights in our room where we would hunker down and take long winter’s naps together. Those were some of the best nights of sleep we got during this period in our lives, and good nights of sleep were few and far between back then. We were perpetually tired, surviving on caffeine in the morning and sugar in the afternoon, and trying to find time for ourselves when we could. Everyone tells you to cherish life with your little ones but, like living through a seemingly endless, difficult winter, that was easier said than done. Continually exhausted and struggling to figure out the dynamics of our new family, we prayed for a thaw.

Gradually the boys grew, and days seemed less bleak. Toddlerhood ended. Full on youth arrived with all its exuberance and light. We emerged from our hibernation and began to go places because, well, going places was easier. Gone were the bottles and sippy cups and diaper bags and extra changes of clothes for blowouts and Baby Bjorns and strollers. We were no longer bundled up and weighed down with paraphernalia. We marveled at the ease with which we traveled. We walked to the park as they raced ahead and sat uninterrupted while they cavorted.  A garden’s worth of handmade, paper-flower bouquets sprang up, accompanied by colorful paintings and creative tales. They started school and we appreciated engaging with them as they discovered the little secrets of life we’d long since taken for granted. We introduced them more and more to things we loved. We grew as a family, figuring out who we were together and how life worked best. Sure…there were occasional squalls, and brief deluges reminded us we hadn’t reached summer yet, but I knew things were getting better when we stopped complaining as often about the weather. We breathed in the freedom and exhaled with peace.

The moment when spring ended and summer began wasn’t even distinguishable. One day we were praying for an extra fifteen minutes of sleep and the next we were waking up at 8:30 and wondering if the boys were dead. The boys began exploring their independence with sleepovers at friends’ homes and hours of Capture the Flag after dark and afternoons on their bikes at the park. Suddenly, we had something we hadn’t had in years. Quality time alone in our own home. This weekend, we had not one but two nights consecutive nights during which we got to be grown adults without responsibility for children. We weren’t even on vacation. We had lovely meals, conversation about topics other than Pokémon, and a rearview mirror glimpse of the winter years fading in the distance. We’re walking around in flip-flops with Mai Tais in our hands now compared to the days we experienced when the boys were toddlers, when we were buried under the daily tasks of wiping butts and spoon feeding. We’ve settled into this fairer weather and summer is in full swing.

With all this free time on my hands lately, though, it has begun to occur to me the added peace we’re enjoying in this warmer season heralds the earliest moments of the permanent quiet that lies ahead in our next season. The boys are growing older. They don’t hang out with us as often. They have their own interests. Their independence gives us our freedom but it also decreases our involvement in their lives as they begin to separate and form their own lives and identities. In the quiet over the past two nights, we’ve discussed how weird it’s going to be when we’re alone again. As slow as time seemed to be moving back in the early days is as quickly as it seems to be moving now. They’ll be gone before we know it.

And we now understand that this is why people tell you to enjoy your children while they’re young. As much as it sucks hearing it when you’re sleep-deprived, covered in baby puke, and dying for a minute alone in the bathroom, the universal truth of the eighteen years of parenting is that it flies by like seasons in a year. The parents who tell you to cherish the moments you’re wishing would pass a bit more quickly don’t mean any harm. They’re simply beyond the winter of their discontent and wishing they’d understood how quickly spring arrives with summer and fall nipping at its heels.