Gratitude

The Exhortation Proclamation

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The peacock that sits on my desk to remind me to display my feathers

Once upon a time, in the days before voicemail or texting or the Internet, I kept a box filled with handwritten letters from boyfriends. The box was inked red and white and once contained a small, boombox from Radio Shack that played my New Wave cassette tapes. The empty box became the depository for letters I received from boys, and it housed them safely until I needed a walk down memory lane or a reminder that I was worthy of love. Some of its contents were pages long, penned in perfect cursive and detailing elaborate stories as if letters written by a soldier during war time to his sweetheart back home. Some pages were filled with song lyrics or poems. Some were hastily scrawled notes on scrap paper recalling someone came by to see me. Some were actual store-bought cards with a sweet handwritten sentiment inside. And some were missives written from all the way across country that arrived weekly in the mail because writing was far less expensive than long distance phone calls and miraculously made the 1500 mile separation seem shorter. As a collection, those letters told a story of a young woman I didn’t recognize, a young woman who somehow garnered attention she didn’t understand.

When I became engaged to my husband and we were in the process of moving my things into his house, he asked me to get rid of the box. In his youthful insecurity, he felt there was no need for me to keep letters from old boyfriends; after all, he was my future. And in my youthful insecurity, I decided to acquiesce rather than risk a fight over a past that was long gone and could not be recovered. At 26, I had no idea tossing that box into the dumpster that sunny afternoon would be one of my only regrets and, at 47, my husband feels miserable for having asked me to do so. We live, we learn.

Even though that box and its beautiful expressions of youth were buried in a landfill in 1994, pieces of those penned creations had been read often enough they were indelibly etched into my memory. One sentence from one letter in particular struck a chord.

“If you came across a beautiful peacock with its feathers kept tightly closed, exposing their brilliant iridescence to no one, would you not exhort it to do so?” 

He had written it while sitting at the main desk in the University Memorial Center on the University of Colorado campus during the Odyssey of the Mind conference, noting with humor that the youth in the competition might be better termed the “oddities of the mind.” He had been trying to coax me out of my shell, and I had been railing against the notion that I even was in a shell. He was an incredibly bright, friendly, funny, and confident young man, and I thought he was the greatest thing since the invention of the Sony Walkman (look it up, kids). That he liked me enough to spend any time with me was an anomaly. Yet, he sat there, writing this note to try to convince me of my worth while I sat in complete denial and thought to myself with naive pride, “I know damn well what I am worth and there is nothing wrong with me the way I am so stop telling me how to be.”

As I continue to inch my way towards my fifty year milestone, I find myself drawn once again to that unforgettable sentence. It has taken me almost thirty years to understand that young man was attempting to hold a mirror up to me, to force me to look into it, to see how much I had going for me, and to help me understand what I was missing. Alas, I was not ready for that message then. Hell. Even though his sentence runs through my brain on a loop these days, I’m still not sure I’m ready to hear it. I spent so long being afraid of failure that I couldn’t even fathom reaching for success. It’s a sobering thought made worse by the current understanding that my inability to hear what he was saying cost me decades of ignorant struggle against myself. Some of us are slow learners, indeed.

Still…I’ve been thinking about the peacock I’ve been hiding and I’ve been working on relaxing those feathers a bit, fanning them out a little at a time before pulling them back in to keep them safe. Every time I sit down to practice my drums, they open. Every time I allow myself to entertain the notion that I could write a book, they unfold a bit more. When I think about going back to college and pursuing a new career, I feel them display a little more. And each time the sunlight hits them, I come to becoming the me I was destined to be before I learned to be fearful instead. With each flash of their brilliance, I get more encouragement from those around me and I warm to the notion maybe there is something to me worth appreciating.

So, if you ever come across a stubborn peacock who is acting like a chicken, please write them a letter and exhort them to embrace and display their beauty. You never know when those words might be just the thing needed to open their eyes to their own possibility — even if it takes them nearly thirty years to get there.

 

The Day We Chose To Be Frozen Rather Than Freeze

 

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Another one bites the dust

We like to ski. Saturdays in January, we head to the slopes. As a rule, we try to be on the road by 6 a.m. Today? Well…today we missed that goal by about 20 minutes, and that 20 minutes left us sitting in traffic for three hours before we even hit the exit for Berthoud Pass, from which point we still faced another 45 minutes on the road before we would arrive at Winter Park. Yikes. Colorado is the second-fastest growing state, and it is obvious every time we get on a highway. There are days when I find myself looking for the ocean because we must be living in LA. It is insane. Everyone wants to live here. And everyone who moves here does so for the mountains. Great for Colorado’s economy, but miserable for those of us who have lived here most our lives and remember the good old days when only a blizzard would find you stuck in your car at a crawl for over two hours before making your ultimate ski destination.

Today we did something unprecedented in our ski history. We reached the turn off for Winter Park, looked at the traffic ahead of us and behind us, and uttered a collective NOPE. We drove up the exit ramp, made a sharp left, and merged back onto the highway headed east. We’d had enough of crawling. We’d been awake four hours and had nothing but lack-of-sleep hangovers to show for it. We didn’t have the energy left to stand in freezing lift lines for the equivalent of six minutes for every one minute we would get to dodge and weave our way down overcrowded slopes. We cut our losses. As we headed east we glanced at the vehicles standing still in three lanes of traffic heading west and knew we’d made the right choice. There will be other ski days. Skiing today would not have been worth any further effort. It took only 45 minutes to get home.

When Steve and I were new-ish parents, we forced situations. We stuck with our plans, even when what we planned no longer made sense. We were going to live our lives and barrel through unabated by trivial things like explosions of infant poop in carseats. And we suffered for our inability to take in the big picture, to default to Plan B, or to skip straight to a plan we hadn’t yet conceptualized. Maybe it’s our 15 years of parenting experience, maybe it’s a greater understanding about what matters when it comes to family time, or maybe we’ve practiced yoga for too long now but, whatever it is, we find ourselves much more flexible when life throws us a curve. I like to think that on days like this one we are modeling for our sons the value in thinking critically as situations evolve and re-evaluating plans for the best outcome. We’re living in the present and acknowledging that we can’t control everything that happens but we can control our actions.

Some days you stay and fight for what you want. You stand in a freezing lift line for the opportunity to schuss your way down a powdery slope. Other days it’s better to be Elsa and Let It Go.

More Birthdays = More Birthday Cake

“You can’t help getting older, but you don’t have to get old.” ~George Burns

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Slightly younger me

Midlife is weird. You never think about it until you’re in it and by then you don’t know what the hell hit you. Right around the time I turned 40, I began feeling this sense of urgency, like life was heading into its final stages and I was running out of time. I became stressed out by the act of aging. Every day I would notice something new in my body, a twinge of pain in my wrist or a soreness in my toes as they hit the floor in the morning. I wasn’t so much young anymore. My body was in slow decline, and it became the focal point of my attention. So, I went at life like a bat outta hell. I had things to accomplish before it was too late and I was too old to do all the things. I put exercise and eating right at the top of my list and became so concerned about them that they morphed into a job rather than something to enjoy. I would compare myself to others my age to see how I was holding up. It was all about not looking or acting my age, as if my age were a brick wall I was swerving around. And, in that fog of temporary insanity, I traveled through ages 40-46, too busy crossing things off my to-do list to be in the moment and too tired from doing all the things to enjoy every other part of my life. I missed tuning in for some of the best years of my sons’ lives by being too focused on silly, self-imposed goals that in the end didn’t bring me as much satisfaction or joy as I expected they would.

Partially because of the disappointment of not finding what I was looking for during my furious race to be everything I was supposed to be in my early forties, around age 46 I entered the who-gives-a-shit-because-I’m-just-gonna-die-anyway phase. During this phase, my husband and I started sharing complaints about our bodies and how they weren’t acting the way they used to. It went from a general noticing into a full on festival of physical misfortunes. Despite our constant complaining about them, our aches and pains weren’t getting any better and our sharing these details (while making us at least momentarily feel better in our not-aloneness) kept our focus on them. This, in turn, led to a depression of sorts. If the period between 40 and 46 was my Bust-It-Out phase, the two years between 46 and 48 were my Give-It-Up-Already phase. I mean, it’s not as if twenty-somethings couldn’t tell by looking at me that I was old, at least by their standards. I wasn’t fooling anyone, so why bother? I swung right from busy and focused on outward appearances to sluggish and apathetic about everything. I ate too much, drank too much, and checked out, trying to come to terms with the knowledge that I would in fact die at some point, whether or not I had everything checked off my bucket list. And who the hell would care about what I had accomplished or not accomplished anyway?

I’m 48 and midlife crisis is mostly finished with me now. My friends who told me I would feel much better on the other side were right. The shoulda-coulda-woulda thoughts are gone. I’m not wasting another minute feeling bad about something I want that others think is inappropriate. I’m on the precipice of IDGAF, which is pretty freeing. I’m not running around trying to accomplish goals, nor am I just sitting around thinking my best days are behind me. I’m living my life where it is now, grateful for the opportunity to do just that. What I’ve learned in the past eight years is that midlife crisis is an evolution. If you’re lucky, you go through it all the way and don’t get stuck either too busy with the future or too depressed about the past to live life in the present.

I’ve been observing older people recently, looking for those who model what I would like to become now that I’ve emerged through the rebirth canal of midlife. What I’ve found is that, like most things, aging largely comes down to attitude. If you think you are old, you are. The minute you start putting labels on what you can or should do at your age, you are screwed. Age is a number. What comes with it, a natural slowing down and some measurable physical changes, is unavoidable. But how you approach those changes is a choice. I have seen 65 year olds who seemed 85 and I have seen 85 year olds who would pass for twenty years younger. The older people I admire most are grateful for their journey. They work at seeing the good around them. They don’t take themselves too seriously. They aren’t afraid to try new things. They don’t care what anyone else thinks. They take care of themselves but they don’t obsess over it. And they never put unnecessary limits on themselves. They are comfortable in the wrinkly, saggy skin they’ve earned by treating their body like the soul vessel that it is and they don’t let its appearance stop them from putting on a swimsuit and getting into the surf. They know life isn’t over until it’s over.

These days, I find I’m not as concerned about the number of candles on next year’s birthday cake. I’m just excited about the possibility of cake. img_2535

What I Teach My Children About The Illusion of Security

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They might have guns but we have flowers.

Ever since the tragic events in Paris last Friday, my mind has been tempest tossed. Coming immediately on the heels of the deadliest bombing in Beirut in 25 years, the senseless murder of innocent civilians in the City of Light was a tough blow, the second poignant lesson in the fragility of life in two days. It seems I can’t sift through the news anymore without reading about another heinous act. While I know that countless acts of murder, rape, and violence have been perpetrated for as long as humans have existed, the constant barrage of stories about the dark side of humanity elucidated by the news media over the Internet and forwarded around the globe via social media can take a toll on even the most hopeful souls.

As a mother, I have struggled with what to share with my sons about these events and what example to set for them with my words about them. When they were younger, I cautiously shielded them from gratuitous details about natural disasters, shootings, and suicide bombings, proffering just enough information to make them aware but not enough to cause them sleepless nights. Parenting is a non-stop balancing act, and I regularly walk the high wire between too much information and not enough. Our sons are 12 and 14 now, plenty old enough to be aware of world events and form opinions about them. At school they watch news clips from CNN, an education I am grateful for because it provides an opportunity for open discourse at home about the world. I welcome the invitation to engage with our sons and answer questions and concerns as they arise. I like to think that in doing so my husband and I are raising informed, thinking, and engaged citizens of the world.

Today, during my daily run through of my social media news feeds, I read that governors of 27 states have declared they will not welcome Syrian refugees due to security concerns after the Paris attacks. I scratched my head. Regardless of the fact that states do not have the right to refuse refugees our federal government chooses to accept, I marvel at the naiveté of leaders who presume that refusing refugees is the surest way to keep their citizens safe. But many people in this country harbor the illusion that security is an entity we can guarantee and enforce because, well, we’re the United States of America, dammit. But we can’t. We never have been able to and we never will be. We can’t stop bad things from happening. Bad things are as certain as the sunrise, and security is merely an illusion we cling to as a means to mitigate our fears.

I live in Colorado, one of only seven states that has said it will welcome refugees displaced by the atrocities in Syria, which have left over 250,000 civilians dead and nearly half of its population of 22 million seeking a safe haven elsewhere. While many are against this, I am pleased with our governor’s proclamation. I don’t believe that turning away victims of terrorism will keep us any safer than we are now. Could an ISIS sympathizer be among the refugees who end up in Colorado? Probably. There have already been arrests of suspected ISIS militants and supporters in the US, and there is no reason to imagine we will be able to stop more from seeking to harm us if that is what they intend. Even our best attempts at national security will leave unexpected holes for terrorists to slip through. We are not capable of squelching every plot. We didn’t foresee the attack on Pearl Harbor or the attacks of 9/11. Is that a reason to turn away hundreds of innocents who are displaced and suffering, seeking a better, safer place for their family? I don’t think so. I like to think that we are a better nation than that.

The truth is that life is tenuous and fraught with peril, and there is little to nothing we can do about it. This is what I tell my sons daily. You could lose your life to a terrorist suicide bomber in a crowded cafe or to a mentally disturbed individual in a movie theater, to a drunk driver on their way home or to an incurable cancer. You could be the healthiest person out there and keel over from a heart attack. You can do everything right, take all the proper precautions, but you will still fall someday. Not one of us is getting out of this life alive, and we can’t guarantee that security to our children either. But the legacy we leave with our actions can and will make a difference in the lives of others. I would like my children to witness from me love, generosity, and bravery in the face of life’s sometimes scary realities rather than fear, isolationism, and cowardice disguised as protectionism. I would rather my sons learn to take a calculated risk for the sake of goodness than to shun others for an imagined sense of security.

Right after I read that article about the governors unwilling to welcome refugees, I found this video of a Parisian father and his young son being interviewed at the site of the Bataclan attacks where citizens were gathering to leave flowers and light candles in memory of the lives lost there. The father tells his son that there are bad people everywhere and that the flowers and candles being placed are there to protect him. I won’t lie. I get weepy every time I replay that video, and I have watched it at least a dozen times already. In the most beautiful way possible, this father is teaching his son that bad things happen but we don’t need to fear them. We need to accept them, focus on the good we can do, and go on with our lives. If we operate from a place of peace and love and hope, we are freer from fear than if we barricade ourselves in to hide from it. Fear can become an inescapable prison or our impetus to live in the present.

I showed my sons the video of that father because it speaks more eloquently about security than anything I’ve seen on the Internet since the attacks on Beirut and Paris. I’ve felt my heart shrivel as I scanned comments from friends about why we should not open our nation and our hearts to those who seek peace because we might regret it. While I understand their concerns, I can’t believe that this is what we have come to. We citizens of the United States forget how fortunate we are to be here and the sacrifices made by previous citizens that afforded us the luxury of birthright and the illusion of security. We forget that most of our ancestors arrived on these shores disillusioned, frightened, and clinging to hope promised by a lady standing in a harbor, the same feelings the Syrian refugees now hold. My husband and I are supporting our governor as he opens the doors to our incredible state. We are talking to our sons and teaching them that the inscription on Lady Liberty does not have caveats. It’s not “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, the wretched refuse of your teeming shore but only if they aren’t coming from a war torn Middle Eastern country or from a south-of-the-border neighbor with drug problems because we don’t want any of THOSE.” We are telling them that life is scary. Bad things do happen. But the more good we put out into the world and the more we focus on that, the better things will become. My silent parental prayer today and every day is that our sons will grow to love this world despite the negatives and to live boldly in it without fear for as many days as they have.

And Just Like That All Was Right In The Universe

Squeeeeeeee!

Squeeeeeeee!

Sometimes you just know things are meant to be.

A little over a month ago, I told my husband that if The Decemberists (an Indie folk rock band I’m partial to) scheduled a concert in Denver this spring or summer, I would be there. I’ve already seen them in concert. A few years ago I stood in a cramped theater surrounded by hipsters with long beards, swept up in a sea of flannel, and swore to my friend I would see them live in concert again. And then I told hubby that the scheduling of said concert could possibly preclude all sorts of previous engagements, including but not limited to graduations, anniversaries, vacations, and surgeries. I kept checking their site for a concert announcement while waiting for their latest album to drop. And drop it did. Today. Nothing makes a lousy Tuesday masquerading as a Monday better than the long-anticipated release of new music.

This afternoon, I got a concert alert stating that yes, in fact, The Decemberists will be bringing their North American tour to Denver this spring. I’m not going to lie. I did squee a bit when I saw the message title. When I opened the actual message and examined it a little more closely, however, I honestly released a sound that was somewhere between a girly squeal and a coyote yip. I didn’t even know I could make a noise like that. Not only are The Decemberists coming to town, but they are coming to my favorite venue, the iconic Red Rocks Amphitheater. On my birthday. And Spoon is opening up for them; tickets for their last show here sold out before I got one and now they are coming back as if to make it up to me. Are you kidding? Did I mention this is all going to happen on my birthday? On. My. Birthday.

I know I am an infinitesimal speck of dust in an unfathomable universe. I know that by comparison this one event is meaningless and smaller than the smallest particle comprising a grain of sand when you compare it to something like this photo of the Andromeda Galaxy. But, when things like this happen…when everything seems divined by some higher, magnificent power…I take note. I stop for a minute, take a deep breath, and wallow in perfection because I know that this the-world-is-amazing-and-I-am-so-fortunate-to-be-alive feeling of utter joy will pass soon enough, probably when I have to deal with Joe’s science fair experiment again. Luckily, that too has only the importance of the tiniest particle on a microscopic particle comprising a grain of sand, so it’s all good. The universe is awesome.

And Then Life Happens

What will you leave behind?

What will you leave behind?

It has been a lachrymose few days for me. And while I’m rarely teary-eyed for long, sometimes my thinking brain gets trampled unexpectedly by my feeling heart and leaves me a bit off kilter. Life’s challenges can explode like forgotten landmines lying in wait, and recently I’ve been privy to more bad news than good. The shock of the unexpected and the gravity of life’s free fall moments got the best of me last week. I’ve been clawing my way from my heart back to my head for days hoping to gain some traction in the present.

Late last week, I learned via Facebook that a former high school classmate of mine died. It’s not easy when anyone dies. It’s more difficult when the person who passed is your age because, well….Hello, Mortality. Beyond that, I hate learning about death through social media. It’s such an unwelcome, impersonal shock filled with unanswerable questions. I can’t say that I knew this person well. He was among the best students in our class, so I was on the outskirts of his life in AP Physics and Calculus. He was someone I knew from the hallways, the yearbook pages, and the sharing of mutual friends. As the news of his passing spread across my Facebook friends’ news feeds and the online memorial tributes to him increased in number, I grieved along with my friends through some sort of osmotic process. The few interactions that John and I shared happened in the more recent past. I knew more about him through Facebook than I knew of him in the real world, so I suppose it was fitting that I learned about his moving on through the same channel. I can’t say that I had an impact on his life in any way, but I know that his life touched mine in the kind of way that makes you realize that we citizens of Earth have more in common than we think we do based on what we see on the outside.

Today as I was driving home after dropping the boys off at school, still absorbed by life’s absurdities and ill-timed departures, I was following a snow-covered van. We traveled along at 55 miles per hour and the snow from the van’s roof blew off in swirls. As the individual flakes whizzed toward my car, it appeared I was making the leap to hyperspace. In the early morning sunlight, each flake was a tiny fleck of gold or silver. I got caught up in the beauty of this pure and simple occurrence. It made me deeply and honestly happy. I felt better than I have in days. It wasn’t a winning lottery ticket that brought me out of my funk. It was a moment of gratitude for life brought about by a random act of beauty I was finally present enough to appreciate.

I can’t stop thinking now about how wrong we humans are about our journey on this planet. We make life into what appears on the outside. We obsess with how we look rather than focusing on who we are personally and what truly matters to us. We stress about where our kids go to school more than we worry about our relationships with them. We want the respect of others, and we think we will earn it with important job titles, tastefully decorated homes, and luxury cars. We are cats jumping at shiny things. We are clueless.

The effect you have on others is the most valuable currency there is. Everything you gain in life will rot and fall apart, and all that will be left of you is what was in your heart. ~Jim Carrey

This quote has been bouncing around in my head for weeks. I’ve been wanting to say something about it, and several times I’ve sat down with my laptop to try to coax the words out of my mind. They wouldn’t come. Then our class lost John and it came into focus. All the epitaphs, composed for a friend who left us too soon, collected the whole of John’s heart and put it on display for all of us who regret that we did not know him better. Short though his life was, it was a life lived right.

We who are still here are lucky enough to have this moment. Don’t squander it. Look around you. Be grateful for what you have. Pay attention to those who matter. Don’t bother chasing the shiny distractions. Time is precious. Someday someone will be painting a verbal picture of you posthumously. Make sure you show them your best side now.

Our Perpetual Lady of Slow Learners

Lovely couple of kids

Lovely couple of kids

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through my journey as a parent, it’s that expectations can be your undoing. In terms of expectations, mothers are doomed from the start. From the day we pee on a stick and see pink lines, we are an expectant mother. Our pregnancy bible is entitled What To Expect When You’re Expecting, and we devour the information between its covers because pregnancy is so new and different and impending parenthood is equal parts exhilaration and terror. We want to be prepared…as much as anyone can be prepared for the arrival of something so much a part of oneself and yet totally unlike anything anywhere else. While our children begin their lives unencumbered by the existence of expectations, we embark on our parental career ready to measure them against the rubric of the typical. And that’s the point when we make our first big mistake.

I knew fairly early on that our sons were not typical. They did not follow growth and development charts. They were on their own schedules. Things their peers were readily learning, our sons could not. They skipped letters in the alphabet  and struggled to write their own names. They were uncoordinated with sports and were unable catch a ball or skip or follow rhythm. Physicians noted their shortfalls while reassuring us that they were fine. In school, they displayed obvious intellect while retelling stories or playing creatively, but rote memorization of math facts escaped them. They began to get poor marks on tests science and social studies tests despite knowing the answers when asked orally. We were frustrated. We knew they were intelligent, but their grades didn’t reflect it. Teachers told me they weren’t trying, but I knew how hard they worked. I could see their constant struggle to keep up and fit in with expectations they now innately understood by watching their classmates and receiving their report cards. When we finally realized that they had learning disabilities, the damage had been done. Our sons no longer believed they could be successful. Expectations were crushing them.

This year we pulled them out of traditional school and did what we swore we would not. We put them into a special school, a school for children who think differently, a school for the atypical. We’d been hesitant to take this route, fearful of pointing out to them and to others that they weren’t measuring up in regular schools. But the time for denial being a river in Egypt was over. They needed help…no matter what that help looked like. Their new school was a big adjustment for me. You see, there are no grades there. None. Kids aren’t in 4th grade and they don’t earn letter grades. They’re not evaluated that way, and teachers and students don’t discuss grades. They discuss progress. They discuss solutions to struggles. While the kids are evaluated regularly, they are assessed solely on improvement. If they’re improving, they’re on the right track. If they’re not improving, it’s time to re-evaluate how they might learn better and pursue a different route. It’s so simple it’s scary.

And, honestly, this new system of analysis did scare me. I was so tied to our traditional conventions that the variation seemed dubious. As a culture, we subsist on numbers and quantitative results. Our conversations with other parents about our children often revolve around concrete standards. Bobby came in First at State. Jimmy has a 4.0. Sue got a 1300 on her SATs. Hey. I get it. It’s an accomplishment and a feather in our caps when our child is successful in a way that we can readily point out. I know from personal experience, though, the other side of that equation. When our sons were earning C and D grades, I perpetually feared having someone ask me about their report cards. I knew that based on their grades our boys would be marked as sub par by others, and that was frightening. And now when they’re getting no grades, well that’s even scarier. When you tell someone your son is “around the 4th grade level and is a consistently improving student,” they look at you as if you’re sporting three heads. No one is up for flexible standards of personal success although that is the only type of personal success there is…the personal kind.

If we’re going to live by expectations (which we seem bound by human nature to do), perhaps we could be a bit more flexible with our assessment of others? We could accept steady improvement as our rubric. We could value overall forward progress over typical milestones because the truth is that not everyone is typical in every way. Our sons are slow learners because their brains process information differently than the majority. So what? It’s taken me almost 46 years to believe that a piece of paper doesn’t prove wisdom and all the outward success in the world doesn’t make you a better person than the next guy, and that makes me a pretty slow learner too. I’m learning to let go of expectations and becoming more patient with myself and with others. It might be two steps forward and one step back, but I’m making progress just like my sons. By the end of my life, I like to think I will have evolved not just to standards but beyond them in ways that are immeasurable.

I threw away the books that told me how my children should be. I now appreciate them for how they are.