Exorcising The Ghosts Of The Past

What I used to record portions of the Live Aid concert in 1985

In the days before the Internet and FaceTime and Zoom and texting, people wrote letters. A stamp, a pen, and a piece of paper were all you needed to share the contents of your mind and heart with someone who was worth the effort of your time and questionable penmanship. As is the habit for many people, I saved quite a few of the letters I received over the years from friends and boyfriends. I kept them in a box that once held my cassette player (back in the days when cassettes were a thing). Over time, that box got rather stuffed with random correspondence. I didn’t open it very often to read its contents, but I dragged it with me each time I moved. It would relocate from the top of one closet shelf to another, from apartment to apartment. There was something about knowing those letters were there if I ever wanted to trot down memory lane or perhaps clarify a memory that had become distorted or foggy.

When my husband and I got engaged and decided to move in together, he was helping me move boxes into my car when he came across that one. He asked me why I was bringing it. After all, if these letters represented relationships that had long since gone defunct, why was I clinging to them? I honestly could not give him a suitable answer. If I’d said I was keeping them for sentimental reasons, that would only make the box more of an issue in our relationship at the time. I didn’t know how to respond. In the absence of a viable response, he asked me if I could add them to the dumpster along with the wooden case holding 100 cassette tapes I no longer needed since he had a CD player he was willing to share. I acquiesced because he had never asked for anything from me, we were getting married and he was my future, and it seemed like a small sacrifice I should be willing to make for someone who had never been anything but kind, loving, supportive, and patient with me. With a pang of disappointment, I lobbed them over the wall of the dumpster, turned around, and tried not to look back. I was twenty-six then, he twenty-four.

In the years since, we both have felt deep regret over that event. He has felt horrible for asking me to toss a box of papers because he felt a little jealous about its existence. I have felt anger at myself for not defending my right to keep them because they were harmless mementos from my youth. But there is no unringing that bell. They are long gone. So now we just carry around the shame regarding that missing box instead of carrying around the box itself, which we have both agreed is so much more emotionally cumbersome than that damn box ever was.

This decision, made in our youth when we were not emotionally mature and had no real experience to gift us with greater perspective, has laden us with invisible baggage that we have hauled for decades. It’s something he doesn’t like me to mention because he feels just that bad about it, but I don’t blame him because the box is gone. I blame myself for not being self-aware enough to tell him it was part of my life I wasn’t ready to jettison. But it’s time for us to unload our disappointment in ourselves and the choices we made when we were younger and not able to see so far into the future. Seriously. Who can see twenty-seven years into the future when they aren’t even twenty-seven yet? The guilt and shame we feel needs to go. That box has long since been replaced by countless wonderful memories and experiences as our life together has been filled with love and fun and two absolutely-perfect-in-nearly-every-way adult sons, not to mention dozens upon dozens of cards and notes we have written to each other and saved. Therefore, I am declaring it time to move on. I may not be able to read those missives again, but I have something much more important. I would never trade my current life, our family, our shared experiences for those pieces of paper and neither would he. It’s way past time for us to toss the shame and self-flaggelation in the dumpster and move forward.

I’ll Carry My Own Wine, Thanks

Something occurred to me this morning. The purpose of this trek was to deliver Thing One to Washington to begin his first full year of college. Everything I’ve done the past twenty years led to these moments. And as much as I’ve enjoyed bringing Joe here and helping him get set up, one thing has finally sunk in. My work here is finished. Maybe not completely, as I’m sure soon enough he will be asking me to edit a paper or send him something he forgot. But I can’t pretend any longer that life as I have known it is the same. It’s not. I’ve spent the past twenty years laser focused on my children. Now it’s time to shift my focus. I imagine it’s like the day after the retirement party. You wake up and think to yourself, “Well, now what?”

The beauty of eastern Washington with her eye on the Blues

Joe and I had tentative plans to have dinner together today, but I woke up this morning with not one other thing on my agenda. I sat in my hotel room and took a deep breath. What the hell do I want to do? Not what do I have to do, but what do I want to do? I haven’t had many occasions to ask myself that for a long time. I decided that rather than sit in bed and feel sad and lonely, I had best get showered, do something with myself, and get some coffee. Seeking something new but still in my heart needing something that felt like the life I have known, I decided to drive out to Target in Richland because Richland is new to me but Target is my normal.

At Target, I wandered aimlessly to kill time. I knew Joe needed hangers and a small fan and I needed some water, so I took care of those things. I would pick an item up, thinking Joe could use it in his dorm room, and then I would remember that it’s not my job to decorate his room anymore and move on. I quickly realized that, although on most days Target can cheer me up, today was not going to be that kind of day.

I decided I needed to regroup. I bought myself a green tea from Starbucks and sat in my car thinking about what else I could do. I began researching a winery I had driven by on my way out to Richland. Going to a wine tasting solo sounded awkward, but I needed to get comfortable being uncomfortable. I’m starting over. Everything is going to feel weird for a while until it doesn’t anymore. Be brave. Be bold. Go big or go home. I booked a 2:15 tasting and went to grab some food. I ate lunch at a picnic table near the Columbia River and enjoyed the shade before heading back towards Walla Walla.

Nice day on the Columbia

I had driven past the L’Ecole No. 41 winery a few times on previous trips. I found my way up the stairs and into the main sales area and told them I had a reservation. I was seated on the back deck at a table with just one chair, which immediately made me feel at ease. Nothing can make you feel more obviously alone than being a single at a table meant for two. I made small talk with the server as he poured my wine. And then I was there alone, sipping delicious wine, enjoying the sunny day in eastern Washington, the wasps swirling around a tree and some children playing on an old seesaw on the grassy yard below. As each pour came and went, I started to relax a tiny bit more. I allowed myself to envision a life where I have fewer demands on my time and greater freedom to be conscious about how I choose to spend that time. Maybe this wouldn’t be so bad after all?

I did eventually meet up with Joe to give him the last few items he needed, to see the finished dorm room, and to grab a bite to eat. We enjoyed Indian food from the same restaurant we ate takeout from when we arrived in Walla Walla in January. Joe told me about his past, solo 24 hours. He told me he nearly had trouble assembling the storage unit we bought for his room until he remembered his bike tool had a screwdriver he could use. He told me his new section mates seemed like a quiet group and he was glad. He thanked me for bringing the final items. I told him about my trip to Richland and the winery. I told him how an older gentleman (yes…older than me) asked if I needed help carrying my wine to my car. I complimented him on his dorm room. Before I knew it, we were discussing when to meet up in the morning for my departure.

Lovely downtown Walla Walla urging me Forward

I know this is going to be a process. I’m creating a new normal, but I can do it. It was a new normal when Joe came into the world weeks early and weighing only 5 pounds. I survived that and then doubled down and spent years doing a pretty good job at Mom. I bet if you give me a few years, I’ll be doing a pretty good job at Justine too.

Do I need help carrying my wine? Jesus, man. I raised two kickass sons and dropped one off at college yesterday. Can’t you see how goddamn strong I am? I’ll carry my own wine, thanks.

I bet this dog carries his own wine too

Thought Experiments

Every night we take a walk with our thirteen year old border collie, Ruby. I like to think it’s the high point of her day. Often the walk is just Steve and I, but sometimes we can cajole the boys into coming along. Tonight we got to enjoy their banter. Luke was world building, designing a college. He calls these imaginings “thought experiments.” Joe was, of course, bickering with him about some of his ideas, and I had to jump in and tell Joe that he doesn’t get to tell Luke his ideas are misguided. I’ve been telling him that for as long as Luke has been his brother.

We often walk the same route. We look for the toads that appear after dark. Tonight we saw a tiny one and a big boy we decided to name Chonk. The moon was full and small clouds glided in front of it intermittently. At one point, the moon had a cloud handlebar mustache.

When the world is crazy, these walks are my zen. Ruby has done her best to keep us going out into the world, even and especially during a pandemic. For thirteen years, she has been our constant keeper. She reminds us how lucky we are to be a family, to have each other, to have someone looking out for us.

Times are changing, though. Joe goes back to college soon. Luke is applying for colleges now too. And, sadly, our beautiful puppy girl is nearing her unfair end. Our days on this earth are the same as the clouds floating over the moon tonight. They’re sailing by, indecipherable from one another, here and then gone.

I said these walks are the high point of Ruby’s day, but they’re actually the high point of mine. They remind me of all the good things still left after childhood’s end.

When Someone Great Is Gone

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My father-in-law and our youngest

In the early hours of the morning, our family got smaller. My dear, 88-year-old father-in-law passed away peacefully at home with his nuclear family close by. It was three weeks to the day the oncologist told him he had perhaps one to six months left. But Jim was always a little impatient and ready to get on to the next thing, so he left us sooner rather than later. He was not one to dawdle and he hated to be late.

I first met him at a restaurant for a family dinner when my husband and I had only been dating a few weeks. That night is largely a blur to me except for the memory of Jim sitting next to Steve at the table. At one point, I looked over and saw he had his arm around the back of Steve’s chair and was leaning in close to talk to him. I knew then that Steve was a keeper. With a loving, engaged, affectionate father like that, how could he not be?

Jim loved to tell a story. At parties, he’d be in the center of a crowd holding court. Sometimes he would tell the same story again, but he’d tell it with gusto as if it was the first time you were hearing it. Not too long ago, he began a familiar tale and we must have given him a collective facial groan because he immediately said, “I know you’ve heard this before but I don’t care. I love telling this story.” And so he did. It was the story of the day my husband was born in a hospital in Geneva, Switzerland. He got to the point in the story where events in the labor room were gaining momentum and he recounted again the nurse saying to the doctor viens vite and then he reminded us again (although we already knew) that viens vite means come quickly. Jim shared dozens of stories with us over the years. And having traveled to more than 100 countries in his life, he was a man with myriad stories to tell. Every painting in the house he shared with my mother-in-law, every piece of decor he’d hauled or sent home from other countries had meaning. He surrounded himself with tokens and trinkets relating to memories.

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Jim and Marlene in their custom painted golf cart

He loved to buy mementos and gifts almost as much as he loved opening them himself. I’ve never seen a grown man relish gift opening the way Jim did. Christmas will never be the same without him. Each year on his birthday, he requested homemade butterscotch pie, and my mother-in-law would dutifully oblige to create the dessert she says requires every pan in the kitchen. I decided today that henceforth we shall continue to celebrate Jim’s birthday on April 17th with butterscotch pie. Steve and I will also be carrying on Jim and Marlene’s tradition of grog, toasting with a drink at 5 p.m., because it’s important to celebrate every day with the people you love.

It’s hard to overstate the impact Jim had on my life. After a successful career at Caterpillar, climbing up in the ranks to land as Vice Chairman back in the 1980s, Jim enjoyed sharing what he loved with people he loved. He put not only his two children through undergraduate and graduate school, he also paid for graduate school for his children’s spouses. That wasn’t enough, though, so when our sons were born he created educational trusts for them, which have allowed them to attend private schools for children with learning disabilities that Steve and I might likely not have otherwise been able to afford. Jim shared his love of travel with us too by taking us on incredible vacations to England, Norway, Alaska, the Galapagos Island, and the Exuma Cays in the Bahamas. Then, as if all his generosity hadn’t been enough, he and my mother-in-law flew the six of us to Tanzania last December for a glamping safari because they wanted to hear our stories even if they couldn’t be there to share in them themselves. Because of his generosity, I was able to stop working when our oldest was born and to stay home to raise our sons, to be there for them for whatever they needed, from occupational therapy to dyslexia tutoring. So much of what our little family of four has and is comes as a result of Jim’s kindness.

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On one our fabulous family vacations

His show of love and affection didn’t, however, just arrive through financial means. He was loving and supportive always in all ways. He regularly read my blog and when he came upon one he really appreciated or that really spoke to him, he would send me an email. After one post I wrote detailing the struggle I was having trying to decide if or how to celebrate my fiftieth birthday, he sent me this message:

You are being too hard on yourself. Have a birthday party and pay attention to your therapist. You are loaded with good qualities.

My father-in-law gave without expecting anything in return. He never offered unsolicited advice. He never said an unkind word to me or my sons. He was a tall man with a heart that must have taken up 5 feet in his 6 foot frame. He lived his life his way, which was never halfway. I admired that and often dreamed of being able to emulate it.

On the occasion of Jim’s 80th birthday, I wrote him a letter and told him how much he meant to me, how he had changed me and my life, and how grateful I was to be part of his family. It wasn’t much, but it was all I could offer to the man who ostensibly gave me a life greater than I ever dreamed I would have. It breaks my heart to know I won’t hear another one of his stories or get another one of his hugs at the end of the day but, dammit, I am one lucky lady to have been part of his final inner circle.

We’ll see you again someday, Jim. You might have to wait a bit, though, because we want to make it to 88 too. We’re not ready to viens vite.

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The luckiest ones

 

The Subtle Art Of Raising A Keeper

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Ready to be a suitable suitor at 2

My oldest had his wisdom teeth out a couple days ago. He’s been fortunate, and it’s been mostly not a big deal for him. He’s had no bruising, very minimal swelling, and pain that is manageable with over-the-counter relief. Last night, however, he didn’t sleep well. So he awoke at 5:30 a.m. to take some more Advil and when they kicked in he fell back asleep. Great, right? Wrong. He had a coffee date planned for 9:30 this morning. I didn’t know this, but somehow wandered down to his room at that time to check on how he was feeling.

He was pretty out of it as he awoke. He looked at the clock on his phone for a long five or six seconds while it registered in his brain.

“Shit!” he exclaimed as he moved the blanket back and slowly sat up. “I was supposed to meet Ella.”

“When?” I inquired.

“Right about now,” he said.

He’s never been late to pick up his girlfriend. Since he started dating last spring, I’ve learned a great deal about my son and how he conducts himself in matters of the heart. He is considerate, continually thinking of what she might like and dreaming up creative ways to show he cares. He is flexible, willing to rework plans to make the most of their time together. And, he is timely. Usually.

“Text her and tell her you overslept because of your mouth. Tell her you’ll be there in a half an hour. Grab a quick shower. You’ve got this,” I told him.

I knew he was worried. He doesn’t like to be late. Once when he was three, in an absent-minded parental state of exhaustion, I got on the highway to take him to school. Problem was the highway was in the opposite direction of school. He noticed immediately and told me I was going the wrong way. He began to panic, fearful that he would be late, that his teacher would be upset with him, that he had ruined his perfect attendance record. I spent the fifteen minutes rerouting to get him to school apologizing, explaining there are dozens of different ways to arrive at the same location and assuring him it would be fine. When we walked into school, he ran to his classroom. I heard him loudly tell the teacher, “I’m late because my mom went the wrong way. ” Subtle. 

At 9:45 I heard the door to the garage open, so I went to say goodbye. He was showered and ready to go, but I noticed his thick hair was uncombed and unruly.

“You didn’t fix your hair,” I noted.

“No time,”  he said.

“Nuh uh,” I replied. “You have twenty seconds to fix yourself. Stay right there.”

I dashed off to get the hair cream and reappeared in seconds to help him tame his mop. At the time, it occurred to me maybe I was overstepping my bounds, being too motherly to someone who is no longer a kid but an eighteen year old with a car and a girlfriend. Then I shoved that thought right aside because sometimes it’s good to have someone around to help you out in a rush. Everyone benefits from a little help sometimes, and it’s good to understand that. The devil is in the details. That is the kind of thing I want him to remember as he crosses this bridge from youth into adulthood.

“If you’re going to make a girl wait for you, it’s good to make sure you’re worth waiting for,” I told him as he got into the car.

Many times as a much younger woman I sat waiting for a guy who was late. Many times said guy showed up just as he was, not the least bit concerned about his disheveled appearance or apologetic about his tardiness. The boys who weren’t like that are the ones who stand out to me now. The ones who took a minute to throw on an attractive sweater rather than the crappy, acid-wash denim jacket they wore to school. The ones who bothered to put on a cologne they knew I loved. The ones who showed up with a flower they’d grabbed at a gas station convenience store. Those guys were the ones who made me feel special, the ones who were worth waiting for. I like to think my son will be one of those someday, even if he needs some guidance to get there.

 

 

 

Maybe I’ll Come Back As A Tree

IMG_6482This week has been another lesson in the first Buddhist Noble Truth…life is suffering. Last Saturday we learned that we lost a friend unexpectedly and far too young. I was barely at acceptance of that heartbreaking reality check when the shooting at the STEM school happened, directly affecting several friends with children who attend that school. Of course, this came less than a month since the day that all Denver-area students were forced to stay home when a woman flew to Colorado and purchased a pump-action shotgun with the intention of carrying out a Columbine-style mass shooting as our community was preparing for the 20th anniversary of that tragedy, which also directly affected people I know. And then yesterday I spent part of my day at a memorial service and reception for a family member. The precariousness of life, and our need to live in the now (and hopefully zen) moment, pervaded my every thought this week.

This week also precipitated meaningful conversations between my husband and I. We’ve discussed additional life insurance, funeral plans, urns, wills, and making the most of our time on this rotating sphere. He and I are on the same page about most things in life, and this holds true with our thoughts about death. We don’t want to be buried or have our ashes stored in a box or decorative vase in someone’s home. We don’t want a traditional funeral.

Yesterday we were in the car on our way to the interment when we started discussing urns.

“I think I will get a crazy, fun urn for my ashes, like Carrie Fisher did.”

In case you weren’t aware, Carrie Fisher had her ashes placed in a large, Prozac-pill-shaped urn. Cheeky and appropriate for her, I admired her bold choice.

“Maybe I will make a box for my ashes? It will give me a reason to learn tongue-in-groove joints,” Steve mused.

“Yeah,” I said. “Like the guys at the woodworking awards on the Parks and Rec episode who were pictured in memoriam with the caskets they built for themselves.”

“Exaaaaactly,” Steve replied.

“I just don’t want you guys spending money on an urn I wouldn’t be caught dead in. I need to find something that suits me that you can carry me around in until you dump me wherever you decide to unload me. If you keep me around the house, I will come back and haunt you, I swear.”

Later, a friend told us he plans to be put in a Cafe du Monde chickory coffee can. Seems perfectly reasonable and cost effective to me.

This morning, morbid as it sounds, I did a search for funeral urns. Actually, the Google search entry was “crazy fun funeral urns,” and it turns out I wasn’t the first person to search those terms, which gives me hope that I am not the only weirdo out there.

One of the results from the search was for this biodegradable urn by Bios. This urn has a place to hold ashes and then a separate area with a tree seed and the medium to grow said seed. While not particularly crazy or fun, this urn does something more important than hold ashes. This urn gives back. It creates something from nothing, life from death. And it leaves no waste. That’s a win/win in my book. Reflecting on my personality, wishes, and thoughts about death and the circle of life, this might be the most suitable urn for me.

Oddly enough, this search for urns has brought me a measure of peace in an otherwise emotionally difficult week. I told Steve he is not to hold a funeral or memorial service for me, but if he and the boys would like to host a party in my honor that would be marvelous. Hopefully it would involve friends, family, flowers (no lilies, please), food (none of it gluten free), and include a toast to my memory carried out with a Polish vodka shot for all. Now that I’ve shared this here, you’re all honor bound to ensure he carries out my wishes.

Life is suffering. There is physical and emotional pain, aging, and death. Yes. This week has been rough, but that’s what life is, a struggle to grow and persevere despite the inevitable, to leave a mark no matter how ephemeral. I think I will buy one of these urns. There’s something about going to seed that germinates hope where sadness once took root. Maybe someday I’ll come back as a tree, reaching for the sun, stubbornly continuing my growth.

Oh No! She’s Gone Full KonMari!

IMG_4015Let go or be dragged.  ~Zen Proverb

A few weeks ago while I was out of town, my husband messaged me and told me he had been watching the popular Netflix series, Tidying Up with Marie Kondo. I rolled my eyes. He’s always loved the idea of simplifying, even as he continued to purchase new travel bags and backpacks, the latest home automation gadgets, and new paraphernalia for his hobbies. It’s quite a conundrum for him, the desire to pare down while feeling the pull of shiny things. Still, he said he was cleaning out his closet using the KonMari method, going through boxes of old sweaters and t-shirts I have been begging him to jettison for years. That had to be good, right?  

When I got home and witnessed the magic Marie’s art of tidying up had brought to his closet and office, I got a little inspired myself. Although I twice yearly empty my closet of items that didn’t see the light of day over the past few seasons, I emptied my closet of everything, setting it neatly on the bed, and appraising each item in terms of joy. In some cases, the decisions were easy. Love the details on this top. This makes me look ten pounds heavier. This dress gets so many compliments. Pretty sure I’m never getting back into this pair of pants. In other cases, I struggled. Eventually, I unloaded two full kitchen bags of items whose existence caused me a tiny discomfort when I opened my closet, either by being too small and therefore a reminder of how my body has changed or by inspiring guilty feelings knowing I had wasted money on them. And, in the end, when I looked at the closet filled only with items I can and will wear, I felt lighter. I told my husband I was grateful he jumped on the Marie Kondo bandwagon. 

This notion of evaluating things for how they make me feel has set me on a new path. What if I took a critical look at my life and assessed what areas are bringing me joy and commit myself more fully to those? Wouldn’t my joy exponentially increase if I said goodbye to obligations I accepted long ago when they fit me but which no longer make me happy? Could I eliminate some bad habits, like playing Toy Blast on my phone when I need to get out of my brain, and make space for activities that foster growth rather provide mindless escape? What if I off-loaded some limiting thoughts that arose as a necessary protection mechanism but that now only chain me to an outdated version of myself? If removing items from my closet made space for mental tranquility, what were the possibilities if I examined the people and relationships in my life? I could start by reducing my social media footprint. From Facebook I could drop those who aren’t in my life in any substantive way, people whose posts and comments don’t align with the life I want for myself. Through that process, I would gain greater understanding of what is valuable to me and then I could consider the personal relationships in my life. Which ones make me better and more joyful? Which ones support and encourage and which ones frustrate, sadden, and tether me to past negativity? Where can I find peace and space without judgement by acknowledging my gratitude to people and situations I’ve outgrown and then taking a deep breath and moving forward purposefully without them? 

“Keep only those things that speak to your heart. Then take the plunge and discard all the rest.” ~ Marie Kondo

I’ll be honest. I’m nervous about undertaking this gargantuan mental and emotional cleanse. Tidying my house is a safe undertaking. Tidying my head space is discomfiting. But, like every other life on this planet, I am daily running down the clock. I can either let go of what doesn’t serve me or I can spend whatever time I have left in this beautiful world being dragged behind it like a water skier who has fallen yet hasn’t realized it’s time to let go of the tow line. It takes a special kind of stupid to keep repeatedly making the same mistakes. So, I’m letting go of what has been dragging me. I’m going to go KonMari on my life so I can wrap my arms around better things. 

 

F.I.P.

“I’m not a mess but a deeply feeling person in a messy world. I explain that now, when someone asks me why I cry so often, I say, ‘For the same reason I laugh so often–because I’m paying attention.’ I tell them that we can choose to be perfect and admired or to be real and loved. We must decide.”     ~Glennon Doyle

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Splashy, aka Foggy Foo

On Tuesday night, minutes before we were scheduled to leave for our son’s high school Cross-Country Awards Banquet, I discovered our African dwarf frog belly up on the rocks at the bottom of his aquarium home. Although he (I decided years ago he was a he without any biological proof) hadn’t been acting himself for weeks and I had suspected this was coming, the knowledge he was gone left me with a frog-shaped hole in my heart where he had escaped like a cartoon character busting through a wall and leaving only his outline.

Nine years ago, as a heart bandaid after a life-scarring debacle in which my son and I unsuccessfully attempted to raise a tadpole into frogdom, I purchased from Brookstone (don’t ask) four fully grown aquatic frogs in small habitats. Each of my young sons would have two critters to care for. That was the plan, anyway. Although the boys named them, Padme and Anakin and Swimmy and Splashy, we all know how the story goes. I fed them. I cleaned their watery homes, bought their food, and looked for new plants for their decor. They were mine in all their froggy glory from the beginning because I had killed their tadpole and these were my mea culpa. Still, I told the boys that these frogs were temporary, short-lived pets and they needed to prepare themselves for that.

Padme, like her Star Wars character, was the first to perish that first year she moved in. About a year later, Swimmy and Anakin died within a few weeks of each other. I figured the last holdout wouldn’t last much longer on his own and I would be free of the stigma of the tadpole catastrophe and the work of the frog experiment. Splashy, who was now referred to by the unfortunate sobriquet Foggy Foo, however, continued to thrive. Research told me most most aquatic dwarf frogs lived less than five years in captivity. After six years, I began to suspect Foggy Foo was an anomaly.

Foggy and I worked out a marvelous relationship over the years. He recognized my voice and would emerge from his house when I called him. He did not do this for anyone else. He would swim to the top to eat when I fed him and had on occasion eaten from my hand. I would often pause during my day to check on him. I enjoyed watching him and listened for his muffled songs. We had a bond. He was my little guy. I loved him as much as any human can love an amphibian, although definitely not in the same way Sally Hawkins loves her amphibian in The Shape of Water.

My heart broke a little the night he left us. Although I compartmentalized the loss until after the awards banquet, when we got home I carefully lifted him via fish net from the bottom of the tank and brought him upstairs to the main floor commode. I gathered my men, gently deposited Foggy’s lifeless form into the bowl, and we said a few words about our deceased friend. Float in peace, we told him as I depressed the high-flow option on the toilet and flushed him with great flourish to his final resting place.

I won’t lie. I shed a few tears Tuesday night. And, since then, I’ve shed a few more. I am verklempt thinking about him now. The space on the counter he occupied for years is desolate, and I suspect the frog-shaped hole in my heart is there to stay. Perhaps it seems silly to mourn a tiny frog who existed on the periphery of our lives, but the smallest things can hold within them the deepest of life’s lessons. That frog was a link to the days when my boys were young, noisy whirlwinds who made our house reverberate with life. With Foggy’s passing, I can see that my little guys are also gone, replaced by hirsute young men with booming voices and earbuds that render me silent. Letting go of Foggy is an acknowledgment that soon my sons will leave Joe- and Luke-shaped holes in my heart as they also escape my world. It sucks and it’s worth a few tears.

I am working on the Buddhist notion of patient acceptance, knowing that the most important thing I can do for myself in this life is to welcome what is without wanting to change it. This is much easier said than done. Joe and I will begin touring colleges next week, and I have no idea how we got here. But life is messy and emotional and difficult, full of reasons to laugh and cry. So, I will float on and be in what is and cry when I need to and laugh when I can because I am paying attention. I will practice my patient acceptance so I too can float in peace someday.

 

Roll With It

Nothing ever goes away until it teaches us what we need to know.  ~Pema Chodron

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Sunrise on Haleakala with a couple hundred of strangers

Yesterday, I dropped my wedding band on the wood floor in our bedroom and I did something out of character. I stood there while it rolled away. In the past I would have gasped and dove for it like a bridesmaid lunging for the coveted tossed bridal bouquet. Don’t get me wrong. The impulse to drop to all fours and chase it was there. I simply didn’t act on it. There was reason to dive for it. There are formidable dust rabbits under our bed, which might have swallowed the ring whole. It could have rolled all the way to the back wall, and I would have had to face claustrophobia to extract it. It might even have traveled to a place out of sight from whence I might not be able find it for a while. Still, I stood there peacefully and did nothing. It was refreshingly bizarre.

I love that ring. Steve and I bought new wedding bands a couple years back when we were in Maui with the kids. We didn’t exchange matching bands at our wedding 22 years ago because I was young and thought I needed diamond rings. (Turns out I was wrong as my diamonds now live in boxes in drawers.) We first saw the Koa wood rings in Kauai years before. We fell in love with their sleek, earthy look and with the notion of perpetually having a piece of Hawaii with us, but we weren’t ready to commit the cash. While walking through a shopping area in Wailea in search of an iced, macadamia nut latte, though, Luke dragged us inside a fancy jewelry store to gaze at a model of an 18th century schooner. As we were on our way out of the store, we walked past a case holding the rings. This time we took them home.

I listened as the ring hit the floor and began its travels, but I didn’t turn around to watch it slip away. I heard it careen under the bed and keep rolling. Then something crazy happened. Instead of following the straight course I expected, it took a different trajectory and circled around and landed right next to where I was standing. It had gone under the bed but returned. When I heard the rolling cease, I found it two inches from my shoe. I hadn’t had to do a thing to save it. I just had to trust that it would work out fine.

This is a sublime metaphor for my life right now. Trust is not something I’ve been particularly strong at. I’ve been working to change that, to head away from being overwrought, reactionary, and high-strung. I grew up in constant fear of letting things get out of control and roll into the unknown. I was guarded and hyper vigilant and afraid of my own shadow. I couldn’t bear the uncertain, so I built walls to protect myself from it. That behavior served me when I needed it, but it also came at a cost as I passed on opportunities that might have led to adventure, fun, and potential future success and happiness. By remaining so paralyzed with the fear that I couldn’t handle the outcome of whatever might occur, I never allowed myself the opportunity to discover that perhaps the universe might, in its own inimitable way, lead me somewhere better that I had no idea existed.

I’ve grown since then. I have more faith in myself and others now. I have more faith in life and its process. I’m learning that by relaxing a little sometimes marvelous surprises arise. Sometimes you don’t have to do anything. You can ride it out and see where you land. The times I’ve escaped my comfort zone and given in to the unpredictable are some of the most precious memories I have. I’m happier and more powerful because of those experiences.

Koa wood, which is particularly strong and resilient, represents courage, boldness, and fearlessness. Literally translated, koa means warrior. I didn’t know that when we bought the rings, but it makes sense now that this is the ring I was meant to wear. I may not have been brave enough to go against the grain and choose something like it in my 20s, but I am not the same person now.  I am slowly leaving my past behind and becoming the warrior I was meant to be. And, like my ring when it hit the floor, I’m going to keep on rolling fearlessly and see where I land. I suspect it will be right where I need to be.

 

Out Of My Hands

The other day I was sitting in the car with my youngest while we waited for the high school to let out. I glanced over at Luke who, per usual, was already busy scribbling responses in a vocabulary notebook. As he worked diligently to get ahead on his homework for the evening, my eyes were drawn to his hand. I don’t normally notice the boys while they are ensconced in their school work. But, sitting in the car without much to amuse myself, I got curious to see what he was working on. As I looked over, this is what caught my eye.

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How does he even do that?

Luke has one of the most unique ways of holding a writing implement I have ever seen. This visual sent me tripping down memory lane, thinking of all the teachers and aides and tutors who were flummoxed by it. It was labeled maladaptive. When he was young and spent hours drawing and coloring, his grip constantly broke crayons. Beginning in preschool, teachers pointed it out as if it made him a freak, the Hunchback of Handwriting. I was told he’d never be able to get through school with that grip. His hand would tire. His writing would be illegible. Quelle horreur! Occupational therapists spent hours working with him to redirect it, to bring it in line with what is considered “normal.” For my part, I consistently deferred to their assessment that the situation was untenable and needed to be corrected because, well, what did I know? I was no expert. So Luke continued to do therapy and classroom work and tutor time in an effort to fix it, even though he didn’t see it as broken. In the end, no matter the effort that went into ameliorating it, he reverted back to what was natural for him.

Eventually, I found a reason to stop thinking about his odd pencil grip. When his third grade teacher mentioned it in our first conference with her, I told her we really could not care less. It was a non-issue. She looked at me like I had three heads and rattled off the reasons I’d heard myriad times as to why this was, in fact, a huge deal. I slid his psychoeducational evaluation across the desk and told her improving our dyslexic son’s reading skills was our only focus. Nothing like a bigger problem to make a smaller problem diminish. His pencil grip and handwriting blipped off the radar screen. It became nothing more than an extension of Luke’s character: creative, unbridled, and charmingly quirky. Nothing wrong with that.

Years later, I one day noticed my own pencil grip. It also would be considered maladaptive. It too would make preschool teachers cringe. Maybe if I’d considered it sooner, I could have saved Luke all the hassle of hours in occupational therapy, knowing I’d survived school and life with my own weird grip. Like mother, like son? Sorry, buddy.

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Apparently I owe Luke an apology

The little things aren’t always the big things we imagine them to be. Our fruitless attempts to remediate Luke’s pencil grasp taught me to choose my parenting battles more wisely in the future, to listen to experts but to weigh their advice against the bigger picture and my own gut feelings. With time and practice with my Little-Miss-Rule-Follower self, I’ve started to recognize I don’t always have to follow common procedure. Some things will improve with time and some things aren’t worth the trouble. My son who, despite his dyslexia, struggled his way from two years behind reading level in third grade to become the kind of kid who at 12 was reading adult, historical non-fiction books like Band of Brothers for fun, never needed help getting a grip. He needed help teaching the adults to let go of one.

People ponder the question of nature versus nurture. I posit it’s a bit of both. Sometimes one wins out, sometimes the other. We would like to be in control, to manage, to create order from perceived chaos, but the universe seeks to teach us otherwise. Maybe it would be better if we accepted that sometimes things are simply out of our hands.