Perspective

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.

 

We Are All Wobble Bunny

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“The wise bunny knows to live in the world that is rather than the world that should be.” ~Bunny Buddhism

Wobble Bunny lives in our yard. I first discovered him a couple weeks ago. I glanced out the bedroom window and there he was, resting close to the fence near a hole I hadn’t previously noticed. I know that bunnies are bad for our lawn and our garden, but that has never stopped me from appreciating them. Not sure if it’s their skyscraper ears or their soulful round eyes or their puffy white tails that tug at my heart, but the bunnies speak to me, and so I have decided to let them do what they must to our yard in the name of survival.

Wobble Bunny is not like other bunnies we’ve shared our yard with before. As he munches in the grass, he often rolls over. It starts with a wobble and then he lists and rolls onto his side or back. At first I thought perhaps he has neurological issues or had gotten into something he shouldn’t have. Upon closer observation, however, I discovered he has an issue with his back left leg. It is weaker than it should be and this causes Wobble Bunny to lose his balance and topple over while sitting or lapse into a barrel roll as he hastily hops toward his hole to avoid danger. It’s simultaneously comical and heartbreaking. It’s an outward display of his vulnerability, and it just makes me adore him more.

I’ve lost hours observing Wobble Bunny. I never let the dog out until I am sure he is safely hiding under the neighbor’s shed or ours. When Ruby perches herself over his hole, her legs mindlessly dancing the doggy Charleston in excitement over a furry prey, I scold her and rein her in. I’m vigilant about protecting this wild bunny, not because I can save him or tame him, but because Wobble Bunny’s shaky existence is a metaphor for all humanity. We are all Wobble Bunny.

The First Noble Truth of Buddhism explains that life is suffering. This does not mean that life is a continual sufferfest. It isn’t. There are rises and falls, but we are constantly exposed to suffering. It begins at birth and continues as we get sick, age, lose loved ones, and don’t get what we hope for or want. It is an inescapable condition of life on this planet. We all suffer. Learning to acknowledge, accept, endure, and alleviate our own suffering (and the suffering of others) is the way to a peaceful heart. It’s a bitch of an obstacle course to run.

Wobble Bunny is my daily Buddhist meditation. There he is. Hopping through his life the only way he knows how, with wobbles and tumbles and missteps. He goes on falling and getting up over and over again because he must. He knows no other way. I wish I could take away his suffering and his weakness. I can’t. But in watching out for him, in doing what I can to make his life less stressful and insecure, I make my own life better.

“My responsibility it not only to other bunnies. It is to all creatures everywhere.” ~Bunny Buddhism

Wobble Bunny reminds me daily to let go of negative thoughts, to be compassionate to other creatures, and to face suffering for what it is…a given. I can’t eliminate all the undesirable conditions, but I can learn to negotiate the minefield with greater skill.

We are all wobbly bunnies. Practicing acceptance and patience around that knowledge is the greatest gift we can give the world.

 

 

Ruined Dinners, Reading Assignments, and Raising Adults

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Joe and I many years before it was time to grow up

Against my better judgement, I joined a book club today. I swore I would not do it again, but when the opportunity presented itself I found myself unable to say no. The book that pulled me in? How to Raise an Adult: Break Free of the Overparenting Trap and Prepare Your Kid for Success. Like many people over a certain age, I was raised by parents who expected me to pull my own weight from early on. They didn’t hover or harass me to ensure I was doing my job as a child and a student. I was expected to work hard, earn high marks, and contribute at home. They didn’t make me breakfast or fix my school lunch. They didn’t know I was eating Suzy Q’s and french fries when they weren’t around because they weren’t obsessed with my nutritional intake. They didn’t ask me about school projects. If my chores weren’t done, I was grounded. If my grades fell, they didn’t know about it until the report card showed up and then there would be consequences to bear. When my own sons arrived early and small, I started down a different path than my parents traveled. I was actively involved in every aspect of their young lives and I always knew what was going on with them. When Joe started his freshman year this August, it at last hit me that I have four years to turn this kid I manage into the kind of human who won’t need to call me to fill out paperwork in a doctor’s office, remind him of his phone number, or prepare food other than microwavable, plastic trays Yakisoba. Yikes.

The bookclub book, written by a Stanford University’s dean of freshman for helicopter parents invested in getting their kids into Ivy League schools via endless hovering and helping their children with grades, extra curriculars, and volunteer hours over more practical life skills like actually managing themselves, seemed like something I should read. Not necessarily because I am that helicopter parent. I’m not. My sons’ diagnoses with developmental and learning disabilities quickly curtailed my grandiose dreams of them attending Harvard and then perhaps Yale Law. Sure. Those things are still possible for them. Statistically speaking, though, those dreams (already a long shot for the brightest of typical children) become an even more unlikely possibility for my sons dealing with ADHD, dyslexia, and dysgraphia. All the hours and dollars I invested in those Baby Einstein videos could not have changed my sons’ brains. They are different, and I now can honestly say I am grateful for that. I’ve also found peace with the notion that they may attend community college or trade school instead of a traditional four-year university. And they may need to live in my basement a bit longer than my friends’ children as they mature and find their own path. It’s all good, though, because their issues have forced us all to be more resilient, more patient, and more understanding of the uniqueness of each person’s life path.

Even with all this, being the parent of children with “issues” has required a different type of helicopter parenting. I’m not pushing them regarding straight A grades or sports scholarships or college-application-worthy community service because the mere act of keeping up in school is hard enough for them. My challenge with helicopter parenting comes from years of having to be their voice surrounding their disabilities. Once you accept that your child is not typical, your job becomes finding ways to make them feel typical. Your days are spent creating a level playing field for them so they have the opportunity to experience the same feelings of success their peers experience. You take on tasks they might do themselves if they were a more typical child. You fill out their forms. You set up timetables for their school projects. You manage their schedules and make sure they get places on time and with the right materials because you know it’s hard enough for them to remember to put on two socks and clean underwear. And sometimes it’s hard to know when to back off and let them fall again once you’ve worked so hard to lift them up.

Because of my divided attention, I let go of some things I might have otherwise insisted upon if my sons were more typical like I was. I’ve been a little lax about regular chore completion. Luckily for me, despite my lack of regular follow-though on chores, my kids often remind me of my short-sightedness and present me with situations in which I must rise to the occasion. Last week, Joe saw that I was preparing a skillet dinner (you know…one of those dishes where all the ingredients touch each other) and he promptly lost his shit. He yelled that I had “ruined” dinner by allowing pieces of potato to mingle with pieces of sausage. Oy. The minute those words came out his mouth, I felt sorry for him. I blinked a few times and told him to leave the room. At that moment, he caught on to his colossal error and apologized for being an unappreciative creep. After a deep breath, I told him that I had a solution to his meal problem. I was going to offer him the opportunity to plan and prepare a few dinners so he can better understand what it is like to try to feed four people with different food issues. (While hubby will eat anything, Luke eschews veggies, I am currently gluten, soy, and dairy-free due to food sensitivities, and Joe is not a fan of meat.) Good luck, buddy. 

Tomorrow night is Joe’s first dinner night. Tonight he gets to research and plan his menu. Tomorrow after school I will take him shopping and leave myself available to field recipe questions and provide help with cooking utensils. I’m a little nervous about what I may end up having to ingest as part of this lesson in adulthood, but I have to admit that I am kind of excited too because this step is right in line with my book club read. It’s a growth opportunity for both of us. And it’s appropriate and right on schedule at a time when Joe is both capable of taking it on and in a safe place for a lesson because, if the meal goes south, we have peanut butter and jelly on hand that he can prepare instead. If you want to raise an adult, you have to be prepared for some missteps. As a teenager, I once made a batch of brownies using Pompeii Olive Oil (not even extra virgin) in place of regular oil. We all gotta start somewhere. Today, I start letting Joe learn what it is to be a functioning adult. I bet he’s really sorry he didn’t keep his mouth shut last week.

The DD Day

The last time I felt comfortable in a cropped top

“We don’t see things as they are. We see things as we are.”  ~Anais Nin

Bra shopping. A task that in my world falls somewhere in relative popularity between cleaning the hair out of a clogged shower drain and hanging out at the DMV to renew my driver’s license. Perhaps that is why, upon realizing I was long overdue for some fresh elastic to keep the girls in place, I reluctantly visited the Victoria’s Secret web site and placed an online order for two bras. At least I could avoid the hassle of mall shopping if I had to suffer the abuse of spending a ridiculous amount of money on clothing designed to be worn under other clothing. 

When the package arrived the following week, neither bra in my usual size and style seemed to fit right. Stuff was everywhere and yet not anywhere it was supposed to be. Ugh. Guess I wasn’t avoiding the situation after all. Berating myself for not having braved the store in the first place and causing myself double the humiliation and effort, I traipsed to the mall, returns in hand, prepared to right the wrong and put the ugliness behind me at last. Upon entering the store, I was immediately approached by a sales clerk. I normally avoid help at all costs, preferring, I suppose, to bumble through this process in relative obscurity. But I just wanted to be done with it all already.

“Is there something I can help you with?” 

“I got these online but they don’t fit. I need to do an exchange,” I confessed.

“Can I see what you bought?” she inquired. I handed the white, plastic shipping bag over and she peered inside, checked the contents, and nodded knowingly. “These don’t fit because you aren’t a 34B.”

I stared blankly at her. This was news to me. I had been wearing 34B for as long as I could remember.

“I’ve always worn that size,” I told her. 

“Then you have always worn the wrong size,” she said, smiling. “Will you let me size you?” she asked.

I hesitantly acquiesced. My goal was to escape with something that fit. Maybe she could help me expedite that process. To my surprise, she didn’t grab the measuring tape. Instead, she gave me a quick once over then asked me to turn around. After a quick appraisal of my backside, she delivered this shocker.

“Sweetie, you are tiny. You aren’t a 34. You are a 32. I’d like to have you try on a 32DD and a  32D.”

At this point, I am pretty sure I audibly snorted. She looked to be in her early 50s, so it was quite possible she needed some vision correction. She went on trying to sell me on her size prediction.

“Do you want to stick with the these same styles? What colors?”

My head was spinning as I followed her around the store while she collected items for me to try. 32DD. Hahahahahaha. This woman is crazy. Did she even look at me? I’m not Kim Kardashian size. Anyone can see that! Before I had time to get my bearings, she had handed me off to the dressing room clerk with three bras and a final plea to trust her and give it a try.

Dammit all if she wasn’t dead on. The first bra, a lightly lined 32DD fit like nothing ever had before. There was no seepage out the side, no back fat oozing out under the band, and the ladies looked supported and happy. I had never seen them look so good. Where there had been gapping in the cups, there was none. The cups were full but did not runneth over. Apparently I am a 32DD, at least in Victoria’s secret mind. Who knew? While I still doubt anyone would peg me for a DD if they passed me on the street, the fitting room attendant checked the sizing for me, verifying the other gal’s appraisal. I had entered the store feeling like a big woman with negligible cleavage and was leaving the store feeling like a tiny girl with an enviable bounty. Not sure how it happened, but I’d had an instant boob job!

I am retelling this story here today (after sitting on it self-consciously for months) because it only recently struck me how my own overly critical self perception, fueled by a few negative comments from others that I took too much to heart, affected my reality for so long. It took an objective opinion from an outside party to convince me to test my notions about myself. I have been grateful to that store clerk every day since that visit to Park Meadows Mall in April, not only because I finally have bras that fit but because I am at last willing to question my self perceptions long enough to notice positives I have previously discounted or dismissed. Turns out there is a lot more to me than meets my eye.

Wouldn’t Take Nothing

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Experiencing the Great Salt Lake

Back to school has changed me. When my sons were younger and full of ill-advised helpings of sugary treats with food coloring, I could not wait for the school year to start. Sure it would mean I’d have to wake up early, cart them across town in my SUV school bus, and go through the dreaded rigamarole of homework, but the house would be quiet all day. I would have time to myself again. I’d be getting my life back, jumpstarting my summer-neglected workouts and my writing, and revisiting my peaceful hours in SuperTarget wandering the aisles of things I didn’t really need but felt helplessly attracted to all the same. Lately, though, my mood about back to school has gone from Yippee to Oh crap.

I was perusing my news feed this morning and found myself buried in a wave of photos of moms jumping for joy (quite literally in some cases) at the prospect of divesting themselves from their offspring for six hours each day. I was that mom once, gleefully depositing my children at school before heading for the hills for the first transcendent hike of fall, feeling liberated at the prospect of rediscovering the me I had left behind when school let out in spring. So while I scrolled through the endless display of children in first-day-of-school photos this morning, I remembered all too well that joy of potential freedom. I just didn’t identify in quite the same way.

My sons start 7th and 9th grade next week. And, as enticing as the notions of getting our house and my life back on track are, I feel like the mom dreading dropping her child off at full-day kindergarten for the first time and acknowledging the impending loneliness. My buddies are leaving me. It’s an end-of-days feeling. I spent my summer staring wide eyed at my sons, floored by their minute-by-minute growth both in height and in maturity. They are the same kids who once left me for kindergarten, but they are so much more now. They are their own people. They are no longer mine. And it sucks. Well, it’s great and amazing and incredible and awesome and it still somehow sucks. Life is weird that way.

When I decided fifteen years ago to quit working my paying job and focus my plethora of natural energy on my infant son, I didn’t give much thought to where it would lead me. I only knew that I had a newborn who seemed hell bent on never sleeping or napping or giving up colic who would probably drive me to an early grave if I attempted to maintain a career and figure out his sleep schedule if he even had one. He didn’t. I had no idea where this journey would take me. Today, though, as I sit here contemplating back to school with a middle schooler and a high schooler, my chosen path makes sense. All the sleepless nights, endless testing, and struggles to figure out how to help them, all the missteps, flubs, and pitfalls of parenting, all the little milestones, the small steps forward, and the minuscule personal triumphs, they were all worth whatever sacrifice I made in savings, earnings potential, and career advancement. I’ve got the tears of gratitude to prove it.

How lucky am I to have had this experience, to have been able to stay with them, suffer alongside them, search for solutions with them, and monitor their progress? To have been able to catch them in the first few minutes after their school day and see their disappointments and triumphs before they faded? And how fortunate am I that I have had them for 13 and 15 years and been able to witness their transition into actual human people when some parents are tragically robbed of that opportunity? I have no idea what path I will take if I get to see Joe graduate from high school in four years. No clue what career I might find or how I might re-enter the workforce after a 20-year hiatus. No sense of who I might yet become. All I know today is that I wouldn’t take nothing for my journey now. I don’t just love my children. I actually like them, even when they are acting like little creeps with skills I am positive they honed while watching me not have my best moments. I’m going to miss them in the coming weeks when I am once again wandering aimlessly through SuperTarget in a dress rehearsal for my life without them. Still, I wouldn’t take nothing.

Wax On, Wax Off

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The would-be scene of a grisly murder

Parenting is sticky business. There are days when I am acutely aware that I may not be cut out for this gig. Those are the days when I blow my parental gasket and slam doors and caterwaul with unbridled enthusiasm at my children over socks left on the floor right next to the laundry bin or half-empty cartons of yogurt stuffed behind a couch cushion. Those are the days when I am the very definition of insanity, once again doing the same thing that has failed before to achieve the desired result. Then there are the days when, through the grace of some unforeseen divine intervention, I pull it together long enough to do something that is nearly the right thing in the right situation. Like, for example, on the day when my fourteen-year-old son came to me fresh off watching a PG-13 comedy video on You Tube where he learned a new word, a word describing a sexual act that makes many grown adults shudder (or tilt their heads not unlike a cocker spaniel after hearing a word unfamiliar to their floppy ears). On that day I managed to swallow my shock long enough to offer a generic explanation of said act hoping to delay for him what would be an eye-opening if not wholly disturbing Google search on the NC-17 subject matter. On the days like that one, when I manage to keep my wits about me, I celebrate the alignment of the stars and enjoy it because I know moments of parenting clarity have, in the past, been few and far between, and my next ill-conceived, epic, parental meltdown could be right around the corner if I get too cocky.

A couple of days ago, my youngest son presented me with an opportunity to rise to the occasion again. After doing some more unboxing and cleaning in the basement family room the boys have designated The Teen Zone, I turned on one of those flameless, scented candle warmers to try to defunkify the place in their absence. (Teenage boys are smelly.) Not long after they had returned from a friend’s house, a panicked cry emanated from their space. Through a pained whimper I managed to make out phrases like “this is bad” and “oh no.” You know those moments when you think your child might be bleeding profusely and there is a fear of what you might find when you come face-to-face with them? That’s where my brain was. My son was about to present me with a mostly severed appendage or a head wound so deep I would be viewing his bony skull. When he made it to me, though, I could see no visible signs of trauma. Simultaneously relieved that he was okay and terrified at what that meant with regard to his cries, I asked him what was going on. The words came through breathless cries…spill, wax, accident, sorry, mistake, carpet, bad.

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Not blood splatter, but it could have been.

Now, this house is new to us and we have been working to make it our comfortable home for months. And, to that end, we had the worn basement carpet torn out in mid-January and replaced with fresh, super plush carpeting that is a bit like walking on heaven when your stocking feet touch it. As Luke and I hit the threshold of the family room, I could see why he was panic-stricken. Directly in front of the bookshelf where the candle warmer sat, still glowing innocently and without any sign of guilt or remorse, there was a sizable splattering of eggplant-colored, cinnamon-and-vanilla-scented wax. A flurry of words escaped my mouth, most of which were interrogatives and none of which (surprisingly enough) were screamed, but I never listened for the answers because I knew none of them would help. I knew I needed a minute to get my mind in order before I said or did something I would regret. I turned and walked up the stairs, Luke trailing on my heels. He kept talking and explaining while my mind reeled and I muttered my disappointment quietly. I got to the door of my room.

“You stay out here. I need to be alone for a minute,” I told him as I began to close the bedroom door behind me. “Don’t touch the wax. It will only make it worse,” I added as an afterthought as the door clicked solidly shut.

I paced for a minute trying to get my bearings. I whipped off a quick text to a good friend to get my feelings off my chest silently. Luke just spilled purple candle wax on a big spot of our basement carpet. Huge stain. Heartbroken. I took a deep breath. The one thing I knew for sure was that the mess would set with time, and I didn’t have the luxury of a full-scale devolution into parental disgust. Through the door, I could hear Luke talking to himself under his breath. I knew it was an accident. I knew he was simultaneously horrified, frightened, and wondering if the $100 he had earned at the craft fair would get him very far in his soon-to-be life as a hobo. I stood for a moment registering his feelings. Suddenly, I wasn’t an angry parent freaking out about a stain on recently installed carpeting. I was in Luke’s soul, scared and sad and feeling worthless. How many times had I been in his shoes, wondering what punishment would be meted out after my colossal error in judgment? My heart ached for him. I opened the door.

“Come on, Luke. Let’s see what we can do.” 

A text came through from Heather. Try ironing it out? Put a rag or old t-shirt down and then iron over that. Medium heat. Then try rubbing alcohol to get the color out.

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Slightly less horrific

It sounded like a plausible solution. A quick Google search yielded the same advice. Luke, desperate to make amends, asked how he could help. I had him fetch items for me while I labored to free the new carpet of its unwelcome waxy coating. As I worked, I talked to Luke and reminded him that we all do things like this. Accidents happen. Most of them matter very little. I could see him begin to relax, his hobo life fading into the background for the time being. Little by little, after some icing, scraping, ironing, and blotting, the wax seemed to be coming out. I began to exhale too. This might be fixable after all. After about thirty minutes of triage, the carpet looked only slightly stained. I was hoping that some form of chemical solution could ameliorate that condition. Sure enough. An hour after the tragic incident, the carpet looked nearly uniform or at least good enough that someone might not even notice if they weren’t directed to search for a stain in that area. The carpet, Luke, and I had all survived, only slightly worse for the wear.

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We shall live to see another day.

In the past, I’ve been too quick to anger in situations that warranted no anger at all. I’ve cried over spilled milk. I’ve fussed over holes in new jeans. And I’ve had full-fledged tantrums over doors left open while the heat was on inside. But as time with my sons living under our roof dwindles, I’ve become more aware of how big my “little” meltdowns can feel to my sons and how little even the “big” things in life are in the grand scheme. If our carpet had been permanently stained, would that have sucked? Absolutely. But I’ve been thinking about how much worse things would be in my life if I had created a situation in which my son no longer felt comfortable coming to me when things went wrong. I know I was that kid…the one who was afraid to be honest about accidents and mistakes. The one who would rather hide things and lie to escape censure. The one who spent far too long avoiding challenges, afraid to make a move lest it make me appear foolish or, heaven forbid, human. As an adult, I continue to work to overcome these fears and embrace my humanity. I’m not sure what grace intervened Sunday when Luke came to me, but all week long I have been hearing the phrase “wax on, wax off” from The Karate Kid in my head. Mr. Miyagi has been speaking to me, reminding me that patience, presence of mind, and repetition are the keys to success. My ability to go more slowly, tread more lightly, and think more carefully in difficult situations with our sons is improving. I have hope that these skills will someday transfer to other situations in my life as well. I’m not quite skillful or patient enough to catch a fly with chopsticks yet, but I’m feeling a bit more Miyagish with each small parental success.

 

 

Good Enough

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Me and three of my favorite things

The seven and a half years between when I turned 40 and today have been the best seven years of my life. They have not been the easiest. During this time, I learned my oldest son has ADHD and my youngest has dyslexia, and I struggled to gain acceptance and create a better situation for them at school and in their lives. I had a devastating falling out with a person very close to me that caused years’ worth of complications in my family. I began experiencing the unpleasant side effects of early perimenopause. I was depressed for a while. And I went into counseling for the first time in my life as I wrestled with the external changes messing with my reality and the internal battles being waged in my head as a result of aging and staring straight into the face of the midlife beast. As a result of all these things, however, I am more at peace than I ever have been. I live in the moment. I have greater perspective about what is important to me. And I couldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t trudged through the quagmire of muck that now lies behind me.

This morning I saw a meme that riled me up. It said, “Addicted to Bettering Myself.” I’ve seen that saying before, but it has never elicited as strong of a reaction from me as it did today. Today it just didn’t sit well. So, I have been reflecting on it, and I think I finally have it figured out. When I turned 40, I was concerned about being 40How in the heck did I get so old? Is this the beginning of the downhill slide that comes with being over the hill? How can I make 40 better? What do I need to do before it’s too late? I was consumed with answering these questions. I became addicted to bettering myself. I became more concerned about my physical appearance as I noticed more readily the effects of having lived 40 years. I became intensely interested in physical exercise. I monitored my workouts and chided myself when I fell short. If I put on weight at the holidays, I hated myself. I took classes in things I thought I teetered on the edge of being too old for, and I did things that were out of character because I thought my time was running out. I expected more of myself at a time when the events in my life were requiring more of me as well. I stressed myself out racing against a clock I could never stop.

Then an amazing thing happened. I let go. I can’t say when it happened or why, and it doesn’t matter. Suddenly I was grateful more often than anxious. I was tuned in more often than tuned out. I stopped letting others tell me what was best for me. I stopped taking myself and everything around me so goddamned seriously. I chose to let go of control more often. And I stopped looking outside myself for acceptance. I decided that trying to be “better” was more harmful than helpful to me. I accepted that my existence has power, worth, and value even if I never do anything other than breathe. It sounds Stuart Smalley of me, I know. But I decided I’m good enough. I’m smart enough. And, doggone it, people like me.

I am positive my friends who have escaped the clutches of the midlife monster are nodding their heads knowingly at me now. You were right, Leanna. Things did get better. I’ve let go of the situations, misconceptions, and lies that tortured me for years when I felt time was running out and I needed to be more (whatever that means). I’ve learned to not give a flying fig about most things because most things are background noise we choose hear over the symphony we could be enjoying if we let ourselves.

I don’t mean to belittle people who are addicted to bettering themselves. We’re all on our own journeys, and there is no right or wrong way to travel our individual path. And there’s something to be said for making the most of the time you are given, for being restless and ambitious, for wanting to age with grace and in good health. I have zero intention of going gentle into that goodnight myself. The Grim Reaper had best be prepared for a wrestling match when he comes for me. The difference for me at 47 than me at 40, though, is that he’ll be coming for a woman who doesn’t want to leave because she’s too happy to step out and not a woman who feels she can’t leave because she’s not finished becoming something she never realized she always was…good enough.

Even The Great Ones Die

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Closest I ever got to David Bowie. Section E, Row 36, Seat 2

“It never even occurred to me that David Bowie *could* die.” ~Michael Ian Black

Yesterday was a weird day for me. Like many people my age, I imagine, I spent the day steeped in memories, stunned by the loss of David Bowie. David Bowie has been part of my life for as long as I can remember. Literally. One of my first memories is waking up hearing Fame on the radio in my bedroom. I was seven. I remember it so vividly because I’d been dreaming and that song was playing in my dream. When I awoke and heard it playing in my room, I honestly thought I had some sort of psychic powers. It was much later that I learned that happens to everyone and I did not have the gift. Oh, how it sucks being average.

David Bowie was the anti-average. He was the coolest man who ever lived. That is how I will always think of him. He was bold. He didn’t apologize for who he was or what he did or what he created. And he did all this without being a self-absorbed, self-serving jerk. He was talented, elegant, handsome, enigmatic, and yet somehow accessible. His music made me feel and reminded me that I belong to the universe. It made me think of things beyond myself. And that is just so damn cool.

Right after I saw the news of his passing, I was scanning my Twitter feed and I saw this tweet from Michael Ian Black. It took everything I was feeling and put it into a convenient package. It never occurred to me that David Bowie could die either. Legends don’t die. And they certainly shouldn’t pass away quietly from cancer at the relatively young age of 69. My big takeaway yesterday was a kick-in-the-gut reminder that we all die. Every last one of us. Even the coolest man on the planet.

Last night I was a bit more circumspect than usual. I could not look at my husband or my sons without acknowledging what we all know but bury deep inside. Death happens. It’s the only guarantee life presents when you are born. You will die. People you love, people who inhabit your soul, will die. I stood in the doorway to my sons’ room last night, staring at them while they slept. For a few moments, with teary eyes, I remembered things outside myself. I remembered to breathe and to feel and to take it all in.

“There’s a starman waiting in the sky, he told us not to blow it ’cause he knows it’s all worthwhile.” 

The Great Sausage Meltdown of 2015

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Homemade pierogies frying in butter

I am third-generation, full-blooded Polish-American. My great grandparents arrived here in the early 1900s and settled into a neighborhood with other Polish families in Buffalo, New York, and there they stayed. My parents were the first to leave when they moved west to Denver when I was 9. Denver was quite a change from my insulated life in Buffalo. In Buffalo, I’d been surrounded by people with names like Rzeszutek, Michalak, and Trzaska. There were three full phonebook pages of folks with my maiden name. We were practically Smiths. In Denver, there were seven individual listings for Nowicki in the phone book, and one of those listings was our family.

My childhood in New York was steeped in Polish culture. We broke and shared oplatki (a communion-like wafer) with our family at the Christmas table before our meal. We filled baskets with everything we planned to eat at Easter breakfast (hard boiled eggs, sausage, rye bread, horseradish, and a butter lamb with a peppercorn eye and a red ribbon around its neck) and took them to our Catholic parish to be blessed by a priest the day before the holiday. My parents and aunts and uncles, in a quaint tradition was meant to foretell their child’s future, would place a shot glass, a rosary, and a silver dollar in front of their children on their first birthday to see which they would reach for first. The shot glass represented social skills, the rosary deep faith, and the silver dollar wealth. (Legend has it that I reached for both the shot glass and the silver dollar simultaneously. I’ll let you decide what that says about me.) There were the Polish carols, the celebration of saints’ Feast Days, and the occasional uttering of whole phrases in Polish by my grandmothers. I thought all these things were part of everyone’s childhood.

Once we moved away from our Polish family, though, these traditions slowly faded into our history. My children have heard me mention these things only in passing. There is just one Polish tradition we continue to hold. Every year we make pierogies and serve them with fresh Polish sausage (not to be confused with its smoked cousin, kielbasa…horrorsfor our Christmas meal. My mother, sisters, and I have done this every year for as long as I can remember. We have taken turns making the pierogi dough and carefully stuffing them with sauerkraut, mashed potatoes, or farmer’s cheese, before boiling them. We trade off these duties. Last year, I made the pierogies. This year, I was tasked with bringing the sausage and fresh horseradish to our Christmas Eve dinner.

With all that has been going on with the new house, the holidays, and my husband’s birthday on December 20th, my trip to Tony’s Meat Market to fetch the Polish sausage got delayed until December 23rd. Honestly, I was grateful I hadn’t let it slide until the 24th. At approximately 11 a.m., I got in a long line at the butcher shop. After standing for ten minutes to reach the counter, I finally got close enough to ask for fresh Polish sausage. The gal looked at me like I had asked for filet of Tauntaun. She consulted with the guy next to her in a hurried whisper then replied that they didn’t have any. It had to be special ordered a week in advance. Deflated like one of Tom Brady’s footballs, I turned and headed out of the store. This was not good.

Making pierogies is a day-long endeavor. I had gotten off easy with sausage task and I was about to blow it. In my family, you don’t want to be the one who screws up the only tradition we have. I would hear about it. For a long time. I was already running a litany of the expected and predictably critical comments on an audio reel in my head. We’re a lot better at “I told you so” than compassion in my family. I opened the car door, plunked myself down and, hand to God, started to cry…over goddammed sausage. My sons must have thought I was losing my shit because they dared not say one word while I quietly wept. When I at last pulled myself together, I called my sister for my fair comeuppance.

“Tony’s didn’t have the fresh Polish sausage,” I lamented. “They told me you have to special order it.”

“That’s what I usually do,” she replied. Of course, I thought, bitter at my error.

“I’ve never had to do that before,” I squeaked. “They’ve always had some in the refrigerator in the back,” I told her.

“No. You have to order it in advance,” she reiterated.

“Well, crap. I’m not sure where else to look for it. And my day is packed. Luke has a haircut at noon, I have to be downtown at 2 to meet Steve, we ran out of toilet paper, and we haven’t eaten yet.”

“Do you want me to do it?” she asked. “I can take care of it,” she said, sounding about as annoyed and condescending as I would have sounded if I had been in her shoes. The only thing worse than screwing up in my family is screwing up and needing someone else to bail you out.

“No. No. I’ll figure it out,” I said, pulling on my big girl panties. “I’ll call you if I I can’t get it somewhere else.”

After hanging up the phone, I wracked my addled brain trying to figure out the next logical place to find Polish sausage in a town not known for Polish anything. The name of a store downtown came to me. I searched the number for Marczyk’s Fine Foods and called. If Marczyk isn’t a Polish name, it must be close enough because the guy in the meat department told me the fresh sausage was available for $6.99 a pound. I told him I was on my way and drove the 20 miles to the store to make things right.

I’ve been thinking a lot about my little, pre-Christmas meltdown and I’ve decided it’s a borderline insane how stressful we make the holidays with our wanting things to be just so. And, no matter how well-intentioned they are, traditions are things that we expect to be just so. Our lovely custom of sharing a Polish meal would have been marred had I shown up with Polish kielbasa from the fine Hillshire Farms simply because it would have fallen outside of tradition. Aren’t the holidays stressful enough without raising our expectations at a time when we’re already overwhelmed and likely to let things fall through the cracks? The truth is that people mess up. Relatives make inappropriate comments. Christmas trees get taken down by overzealous cats. Holiday cards get lost in the mail. And at the end of the day none of it matters because it just doesn’t.

I declare 2016 the year of letting go. No more sweating the small stuff. If I show up with the wrong sausage next year or my pierogies are a little thick skinned, you can just deal with it. I’m moving on, baby.

 

 

Blood, Sweat, and the Tears of Eternal Home Improvements

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Isn’t a closed entry an oxymoron?

To start our new year, hubby and I spent the day in our fixer upper. We will be spending most of the weekend there to get things ready for the wood floor guy who is starting on Monday and will be adding in new boards in the entry way to replace the outdated tile, as well as sanding off the old, oil-based stain and putting down a colorless, waterborne finish for us. To save money on the floor work, we agreed to pull out the worn carpet, remove the tack strips and staples, and take off the baseboards. There is no love lost in these changes. The two-inch baseboards are unimpressive at best and the carpet is the physical equivalent of a perpetual yawn. It has been fun slicing it up and yanking it out. There is something oddly cathartic about ripping up the old on the first day of a new year. As I slashed that beige carpet and its companion pad and tossed it unceremoniously into the garage, I thought about the things that didn’t go the way I had hoped in 2015. I imagined ridding myself of last year’s mental baggage as easily as I jettisoned that floor covering. A fresh start is therapeutic and invigorating. And, in my case, about six months overdue.

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The tile job from hell

The first task of the day was finishing grouting the wall and the tub surround in the hall bath. We squeaked by on the bag of grout we had, just barely completing the job by literally scraping the bottom of the grout barrel. Although the end result didn’t pan out exactly as I imagined it in my mind, it feels good to be moving on. As a learning experience, tiling this bathroom has been exceptional. I can now say that I have the know-how to remove tiles, pull out a toilet, operate a wet saw, lay tile, use a grout float properly, and tell you the difference between porcelain and ceramic tiles. I also know what rectified tile is and why you might want it. I will never look at another tiled surface in the same light again. Everywhere I go lately, I am finding it far more interesting. It’s amazing what a little education can do to your world view.

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Living Room 1964

As much as we’d love to take all the credit in this latest installment of Little House in the Mid-Size City, the biggest improvement this week came courtesy of our contractor, Simon. He transformed the tired, dated fireplace in the living room into the modern focal point we envisioned. One of the things that stood out to us when we first found this house was the two fireplaces, one upstairs and one down. Both are wood burning and use their own flue. We decided early on to add a gas insert to the fire box upstairs and leave the basement fireplace as is so we can enjoy the occasional crackle of an old-school, indoor fire. Before we could schedule the install of the gas insert we selected for upstairs, though, we had some remodeling to do to create the sleek, streamlined look that will match. The brick facing needed to go, and the faster the better. Early on we settled upon a look we had in mind and set out to recreate it as closely as possible. We found some tile that fit the bill perfectly and were smart enough to leave its install to a professional.

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Living Room 2016

I have to say, I think Simon rocked it. He found the best configuration for the tile and created a custom, walnut mantle that is taller and deeper than the previous one. Our taste in living room furniture leans toward modern contemporary, so we will at last have a room that suits us completely. We’ll be mounting our television over the mantle. We debated this for quite a while after reading myriad articles about this placement on the Internet. There are a lot of opinions about this practice, but ultimately we decided that for the furniture configuration we wanted this was the best option. Setting the television to the right of the fireplace would put it too close to the eight-foot wide window and create too much glare. Besides, we’ve always wanted a spot for cozy reading chairs, and they belong in front of that expansive window. We bought an angled mounting bracket for the tv so we can reduce the potential for neck strain looking up at the screen. With the can lights we added back in October and the flawless hardwoods that had been hidden for decades finally exposed, this room is coming together better than we imagined. I’m beginning to see the potential hubby saw in this house while I was still dragging my heels and clinging to my doubts.

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Banged and bandaged

Looking back to when we first took possession of this home on October 5th, I wish I had kept track of how many hours we have logged working on it. We knew when we bought the house that this would be a growing experience for us both. We’ve stepped way outside our wheel house here. I’ve never had an eye for design because, frankly, it’s never mattered. We don’t spend much time in our home. Our house is a big container that holds all the crap necessary for our exploits. We like travel and the great outdoors, and we don’t spend a lot of time hanging out at home. We come in, drop our stuff, grab new gear, and head back out. Our home is a place to do our laundry, eat, sleep, and wait for our next adventure. With this new home, we’re becoming invested in a way previously unprecedented for us and not just through the ever-increasing budget necessary to turn a 1964 house into a 2016 home. We are committing blood, sweat, and tears here every day. I am sore, bruised, and banged up. Today I cut myself three times in an hour, each time running a mental check on the date of my last tetanus shot. 2010, I think. At least I hope that’s right.

Who knows? Maybe when we’re done grouting tile we really love and hanging doors we’ve chosen, when the wounds from nails we’ve impaled ourselves on have healed, we will decide to stay put more often in a new, old house that fits our family, dreams, good intentions, quirks, missteps, and all.