The worst part about vacation is the getting ready. The worst part about taking a vacation during the holiday season is that you have to do all the work for the holidays that you normally do, but you have to do it in less time, and you have to add all the vacation prep to your already tightened schedule. I’ve been a stressed out nightmare the past couple weeks. My days packed, my list of things to do seemingly insurmountable, trying only to get from one event to the next, never being able to get ahead. I’ve been testy and tired, anxious and annoyed. I’ve not been my best self. Some days, I wasn’t sure who I was. Today, it hit me that I have been the Grinch.
My goal for vacation is to toss off my grinch mindset and embrace the present with peace in my head. That will be achieved through some meditation, some fresh, salty air, and some sand under my feet. And maybe a piña colada or mai tai or two. Maybe without all the traditional trappings of the holidays, without the obligations and the busy work, the peace that is meant to consume this season will consume me and allow my grinch heart to grow three sizes.
Can the Grinch be tamed by a Mele Kalikimaka? I will let you know if Hawaii is able to work her magic. Stay tuned.
On my way home from the vet with my puppy today, I saw approximately 12 police vehicles, both marked and unmarked, flying up the northbound lanes of the highway I was on, lights flashing and sirens blaring. Then I saw another police vehicle accompanying a tactical, SWAT type armored vehicle behind the first group of law enforcement vehicles. I didn’t know where they were heading or why, whether it was an actual response to a dramatic, violent situation or maybe a part of some training exercise. My immediate thought, though, was school shooting. Then I thought of other locations in the direction they were headed and determined it could be a shooting at a mall or a grocery store or maybe a hospital. We don’t know what location will be next. What surprised me about that sighting is that I instantly went into a PTSD-type response. My heart started racing, my stomach became nervous, and my eyes teared up. I said a little prayer for whomever was on the receiving end of that response. So commonplace are mass shootings these days, my brain had no place else to go with what I had just seen. In gun-crazy Colorado where we’ve already suffered losses in our communities at Columbine High School, Arapahoe High School, STEM High school, an Aurora movie theater, and a Boulder King Soopers grocery store, I suppose my response is not all that shocking. We’ve lived this over and over in our home.
While my response did not shock me, it did disappoint me. Not because I was upset with myself for reacting, but because the reaction came so easily. Why wouldn’t I land in that dark place? This is our reality. Guns are a huge deal here, easy to purchase, easy to carry. And this, in and of itself, isn’t a problem. But when you combine the number of guns out there with the number of people who have mental health issues or anger issues or who are struggling financially or who are all triggered over politics or conspiracy theories or who are simply overwrought because we’re in a pandemic that feels it will never end, it feels like our nation is a potential tinderbox.
I never did see anything on the news about what was going on with all those police cars this morning, so that is a relief. It must have been nothing of immediate consequence. Still, I really wish we didn’t share the collective memories of school children being evacuated from a shooting scene or tactical vehicles parked in front of active shooter spree at a grocery store. I wish I didn’t feel like every day is another day when senseless gun violence may erupt. And I wish that every time I saw police cars rushing off somewhere in multiples, lights flashing, I didn’t automatically assume it was because some unhinged person decided to release some of their mental stress through the barrel of a gun.
Thanksgiving is in a couple days. My husband just finished having a late night snack. He went to load his plate in the dishwasher and start it.
Him: “Uh oh.”
Me: “What’s wrong?”
Him: “The dishwasher isn’t working.”
In my past, at this point, I can say with all confidence I would be losing my shit. Just in time for Thanksgiving? Of course. Why not? That makes perfect sense. Even with only 7 people dining, that’s 7 dinner plates, 7 dessert plates, 7 glasses, 21 pieces of silverware, assorted serving utensils and pieces, and this would add up fast. Way too fast for this English major to figure in her head. The whole reason I unloaded the china we asked people to buy for our wedding was because I decided I would not ever want to wash all the dishes from Thanksgiving by hand.
Me: (incredulously) “It’s not working?”
He is pressing all sorts of buttons, and I can tell from his expression nothing on the display panel is lighting up.
This gives me pause, but rather than lose my mind as I would have done in the past, I simply decide that it’s fine. We can hand wash or we can use paper plates and plastic utensils (not environmentally sound, but desperate times call for lowered moral standards). Maybe we have it both ways and can use some paper and do some hand washing of other items, thereby alleviating some of my guilt for using disposable items out of sheer laziness while still managing to be somewhat lazy.
I watch him for a few more seconds as he pushes buttons. Then, I can tell from a look on his face, it is working again.
Him: “Never mind. It’s working again.”
Me: “That’s a relief.”
Him: “My hands must have been wet.”
I assumed that meant that wet hands interfered with the touch screen. I made my peace with the fact that the whole incident had been a non-starter. And just like back we were back to normal. Steve was finishing the last bite of his toast, and I was back to watching episodes of Seinfeld. Thanksgiving was saved. We could use three plates a piece instead of just two and could put saucers under the cups now if we wanted to. Oh, reckless abandon!
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…horrors) for 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.
One of the best things that has come from our sons’ beginning at a new school is the stress it’s taken out of my life. For years our boys were struggling to keep up in class, an issue that was never more obvious than when they would pull out their homework. Every night was a battle. Homework that, according to their teachers and reports from friends whose children were in the same class, should have taken no more than an hour or an hour and a half each night took our boys upwards of three hours. There was non-stop whining, pleading, bargaining, and crying, and that’s without even mentioning how hard the boys took it. Five evenings out of the week (because, let’s face it, the weekend’s homework was not worked on slowly over two days but was instead busted out in one heinous rush on Sunday night), there was no peace in our house. Math assignments, book reports, and spelling troubled me more than any other thing in my life, including midlife crisis and the amount of time I had to wait for the next season of Downton Abbey. Those days are gone.
In their place, we have creativity, laughter, and family time. Because the boys work so hard all day at school to overcome their learning disabilities and because the school understands that, our boys currently have a manageable hour’s worth of homework each night…with a little extra time needed when special projects are assigned. And as if the one hour limit didn’t provide me with enough solace, the school also offers a homework club each day after school. For a reasonable fee the boys can stay an hour after school and complete their work in a teacher-supervised classroom with other students. It’s pure genius. When I pick up my boys at 4 pm, they are finished for the evening. We are currently mulling over which outside activities they could do, like music lessons and tae kwon do, because they will at last have the time to partake. I’m giddy simply thinking about it. They are finally getting to experience what life has been like for their friends. I’m excited for them. It’s about time.
In the meantime, our boys have taken their extra time to try new things and exercise their imaginations. Joe has been discovering graphic novels (books with more pictures than words that are perfect for dyslexic kids…get your minds out of the gutter, people) and Luke has been engaged creating the Museum of Cute. He’s using his iPad to print out photos of cute things, like teacup-sized Pomeranian dogs and mini pigs wearing rain boots, and organizing a collection, which he plans to tour our families through in a few weeks on opening night. Tonight there was an explosion of cute when he brought me this picture of a tiny, white Pomeranian with a mustache. The photo is labeled, “My Lawyer, Harry Flufferpants, Esq.” I can’t make this stuff up.
I also can’t seem to get the chorus from George Michael’s 1990 hit Freedom out of my head. Normally, this would be a problem for me, but I’m so relaxed after my new nighttime ritual mug of chamomile tea that I can’t even find the residual daily angst to care. I think my zen just got a bit closer.
Some people are born speaking the word “no.” It rolls off their toddler tongues before you can finish your sentence. These are the children who know what they want and plan to get it without negotiations. I was not that child. While I in no way possess a people-pleasing personality, I was raised to be accommodating when at all possible. When I go out of my way for others it’s not because I am deeply thoughtful but because I’ve been taught it’s the right thing to do. As a result of upbringing, I often add just one more item to my already long to-do list because someone asks nicely. Consequently, my life is a non-stop blur of frenetic activity. Whirling dervish? Guilty as charged.
Last night I sat down and took a sobering look at our family calendar for the next 9 days. On March 20th at an unreasonably early hour we will be boarding a plane…destination Kauai. Between now and that moment when we’re checked in at the gate awaiting our boarding call, I have about a gazillion things to do. Yes. It is a first world problem, but it’s my first world problem and so it matters to me just the same. As I went over the calendar and my to-do list on my iPhone last night, hubby caught me shaking my head.
“What’s wrong?” he inquired.
“So much to do between now and the 20th.”
“It will all be fine,” he reassured.
“Oh…I know it will.” I don’t doubt my ability to accomplish things, just my excitement about doing them.
“Aren’t you excited about the trip?” he asked.
“Not really, no. I will be excited when we’re sitting at the gate and not a minute before. I’m still trying to figure out how I’m going to fit in a well check for Joe and a trip to the vet for Ruby. The next week is packed.”
“You always stress and it always gets done,” he said.
“It always gets done because I always stress and push myself through every last detail,” I retorted.
Today, staring down the barrel of an ungodly busy weekend, I started packing for the boys and I. I dug through last summer’s clothes, which have been stored for their long, Colorado winter’s nap, and put together Hawaii-friendly outfits. I located sunscreen, snorkeling gear, and rash guards. I dragged suitcases up from the basement and began assessing what might fit where. Then, in the midst of this busy-ness, I got an email that added another layer to my stress. It was a request for yet another social visit in our already overbooked weekend. Between hair cuts for all of us, two birthday parties, a social event at the boys’ school, brunch at my mom’s, dinner with our Wine Gang (which we are hosting), and a couple book reports the boys need to have completed before we leave (not to mention packing and preparing our house for the puppy caretaker), I cringed at the idea of attempting to fit in even one more quick thing.
Being unaccustomed to disappointing people, though, I scoured our plans looking for wiggle room for the requested, short get together either Saturday or Sunday afternoon. I weighed the costs of not honoring this request against the stress it would add to an already overbooked weekend. Then, I did something I rarely do. I went against my usual habit. I said no even though it’s very likely that the persons whom I turned down will be hurt by my refusal. But even those of us who strive to be amicable and accommodating have a breaking point.
If there’s one good thing that is coming right along with the sags, bags, spots, and wrinkles of middle age, it’s gumption. I’m no longer under the impression that I have to do things to please people. I understand that there are some people who will never be pleased, no matter what kind of back bend I contort myself into for their benefit. I’m learning that sometimes it’s not just okay to say no. It’s downright necessary. While I do feel a bit bad for shutting out this latest request, I know it was the right thing to do. This weekend will still be crazy busy, but at least it might prove I’m not insane.
We’re leaving tomorrow for three days and three nights of camping in the mountains west of Aspen. You could not tell this by looking at our camper right now, buried in the garage under unsold garage sale rejects and boys’ toys. In theory, we will leave in the morning. In theory, after we dig out the camper, hook it to the car, put all the superfluous stuff back into the garage, and load the camper, we will be on our way. In the meantime, we’re having friends over tonight for game night because I don’t like to be bored. Well…I got my wish.
I have learned to slow down a bit. It’s hard to tell on days like these when I am being pulled in a million different directions by things I willingly took on before analyzing their potential impact on my mental health. But, I do a lot less these days than I used to. It’s true. It’s simply hard to tell.
I’m trying to make memories for my boys. Memories of happy summers playing with friends, exploring, camping, traveling, and trying new things. To accomplish that, there is a lot of planning, coordinating, preparing, and cleaning up to get out of the way. Things get a little hairy for me as the at-home parent. But, I know I am making progress toward becoming more zen…if not in the way of scaling back then definitely in the way of not stressing out as much as I used to.
I’ve learned that things have a way of working themselves out. I play this little game with myself to remind myself why life is not worth stressing over too much. For whatever it is that is standing in front of me like an impenetrable road block, I ask myself what is the worst that could happen. For example, what is the worst that will happen if we don’t get the camper cleaned off tonight? Answer: We’ll do it tomorrow and get to the campground a bit later. No big deal. What is the worst that will happen if I forget the boys’ swimsuits for playing in the river? Answer: They’ll swim in their shorts. No big deal. What is the worst that will happen if we don’t get our stuff together to go camping? Answer: We won’t go camping and we’ll lose the $70 in camp fees. The world won’t stop revolving. The kids won’t die. We’ll truly be not much worse for the wear. No. Big. Deal.
We’re still busy. I still overload our schedule with “fun” things to do that will cause me oodles of extra work I didn’t need to take on. But, I’ve taken my harried, stress-over-every-little-detail behavior down about fourteen notches. Oh. I still stress. My husband can verify how snippy I can become when he forgets the camp chairs and that was the only thing I asked him to remember. But, I am less uptight than I used to be. Sad, but true.
Unwinding is a process. And, for some people like me, it’s a lifetime’s worth of work. And, for some people who have to live with me on a daily basis, my unwinding process isn’t moving nearly fast enough.