You Did Good, Dad.

I am my dad’s first kid, one of those first beings who change the outlook of the world from the present to a point on a continuum. Almost instantly, a new parent becomes aware of the ancestors who made him possible, of the sacrifices and choices that were made for him to be standing in this place, faced with raising a future that extends past his purview. It’s a mind warp, and not a comfortable one; the enormity of the task and the smallness of one’s role in the greater scheme of things is overwhelming. Nothing challenges a person to be better than they are than becoming a parent who cares.

   I did not disappoint on the challenge front. I did not sleep. I would not be left in a crib. I pooped my clothes, made a habit of eating cigarette butts at the park, cried literally ad nauseam when left with anyone but my parents, and was often only soothed by being fed. Some things never change.

  My father, who never had music lessons, sat through hours and hours of squeaky violin recitals, heard years of practice, and paid for the privilege. He and my mother sacrificed greatly to send us to the best schools we could get into. Trips to Europe, home improvements, new cars and piece of mind were sacrificed to our education instead.

  He taught 14 year old me and my 12 year old sister to change a tire by parking our car on a hill and telling us to change it. He didn’t help. He suggested we block the wheels so we didn’t get run over and told us what to do, while standing and sitting with his hands in his pockets. It was stressful and hard, and I was irritated at his making it so hard. We had to jump on the wrench to loosen the lug nuts. When I got my driver’s license, I was confident in how to change a tire, check spark plugs, fuses, and fluids not because I had been shown, but because I had done all those things. Dad’s teaching philosophy was always Montessori by fire.

  I grew into a teenager who never slept, and was thus even crankier than the average teen. I had a sharp tongue that I wielded with such flair that no one was safe. I knew everything. Right and wrong were clear as day if you weren’t stupid enough to get caught in the weeds, and I had no patience for people who weren’t smart or funny. In fact, if you weren’t funny, I assumed you weren’t smart. My father, I learned years later, is a very astute man, with a singular experience of the world, a biting and absurdist sense of humor, and maybe the best instincts about people of anyone I know. But when I was 14, he was a boor.

  Every night, I’d come to dinner, my arrows already notched and waiting. Inevitably, I’d be rude or make some outlandish statement with way more authority than I owned. My dad, also a person who did not suffer fools, especially when they were family members, would return my volley and we’d be off, sparing and arguing until one of us would lose our cool and blow up. Victory went to the cooler head…if that happened to be me. If it didn’t happen to be me, victory was still mine because he was just wrong. WRONG!

  If you ask my dad if he is proud of his parenting, he will not say yes. He will give the credit to my mother for how the three of us turned out, as though he didn’t have anything to do with any of it. And every time he praises my mom while belittling himself, it breaks my heart a little bit.

When I was that heinous teen, Dad came down to dinner every night, knowing full well that I would be there, and what was likely to go down. But he was there every night, available and open to me, making me better and smarter by knocking down my bad reasoning and asinine thinking, and being there so that when I finally turned that corner and grew up a little bit, he was there like I had not damaged our relationship. He absorbed all that so I could still have a dad when I grew up. And I do. And I am sorry I was horrible.

  Mom would not have been able to stay at home and raise us with all the face time she did, if Dad was not out busting his butt doing whatever it took to earn enough for a family of 5. Dad spoke to us like were capable and smart. He teased, oh he teased, but he didn’t belittle us. He always assumed that we could accomplish absolutely anything we set our minds to. I take that back. I remember one time, in passing, he said that our family wasn’t made for running and maybe I shouldn’t play soccer. It was so out of character that it stung like the dickens and I thought it might be true, or he wouldn’t say such a thing. I played volleyball instead.

  Dad harbored secret desires for us to go to one of the military academies, become elected officials or generals, and change our communities for good in some big way. But he never pushed it, barely even mentioned it and bankrolled and supported us following our own interests. He thought I’d make a great architect, and always looked at the floor plans I drew for fun with great interest and gave me tips. He suggested I apply to West Point and I had to tell him that they didn’t have an orchestra and I wanted to be a music teacher. I don’t know how hard he had to bite his tongue, but he let it go. He sent me off to study music and bought me a car so I could get to lessons with a top teacher.

  My dad thinks he didn’t do a good job. I should ask him against whom is he comparing himself? He raised three funny, smart, well adjusted functioning adults who’ve all managed to snag and keep funny, smart, well adjusted partners. We are people of our word. We work hard. We don’t take ourselves too seriously. We try to treat others well. So, Dad! What else do you want? Look at us. You nailed it! Yeah, none of us is a senator, or a general, or president of anything. But there are some assholes in those jobs, and you didn’t make any of those.

  Happy Father’s Day to all the men who strive to do this job, and thank you, from all of us who have to live with your kids.

A Jar of Bleach

            Out there rolls a tsunami of uncertainty, flecked with fear and isolation, thick with detritus of financial and human calamity. We grieve the world that was a few short weeks ago.

            There are racists spitting on the almond-eyed out of their fear of the “Chinese virus.” The Western World weirdly continues to hoard toilet paper, and adopt all the dogs and chickens. There is neither flour nor yeast in the stores because we are all enrolled in Caroline Ingalls’ School of Homesteading and Isolation, and it’s the bread unit. Don’t worry. It won’t last forever. The “sewing from scraps” unit starts tomorrow.

            The privileged among us are stuck at home with the people we made and maybe one that we chose.  We don’t know when it will end.  Others are alone, or with people they’d rather not be. Millions of us have seen our incomes completely dry up. Livelihoods are ruined because of an act of Nature and the response of governments, and there is no relief yet.

            The world is always full of suffering, injustice, and the very worst luck. The difference is scope. This pandemic sheds a great light on humanity. Our interconnectedness is undeniable. Your health impacts mine. Your security impacts mine. Inequalities become glaring. Even we, in the privileged West and in a country buffered by two oceans and the nicest northern neighbor ever, are neither immune nor spared.

            Look too wide at this pandemic and you will despair. You will be overcome by the tragedy and suffering of it all. New York will make you weep. India will crumple you. But…

             I have a jar of bleach. This jar of bleach is a talisman for all that is not baleful and disappointing about humans. My neighbor left it by my back gate, because I have not been able to find bleach anywhere. It makes me feel better every time I look at it, and not because of the contents. It is the recycled honey jar, my name, and that tiny heart.

            People are checking up on people they don’t know, sharing supplies. Neighbors are shopping for each other, to minimize trips. My parents’ neighbor drove by, introduced himself, gave them his phone number and told them to reach out if they needed anything. A chef and baker played the part of Bread Fairy around the block, leaving jars of sourdough starters and instructions on how to care for it, for anyone who asked.

            People are offering help of every kind, at a time when every interaction is a risk, choosing to be a help and a balm to someone else. People are picking up medications for elders, singing songs to each other, sharing books, leaving hand sanitizer for mail carriers, getting groceries and mowing lawns for hospital workers, saying thank you to garbage men, giving away homemade masks to anyone who needs one, and realizing how many of the essential jobs are not the ones we thought they were.

            I hope this reshapes us for a generation or two. I hope we take the lessons of interconnectedness and what we owe each other to heart. I hope we continue to see a need and DO what we can, not just complain. When things gain a sense of normalcy, I hope our humility to ask for help and our willingness to offer it freely will stay. I am better being more selfless and I am made better by seeing others be the same. We are better this way.

            If you look too far out, you’ll see only the darkness, and you’ll miss all the small lights around you, and your own gifts- given and received. Worse, you’ll miss your opportunity to be a light in that darkness.

I’m the Only Mom My Kids Have. Sorry, Kids.

People say that I must be an amazing mother. Really, they say it. I don’t know what gives them that impression. I probably talk a good talk. But there is one thing these sweet people have in common- they don’t see my mothering. If they did, they’d declare my children amazing for thriving in my haphazard parenting.

The grand goal of parenting is to raise functional adults, like the goal of war is to win. Of the smaller goals, the ones that make the grand one possible, I don’t have a clue. I am mostly reactionary- reacting to the freshest spilled milk, the bloodiest injury, the worst behavior, the newest and most ridiculous school drama. I just do… something.

Coptic_-_Funerary_Stele_with_Family_Portrait_-_Walters_263Sometimes, I do something great. I come up with just the right bit of pithy wisdom that wraps a problem up in a neat bow. Most of the time, I hastily and inexpertly handle an issue and put it down to go on to the next one, thinking to myself, “Please work.”  It works or it fails.

When I started on this career as a stay-at-home parent and home executive, I thought it beneath me. It was a sacrifice I would make for the good of my children, but really, I was capable of so much more. I was bored. None of my friends appreciated or honored this career choice. They were all in the exciting jostle of climbing those first rungs on career ladders, and I walked away when I got knocked up.

To be fair, in the beginning, I was bored. I was used to spending my days with other musicians, playing, practicing, going out after gigs.  I enjoyed sparring with a firecracker of a nun for whom I worked. I had a closet full of flattering orchestra black and shoes to match.

569px-Maarten_van_Heemskerck_-_Family_Portrait_-_WGA11298As a new mother, I spent my days alone in the house with a baby who slept a lot and nursed often.  My daily grooming goal was to put on a shirt without puke on it before Hot Swede got home. It felt hard at the time, and it was because I was a rookie. Nature has to ease parents into the fray with gradually intensive training or either three year-olds or we wouldn’t survive.

9 years later, with 3 increasingly sophisticated children, this job is above me. I feel like I am at the limit of my capabilities, patience, and wisdom. I am scraping the bottom of my bag of tricks. If I am honest with the past, this is how I felt as soon as child #1 began to move around and talk. Each phase overwhelms me with the newness of its challenges. I panic and wonder if my kids will grow up okay in spite of me, and before I know it, that battle is over and a new one approaches.

It’s an awful feeling to constantly judge myself as ineffective at doing the most important vital thing there is to do. There is no way out. I don’t get to quit. I know I am not the only parent to think to herself, “You know; this just isn’t working out for me. I don’t think I’m right for this position.” I comfort myself with the thought that if I didn’t think it was hard, I probably wouldn’t be paying close enough attention.

Maybe, or maybe I’m a control freak who needs to manage and mold every aspect of my childrens’ lives. Maybe I manufacture self-importance 640px-Family_In_Lanchow,_China_1944_Fr._Mark_Tennien_Restoredby thinking I’m more critical than I am. They will require therapy regardless; maybe I should just relax.

But I can’t. Every time I look ahead to their adulthoods, I see things in them that need to be guided now. Tomorrow will bring new challenges. I see pieces of their temperaments that they will need to learn to manage in order to not be ruled by them. It is already time to teach the 9 year-old about what comes next for a pre-teen girl. I haven’t begun to plan for that. There are social quagmires at school to wade through. There are issues around technology and entertainment that need to be sorted. (Other 3rd grade parents, can you please stop buying your kids their own tablets, please? Thank you.) There is the constant pull of a pushing a kid to take on one responsibility and deciding they aren’t ready for another.

This job is hard. If you care about doing a decent job, if you are honest about the nature of the world children will inherit and have to live in, it is hard. It will take all the strength, self-control, and talents you have and it will not be enough. It will require you to do things you are not good at, ask you to learn skills you’ll never master, ask you to behave selflessly, ask you to be a better person than you want to be. I suspect that one of the reasons parents cry at recitals, plays, the pre-prom pictures, even weddings, is because they look at their child and in that moment, they think, “This worked! Something worked! I didn’t screw it all up!”

5115210712_fe85e38fb8But it is worth it; I will say that. Despite the difficulties and the way it forces parents to grow up and be better, it is worth doing. It is the most important job in human society- the raising of a thoughtful, wise, productive next generation. Is it fun? Once in awhile. Do children make you happy? No. No they do not. But depending on others to make you happy never works for very long. Raise them anyway. Parenting connects you to the continuum of humanity in a visceral way. Raise a child and gain a deeper understanding of all those who came before you, and thank your own parents. Are children awesome? Yes, just like you and I. Are they are hard to live with, messy, and imperfect? Yes, just like you and I.

I am not an amazing mother. As far as I’m concerned, the jury’s out on that until the youngest is paying taxes and building healthy relationships of her own. And that assumes that she makes her own excellent choices. I am just a mom, like millions before me- trying my best, praying for wisdom and for other good people in my children’s lives, making mistakes, saying I’m sorry, trying again.

Tulips

P1030016I bought $5 tulips last week as an act of self-love. They are my favorite: Sculptural, sophisticated, intense, bold. I love watching them change over the course of a week. Roses hang their heads and shrivel. Daisies brown from the heart.  Alstroemeria deny mortality, looking the same for two weeks before I walk past them quickly and they drop every single last petal en masse. Irises don’t even try.

P1030012Tulips make art of dying, or living, depending on how you look at it. They change each day: opening and closing with heat and light. Stems and flowers continue to grow, starting out vertical with uniform tight buds and ending in a wild splay of graceful arcing stems, each flower with more personality than it had when it was younger. Petals keep their color and sheen while growing translucent and crepey. They curl and wrinkle. Their veins show. They stop closing at night and open further. And yet, I can’t throw them away because they are immensely beautiful near the end, most beautiful. They don’t hit the compost until they’ve dropped nearly all of their petals. At which point, someone in my family raises and eyebrow, points, and says, “Really?”

I hope to age like a tulip, to continue to grow, to retain some of my younger boldness as I grow translucent and crepey, to be found beautiful in the long arc of a life, to be interesting to those who take a moment to see me, and worth keeping around awhile longer, before I hit the compost.

Day 9, still lovely.

Day 9, still lovely.

Fighting the Mental Frost

How to dress to walk the dog.

How to dress to walk the dog, or: reasons to get a cat.

It is stupid cold outside: a breathtaking -11°F. For the lucky uninitiated, at this frigidity, nose hairs freeze and stiffen as you breathe in. You don’t dare cry outdoors, even if you’re late for work and your car door is frozen shut. Lettuce leaves freeze in the time it takes to walk from the grocery to your car.

I grew up in a dry land close to the sun where buying snow boots is more wishful thinking than preparedness. I am not blessed with the fortitude of Northern peoples to withstand six months of cold, dark hell. I don’t think many of them are blessed with it either; I know many pale skinned Northerners who struggle with Winter’s long, cold reign. I remember my first northern winter and thinking, “This is why these people drink so much.” (It also could have been because it was my freshman year in college, but I digress.) By February, the darkness and chill seep into my bones and despair sets in. It will not end for another 6-8 weeks and I begin to be mentally unwell.

As being constantly drunk for 6 weeks is not an option, I have found other ways of coping. My favorites are cheap and effective. Of course, I forget to do them and end up huddled against the radiator, eating mashed potatoes and weeping. But, when I remember to do them, they help.

Avoid the Idiot Box

I watch very little TV and few movies- 2-3 hours a week, at most. Empirical data from myself and children convinced me that television is bad for humans. Children’s behavior and attitudes are never better after watching TV; they are usually worse. If I consume more than 3 hours of TV within a couple of days, I am noticeably more anxious and unhappy. It makes my sleep less restful. Most TV is crap anyway. (Whatever show I currently love is excepted, of course.)

Escapism has its place in a northern winter, but TV for TV’s sake is a poor escape. It puts a mind in stasis. There have been times when I can’t even remember what I watched. When I turn the box off, my mind reverts to the same stressed, pent up state it was in before, except with a liberal sprinkling of anxiety on top.

Find other escapes if TV affects you negatively. Listen to podcasts/music/audiobooks. Go to bed. Talk to someone. Practice a hobby. Sort the socks. Do something besides sit in front of the TV/Hulu/Netflix.

Fill’er up with Happy

Jon Snow, you need a week in SoCal.

Jon Snow, you make me cold.

Last winter, I started reading A Song of Ice and Fire, the first book in the Game of Thrones series. What a terrible decision- so much cold, and snow, and blood, and bloody snow. I could handle the gore; it was the snow, or Snow, that got me. I put it down until April.
In the depths of the winter that has already come, I seek out pleasing, diversions- silly British TV shows (watched in small doses,) audiobooks by comedians, or engrossing fiction or biographies in which winter is not a character and children don’t die.

Eat Live Things

When the snow flies, I am drawn to rich, fatty, carbohydrates and wine. However, when I haven’t felt the sun 3428573788_4f85b63636in months and winter’s cold fingers are tightening around my chest, I feel better when I eat some raw foods. The problem is that raw foods, like me in February, are always cold, and I only want warm things. Salad is nearly impossible to make desirable this time of year. Even the salty charms of feta cheese cannot draw me to a bowl of chilled vegetable. Bacon must be enlisted in a 1:1 ratio to lettuce to tempt me at all.

In winter, I try to serve something raw at each dinner: sugar snap peas, peppers, cucumbers, carrots, jicama, even fruit. I serve green leaves like a supplement, not a side dish. Everyone gets a pinch of fresh spinach leaves next to their vitamins, no matter what else is for dinner.

The easiest way to dose my family with raw veg in the winter is to juice them (the veg, not the family.) I always forget to do this until late winter when we all start getting sick. Children love to use the juicer and will suck down a carrot/orange/romaine blend without complaint. It tastes like sweet life in the bitterness of March.

Take Some Vitamin D

Because I haven’t made any of my own since October and will not do so again until April.

Let the Sunshine In

In the frigid north, it is colder when the sun is out. Clouds blanket the city, holding warmth in, but blue skies strip away warmth. When I can find a window with the sun streaming in, I stand there with the golden light filling my eyes, even for a minute. It’s better than nothing.

Sweat & Exercise

I can almost see your eyes rolling. I know; it’s a bit of a bummer. Pulling on spandex pants after a cold Christmas does not seem likely to

Simmons: He knows what's up.

Simmons: Good for what ails you…depending on what ails you.

improve one’s mood. Avoid the full-length mirrors and do it anyway. Or just do it in your house and wear your PJ. Who cares? Getting the blood moving reminds me that I am alive, even if the weather outside is deadly.

Winter is what got me started working out seriously. One February at 11:30 pm, I was paying a crew of men a revolting hourly sum to melt the 1’ ice dams off my roof. I was running out of money and there was still one damn dam to go. Stressed, worried by the water dripping down my inside walls, and a little furious at the whole situation, I decided to wear myself out doing mountain climbers- just to calm down. Gasping for breath and lying on the floor 4 minutes later, I was exhausted, but my mental state was much better, and I was a little bit hooked.

Now, I run for my mental health as much as for my physical health. There is something about the combination of rhythmic movement, sweat, a half an hour without someone yelling, “Mom!”, and the endorphins, that raise my mood more than anything else. Oh, the sweet endorphins. Sometimes, I run just for the endorphins. Being a user of these chemicals, I know that I need to run for 28 minutes to get a good hit, and I feel them hit my bloodstream. They are effective, legal, and free.

Exercise is also one of the only times I am actually warm during the winter. At the moment, I am writing this with a down comforter over my head and shoulders, and a space heater aimed at me. I walk around my house in shoes, sweater, hat, and sometimes a scarf for months at a time. Getting hot and sweaty, whether through exercise or sauna, feels so good during the cold months- bringing blood to the surface and opening pores that otherwise won’t open again until May. Even if you don’t want to P90X (and I’m right there with you,) getting in a steam room will give you the same glow without all the burpees. It’s a small wonder that the Finns love their saunas. Although, I am not game for the jump in a frozen lake afterward- madness.

You go first. I'll take pictures.

You go first. I’ll take pictures.

Warmth in Numbers

February/March is a social dead time. Holidays are over; the spring event season has yet to begin, and no one is thinking of barbeques or cocktail parties. People are hunkered down, waiting for Spring. If I can get myself invited to or arrange social gatherings with beloved and stimulating people, my heart warms and life is good.

Medicinal Grooves

When struggling with seasonal depression, I medicate with music. I choose it like a prescription drug- in accordance with what I need and what it can provide. It’s most effective when I can turn it up, close my eyes, and give it my full attention- so, when small people are asleep. This time of year, I take a lot of Haydn, early to mid Beethoven, Mumford and Sons, Cake, and occasional Metallica, AC/DC, Pink, and Randy Travis. I must be careful with those last ones; it’s easy to build up a tolerance and they quickly lose their effectiveness.

Bring Me [to] a Shrubbery!

I always forget this one and must be reminded of it by friends. In my city, we have a wonderful conservatory full of tropical trees, plants and lots of loamy smelling humidity. It is a relief to the skin and the senses to go in there and smell the plants, the damp earth, and see living horticulture. I will fill out a comment card the next time I go. I’ll suggest that they put deck chairs out in sunny spots and people can rent them by the hour and take the air and light for their health.
If you have access to an indoor greenspace- zoos, greenhouses, conservatories, go. Your skin and your mood will thank you.4308992311_e8bf512eed

That’s my arsenal. On occasion, it must all be employed at once to meet my mental health needs. I’m sure I’d be a good candidate for a light therapy lamp, but I haven’t looked into it. How do you cope with the cold, dark, icy white horror that is a Northern winter? I need all the help I can get… as long as it’s cheap and easy, or you’re paying.

Pharmaceutical Grade Solitude

The Value of a Good Time Out

December was a nightmare. It always is. Thus, the complete lack of postings here. We have been musicians our whole adult lives and December is busy season for anyone who sings or plays with any kind of skill. I only took one playing gig. Hot Swede more than made up for it with his (slightly insane) choir schedule and ad hoc gigs at church. I stupidly

8203770426_e3a7382ed5_nvolunteered to do the costumes for our church’s live Nativity. (It is so easy to say yes in October.) I had to make 6 adult angel costumes, in addition to finishing the gifts I was making for my own giving. I attended the children’s “winter concerts,” (If we‘re not going to do a Christmas concert, I humbly ask the public schools to save their “winter concerts” for January. Please.) did the daily everything, and solo parented while Hot Swede was singing all evening. I have never wanted Christmas to be over so badly. The weekend before the big day, Hot Swede got home from singing out of state (!), and I crumbled into about 289 pieces. I was completely used up, empty. I had a lot of work left to do and people to be kind to and I had no idea how I was going to manage it.  I needed to restock and repack my mental toolbox. I needed serious alone time.

I use pharmaceutical grade solitude, 100%pure, to calm my nerves and smooth my feathers. This isn’t a break from the people driving me nuts. It isn’t watching a movie by myself, or even going to the bathroom without someone knocking at the door and asking for something (although that would be nice.) Therapeutic solitude is free of other human input- no books, music, talk, art, conversation, people watching. It is a time to just be with myself, reconnect with who I am, find my balance and ground.  Lucky for me, I learned the value of purposeful solitude early.

In 10th grade, the experiential education department at my school sent a handful of us on a solo trip. We hiked into the mountains where we were given our boundaries and rules:

3400140191_9b165fe386_nNo contact, even visual, with other soloists, no fires, books, writing, no yelling except in case of bears. Our leader handed each of us a tarp, length of rope, and a Ziploc with the following: 2 hard candies, 2 oz of cheese, 2 granola bars, and a tortilla.  We treated our creek filled water bottles with iodine and each of us set out to find a secluded campsite where we would spend at least the next 24 hours completely alone.

Beforehand, I was curious as to how I would react to the experience. Would it be uncomfortable? Would I like being so alone? Would I spend it talking to myself or to God? It turned out that, as I couldn’t go anywhere, I had no other purpose except to be, and that’s what I did. I listened to the air, studied all the mosses and lichens in my little camp. It was so different from anything else I’d ever experienced. I took naps in patches of sunlight, delighted in the sun-warmed rock.  I was asleep when the sun went down and rose when it did.

The experience didn’t change my life. There was no mountain top experience, just an opportunity to commune with the quiet inner voice that can be heard only when the loud outer voices, the ones that communicate with others, are not coming in or going out. I kept company with myself, listening and observing, and realized that I liked this girl and wanted to be kind to this person who is me. If that isn’t an important realization for a 16 year-old girl to come to, I don’t know what is.

Some people use solitude for prayer and meditation, and that has its own value, but there is something sweet and nutritive about listening to my own soul and body. It’s self-5712953278_9986cfe40e_ndating and therapy all in one- getting to know myself, listening, watching, not trying to change or solve problems- just understanding. It’s a chance to let mental knots loosen and unravel, a chance to stop reacting to outside demands, a chance to sort and restock the mental stores.

20 years later, my daily life is never free of other humans, and I take solitude very seriously, if infrequently.  The weekend before Christmas, with about 24 things on my to-do list, my husband, whom I had essentially not seen in two weeks, kicked me out of the house for some alone time. He is sweet and knew I needed it. He is also not an idiot; He knew his life would be better if I got some solitude.

Hear no people. See no people. Speak to no people.

Hear no people. See no people. Speak to no people.

I ate breakfast that someone else cooked. I drove in silence. I’m a gal who likes to have music or talk on at all times, but not during therapeutic solitude. I ran one nightmare errand to the mall (barf) and got out of there as quickly as possible. Then, the best part- I went to the art institute because it’s beautiful and quiet and sat on the same bench for 1.5 hours. What piece of art took my attention for 1.5 hours? None. Art was too much of other humans. I sat looking out over a deserted snow-covered park, just breathing, just being. Stress sloughed off in big flakes and by the end, I was ready to go back to my life, picking up the gallon of milk that I knew we needed on the way home.

I am fortunate to have a healthy, inexpensive tool for renewal, and family who supports it. Massages are nice. Pedicures and manicures don’t appeal to me. Shopping is short-lived. Drinking, movies, and other escapes have their place, but they don’t make coming back to reality any easier. Medicinal grade solitude is it. It is what works for this woman who is never ever alone unless someone else helps make it happen.

Christmas Eve prep was done at 3 am; I was fine. Christmas day was fine; I even enjoyed it. My in-laws got everyone ice skates and we made good memories and better bruises. The day after was lovely. New Year’s Eve, hanging out with friends while our children watched a movie and fell asleep, was the top social event of the month.  And that day apart, given to me by Hot Swede, was the second best gift of the season.

Grinching on Christmas Lists

Are written lists of material wants ever a good idea?

3094706012_4b4505805f_zHot Swede’s family is a Christmas list family. After Thanksgiving, my mother-in-law asks for gift ideas for everyone. This is the way it has always been, and her children have always handed over wish lists, often very specific lists. I know that lots of other families do this, and I honor that. I always provide her with ideas for her son and grandkids. I spend a lot of time collecting ideas and then deciding which ones to give her- considering what she might enjoy shopping for. However, I will not; I cannot provide her with a list for myself. It rubs me the wrong way. I can’t make myself do it.

I blame my parents, (as one does.) I grew up in a family where we might casually mention something we might like to receive, but the focus was on what we were going to give, or my mom ranting that she wished we could jettison all the presents and just spend time together. I can imagine the look on my mom’s face if I had presented her with an itemized written wish. (My Little Pony stable, rollerblades, a pogo ball, pocket knife, or spy jacket: the few things I remember wanting very much.) Um, no. Tell me your #1 want and go make a list of good ideas for other people.

We didn’t hang stockings on the fireplace until Christmas Eve because it looked selfish. (Hot Swede and I have skirted this argument. Currently, the stockings are up, much to my dismay.) I don’t remember nosing around under the tree to see what was for me, but that may have been because my parents were late wrappers and things didn’t appear under the tree until right before the big day.  But my distaste of wish lists expands beyond family eccentricity. I am philosophically and practically opposed to them.

Gift giving is never about what I want to get. It is about considering others’ needs and interests, and finding something they will like and I’d like to give. When I receive gifts this way, the love, time, and thought of the giver become part of the present. They are what make it meaningful. Otherwise, it is just another scarf, hat, or set of whiskey glasses. When gift exchanging is done well, it is the thought that counts.

The gifts I appreciate most are the unexpected ones- ones where someone has thought carefully about me, found something they were excited to give, and I get to enjoy something I never even had the chance to want. This goes back to my wedding and the first time I supplied the mother of all wish lists- the gift registry, to potential gift givers.  Yes, I appreciate my matching dishes, flatware, and set of pots. I think of my paternal family every time I pull out the china we picked out and they gave for us, but that doesn’t happen often. However, the handmade ceramic bowl given by a cousin and the cutting boards made by Hot Swede’s uncle delight me. They carry the additional boon of reminding me of the giver each time I use them.

There are good reasons for wedding gift registries. They are lifesavers when buying for someone I don’t know well, or looking to assess the tastes of the recipient. For newlyweds, it is nice to start out with matching sets of dishes, even though I broke all the bowls by my 10th anniversary, and we are on our 3rd set of daily glassware. (It’s like a Jewish Greek wedding every time I do dishes.) Lists are not necessary for the kind of personal giving I do at Christmas.

Sometimes I need ideas and direction. In that case, I ask the person directly if there’s anything they need or want. Even better, I’ll ask someone who knows them better than do I. In this way, I remain free to give what I can and would like to, and they still have a chance at being pleasantly surprised with my efforts.

Wish lists take the “thought that counts” out of the process. Getting something I’ve asked for is nice. The generosity of the giver is there, but it feels as if the giver has simply done my shopping for me, cheapening and limiting the role of the giver and tying up the gift with a little ribbon of guilt for me.

Okay, so this one I'll accept.

Okay, so this one I’ll accept.

It isn’t just guilt that cheapens the experience.  The writing of a wish list immediately creates expectation in the gift recipient, and nothing kills happiness like expectation. The fewer expectations we have for others to meet our needs, the happier we are. This truth extends all the way into expecting someone else to give you that Star Wars Millennium Falcon 7965 LEGO set that you’ve wanted since you were 28.

Such specific written requests limit the giver. If you give me a wish list, am I obligated to get something off the list, even if I find something else I think you’d enjoy? Will you be disappointed, or worse, irritated if I don’t purchase from your list? I much prefer the surprise and joy of receiving the thoughtfulness of the giver in a gift THEY’VE picked for me, even if it isn’t what I’d pick out for myself.

Writing a wish list manufactures want. Goody! Normally, when asked if there is anything I’d like for Christmas, I can’t think of anything off the top of my head. In an effort to make gift giving easier on my family, I started brainstorming gift ideas for myself and writing them down so I could refer to them up when asked. I looked around for things I didn’t have and decided that I wanted them. Do you see the problem? I created desires for trifles that I hadn’t wanted before! And then I was asking loved ones to fulfill them for me! Talk about killing satisfaction and gratitude. What an unhealthy and unhelpful practice. This is the first year I will not do it. I won’t. I’d rather get the same food scented candle from everyone than engage in manufacturing material voids for my loved ones to fill. Thumbs down.

There is only one kind of acceptable gift list: the list of gifts I want to GIVE. You may tell me about something you’d love to receive. I want to know if there’s something you really want. However, if you hand me an itemized shopping list of your material desires, I’m going to be irked and leave it where it lies until recycling day.

I love giving gifts. I start the gift giving brainstorm in September. I love the puzzle of matching people with gifts within my budget. I like the challenge and enjoy the process. I love offering up a beautifully wrapped package. I have every Christmas giving list since 1998, so I can keep track of past ideas and what books I’ve already given. I am no Scrooge. But a gift is about receiving the goodwill and love of others, and I like it best when the giver isn’t told exactly the color, model, and shape their goodwill should take.

One of my favorite things.

One of my favorite things.

If you write and give from wish lists, tell me how you use them and why you like them. I am genuinely curious. Lots of people use them without issue. And I fully accept that my hang ups with them are my own. However you manage your gift giving, I wish you all a fun and meaningful experience, whether you like detailed lists with ISBN codes, homemade gifts, or eschew it all together and make donations to charitable organizations, whatever works for you.

I Get By With a Little Help From My Friends.

I had a terrible morning with the children. The youngest is sick and cried. The eldest threw a full bore tantrum. The middle child, typically, said not a word and got ready for school. After dropping the older two at school, I came home and cried into a dishtowel for ten minutes. I was at a loss; I didn’t know how I should have handled the tantrum.  I was sure I was a terrible mother; no one knows how bad it really gets around here except me. My nerves were shot; a tornado of chaos and banshees knocked me over, and I had no idea why or what to do about it.

3609775194_df351a29b9Out of frustration and a touch of desperation, I posted something about the bad morning and feeling inept. I wasn’t fishing for compliments or platitudes; it was just something I had to say somewhere.  Within minutes, my phone rang. It was my friends, a couple I’ve known for years, asking if I was okay and what was going on. The concern expressed in their words and the act of calling comforted me greatly. They gave me a couple things to try. Mostly, they listened and confirmed that parenting is hard. It is hard for everyone, but lots of other people get through it and so will I, and so will they.

I had forgotten what a powerful support it is to have someone show concern and listen, especially someone who is walking a similar path. When I was a newish parent, I was lucky to be part of a wonderful program through our public school system, ECFE. It is a program designed to support and help families navigate the baffling early years of parenting.

We met once a week for one hour with children, and then one without- the kids exploring their world, the parents exploring theirs. This group of wonderful, average, every day women saved my bacon. We saved each other’s bacon. Each week, we’d share our joys and bring our concerns to the group in uncommonly open, kind, and honest conversation. Everything was game: kids who wouldn’t stay in bed, kids who’d only eat cheese, disagreements with partners, divorce, illness, infidelity, our own weakness and frustrations. It may be the healthiest thing I did for myself and my young family.

We all need those places to unload, commiserate, re-direct, tell the truth, hear the truth, and offer support. This job is completely bananas. Almost any yahoo can make a baby and that’s where the easy part ends. Billions of people have raised children under all kinds of conditions, difficulties, and advantages. It is hard every time. If parents care about their children at all, it is hard. It’s the most intense challenge I will ever face.

I want to be the mother each of my children needs, but there are three of them, one of me, and I have my own soul trying to be the person she needs to be. Dealing with myself is hard enough, much less trying to be good for three children. Children come with their personalities, temperaments, weaknesses, and strengths intact and active. Grown humans must teach them how to make the most of what they’ve got. My children’s proclivities, talents, and issues may be widely disparate from my own, but it is still my job and I don’t get a pass because I feel ill suited to it. At some point, we all fall short of expectation, but we don’t get to quit.  Decent parenting (I’m not talking stellar, just decent) is utterly vital to the health of society and individuals.  So we pick ourselves up, open up a bottle of wine when the kids go to bed, and do the best we can.

A compatriots make difficulties easier to bear.

Compatriots make difficulties easier to bear.

Except sometimes, we can’t pick ourselves up quickly. Quickly is important, because the battle doesn’t stop because we’ve fallen down. Today I was overwhelmed. I no longer have that group of pre-school moms to lean on, strategize with, and encourage. My friends picked up the phone and were the support that I needed. I am so grateful. They may not even realize what it meant to me to have them reach out and pull me up. They patched me up and sent me back into the fray, reminded that I was not alone and that any parent worth her salt feels inadequate at times.

Let's go for coffee, I mean, cheap therapy.

Let’s go for coffee, I mean, cheap therapy.

I will look for places to do the same for others, when they hit a rough spot. It increases goodness and we all need help eventually. Ask for help when you need it, and be there when others need you. Both sides of the equation make this hard and vital job of raising people easier, kinder, and less harrowing. Be kind to each other. Kids, be kind to your old moms and dads. We’re actually working hard at this, even if it doesn’t look like it.

Mother’s Amnesia

How Second Children and Golden Nostalgia are Made

When you are pregnant with your first child, women of a grandmotherly age tell you to treasure each moment because it is the best time of your life. I have always been dubious of this gushy advice. Even before birthing my first, I took it with a chunk of salt. It couldn’t be true when every mother of young kids I saw looked tired, harried and in need of a nap. Now I understand. Nature programs selective amnesia into the minds of mothers. If she did not, she would find it difficult to convince any of us to have more than one child. But as soon as you deliver that grapefruit sized head from your body, you start to forget the sensation. It’s chemical fact.

Doux rêves- Firmin BaseYes, mothering is the most important thing I do. Yes, it has its moments of joy- hearing my daughter’s belly laugh, watching an older brother help a younger one without prompting.  I will be honest; those moments are precious and infrequent. They happen without warning, and I have to be ready to catch them. Often, they happen and I miss them because I’m busy burning dinner or digging in the mismatch bin for two socks that are in the same color family.

I don’t love the job, but I love my children and I am able and willing to take a stay-at-home position in service to their personhood and an immense sense of responsibility I feel for giving them the best tools I can and a sturdy foundation to build on.

There are stay at home parents who adore the job. (I don’t know who they are, but I’m sure they exist.) On a day-to-day basis, it is mostly laundry, meals, and interruptions, and I never leave the office. When all three children were at home, I operated in stupefying chaos and nothing I cared about was under my control. I didn’t go to the bathroom on my own terms.  It’s getting better as they get older, but it is still a mess. I plan a nice dinner and someone drops/breaks/gets stuck in something and dinner goes unmade. A preschooler dumps a cup of milk into a basket of folded laundry. Order crumbles into disarray, like graham crackers in a car seat.

Sisyphus, artist unknownAll my tasks, except the long game of raising adults, are cyclical and eternal in nature: completing their tight little circle in a day and demanding to be done once again. Sisyphus didn’t have it so bad. He rolled that stone in peace and quiet and, as far as I know, no one vomited down the front of his tunic.

While this is all true, it is also true that the work is immensely significant and challenging. If I bring new humans into the world, I owe it to them and the world to do whatever I can to help them become a blessing and not a burden to the world. Doing so requires being honest with who they are  and I am.

Nothing cuts down your ego like parenting. Your children will embarrass you in Target. “Mom, that woman [pointing, of course] is so big! Do you think she’s a Bigfoot?” I bent down and said, “Oh, little girl, where is your mother? Let’s go find her.” and led the blabbermouth away as quickly as possible. Good times.

All pretense is stripped away as you rock a fussy baby at 2:00 am, or sit in a steamy bathroom at 4:30, trying to help your sick 5 year-old breathe. There are no breaks and the façade you keep up for others and yourself falls to pieces under the strain, leaving you facing your true self- all the good and ugly bits.

You make goals for your kids. You want them to eat kale, read Chinese, love baseball, be healthy and kind, but you have very little control over any of it. You are dealing with an autonomous being, and their free will and luck do a lot of thwarting your best intentions.

At the very least, parenting opens your eyes to what your parents did for you. You become aware of sacrifices to which you were blind. You forgive their faults because you realize that you have some of the same ones. Your parents taste a sweet little justice, sending sugared up kids home from their house, or watching you struggle with a mouthy teen. Grandparents should enjoy it; they earned it.

It is hard, long, and difficult. And darn it, if those old biddies weren’t right. The days drag, but the years fly. Before I know it, I will be teaching them to drive, and moving them into apartments. I will be wistful and weepy because Nature will have done her merciful kindness and I will carry the golden moments in my heart, the others, still there, but faded in the background.

"The Three Ages of Woman", detail, Klimt.

Perhaps I’ll remember myself as a very pale white woman.

Trick-or-Treat!

Do it.

I want kids to trick-or-treat. I want them out in dark, tripping over capes and clown shoes, spitting on everyone as they yell “Trick or treat!” through plastic fangs. I want the young ones to come to my door and look up at me with that look of resigned confusion that says, “Lady, I don’t know what’s 8146023035_7589abbddfgoing on. The big ones, they dressed me up like some kind of pink rodent and are parading me around in the dark. Strangers keep giving me stuff I’m not allowed to eat. I suspect I’m being used as some kind of candy lure. I’m just going along with it because it makes the big ones smile and, well, what choice do I have?”

I want to drop Butterfingers in the pillowcases of properly costumed teens who manage to drop their guard enough to offer the evening’s greeting in a clear voice. I want; I really want the cool uncostumed teens to show up so I can ask them to please sing a song or dance instead. That’s the All Hallow’s Eve deal: You show up properly dressed and call out. I admire your efforts in exchange for candy. You say, “thank you” and everyone gets what they want. There are procedures if you cannot comply, and they involve singing, dancing, or a good joke.

I get the impression that fewer and fewer kids are out on Halloween night. Maybe it’s because I grew up in a warmer climate where we only had to wear a jacket as we ran around neighborhoods. In the upper Midwest, a knit cap and puffy coat destroy the aesthetic of any dainty fairy or fearsome warrior. The weather doesn’t explain all of it; people here go fishing through a hole in the ice… and they aren’t even beginning to starve.

Parents are fun slayers. Gauntlet thrown. Parents don’t want to get cold, don’t want to traipse around in the dark and don’t trust their kids or neighbors enough to send the kids out alone. I get that. I don’t let mine go out alone… I send their father with them so I can stay home and have more conversation with small people than they desire. I understand that it’s a school night. I know that kids come home with pounds of teeth rotting, appetite killing, behavior modifying, tasty crap. I get it. But…

2991216294_c7b3bc03f9I want the tradition to continue. For one thing, it is not a holiday I want dragged out. I like it as a single evening’s activity. Sending kids out trick-or-treating is many times easier than throwing Halloween parties. I only clean the porch for trick-or-treating. I want childfree adults remember their childhoods. I want them to think about the kids in their area and buy treats for them. Yes, I wish it could be apples instead of candy corn, but I won’t throw out all the good fun of trick-or-treating just because candy isn’t a healthy choice. I want neighborhoods to open up their doors and their generosity to small wandering bands of mermaids and zombies. I want kids to wear costumes in public because it is SO FUN.  Every Batman should run through the darkness, cool night air snapping his cape behind him. I want older kids to hold the hands of the younger ones when a gory apparition runs by. I want parents to stand back at the sidewalk and let their tiny children find the courage to walk up to my door by themselves, or in a brother’s wake. I want them to talk to a grown up they don’t know in a safe way- because it builds communication skills. Don’t belittle it; these small lessons are where the growing happens. Also, I like talking to them.

We are the parents. We can put limits on how late they’re out and how much sugar they shove in their gobs. Yes, you can do it. Put on your big girl pants and a hat, make some candy rules and a hot toddy to keep you company and take those kids outside on the last dark night in October.  It’s worth it.