Tuesday, December 20, 2016

Christmas snow and solstice simmerings

Has this fall been darker than previous years? Maybe. But probably not. Fall is fall, after all. You know by now, just by reading my last few posts, it's not been an easy year.I've been sad.  I've been scared. I've been angry. The world doesn't make much sense to me when I consider what's outside the walls of my own home, and sometimes even things inside my home don't make much sense. And every time someone asks, "So, you ready for Christmas?" as if they're looking for me to fall apart into a pile of frazzled nerves and broken promises, I feel my shoulders creeping closer to my ears. What the heck does that mean, really, to be ready for Christmas?

We put a lot of pressure on ourselves, our kids, our loved ones, don't we, around this time of year? I've felt an acute aversion in 2016 to the barrage of ads on television, to the glut of promotional emails in my inbox, to the manic holiday songs in every public space. I pushed back against my dad's daily texts asking about gift ideas for my husband and kids. I felt panicky watching the pile of gifts grow taller and taller as Honey wrapped them. Why so much focus on stuff? Where do we stash all of it, once the packaging comes off? How does any of this frantic, forced holiday frenzy push out the darkness? 

It doesn't. 

Something happened this past weekend, though, that I feel I need to share: Early on Saturday -- the Saturday before Christmas, the day that the marketers tell us is our Last Chance, hurry to the stores now before time runs out and Christmas is ruined! --  I found peace in a snow storm. There was a distinct moment in which I felt something move, like a switch flipped inside me, and I actually felt Christmasy. I think it was joy.

The snow was that perfectly beautiful, magical, fluffy kind: small flakes that whisper as they fall to earth, then breeze away with the movement of your hand. I could almost make out each individual pattern on each individual flake, like they each their own message to whisper.The whole world outside seemed clean, quiet, still. I sipped my coffee and simply watched the snow fall. Later, in the morning, I noticed people giggling and smiling at one another in the grocery market parking lot, even while clearing snow off their cars. Smiling in a snow storm, can you imagine? Then I dropped Zippy off for a play date and his excitement to be with a friend nearly moved me to tears - oh, to be 6 in a Christmas snow!

When we came home, the boys played outside until their cheeks turned red-purple and they collapsed on the living room floor in layers of scarves and hats and sweaty silliness. We sipped cocoa and giggled over silly iMovies that Happy made. We mixed salt dough for a craft project, and our friends came over in the afternoon. We played with Hess trucks, cut out salt dough ornaments, listened to my personal holiday playlist (the John Denver and the Muppets album "A Christmas Together" is everything), and simply hunkered down as the snow fell outside. So warm. So safe. So simple.

I remembered that joy is a deep-down thing; happiness and sadness come and go, but joy remains intact. Even in darkness! Joy can bubble up. Joy can be an unexpected gift. If you're open to receiving it. 

Tomorrow is winter solstice. It will be darker than all the days before. But... inch by inch, minute by minute, the light will increase through the next six months. Light comes back. It always does. Each and every morning. In every season, no matter how dark.

This morning I talked with the boys about ways to welcome the solstice together. They looked confused at my mention of darkness and candles and sunrises. Until I reminded them of our own beliefs around Jesus as the light of the world: "The people walking in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine upon them." There's a reason we celebrate the birth of Christ during the darkest time of the year. We light candles on Christmas Eve to remind us of His light, to make space for it. We put twinkle lights on our Christmas tree as a reminder of happiness and joy. Heck, even the tree itself is a symbol of the cycle of life, the evergreen promise. 

On this winter solstice night, we will light candles while we bake cookies and watch a favorite Christmas show. Then we'll bundle up before bedtime and walk into our deep, dark backyard, where we will look up at Orion cartwheeling through the heavens. I will think of my sister, who celebrates earth and sky and soul and magic, and who first taught me these things when she was just a wee one in our own backyard on solstice a quarter-century ago. And I will let go of the darkness that has been in my heart for the past few months. I will make space for light and joy.

And tomorrow, as I walk to work, I'll say good morning to those amazing, enduring ducks who don't seem to notice how cold it is on Back Cove. They keep swimming as they always do, season to season, year to year. Then I'll put my face to the sunrise and I'll sing. I don't know what song yet, but I'm sure some tune will come.

I'll be ready for Christmas, too. In case you ask. 

Thursday, November 10, 2016

What now?

“Mommy, where will we move to after Donald Trump drops the big atomic bomb to start World War 3? I don’t want to have to move again. And when will Zahir be sent back to Somalia? I don’t want him to go because he just got here and he gives really good hugs.”

These are the words Zippy spoke on Wednesday evening, after spending post-election day in school with a bunch of other 6-year-olds who have huge, scary questions on their minds. Their teacher, whom I adore, shut down all the post-election conversation. I wish she hadn’t done that. I wish she’d taken the opportunity to tell those kids the simple truth: You are safe here, our country is strong and the Constitution will hold, we adults will protect you.

But maybe Zippy’s teacher, like me, doesn’t truly feel that way right now. Maybe she is uncertain about our safety - or our ability to keep our loved ones safe. And maybe she, too, wonders if our country, this great American experiment, truly is strong enough to weather the monsoon of ugliness rained on us throughout the election season. Maybe she is struggling, as I am, with her own scary questions: What will happen to my healthcare? Will they really throw out the Paris Accord? Will the next Supreme Court nominee overturn and negate my rights to make decisions about my own body? Does half of our country honestly believe that banning - or removing - immigrants will solve any problems? Are there people walking by me every day who harbor violent feelings toward gays, people of color, Muslims, Jews, and even women? Even worse, are there people I love who believe in the ideology of supremacy and hatred that has driven DJT’s campaign? And have I been complicit in this outcome?

I started writing a couple weeks ago, in an attempt to get ahead of the election, about the soul searching I’ve been doing over the last year. I ditched all of those writing efforts because some of it has been too painful to even articulate. What I’ve discovered this year about myself and about our country is that neither of us are what I thought we were. Until recently, I have been relatively content with status quo, as long as it didn’t affect me negatively. I have walked blithely through life unaware that some of my friends don’t feel safe because of the color of their skin or because of their sexuality or gender identity. I have never contemplated what it must feel like to live in a poor, rural area in which the one and only industry has closed down, where I see no other options; I have never thought what it must feel like to not only see no real future for myself or my children because I’ve been left on the sidelines by my school, my community, and my government. I have not acknowledged the many layers of institutional racism that exist because those layers didn't harm me or my children. When I witnessed bigotry, even though I felt shock and horror, I wrote it off as "that one time" or "that one person." I have been confident that I can do anything I set my mind to, and in times that I have been financially stressed, I have always known that there were people around me who could help. I have always had health insurance, and dental insurance, and a refrigerator full of food. This is my privilege as a white, heterosexual, cisgender, middle class woman in America. And I have wrestled with this word, this concept of privilege, for months. (I’m embarrassed to admit that, too, that it’s only been months, not years or decades of wrestling.)

On Wednesday morning, when I realized that DJT had been elected, I sat on the edge of my bed and wept. I didn’t know how to tell my children that this vulgar, hate-filled man had been elected by our friends and neighbors to be the leader of our country. And I took this election outcome personally: We elected a misogynist, an accused sexual predator, to be President of the United States over a wildly qualified, intelligent woman. I walked through the entire day feeling numb and empty, eyes leaking without warning. I felt deep, hollow grief. And I felt fear. What comes next?

I realized today that most of these tears may be a release of the emotional stress of this awful campaign. I know now, as well, that sitting on the sidelines is no longer an option. One thing a year of self-reflection and despicable rhetoric will do is force you to discover what you truly value and what you truly will stand for - or against. So this is what I told Zippy last night when he asked me about World War 3 and the possibility of his young friend being tossed out of the country. “My number one job is to keep you safe, and I will do everything I can, every single day, to protect you. We are not going anywhere because we love our home, we love our country. And I will not let anyone send Zahir away.”

These promises are true and absolute. There’s a problem, though: I’m not an activist. At least not in a stand-up-with-a-megaphone or tie-myself-to-a-tank sense. As my dear friend wrote in a text message yesterday, “I’m not really a freedom fighter and I’m afraid I’ll let the whole team down.” So many of us feel that way this week.

What I am, or at least what I aspire to be, is an active agent of peace. I have spent all day today thinking about what that means, what that could look like, how that feels, and I’ve come up with some ideas that I believe can work for me. I’ll list them below, in no specific order, and I ask that you share any additional ideas you have, too. (I am sure I won’t be able to do all of these things, and neither will you, but we have to think big and bold and stretchy right now, because we don’t really know what’s coming.)

  • I can donate money to organizations that are under threat, such as Planned Parenthood, or any number of environmental groups.
  • I can find out what’s happening in my community, stay connected to local activists and politics.
  • I can show up to peace rallies and solidarity events to share loving energy.
  • I can volunteer with youth organizations, especially those that provide support for new Mainers.
  • I can write for websites or publications that support activist organizations.
  • I can write emails and make phone calls to my state Representatives and Senators.
  • I can phone bank or canvass for initiatives I believe in.
  • I can actively seek people of color to write books in my 9-to-5 job.
  • I can volunteer as an escort at Planned Parenthood.
  • I can offer the spare room in my house to anyone who feels they need safe shelter.
  • I can offer meals at my table to anyone who needs to rest while they’re out canvassing or doing things I’m not bold enough to attempt.
  • I can stay vigilant and step up for people who are taunted or bullied on the street.
  • I can support nonprofits that work in rural schools.
  • I can work in my ed-publishing world to put good PD in the hands of teachers in rural schools.
  • I can encourage smart, kind, progressive people I know to run for public office - then support them along the way.
  • I can have face-to-face conversations with people who have opposing political views, and work hard on my listening skills.
  • I can ask “how can I help?” more often.
  • I can mediate between people who don’t see eye to eye.
  • I can do more research on an issue before popping off an alarmist blog or article on social media. And on the flip side, I can share responsible journalism at every opportunity.
  • I can pray for our new President and elected representatives.
  • I can raise emotionally intelligent, kind, feminist boys - and invite their friends into our home, too.

This week - this year - has been painful, no doubt. And I have every confidence that it’s going to get worse before it gets better. I am not going to use words like reconciliation or unity right now because those are code for complacency. Yet I know, regardless of who we voted for this week, we all have talents and passions and convictions, and we can be freedom fighters or activists or agents of peace or whatever we need to be for our children, our friends, our country. Most important, let’s be love. Let’s be courage. Let's be strength. Let’s be hope. Let’s turn our privilege into active participation in this big old messy democracy, and let’s fix it.

Friday, October 7, 2016

Boardwalk ghosts

“Imagine this, buddy, in the middle of summer, especially near the Fourth of July. Wall to wall people, just sort of moving in and out of each other. Flashing lights. Loud music. Screams from Morey’s Pier, laughter on the swirly rides. Oh...and the food...ice cream, funnel cake, fudge, cheese steaks, pizza, fries...the smells alone would drive you nuts!” 

Our empty, rainy October boardwalk
It’s 5:00 on the evening before his Nana’s funeral, and we’re standing in a windy drizzle on an empty Wildwood boardwalk. My mind has flashed back to the summer of 1991, when I spent a week here with my best friend. Wicked sunburn. Tandem bike adventures. Water slides. Thrill rides. A ground-shaking thunderstorm. Friendship bracelets. College guys taking showers outside. Ice cream and VCR movies every night.

Back in the here-and-now I’m trying to explain to Zippy what this place is like when it’s not October. He’s been to Rehoboth and Ocean City and Old Orchard Beach, but none of those come anywhere close to Wildwood in peak season. Here the boardwalk stretches for miles and the roller coasters dwarf the ones he's seen in Disney World and Story Land. I can see his eyes and brain trying to fill in the blanks left behind by gated game kiosks and store fronts, the still and silent tilt-a-whirl and locked-tight food stands. 

“Uncle Jack worked at these game kiosks when he was a teenager, and Nana would follow him everywhere, all over the boardwalk and to the bay when he went fishing,” I tell him. “Nana was much younger than Jack. He called her Pinky because she always wore pink. Maybe also because she was sunburned. She’d sneak behind the games and he’d let her play for free sometimes.” Nana smiled with each retelling of these stories, usually working a tattered napkin in her hand after a family meal. She cherished these memories of her brother, her boardwalk, her ocean. 

“Why did Nana follow him everywhere?” Zippy asks. 

“Because she loved him so much and wanted to be with him always.”

“Like me and Happy?” 

“Yep. Uncle Jack watched out for Nana like Happy watches out for you,” I explain. “And Nana probably bugged him sometimes, too.”

“Yeah, probably. What does Uncle Jack look like now?” Zippy asks, and I realize he’s never met his great-uncle. 

“Hmm. Like the man version of Nana, actually.” I smile at how clever I am, but also because it’s true. They look just alike, speak with the same inflections, even walk with a similar tilt and shuffle.

“Does he have blue eyes like Nana?”

“Yep, and like you,” I reply.

Zippy is silent, looking around the boardwalk. We’re walking in the opposite direction now, heading back toward the pizza place to meet up with his cousins. I’m feeling nostalgic. My inner Jersey Girl is beaming. I’ve never been much of a boardwalk person, but you have to admit: Wildwood is like nothing else. I make a pact with myself that we'll bring them back here in the summer, and soon.

“Mama,” Zippy whispers. He’s holding tight to my hand as we lean into the drizzle and wind. “I would be really sad if Happy died like Nana did.” We stop walking and I squat down to his eye level. I have no words. He wraps his arms around my neck, and we just hold each other. A seagull stops a few feet away, cocks its head to the side, susses us out.

“I know, baby. Happy is your best friend. And you’re his.” There is nothing else to say. 

“Uncle Jack must be so sad today,” he says in his matter-of-fact tone. 

I stand up and he leans his head against my belly. I hear him sniffle, but I think it’s mostly because of the wind and rain, not tears. He’s empathizing but still so pragmatic. We walk toward the pizza place, the last remaining light on the boardwalk. Zippy's holding my hand, then bouncing to Happy, then skipping a little between us both. I can't see much of anything now because of the rain droplets on my glasses, but "watch the tram-car, please" repeats from the corner of my brain. One of the many ghosts accompanying us now. I swear I can smell cotton candy, too.

Zippy stops so abruplty I almost trip over him. His face tilts up at me, he juts his arms up over his head like he's trying to catch the wind. 

“I think me and little-kid Nana would have had fun here.” 

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Summer in Maine is...

  • Tank tops by day, hoodies by night 
  • Air so rich with strawberry smells that you stop smack in the middle of the Monument Square farmers market and giggle; the "tomato bar" in late August elicits the same response
  • Arms stained tie-dye red-purple-orange from the popcicles you slurp on the front porch; the house won't cool down until the sun sets 
  • Slow weekend mornings -- cold brew coffee, a book, a blanket, a patch of grass overlooking the sailboat-dotted harbor
  • Gigantic 10-story cruise ships, teeming streets, no parking spaces, buskers on every corner, impossibly long restaurant waits, a people-watching bonanza
  • Seagulls brazenly eyeing your fries as you pick apart lobsters the rocks at Two Lights Lobster Shark, laughing as the butter and salt water ooze down our forearms
  • Clouds that build and blow through a deep blue sky, mirrored in the lake we're floating on; reach your head back far enough, and it's easy to lose the distinction between water and sky.
  • Acrid charcoal-roasting meaty smells from all directions while you roast marshmallows and swat bugs around the backyard fire pit (some skunky weed-smoking smells around, too)
  • A house full of loved ones, visiting for long stretches of time...but never long enough
  • Kayak afternoons on the Scarborough Marsh, sunburn and solitude, cormorants perched on the directional sign like paid employees of the Audubon Society
  • Day drinking on the Maine Brew Bus, soaking in the local craft brew culture but quickly realizing that you haven't been so drunk at 2:30 in the afternoon in, oh, 20 years
  • Humidity so thick and enduring the back towels never really dry out
  • Hermit crabs skittering over your toes at Kettle Cove; try not to giggle when covered in tiny crab feet
  • Seaside sunset picnic with colors so rich you can't even speak...a moon that rises in cartoon-huge proportion over the sea...then mosquitoes that swarm so fast you have to spring to the car
  • White chocolate lavender ice cream at Bayley's, kids dancing on the patio, smiling sweetly thinking "we live in Vacationland!"

Every summer, around Memorial Day, we make a poster like this one to remind us of all the epic, action-packed, super-fun we plan to have in the few brief weeks between June and September. This summer was one for the books, for sure, in good and bad ways. I'm smiling now as I realize that we managed to do just about everything on this year's Summer Fun poster, as well as some stuff we hadn't really counted on. And now it's time to draft the Fall/Winter Fun poster... 

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Middle school is happening! Some words for my big boy.

Well, here we are. Middle school. We knew it was coming, yet it still feels so big. So intimidating. So exciting. Yes, my love, I'm just as nervous as you are. Maybe more so because I've lived through middle school and I'm reveling (roiling?) in my own memories now. We've talked a lot recently, sort of casually, about what this transition means. But there are so many more things I want to tell you...

Choose friends who make you happy. And try to see them every day, even if just passing in the hall. Friends will be more important to you than ever now. You'll be meeting so many new people these next few weeks, and you'll likely want to cling to the people you know already. That's okay; you need security in times of transition. I hope you'll open up to new people, too -- people who have similar interests and humor, people who recognize how amazing you are and support you. (And get their phone numbers so you can spend time outside of school!)

Be as smart as you are. Never hide from your intelligence, but don't worry about knowing everything, either. Ask questions. Seek answers. Challenge ideas you don't agree with. You are good enough just as you are -- in fact, you are just right -- but I want you to push yourself further. This is where school work starts to count. I will always remind you to work hard, sometimes gently, sometimes not so much. Just know that when I push, it's not because I want you to be better, it's because I want you to have the best opportunities as you grow and spread your wings.

First day of 6th grade
Explore new things. This is a perfect time to find what speaks to your heart! Even if it's nerdy. Remember what I told you about what it means to be a nerd? It means you're all in. When you find something that's interesting or brings out your gifts, jump into it with both feet. Don't worry about what other people say. Chess club is cool when it's your thing. So is drama, art, comics, football, yearbook, roller skating -- whatever it is, do it with gusto.

Trust your instincts. Even if it means saying no or risking embarrassment, or even if you worry your friends won't agree. You have a kind heart and a smart mind. These two things will never let you down. If something doesn't feel right, it probably isn't, so walk away. And know you can always call Mom or Dad for help, no matter what.

Mind the internet. It is a public place. And permanent. What you post online can and will be seen by many people, and you can't always control what people see, say, or share about your online activity. The internet is a wonderful tool for research, communication, connection, creativity. But it also brings out the nasty in people. Only your notebook -- old fashioned pencil and paper -- is private. Write whatever you want in it. That's the best way to get to know yourself.

Be kind. Always, to everyone. But especially to tall, awkward girls who will crave your attention because you're tall, handsome, and funny. Resist the urge to say things like "Ew, gross" when you find out a girl likes you. You don't have to like them back, of course, but remember kindness before coolness.

Don't be the stinky kid. Hygiene matters! Toothpaste, deodorant, face soap. These are all very important.

Stay organized. Locker, backpack, planner, bedroom. Create your own system if you have to, but have a system. I promise you, organizing your space and your mind will help you stay calm and feel in control when things around you seem chaotic.

Remember your brother looks up to you. In all you say, all you do, first ask yourself if you'd want to hear or see your brother doing it, too.

Enjoy time alone whenever you can. I know our house is small and space is limited, but I will respect and protect your need to be alone. I promise to not take it personally if you don't want to join us on family outings. You're going to want to pull away from us a bit over the next few years, and that's completely normal and expected; I will try my best to remember that. (Just be prepared for me to ask "Everything okay?" about a hundred times a week. And probably hug you or stare at your face more often. You know I will.)

Remember you are loved. So very much. By your mom and dad, your brother, your grandparents and aunts and uncles, your friends near and far. And you're a child of God, who watches over you and loves you and will be your strength and shield whenever you feel nervous, afraid, or hurt. We love you unconditionally -- no matter what.

Don't pay attention to people who warn you about how hard middle school is, or say things like "oh god! Never again!" Life is what you make of it. My mom told me this over and over, and I'll remind you too. Middle school will be amazing because you'll make it amazing, my happy handsome boy. You're totally ready to rock it!

Know, as well, that at the end of every day, no matter what happens -- good and bad -- your family is here waiting to celebrate, kvetch, hug, laugh, and recharge with you. Always. 

Sunday, August 14, 2016

Take me to the sea: A poem for our mothers

This is a week of bittersweet milestones, dates on which we may celebrate and grieve simultaneously. My mother, Carol, would have turned 67 this week. My mother-in-law, Kathleen, would have turned 75 just a few days later. We took one Mom's ashes to the sea 19 years ago; we'll take one Mom's ashes to the sea in a few weeks. We'll celebrate their legacies of love, family, resilience, and laughter; but we will always grieve the empty spaces that won't fill in. They've both gone too soon.

Happy asked me recently why we take the remains of our loved ones to the ocean when they die. He and I were floating on boogie boards in the North Atlantic at the time, near a sheltered beach called Kettle Cove, a serene and lovely Maine-poastcard beach. My first response was, "Because that's what they wanted." 

He was quiet, plaintive, mulling it over. "But why?" 

I thought of my mother, my grandmother and grandfather, so many childhood memories that floated on water. I thought of my mother-in-law, who reminded me any time I felt nerves, "Go to my ocean, Tori, you'll feel better. My ocean will never harm you." 

When I looked at my son's sweet face, carefree and buoyed on the sea, the true significance struck: Water surrounds us. Water sustains us. Water makes us. Water is life. 

And water is eternal. The water around us now is the water that's been around us for ages. It cycles. Forever and ever, sea to sky to rain to earth and back again. 

This refrain sounded in my mind, and I repeated it for Happy: "All the water in the world is all the water in the world." We smiled thinking of our mothers and grandmothers keeping us afloat at that very moment, soon to be watching us from a cloud high above and washing back to earth to feed the apple trees...then do it all over again. 

We take them to the sea to be free, my love, as I hope you'll take me someday. First we cry. Then we drift. We sip water and regain our strength; we nurture one another. We grow. We love. Over and over again.

Take me to the sea: A poem for our mothers

Take me to the sea, my child,
Release me to the deep
Where I will be
Forever free.
Floating pulsing surging love
In the cycle of water
And life without end.

All the water in the world is all the water in the world.
I will float on the tides,
Evaporate into the clouds
Then soar above you on a breeze
Finally free.

You’ll see me blinking
Past sun and moon
Shimmer of stars
Until I rain down
Gentle cooling soaking love
To wash away your pain
To feed the earth and float on again.

All the water in the world is all the water in the world.
So I am all around you now,
You will know peace, my child,
Now I am the sea, the sea is me.
And I am free.

Friday, August 12, 2016

Kayak mind drift

My mind drifts across Scarborough Marsh. No to do list. No schedule to keep. No children chattering. I’m alone. Sunshine on my face. Wind in my hair. Nothing between me and the sea but a bright red plastic shell. Nothing to focus on but this paddle in my hands.

Paddle left. Paddle right. Paddle left. Pull the water with your waist. Suck in your tummy. Paddle right. Keep your back straight. Push your feet into the foot wells. Paddle left. Paddle right. Oh we’re moving now. Into the wind. Over the chop. Paddle right. Cross the current. Paddle left. Use your back, not just your arms. Paddle right. Paddle left. Pull. Pull. Pull. Pull.

The tide is coming up. There’s more wind today than usual. The bow of the boat bounces over the choppy waves. My hat blows off. The laminated map on a lanyard around my neck whips my cheeks. Why do they give me this map anyway? It’s not like there’s much more than some twisting branches of water between marsh grass, a bridge, the sea. I can’t see beyond the next bend anyway. But I suppose we never really can.

Is that an egret or a heron? Long curved neck over the marsh grass, gracefully stalking her lunch.  I float closer. I won’t reach for my camera. Don’t want to startle her. Silence. Air. Ripples. She checks me, dives her yellow-speer beak into the water, comes up with a fish and flies off. All in one motion. But she doesn’t go far. She’s just as aware of me as I am of her. We’re both curious.

My right hand dips into the water. Cool and smooth. What’s on the bottom? Smile thinking of my mom jumping off a dock into thigh-high seaweed to pull me to shore on my first solo sailing venture. She loved me so much she'd walk through even that muck to pull me in!

I flash back to Great South Bay. I’m 7 years old, stowed in the hold of Grampa’s 22-foot sailboat with Nate; we’re nervously slurping salt from our life jacket straps while the adults scamper and yell on deck. We have to stay out of their way until we’re away from the dock. Once under way, I crawl out the hatch onto the bow, lie on my stomach with my arms overboard. My fingers rip through the water. Cool and smooth. Sun-kissed and mesmerized. Loved and protected. No worries on the bay.

Now I’m on the Sunfish with my Mom, about 12 years old. Just before I started to dislike her so fiercely, just before we fought like cats daily. She’s teaching me to sail the little 2-person boat; I’m once again nervously sucking the salt-water life jacket straps, hanging on every instruction. The rest of the family -- Dad, Nate, baby Robyn -- is on Grampa’s boat nearby, keeping watch on us as we tack across to the beach.

Mom never looked so young as she did that afternoon, so happy with me. I glimpse the girl she once was -- sun-tanned and squinting, cut-off denim shorts revealing those gorgeous long legs, confidence in her abilities to read the wind and waves. She’s beautiful. I’m awed. She shifts her position in the cockpit, hands me the rudder and sail line. She smiles and says, “You know what to do. Feel the wind.” And like that, I’m sailing.

She wants to teach me to handle a capsize -- an important and early lesson to learn on a small boat -- plus it’s hot. We want to cool off. So we flip the Sunfish on its side. We’re laughing as we right it, totally in control floating on the gentle wake of a passing speedboat. Suddenly, a splash from nearby. Dad has jumped off Grampa’s boat! He’s swimming toward us. He’s not a strong swimmer, anxious about open water. But he thinks we’re in trouble and doesn’t even consider his water worry.

Dad would be anxious about me now, too, out here alone on a kayak with no one around but a snowy egret and some sleek black cormorants. I wish I could convince him to try this with me when he visits next week. I know, though, it would not be relaxing for him. He’d do it. He’d do anything for me, for any of us. Yet he’d be worried the whole time. “Once your kids are adults,” he once told me, “You worry exponentially more.”

Not today, though. It’s just me and this marsh today. These crystal bay memories. These birds. Paddle left. Paddle right. Paddle left. The wind is at my back now, but my hat is long gone. Surely the spots on my face will darken now, the creases around my eyes will deepen as I squint into the sun. Ha! That doesn't matter now. Paddle right. Cross the current. Paddle left. Relax your grip. Keep your center. Paddle right. Paddle left. Pull. Pull. Pull. Pull.

Saturday, August 6, 2016

The battle for blueberries . . . and compromise

I completely lost my shiz this morning. I'm not proud of it, but shiz got lost.

The morning started casually enough. "Hey guys! " I smiled as I walked down the stairs on this gorgeous August-in-Maine Saturday, "We're going blueberry picking today! And to a new lake!" Both children, sitting on the sofa with overflowing bowls of Cheerios, sighed and rolled their eyes. They stomped around the house. The little one even started crying. WTF?

They actually got mad at me about the prospect of doing fun things. This happens often, in fact, and I shouldn't have been surprised. But that made me even madder. I was so pissed, I couldn't find adult words -- just yelled my own childish nonsense like "I just want to do fun things with you! Is that too much?" and "fine, then I'll pick blueberries alone!" -- and I sent Happy to his room because I didn't know what else to do. I fumed and fussed. I even said the F-word (and the image of Zippy's big blue eyes, wide with shock to hear me speak -- no yell -- that word will never leave my mind). Ugly mom moment.

Know what they were upset about? What they really wanted to do? Watch YouTube videos of other kids playing video games and building Legos; go to Target to spend their allowance (which, let's face it, is actually my money because they don't do too much to earn it) on the video games and Legos featured in the YouTube videos; come home and play video games all afternoon.

This. Kills. Me. Chunks of my soul screech and cry every time I realize that my children, people made from my love and DNA, would rather stay indoors staring at a television on a beautiful weekend day than do unique, once-a-year sorts of outdoor things. How is it possible? How have I screwed up so badly with them? We live in Maine, for Chrissakes. Go outside! People would (and do) spend thousands of dollars for these experiences you have right beyond your doorstep. How are you so ungrateful and spoiled so rotten?

Blueberry picking at Winslow Farm in Falmouth
Once I spewed all my rageyness and everyone was sufficiently teary-eyed, it hit me: These kids spend every weekday outside all summer long. They go to a fabulous day camp that takes them to all the best spots in the Maine/New Hampshire area. Trips every day. Lots of fun things. Meanwhile, I spend every day all summer in a dark office gazing out the window at the lunatics at the bus shell. So while I'm dreaming of blueberry picking, they're probably dreaming of sitting still for a while out of the sun.

Also, I am an outside person. I prefer outside to in; I become grumpy and sad and short-tempered if I don't get at least an hour of outside time every day. Don't even get me started on shopping malls; I would rather ride to the dentist on my bike through a hurricane than spend a gorgeous Saturday (or any day, really) at the mall. And video games! I would rather scrub bathroom grout with a toothbrush than play video games. I can't sit still very long without going bonkers, either; they really can. My kids might be more like my husband, who prefers malls to woodsy trails, TV-watching to cloud-gazing.

Besides, Maine is their home now, their Everyday. Of course they take it for granted! I grew up in New Jersey, crowded, hot, far away from blueberry picking and lobster shacks on a rocky coast. I dreamed of living here because of the amazing vacations we took when I was a kid -- and frankly, almost two years post-relocation, I often pinch myself and say aloud "This is your life, baby, not a vacation from it."

Outlet Beach on Sabbathday Lake...not bad
We live here, so we don't really need to cram in so much to every weekend. I know. We could probably all use more concentrated chill time. I know I push too hard to make every day awesome. And I realize that my definition of an awesome day may be different than theirs.

Once we all cooled off and dried tears this morning, and after I apologized for the hundredth time for saying the F-word, Honey made giant soothing egg sandwiches, and we looked at the forecast. We came to a compromise: A chance of showers and thunderstorms in the forecast means we give blueberries and lake time a try, but if at any point it thunders or rains, we will come home so you can go to Target and then play video games.

Know what happened? The sky stayed blue. Puffy, picture-postcard clouds floated by, but it never rained. We picked six pints of organic high bush blueberries, while the kids smiled and said things like "This is BERRY fun!" and "Oh, how I wish my mouth was a vacuum!" Then we went to a secluded sandy beach on a lovely little lake, where we floated on inner tubes, jumped cannonballs off the pontoon dock, and ate a grease-dripping-down-your-chin delicious snack-shack lunch. Everyone smiled dozily as we polished off our ice cream scoops and piled back into the car at the end of the day, blissed-out and beaming.

And right now, as I type, a sun-tanned boy snuggles next to me playing Lego Star Wars on the Playstation, while his dad and big brother troll the mall for new toys and back-to-school clothes. I just laid out two pints of blueberries to freeze, and when I sign off here, I'll find a killer blueberry pie recipe online. Life is good in this house, despite the morning blow-up.

Sometimes Mama knows a thing or two about how to spend a Saturday. And sometimes she needs to take a breath and think like a kid. We all know, too, there will be plenty of time for indoor chill time come November.
Lakeside lunch 

Thursday, July 28, 2016

"When they go low, we go high"

I've had a hard time collecting my thoughts this summer. Writing has been harder than usual. The world has been harder than usual. I don't have to recap every instance of violence, hatred, and anger that's taken place this summer...this year...by now it's part of our wounded national psyche. 

In the midst of it, my husband's mother died. She has been my mother for 20 years, my children's grandmother. And she has been my friend, someone I often turned to when things didn't make sense. For two weeks I walked through this very hard world wondering why it just didn't stop for a few days. Just stop! I needed to sit still and grieve, I needed time to remember happier moments with her and time to talk with my kids about very big concepts like hospice care, death, heaven. 

Yet even in those weeks, more instances of violence, hatred, anger filled the news, cycled endlessly through social media, office conversation, personal correspondence. Just stop, world. STOP. As I drove home from my in-laws' house, feeling numb and sad, I turned on NPR. News of the Dallas shootings broke and I muttered aloud, "When will the asteroids come?" My son looked across the front seat at me with wide, scared eyes.

Asteroids, people. I was wishing for asteroids. And my child heard me.

We were walking around a crowded festival when news of the Orlando shooting broke in June. As the headline scrolled across my phone, for the first time in a very long time, I felt fear. Deep, halting fear. I looked at my sons walking next to me on a bright, beautiful summer day...and wondered how I can possibly keep them safe in this world. There is so much anger. Seething. Fuming. Boiling. And no matter who you talk to, what words you choose, you're likely to set someone off. 

Current discourse patterns send the message that this is okay, that accusing and blaming are more effective than listening. People voice their outrage from behind a keyboard, quickly and without forethought. Often we just re-post words written by someone else. We're all trying to be the first to out-snark each other --- or worse, to actually wound with our words. We rarely allow others to explain their views before we jump all over them. "I am right, you are wrong, therefore you are my enemy," has become the norm. Which snowballs the anger, which powers the blame and hate. And it's scary. Scarier to me even than asteroids.

I started to curl up, turned away from social media and TV and into my books for self-preservation. I kept opening my journal to write, but eked out only a couple lines at a time (when have I ever been at a loss for words?!). 

But in the deep quiet Monday night, I turned on the television for company, just as Michelle Obama took the stage at the Democratic National Convention. Now, if you're my friend or have read this blog in the past, you know how much I admire Michelle Obama; she's the reason I changed my mind in 2008 and voted for her husband. This evening as always, she stood tall and spoke slowly, with conviction and powerful language -- not naming names, but deliberately pointing to the issues weighing on my heart. "We have a family motto," she said. "When they go low, we go high." 

Yes. Yes. YES. Something clicked in my head. Tears spilled over my cheeks. Goosebumps stood on my arms. 

I remembered to hope. 

Hope is a powerful thing, y'all. It's not really a feeling, and it's more than pie-in-the-sky wishful thinking. Hope is belief. It's expectation of better things. It's faith that things will be better. Hope is the older sister of Courage, the daughter of Love and the granddaughter of Grace. She holds our hand and pulls us forward even when the shadows loom large. 

I want to be a hoper, not an asteroid-wisher. I want to be a model of peace, a level-headed speaker of truth, a good listener who values opinions before shutting them down. I want to focus my eyes on hope for this country that I love, hope that my friends and neighbors can find a way to communicate thoughtfully and respectfully. I want to work for social justice, use my voice and my privilege to make change for those whose voices are muffled. I want to give hugs freely. I do not want to dwell in negativity nor give anger a place in my heart. I choose to go high. 

There are a lot of things wrong with America right now. But hope is what's right. I choose hope over fear, love over hate, and action over complicity. I choose to go high.

Friday, April 8, 2016

Family living class

"I have never heard anyone say 'vagina' so many times in one hour!"

So begins my 5th-grade son's dinner-table recount of his first Family Living class. (By the way, since I was a 5th grader I have giggled at this colloquialism for sex ed lite. What the heck does it mean, really?)

"And we talked about arm pit hair and how boys get all...um, excited... easier," he continues. I don't even know what he means by that last bit nor where to take the conversation from there, so I just keep spooning rice pilaf  into my mouth and let him continue. "It was mostly vagina, vagina, vagina. She said BABIES come out of vaginas, Mom... but I know I didn't."

Such confidence! It's true that neither of my kids came out of a vagina -- they were C-section births -- but I'm not entirely sure if his statement is motivated by personal history or denial of the entire how-babies-come-out story. But mostly I'm giggling and fighting the urge to tell him we really found him hatching from a giant alien meteorite in the park. I sense Honey fighting this same urge. 

Quite suddenly I realize the wide-eyed, anxious, very smart kindergartener is staring right in my face, hanging on every word. So I probably should tread lightly through this minefield, keep the jokes to myself. (Can you imagine that call from the school guidance counselor? Babies come from meteorites! And now all the 5-year-olds are asking very difficult questions!) Uh oh. 

Here's where my head is at this very moment, as I struggle with my giggle urge: Be cool, Mom. Don't shut this down, Mom. This is the relationship you want to have with your boys, to be able to talk about anything and everything honestly and openly. Don't mess it up with dumb jokes!

But also I don't really want my 5-year-old to know all about the birds and the bees just now. It's bad enough he already knows most of the major swear words. Can't we keep some things mysterious for a little while longer?

So I'm reeling a bit in my clumsy, fumbling where's-the-mom-manual way. I don't know what to do. Then I hear a voice from the opposite side of the table, humming a slow, low tune. It sounds like an anthem, actually, but I can't place it...until I tune in my ears and realize it's Honey singing the word "vagina" repeatedly to the tune of the Flight of the Valkyries.

I laugh so hard I spit rice pilaf. 

Then a tiny 5-year-old voice to my left chirps up: "Oh man, Happy, I can't wait until you learn about penises!"

Tuesday, April 5, 2016

Beyond typical fidgets

Zippy meets me at the cafeteria door at 4:20, wide eyes and pale face. I told him I'd be there at 4:00 today but got delayed; he'd been staring at the clock for 20 minutes, waiting, worrying. When I hugged him, I could feel his little heart pounding in his chest.

The phone rings and the Rec director is talking excitedly. All I can discern is the word "thunderstorm" and my son crying in the background. He's inconsolable because he overheard an adult mention that there might be thunderstorms in the forecast. It takes me 5 minutes of me repeating "You are safe. Hear my voice. You are safe..." until he stops crying...but I know I'd better hurry from work to get to him, because he doesn't believe he is safe. He is beyond reason right now. And sure enough, when I arrive, he's sitting on a log near the door, next to a blessed 4th grader who is holding his hand and trying to soothe him. When I hug him, he melts into tears. His body shivers despite the 60 degree temperatures.

Sitting on the beach he overhears a mother yell to her child to drink more water so she doesn't get overheated. He runs to me and thrusts a water bottle into my hands, shoves it up to my mouth, and yells "Drink it, Mommy, because I don't want you to die!" 

The kindergarten teacher emails me to tell me that the accommodations we put in place for Zippy's "active body" are no longer effective. He's out of his seat every few minutes, walking around the class and talking nonstop. He puts his hands on the other children often, not in a threatening way, but almost to reassure himself that they are solid and in the same space. He wanders to the window every now and then to check the sky, to make sure there are no thunder clouds.

It's a rainy Sunday afternoon and all I want to do is read a book in a quiet room. But Zippy is literally bouncing his body off the furniture and the walls, chasing the cats until they cower behind the chair in the corner, spinning in the middle of the living room carpet and talking incessantly. It's pouring and cold outside, but we're going out there in a moment anyway for fresh air. Then we'll play a board game until he starts smashing the pieces around the board. We'll try to bake cookies or play with Legos, each activity lasting about 5-8 minutes until he's up and bouncing around again. My book sits unopened on the end table. 

Life with a worried, antsy child is not easy, but it's all we have known for the last few years. When he was younger, we assumed it was a phase brought on by transitions -- potty training, preschool, then our move. We thought he was immature and just needed to grow out of it. We have joked that Zippy is our "blurry child" because he never stands still long enough to take a photo. In fact, his nickname here -- Zippy -- comes from his abundant movement and energy since the beginning of his life. He never stops. And the more tired he gets, the more he spins. He literally spins! Until he falls to irrational wailing or crashes into sleep. At home we have found ways to add structure and security for him -- he sleeps in Happy's bed, for instance, and we tell him our daily schedule so he has a general idea what to expect. And as he gets older, we can see visibly how hard he's working every day to maintain composure. When he gets home from school, he is completely wiped out.

About a year ago, the preschool noted some unusual behaviors that seemed "beyond typical fidgets," so we called on Child Development Services for help. And so began a year of "we're not quite sure what to diagnose here, but it's definitely something." CDS hinted at all sorts of possibilities, everything from social-emotional delay to sensory integration disorder to hearing problems to ADHD to autism. Zippy has had a developmental delay IEP in place in kindergarten, but because he is academically achieving -- and way above grade level -- the school hasn't offered any additional services without us getting a medical diagnosis. I'll spare you the full details because even though I often felt frustrated, confused, intimidated, I know our burden has been light compared to what some of my friends have carried for their children. (Someday we'll talk about all that is messed up about the special ed process in public schools. And hopefully we'll be able to talk about some stuff that works, too.)

Finally on Friday afternoon, we received from a child psychiatrist an official diagnosis of ADHD and anxiety disorder. And despite learning that our child has a disability* that is "beyond typical fidgets," I feel tremendous relief...because our child has an actual diagnosed thing. His brain and body are wired differently, we know that for sure, and it's okay. Now we know what we're dealing with and we can move forward.We can help him. We can help us.

I am a worrier by nature. I come from worriers, too. But in general, as I have aged, I have been able to find ways to cope with anxiety when it strikes: deep breathing, walking, prayer and meditation, writing, talking through the options or worst case scenarios. These are all ways my adult mind deals with worry. But a small child's mind, especially one that's thinking ahead of most kids his age -- sometimes ahead of the adults around him -- doesn't always know how to cope. We're fortunate that Zippy is so verbal because he can now tell us when he feels afraid or too juiced. Now when I think back on his infancy and early childhood, the way he fought sleep or woke screaming out in the night...he's been afraid. And my heart breaks thinking about that. My stomach aches when I feel him shaking in my arms now because he's worried about a doctor appointment or has seen an image in a movie that freaked him out.

As I have sought answers for Zippy and our family (and his teachers), I have faced a lot of my own fears and insecurities: What have we done wrong with this kid? Was he in daycare too young; was he traumatized by that damn babysitter's dog who bit him? Have we been too lenient with screen time? Have I babied him too much so he thinks it's acceptable to throw a holy fit? What have I said or done to make him so afraid of xyz? Did our move really screw him up psychologically forever? Just a sampling of the questions, sometimes harebrained, that I've wrestled with this year.

I know that I am more protective of Zippy, a bit more fierce on his behalf than I am for Happy. Maybe it's because he's younger, or maybe it's because I've known from the start that there's something different about him. I try hard not to do things for him or make excuses, but I do acknowledge that we have all changed our own lifestyle and patterns to accommodate his energy and worry (before we knew how exactly to label it). This is the first time, as I process this diagnosis, that I have let myself admit how difficult it has been...how difficult it is and will continue to be. How very carefully I choose my words and explanations when I'm around him. How many knots exist in my own neck, shoulders, stomach constantly as I anticipate the next call from school or after-care, or wait for him to melt down because we have to run an extra errand on a Saturday afternoon, or endure those stares from other adults in a grocery checkout line when he's rolling around on the floor. I am constantly anxious about my child's anxiety! Ha. How's that for irony?

So here I am, admitting that this is really fucking hard. I'm breathing out, finally, after all these months of holding it in.

But... When we stop at the cove trail so he can burn some steam and I watch him crouching over a pile of periwinkle snails, studying every bit of them and setting up little colonies so they'll be safe... When I hear him and his brother giggling over an inside joke that developed in the wee hours of the morning while they cuddled in the same bed... When his friend runs to him on the playground and they embrace and his friend says Zippy "never has to ask me for a hug because I love him so much"... When I answer 100 really deep-thinking questions as he tries to find logic in an illogical world... When I swirl and twirl with him in our living room, or when I rub his back for 20 minutes to calm him to sleep in the evening... When I gaze into those giant, soulful eyes and know that without question his heart is kind and gentle and earnest...

Over and over and over again I say thank you thank you thank you for this beautiful, bubbly, brave, brilliant person who makes every day unique and exciting and full of life and love. His brain may be wired differently, his body may be impulsive and constantly moving, but this makes him who he is. And he is perfect.

*In the earlier draft of this post, I used the word "disability" in a couple places, then re-thought it because I know so many other mamas whose kids have disabilities so much more severe than this. I felt insensitive, hyperbolic.