I finally got my nose pierced

Early this morning a car blew through a stop sign in front of me and I did a 360 degree skid getting out of its way. It didn’t even slow down. I chased the car down and got the license plate.

Soon after that I blew a speaker and fogged up my ears listening to Led Zeppelin.

Then I got my nose pierced!

Leaving the parking lot I nearly backed into someone and refused to apologize–what kind of nincompoop walks that closely behind a moving vehicle.

At the gas station, I stole a snickers bar because it said, “rebellious.” Come on–does anyone pay for that one?

I impressed some teen-agers with the speed of my car and volume of my bass.

I also got Lasix surgery and they threw in botox between my brows.

When I got home my child asked me for candy and I responded, “no.” He asked “why” and I yelled “because I am taking my ###@!! poop in peace.”

Then I went to take a one-day workshop on electric guitar and now I play. Like a boss.

On the way home, I illegally passed a very slow, dripping clean, white Mercedes while driving on a twisty residential street.

And I sang along to Supertramp so loud, they say I’ll need vocal node surgery (like Adele. Adele is so awesome).

Hopefully it will be a quick recovery, because I also got a call saying I made the cast of Ordway’s production of Wicked, coming soon!! Dream come true!

And coincidentally, I qualified for the extreme rescue division of the International Red Cross.

After I found out, I played the drums in my garage in a white tank top until I sweat like Mary Stewart Masterson. So. Inspiring.

And I dyed the ends of my hair five shades of pink and belted out, in my fast car, “Na na na na na na…she’s got the look” on my way to work.

When I walked into the Senate in a power suit and declared, “I’m selling your salaries to the highest bidder until you add inflationary increases to the General Education Fund,” they did it!

Since I was on a winning streak, I stabbed a snake fang into a book on Alzheimer’s and the disease oozed into the ether, like Voldemort in the Chamber of Secrets, only forever.

Then I perfected my conversational Spanish.

Then, I had an affair with Kendrick Lamar.

I put my name in the hat for Presidency.

And drove twelve minutes further, bought a ticket, and sat alone among strangers on a plane to San Juan, anywhere.

But I made it back for choir, where I sang my angst so loudly into Beethoven’s 9th that my fingers bled (paper cut).

I tucked in my kids.

And drank tea.

Some days I amaze myself.

 

 

Being young has nothing to do with being me–I get to have those adventurous, in-love-with-my-world, making new friends, seeing new things, I feel alive feelings at every age.

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BEFORE

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AFTER

In 1888, Brahms wrote five haunting songs for a cappella choir he put to tragic text comparing a falling leaf to the inevitable loss of youth. I sang two of the five songs recently with MacPhail Center for Music’s premier adult choir, Sonomento, on an incredible twelve-day tour in Europe. We sang them among other great choral works, art songs and stirring spirituals in cathedrals of Munich, Prague and Berlin and at the International Brahms Festival in Wernigerode, Germany. I am defying Brahms’s nostalgic lament that “all happiness is lost.”

I have been home now over a week and my brain has yet to arrive from Europe. I daydream about castles and cathedrals and bike rides and opera in the square. I pour over my photos. I am like a teenager just home from summer camp. So many feelings I’d set aside as “when I was younger” and I just learned not only am I still young, but being young has nothing to do with being me–I get to have those adventurous, in-love-with-my-world, making new friends, seeing new things, I feel alive feelings at every age.

Upon my return, my cousin, also a mother of three, asked without judgment, “Is it hard to be home?” The tears that welled up in my eyes answered for me. Others have asked, “Isn’t it good to be home?” And, “Did you miss your kids?” “How is everyone?” I answered, “Yes,” “Of course,” “Recovering,” but those answers weren’t as true. This was the first time I have been away from my responsibilities for more than three nights in over a decade. It felt really, really good.

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Munich

Re-entry has been bitter sweet. My sons seem cuter and my home more acceptably disastrous. My husband and I are suddenly loopier for each other than we’ve been in years. I feel rested and lighter. But the boys have paid me back with a few days of misbehavior. And come on, I have had to wash dishes, wipe butts and quell tantrums?? No one has made me a morning smorgasbord of fruit, juices, muesli and delicious meats, cheeses and pastries. I have not been offered a trip to a palace with our delightful tour guide or the option to go rogue in Munich on a rented bicycle. I don’t get to sing on a riverboat on the Vltava today or rehearse in a Mercedes bus. And I will not spend the day exploring centuries past, digesting complex histories or simply laughing, drinking wine and enjoying new friendships.

In fact, my weeds are overgrown and the garage needs organizing. Kids are visiting Crankyville and they want to be entertained. By day two, Project Re-entry, I was fighting being overwhelmed by the complexity of our life, my children’s volume and our extensive mass of belongings. I missed my quiet, my suitcase and my songs: so simple.

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Prague

Being away alone, I woke up. I had excess energy. I had time to feel my own needs. I realized how much I have been missing feeling like my best self. I cried all the way home—it wasn’t jet lag. I was nervous my trip would just be over, rather than transformative, and my newfound joy would fade away as easily as Brahms’s leaf.

But my heart opens up like it did when I was there when I listen to recordings from our trip. I am so grateful to music for providing my fellow choristers and I this experience that has in fact, been transformative. One singer said to me, “This has been the greatest experience of my life.” I imagine few of us would have self-indulged in an experience like this had we not a greater purpose in going: to sing and to represent MacPhail. That air of responsibility allowed us to play, explore and bond in a way grown ups don’t often allow ourselves and that surfaced in our sound.

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Wernigerode

We surprised ourselves by earning silver diplomas in two categories at the Brahms Festival. By popular demand, we were also invited to sing our African-American spiritual, “Ain’t Got Time to Die,” at the final ceremony. When we exited the stage, tiny members of a Chinese children’s choir flocked to our sides. In fact, that song brought smiles and clapping to reserved international audiences throughout our tour. Our last morning in Wernigerode, I went for a run and singers from a youth choir from Taiwan stopped me for a photograph and told me, “That is our favorite song.” Written out of slavery, it speaks for itself a half century later, bridging community and sharing joy.

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Berlin

As a parent, I feel pressured to say our children are my greatest joy. But I bet you can relate to my truth. I was tired. We have also had losses and hurts and late nights and worries since having children. I was happy and grateful, but I think I’d forgotten what inner joy felt like. And when you don’t realize you’ve lost something, you stop looking for it.

It turns out that it’s up to me to revive my best self when I am lost. We so value productivity and stability in mid-American culture that it can deemphasizes the value of simple joy. But the music, the culture and the people with whom I traveled reminded me that joy creates energy and has permanence beyond youth (sorry, Brahms). I am a better human with more to contribute to my family and community with joy. Two weeks of singing and exploring brought me somewhere totally unexpected: back to me.

What’s more, I now have these memories that will point like a compass back here when I get a little lost:

  • My first gelato after our inaugural performance in Munich.

  • The power of singing emotional music in our full registers within a cathedral constructed to synergize choral sound.

  • IMG_8444Dancing to a live performance of Earth, Wind and Fire under umbrellas in the Old Town Square of Prague.

  • Hearing the soprano’s notes reflect off centuries old buildings in an outdoor performance of Carmina Burana in Oden Square, Munich.

  • The German word, “löschwassereinspeisung.” Such a great word.

  • IMG_8936Singing our final Abendlied surrounded by 360 degrees of blue stained glass at the Kaiser Wilhelm Memorial Church.

  • Riding a bike with friends uphill to a castle and back down again in the rain.

  • Hearing in my own laugh something familiar and deeply happy.

 

Boy, 4

IMG_6771 “Mom.”

He coos from his bed, low and emphatic (as ever).

“Mooooom.”

He is stretched out long on his tummy, resting on his elbows, chin in 2 hands. He has slept at the wrong end of his top bunk so that when I enter, his face is 6 inches from mine.

“Its not true what he said. (The neighbor boy). The worwold is not actuwawy going to blow up soon.”

“Have you been worrying about that?”

“Yes.”

“You are so small to have such big worries.”

“Its not actuwawy true. What he said. About the worwold. Blowin’ up.” Chin still in hands.

“No. Its not true. The world will not blow up.”

After a thoughtful suck of his thumb and caress of his collar between his fingers, he is satisfied enough to get up. He rises with vigor.

“Yes! I knew it. Today is my birfday.”

“Tomorrow is your birthday. One more day.”

“Noooo. I’ve been waiting too long so today is my birfday today is my birfday!!!!!”

My concern that he’d been worrying about the world blowing up all night long vanishes. He makes it quite clear that withholding his birthday one. more. day (Mooooom) is much more alarming.

He tries his big brother. “Um, I think its my birfday today?”

“Why do you think that?” asks big brother.

“Because I feel bigger.”

Big brother advises him, “No, when its your birthday, you don’t get bigger until noon.”

That solves that.

Today is the day of his 4-year-old ceremony at preschool. I asked him what he would like to bring the kids.

“Potatoes.”

IMG_6711He puts on his sport coat without provocation. The day before one’s birthday is sport-coat-with-brass-buttons worthy. So is New Year’s Eve pool party, bowling, daycare, and bed. Last time he wore it all day he woke up in it too, discarding it in a pile of clothes to run around naked with his buddies (like a mini frat-boy).

But today, its worn with a cape and a crown. Because he is turning 4 (tomorrow).

Its snowy and below zero and I have an hour between work and a meeting wherein I can make it for the ceremony–its a 25 minute harrowing drive. I consider not attending when my husband says he can go instead, but I have to show up. Not because this little one, my 3rd, expects me to be there. I have to show up because he would not expect me to be there. So I absolutely must prove him wrong.

His babyhood was shorter than his brother’s, partially because he has always had to share me with them. His first year was blissful. “Three is our number,” we said. But then, in three short years, in swept grief and death, disease and crime, change and relocation, and above all, fatigue…

I won’t complain–all of these things happen to everybody–and they only hurt because our life is so good–but we got spent, and our biggest loans were taken out on him. I worry about our attachment.

Though he seems fine. He is sinew, muscles, and heart. He ran his first marathon before he was born (rather, we trained for it before I knew I was running for two).

He carries around heavy objects like coffee tables, sucks his thumb to ruin, snores like an old dog, tears our house apart daily, cracks up strangers regularly, and has friends of all ages.

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Worker-guy birthday party!

He is a “worker guy.” Two days later, he unwraps his birthday present and exclaims, “A box of wood–just what I always wanted!!”

He wakes up most days in the costume he wore to bed, explaining what type of robot he will be for the day. “I-am-a-robot-cat-meow-meow” is the most common.

His preschool teacher has said, “He is so much fun. And he can be so stubborn.”

“Resilient,” I say. But I know.

He’s a softy too. He makes me read aloud his birthday card from Grandma three times, after which he says, “read the xoxox part again–that’s my favorite.” But he might take you out at the knees or head-butt your chin with his “hugs.”

He introduced an inventive game to me recently by saying, “you be the nail and I’ll be the hammer.” Thwop. Game over.

Perhaps my favorite-est ever was the day he came inside from playing with his brothers, looking alarmingly stiff and unable to turn his head. “Mom–I am taped to stick!”

3 over 3 now, and somehow I never go to reading this.

Oops–never got to this.

He skipped tantrums at 2 and 3. Too busy. He’s making up for it now. He also does things for which we cannot prepare. For example, had we seen the potential to stack a high chair on the bench over the hardwood floor and then stand in it–we would have told him that was against household rules. I find spatulas in the oven, computer cords in the washer, dinner plates in the bathtub, winter boots in my bed. Since he started walking at 11 months, we could see he didn’t plan to sit much, ever again. Anyone who knows him, and much to his Grandmothers’ and babysitters’ chagrin, he sports a particularly unique blend of super clumsy and incredibly coordinated.

He ranges so widely and so creatively, I feel like he thinks no one is watching him. And I worry its because, for a significant while, we were not watching him closely enough. Some of his behaviors seem to be a product of early freedoms one is afforded when, for instance, their mom and dad are distracted.

So we are reattaching, and its fun. Our theory is likely entrenched in guilt-based, over-achieving martyrdom with a bit of nostalgia. He may actually just be a free spirit, but it can’t hurt. We cuddle more. We limit more. We talk more. His response? Sudden and impulsive mid-play “I love you’s,” and wild leaps from chairs into monkey-lock hugs: art, stories, hand-holding.

So why not?

I make it to the ceremony. This preschool is so beautiful, warm and creative in its approach, I think of it as a gift we have given our children. When I arrive, he is in his cape and crown (and suit), lighting 4 candles. The teacher is telling the story of when he came to be and the angels picked a family for him. Then his family picked a name for him, and the great Spirit chose a birthday for him. And suddenly, there he was, 8 pounds and 11 ounces of love in his parents’ arms.

He blows out the candles and unwraps his teacher’s handmade gift–a felted wool box with a seashell and a piece of pyrite inside. She explains that its time for him to open up and show the world what’s special about him on the inside.

If he could just do that without the spatula and the dinner plates, that would be great. This time, we will be watching.

IMG_6764Dear boy,

At age 4, you are independent. We wonder if a little less independence might suit you better. Speaking of the suit, you are well-groomed (aside from the yogurt smudges and permanent lip chapping where you suck your thumb). You have always had an uncanny willingness to share. You brought your teacher a present on your birthday. You are bright, creative and industrious. I think you would make a great farmer (preferably organic). You are magnetic. You bring people toward you and keep them near with your fun, sparkle and love. Just watch your elbows–you are stronger than you know. I would like you to play and move and grow and invent. I wish you boredom because I can’t wait to see what you will make of it. I wish you patience for practice because I see you drawn to music. I wish you confidence to share your sense of humor. “Potatoes.” Honestly. I wish you friends as good as I am sure you will be. I wish you adventures because you were clearly in every possible way made for them. Safety first. Please, always ask me to “pickle you up,” and I always will. Happy birthday. I accidentally typed buttday. You would love that. Oh, your laugh. It is music to my ears.

Love, Mom

 

 

 

 

 

Season of believing…

santaphotoI am not “ready” for Christmas. On my commute this week, I imagined what it would be like to arrive at Christmas Day with no gifts. My feet lifted off the ground and for a moment I was suspended above the great Mississippi River bluffs. Woozily, my senses grabbed hold of my boots just in time and I settled back into planning who will get what.

My kids, well beyond the years when many give up the dream, wholeheartedly believe in Santa Claus. So we welcome him into our home for the entire month of December.

And that man has some serious baggage.

My husband and I both have great childhood memories of cutting out pictures of toys from the JCPenny catalogue and dropping thick, pasty letters into the red mailbox at the mall. My brother and I would endure sitting on Santa’s “helper’s” lap to tell him what we wanted for Christmas, despite his cigarette breath.

Our kids are much more choosy about lapping men in red suits. They have a list of Santas they suspect are “real,” including the one we saw hopping on the Amtrak at the historic train station in Red Wing, the one that helped us strap our Christmas tree to our car, or the guy with the white beard walking down our street in suspenders THE DAY of the first snow – they were suspiciously magical beings. The ones that invite them to their laps – nope/never/no way/utterly destructive to the reputation of Mr. AwesomeClaus. I am glad they are choosy.IMG_9038

As new parents, we started simply – a tree, cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve and one present. By two kids, we wrote letters to the North Pole and allowed one request of Santa. By three kids, we had engaged the myth he was watching them for good behavior. And suddenly this year, all our halls are decked, the elf makes daily appearances, an advent calendar marks the days, the Polar Express is real (and costs $80) and St. Nick has to find a way to live up to the puppy he left in my kid’s boot last year.

And there is no going back.

My youngest son, being new (in his limited memory) to advent calendars, found the thing stuffed with exceptionally difficult to find itty-bitty toys and candies and little tiny notes from mom and dad, and must have thought this was the craziest, coolest THING upon which he had ever stumbled. Being the 3rd, I realized in retrospect that he never got the one-per-day and oooooaaaaaahhh this is such a cool thing it should be respected talk (as if that would have helped—whom am I kidding?) Poor thing gave into his urges, ate every bit of candy, lost, destroyed or claimed every toy, and for some reason (omg) sunk every little note in his cup of milk. It’s done for the season. His big brothers were so horrified they weren’t even mad I basemented it instead of refilling it. Its like we decided collectively we couldn’t go through that again.

Now let’s talk about the Elf. My kids received Elf on the Shelf as a gift. I think the gifters might even find it funny how undone we’ve been by him. If you don’t know this homely creature’s story, the rules are 1) he moves DAILY, 2) he must never be touched (his magical powers at stake) and 3) he sends messages to Santa about the kids in the house (I lobbied for husbands too but the husband didn’t buy it). You might think one could bend the rules, but no, he comes with a storybook, which amounts to a contract for all parents who have naively welcomed elves into their homes.

This is a lot of work for parents: manic morning elfscapades, midnight fights over elf-relocation, the transcription of children’s letters-of-complaint to Santa (like when he is “lazy” and does not move). I fully planned to ditch the elf this year. Then mom upon mom recounted their kids’ sweet morning discoveries, my children started asking about Marlog (our elf), and I caved. His first morning was magical – there he appeared, riding the Swedish reindeer decoration. By morning two, I had forgotten, the kids were disappointed, and I stepped into my familiar role of writing new rules (excuses) for Marlog’s poor behavior. “Oh he only moves after all the kids in the house have seen him and since your brother had a sleepover last night, he’s stuck there awhile.”

Hook. Line. Sinker. My neighbor’s kid had his doubts about the gluey-eared “elf” who gave him a legit PRESENT at a Christmas party. But the Elf on the Shelf seems to beg no uncertainty, which is even wilder if you’ve seen the thing.

Melfphotoarlog has skinny legs, a cherubic face, a jester’s collar and no feet. He had hands but the puppy from St. Nick chewed them off. One evening last year we were eating dinner and our “cute” elf was catapulted to the salad from his spot in the light fixture above. I went to pick him up and my oldest yelled, “No – you can’t touch him – he will lose his magic!” My kindergartner wailed, “Marlog is dead!” Time stood still long enough for me to imagine the merits of this option: an elf funeral could put an end to this nonsense.

But I couldn’t do it. I picked up Marlog and put him in the crèche scene with the angels and the wise men. My children bemoaned me until I explained, “Spending a little time here will bring back any special powers I stole by touching him.”

Speaking of the manger, this season I’ve heard some colorful commentary on this old story. For instance, Nadia Boltz Weber, an amazing minister, author and as it applies, veteran of childbirth, wondered if the little drummer boy was really a “gift” to Mary? Did Mary honestly give a dam that the 9-year-old banging his drum throughout her barnyard labor with a bunch of strange men and stock animals was “playing his best for her?”

And one of our favorite local musicians, John Munson, recently reflected on Joseph. Imagine the love and trust it took for Joseph to look at his beautiful, young, virgin wife and say, “An angel said, WHA?” and believe her.

Christmas is entirely about believing. First Jesus, angels on high, then Santa, also St. Nick, the Christmas Spider, the Polar Express, Rudolf, the peppermint pig, talking snowmen and now, ubiquitously, Elves on Shelves. Unfortunately, children’s wonderment is particularly marketable. We’ve put incredible pressure on families to buy dreams-come-true for their kids. But Amazon and Walmart and Macy’s don’t make decisions for us. They offer stuff (too much stuff). We are still in charge of the limits and the magic.

The stuff in Santa’s baggage can’t hold a candle to the magic–we can’t get enough of it! Take it from someone who sustains elfscapading against her better judgment, who once stayed up until 4am to guard a discontinued electric train on Ebay auction, and who rigged a system for placing Christmas presents under the tree invisibly in order to evade her son’s video surveillance system. I know someday Santa’s fairytale will crumble and we are bound for a little disappointment. But so far, there seems to be very little harm, and a good deal of humor, in believing.

This is surfing…

IMG_3573I keep an embroidered bracelet I bought in Costa Rica on my nightstand. It’s a token of our recent 11-day family adventure, infused with the balm of sandy kids, surf lessons and seaside meals. This trip we did not just take the show on the road. Costa Rica felt like a true vacation; one that reminded me of who I was before 2013. I sniff it every morning when I wake up to remind me of being there.

Arriving in Costa Rica was our own personal miracle. The week before our trip my father was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s and spiraled into depression so deep we hospitalized him. My brother flew in from L.A. and insisted we go. The night before leaving, two out of three children threw up. We went anyway. We were dropped off at the airport with 4, not 5 passports; a near miss. Within hours of arriving in Tamarindo we were informed that the Pacific coast was being evacuated for a tsunami. Hardened against the other shoe dropping, we waited it out in our bungalow.

2013 had rolled that way. We lost my Uncle, we lost our dog, my mom had a stroke, my son broke a vertebra, we moved my mom and dad out of their thirty-five year home after both endured multiple hospitalizations. I hadn’t realized how maladapted to stress we’d become until we spent some time at peace.

IMG_4580The genesis of the trip was our inner knowing that we needed to refocus our attention on our kids, revisit the baseline of our stress levels and release our fears of what wicked was to come next. In January, on our way home from cross-country skiing with the boys, my husband suggested a cheap and easy vacation in spring. In my post-ski glow, I looked at my surfer-husband and wondered what it would feel like to have left behind a skill that lights me up, for decades? Landlocked, he’s only dabbled in an hour’s surf here or there every few years. We had been talking about “surf camp” since our 9-year-old was travel-worthy. It was time to go big. I offered Jason the vacation reigns and he gleefully, skillfully planned a family surf trip to Costa Rica (read: he picked out a beach and bought plane tickets). Once we arrived, it took me about a week to stop asking what we were going to do next and had he really not planned ANYTHING other than the flight. After about a week of detox from our harried life at home, I could see the ABSOLUTE WISDOM to his plan; we were there to catch a good wave. Nothing else.

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My friends call me Ellen…

maryshadowI cried off and on for 24 hours after I saw Saving Mr. Banks; a mix of happy and sad tears.  From the movie, Pamela Lyndon Travers appeared to rectify the ugliest parts of her childhood by crafting Mary Poppins and releasing her to Walt Disney. We saw her catharsis at the premiere. She wept. She smiled. She changed.

Its not a true story. She loathed the film; that’s why she cried. In 1995 she released the rights to Broadway only after they conceded to portray the darker stories written in her books. The darker stories were about her former self, Helen Lyndon Goff, who she left behind in Australia when she became an author and actress named P.L. Travers in her 20’s. In her books, a magical governess saves Mr. and Mrs. Banks  from their misery. Though you won’t find this in the film nor book, the truth is that Mr. and Mrs. Travers Goff (Pamela’s parents) needed saving from stress, addiction, suicide, and influenza.

In her story the children did not need to be saved. They were fine. Always fine. Tough. Impermeable. The children did not start out that way. They were fun-loving and enjoyed the story-telling and indulgent illusions of their father. But after his tragic death by alcoholism and influenza and their humiliated mother’s suicide attempt, they no longer relaxed into fantasies like frivolous love, dancing penguins or spun stories. Mary Poppin’s role was to prepare them for a harsh world where they would always be safe, sober and under control.

Ellen is my very own Pamela Travers; as tightly wound as Pam’s pin curls. Ellen has her other defenses too; self-deprication, perfectionism, fear, care-taking–all drives to distract from the toughest parts of my childhood. Ellen is a joke among my friends, as she should be. Our defenses aren’t who we are and I am all for poking fun at them, needling them, forcing them to dance with animated penguins. When my friends call me “Ellen,” its a reminder that the better parts of me deserve their fair shine. It doesn’t really matter they don’t know where Ellen came from; they know the real me. Ellen is at war with humor, softness, emotionality, spontaneity and lightness. Like Pamela, she wants to go to the bar and have friends. But if her guard goes down, the pain surfaces, and Pamela mustn’t allow that. I wish not to become Ellen the way Helen Lyndon transformed herself into Pamela. She left behind the little girl behind who laid eggs on the steps and road horses like the wind.

But that also successfully stamped out Mr. Banks, the alcoholic, and Mrs. Banks, his distraught wife. After the movie, I  thought perhaps crafting an adorable children’s story to repaint the harder years of my childhood would be therapeutic for me too. But here, again, is the truth of her story; Pamela was never super happy. Helen Lyndon surfaced enough for her to author whimsical children’s stories, study Zen Buddhism, fall in love with her flatmate, and live for a year with a Hopi tribe. But sadly, Pamela won. According to Emma Thompson and the New York Times, her grandchildren claim she died “loving no one and with no one loving her.”

And here is my truth: I value love and happiness.  My dad, who fought depression for decades of my life, is absolutely heroic for surviving and for helping others who hurt like him. My mother, who remains at his side, is absolutely My Hero.  Fiction couldn’t paint a better story. Given the tools they had, their dedication to parenting, their commitment to joy, and the effort it takes to parent at all, I am blown away by their ability to raise two happy, stable, thriving teenagers who felt loved and supported by their parents. My dad carried that burden, and as a psychiatrist he fervently and brilliantly served the needs of thousands of depressed and anxious people, and still managed to love his wife and his kids to pieces.

I am happy to say that Ellen is not always present in my life, especially when things are smooth, and definitely when things get busy. I love busy. I love exciting. I love stress. We all do, us adult-children-of-parents-with-miscellaneous-battles. When my guard falters; when I have pain, grief, disappointment or limbo, I am surprised by my resilience, but I am also surprised by my anxiety. I am surprised by Ellen’s attempts at toughness, control and safety. She fears friends knowing she has weaknesses. She’d rather appear angry than sad. She craves stability. She wants to throw a pillow over her head and unhear the arguments at night that plagued some yucky years of her life. She wants to run away. Ellen actually believes people are angry with her when she feels down and exposes wounds. Some of them might be, especially the ones with a little inner Pamela, but we all have our better sides.

So please, call me Ellen. I want to remember she is there. I want to remember to subdue her; to remind her that I am fine. I don’t need her help anymore. I want her to hear my friends laugh at her; the ones that call her out, and love the real me.

I am amazed by my mother’s levity during the hard times. Her sense of humor, overarching love, and willingness to talk made everything ok. I see everything that is wonderful in my dad, without hesitation, and find inspiration in his tenacity.  I hope they feel incredibly proud of the adversity they overcame and the life and love they gave me. I am delighted to say that I am not really Ellen or Pamela, though I cried buckets for them both. In the end of my story, I choose happiness and love. And on the very hardest of days, I sneak a spoonful of sugar or two. See my list.

Spoonfuls of Sugar:wtie
1) Hugs
2) Sunsets/sunrises/sun on snow/warm sun/all things sunshine
3) Snowfall in trees
4) Kids in ties at inappropriate times
5) Handfuls of 
chocolate chips
6) Kids outside with rosy cheekssunsetmpls
7) All songs, Paul Simon
8) Inexplicable things in nature
9) Poems by Mary Oliver
10) Puppies and babies
11) Brightly colored fabric
IMG_0001_312) Hats, all types
13) Singing
14) Swimming in lakes
15) Snow days that force people to help each other
16) YMCA camps
17) Young people listening to old people
18) The things kids say, e.g., “do you think I could be the next Michael Jackson?”
19) The OlympicsKidsbooks
20) Tea
21) NeighborlinessIMG_4126
22) Falling into deep snow
23) Whiskey with honey
24) Down comforters
25) Friends
26) Family
27) Reading 
28) Theater
29) Evergreens
30) Mary Poppins

What are your spoonfuls of sugar?  Please comment.

Hot, Cool, Ours

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This is our world winter games

The Olympics is a time of unity in the name of competitive sportsmanship. Unity. Sportsmanship. Doesn’t seem to be bringing out the best in Americans. I would be less embarrassed of a beautifully flawed 5th ring and a few unlaid bricks or electrical problems than I currently am in our gross effort to critique and mock the effort put forth by the PEOPLE of Sochi. Quit it. My children thought the opening ceremonies was extraordinary. My children are excited about the games and the cultures and the languages and the PEOPLE yet I feel a great need to say to America; GROW UP. Quit your fun-making and “I’m bored” whining and culture-maligning and show some unity. Yes: communism has its issues. But give those people living under that repressive government a couple of weeks to be proud of themselves. That’s sportsmanship.

…shock and awe have been as integral to our days as sleep and hugs.

IMG_1479My 3 boys all had the same first word; “uh oh.” This says a lot about us.  Soon after, the two oldest acquired, “what the?”  I distinctly remember my now-nine-year-old saying it for the first time at age three as we wandered upon a slimy dead fish on a walking path quite far from water. My five-year-old has been saying “whad da huck?” since age two. Perhaps we are less colletively shocked by life these days, however, because my youngest son’s utterance of the phrase is still pending at three. I find it rolls off my oldest boys’ tongues as easily as “no nap” and “hold me,” I assume because shock and awe have been as integral to our days as sleep and hugs. Daily, I am wonderstruck by the strange things I am forced to do in the care of my children.

Sometimes its messy:

photo-22This is a cup in a shower surrounded by toys.  As all wise mother’s do upon locating mysterious substances near places previously occupied by children, I sniffed it. Pee. It’s a cup of pee.  The funnel was also implicated.

My oldest also once helped his bestie construct a waterfall down a carpeted staircase. My youngest once emptied a gallon of green paint on the kitchen table while I searched for a tool to open it.

These incidents pale in comparison to the time I was presented a rhythm stick while eating dinner with friends. Immediately apparent, the stick had been stuck into poop and withdrawn. We were not picnicking on a lawn or some other such forgivable location, nor were we with company good for poop on a stick at the dinner table. What ensued was a long search for the origin of said poop, never to be found. We call it “the poop stick incident.”

Sometimes it’s dangerous:

When our middle son, Wilder, was 12 months old, I came downstairs in the morning to a naked baby standing on the counter rifling through medicine bottles. He didn’t know how to walk, much less climb. He had never before exited his crib independently, nor removed his diaper. He had had an inspired morning. My youngest, Wes, bested him at eighteen months by forcing us to replace our three foot fence with a six footer because of his escape artistry. And then there was the fire he once started in the rice cooker as I stood two feet away from him, frying tilapia.

Impossible:

One day of summer “vacation,” before 9am, my boys showed me a movie they had made on my phone while I changed Wes’s diaper; a spectacular vantage of their bottoms, followed by full frontal nudity.  While we were discussing why we call private parts “private,” Wes flooded the bathroom, “washed” the kitchen sink with a toilet brush, and threw a plate on the floor with such force it set off the house alarm.

Embarrassing:

My youngest does not say “truck” politely. He once pointed to a truck in the window of the library and ran screaming his lewd version clear to the opposite side.  I was 2% horrified, 98% entertained by the mixed responses of librarians, parents, elders and teenagers. But it gets better/worse. A naughty neighbor recently goaded him, “say truck,” over and over. I did not squelch it soon enough. Next thing I know my little man is transferring his lesson to the five-year-old’s two-year-old little brother. Their conversation went like this: “Say “f*#!,” “F*#!, louder and louder until I regained my capacity to parent.

Funny;

Wilder and I took a special trip to the mall one day when he was three; just us. At the time, he had had very limited experience with mannequins and cousins. I opened the door to Nordstroms, he walked in, threw his arms around the well-groomed men’s department mannequins and exclaimed, “oh, my cousins. I’ve been looking for you for so long!”

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By age four, he was excelling at the comedic role of straight-man; our own mini Jason Bateman. For instance, while reading through a new stack of library books, my oldest, Tennyson, bragged, “I am reading in my head.” Wilder responded, deadpan, “I am reading in my elbow.” This same kid replied to a guy on the chairlift who queried of Wilder’s age, “I’m turning 40. I’m gonna have a weally big party.”

I can’t always keep up:

We chose to inform our oldest, then five, he was going to be a big brother (again) before we planned how we would explain this phenomenon to our eighteen-month old. As soon as we finished the phrase “we are having a baby,” he had located his brother and explained, “mama has a baby factory inside her.  That’s where she made you and she made me. Now she’s making another baby. The baby factory is called her uterus.” Then he jumped on his bike, raised his first, and exclaimed, “To the uterus, and beyond!”

And these: I didn’t know our oldest could draw shapes until he whipped up a highly detailed war ship. I did not know our middle kid could count to ten until I overheard him count to 100.  I did not know our youngest knew about letters until he sang me the ABC’s. Upon my third son turning four, I had still not finished the book, “Your Three Year Old.”

At times, they are wise beyond their years:

I recently sat in tears, writing my wonderful uncle’s eulogy. My tender eldest son rested his little hand on my typing fingers, gently smiling with a vulnerable heart and saying quite perfectly, absolutely nothing.

BobandGeboA week later our five-year-old drew this picture.  He said, “It’s Uncle Bob throwing a ball to Gebo in Heaven’s House.” When he gave it to me, Tennyson said, “Mom, don’t hold back your tears.”

On a totally different note, when Wilder triumphantly exclaimed one day, “I am the King of all Pagina!!” his thoughtful big brother retorted, “You can’t walk into a castle or the White House and just say that. You have to wear really shiny leather shoes, comb your hair, and bring a nice gift. Then they might believe you.”

They are quite emotional:

I did not know little kids had such big feelings until I lived with them. These creatures’ elbows barely reach their earlobes when raised overhead. Resting atop their shrimpy bodies are immense heads powered by adult-sized frustration, grief, will and glee. My cousin once told me a story of when her three-year-old daughter had a breakdown, crying “I want, I want, I want…” Moments like this, I’ve come to find, are generally not about the object of desire–it’s about learning to get what you want.

For example, I was recently informed that  if I did not comply with my son’s wishes, “your hair will fall out and your clothes won’t fit and you will grow a penis. Seriously.” He had found my weak spots and wasted no time using them against me!

It’s always an internal endeavor:

After 10 years of parenthood I no longer crave sleep.  I have adjusted to a simpler vocabulary, lower level of articulation, lack of alertness and wavering faith that rest will come. My standards are lower. I buy patterned shirts because you can’t see the kid-snot on my shoulders. I exercise when it’s feasible. I live with the fact I may have microbes of poop on my sleeves. Speaking of poop (again, and again, and again) I interact with it, discuss it, think about it, more than I ever thought tolerable. I do not know what to do with myself when my arms are empty. I have stopped keeping lists because they generally just make me feel bad about myself. I find I am happier if I count on the important things to rising up inside of me and the others not truly being important. Shockingly, this system rarely fails! I do keep a calendar, on which the days click by faster everyday.

“Notice the details,” my dad always says, “and time will slow down.” Beyond the calamity and hilarity, when time does slow down and I am in the moment, the biggest surprise of all is that I still have reserves. I had no idea what I was capable of feeling, accomplishing, tolerating, negotiating, surviving, and creating before my children arrived.

Occasionally, there will be victories;

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I participated in a ski race this morning.  My children sent me on my way, saying, “I hope you win!” I am not a winner of races. I was humbled and winded when I reached the final stretch and saw them perched on a hay bale, their beautiful faces smiling and cow bells ringing. As I raced toward the glowing display of love and support, the thought rose inside of me, “Criminy, Wes is supposed to be at a birthday party!” But I charged on, as parents do, and was greeted at the end with ebullient hugs and exclamations, “you have a medal mama! You won, mama!!!” Someday I will tell them about finishers’ medals. But today, I’m happy to be a winner in their eyes.

I am on the naughty list…

IMG_1737 IMG_1559 IMG_0001_3 IMG_9038 IMG_5603 IMG_2616 IMG_2202 Yesterday I was taking our food processor down from a high shelf when the blades careened to the ground on which my kids stood. I yelled “crap.” My five-year-old and nine-year-old looked up at me with cheeky grins and Tennyson responded, “now you’re on the naughty list.” So, I replied, “shit.” They covered their mouths and brightened their eyes and threw their heads back, shocked. We laughed our heads off, together. It was worth it.

I miss my dog. My mom is back in the hospital. And, miscellaneous. Arguments, let downs, fears. We’ve all had those weeks. Months. Years? Some weeks just kick us in the ass, right? I can write that because I’m already on the naughty list. I have learned an invaluable lesson in the worst of times; we don’t know each others’ pain. We care. We show up. But we can’t know the specific hues of what others go through, even if we love them. Understanding this gives us a greater capacity for community. I’m constantly mind-boggled by human endurance. With all the LIFE that keeps happening, how is it people smile again, laugh? When my son was crying for his dog the other night he asked me in his 9-year-old words, how do we do this? I told him the only way to get to the other side of pain is to go through, and we go through it together.

For those of you who are friends and family, I’m there. I will bring baked goods and hot dish and I will listen. I have amazing friends, family and neighbors, so I try to pass it on. For those of you who I don’t know, I will be here. I will never claim to truly understand your journey and tenacity. But I will put my heart out here as something you can cling to, attempting to find the 2 percent of life that might make you laugh, weep, ignite, and continue.

A couple winters ago I lost my favorite left mitten and kept its right counterpart. A few days ago I found the left, pink stain and all, laying on the ground beside the path where I walk most days. A little voice said, “be open to the gifts of this year.” Sometimes you need a little magic to feel brave enough to keep going.

I used to lead backpack trips, One of my 17-year-old campers once said to me at the end of a grueling 13-mile hike up and down cliffs, over waterfalls and across rivers, “I must store a tiny reserve of energy in the smallest part of my baby toe.” All life contains 2 percent magic. What’s your magic?

Does God Send Saints?

gebotrunk 20131202-000541.jpg Jason and I spent the morning in sleeping bags, lying with Gebo in the yard. Our friend and doula, our life-cycle specialist, visited with flowers just before the vet arrived. Gebo gave her an enthusiastic greeting and kiss (he rarely kissed), but he could not stand. She spooned us spooning him. We cried in great heaving sobs. She met the vet at the door. I’m not sure we otherwise would have responded to the nauseating knock. But with Gebo’s comfort and dignity in our hands, we banked on there being a better place for our very old, very wise, very loved pet. We agreed it would never feel right, maybe because his mind and his eyes were the same as always, or maybe because he couldn’t give us express permission. His body was entirely used up. Gebo relaxed his head on my lap. We cried and held him. Jason choked out, “I have needed to cry like this for thirty years,” and thanked him for that departing gift. Gebo gently wagged his tail. The sedatives kicked in and the vet took the last step. His tail wagged euphorically and we whispered, “race on, Gebo,” through our tears. I felt a surge of tangible peace. “His heart has stopped.” I looked up at the sky for an eagle or rainbow, laughing at my ridiculousness. I chose the surge of peace as my sign. His quiet body rested in the sun. I curled him up. More sobs, last warmth, last goodbye.

In his final month, Gebo mentored me on my quest to meditate outside for fifteen minutes everyday. Within the first week we learned he was dying. Like Jason, Gebo gave me a departing gift; a few weeks of excused absences. We cocooned together. I stayed home, I said “no,” I turned off my phone and neglected email. I took time for myself. I hurt, I cried, I smiled, I listened. I woke up. I contemplated God. On day twenty-four I realized that preparing for the future demise of a very-much-present being is not, in fact, being present. Sitting in the woods, listening to the creek, sniffing leaves, tasting fall air, appreciating the universe, and watching Gebo watch squirrels; that is presence. He gave me an excuse to take long-overdue time to be quiet and observe. Now I can’t imagine facing this loss and losses yet to come without the weakness and strength I found in me my last month with Gebo.

photo-1Gebo’s gifts to my kids are countless. Most recently, he gave them grief lessons. This month we cried together, told stories, created Gebo-art, planned a memorial, discussed God/universe/magic and talked about Heaven/hereafter/souls. My children have excelled at this, teaching Jason and I in turn. We have prayed together, which is new. I nudged the kids to give Gebo a good solid goodbye before leaving for school the morning he could no longer stand, and they were not shy with hugs, kisses, I love you’s and gratitude. When we met them at the bus and told them Gebo was gone, they leapt into our arms. We walked home and looked through photos, drew pictures, made a flip-book of Gebo rolling in leaves, lit candles. Tenny soothingly finger-knitted us bracelets. Wilder shared, “this candle is glowing brighter than other candles because his spirit is here. Oh, there goes a spark–that must be him taking my prayer up.” Tenny said to me, “mom, don’t hold back your tears.” Even our two-year old informed us, “Gebo went to Heaven’s house,” and was a little mad that HE didn’t get a playdate with this Heaven character. Wilder explained that God greeted Gebo upon his arrival and swiftly helped him find his old friends. How could they be so good at this? They have found what consoles them.

The next day, I stood where he died in our yard. All is not blissful in nostalgia, even in a well-earned, timely and poetic death. Death sucks. I ache. I miss my dear friend. Wow—people endure much, much worse. We will endure worse. It’s no wonder at all that God has to exist in order to ease our suffering.

In the spring we will make a gravestone, bury his ashes, and plant a tree. We will see him in the sunshine. He will force us to believe that souls endure. I still anticipate his greetings when I come home. I long for him. Today I heard his long exhales around the house. My inner cynic chastised me for thinking the furnace noises were Gebo all these years. The believer fought back with doggie angel visions. The buoyant me, the one that learned a thing or two from that dog, just smiled and said “Gebo” without questioning.

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