Mindful Mess

IMG_0022_3Last night I learned that all the people of the world were going to die soon. Shortly after, a small fluid-filled vesicle appeared on my knuckle, signifying my vulnerability. I knew, when I went to sleep that night, I would die. I told one person, and she frantically set about planning my escape from death in a subplot of my dream. So I did not tell anyone else–I lived a day with the secret of knowing it would be my last. I felt peaceful. Weird dream.

Last week we made our yearly trek with our three boys and grandma and grandpa to our favorite YMCA family camp. Year after year it’s worth every minute of backseat fighting, carseat wetting and marriage-questioning-packing-rage. The people, the wilderness, the sauna, the campfires, the togetherness; all quintessential “vacation.” I should mention they take the children off our hands for three hours a day and return them happy and instilled with self-confidence and values–how great is that?

IMG_5760We’ve never before gone this late in the summer, and the northwoods fauna was acting strangely. Twice, little red squirrels crossed my path closer than I have ever witnessed. A chipmunk squatted in a ring of children and stuffed his cheeks with seeds. Loons danced with each other in circles on the lake. Dragon flies sped into our faces like bugs to a windshield. Even the moss appeared psychedelically green. Like the subplot in my dream, all living things were frantically preparing their escapes from portending death. Before the doom of winter, they exhibited the fiery flush of survival. 

And one creature went first; a virile Maple sapling. Before the daytime temperatures dropped, the creek water dried, the Arctic winds blew, and the geese gathered in flocks, she turned red. I looked at her, alone in her Autumn, and wondered what made her different than the other trees. Was it bravery? Enthusiasm? Was she anxious, like the crazed animals, to prepare for months of dormancy? The only thing distinguishing her from the other trees was her particular microclimate; the angle of the sun, the exposure to air and her particular access to groundwater. IMG_0027_5

Sometimes we act on our own lives; enter, rodent swiftly gathering nuts. And sometimes, the forces acting on us demand adaptation. Red, rising in our veins. And fluid, shunting to our core. In my dream, I was not going to survive. No one was going to survive. But I didn’t wake up with my heart racing; I felt relief.

Because I cannot survive another season of gathering nuts. I have become squirrel-in-Autumn; rushing important perilous crossroads, ignoring children gathering curiously about me, biting blindly at threats to my existence, heart racing. Its time to let that life die and be the little red tree, whose supportive microclimate helps her survive the changing of seasons.

Blahdy blah blah blah. I love this idea. I also love the idea of my house being clean, my children being polite and my career path being linear. We are so often bombarded with beautiful, lofty ideals we fall short of achieving.

IMG_0008_6After vacation, we visited with the therapist who is helping us cope with my dad’s Alzheimer’s. He recommended that my mom take a “Mindfulness” class. She wrote in her planner; “Mindful Mess.” She told me her local library had a class on “Mindful Mess.” She suggested I also consider a “Mindful Mess” class. I corrected, and corrected, and corrected her, until we giggled. And only then did I understand her genius. Somewhere in her subconscious, my mom invented something we all can achieve: “Mindful Mess.”

Ice Cream 0006_9This I can do!! Doesn’t it just give you HOPE? Its all the mindfulness you can muster, with a hint of reality and a dash of forgiveness. Its understanding that I can’t always change my messy microclimate, but I can adapt to it. Its acknowledging that seasons affect us and consistency will be rare. “Mindful mess” is the sweet spot between frantic red squirrel and glorious red tree. We know this place deep in our roots; its all the fun of finger painting and none of the restraint of the canvas. Survival, after all, is a messy and artful thing.

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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All aboard…

SanFranflappers_2Tuesday I published “All Aboard,” an account of our family trip to Chicago, despite a nagging feeling that our thoughts should be in Boston. I wanted to offer something lighter. I wanted life to go on. Then I read my own post and phrases like “8-year-old,” “marathon traffic,” and “at the wrong time” jumped off the page in an accidental manner. I tried to write something new but so much had already been said about terror and tragedy and heroism. So I’m re-posting “All Aboard” because it might just be about what matters: we enjoyed our friends and family. We made memories. We reflected on our past, we reveled in the present. And today, we are fortunate to have a future on this earth, despite all that is rotten and for the love of all that is good…

The love of trains has run resolutely in my family for generations; my husband’s too.  People have said my 8-year-old’s deep love of trains will be a phase, but I have no doubt his love will abide.  He is the nephew and grand-nephew of electric train collectors, the great grandson of a Milwaukee Road engineer, the great grandson of a Great Northern clerk and the great great-grandson of the Great Northern Rail Road Band Director.  When my grandmother graduated from high school, her father, the Band Director, bought her and her mother round trip tickets from St. Paul to San Francisco; quite an enterprise for a 17-year-old girl and a mother of 9 in 1924.

True to our legacy, we often travel by rail.  This weekend we took the Amtrak to Chicago.  When we disembarked at Union Station and walked the kids in tightly grasped hands between the massive Amtrak and Metra, we were all entranced.  The platform was pulsing with the energy of throngs of passengers and thundering engines standing silver and blue and nearly two stories tall.  The loudspeaker was vibrating with “Amtrakakakakak, trackackackackack 88888,” just like my dad recounted in his bedtime stories.  Train travel is legendary; like a magic carpet ride that works.  I’m not surprised trains were selected by authors to bring wizards to Hogwarts and believers to the North Pole.  Trains are a source of wonder and an engineering marvel.  Train rides can be cathartic, like the time spent in motion, the hum of the rails, and the mingling with strangers somehow routes us from here to there via dreamland.  Mind you, dreamland has icky bathrooms and poor ventilation.  Nevertheless, taking the train back and forth practically guaranteed our trip to Chicago would be a memorable journey.

The pinnacle of our time in Chicago was cavorting about the city with our 3 boys, our friends, and their 2 boys (who we have claimed as cousins by marriage of my Uncle to their grandmother).  They were a wrestling, jumping, bumping, boxing, climbing team of urban explorers.  Other adventures included a downtown tour on a double-decker bus, a sunny walk along the pier, dim sum in China Town, the Lego store on Magnificent Mile, the bean sculpture in Millennium Park, and the model of Chicago at the Museum of Science and Industry.   The low point was most definitely getting stuck on city bus 6 in Shamrock Shuffle-induced gridlock traffic for 1.5 hours with no escape.  After we had drained the last of our phone batteries and ate the last Altoid, we kept busy with rock paper scissors tournaments, multigenerational thumb wars, conversations with young art students, cuddling, tickling, resting and snuggling.  Nothing paints a more vivid picture of our decline into claustrophobia than Wilder near the end.  At some point I absolutely drenched him while “helping” him drink water on our lurching bus.  He took off his shirt.  His pants were too big.  He cuddled up into a half-naked ball with a plumber’s butt in his seat where he hummed and moaned for the next thirty minutes.  By the time we stopped, he arose with pink cheeks and a blond fro, wrapped from neck to descending pants in my coral scarf, wailing, “go, go, go, mama, door!”

The funny thing about low points, however, is how quickly they become high points.  Between adults, there was some analysis of whether or not we should have taken the 10 rather than waiting for the late 6, or whether a cab or train would have been prudent.  For the kids, the only discussion warranted was the “adventure” of being “trapped” on a bus for “hours” while the “insanely crowded” bus waded through “epic” traffic just like “we were the soldiers under water on the U—505 submersible in WWII” that we saw at the Museum.  In other words, it was stupendous; in retrospect.

I am now writing from my quiet sleeper car on the way home from our trip.  I’m sipping complimentary champagne.  This is a lovely finale.  Our 8 year-old is playing chess with his cousin in the observation car, our 5 year-old is on a tour with the conductor, and our 2 year-old is struggling to stay awake.  One cannot craft the perfect trip.  Sometimes you just have to wander onto the bus at the wrong time and see what challenge bears the sweet, memorable fruit of overcoming an obstacle.  By the time we arrive in St. Paul, I anticipate our other memories will be similarly transformed.  Every misbehavior on my children’s part and every miscalculation on our part will be converted to golden memories impossible halcyon.

Although the bus trap is likely what my children will remember most about the trip, here is my list:IMG_0005

  • Lazing in a cozy white-sheeted bed watching the first thunderstorm of the season come up over Lake Michigan.
  • Walking the city with 5 little precocious boys, 2 of whom trekked by jump rope–see photo.
  • Leaving our collective kids with a family friend while we adults enjoyed margaritas and mole and discussed the raising of boys by candlelight.
  • Eating Giordano’s pizza.
  • Seeing the glow on Tenny’s face as we headed underground for his first ride on the subway.
  • Helping Wilder discovering the answer to his question, “what is a Chicago?”
  • Snuggling Wesley right now, while the pink sun glows over the tawny fields of Wisconsin spring and the clickety clack carries him home via dreamland.