Call. No excuses.

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Is democracy moving backward?

Make your phone calls to your U.S. Senate and House offices. I heard in every office in D.C. I visited this week that phone calls matter. The phones in Republican offices were ringing off the hook. Our Congress needs our voices behind their decisions, especially if they are considering decisions not supported by their leadership! Every phone call has to be logged. If they get more than 5 in an hour on an issue, the concern “goes in the hopper” to be addressed by the Congresspeople themselves. If they do not, it is only the 22 year-old legislative aide that hears you. These 20 somethings are astute, committed people and we need their attention. Don’t underestimate them, and don’t underestimate yourself. Your 20 second call is worthwhile.

Tomorrow is our inauguration…

SanFranflappers_2This is perhaps one of the most intuitive decisions I have made in my life. My friend texted “I am marching in D.C. on January 21. Are you coming with me?” “Yes.” That was it–all the thinking I did on the matter until this week. Now I am thinking 24/7. I am having bad dreams. I can’t sleep.

When I told my cousin about the bad dreams, she said “Get them out of your body.” She told me to write them down and burn them. You are “feeling the fear in the world.”

That feels so true. Do you feel that heaviness too? When I wake up, when I drive, when I put on my coat. My heart beats in my throat with an extra thump or two. I can’t remember what to attach the feeling to–My marriage? My work? Dad’s Alzheimer’s? The new President? My brain sifts through the cabinet–where do I file this feeling? I can’t properly tuck it away. Its like trying to file confetti.

I was a little irritated with my mom all day today. I thought, “She doesn’t get it.” At 9:45 p.m., however, she proved me entirely wrong. I should have known. “Be safe and enjoy your time in D.C. I will be thinking of you and watching for you on TV.” I rolled my eyes and laughed–like I’ve done since age 12. And then she said so earnestly, “I would have liked to have done that when I was your age. I love you.”

I am full of the love of generations of women. I was raised in this lifetime and maybe many before by women who gather when gathering is needed. I am going to Washington to resist anger and hatred. I am going to amplify our human rights. I am going for the world my boys will know as men. I am going with women I love. I expect to run into neighbors, former students and old college friends. I expect to hold hands of strangers, laugh, talk, roar and feel mighty. This is how we face the next four years: we participate.

Why am I going to protest? I am not going to Washington to protest. I am going to govern.

 

 

Heavy hearts, hands full: what to say to children when the bully wins

I am sharing my Facebook update here from last night at 2am. I’m broadcasting it wider because I have had so many uplifting  “thank you’s,” “shares,” and comments since then. If I can bring a little light and solace today, it will warm my heavy heart:

It’s 1:57 and I’m thinking about what to tell my kids in the morning. Here’s the plan:
1) Trump is now our President but it does not make him your role model.
2) It is now, more than ever, important to be kind to others, respectful of women and inclusive to differences.
3) I told you love wins and now you are seeing someone who acts like a bully win. People pick bullies to protect them when they feel weak and afraid. If there are lots of people among us feeling that way, we have work to do.
4) Sometimes grown ups make mistakes. I think as grown ups we’ve made a mistake by giving an important job to someone who bullies others.
5) You are safe. It will be ok. The world is full of good people.*

*I am afraid for us all.

Contractions, middle school and tomorrow

We did not know how hard childbirth would be. Yet the babies arrived. Why fear what lies ahead when it seems we never knew our capacity to begin with?

Source: Contractions, middle school and tomorrow

Contractions, kindergarten, middle school and tomorrow

IMG_7276My material is growing up. It’s going to middle school tomorrow. And 3rd grade. On Wednesday, kindergarten. Pretty soon, their stories will be their own—not mine to tell.

I’m sitting here with two glasses of wine and a glowing candle. When it goes out, I’ll stop writing and go to bed. For now, it is suspending me between summer vacation and children who grow up too fast. I had a toast with the 2nd glass, poured for my husband who can’t stop folding laundry. He also did some chores tonight that he’s had in the works for years. We have different suspension systems.

Tomorrow when I wake up I have to pack lunches and deliver my babies. It doesn’t feel that different than impending births. They still kick me in the ribs–especially my youngest. In utero, he once kicked me so hard it knocked me off course, foreshadowing the kid to come. At nine months, he climbed out of the crib, de-diapered, crawled down the stairs, ascended our countertop, removed a bottle of children’s IB profen from the cupboard and finished it as I rounded the corner after finding his crib empty.

Whenever I speak sternly with him, he responds, “Geez, Shawna,” as if we should be working things out woman to man. He is enterprising and canny and luckily, cute.

I am hoping his kindergarten teacher sees him that way too.

Speaking of small men, my oldest has turned twelve. I anticipate I will soon have a bearded transportation engineer on my hands and it will be time to retire to the lake and start selecting a nursing home. My rational self reminds me he still plays with toy trains.

I shared with my husband last week, “After they grow up, it seems like life will just be hard.” He reminded me that life with little ones is actually really, really hard. And no, we should not adopt a baby girl now.

I don’t actually want more babies. I want to know today who I will be with no babies in my house, the same way I anticipated who I would be once motherhood began.

Yesterday I ran 9 miles. Today, I walked the dog, hiked with the family, swam with my middle son and did some stairs. I have no babies to rock all night and toddlers to chase all day. I may break up more arguments, clean more wounds and talk through more hurts, but I feel a bit like a stretched out balloon that now takes more air to refill. For the first time in a long time, I have both a capacity I did not realize before parenting and time to fill it with a few more things for me.

Or so I think today. I am also still in transition to full time work outside of the bouncy castle that is our home. So far, though far busier, it feels less hard on my body. Sometimes, I speak in paragraphs and finish cups of coffee. But I am entering the unknown and nervous. Reprieves have tended to come and go like contractions over the past thirteen years.

I remember when my oldest was crying in my arms at the JCC when he was about a year old. A beautiful older woman who spoke very little English walked up to us and started to gently rub his brow. He fell asleep. She said, “Little children, little problems. Big children, big problems,” and walked away.

At this moment, I feel ill prepared for the heartaches of big children. I have worked in teen health since 1996, but it is so different with my own. Puberty, acne, choices, disappointments, bullies, grades, first loves, stress, insecurities, hormones…all lay ahead. I am more nervous for me than I am for my middle schooler because I am equally excited for him and self-discoveries ahead. How in the world could I stretch this balloon any thinner? What will it feel like for me when their lives feel hard to them and I can’t fix it?

My kindergartner is excited for school. My 3rd grader whimpered as I held him tonight, “I don’t want to grow up,” and “Do I have to go to school?” He is my tender-hearted, wispy-haired artist. I tell him I have a good feeling about this year for him. I swallow my own tears. The kicking of ribs and contractions have yet to cease.

We did not know how hard childbirth would be. Yet the babies arrived. Why fear what lies ahead when it seems we never knew our capacity to begin with?

The candle is flinching. It’s time to let tomorrow come.

Camp

IMG_5653Shockingly young-appearing camp counselors greet parents and offer tours. Many of us decline, no need to explain how deeply we feel at home here. In fact, we recognize them. They are us, twenty years ago.

I am at YMCA Camp Widjiwagan to greet my oldest, who has just returned from his first canoe trip.

I spent many summers here at Widji. As a camper, I thought I went for adventure and to meet new people. I did not think I went for the terrifying storms, 13-hour hikes, nauseating homesickness, weeks of damp feet, weepy blisters or thick mosquitoes. But camp was all of those things, too.

I thought I joined the staff for all the same reasons. And I wanted to be a teacher. This was experiential education at its finest: working with girls on the brink of adulthood in nature.

Yesterday when I arrived in the north woods, I stepped out of my car and was immersed in the smell of pines. The air was soft with impending rain and dappled evening sun. Immediately, the sensations seeped in through the bottoms of my feet like water. If you’d been there, you would have seen it begin to brim upon my lower lids.

This is why I returned to camp, summer after summer. It filled up a drained-out me like a dromedary. Every time I returned, despite all challenges, or perhaps because we endured the hardships so well together, I left with enough fresh water to make it through another year of school.

The nervous excitement growing in my belly feels odd and displaced. I am a parent awaiting a glimpse of my son. I am a camper excited to see my parents. I am a counselor eager to return from trail. My camper has only been gone for five days—I know this feeling isn’t just about this moment—it is about all of these moments.

So much feels the same. Some staff remain the very same. The trail building is in an entirely new log structure, yet it smells the same. The drying canvas packs emit the same heat. The big black camping pots were our pots. The canoe barn whispers history the same way it did when I first entered it. The towering pines, the wind off the lake, the feel of cabin row, the bursts of laughter, the screen doors—they are as mine as my heart.

Camp is peppered today with campers and counselors who are the children of dear old friends. This is how I remember camp too. We came home excited to tell our parents about our new friends, only to hear them say, “Oh that must be the niece” of so and so.

We learned “The Widji Way” to travel the wilderness. We sat around fires and told the same stories, generation after generation. We know the same songs and indoctrinate our children with them in their cribs. We claim it’s not a “cult” but we know. We know.

Tonight, we find our campers, freshly sauna-ed and sun-kissed. Their hugs are more lingering than usual. They look bigger than when they climbed aboard the bus. My head feels swimmy with memories. I slip easily from now to my childhood.

They introduce us to their counselors and walk us about camp, showing us their route on a map twice as tall as them. We hear about the storm, the stinky tent, card games, and happenings so funny they can’t get to the end of the story. They show us how to 3-person lift an 80-pound wood canvas canoe and how they can actually carry the beast. They are reverent of its strength and delicacy.

I am earnest about ensuring my son feels this is his trip, his experience, his discovery. I want it to feel as powerful, new and exciting to him as it did to me. I quiet my memories as much as I can until he beckons them himself.

We walk into the tripping center. He asks me to find my Mountaineer hat on the wall, hung with all the others. We find Molly’s, Rachel’s, Aaron’s, Peter’s, Amy’s and and and…I loved those friendships then when we were here together. It is a fraction of the gratitude I feel for those continued friendships in this moment. We look at names on plaques and paddles of Voyager and Mountaineer groups. “Mom, that’s cousin Jeff,” and “Look there’s Melissa,” and “Isn’t that the mom of my babysitter?”

After the banquet, we sing Viva la Companie and Madeline with a life-force revved by recent adventure. Each troupe rises to the front and each child, age 11 to 15 or so, shares something. “I am proud of myself for learning to steer a canoe.” “I loved seeing otters play.” “My favorite part was these people.”

What we hear as parents is that camp succeeded. The mission of the YMCA and Camp Widjiwagan is being expressed right here in front of us by the campers themselves. They speak to wilderness, quiet, learning, cooperation, bravery and growth that are timeless.

Through a soggy face, I watch my son sing in firelight. I’m lost in a “this is your life” montage. These songs we sing at family gatherings, weddings and funerals. These are my lullabies. “In time when you are ready, come and join me take my hand, and together we’ll share life out on the lose.” My son turns and finds me in the crowd and smiles. We know.

The funny thing is, I didn’t know. I did not project into sleepless moments with my infant a child of twelve. I sang those songs because they were the most familiar to me when I was my most exhausted.

I love this place. It was not perfect. Some summers we couldn’t afford to go. Sometimes I was nauseatingly homesick. But good and bad, camp helped me walk bravely into other communities, continents and experiences. Camp was the adventure that beget all further adventures in my life.

Camps are designed to help kids practice working through struggles they can handle, like getting along with others and sustaining a fire. It is a second family. If my kids find that at Widji, I will be thrilled. If they find it elsewhere, I will be thrilled. I know kids who find it through choirs, theater productions or sports teams. What we want for our children is experiences that make them feel attached and stretched—a place to learn skills that give them a sense of competency in the world.

IMG_5717At session close, the staff stands in front of camp and sings a sort of prayer: “May the long time sunshine on you, all love surround you, and the pure light within you guide your way on.”

We know it will.

 

 

Caucus Day and I’m Conflicted

My kids asked me who I will vote for tonight. I stood in front of them and their futures and their health care and their college loans and their warming globe and their wages and their gender identities and their military service and their spouses and their safety and their financial security and their educations and their sense of social justice, and I thought good and hard.

My entire career has been about social justice, empowering young women, supporting young men, building educational opportunity and strengthening networks of social support. Who is my candidate?

I am voting for who I believe is the strongest candidate for the job. I am voting for someone I admire. We all should, and respect one another for having an opinion and voting tonight.

I read last night about Hillary, “She’s just another Al Gore” and the whimsey imbedded in that comment by a friend chilled me. I am not voting by gender for the highest office in our country, but I will also not ignore gender’s role in our politicians’ careers and candidacy.

In the country in which I have grown and worked, been an activist, a mother and a child, a student, voter, teacher and policy advocate, in which I have been employed and unemployed and underemployed, being female has affected my experience. It feels different to me, being female, when I walk home alone after dark and when I apply for jobs. It felt different when I compared my pay stub to my brothers for the same job and he got paid more. It felt different in chemistry class when our teacher made the girls sit in front because science didn’t come “naturally” to us. It felt different when six of my friends were raped during their college careers. It felt different for me when I left my career to parent and attempted to re-enter it. It feels different when I read stories of girls being followed home from South high by men in white vans. It feels different that only 15% of elected positions are held by women in Minnesota. It feels different that I have never seen a woman President run our country.

In interviews that compare potential female to male candidates, women cite reasons not to run such as family obligations, lack of role models in policy careers, what the media does to female candidates, investing their family’s money in an election, being physically threatened by elected officials, and knowing their constituency would not support a woman for the job. Men do not. I love Bernie’s ideals, and he could be my candidate. But I will not deny his privilege and I can’t imagine he would either.

A woman could not be a candidate for President today without political connections and savvy. She could not run on aspirations or even ideals alone. She must wear a coat of armor yet she cannot raise a fist or speak in an angry tenor without repercussions. She cannot have a history that includes arrests. She cannot move to the top without the time it takes to make mistakes and change her mind on issues. I actually WANT a candidate who is willing to think and think again, perhaps change her mind when she hears something new from the people she represents.

Whether or not you agree with her or want to vote for her, seeing a woman run for President is a mark of progress toward a more liberal country and it thrills me to see it. Progressive think tanks studied and demonstrated years ago that there has never been a politician more denigrated by the media than Hillary Clinton. Support has been withdrawn from some of the progressive left, which I consider myself very much a part of, and that may be based upon her record. But there is no way we can separate her record from the misogyny that follows her everywhere.

Bernie and Hillary have similar ideas. I am torn. But I also recognize that the material Bernie’s supporters use to separate him, at times, is the very sustenance it took for her to be his colleague today. What sets her apart for me is not her gender. But I am impressed by the extra labor she has done because of her gender. Regardless of your vote, I would like to see progressive America honor this moment in time.

I believe that Hillary will be more successful in this particular role in government–feel free to disagree. But please stop underestimating my research, my intelligence, my ideals and my reasons. It is antithetical to your vote for progress. Let’s go vote. Tomorrow we will likely find ourselves on the same team and I want to be proud to be there with you.

My Dad is 80

 

Today Douglas Hedlund​, my dad, turns 80. I couldn’t find one picture of him without his arms around my mom or tightly holding my brother or I or his grandkids. He grew up in a farming family in Fargo. He was the first in his family to attend college. He served as a Navy doctor during Vietnam. He was a psychiatrist for 53 years. He left Abbott hospital when they wanted to restrict the length of his appointments and the amount of therapy he could offer patients. He toured churches giving lectures on becoming affirming congregations. He campaigned on behalf of later school starts, more hospital access for mental health patients and the ethical responsibility of mental health providers to accept Medicare and Medicaid. He also never missed a race or concert, not mine or my brothers.

I remember my brother and I used to have contests to see who could get him to laugh. He was often busy working, thinking or reading reading reading. He remains a lousy small talker. But if you’d like to discuss feminism, hone your decision making skills, attempt to solve the riddle of anxiety disorders or just tell someone your life story as he sits and listens deeply and pats your arm, he is your guy. He won’t judge. He will take your late night phone call when you can’t stop crying or worrying and he will always succeed in making you feel better–and he does not reserve this for his kids. Really, you can call him anytime.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn his seventies, he reduced his private practice hours in order to work one day a week at Lutheran Social Services. He did it again when Tennyson needed infant care. He loves babies. Do other dads stay nearby and offer breastfeeding advice? With my parents doing childcare for me, I felt like I got to witness how they raised me–what a practice in gratitude.

Though cloudy with Alzheimer’s, I recently couldn’t help but call him when once again, I had to explain the news of a mass shooting to my kids. I asked, “Is the world becoming a more violent place?” Keep in mind this is a guy who can’t keep the days of the week straight these days

P1010049“Yes. There has always been hatred and extremism and war. But now children see it everyday. They have access to images and stories and videos because media and information have changed. It doesn’t matter if there is more violence in the world. Our perception of the world is more violent than it once was, and it is that perception that shapes our well being, our sense of safety and our mental health. I worry about that for children and I worry about access to guns. Talk about violence and their fears, but talk about peace too. Talk about solutions and let them know they are safe.”

Maybe it just doesn’t matter what day of the week it is today.

My dad also struggled with depression and anxiety. I asked him once if I could write about that–reveal that. He said, “We should all talk about our mental health struggles more.” I deeply believe that he would not have been as long in this world without my mom. They love each other fiercely and as they reach their eighties, appear to have somewhat exhausted themselves in the care of each other and their family and friends. With luck and persistence, he wooed my mom with a song. I believe that song saved his life.

My dad was not typical. He was not easy. He married levity and an easy laugh with the wisdom that he lacked it himself. Only in the company of children, laughing with my mom or on the golf course does his lighter side appear. And that is why Alzheimer’s, despite all we hate about it, has eased some of his burdens. It’s not so bad, after all, that he can’t get to the end of every troublesome thought. He smiles more. His laugh comes more easily. He will walk next to you now, not a mile ahead.

I know wedad bday 048 are losing a little of him everyday. I miss him sometimes after spending the day with him. We will miss his thrilling intelligence and stories of American history, adventures in Fargo and recollections of his cousins. Alzheimer’s feels some days like a sickening long goodbye. Alzheimer’s also has the potential to feel socially awkward. Luckily for us, nothing new there. A nurse recently said, “He seems to be growing more quiet and thoughtful. He didn’t want to talk about the weather.” My mom and I just laughed. Some days I’m angry that the universe paid him back for his service by afflicting his mind. But mostly, I am grateful he is turning eighty today and I am still his girl.

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.

IMG_6824

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.