Eleven Years of Tennyson

Last week I asked my oldest son to complete a chore with me. As he jumped from foot to foot on hot concrete, flies swarmed around us. He offered, “it’s stinky over here,” and “perhaps what you need, mom, is a kitchen shears instead of garden pruners.” But he stayed with me, humming, hopping and smiling. We finished the project, high fived and walked into the shade. He put his arm around me and said, “That was fun.” I laughed as tears rose in my eyes. He noticed, “Mom—how could that possibly choke you up?”

I have witnessed him accomplish remarkable things in eleven years that made me feel proud: piano recitals, choir performances, artwork, inventions, brotherly kindness, acts of compassion. But, I have never felt more optimistic a great future lies before him than when we cut the ropes off our old baby swing together next to the stinky garbage can on a simmering summer day.

Tenny is bright and likable. He has a winsome smile and an easy way with people. He excels in school and inventing things. He is a creative and quick learner. But resilience and willingness to face adversity will do more for him than any talent born or nurtured. I summed up my tears; “I am just so happy for you.”

Which, of course, made him giggle all the more. His giggle renders me weak at the knees with love and adoration. One of my favorite advances in our relationship this year is laughing together. We suddenly seem to crack each other up. Raising Tenny has been one of the greatest gifts of my life. I was prepared to miss each stage as he grew (ok not all of them). What I was not prepared for was how much more interesting, fun and unpredictable he is at every age.

Furthermore, how could there be a pre-teen living in my house? How could he know more than me about computers? And pancake batter? Solar power? How could this be the same little guy who could not sleep anywhere but attached to his parents his first eighteen months? How could he so surprise me? I once knew him better than he knew himself. Everyday, Tenny is less and less kid and more and more his unique self.

IMG_7824We have engaged a tradition for our boys called the “Ten Year Trip.” Instead of a birthday party or gift, they will each choose (within reason) a destination. Tennyson’s selection was an overnight Amtrak trip with mom. He did not care about the destination; only that we slept at least two nights on the train. It speaks volumes of him that he selected a timeworn journey with a balance of exploration and quiet. We had a remarkably good time on our ramble from Seattle to St. Paul, he in awe of the train itself and me in awe of my companion.

This is what the five of us had to share about Tenny at his eleventh birthday dinner:

“He is a great brother.”

“He makes me feel special.”

“He is adventurous.”

“He is confident.”

“He gives great hugs.”

As he said to me earlier this year, “Do you know what I try to do? I try to be optimistic. Just let it roll. Don’t fight the current.” After eleven years of Tennyson, I am certain of one thing. No matter where or how he lands, Tenny will find adventure and purpose in every leap forward.

The Stinson 100 Yard Dash

IMG_5212We are not creatures of habit. Addiction is not our black dog. I have tried registration, dedication, resolution. I have calendars, reminders, i-minders, apps. But our patterns get interrupted; our plans change. I have been meaning to go to Zumba at the Y on Tuesdays for two years. I can get  my kids to school everyday, but we will play hooky on the nicest blue bird day in winter and the first day we can show our skin in spring. We are responsible. We take care of our things and our people and no one goes hungry. We keep commitments. But I will never succeed at a weekly exercise plan. I will never take vitamins on a daily regimen. I am not wired for consistency. Its time to stop naming my lack of patterns my big failure and succeed at being me.

Yet I am a tradition junky. I must exist on a seasonal calendar; less axis and more orbit. My husband once laid out coconuts in a solar system pattern for me on a beach to help me understand planetary science, which evades me. I get the ellipsis around the sun. The spinning at the same time makes my brain hurt. It won’t sink in. It conquers me. I have to watch this once a year www.youtube.com/watch?v=eV4nk9or9SE for review. I will take my trip around the sun; but I am in total denial of rotation on a axis. We take the train to Red Wing to see Santa every Thanksgiving. Christmas Eve has been at mom and dad’s house for 25 years. President’s Day we spend with friends in the woods. In August, we camp. Etc. Etc. Etc. I am a creature of exclusively and obsessively yearly habits. But “bedtime” for instance, is an ongoing struggle.

I have wanted this to be different my whole life; to get up at 6, meditate for 15, jog for 30, shower, drink a glass of water, eat a piece of fruit to start the day “right” and greet my children with a smile at 7-to-the-second a.m. I think it was twenty years ago now I set the still unmet goal of doing sit ups every morning. I have also always wanted one of the jobs depicted in the “occupation cards” hung on grade school walls where each professional dons a different uniform; doctor, teacher, engineer. I wanted to be an X, do my Y and come home to my Z. But, it has not worked for me. I don’t do “regular” and I have judged myself for it far too long.

When I was 25 I called my mom, upset, because I was done with my teaching internship and didn’t know what was next. More teaching? But then how do I save the rain forest? And what if I want to be a Judge someday? What about writing? Or nursing? She said, “Sometimes I think you’d be happier if you chose one thing and stuck with it, no matter what it is.” I filled a journal and called a week later with my plan. “Mom; you were right. I am going to take six months and just: rock climb.” Not what she had in mind. I made it through Moab, Mount Lemon and Joshua Tree; six weeks. I couldn’t even commit to being a dirt bag.

After that escapade and a subsequent volunteer-year across South America, I moved to Montana with a backpack of earthly belongings and taught for two years (in a row!) I left Montana five years later with a truck, trailer, dog, husband and acceptance papers for a Master’s program in Maternal and Child Health. I worked as a clinical health educator for four years; then I had a baby and went part-time, I had another baby and became a consultant, I had third baby and quit. The slope was slippery from the start. Now I have been at home for five years. I have vacillated from totally committed and blissful, to rabid job-seeking for a ticket out of hell. When I left my career I felt at the top of my game; respected, on my way up. I had no idea how difficult it would be to weasel my way back into the working world. I now have a part-time job that I love, hired by parents that saw the value in my previous work and my time spent at home. And I write, because it keeps my brain buoyed above water-level in the vast and unknown sea of parenting.

Part-time work, writing, taking care of aging parents, volunteering on boards and being there for my kids have kept me breathlessly busy. Yet, I have trouble valuing myself and what I am offering the world. “Writing/working/advocating Mom” is not on occupation cards throughout grade schools. I have not had a supervisor saying, “you are succeeding, you are doing this ‘right,’ you are awesome.” A big, discouraging part of me still thinks I should be doing X, Y and Z.

Today, however, a neighbor on my street reminded me of who I am.

Every day, he says, he stands with his coffee in his doorway at 8am and spectates the “Stinson 100 Yard Dash.” The school bus arrives a straight-shot block from our house at 8:07. Rare days we all saunter together with the puppy and coffee mugs, but most days we race with various tactics intended to promote speed. Apparently the three-boys-to-one parent days are the most fun to watch. Everyday we wear different jackets and hats and mittens, like we can’t quite commit to our team colors. Sometimes the little one is just wrapped in a blanket. Jason and I range from p.j.’s to suitable workplace attire. Collectively, we wipe out on ice, we get wrapped in the leash, we bark various orders; we drop, run, skip, spit, laugh, cry, bleed, but we arrive. Apparently we also totally entertain our neighbors.

This is us. This is me. I don’t want to fight it anymore. The Stinson 100 Yard Dash is as close as we get to gently spinning on the axis. It’s no wonder parenting and writing are the jobs I’ve wanted to keep the longest. I love change; I enjoy managing chaos. I love writing because I get to create something new everyday. I like my job because I am helping to ensure that change happens. Don’t get me wrong; I’m not satisfied. I want to publish more and work more and exercise more and spend more time with my kids–but I have to do it my own way, and it will not likely ever involved sit-ups and a piece of fruit every morning. As I evolve from my role as a pro mom into whatever is next, I want a career like parenting that puts new expectations on me everyday. No more X,Y, Z. I am better in orbit.

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.