What does the end of #stayhomeMN and beginning of #StaysafeMN really mean?

I have a PSA as a public health professional, a mom, a daughter and a Minnesotan. I am hopeful most everyone is aware of this but I am feeling protective of you.  This applies in many other states opening across our country as well – please read.

I want to be fundamentally clear: the virus has not reached its peak. Our state is gradually opening because we now believe we have the ventilators, PPE and ICUs available to treat those who will become ill. Minnesota is not opening because it is now safe. Minnesota is not opening because the worst is behind us. No model shows this. We are opening because of the economic, political and social pressures to do so.

We are opening because the state conceded they cannot restrict the rights of residents to operate businesses once we reach health care capacity to manage the level of morbidity and mortality projected.

This is a public health concession to other competing and important pressures. Public health metrics alone would suggest we #stayathome longer.

So, please:

Don’t: behave like business as usual (pre-COVID style).

Do: wear your masks, wash your hands, stay home when sick, social distance, stay home as much as possible if you are immune compromised or over 70. Plan your family’s approach thoughtfully.

Peace,

Shawna

You will die with Alzheimer’s

He was pale. His brow was damp. His blue eyes looked more blue for the tightening of his pupils. The Tardive Dyskenesia made his jaw cock side to side and his fingers drum rapidly. I could barely stand the sound of his dry tongue in his mouth, a response to heavy anti-depressants. For many, many months doctors and therapists had claimed, “severe depression,” but today someone finally said, “your dad has Alzheimer’s.”

The neurologist also said, “you won’t die of Alzheimer’s, you will die with Alzheimer’s. Our patients generally die of pneumonia when they become too sick to get out of bed.” He said “here is some literature,” and “come see me in two months.” He did not say, “I am sorry,” or “I know this is hard to hear.” He left the room. The silent neurology resident followed him like a strange lamb observing how flocks are slaughtered.

We drove home listening to the Beatles. I asked him if he recalled hearing them for the first time. He did. “Did they sound like something new?” He said they sounded “happy.” The first time he heard them was after returning from Japan. He was stationed in Okinawa as a Navy doc during the Vietnam War. “Will you write down your other stories for me?” Sure. “The Harry the Hat stories, and the one about canned peaches at your aunt’s house?” Sure. “And that bully you punched?” Yes. We laughed. He put his hand on my arm. He said, “I am sorry; I know this is hard for you.” He always said the right thing at the right time. I have never known another human who finds such ease in others’ feelings.

I took him home. He told mom. She did not cry. He reached out his hand to her. She sat, teacup in one hand and his hand in the other, disappearing into her oversized floral chair. He bent to hug her. I took the teacup. Her long, lean arms slung around him. I crept away. More tea.

I peeked in from the kitchen many minutes, but not a word, later. They had moved to the couch where he could lean on her. She was in the sun. He was in the dark, split into slats by thin bands of light creeping through the wooden shudders. I brought toast with too much butter like he liked it, like she complained about, and three fresh cups of tea. We said nothing I can recall. I haven’t decided yet if memory means more, or less, as of that day.

Then he got up to call his son. A credit to what the disease had not yet touched, he made up an excuse to get off the phone within minutes of delivering the news. He paused in the hall. When he returned to us, the room was dark.

“I need somewhere to collapse.” My mom and I stood, sweeping books and laundry from the couch, making way for him. “No; I don’t want to lay down.” He leaned toward me. I recalled suffocating my tears into his shoulder the first time he took me to hear the orchestra. His shoulders now slumped and subtly shook. Crying overtly would be a disservice to our forty-year history of just gently holding on.

He sat down, finally, like a child with both arms hanging between his knees. He put into words what most of us say with tears. He said, “I feel heavy things falling down on me.”

Such a fine line

IMG_0008_6

Today I was late to a meeting because I got my pen tangled in my hair.

I was reminded of the time my son went walleye fishing with an earthworm in my hair.

My family and I once got snowed into a friend’s cabin the same night the pipes burst and water poured through the ceiling. Hours later, my husband admitted he could neither confirm nor deny the presence of raw sewage in my hair.

I often find food and snot of unknown sources in my hair.

We recently established a rule that when I am reading to my sons, no one is allowed to wrap their fingers or toes in my hair.

But today, I was alone. Shampooed. I put my hair in a bun and stuck my pen through it to hold it in place while I drove. I had it under control.

Ready for the world–until I attempted to step into it. Anxious, I pulled the pen too hard, too quickly, and unraveled my morning instead of my bun. Twelve precious minutes–the difference between timely and tardy–lost.

Such a fine line persists between control and chaos.

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.

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.

…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!”

wilderstash

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;

racemom

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.

Response to Matt Walsh on Sex Ed

photo-18I have been a fan of yours for awhile, Matt Walsh; a big fan.  Before becoming a full-time stay at home parent I was a health educator in the public schools.  I wish I thought your perceptions of comprehensive sex education were accurate, but I respectfully do not.  I would like to believe that parents who are incapable of teaching their children healthy, universal lessons about human sexuality are an “aberration,” but research shows we have not yet evolved to that level of competence as a society.  Since your arguments are not actually based in research or evidence, allow me to speak from the heart as you do.  In my experience, and I know that you are speaking from your experience, I believe comprehensive sex education in schools saves/improves/protects lives.  This is what I have witnessed:  1) Human sexuality is a part of biological science, which is taught in schools.  We do not restrict information about other sciences based upon the cultural beliefs of students.  We give them the facts.  2) What we teach in schools does not restrict what parents can teach kids at home.  If they are capable, loving parents, lessons from home will be primary, not secondary, to lessons learned at school.  3) You suggest we have a case of parentphobia.  Please consider whether you have a case of teacherphobia.  Health educators are professionals, and “most of them are…capable.  Most [teachers] love their [students].  Most [teachers] would do anything for their [students]. Most [teachers] know what’s best for their [classrooms].”  Teachers aren’t the government…I encourage you to have a little faith in them.  In fact, perhaps you still have some things to learn from teachers that will help you navigate the parenting “minefield” of which you speak.  Sometimes we need expert guidance from people who are trained professionals.   4)  One of our biggest failures as a society is our tendency to trust our assertion that “I can look around me” and see everything that’s going on out there. We need to doubt our beliefs about “most of us” because that is usually biased by what we see.  When we make decisions about the needs of our society as a whole, we have to remember, respectfully, that “most of us” don’t interact daily with a representative sample of the population.  Matt, we need to doubt ourselves every time we use the phrase “most of us.”  Herein lies the intended and constructive purpose of statistics; science and research that can help us make decisions about what kids as a population need.  “Most” researchers are good, smart people that have the very best for young people at heart.  As parents, we cringe at the idea of our kids rendered to numbers, but these numbers have the ability to remove our blinders when all we can see is what is around us.  The evidence, in this case, suggests that comprehensive sex education in schools has reduced the rate of unintended pregnancy, teen pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections.  As a health educator, I can tell you that everyday I had that job, I went home feeling like I improved the outcome of someone’s life that day.  As a citizen, when I send my kids to public school I choose to be willing to have my children educated in such a way that is best for the common good.  And as a parent, I welcome the challenge to teach my kids what I want them to know about their sexuality in the context of what they learn in school, on the playground, and in conversation with other kids and adults.  I encourage you to broaden your view, doubt your assertions, and then tell us all what you think is best for our children.  Here are some resources:

A Change of Pants….

IMG_2616We woke up at our friend’s cozy cabin in Ely, Minnesota to -35 degrees outside. My nearly 3-year-old extracted himself from the warm space between his dad and I to express, “I am just a big boy. You are a big gorl. You are HUGE,” then disappeared under five layers of blankets, pillows, and brothers. I got up and wrapped my body in animal, plant and petroleum products; wool, feathers, leather, silk, rubber, polyester and vaseline. I am huge. I step outside into the crystalized, silent cold. Squeak, squeak; very cold snow is loud under foot and too frozen for footprints. My eye lashes freeze together. Half my breath catches in my throat; the part that makes it out freezes on contact with my scarf. I am in my element.

This act of exposure suggests a hearty commitment to my continued, or rather, reinvigorated practice of daily outdoor meditation. November was amazing. I gave up on December at 3 or 4 days in. The contrast in my state of mind between December and November has me clawing my way back. January 1, 2014, seemed a poetic day to begin again. Going outside today, January 5, is not the extraordinary effort it appears. I love the vice-grip of negative temperatures under dazzling blue skies. Light fractures off every crystal of snow like a zillion tiny disco balls. The humbling cold squeezes my head thoughtless. It takes skill to be out in cold like this, and I love the challenge.

IMG_0001_3I can’t sit; my toes won’t make it through 15 minutes of inactivity. I watch for animal tracks in the fresh snow and in contrast to the balmy 15 degree morning yesterday, I see none. Not one snowshoe hare, squirrel, mouse, pine martin, deer. None. It’s time to stay covered, hidden, warm. I am gloriously alone; a spectacle for smarter bunnies as I squeak, steam, and grin down the road. The northern winter’s temperature, wind, snow, ice and glare; none of it is gentle upon its inhabitants. But with enough preparation, protection, togetherness and patience, it is a more peaceful, beautiful, serene and affirming habitat than I have known from Chile to the Yukon.

At dinner on New Year’s Day I told my kids that a friend recently asked me to describe each of them in one word. I chose, from oldest to youngest: inventive, creative, and delightful. Tenny decided each boy should do the same for me. From youngest to oldest, I was: poopy pants, author and busy. “Poopy pants” I accepted from the youngest of 3 boys. As to be expected. “Author” made me feel good, though it’s a stretch. Other than grad school research, newsletters, birthday cards, my journal, some op eds, and this blog, I have never published anything. Apparently I now have a goal for 2014, presented to me by my precocious and puzzling middle child. “Busy,” for all of its accuracy, however, made me very sad. I know that little look. I know his inner wisdom. I know he found his moment to say what he needed to say.

This year has been nuts, and being with my children has not been enough of what made it busy and challenging. I already see the climate of the coming year and it looks a lot like January. I have three aging loved ones. My Uncle will leave us much too soon and it already hurts. My parents will need more support than ever and I already feel at capacity. I’m attempting to return to work and apparently, to publish something. THEN there are these very important boys. Their paperwork alone makes me manic. Add in some potty training and glimmers of puberty and I am what my children see. Most of friends would say the same of themselves; we wear huge, busy pants.

IMG_3943

I recently asked my dad, a psychiatrist, how to slow down time and feel less busy. He said in 40 years of practice, he’s only seen one thing that appeared to work, and it wasn’t eliminating obligations, or balancing schedules, saying “no” more, or working less. He simply said, “notice more details in your everyday life.”

I cannot change the climate of the year to come. Like so many of you, I long for more ease in 2014. The fact is that every year, no matter where you live, there will be a January, a deep freeze, a record low. But in the love of winter there is also a lesson about endurance if we have the skills, support and protection to survive, or better yet, enjoy it. It’s hard and it’s beautiful. It’s audacious and it’s exquisite. It’s challenging and it’s invigorating. Step outside in the woods and you will hear…nothing. You will need layers and tea and baths and snuggles. Neighbors will shovel each others’ walks. Friends will bring soup. Strangers will assist each other over snowbanks. Someone will give their mailman a gift card for hot coffee. Snowmen will dot the tundra. The beautiful details of a long, cold winter are infinite.

I want a better word to describe me in 2014. Ideally my word would reflect, like a zillion snow crystals, the light that is essential to get us through the darkest days. But I would take something more mundane, like “warm.” IMG_0078In the middle of January, I can wrap my kids up in all that earth offers. If I carefully eliminate thermal aperture at wrists, ankles, and earlobes, they will make snow angels. They will sled gleefully. We can toss a cup of boiling water to the sky, freeze an egg in snow and watch our spit freeze midair. And for heaven’s sake, there will be a thaw; a day that everything drips and we expose our collective skin again. I can show them we will also have: Spring.

One of the Great Ones

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My dog died.  Gebo died.  That still sounds strange.  It’s not yet real.  Two days after he died we hosted a lively and fun, touching Thanksgiving full of goodness.  Our eldest generation shared beautiful, heart-warming prayers of gratitude before dinner.  After dinner, pie and gingerbread houses, I was packing up tableware lent from my parents.  I struggled with a small white box, not able to open it and unsure what it was.  On the bottom I found a label and read, “Gebo.”  I put it down, not breathing, and walked directly into the arms of a cousin who would understand such things.  My dad had kindly picked up his remains on the way over, but had not yet found the right time to present us with our beloved pet.  Though perhaps not the best delivery, a day of thanksgiving was the right day.  Experiencing tough moments sometimes helps us realize what will give us strength in future hard times.

Sad-sweet nostalgia surfaced over the ensuing days.  I called his name to clean up dinner scraps a few times, and our 2-year-old asked a dozen times of his whereabouts.  Then my mom went into the hospital with more health issues (she is ok), and I longed for his soft scruff to catch some worried tears.  I’ve done some weird things, like sitting on a dock at sunset, letting my hand pet the air where he would have sat beside me.  My husband admits he has reached out to pet him in the empty passenger seat of his truck too.  I started writing this a week ago.  Today I started editing and realized I had to change every verb to the past tense.  His goneness settles in more everyday.

At the same time, I don’t always miss him because I forget he’s gone.  I mistook a pile of dark laundry for him last week.  His picture is in my phone, and I talk to it.  This would have been appeared weird a few years ago but these days I can get away with it.  I saw a coyote near my yard today and I am pretty sure he was checking on us for Gebo.  See, its a mix of intentionally forgetting he’s gone and loftily believing he’s still around.  I had my weeks of endless tears.  Now I soothe myself by forgetting somedays, and remembering others.

When I do remember he died, I sweat; a surge of hurt.  I can level the thermostat as long as I keep believing he’s in my phone, or in the coyote; anywhere but that white container.  As long as I avoid a few thoughts, most Christmas specials, and that dam song on the radio about the kid who wants to buy his mom shoes before she dies, I live peacefully with his memories and his presence.  I’ll accept his passing enough by spring to memorialize him; spread his ashes in favorite places, tell stories with the kids, plant a tree and float some lanterns to heaven.

My oldest son once told me, “having Gebo makes me feel like maybe we’re special, because WE got the greatest dog ever.”  Even our vet said the last time he saw him, “he is one of the Great Ones.”  I agree.  I miss not only my dog, but one of my favorite parts of being me.  I miss the me that had a close friend that was an animal.  I miss the me that picked him out at the farmer’s market in Bozeman, Montana.  The ranchers who sold us Geebs said he would be so loyal, we had to promise to shoot him instead if we ever had to give him away someday.  No need.  I miss the me that swam and skied with him.  I miss the me that heard him shake with excitement when we turned down gravel roads.  I miss the me that parented with a canine assistant.  He not only changed my life, he changed me.

I don’t know myself without him.  I miss his outrageous greetings, his lush ears, and his noises; the jingle of his tags, the groan when he stretched out on his bed, the high-pitched yalp at the end of his yawn, the snorty sneezes that meant he wanted to play, and the soft exhale in his bed I was just barely conscious of hearing.  Though it drove me crazy until a few months ago, I now miss how after 14 years he decided to forgo the rules.  He sniffed out stuffed animals from toy bins, holding them under his chin with the white rims of his black irises showing so sweetly we couldn’t say “no.”  I miss how he and I walked the boys to the bus stop together everyday.  The day I tried to leave before the boys were aboard, he refused my tugs at his leash.  He rolled over on his back, never severing his gaze from the smallest of his herd until both were safely seated.  I miss the gentle way he took treats from the kids’ fingers and his popcorn-scented paws.  I miss him following the kids around, eager to be in the thick of childhood.

I felt honored to be there for Gebo in his old age.  I could see trust in his cloudy eyes, and bewilderment at legs gone weak and tummy gone sour.  I am so grateful for the sense of safety he brought me for 15 years.  He saw me through every transition from single woman in the mountains to mother of three in the plains.  I am grateful to him for staying off the couch, leaving food on the coffee table, always returning to the front stoop, and tolerating a leash, though we both knew he never planned to leave my side.

Gebo, I wish you high mountain vistas and sun-soaked fur.  I wish you rock-catching in streams.  I wish you the perfect snatch of a frisbee in the air.  I wish you the agility of your youth, and long games of chew-face.  You have prepared us well for the end of our era together with at least three practice runs at death.  Well played for a protective guy; you were every bit as loyal as they said.  Though I long for your companionship, I feel grateful and optimistic; perhaps because I was once the recipient of a magical being.  You are my Pete’s Dragon, my first young, and my wise old man.  From our adventures in the mountains, my years in young love, the formation of this family, and our life by Minnehaha Creek, you followed me and loved everyone I ever asked you to love.  Thank you for sixteen years of loyal service to your herd.FamwGebs

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?