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.

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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.

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.

You’re outta here!

IMG_1217I watch morning TV once every 5 years. This morning on the Today Show some “manners” dude expressed that parents should remove their children from public spaces if they cry more than a minute.  He could use a lesson from the Italians, who were 100%, without fail, incredibly kind, sympathetic and even helpful with our 18 month old cry baby.

I agree there is an occasional restaurant where I would like to go in the later evening and not listen to crying kids, and there are plenty of places in a church or at a concert where one can hang out with a crying baby so everyone can hear. However, the example he gave was the grocery store. The time he suggested was ONE MINUTE. What, pray tell, does he suggest we do with our children when we need groceries? And where do I go with my crying baby when I’m at a restaurant and its zero degrees outside? And are there really adults out there who believe children should only exist in homes and schools and parks until they act like adults? I believe we have the capacity to to be intelligent, discerning, thoughtful, happy people who understand 1) sometimes our need for quiet is a priority, and 2) sometimes kids act like kids, and 3) babies are a gift.

The last time I went to a restaurant we asked to be relocated because the adults at the table next to us were so rowdy we couldn’t hear each other.  100 times a day I am disgusted by adults.  You are too if you stop to think about it.  Today there were boogers inside my locker in the YMCA women’s locker room. Today someone honked at me for stopping for the humans in the crosswalk. Today a plane flew low over my house at 6AM and woke us all up and guess what, an adult scheduled that plane. Today a guy’s fart in my exercise class stunk so badly I gagged. And its noon! Adults shoot each other, steal from each other, and fight with each other.  Our elected officials can’t get along well enough to pass laws.  The CDC says 57% of adults don’t wash their hands after using the restroom.  Adults hurt kids.  Yet, we persist that babies and children should act more like adults or be left at home.  Most of them have better manners than most of us.  Children are delightful, expressive, and incredibly tolerant of us awful adults.  And needless to say, the world would cease to exist without them and their parents.

In Italy, when my Wes cried at a restaurant, someone having dinner in that restaurant would turn around and smile at him. A few times, honestly, some lovely grandfatherly beautiful graceful man would just come pick him up and parade him around. Waiters brought him cookies. I swear to you he never cried for more than 30 seconds the entire time we were in that country. And when we came home, as strangers approached he would smile in anticipation of their smiles or words or generosity. I can’t tell you how heart breaking it was to watch his confusion as they ignored him, or glared at him or gave me nasty advice as they passed by. Wilder just said this to me as I was here writing and its so pertinent I find it spooky. “Mama, what do you wish for?” “For people to get along. For happiness.” He replied, “if you like me, you’ll get happiness. That’s how easy it is. Just like me and then you’ll have happiness all over your body.”  People, its really that easy.  I challenge you, next time you hear a baby crying at a restaurant, instead of rolling your eyes at the parents and glaring at the child, pick up your napkin and play peekaboo.  Smile at him.  Just try it.  The difference between feeling angry at that baby and tolerating that baby might actually be within you!IMG_1427