Tuesday, October 21, 2014

On Apple Pie.

She’s my big sister so I always look up to her in big ways. The way she cooks, the way she bakes, the way she brings people together around a finely decorated, happily worn table… It always seems to feel just right.

I have watched my big sister constantly over my thirty-eight years. I watched as she chose horseback riding as her Thing, and I tagged along to be a part of her world. I watched as she married and began that strange and delicate relationship with her in-laws. She cleaned thoroughly, cooked well, and laughed politely at their stories. When she heard that her brother-in-law was particularly fond of apple pies, she set out to make the perfect one, months before he arrived at her Thanksgiving table.

She baked about a pie a week, and as I lived two floors above her in an apartment she owned (I think I was still tagging along in some way) and I was broke, I dutifully tasted these apple pies. As a lover of food and all things free, I was not a very picky or helpful judge. But we agreed on one and on Thanksgiving Day, that was the one she made for her brother-in-law.

He liked it, but in the litmus test of appreciation, he didn’t score as well as I thought he should. I don't know what she thought; we do a lot together but talking isn't one of them. But it was unfair—he didn’t know how many hours, how many pies, had gone into this single pie on this single day. But he ate it, and we ate it, and the experience had no big hurrah of an ending.

Fifteen years later, with families entrenched in Their Own Thing and too many miles between them, he doesn’t go to dinner much at her house anymore. After fifteen years of marriage, she doesn’t feel the need to show off as much as she did the first few years. But she and I still enjoy that fantastic pie. And we laugh at how silly and important it is to clean your house and be your best self with some people, and how wonderful and important it is to show your clutter and be your real self with others.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

On Being Fed (at Write Doe Bay)

Today is my first full day back from five full days away.  My body returned to laundry piles and grocery lists, carpool lines and fixing my eternally clogged sink. But while I do these simple chores, my mind is still processing this experience called Write Doe Bay (or, better yet, check out #writedoebay on Instagram) that happened on the other side of the country, with complete strangers who are no longer strangers.  I'll write about the writing aspect of Write Doe Bay another time, but it is was on the experience of being fed that seems most profound at the moment.

I am a mother of three young kids. I am easily moving, working, cooking in the kitchen half of the time I'm in my house. As soon as I'm done with a draft of this essay, I will make breakfast for three kids and lunch for two of them. After I pick up my youngest from preschool, he and I will come home and I'll make lunch for the two of us, and prep a part of dinner.  After picking up the older two, I'll come home and make dinner for the kids and sometimes me, then hours later for the hard-working man who comes home too late. If there are cookies or a cake to bake for a class party or school fundraiser, you can count on me to reappear in the kitchen after bedtime to make that happen. "From scratch" and "homemade" are part of my kids' vernacular.

At Write Doe Bay, one of the organizers told us, "I am going to cook for you. It is my gift to you." Jesse is a beautiful woman inside and out, and I readily accepted her gift. I was, and still am, so thankful.

And cook she did.  And bake she did. And feed, nourish, sustain me she did and still is doing. Here are some of the wonderful things she cooked for me, for us:
Bacon, eggs, applesauce, granola

French onion soup with homemade croutons, hearty bread

Jesse disappeared into the kitchen and quietly, slowly, built up the simple, straightforward menu with hearty, life-giving food and reminded me of the joy to show up and be fed.

Spending five days away from your husband and kids is a luxury.  An outright shock of a luxury, really. And while my writing career is important enough to me to spend time on, and my life is busy enough for me to say, out loud, "I need to go away for this," I would not, I did not have the insight to also say, "I need to be taken care of. I need to be fed." But as I turn to the weekend and look at it with the perspective that distance has always provided for me, I see that this sustenance fed my soul and nourished me in a deep, profound way.

A woman I never met before said, "Come. I will take care of you. I will feed you. I will nourish you."

Thank you, Jesse!

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

The Evil Storyteller and Me

When I was about eight, my dad wrote a short chapter book called "The Mystery of the Evil Storyteller." It's a story of children who mysteriously disappear during the library's story times when a certain dazzling woman reads. He fictionalized our family in this children's book, using my sister and me as the main characters, and himself and our mom as our in-the-book parents. My cousin and her father are in the story, too, and my dad's childhood friend even pops in as the police chief. The character versions of my sister and I use our clever reasoning skills and thinking caps to gather clues that solve the mystery and bring back the missing children.

I read it yesterday, thirty years later.

If I've read it before, I don't remember. Like my own manuscripts, my dad's is yet to be published--he had forwarded it to me for feedback, to see if it was worth dusting off, revising, and trying to get published (it is).

I was blown away by how fun it was to have myself frozen in time as a child with my sister in a book. There I was, a clue-seeking, pigtail-sporting little sister! Katie-the-character was afraid of being kidnapped but too interested in solving the mystery to worry about it too much. My serious big sister was in there, too, with her big sister way of telling the best way to go about figuring things out.

What fun to go back in time like this! But it was more than a little sad, too.

After finishing the last page of my dad's book and getting that last glimpse of what my family was like back, I felt sobered. When I was eight, my parents were married, and my father included in his book many of my mom's little idiosyncrasies, funny things only she would do that I forgot he once knew. His character in the book called her "Kath" instead of her full name, teased her just like he did when I was a kid, when we were a family under one roof. The character versions of myself and my sister interacted with our parents naturally, addressing both of them together sometimes, and thought nothing of it.

Even though they were married for twenty-two years, legally divorcing one month after my eighteenth birthday, those years seem like a closed storybook. There's a part of me that does not fully believe those years existed, those memories really created. It's funny how a relationship that was once all I knew, once so very real can seem like it never happened after enough time has passed. Time dusts over the strong feelings and true beliefs that once existed with strong certainty.  I'm not sure if that's a good thing or a bad thing. I guess it just is.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

How Do You Get There?

Over the weekend my critique group pal and I drove up to Buckeystown, Maryland, for a SCBWI* Regional Conference.  We're aspiring children's book writers, though she's a giant leap closer to that goal than I am. Arbordale purchased her manuscript last year; it will be published next Spring.  (How cool is that?!) Hoping to learn a little more about publishing our precious words and to learn shortcuts around the infamous slush piles** in publishing houses, we signed up for this conference.

The conference was close enough to allow us to drive up and back each day, rescuing our husbands from certain peril and the prospect of bed-timing our respective children by himself. Sherryn drove the first day, I drove the second.

On the first day, we took the major highways--the treacherous Beltway and always trafficky I-66. There were a ton of other cars on the road, in a rush to beat us to the next exit. As we either zoomed or inched along (there was never an in-between), we chatted about hopes and dreams like school girls, and then how to fit those hopes and dreams into our busy adult lives. We arrived at the conference early, ready to soak up every nugget offered, and ready to pimp our manuscript should the opportunity arise.

On the second day, I took a wrong turn practically out of the parking lot. I headed the wrong way on I-66. Luckily we realized it quickly and my handy dandy GPS showed us that this wrong turn was just fine; we could take this path, too. 15 North was a small backroad that wound around farms and antique stores, and across the Potomac on a picturesque old bridge. We arrived at the conference, albeit a totally different way.

Those two drives on those two days provided a refreshing reminder of the multiple paths that exist to get to the same goal. It's all about having faith and believing that you will indeed get there. Wherever "there" is for you.

* Society of Children's Book Writers and Illustrators.  www.scbwi.org if you're curious

** A slush pile is the giant pile of unsolicited manuscripts that sit, their pages crossed, hoping to be read and accepted, in the office of an agent or editor.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Cabin o' Cousins: Facing Disappointment

I just returned from a long weekend away where my three kids and my sister's four kids all hung out in a camp-like setting.  Needless to say, it was a whole lot of fun, and hanging around with all those kids made me, at times, feel like a kid.  Bungee-trampoline jumping, putt putt playing, looking-for-bears hiking, marshmallow toasting, swimmin' hole swimming, tall tree climbing...plus a whole lot of time just hanging out.

During those little adventures and hours of hanging out, one or two children were sure to have an outburst of tears. For example:

My sister reprimanded Lorelei that climbing a tree needed to be done without help; Lorelei cried when her aunt took away the pile of logs that she was dangerously assisting her to get up and down a tall pine.

D's patience with the rope swing at the river was, um, severely limited at times; he had to sit out a turn (the peaceful, natural setting soon had screams of anger as well as cool water running through it).

A craft that J had been working on in our cabin had been taken apart; she whined "It's not fair!" and had to start over and lose 15 minutes and a handful of beads to Ben, who thought (incorrectly) she wasn't interested in her project anymore.

At one point or another, all of the kids suffered some sort of disappointment. And that sense of disappointment touched them deeply in a kid way--they HAD to respond, noisily, with tears and sorrow because the frustration wouldn't stay inside their little bodies.

It made me realize, watching these loud bursts of painful disappointments, how each and every child DID get over it.  These little disappointments, which feel anything but little to them, are like training for the bigger disappointments they'll sadly but inevitably face in the decades to come.  Hopefully they'll see the pattern: something happens I didn't expect, I cry about it, I take a deep breath and redo the situation, I get over it.

As an adult, I had two big thoughts: First, I think that I should--we all should--let out the burst of feeling when something disappointing happens to us.  Cry! Scream at the river! Yell "It's not fair!" as if you believe that life is actually fair.  This release-of-feeling part of the process sure was loud and messy, but I think it actually helped the kids tell anyone and everyone that THEY WERE HURT! Why do we adults often keep it all in, putting on a brave face and gulping down our feelings?

Second, they did get over those disappointments.  Soon enough, they were back up the tree, back at the rope climb, back at the crafting, having left the disappointment behind them in that day.  They didn't seem to harbor resentment or dwell on the disappointment for longer than 15 or 30 minutes.  They forgave the person who wronged them (often just by enforcing the rules!) and, more importantly, forgave themselves for making a poor choice.  They didn't let that little disappointment stand in the way of a day of fun.

Hanging out with kids is always a good thing--there is so much to learn from them!  (But, as summer ends and school begins, I look forward to the quieter hours of reflection that I have without them when they are in their teachers' capable hands...!)

Tuesday, August 26, 2014


I'm taking advantage of one of the last, unseasonably cool summer days.  I'm sitting on the back deck with my kids happily swirling around me, doing the same thing I'm doing but in a different way. I don't know what to write about...but I am outside and have a moment to write and...something will come to me.  I hope.

Oh!  Something came to me!  Well, not something. Someone.  Charlie!

We live in the woods on a secluded lot at the end of a dirt road.  When my introvert husband and extrovert me first drove up to the property, we both agreed it was the best place ever to be a kid.  It was where we wanted to raise our kids.  We live 45 minutes from Washington, DC, but our kids can wade in the creek, build forts, listen to frogs and crickets and quiet. Lots of quiet. Like it or not, there is a whole lot of quiet at our house.

Until the neighbors moved in, that is.  On this quiet dirt road we hit the neighbor jackpot a few years ago when a family of six moved in.  Three boys and a girl!  And they seemed to have moved here not just from another place but a different time period.  We met all of the kids before we met the parents...the kids trickled over one by one whenever they wanted.  If they heard our kids playing, they came right on over to play, too.  They seemed not to have read the small print about calling first, checking with the mom first, property lines, and constant parental supervision.

I loved that they didn't know all those rules.

Don't tell the other three kids, but Charlie is our favorite.  Charlie is the second over at his house, but in our house he comes first.  My three kids fight over him openly and subtly, competing for his beaming smile and sweet attention.  He's older than but still patient with all of them.  We all are happy to see him emerge through the woods, trot over "Hay Hill" (the hill that divides our woodsy yards), and smile a hello.

Within minutes, his younger brother and younger sister also rustled their arrival, trotted down Hay Hill, and now I'm watching a pick-up baseball game happen.  Their mom texted me to say she's prepping for dinner, so I'm going to send them back as soon as we head inside to eat our dinner.  But for right now, there are six kids happily playing ball, with tall trees for an outfield, and little parental supervision,

Summer is sweet.  Summer is even sweeter when mixed with great neighbors!

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Old Journals

Volume two of my three India journals
I'm working on an essay about a past experience, so I dug out some old journals to search for my entry on the exact experience, and to remember the general setting in which I had it.  Lucky me had the time, the inclination, and the foresight to journal about any and every thought that flew through my head, every experience I had, and lots of little and big reflections about love.  Lucky me that my handwriting is quite legible.

I went to India almost twenty years ago. Last night I sifted through my first impressions of the complicated city.  The unfinished buildings. The people washing themselves in the puddles on the street. The muted tones of slums, the bright colors of saris, the wide range of skin color. Streets full of revving engines, honking horns, yelling drivers. The air thick with exhaust and pollution. My wide eyes, open ears, and curious heart took it all in.

I wrote down everything.  In the back of each volume is a list of books read while writing it; the pages are full of quotations that mattered from those books. The Solitaire Mystery, Sophie's Choice, Catch-22... My life could be counted and measured in pages read.

Written down with much detail and smile-worthy gusto is my first encounter with my old German beau, a handsome, young medical student whose aunt was a Sister of Charity. Mathias' heart was soft and hard all in the same moment. From my comfortable spot on last night's expensive bed, I could see more clearly how hardened he was to parts of India, but how deeply he cared for the people. The journal is filled with trinkets, postcards, sweet sayings from him.

My time in India meant many things to me.  Calcutta was a city where two extremes coexist in a single place. The suffering of the patients at Prem Dan mingled closely with the joy of the Sisters who worked for them. The crazy busy-ness of the roads, full of cars full of successful businessmen happened right next to a family quietly, almost lazily sleeping on the sidewalk a few feet away.

On those pages, through my wordy reflections, I tried to figure myself out and make sense of so many things. I smiled kindly at the glimpses of a different version of myself, and quietly honored those strong threads of self that never changed one bit.

I have changed so much, and haven't changed at all.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014


Attending a wedding when your marriage is in a tired, old, sensitive stage is tricky business.

No one up there in the wedding party is any of those things. They are young, energetic, and their sense of humor is fully in tact.  They are all considerably younger than I.  They sport matching outfits, smooth foreheads and trendy platforms. I have sensible flats, worry lines, and graying hair. One or two of the bridal party is married, but they are still newlyweds, that cute stage when you're madly in love and willing to forego personal rectitude for marital harmony. I think I was there once.

And then there's the bride and groom.  The ones saying "I do." The two people who are blissful, smiling at each other and for the camera, seemingly focused on just this day, rather than the decades-long marriage ahead of them. They're at that exact point where most movies end--on an up note, at the riding off into the sunset moment, before the going gets too tough (and no one wants to watch it).

And then there's us--the small gathering about to watch the ceremony, then celebrate with them afterward.  Weddings have a strange mix of attendees.  On the one hand, there are single sorts and bubbly newcomers, blissfully unaware of just how difficult some of marriage will be. They are certain that their love will carry them through. They have lightness and levity; those lucky ducks have not yet had their faith and trust and vows tested.

On the other hand, there are the already-married sort in the crowd, who shake their heads just a little at these young bucks. I admit it was tough not to look down at them just a little, but I know it was out of jealousy.  I am living a version of Paradise Lost, having thrown away my newlywed innocence in a million different ways, and before I fully appreciated it.  I am almost pained watching others in their bubbly, innocent state, especially when I realize that their path, in part due to their choices, might not lead down that particularly rocky one I've found myself on these past few years.

Really, I want to become a smoker for the day just so I can maximize my cool, aloof jadedness by inhaling deeply, exhaling dramatically, keeping my eyes just half open, then busting out with the word on my chest: Fools. I'm not a smoker; I'm actually a kind woman with bubbly moments, but this marriage business turns me serious in two seconds flat. It's just that most people have no idea of the hard work that goes into a successful marriage.

So, what of this wedding? The identity of the minister is actually a surprise.  Cole is actually the goofiest of my cousins, the one with whom I've danced and laughed with for every year of his life, the funny, sweet, irresponsible brother of the groom.  The bride and groom have chosen him to marry them, and kept it a secret, in part (I think) because of those attendees I've described above (the camp in which I clearly sit) who see weddings not as a joke but a ritual-filled beginning of a serious commitment. I, too, have my doubts on this cousin of mine.  I love Cole like crazy, perhaps in part because we share a common trait: when the spotlight shines on us, we do practically anything to keep it on us.

I actually feel tense at the beginning of this ceremony, with my heart struggling to rid itself of the jaded thoughts I have. I try to fling those off so I can simply be present and be happy for this couple, but I am worried about how silly the speech will be in just a few minutes.  I cringe at the thought. I want to get it over with.

Soon enough, the time of the speech arrives.  My goofy cousin starts with the "Mawaige" line from A Princess Bride.  And the fact that Cole is talking and that it's not-so-serious does get everyone's attention.  But once he has our attention, he switches to a mode I've not previously seen from him: a mostly sober one, sprinkled with that humor that is wonderfully his and oh-so-necessary in this life.

My cousin Cole talks about how love is a choice.  The bride and groom are making a choice to love each other.  They made that choice many times in the previous years, but this is the biggest choice here at the alter, here on their wedding day.  But they (read: we) have to choose love again and again.  When the newlywed bliss wears off, choose love.  When tempers flare, choose love.  When you're not sure what your partner is thinking, choose love.  Again and again, we married couples have got to choose love.

In this moment, without needing any time to reflect, I know that this speech is wonderful. It is a surprisingly touching, goosebump-causing monologue perfect for both groups of attendees--those in the gum-snapping, blissful stage and those jaded, smoker wanna-be's like me.  Because it's also for those few in the crowd who have successfully made it past both of these stages, and are now into the longer, steadier state of love.  I can only hope that these couples who've been together twenty or thirty years have marriages full of more understanding, acceptance, and forgiveness than mine at my marriage's stage.

Wait a second! These couples are probably shaking their head at me, recognizing my own impatience for things to be better and work better and feel better! They are probably watching how I juggle through my exhaustion the responsibilities of a mom to three very young kids and, simultaneously, trying to maintain a loving and slightly fun commitment to my husband!  

This slightly wizened, very wise group has chosen love, again and again and again, and they can sit securely in their seats, knowing they made the right choice. I can only hope that by making that same choice again and again, as best I can, that I can sit in that group one day.

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Meet Ben

Ben is sitting beside me.  Note: It's 5:58 AM, a time when most five year olds are snug in their beds, dreaming of the summer time activities they'll be doing when they do later that day, when they roll lazily out of bed.

Not Ben.  He's an up-and-at-'em type of guy.  He does everything quickly and loudly--I'm grateful that my other two kids are still sleeping as he sprinted to the bathroom and clumped down the stairs to me moments ago.  His bright green-hazel eyes are still sleepy but happy to see me in this quiet house that is now ours to share.

He is now sitting next to me, wearing his pajamas, which are really only pajama bottoms.  They're old hand-me-downs from his cousin in St. Louis, but Ben loves them because they have footballs and baseballs all over them. His upper body is lanky and chiseled--I marvel at how many muscles are packed into his little body.  I guess that's what you get when you never stop moving.

Ben (in yellow shirt) and his buddy,
after their rugby game
He asked me to play a card game with him, but I explained that this is my time to write.  With a quick "awwww" that comes hard-wired in all kids to voice their disappointment, he trots over to the printer to grab a piece of paper.  He wants to write out numbers or "scores" that make perfect sense to him. I ask him what he's doing, and he does his best to explain it. The top row belongs to Seattle, the bottom row, Los Angelos.  He explains to me that Seattle won.  I'm happy about that, though I'm not even sure which sport we're talking about. I'd like to chalk it up to the fact that I only have the first of two cups of coffee ingested, but I really think it's because we're on two different wave lengths.

Ben is our oldest son. The big brother.  That's what I say when I introduce him. In truth, he's our middle child. He's smack dab between a smart and funny big sister and a sweet and adorable little brother. Ben's full time job is to stand out.

He does a good job at standing out, thanks in part to the world of sports, where his ability to do things quickly really comes in handy.  He's been really great at anything he tries out--t-ball, rugby, tennis, golf, soccer.  How he has fit in all these sports in his five years I really don't know.  It helps to have a big yard and a curious mind, a supportive dad happy to provide the gear for anything in which he expresses interest, and a mom who will help him find books on anything.  But really, it all starts with Ben.

Checking the scores of yesterday's games
As he sits here next to me, interrupting my writing about him with with his enthusiastic recount of yesterday's games.  He's chattering on about how the Dodgers are a really good team, and the Pirates' McCutchen is super fast.  The game yesterday looked "pretty good," like it would have been a "pretty fun one to watch." At least now I know he's talking about baseball.  Clearly I've moved through my two cups of coffee.

Sometimes, in this parenting journey in which I'd like to take and maintain full control, I'm simply along for the ride.  I sure am curious to see where it ends, and what happens along the way with this unique boy named Ben who sits beside me.

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Go Away, Bird

It is 5:26 AM as I sit in my dark, quiet kitchen with one light on, hot coffee still to sip beside me, a laptop in front of me to type out this essay.  Before sitting down, I slid open the door to the deck so my black dog, Lulu, could come and go as she pleased.

There is now one bird outside that door, chirping incredibly loudly.  There are a few other birds that make muffled sounds now and then, but this one is close.  And this one is loud.  It rarely stops.  It doesn't seem to need to breathe much.  It sings like my boys do--too loudly.  Clearly, the bird (just like my boys) is unaware of the subtleties between singing and yelling.

I can't figure out if I love it or hate it.

I love that I'm so close to nature, and one of her pets is so close to me, infusing my morning with cheerful chirps.  But I hate that my boys' bedrooms are next to this morning diva.  Both of them wake around 6 AM.  I'm guessing this often has something to do with the bird.

Just as an experiment, I walked out to the deck and looked for something to throw at the bird.  I'm still a nature-lover even if I try to scare off the one bird that seems determined to give me 45 minutes of writing time instead of two hours, right?  I found two large toy animals, the hard plastic sort, big enough to make a dent in some leaves, but small enough that I could launch them fairly well.

I sent the elephant charging towards this bird first.  There was a pause, and then the chirping resumed.  My feathered friend was probably laughing at me, incorporating insults into her song, a bird version of "nah nah nah nah nah…can't reach me!"


Next, the tiger.  I aimed higher this time, directly to where the bird seems to be sitting and singing.  I launched its striped body with all my might and hit a bunch of leaves, but again only earned a pause.

Double damn.  Now I'm out of animals to throw.

At least I'm now certain: I hate it more than love it.  I won't tell my kids how I used their toys to scare off this bird.  They'll come up with their own theories on how the tiger and elephant traveled from the deck rail to the floor of the woods.

I know the truth: I battled an innocent little bird that was only trying to fill my morning with song.  And I lost.

It is 5:41 AM.  The first boy is now awake.

Damn bird.

Update: it's 5:52 AM.  The second boy is now awake.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

An Accident, and Letting It Go

Last week my kids and I spent the evening at our community pool.  Leaving at 6:15 PM was late for them in a delicious, it's-summer sort of way.  Happy chatter, the smell of chlorine, and the crunch of apples filled my giant Suburban as we made our way out of the gravelly parking lot and towards home.

As I rounded the corner, I started to pass a row or parked cars in order to get down the driveway to the main road.  Suddenly, a small car started to reverse out of its parking spot in front of us. She and I were both going slowly, but I had the right of way and I also was too close to be kind and wave her back so she could exit in front of me.  I stopped and waited for her to see my monstrosity of a car.

She didn't stop.  She didn't see me.  In fact, instead of stopping, she accelerated her car and didn't hear the blare of my horn cut through the evening as a warning to stop.  To stop NOW.  As my kids and I sat there, she backed up into us.  When she hit us, our car rocked a little bit--just enough to stop my kids' conversation to ask what had happened. We were all so unhurt that it wasn't scary at all.

I got out, and a thin-legged, long-haired, sun-burned teenage girl got out of her car.

"Oh that was totally my fault!" she said.

"You bet it was!" I replied, too sarcastic for the situation, too sarcastic, I soon found out, for the delicate mood of the teenager at hand. By the time I had parked out of the way of other cars heading home, this poor girl had tears streaming down her face as she called her mom to see what she needed to do.

"I'm so sorry! I'm so sorry!" she repeated over and over to me and to her mother, whom she was calling to help her through her first fender bender.  She shakily fumbled for her registration and insurance information or whatever it was that she was trying to find.  "I'm so sorry!  I just wasn't paying attention! Oh I'm so embarrassed!"

I gave her a hug and tried to explain that, in the big scheme of things, this was nothing.  Nothing! It didn't matter at all, my car was fine, my kids were laughing about getting a new car; this was a nuisance, but not a big deal.  Caroline was hard to console.  She was just so very sorry, so very embarrassed, and so very sure that it was all her fault.  It was, but I assured her that accidents happen.  I got her information, patted her back one more time, suggested she walk around a little before she got back in the car, and then headed home myself.

Driving home, I couldn't stop thinking of Caroline and Caroline's reaction to this small bump of an accident.  As my kids started their bedtime routine, I sent her a quick email about how making mistakes is part of life.  Without making mistakes we can't learn and grow.  When we make mistakes in our house, we say, "On to new mistakes!" because not repeating the same mistake is really the goal, not avoiding making mistakes altogether.  When you really live, you make mistakes.  And life is meant to really live.

I hoped Caroline wouldn't dwell on this all summer long. I hoped she could learn to let go of the embarrassment, guilt, shame of hitting my car. In short, I hoped she could forgive herself.

I began to see for Caroline the process of letting go very clearly: On day one, she would think about it constantly, berate herself a little for being so careless, cry some more about it, apologize to her mother a few more times, send me one more email.  The next day, she'd think about it, but hopefully a little less.  Maybe shed one fewer tear.  No email to me that day. One week later, she might think about it whenever she drove her car, get a wobbly chin at the memory, but be able to deep-breathe her way to calmness.

Seeing clearly someone else's path of letting go is helpful to me.  I'm someone who has a difficult time believing that letting go is even possible. But maybe if I take the same approach I recommended (in my mind) to Caroline, I'll be closer, if only a few baby steps.  Maybe if I realize that obsessing about my own mis-step slightly less than I did last year, learning all I can about myself from the situation, thinking about it just one fewer minute than I did yesterday…that's my own path towards letting go of the past and forgiving myself.  Finally.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Lorelei's Eye Patch

Lorelei needs an eye patch.  For just two hours a day, one of her impossibly bright blue eyes will be covered up in an effort to strengthen the other one. This seemingly tiny addition to my day has provided an eruption of lessons in empathy in me, but also in my young Lorelei.

"I'll wear it to camp!  I think I'm ready!" she said yesterday as she climbed into my car with a teddy bear eye patch on her face.  Along the way, I suggested we role play a bit, so she could practice explaining why she needs to wear an eye patch.  She didn't want to.  Her normally bold voice steadily decreased until it was just a whimper, and I could sense a trembling chin in my rear view mirror.  As we approached her school on that first day of camp, she got a little weepy.  "I don't know.  I'm scared."

My maternal suggestion: "Take it off!  You don't have to wear it right now."  Avoidance is, after all, one option I like to employ in my own life...

So she did take it off before being whisked from my car in the unexpectedly short carpool line to her waiting math teacher.  The eye patch fell to the bottom of my car, happily finding a place amidst Cheerios and snack bar wrappers and library hold cards.

Some hours later, we had a good discussion about standing out, on being different: The idea of it is so fun!  Look at me, I'm different!  But then she realized that standing out and being different does come at a price: having a whole lot of attention directed at you.  Kids are curious.  They will ask questions.  You'll have their attention, all right.  Ready or not, here it comes…  Clearly Lorelei was not ready then.  But she looked down at the bottom of the car and saw her teddy bear eye patch right where she had dropped it.  She picked it up, finding it still sticky.

"I have to wear it for another hour, right, Mom?  I think I'll do it at the library."

This time, she heeded my advice and practiced what she would say when someone would ask her.  Just a few sentences, but having them ready in her back pocket gave a little more confidence to deal with her first day of going public with an attention-grabbing eye patch (did I mention sparkles decorated the space surrounding the teddy bears?).

We walked into the very familiar library, a place we go at least twice a week.  As a book lover and book blogger they know me and my kids very, very well. After being there for about fifteen minutes, she whispered to me, "No one has said anything."  I discreetly asked the head librarian to ask her about it.  Daniella pretended to wander around the library until she just happened to arrive at the spot Lorelei was in and moved books around for a minute before looking down at my daughter.

"Lorelei!  Hi there!  What happened to your eye?"

Lorelei paused. She collected herself as I held my breath. Then she said, "I'm okay.  My left eye isn't as strong as my right.  I have to wear this eye patch two hours a day on my right eye so my left eye becomes as strong as my right."  She responded just as confidently and bravely when another librarian asked about it on the way out (this one was not prompted by me, promise).

We have learned so much in the past few days about standing out, being unique, having empathy for others, having courage, learning to ask about something that's different about someone else, having the words to say before you actually need to say them.  I'm humbled by the gratitude I feel for my three kids' health--we've been so amazingly lucky--but also so grateful to have this little opportunity to teach not just Lorelei but also Ben and Kiefer the definition of empathy.

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Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Baking Cherry Pie

I'm typing on my kitchen table.  It has junk all over it.  A bowl from the dining room table, moved here because we had our beloved sitter over to throw her a little baby shower.  Felicity the doll.  A Catapult put-it-together thing that Lorelei got for her birthday, but I still can't figure out who got it for her.  And why, to be honest…  Two cars, one pink headband, two ripped out book titles I added to my Goodreads list yesterday, a magazine from my alma matar, Seattle University.  Three--no four, one is buried under some clutter--library books that should be returned soon.  My coffee mug.  That's about the only thing that should be here.

Don't go far, Coffee.  I need you.

My kitchen is similarly cluttered, having that lived-in look that doesn't really surface much in the Pottery Barn and Restoration Hardware catalogs I get in the mail.  My counters need scrubbing, not just wiping.

I'm not the best cleaner-upper.  I have three little kids, which doesn't help.  The five of us are at the end of the year, and at the end of our wits, crawling to get to the wonderful, warm light at the end of the school year tunnel: Summer!  We'll be there in just one day.  Hooray!  But before that celebration happens I have to finish planning one child's end of the year party, welcome a new sitter and get her settled in tomorrow, and a host of other things.

I also have to bake a homemade, from-scratch cherry pie today.

My to-do list includes: host my Grandpa K, who is 92 (I think), and a gem of a human.  We have a special bond that I'm really grateful for.  We just, I don't know, click.  We share the same sense of humor, we have the same ability to chat up anyone, at any time.  We're charming sorts, him and me.  And two years ago I tried to lure him down from Erie, PA, to visit by asking him what his favorite pie is.  Cherry, he said.  I've had one cherry pie--made with a teacher-friend of mine from cheap frozen cherries and it was extraordinarily, surprisingly good.  So I didn't hesitate to volunteer: "I'll make you cherry pie when you visit!" I said.

Grandma's Cherry Pie Recipe
I don't care what else I'm supposed to be doing today, but I will make this cherry pie.  My mom even sent me her mom/his wife's recipe for it, so I've got that to guide me as I cut and pit, mix and roll out.  She died when I was five; he never remarried though has a very loyal, long-time girlfriend.  (It's complicated even for Grandpa.) Therese, his late wife, was The One in a big way.  I kind of, just a little, look like her (she was a million times more beautiful and I'm sure her kitchen counters never needed scrubbing).

So that's what I'm off to do.  Think of my Grandma in heaven while I churn out a cherry pie for my Grandpa who is still charming me and everyone else on this Earth.

Really, is there anything more important than that today?

I have to go.  I have cherries to wash and cut...

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

The Last At-Bat

At the Cincinnati Reds' t-ball practice, Kiefer always gets the final hit.  As the youngest in our family, he is one big tagalong, one big follower, one big wait-over-here-while-we-do-what-we-do-er.  This arrangement where the big kids, including his big brother and big sister, field his single hit is a nod to his third-kid status, a way to thank his patience, his easy temperament, the fact that where they go, he's got to go, too.

So he walks up with his bat, barely three but already working on his swagger, grin so big his eyes are squinting.  He insists on a batting helmet just like the others wore during practice.  It fits just fine because he's got an inordinately large head that powers an inordinately stout body.  Just like his big brother, he takes the bat and does some practice swings.  He hits the bat on the ground by home plate.  He means to make a statement: I'm here!  Take me seriously!
Kiefer, in the middle, with his Nats hat and Santa shirt on,
fitting in just fine between his uniformed Reds siblings.

As he peers through the cage on the front of the helmet, he's got to feel satisfied.  Because the Cincinnati Reds t-ball team does take him seriously.  They are all in the in-field, in ready position with their hands on their knees, watching and waiting for the ball.  He's their friend's little brother, so they all know him well and are sweet to him.  They wait for his hit, seriously, and call out encouragement from their positions.

Coach places the ball on the tee.  "Don't swing yet.  Wait until I say 'okay,' okay, Kiefer?"

Kiefer replies, "Okay."

And when he hears that "Okay!  Swing, Kiefer!" he swings with all his toddler might.

THWACK!  He hits it a good five feet!  Nearly a home run!  He pauses to watch, still not able to swing and run without first admiring his hit.  But then he runs!  His feet scurry, toes slightly out and hustling as fast as those short, stout legs can.  His arms are pumping like mad, his left one characteristically pumping stronger than his right for some adorable reason.  They help propel him forward.

But not quite to first base.  Kiefer heads that way at first, but instead of continuing all the way to the base (which is actually one of Coach's extra gloves), he veers suddenly towards second base.  He's running amok on the infield now, trying to confuse those big kids as he cuts a path wherever his bright orange shoes want to take him, dodging kids and bases along the way.  The parents cheer, the kids egg him on, and Kiefer zips and zooms around the field until he plops himself down on the edge of the outfield, exhausted and happy from the hit, the run, the day.

And he smiles over at me as some of the big kids go check on him, give him high-fives, whisper that Coach brought popsicles for everyone.  He belongs.  In his own way--in his own happy way--he belongs.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Great Falls, VA: I've Been Here How Long?

Driving home from the main street of my little town in the suburbs, along the traffic-y but still somewhat bucolic Georgetown Pike, I see that the cul-de-sac across the street from the white farmhouse is having their annual yardsale.  They have the sign up that they have up every year: a standing yellow folding message board with mismatching letters advertising this multi-family event.  It dawns on me that this is the sixth time I've seen that sign with those colorful letters.

The farm across the street has unbelievably large, grassy fields used for nothing more than to impress upon passers-by that green spaces still exist.  The white farmhouse sits far back from the road; across it rests an old barn that might or might not be filled with treasures from the farm's previous life.  My eyes glance at the six, maybe seven, beautiful green acres, nicely flat with a few trees here and there.  That farm was for sale; it just sold, and the developer's sign boasts a whole new smattering of large mansions on this now-green spot.  I'm disappointed.

I've lived in Great Falls for six years.  I've lived here long enough to know well what the landscape looks like in every season, not just glorious Spring.  I know where Beach Mill and Walker Road get washed out when it rains cats and dogs--and how, after an hour after the rain stops, Beach Mill should be passable, but Walker will need more time.  I've seen little old houses and the stories that went with them reduced to rubble in a few hours.  I've watched how grand, new spaces--three, four times the size of the previous house--stand impressively and impossibly tall on that same site within months.

As the daughter of a Soldier, as a girl who happily moved from one state to the next every two to three years, as the young woman who traveled across Asia for a few years out of college, six years in one house, in one town feels like forever.

Journeys were part of my life, first by necessity, and then by choice.  I soaked in a few years each in Savannah, Schofield Barracks, Seattle.  I spent months in shocking Calcutta, weeks in the high Himalayas, and days in a smattering of exotic, amazing Indian cities.  I spent a few years in Thailand--my official role was teaching teachers, but I think I logged more hours reading books and journaling about the past, present, and future than actually teaching.

And now, I am here.  I'm still here.  I've not moved.  And, after a particularly restless two years, I'm trying to breathe deeply and settle into my life here as gracefully as I can (which means not very gracefully).  I'm beginning to realize how much there is to learn about myself when I am still.  This is not a comfortable sort of lesson-learning--I much prefer the known excitement of movement.  When still, when faced with a beautiful but not spontaneous routine with three joyful but demanding children and one loyal but complicated husband, I actually face myself in a way I never have before.

Please forgive the fact that postcards from here are less glorious.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014


After my friend Jessica visited, I sent her an email thanking her for coming, and complimenting her on her hair.  She's a deeper person than the girly girl who cares about her hair, but it just looked so cute I felt like it deserved an extra mention.  Her response to my email encapsulated all of the great things about my friend--it was, as she is, full of honesty and mirth, grace and truth.

It was the fist time I'd seen her in a while, and it was the first time I've seen her since she started chemo for the breast cancer with which she was diagnosed in December.  Since that diagnosis, she has undergone a double mastectomy and several chemo sessions.  Oh, and she and her partner also welcome their first child, a girl, into this world.

It's been a busy couple of months for her, for them.

But still, when warm, wise Jessica walked into our house, she filled it up with love and laughter, big thoughts and kind words. Here is a woman who dares to live as true to her real nature as she can, and yet she covered up the obvious sign of her most recent struggle.  In her response to my silly email, she said that she wore her wig so that my kids wouldn't freak out at her bald head.

I have three of them: ages 7, 5, and newly 3.  Only the youngest was home to meet my friends.  Jessica kindly thought it best to cover her chemo-bald head with her cute wig so as not to attract attention or induce questions that I was not ready to answer.  It was a kind gesture, one that involved the sort of grace and wisdom you'd expect from a grandmother, not a new mom.  But that's just Jessica.  She's an old soul.  She's mastered truths in her three-ish decades that take most of us decades more to learn.  Or maybe she's just more comfortable in the uncomfortable questioning involved in a thoughtful life.

The mixing of breast cancer and kids, and what you show them and what you keep from them, is on my mind now, weeks later.  I keep thinking about it.  We parents try so hard to protect our kids; I am guilty of actively trying to create a bubble of Real within our expensive zip code. I want my kids to keep swinging, gardening, and exploring while the rest of their playmates seem to gravitate toward screens.  I want to read alongside them, helping them learn lessons of human nature in the safety of my lap and their beds.

These lessons include: bad things happen to good people.  Or, in Jessica's case, really difficult things happen to really wonderful friends.

Had Jessica not worn a wig, I would have had to answer my youngest son's curious questions about her hair, or lack thereof.  He might have repeated back his morning to his big brother and big sister, and I'd have had to explain again what cancer is (my best friend's mother also battled breast cancer, so they know about it), how the treatments have bad side effects, and how yes, death is a possibility.  That would have been a hard conversation, and Jessica saved me from having it.


I also see what bright, honest, laugh-filled Jessica represents, and my kids really missed out on the bigger lesson.  Even bigger than cancer.  And that's big.  Jessica is facing head-on this horrible thing with her parter at her side, asking for help when she needs it, breathing deeply into her inevitable sad moments, and modeling that priceless, life-saving, super-difficult good attitude we parents want so badly for our children.  And for us.

So Jessica, please come back.  I want my other two kids to meet you (and Katie, too, and your little girl).  You have so much to teach them.  And all of us.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Pumping, Swinging, and Feeling Proud in the Slow Lane

My oldest son Ben just learned how to pump his legs while swinging.  Ben is often a blur of blue or red, running from here or there, playing this or that, dodging his sister or brother.  In all of these instances he sports a big grin that deepens his dimples to heart-stopping cuteness.  Now he's a blur in the air, soaring as high as he can, trying to touch the leaves on nearby trees with his toes.

It takes him a few long, slow minutes to get started.  He leans way back to use all of his five year old pounds to pull the swing back and sticks his legs out straight in front of him.  Then he lurches forward and tucks his legs under him quickly, throwing those same pounds in the opposite direction.  He uses his muscles to pull the strings of the swing back, and then pushes them forward in the hopes of quickening the flight upwards.  Ben does this again and again, and earns another inch or two back, another inch or two forwards with each pump.  Pretty soon he's gained momentum, and the bangs that need a trim (but about which I don't really care) flutter up as he flies forward.

In another minute, he's reached maximum height.  He likes to swing with his back to the yard because then his sneakered toes are pointed to the woods, and specifically towards the big elm with branches just low enough that he can touch them when he gets high enough, branches just high enough to make touching them a significant feat.  He grins and shouts out, "Look!  I did it, Mom!  I touched the leaves!" He is so proud of himself.

I watch Ben from our deck.  He's over by our playlet (itself a multi-tasking version of the swing set from my youth) and is having a grand old time by himself.  I know he'd be happy to have company.  Sometimes Charlie, the equally sporty eight year old neighbor wanders over to our yard.  Ben is enamored with Charlie and, despite the three year age difference, Charlie is kind to Ben and their friendship is a sweet thing to witness.  While they usually become blurs together in one sport or another, recently they've started to swing together--Ben on the swing, and Charlie standing on the tire swing or on the wooden horse, his big knobby knees sticking over awkwardly.  But neither boy notices; they are each too busy grinning at each other, enjoying the breeze on their bangs, and trying to touch the trees.

Anyway, I'm over here because it's closer to our house, closer to my kitchen, closer to my to-do list.  With each minute, I'm trying to earn my inevitable, cliche glass of wine at the end of the day, which I clutch happily (alright, that happiness is certainly suspect) as I lean back and sigh, feeling proud of myself for all that I've accomplished during my day.

Like any mom, and like any good American, I feel proud when I'm able to squeeze so much from the 24 hours I'm given.  It's a good day when I brag to my Facebook friends that I drafted an essay, finished packing my kids' wholesome lunches, planned part of the next birthday party, and cleaned up the kitchen--all before the rest of my family wakes up.  I feel proud when I manage my time down to the last second, getting from my Crossfit workout to the post office, from a meeting to carpool without being late for anything.  The fact that I'm using Siri to safely (alright, that safety is certainly suspect) dictate and send emails and texts between these places only makes me that much prouder.

Watching Ben's proud, happy grin over there on the far side of the yard gives me pause.  He feels proud and happy with so little; why does it take me so much to make me proud of myself?  Why on earth do I need a laundry list of items--that always does include laundry, of course--to make me feel like I've earned the right to pause and treat myself, maybe ask for a turn on that swing myself?

These questions made me change how I spent the rest of my day.  After Ben went to school and I ran a few errands while my younger son Kiefer was with my sitter, I sat with my little guy on our front porch and read bright, funny picture books on a bright, sunny day.  We giggled at Mr. Magee's attempt to go camping--the bear gets his bag of marshmallows, but Kiefer and I tried to grab them from the illustration, each of us trying to get more than the other.  We read the book three times, and I didn't try to convince him that another book might be a better choice.  After lunch, he spotted a new bar of soap on the counter and asked if he could take a bath--right smack dab in the middle of the day--to try it out.  Why not?  Five minutes later his chubby naked body was slightly less dirty, and his the giggles continued as the bar of soap kept slipping out of his hands, hiding beneath the surface of the water from him.

Now, hours later after these two incidences, with that cliche glass of wine near my laptop, I feel proud of myself.  Proud of pausing.  Proud of resisting.  Proud of pumping my lungs full of giggles and grins, proud of stopping to watch my son swinging lazily on a warm Spring day, proud of the other little moments that stand out amidst the regular dose of regular moments.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Wanted: A Strong Home

"What's it made out of?" Lorelei and Ben wanted to know.

They were talking about the new house we're moving into in a few weeks.  We finally broke the news to them, our two oldest children, that we are moving.  (Our youngest, almost 3, has been there a few times but didn't realize what was going on.)  We're not going very far--just 10 miles or so down the road, closer to their school and my husband's office.  

But their question is a good one, so when we got to the house--which we don't own yet, so we just drove up to the front like friendly stalkers on a sunny day--I pointed out that the house is made of brick.  It's a strong material, one that is resistant to damage dealt by almost anything Mother Nature might throw at us, I explained.  I said to them, "This is a strong, sturdy house.  We can weather anything in this house."

In deciding where to move, Jonathan and I weighed each item on our long wish list carefully, and we found a house that felt good in our hearts and made sense to our heads.  Its location would decrease commute time to his work and their school.  Its layout would let him work from home more frequently.  I could have my own bright office to write in.  (!!!)  Lorelei would not have to share a bathroom with her brothers.  The house felt like it could be Home, both inside and out.

We had not really considered what the house was made out of, so I was a little surprised by my kids' question.  Their curiosity would make a whole lot more sense if we lived in the middle of America, in tornado alley, where a basement is a good idea for safety reasons.  Or if we lived in the South or the Caribbean where hurricanes rip through and rip off roofs.

Nope.  We just live in Northern Virginia.  

But, to be honest, the intangible item on our wish list was: a place to start over.  The past few years have been difficult ones in our marriage.  I mean, tougher than tough, darker than dark, harder than hard.  Maybe it seems like I'm exaggerating, and as I look back at that sentence I realize that some couples go through tragedies much worse than the inevitable struggles of marriage and the added difficulties we created for ourselves.  But this is what I know, and I'm glad that time is behind us, and we did, in fact, weather it all, together--maybe not with flying colors, butwe did it, and we stayed together.  We've spent hours and hours talking about and working through issues that threaten to pull us down and break up our home.  

It's tougher than I ever expected, this marriage stuff.

So I look at our new house and I wonder, too, "Will we be safe here?  Will we be stronger here?" I realize my own question is very similar to my kids' question.  

My fingers are crossed--and my toes, too--that the answer is a resounding yes.

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Right and Wrong

I drove Guidry, our 11 year old weimaraner, back to the weimaraner rescue organization from which we got him 10 years ago.  It was fitting, though heartbreaking, that I was the one to take him.  It was a long drive, over an hour, to the rescue lady's house.

My husband and I rescued Guidry before we were even engaged, though I'm pretty sure Jonathan was carefully selecting the ring I now wear at the time.  We wanted an energetic dog, one that would run with me, and we liked the idea of taking in a dog that somebody else had rejected.  Murphy was a dog whose family had three small children and a live-in, very ill aunt--they had too much going on to take care of his neurotic, spastic moods.  We changed his name and thought that we could change his behavior just as quickly.

We were wrong.

Within a few months of adopting him, he had bitten our neighbor's nanny and nipped a child at a dog park.  Both were eye-opening incidents, and rather than correct Guidry's behavior with serious training we enabled it by shutting him up anytime anyone came over.  When walking him, I'd cross to the other side of the street if someone was coming on the side Guidry and I were walking on.  When we had company over, he went into the garage (crating him made him foam at the mouth--I tried it once with disastrous results).  My sister, having been attacked by a dog she knew well, politely refused to let her growing brood near him.  Having a dog with aggressive tendencies was tough.

One wedding and three kids later, Guidry was still as nervous and neurotic as the day we got him.  We got another weimaraner a year after rescuing him in an effort to provide a calm companion.  It didn't work.  We moved from a house in the suburbs with a dining room table sized yard to a house in the ex-burbs with five acres in an effort to provide space to run.  It didn't work.

Noble, crazy Guidry.
Guidry paced the floor every morning for an hour, trotting back and forth, preparing himself to be shut in the garage for the morning when our sitter watched our youngest son.  His scared, little brain never realized that it was only twice a week when we did this; he paced and worried and fed his anxious mind every day…just in case.  My mornings were already full with kids and school prep: one child in school, one child in preschool, and one child waking up too early seemingly for the sole reason to add more--of everything: motion, noise, love, laughter, demands, cries--to the mix.  And I still have my husband, whose good mood impossibly requires utter peace and happiness from all those around him.  I said, "Guidry!  Go lie down!" a whole lot.  Like, every minute on the minute, if not more.

And then he bit my neighbor's son.  And then her other son.  And then, a friend.  I realized, sadly but surely, that it was probably just a matter of time until he bit one of my kids.  I made the call to the rescue organization, hoping they'd take him despite his behavior issues.  I'm grateful they did.

So I drove him back.  I stroked his long, silky ears and patted his strong back.  When they weren't tightly shut and sleeping, he looked at me with sad, droopy eyes.  Crazy Guidry.  Poor guy.  I weighed this decision the whole way to the rescue lady's house.  Yes, I rationalize it.  It's not completely wrong--it makes sense for my family, to protect them from a likely bite, and to decrease the stress and strain among us.  But it's not completely right--I'm giving up on him, un-committing to him, un-becoming his Person.  I have to live with the discomfort of doing something mostly right, but a little wrong.

My front seat empty, I cried the whole way home.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Tick. Tock. Get a Move On, Says My Clock.

The clock behind me in our dark kitchen is ticking and tocking loudly in the unusual quiet of this early morning.  It's a finger-wagging tick tock: that Clock knows how long I've been sitting here with my coffee cup full, laptop open, screen blank.  Tick!  Tock!  Tick!  Tock!  Get a move on, it seems to be saying.

I get my move on a whole lot, Clock, I fire back defensively in between its rude ticks and tocks.  Overlooking the kitchen and the playroom, it has a a perfect vantage point to bear witness to all my moves, all day long.  I'm in that kitchen many hours each day, recommitting myself to healthy meals for my three kids, my husband, myself.  Every day I want to take a shortcut and call the pizza place a mile down the road or reach for processed, boxed items from the pantry rather than take the time to assemble and create fresh meals from the refrigerator.  Most days, the non-pizza, non-boxed, time-intensive fresh stuff of my own making wins.

That time-keeper, minute-counting Clock knows how much time, how many minutes I spend cleaning up our kitchen.  As my friend says, you can start on one side of the counter, and by the time you're finished and at the other side of the kitchen, the spot you started is cluttered again.  To be honest, I'm not the cleanest person, so serious effort is seriously required.  It is a Sisyphean task of Herculean proportion.

And if Clock looks out its other eye, towards the playroom, it knows I get my move on over there.  I'm one of those get-down-on-the-floor-with-the-kids mom.  I build train sets and help with puzzles.  I craft my own Lego creation and help figure out why the Lincoln logs are falling over.  I sing "Let it Go" with my daughter and applaud after my son sings and strums "The Bear Necessities." The proximity of playroom to kitchen is often not conducive to having me help--the siren call of a messy kitchen often wins over assisting another child in another way.  But overall, it works.

Overall, I work.  Imperfectly, of course, but there really is no other way.

The ticks and the tocks never stop.  They never, ever stop.  That clock always reminds me to hurry up and pay attention to these kids, this time with them.  To do them well in these early years with my own time and my own energy.  Hurry up and slow down, Kate.  Spend more time in these two rooms, nourishing and playing.  (And not just them, but you, too.)

Tick!  Tock!  Tick!  Tock!  Tick!  Tock!

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Yoga and Commitment

Jafar looks like he should rock out blissfully while playing drums for a Rastafarian band.  He looks like he's from Jamaica, with dark skin and tattooed arms, black dreadlocks, and a cool, cool vibe.  Instead of drumming on a steel drum, he teaches yoga.  He breathes deeply and listens intently, speaks slowly and pushes us gently. 

Jafar is a popular teacher.  Our mats are lined up with just an inch or two of space in between; the floor is a quilt of rubber color rectangles.  Three times already Jafar has quietly showed us how to make even more room for more people who are still showing up.  The room is crowded, and pretty noisy for the minutes before a yoga class.  I'm trying to take a few minutes to find my intention for the class, but the chatter of friends greeting each other and catching up definitely challenges me, tempts me to become distracted before class even begins.

But Jafar gets all of our attention and, with a few words and within a few seconds, the room is silent except for him.

"Let's get started right away.  Lay back on your mat and breathe in and out through your nose.  Deep breaths, big breaths.  Take it in, let it out.  Start to be present.  Start to figure out where your body and mind are at this morning."

I lay back on my mat.  I do my best to turn off my competitive, driven, work out ego and turn on my yoga mindset.  That work out part of me gets so much fuel; it is my normal mode.  I am so good at determinedly trying to do more, be more, do better, be better.  To set goals and work hard to achieve them.  I tried to dial back that part of me while breathing in the cool, calm vibe that Jafar was giving all of us in the studio. I try to settle into the mode I'm trying to develop: the I'm-enough, accepting of myself belief.  It does not come naturally to this American girl.

"Today I want you to focus on committing to this practice even though you don't know what it involves.  Commit to being present even though you know your mind will wander and you'll struggle with some parts of this.  Commit to yourself, to this time, even when the outcome is uncertain."

Commit, even though the outcome is uncertain. 

Despite the fact that a crowd of spandex-sporting mamas on yoga mats surround me, I'm confident Jafar is speaking to me.  He's handing me the definition of commitment.  He knows I need it.  And, without processing why I need it, without beating myself up for not intrinsically knowing it, I try to be my best yoga self and just accept his definition without judgment (of myself).  And forgive myself for not having learned it and lived it before.

And then, I commit.  To my yoga practice.  To this class.  To this day.  To myself.  To lots of stuff.  Even though I can't see the outcome and even though I know that parts will be difficult and other parts will be sad and still other parts will be wonderful, I commit.

Tuesday, April 1, 2014


When we fight I clean
It just makes sense to me
Miscommunication, misunderstand, missteps
I cannot control
But tidy countertops, neat stacks, open surfaces
I can

When we fight I clean
It just makes sense to me
Past issues bubbling through new happenings
I cannot control
But made beds, washed clothes, organized drawers
I can

When we fight I clean
It just makes sense to me
Hurt feelings. Valid feelings. Tough feelings
I cannot control
But swept floors, tucked in chairs, lined cans
I can

When we fight I clean
It just makes sense to me
Turbulent arguments, disappointments all around
I cannot control
But the appearance of my self, my home, my life
I can

Monday, March 31, 2014

"I'm Going to the Peace Corps, Dad"

I have written a lot this month about my childhood, stories from my years in West Point, New York; Savannah, Georgia; Schofield Barracks, Hawaii; and Leavenworth, Kansas.  Today, on the last day of the month, I look back to see how far I've traveled.  I am surprised at how much I remember, how many details I can still feel if I stop, close my eyes on today, and open them to two decades ago when I was a happy-go-lucky, child-of-married-parents kid.

My childhood definitely came to a screeching halt the day--the moment--when my mother took me to lunch to tell me that she and my dad were divorcing.  But I wasn't ready for adulthood.  I was 17.  Even though that day, Martin Luther King's Day in 1994, was on the homestretch of my senior year in high school, I wasn't ready to grow up.  I fled high school, my parents, and all that I knew to spend four years at Seattle University, a small, supportive school where I found my niche in student government and academics.  Still, I was uneasy about my relationship with my parents, both of whom remarried just two years after the divorce, after my sophomore year.  (When people asked me what I was doing that summer, I joked: "Become an alcoholic."  It was a tasteless joke, but I knew how tempting it was to numb the anger and hurt and jealousy with something easy and cheap like alcohol.)

After college I spent 6 months volunteering in Calcutta, India, and traveling around India.  The flight alone was significant: a long, international trip from my home, a smugly developed country, to one of the poorest areas of a still-developing country. It was the beginning of the separation between my kid self and my adult self, and it was where I began to emotionally heal from my parents' divorce.  Being around people with so little made me realize how much I had.  My richness, not just financially, smacked me in the face.

After I got home from India and thoroughly showered off the grime of Calcutta and diseases to which I had been exposed, being careful to keep in me the joys and sorrows experienced, I had a number of odd jobs as I applied to the Peace Corps.  It was around this time that I began to think of myself as a real adult.  Of course, irony is involved...I was living off and on with my mother and her husband at the time!  But repairing that important relationship was of great solace to me and helped me ground myself before launching off once again.

I went to lunch with my dad (clearly, my family discusses important things while eating lunch) while out in Washington State, teaching campers how to ride horses at an electricity-free camp in Stenwood.  He sat across from me.  My dad, my hero, my big supporter and cheerleader.  My dad, an Army general, self-proclaimed president of the ogre club (consisting of guys with daughters who wanted to keep them safe from Everything).

"I'm going to the Peace Corps, Dad," I said.  He stopped chewing.  When I said I wanted to go to Africa, he had to put his fork down.*

It was at this very moment that I started walking across the bridge to my own adulthood.  It was at this moment that I stopped asking him (and everyone else) what he thought about every little move I was going to make.  It was at this moment that I took into my own hands life's big decisions, including the ubiquitous "what's next?" question when you're a career-less young adult.

On the last day of the month, the last day of our challenge, I'm so grateful for this March and the lessons I learned walking through my own childhood.  But I know that there is still plenty of steps to take if I take the time to go back and walk over that bridge to adulthood again, appreciating again the challenges and joys, the times I tripped and the times I soared.

*  He recovered quickly.  He was able to finish his lunch.  I've been lucky to have such great parents, even though they are divorced.  My dad was worried about me going to Africa (I actually ended up going to much-safer Thailand, which was not yet full of protests like it is today, where he went for work and I served as his translator...how cool is that?!)  He has always signed his letters to me, wherever I am, "I'm proud of you, Kate.  Of the person you are, and the person you are becoming."

Sunday, March 30, 2014

SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Meet & Greet...and Mount Rushmore

Yesterday I got to put on my children's book author cap and attend the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Meet and Greet.  It was just a few miles from my house and just a few hours in the afternoon, and I was grateful that my husband could hang out with our three children for the afternoon so I could attend.

At the meet and greet, there were two things on the agenda: First, a roundtable discussion with six panelists about "The Creative Life."  We attendees heard different authors' tell their journey of getting published, how they make time for writing, and what nuggets of wisdom they had for us.  Next up was a talk about how to be an editor or agent's dream by marketing yourself really well.  Tina Nichols Coury spoke about this by telling us, via flashy power point, her story about publishing Hanging on Jefferson's Nose: Growing Up On Mount Rushmore.

I scribbled down some of what she had to say in my little notebook, but it was her book that captured my attention.  First of all, it took her 17 years to write it and get it published.  That's a long time.  I mean, a really long time!  Second, her research brought her to Mount Rushmore many times, where she had access to the transcripts of a long interview that provided fodder for her children's book. Third, the book, about the son of the artist who created Mount Rushmore and eventually took over when his father died, sounded really good.

But that's not why I wanted the book.  I wanted--I NEEDED the book--for my mom.  After her last flashy slide blew up in electronic flames and we were finished applauding, I jumped up to get in line to buy a copy of her book and have her sign it.

When it was my turn, I asked her to please write, "Dear Kathi, Here's the real story!"

Tina Nichols Coury looked at me, looking for the story, the not real story.

I told her an abridged version of this:

When my mother was 8 or 9, she, an only child at that point, and her parents drove from Erie, Pennsylvania, to South Dakota to see Mount Rushmore as part of a family trip.  My mother probably prayed the whole way.  She was good and devout and holy and...well, a believer in a sweet and innocent and childlike way.  Her parents, especially her mom, was a strict Catholic and my mother had every reason to follow in her steps.  My mom wanted to be a nun from a very early age, perhaps this early an age.  She believed, as many still do, that God had a hand in everything.  And I mean everything.

My grandparents and the little girl version of my mom drove to South Dakota and finally stood at the foot of Mount Rushmore. My mom remembers staring up at these huge faces looking down at her.  Washington.  Jefferson.  Lincoln.  Teddy Roosevelt.  They were big, imposing, awesome.

And my sweet mom remembers thinking, "How on earth could someone not vote for them when God carved their faces out of stone?"

Now, I do NOT want you to think that my mother is the opposite of smart!  That is not true!  She was in the same thing that I was in at 8 or 9: an innocent bubble of childhood.  Logic and facts entered that bubble at an appropriate rate, but the facts of Mount Rushmore clearly hadn't quite fought their way through her very Catholic bubble just yet.  And I certainly was in my own bubble (read this if you want an example); my mom and I share many traits, among them being a little gullible and naive.

Of course, she didn't believe that for long, and she realized that sculptors and their workmen actually had a teensy-tiny role to play in the whole side-of-the-mountain carving thing.

But I bought the book.  So she could read the real story to her grandchildren, but tell them her own story as an aside.

Saturday, March 29, 2014

My Sister

I followed her in every way.  She wanted to do Girl Scouts, I wanted to do Girl Scouts.  She wanted a rabbit, I got a rabbit, too.  She started horseback riding, I hopped up there on my own horse and trotted along right behind her.  She was my big sister; this was how it always has been and, I wonder, how it always will be.

I'm tougher than most.  But not tougher than my sister.  Once when we were hiking in Colorado as a family, she went off in a huff to be by herself (this happened a lot--then and now), to whittle a stick she'd found along the way.  Now at the halfway point of our hike, she wanted to be alone to work on transforming the stick into something unique.  One cut into the wood was too strong, and my sister cut into her hand instead, from top of her wrist to the tip of her thumb.

She stood up, turned around, and walked to where the rest of us were standing.  "I cut myself," she said calmly.  Blood dripped down her arm.  We packed it with snow and wrapped it, and my father put my 10 year old sister on his back and hiked back to the car at his insane Ranger pace.  Once there they found a little clinic that took the wrapping off if it--the wrapping which had stuck to the wound.  She got 5 stitches under her skin and 23 stitches outside.  She never cried.  She watched the doctor stitch her hand.

I'm a good friend to many.  But my sister is more loyal to a few than I'll ever be.  Once when in sixth grade (me) and eighth grade (her) she and her best friend in the whole wide world got into a huge fight.  Who knows what it was about--then and now--but both my sister and Jenni were furious at each other.  Having borrowed each other's wardrobes for over a year, Jenni stormed into our house while we weren't there (this wasn't unusual--we lived on an Army post where locks on doors are for decoration) and took back all her things.  My sister was furious.  She stood over her ransacked room and declared, "I will never talk to her again."

But I liked Jenni just fine.  And so, a few days later, Jenni and I chatted about who knows what while my sister looked on at us.  Later, my sister angrily spat out a few choice words towards me. Loyalty was the common theme.  "If I hate somebody, and you love me, then you need to hate them, too!" I was caught between wanting to be my usual, happy-go-lucky self and my sister.  I did my best to choose blood over water most of the time, but I forgave too easily for her liking and couldn't measure up to her level of loyalty.  Not ever.

This month I wrote, for a few reasons, mostly memory slices.  Some involved my sister.  Writing the essays in which my sister showed up made me realize I have a hefty amount of memories in which she's mean to me, but not many in which she's kind and supportive.  The tough love she admonished on me while the two of us were growing up still stings, and I sure wish I had stuck up for myself a whole lot more.  What does that mean?  Why does my memory only remember the bad stuff?   How can I learn from our first few decades together?  Why do I still need her approval for choices and people and things?

We're sisters.  And sisterhood is tough.  Our sisterhood has been more challenging than many of my great friendships, much more difficult and complicated and...important.  I am still dumping out the contents of our relationship and figuring out how to separate the important from the trivial, the stuff that's unique to her.  The good news is that we do love each other, and since we are sisters, we're committed to each other with a bond that isn't easily broken.  So I will, as I do, take my time in unraveling and examining our relationship...

Friday, March 28, 2014

Spring Break

Lorelei has two weeks of Spring Break.  When she came home from school last Friday afternoon, during the first few hours of her Spring Break, she reported of her first grade class: "I'm the only one in my class not leaving the state."  It was mostly just a stated fact, not a whining complaint.

I'm not close with most of the families in her class.  I've got one foot in two schools: her private school, and Ben's preschool.  And then I've got Kiefer, home with me.  So actually three feets, as Kiefer would say, in three very different places. And we did leave the state, but not to some really cool location, very far, super warm location.

Jamaica.  Disney cruise around the Caribbean.  The Bahamas.  Canada.  Those are the destinations I know about within her class.  Those warm destinations seem really nice after a cold winter.

But we didn't go anywhere.  Here's a list of places we went, things she did during her two weeks of Spring Break:

  • We spent three days at my sister's townhouse in West Virginia as a family.
  • We skiied in West Virginia for a big chunk of each day.
  • She turned an Elephant and Piggie book into a play with Ben.
  • We visited my mother who lives an hour away.
  • We went to my mother's gorgeous library, and then to the bookstore where she got to choose one thing.
  • She went to an indoor playground with Kiefer and my sitter.
  • She spent two days in pajamas, not going anywhere.
  • She helped fix our gravel road.
  • She read about 15 chapter books and dozens of picture books.
  • We went to our library 4-5 times.
  • She went to "lego club" at our library with her brothers.
  • She built forts with Kiefer and Ben in our house.
  • She found old shapes that went to a tangram puzzle and led her brothers in some tangram activities.
  • She slept in almost every day.

What's Spring Break about?  A relaxation of schedules, more time to do more stuff with her family, and a whole lot of playing--by herself, with her brothers, and as a family.  I am bracing myself, though, for a comparison of breaks next week when she goes back...

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Shoveling Snow

Having moved from the land of perpetual summer, Hawaii, snow was simultaneously a perk and a drawback.  Now that my family and I were back to the land of four seasons in Kansas, we had the chance to sled, ski, and get into snowball fights with the neighborhood kids.  But snow also meant snow-related chores: including shoveling.

Leavenworth had unique housing for us Army families.  Usually we lived in a single-family home; on this post we lived in roomy apartments, four units to a building.  Since my family was constantly teased about the lack of care given to our green space in Hawaii--no yard-of-the-month award for us--we didn't miss the lack of a yard to call our own.  There was enough green space on the post for us to spread out on, should we want it.  But there was still snow to shovel when Mother Nature dumped that white stuff on us.  Our apartment was upstairs, so part of what we shoveled were old, iron stairs.  They were tricky to clear off with a big ole shovel like you use when shoveling snow.

But that didn't stop my parents from handing that shovel to me and telling me to just get it done.  So I did just that: grabbed the shovel and just...sigh, got it done.  No use complaining.  Out loud, anyway.

One winter day, when I was heading out to shovel the tiny back porch and the stairs, my mother and our family friend Bill were chatting in the kitchen.  I kept to myself the unfairness of life--the fact that they got to stay warm and cozy while I had to go out and freeze while keeping the stairs clean and safe.  I kept my grumbling to myself, but there were grumblings a-plenty in my head.

Just as I opened the door, Bill asked me, "Want something that will warm you up?"

There was no doubt about my answer: of course I did!  He pulled out a long box full of fancy chocolates.  I had no idea why these chocolates would warm me up, but they were a) chocolates, b) in front of my face and c) being offered to me.  I wasted little time.  I selected one covered in gold tin foil, thanked him, and took off my gloves to unwrap and eat it.

As I unwrapped it, I noticed that the chocolate was shaped like a bottle.  I didn't think much of it.  Bill suggested that I pop the whole thing in my mouth.  He was smiling.  My mom was smiling.  I didn't know what they were smiling about.  Maybe about the fact that I was going to go freeze while they had another cup of coffee...?  So I popped in in my mouth.  The chocolate soon started to melt as my tongue held it in place, and I rolled it around my mouth, covering it with milky chocolate.  It was good, and I thought about asking for another.  Impatient me then moved the chocolate over to the left side of my mouth and crunched down on it.

It was then that I got it.  I understood why they were smiling so big.  I understood why the chocolate was bottle-shaped.  I understood why this was going to warm me up.  There was alcohol inside this piece of chocolate!  This was my first experience with alcohol, and I wasn't prepared for it at all.  My eyes widened as my body tried to figure out these new tastes--strong, bitter, unfamiliar, and...warming.  As I chewed and swallowed, the warmth slid down my throat and, as if magically, warmed my body as it went down.  My chest was warmer, my core was warmer, my legs down to my toes were warmer.

I did not ask for another, but shoveling snow was a whole lot more pleasant after one of those cordial-in-chocolate pieces!