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.