Thursday, March 31, 2016


Wednesdays are not my easiest days.

My oldest child and only daughter, Lorelei, has a horseback riding lesson at 4:45. She and her first brother Ben jump off the bus and into my car at 4 PM for the short drive to the barn. Lorelei must  pull on her breeches, eat something, brush and tack up her pony in those short 45 minutes. I help a lot--she's not yet 9 and her (shorter) height alone means she can't do a few things by herself yet.

But I also have to supervise Ben and his preschool brother Kiefer, who are always eager to see each other after their separate school days. Yet this eagerness does not always translate into nice, quiet, cooperative play. Please, they're boys. Always competitive, sometimes grouchy, often tired boys.

But the time constraints mean that we all need to pitch in. Sometimes that simply means I trust my boys to play alone in the front yard of the barn, where their yells and balls won't spook any animal. Sometimes that means Kiefer is scanning the bridles and doing his best to read the names of the ponies to find the name of Lorelei's pony for the day. Sometimes that means Ben is grabbing the saddle or starting to brush the pony. It's a team effort, and our team of four always delivers our rider on time.

Of the barn families, I'm the only one who drags her younger children to the barn for the older child's lesson. Most have nannies or sitters to take care of the non-riders in the family. There is significant ease in this approach, and some beauty, too--time spent with just one child is wonderful and worthwhile for everyone involved. On Lorelei's weekend ride it is usually just the two of us, and I relish this mother-daughter time around my favorite animal, watching her do one of my very favorite things.

But on the weekdays, I want my boys to come. I want them to practice putting someone else--and, how wonderful that that someone else is a girl, their sister--at this very young age. I want them to realize that it's not always about them, about their ball sports and traditional practices. I want them to practice (with minimal complaining!) supporting someone else in their passion, even if it is not a passion of theirs. I want to start molding them to be good partners now.

All of this makes my Wednesday afternoon one of my most challenging times of the week. But it's often my most rewarding, because when I see images like this, I know I'm doing the right thing for all three of them.

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Dog Tales

Over Spring Break, my kids and I met a whole pack of dogs.

At my aunt's house, there was a pack of dogs with personalities much larger than the actual pup. Oliver, a long-haired chihuahua and Sassy, a chihuahua-papillon mix, led the pack. Oliver was the least friendly and least petted. We would have forgotten about him lest for his high-pitched bark that wouldn't let us.

Let's be clear, though: it was Sassy who was in charge. Sassy who was too nasty to even meet the kids last year, but who has mellowed enough to allow the cautious kids a few pats on her regal, princessy head. They'd never met a small dog before, but even I was warming to Sassy before the end of our stay.

My aunt also has an old shetland sheepdog named Crockett. Crockett is the "fun police" of the house who barks madly at anyone who is laughing too loud, running too fast, and doing anything with a ball without him. He wants the fun to stop--or he needs to be invited to play.

Then it was on to my sister's house where a new Golden Retriever puppy in the house. This furry, big-pawed boy made us all swoon. Lucky for my sister, she managed to find a pretty calm pup who seems to already enjoy naps in the afternoon sun. Her puppy roams free much of the time when they're playing outside, which is a whole heck of a lot. His leash trails after him as he romps after this kid or that or just hangs out with the chaperoning adult. He is a-freaking-dorable and puppy fever set in fast for all four of us.

At the beach and on the car ride home, my kids and I talked about what puppy we'd like to get next. While they chattered endlessly about the pros and cons of big and little dogs and Lorelei rattled knowingly as she referenced her Gail Gibbons Dog book, I ignored them. I know who'll be taking care of the dog, and I know it'll be me making that decision. I'll admit to some daydreams about my next dog--but mostly I know it'll be middle to big and really well-behaved.

But for now, we've got Lulu.

Lulu is currently breathing on my feet, curled up just beside me. She moves slowly now in the morning. When I would get up to write at 5 AM a few years ago, she'd jump down and need food and to go out. Now she waits for the kids to get up an hour later before plopping down to the floor from her spot on the expensive sofa that is her bed. She's a blue weimaraner and she's a 13, which is pretty darn old for her size. But she was a stray before we rescued her, so we're just guessing on breed and age.

She's a good girl, that's all we're sure about and all we really need to know. I'm not sure how much longer our Lulu will be with us, but...I'm enjoying every day with her now.

Tuesday, March 29, 2016

Wabi-Sabi: Imperfect Parenting

When my children were still in diapers, I came across a Japanese term called wabi-sabi. I remember reading that it loosely translated into finding the beauty in imperfections. I don't recall where I found the article or when I had time to read it, but I remember feeling relieved that there was such a concept about realizing that things could be too perfect; a little messy was more realistic, and a lot more beautiful.

I was happy to apply that to my housekeeping, but more reluctant to apply it to my parenting--at first.

I wanted to be That Parent whose kids were everything: beautiful, polite, outgoing, adventurous, curious, athletic, happy. I happily gathered up compliments about them and formed beautiful bouquets in my own room, basking in my own handiwork. 

Two things happened that, thank God, made me change: First, my daughter started to mature and need perfection to satisfy her; second, I had a second son and the two boys wrecked my image of perfection.

The idea of wabi-sabi helped me with my daughter. There are many things that I repeat to my trio; one of them is "Nothing is perfect in nature or in life!" I want to remind my daughter especially that there is no tree that's perfectly formed, no woods that form a perfect circle, no flower that always stands still and perfect in a breeze. I want her to be freed by this knowledge, to relax in life's imperfections--in her art and in her life. 

The idea of wabi-sabi helps still with me. Yesterday my daughter was sick and had to stay home from school, despite the fact that I yearned with my whole heart to have my three wonderful kids happily occupied by their teachers and schools after two straight weeks of being with them during their super-long Spring Break. But Lorelei stayed home, and it was nice and good to spend time with just my daughter. We read together, chatted together, drew cards for her cousin together.

I confessed to her that I noticed I was yelling more and more, especially after visiting my aunt and my sister, who both yell at their kids and husband without any thought. I don't like the habit but it comes easily to me, so... I yell. I told her I wanted to do another no-yelling challenge--she gave me a thumb's up. 

Fast forward to when her brothers came home from school. We have a short driveway, and one wanted to bike and the other wanted to play basketball. Of course the area under the basket was the best biking space. Of course that was frustrating to the ball player. Guess what I did after they were home for 20 minutes? I yelled at them. Sigh.

During dinner we read some picture books, an old habit that remains with us, that calms my kids and gets them to peek inside each other's interests as each child chooses a book. We read a nonfiction picture book about a girl who pitched in the minor leagues for one game and one game only--because she struck out Babe Ruth and Lou Gehrig and they couldn't handle being struck out by a girl, basically. It was a great book, but an even better conversation.

And then, after dinner, we played a raucous-in-all-the-right-ways game of Uno. We played hard, ribbing each other like crazy, giving each other "the business" with draw-twos and skips and draw-fours. We laughed hard at multiple Skips being played and about how many cards some of us had at the same time. I won both games, so I handed out chocolate to ease their loss. 

I might yell a little, but I am still a good mother. Maybe that's where our strengths lie as parents--in the bits of the job we don't do as well as we "should." I read and talk and admit my own shortcomings to my kids. I'm a good mother, even if I don't go easy on my kids while playing Uno.

There's a nice ,short article about wabi-sabi on the Utne Reader HERE.

Monday, March 28, 2016

On Staying Out of the Way

Near the end of The New Puberty, the authors highlight what another author has to say about parenting teenagers. Jennifer Senior, in her book All Joy and No Fun: The Paradox of Modern Parenthood, says:
Is it possible that adolescence is most difficult--and sometimes a crisis--not for teenagers as much as for the adults who raise them? That adolescence has a bigger impact on adults than it does on kids?
I think it's a good question, even for me, whose kids are really nowhere near their teenage years. But after two weeks straight on their Spring Break with my kids, and especially my two boys (ages 71/2 and nearly 5), I'm wondering if their constant competition is bad, annoying for me, or just plain normal?

I remember a few years ago when I went to the dentist while my trio was in school, and I had something done that I hadn't expected to need, and that something needed novocaine that wore off at the approximate moment that all three kids got home from school. The pain came out of my mouth in shocking waves. I've got a high pain tolerance, but this blew through it. My mouth hurt, and my husband wasn't going to be home for hours.

It was just me and the kids.

Luckily for me (and them, too), we have a nice yard and it was a nice day. The three of them played for at least 90 minutes while I sat watching them, silent. My mouth too much to think about much else besides the pain, and I realized how little they needed to hear my "Get down from theres" or "Give him a turn now" or "Please use kind words" or other phrases that we parents like to say.

Thinking back to that distant memory and linking it to the fresher one of my boys fighting and trying to be first at every single thing known to mankind (who woke up first? who can make their Easter candy last the longest? who can pee the longest? I'm making this last one up. I hope), I'm wondering if I should just sit back a bit and watch, let them work it out just a little more than I usually do.

I think biting my tongue is worth a try--and it's a lot less painful than a few shots of novocaine.

Sunday, March 27, 2016


Can someone help rid me of my expectations? They sure do get in the way.

I realize that when I have no expectations or terrifically low expectations, I am surprised and happy with the outcomes. I know this, so I do my best to keep my expectations low or not have many.

I know myself pretty well. I don't think I have unrealistic expectations. I don't expect to head to school on unicorns instead of my Suburban or see the sky a nice shade of orange instead of blue.

But still, sitting here after Easter brunch, drinking prosecco and eating chocolates alone, I realized that I actually did have expectations of the day. I expected more chatter and laughter than silence, more warmth than coldness, more togetherness than aloneness.

And yet.

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Car Trips

In about an hour--oh, who am I kidding--at exactly 8 AM, we're going to leave the beach. My Suburban is already packed, bikes already attached to the back, and the kitchen at our beach house is really the only thing left to deal with: breakfast, then pack up our lunches for the road, then head out. The specific time of our departure and my already-packed car provides a little insight into me as Driver. I'm pretty sure I'm not at the top of the list of fun road trip mamas.

It's not my fault--I have to blame most of my driving habits to my father. He's an Army guy, and though he is a lot kinder and softer and smarter than the generic Army soldier that might jump to your mind, he's definitely as disciplined and strict. And when he had two young girls and one easy-going wife living under his roof, he thought he was right all the time. So he could be right all time time. That is, until my not-easy-going sister hit her teenage years, but that's another story altogether.

My dad would wake up at 4 or 5 in the morning to pack the car, taking everything that needed to fit into the trunk and placing it curbside. He'd glance at the items and look at the trunk, and quickly figure out the most efficient way to pack the trunk.

I don't know what my mom did during this time, but whatever it was, she was in support mode. We all knew Dad was in charge of these things. Of most things, now that I look back. Meanwhile, under the covers, my sister and I drank up the last few minutes in our beds. Mom would wake us up when the car was packed, and we'd shuffle with sleep still in every bit of our bodies from our beds to the car, blankets and all.

We drove away, heading towards our destination, before the sun came up. Before everyone else, my dad would say in a pretend-maniac voice, laughing crazily to go along with it. That was his plan! We hit the road while everyone else lolly-gags (his word) their way towards their vacation. Not us!

Once we hit the road, there were few stops. If my sister and I had to go to the bathroom, we knew we'd have to hold it. "Think of tight things!" my Dad would joke with us. But was he joking? We didn't test it. Finally, when thinking of tight things didn't work anymore, we'd have to talk Dad into stopping. Mom often had to intervene, serving as the diplomat shuttling between her daughters' needs and her husband's personality. It wasn't that he was mean, it was that we had to get there!

When we did stop, Dad would insist that he had to get his blood flowing again after sitting for so long, and he'd do jumping jacks and push ups and I can't remember what else near our car. Dad was always in shape, and there was no need to decrease his fitness on day one of our vacation!

So today, as we drive back home from the beach, guess what my kids endure? That's right--early departures, few stops, carside burpees, and the early-morning-no-stopping-road-trip genes.

They'll thank their GrandDad and me later. (And to their future partners--sorrry!)

Friday, March 25, 2016

Third Child of Mine

My third child picks his nose with gusto.

He puts his finger up to his nose, glances at me to see if I'm watching. He wants to see if he can make my face twist into a fun mixture of displeasure and humor yet again. He seems to know that no one can simultaneously gross me out and make me laugh like he is about to.

He knows I think this habit is disgusting, and that motivates my blue-eyed, pink-cheeked little devil to push that pointer where it should not go.

And then--when it's shoved in nice and tight--he sneaks a peek my way. He wants to be confident that I don't miss this fine skill of his, of which he thinks he is champion but in fact his big brother and many, many boys (and girls!) before him beat him to the punch. Beat him to their own nostril.

He pulls it out, examines the end to see what's sticking like salty green glue on top. He beams, triumphant! Sometimes at this moment, if I'm sitting close enough I wrestle his hand away, to keep him from completing his task like he wants to. We laugh and play-struggle, with me trying to keep the germs from going right back where they came from, him insisting on recycling every last thing he can.

On this morning as he watches cartoons on a lazy Friday with his big brother and big sister, I'm too far away to pull his hand away. So he licks it like a lollipop, giggling because he can hear me gagging.

Yet again, I'm grossed out and highly entertained by this third child of mine.

Thursday, March 24, 2016

Ode to Duck, NC

I have a feeling it's going to be a really great day. My kids and I are here in Duck, North Carolina, at our beach house and in a neighborhood with which they're familiar. It's still early in the season, and not many people are here, so they can ride their bikes around the block by themselves. Everyone we see gives us at least a friendly wave, and is open for friendly chatting. You can tell that no one has anything really important to do. No one has somewhere they really need to be.

It is barely the start of the season; this part of the year is sometimes called "the shoulder season" because it comes before the real start.  All of our favorite places are just opening and getting ready for business. Shop owners aren't yet weary of tourists. They've rested from their quiet, winter break and are ready to put on a smile and welcome new and old people to Duck--to earn a few dollars, of course, but also because that's what Spring means to them. Many of the shops are unveiling new iterations of themselves. The Urban Cottage outgrew its old space in Scarborough Faire and is moving to what used to be an art gallery. We cheered when we called Wave Pizza and they told us they were open. When we got there, the employees were writing the menu on the fresh and clean blackboard behind the counter.

Still, it's the beach, and we're not part of the shop opening. The weather is nice and warm, a little gift on this March day. It's already 60 degrees and sunny, and my kids are watching their second cartoon while I finish up this essay and start breakfast. Two are in pajamas, one is already in his swim trunks, sans shirt, of course. They've already made me promise that after breakfast we can ride our bikes to Duck Donuts, their favorite place.

But what will make this a great day? I think it's our to-do list. There are some things on it, but it's not very long. On this Spring Break day, I'm not trying to cram in too many things into too few hours. I know that we'll play at the beach--and that the time will wonderfully require sunscreen--for a good chunk of the day. I'll make lots of healthy meals so that yummy, not-so-healthy treats can be consumed between them.

I'm happy to be here. With my kids. What more does one really need at the beach?

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Risky Honeymoon

Eleven years ago this May, my husband and I got married. We didn't want to take an average honeymoon--we wanted something awesome and unusual. I was a former Peace Corps Volunteer and had a soft spot for developing countries, while Jonathan was a former investment banker who traveled to Africa when he suddenly lost his job in the reshuffle of Wall Street in the early 2000s.

(Don't ask me the details of this reshuffle--I was busy saving the world, or at least one little Thai village.)

Anyway, he wanted to show me where he'd gone by himself: Kenya. He took the lead on the honeymoon and scheduled for us to go on a kick-ass safari. Jonathan doesn't do anything second-rate, so I knew I was in good hands. But after planning a wedding and celebrating with our big families, I wanted a part of the honeymoon to be quiet and relaxing. I wanted the beach. Jonathan said there was a good option for that in Kenya, so he arranged for us to spend our first few days and nights as a married couple in a little family-run beach house on Diani Beach.

All of this was well and good, but while I was choosing between peonies and roses, salmon and pork chops, Diani Beach was just a spot on the map.

After those peonies were held and the salmon was consumed, however, Diani Beach became a real destination. Jonathan and I flew into Nairobi, stayed in our secure hotel, then drove us through a not-so-nice part of the country that made me feel very white, rich, privileged and a little guilty.

Diani House was a family-run guest house. The owner and manager spun long stories of how he grew up sleeping with all his cousins on the porch, running to the beach all hours of the day, being wild under the baobab tree, and making memories. We listened to his stories while eating whatever his cook cooked. At the moment, the cook seemed to cook a lot of oysters.

And oysters didn't seem to be his speciality. Or maybe eating oysters wasn't our speciality. Because every time he cooked them, either my husband or I would get sick. It took us only two times--once for Jonathan, once for me--to realize that we shouldn't touch the oysters, no matter how good they sounded or how much we wanted to eat them. Because if we did, we would not be visiting the pleasant, secluded beaches near Diani House. Instead, we would be visiting our modest guest room, where the walls between bedroom and bathroom didn't extend all the way up to the ceiling. The bathroom entrance was a push-only, saloon-style swinging door, which allowed a lot of light, sound, and air to travel between one space and the other.

One of us would lay on the bed, pretending not to hear the other as the oysters returned to haunt us the other from one end or the other. We shook our heads and laughed at this poopy, non-romantic situation and totally understood why most honeymooners choose a fancy western resort of some sort. The kind that keeps bacteria to a minimum and has germs our bodies might high-five out of recognition and affinity.

At times I thought it was a terrible way to begin a marriage. At times, it was the most amazing time of my life. In all, the imperfections created a great opportunity to force us to recalibrate our expectations, to have a sense of humor and laugh specifically at ourselves, to realize we were very lucky even though things were very imperfect.

So really, it was a pretty perfect honeymoon. We just didn't realize it at the time. Sometimes it takes some years to realize what you've got.

Tuesday, March 22, 2016

Life as Chipper

Even if you don't Crossfit, and even if you're tired of listening to your Crossfit friends talk about Crossfit endlessly, bear with me for just a paragraph or two.

There's this type of workout called a "chipper" in Crossfit that I really like. It is a series of movements that each have a high number of repetitions assigned to them. But once you're done with that movement, you're done with that movement for the rest of the workout. It's tough while you're doing it, but you can focus on getting done with it--because you'll move on to the next thing, which will be challenging all right, but in a different way.

A quick example before I get to my point: 50 air squats, 50 pull ups, 50 push ups, 50 cartwheels.

(I had to throw that last one in just to see if you were skimming or reading.)

I like these workouts a lot. But I like even more how they apply to my life-outside-of-Crossfit.

Everything is a phase--parenting jumps to mind first, of course. Remember the newborn phase? I was so exhausted from the no-sleep-during-the-night phase that I was hardly ready for the moving-to-naps phase. Then the switch from one diaper size to the next would catch me off-guard, and there was no turning back. Growth, baby! The fussy periods gave way to the whining, and now whining gives way to pouting.

Good news and bad news: it's all a phase.

But life is like a chipper: You gut it out (while simultaneously trying to enjoy each day) in order to finish that phase and move on to the next. You're not exactly ready for it, but life doesn't wait until you're ready. You've just got to breathe deeply, pace yourself, do your best, and try to enjoy it.

Monday, March 21, 2016

Slowing Down My Fingers

Sometimes I need to slow down my fingers. They type too fast. My pointer, middle, ring, pinky and thumb work in tandem to express the thoughts that jump into my head. I don't need to look. I don't need to think. They just do the work alone it seems. They punch out the feelings and fly across the keyboard. They write.

Sometimes I need to slow down my fingers. I need to realize they actually don't work alone. I need to realize they connect to my wrist, my forearm, my elbow...all the way up to my brain. I need to realize that my fingers aren't actually thinking. My brain does that. But sometimes my emotions fog up the whole system and make things murky.

Sometimes I need to slow down my fingers. They get me into trouble. A flood of feeling washes away the wisdom that usually guides me. I don't think about the outcome of my words. I just type. I don't think about the chain of events that could happen. I just type. I don't think about the feelings I might hurt. I just type.

Thinking about the not-thinking of my fingers makes me realize that maybe I shouldn't slow down my fingers. They've got to type whatever they want to type. They've got to get down whatever they need to get down so it doesn't sit heavy in my brain, on my heart, within my gut. I've got to get onto the paper--or the screen--the stuff inside of me. The messy stuff. The private stuff. The stuff I'd much prefer to sweep under the rug but a part of me would know it's still there. I guess I can't slow down my fingers after all.

I just shouldn't hit send so fast.

Sunday, March 20, 2016

Dandelion or Orchid?

I'm reading The New Puberty: How to Navigate Early Development in Today's Girls. My daughter is turning nine in a few months, and while nothing puberty-ish seems to be happening yet, I feel like I should have an idea about what's coming next in her life so I can help guide her through it as best as I can. It is eye-opening and interesting, and I'm learning a lot.

But what jumped out at me yesterday was the idea of kids being either dandelions or orchids.

That's right. The authors stated that stress can be an indicator for whether or not will begin menstruation early. It depends on how she reacts to stress. Is she sensitive to it or is she resilient in the face of it?

Scientists found that children who are physically or emotionally abused early in life have an anxious, aggressive reaction to stress later in life. If children come from a warm, supportive situation in their early life, they tend to have a resilient, successful reaction to stress.

Am I a dandelion or an orchid?

A fancy orchid, balancing its delicate blooms might be the epitome of the word "fragile." Don't water it too much! Make sure you get the care of it just right or else it will wilt and die. Don't you dare go to another flower to pay attention to it for a second!

The image of the stubborn, stalwart dandelion still stuck into the Earth, shining its bright yellow up at the sun and trees, as if yelling, "I'M STILL HERE!" has me smiling. A dandelion is not a fancy flower. Most would classify it as a weed. It is robust; it grows anywhere, and sometimes in places you don't expect it: sidewalk cracks and driveway beds, smack in the middle of the yard and in left field.

Yup, I'm a dandelion. And proud.

Link to an interesting article about kids and stress and this theory I reference.

Link to one of my favorite children's books, Dandelion by Don Freeman.

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Book Club of Three

Last month the children's librarian quit. She was young, hip, single, and decided that teaching English abroad was what she really wanted to do. I don't blame her--that's what I did in my twenties, too.

Daniela, the head librarian, asked me to take over the kids book club. I'm not a teacher or a librarian, but my kids and I live at the library, I'm a children's book author, and I have three kids with whom I have been reading for years.

I am busy, sure, but I have a friend who says you should say no to everything except things to which you want to say "HELL, YES!" This was a HELL, YES! activity. I love picture books and early chapter books, but middle grade fiction is my absolute favorite. Plus, I love talking about books, getting kids excited about reading, and learning what kids think about books.

Our first book club was this week. My two older kids read and I reread El Deafo by Cece Bell. This graphic novel won a Newbery honor and a host of other awards in 2015, and it is an engaging, eye-opening read in many ways for kids and adults alike.

I planned my discussion. I got my notes ready. I outlined my questions for discussions:

  • What was the book about? What is the problem in the book?
  • Do you know anyone who is deaf? How did they become deaf?
  • What did you learn about what it's like to be deaf?
  • What is the "bubble of loneliness" Cece describes? Have you ever felt this way?
  • What would your private superhero name be, and why?

I gathered my stuff for the talk, including: my laptop (so I could show a short clip of Cece Bell explaining how the phonic ear worked), a copy of the book, some blank comic strip hand outs, and my three kids.

When I got there, it was just me, my three kids, and Daniela. No one else.

It reminded me of when I poured my heart and soul and so much time into my first teacher workshop in Uttaradit, Thailand, and I waited and waited and waited for teachers to arrive--but no one did. It was humbling and embarrassing and heart-breaking.

This time, though, I didn't let it stop me. I launched into my lesson plan. I had enough kids to have a conversation, and that's exactly what we did. We talked about the book in the little side library room, talking about who is deaf in our family and why, how we're all going to be in the "bubble of loneliness" sometimes when we move to Washington and what we can do when that happens, and lot of other little things.

I hope more kids attend next month's book club. But if not, I've got a built-in trio who have a lot to say about everything, including the book of the month!

Friday, March 18, 2016

Spring Break

My two older children have two weeks of Spring Break. We're just about to throw back the last minutes of week one. Week two will start in the morning, probably too early than I prefer. But my boys missed the memo that school vacation is a time to sleep in late.

When you take two weeks of Spring Break and add a house on the market, you get a lot of tidying-up after three kids. My trio drip syrup onto the counter when they eat pancakes. They spit gobs of toothpaste into the sinks. Their definition of "a made bed" is starkly different from mine. They find new corners of the yard in which to leave balls. And they track in mud every. Single. Time.

To review, two weeks of Spring Break plus house on the market equals one harried mom. But I'm still smiling! Still writing! Still carrying on because that's what I do!

I forgot to add in one very busy husband who just got slammed at work. So while I'm busy being empathetic to his frustration that it's been decades since he got a Spring Break and busy being sympathetic to his never-ending work, I'm silently wishing he'd just put his own dishes into the dishwasher. That's it--just the dishes. I don't mind doing the rest. But...sigh. He forgot.

In case you had too much wine while reading this:

Two weeks of Spring Break + house on the market + one very busy husband = the need to get out of Dodge.

That's it. We're heading to the beach. (In just one more day. I can do it! I can do it!)

And I'm telling you, when those kids go back to school, I'm giving myself 72 gold stars for spending so much freaking quality time with them.


Thursday, March 17, 2016

Why I Write: My first Washington Post essay

So my first essay came out in the Washington Post this afternoon. I'm laying low, wondering if any of my friends will read it. It's got my name on it, so I figure at least a few people will read it and realize it's me. The essay is about losing control of myself and slamming the door so hard I broke it.

Then, in the essay and as I did a few years ago in that messy thing called real life, I picked up the pieces--literally and figuratively.

I wish this writing success of mine could be celebrated a little more, but I realized that some close to me might be apprehensive because they feel like their dirty laundry is being aired out for others to see. And they didn't exactly wish for that.

Still, it happened. The crappy phase of life happened. My depression and rage happened. The door happened.

But why write about it?

A few years ago before going on a writer's retreat I read the two books of the two women who were presenting to us wannabes. One woman wrote of losing both her parents to cancer when she was young, and how difficult her early adulthood was without their guidance. The other woman wrote of her year in a brothel of the sultan of Brunei.

One book was a share-the-grief, one sure seemed like a look-at-me tell-all. You can probably figure out which was which.

I am sure some will think my essay is the latter, too, but to me it is not. I wrote that essay to show that tough times pass, that divorce is a choice and that you don't have to choose it, that even though a mom might look nice and put together in carpool, her reality might be a whole lot different.

I write to help people realize that they're not alone in their anger or grief or frustration. And that they can keep on going, working through it at their own pace, and things will be okay in the end. And if things are not okay, then it's not the end.

(Click HERE to read my article.)

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

Home Again Home Again

Three kids, one mom, one Grammy.

Six hours, four states, one stop.

Two movies, some books, a few fights.

I-79, Pennsylvania Turnpike, 522 to get Grammy home.

Lots of chatting, more swapping stories, a little smack talk.

Drop off Grammy, one last hour, finally home.

One road trip, three tired kids, one happy mom.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Seven year old boy at Niagara Falls

Here's a chilling, true story my kids and I read before heading up to Niagara Falls today:

On a sunny Saturday afternoon in July 1960, a man from the town of Niagara Falls took his two children out for a boat ride in the upper Niagara River. The boat ran into some trouble--it hit a shoal and a pin broke in the engine--and capsized. The three bobbed about, surely frantic about meeting what they knew was just around the bend: the biggest waterfall in North America.

The older, 17 year-old girl was at the brink of the falls, clutching onto a rock. A crowd watched, worried, gasped as she was plucked out of the river by two passersby just before the falls. The father went over Horseshoe Falls, the Canadian part of Niagara Falls, and was killed.

And the boy... Roger Woodward, the 7 year-old boy, went over Horseshoe Falls just like his father did. He was wearing just a life jacket. But luck was on they boy's side. By some miracle, he fell 362 feet down the falls and lived.

One of the Maid of the Mist boats was rounding the bend of Horseshoe Falls. It was full of tourists but one of the crew spotted Roger's life jacket as it--and the boy--fell down the falls. The boat went to rescue Roger. After two unsuccessful throws of a life preserver, Roger caught it on the third throw and the crew pulled him to the boat and pulled him on board.


Today my kids and I drove up from Erie to Niagara Falls. It was their first time up there. I had been there at least once as a kid. I was disappointed the Maid of the Mist boats hadn't started to run for the season, and the trip was so last-minute that I hadn't had time to renew my passport to go do the cool things on the Canadian side.
My seven year old at the American Falls

But we just did some free stuff on the American side, and they don't realize that the fog inhibited the view more than usual or the construction kept them from seeing Horseshoe Falls from Goat Island.

We did get to walk over on a pedestrian bridge--not straight over the falls, but pretty darn close, and over the raging Niagara River that churned and spat and sloshed beneath our feet.

I held all my kids close, but I held my own seven year old son the closest. No need to repeat history in any way today...

Monday, March 14, 2016

Kids: Can't Live With 'Em, Can't Live Without 'Em

My kids and I are visiting Erie, PA, this week. My mom and dad were both born and raised in this sprawling town, and I have a lot of family here. Since my dad was in the Army, we moved around a whole lot but always came back here for summers and holidays and, well, whenever we could. Now I return a few times a year to see my two grandfathers, one in his 90s and one in his late 80s, my aunt and two uncles and a whole host of cousins who are once removed or second or something like that--I don't care the details. They're family.

There's nothing like a trip to Erie, PA, to help righten my perspecticles (something I didn't make up; have to credit Glennon Melton of Momastery for that one). The last time I drove away from here I recorded my reflections. Thanks to my handy iPhone notes, I can see that on August 13 2013 these were the things that smacked me in the face during and after our summer visit:

1.  It is worth the energy to stay positive. 
2.  I sure am young and healthy. 
3.  I should have more fun--laugh more with people I love. 
4.  Try to remember that most people have bad a much tougher life than me. 

This time around, with my kids a little older and my youngest just on the cusp of going to school full-time and me pretty excited about that, I'm realizing just how lucky I am to have them to fuss over and worry about. 

My aunt has three kids, and her youngest is off to college in the fall. I can't imagine this. I can't imagine the quiet, the empty house, the lack of laundry, snack, homework, baths, bedtime stories... I know each phase of parenting (and of marriage) is tough and joy-filled for its own reason, so I think I should definitely realize I've got some pretty awesome and difficult years ahead of me where my kids still need me--albeit in a slightly different way. 

Hopefully they'll be able to blow their own noses but still need my guidance on how to deal with heart ache and forgiveness. Hopefully they'll be able to cook a little more for themselves, but still want and need my help in the kitchen.

Appreciating my young kids just a little bit more today...

Sunday, March 13, 2016

Aunt Di's Kitchen Table

For the first time this month, I have two extra set of eyes on my words as I type.

The first set belongs to my oldest son, Ben. His hazel eyes don't believe that I could write an entire slice of life (something called "small moments" in his first grade classroom) about a kitchen table. The other pair of eyes are blue. They belong to my youngest son Kiefer, with whom I snuggled up in our shared bed in my Aunt Di's house. We're traveling, so our routines have been thrown out the window. The boys (and their big sister Lorelei) had chocolate milk with pizza for dinner. That kind of thing is just koo-koo crazy in our house!

They are delighted to be here at their great Aunt Di's house six hours away from our home in Virginia. I am, too!

So about this kitchen table. Ben accurately describes it as plain. That's true--as Kiefer leans on to it he can see that a lot of the surface has been rubbed away. But it's strong and it's sturdy. The chairs around it are not--they are a little wobbly, as if too many people have reared back in laughter and thus hurt the table--but did good things for their life.

Some years ago when my aunt was about to sell her home in Georgia before moving up here to Erie, Pennsylvania (which is a whole other story), my sister went to help prep her house for the market. She took one look at the table and sniffed at it. "Aunt Di," she said with the authority and know-it-all-ness that is always present in her voice, "You've got to refinish this table. It doesn't look very good."

Aunt Di sighed--she didn't want to add another thing to her to-do list, and she also disagreed. I think I particularly like this because few disagree with what my sister has to say.

The table did not get refinished. It remained as-is. A kitchen table like this one shows its wear and tear proudly. My Aunt Di has three children. I remember all of them as newborns. Now, in that trick time plays on us, the oldest is out of college and an actual, functioning adult, the older boy is a junior at Penn State, and her youngest is getting ready to graduate high school.

They've seen countless breakfasts, dinners, fights, UNO games, and way more on this very table. They've had discussions over lost cell phones, broken-up girlfriends, college applications, test scores, and even their father, my Uncle Brian's cancer diagnosis two years ago (from which he is slowly recovering).

A kitchen table tells a lot about a family. In this point of life where shows like Fixer-Upper and other home improvement shows will point out exactly how to make your kitchen better, your bathroom more fabulous, your yard a show-stopper, I think it's pretty nice to have a few things (at least!) in your home that remain the way they were meant to be--very used and very loved.

Saturday, March 12, 2016

I Got a Yes

I've been trying to get my picture books published for a few years. I keep toiling away, messing with a each word until I'm finally satisfied that the book delivers just the right giggle at just the right moment. I've sent nearly a hundred queries to agents and editors so far.

So far, I've collected a bunch of NOs.

Still, I write. I wake every morning at 5 AM and keep that first hour of my day clutter-free and dedicate it to my writing in some way. I'll work on a new draft or write a slice of life like I'm doing now, or research where to send my latest manuscript.

While I'm still trying to get one of my manuscripts transformed into a book, I also started to write essays. Each of them has always been a slice first, a quick sketch on an early morning here on my whateverings blog. Then the idea sits with me all day and I think, "That's good enough for a wider audience."

So I toil away, pick at the essay and think about my reflections and work on it some more on the following mornings. Two years ago I sent a 430 word essay called "Windstorm" to a local magazine and they accepted it. I was beyond thrilled! My best friend framed it--my name on the byline for the very first time! And then I submitted another one to the same magazine, they accepted it, and I got paid for it! Wow.

Then I got curious: where else could I write? Two weeks ago I wrote here about my worst moment ever as a mom--I broke a door out of anger and frustration and depression in front of my kids--and worked on that with the goal of sending it to The Washington Post. I sent a quick email with a succinct pitch to the editor. She zinged right back with a "send the whole essay" response. I contemplated waiting a while to send it so I could live in the hopeful world of "maybe" a little while longer. But I didn't. I sent it to her.

Then I went to pick up my son from my good friend's house, where he was playing with her son. I stood in her kitchen when my phone sounded, telling me that I had just gotten an email. I checked it. It was a yes! My essay was accepted!


I find the format and community here at Two Writing Teachers just the right spot for testing out ideas, dipping my toes in the waters of a particular subject, and for that I'm so very grateful.

Friday, March 11, 2016

On My Most Socially Awkward Moment

Last Spring after my three kids learned to ride two-wheelers, we took a family bike ride to a local restaurant on a Sunday morning for brunch. We're early birds so there weren't too many families out yet on the bike path--only serious runners and bikers. My husband and I had to keep a balance between going fast enough for our two older kids to maintain momentum. Yet the pace needed to be  slow enough for our youngest, just three and a half at the time and on a little red bike with tiny 12" wheels, to keep up.

We biked just two miles to the restaurant and found seats outside--we wanted to keep an eye on our bikes. But I had to go inside to ask the hostess if we could sit at those vacant outside tables. The rest of my clan scouted out the table while I checked in. I pushed my way through the revolving door to chat about the seating.

I asked quickly--a bit scatterbrained perhaps because of hunger, perhaps because I hadn't enough coffee, perhaps because I was hurrying--and was pleased with the "No problem! Seat yourself!" message.

I wanted to relay this message to my family, whom I could see through the open windows on the front of the restaurant. Another family was easing themselves through the revolving glass door as I was leaving to go outside as well, and I rushed to jump into one of the four segments of the revolving glass door.

Turns out I hopped in at the very last second--I made it, whew!

But then I realized that I wasn't the only person in this small segment of a revolving door. I was in with a stalky, thirty-ish man who was quite surprised to have an extra passenger mere centimeters behind him. I had hopped into the one-person area with a total stranger, making us two extremely squished and extremely uncomfortable people!

Luckily our time together was short, and he hopped out and I hopped after. Even luckier, he had a sense of humor and I could see the smile in his eyes as he turned back to me.

"That was the most socially awkward thing EVER! I have no idea why I did that! I'm so sorry!" I gasped, laughing.

Might as well own it, and take the opportunity to laugh at myself!

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Publishing, Two Perspectives

My son's preschool class went on a field trip today. Turns out, he was on the opposite side of where I was at that same moment!

As a (yet-to-be-published) children's book author, my three kids know more about publishing than the average child. I've explained to them how it works: I write a manuscript, edit and revise approximately 2 millions times, then send it around to publishing houses. I write a perfectly charming yet succinct letter to accompany said manuscript that might convince them that my picture book or chapter book is worth purchasing and publishing. (Or, I send it to literary agents who will then do that process on behalf of me.)

Then that editor finds an illustrator s/he thinks fits my story and illustrators are planned, sketched, then perfected. Finally, the illustrations and words go together, a dummy is made, then the final is printed and shipped off to bookstores.

And where did my son go on his field trip? To Barnes and Noble--to the very Barnes and Noble our family frequents (especially on cold, snowy days when we've been cooped up with cabin fever). He got to go to the "secret lower level" and see the storage room where "300 books a day" arrive and are sorted before being placed on the shelves.

The class read the very cute and very appropriate How to Read a Story by Kate Messner, drew some bookmarks which my son left there, and found their way back to preschool.

And what did I do today? I submitted my chapter book to two editors I've met at conferences, sending good vibes along with my query and first few chapters first through the internet and then at the post office. I was far from the end product--the look-at-my-book-on-that-shelf moment--but there's beauty and joy in the beginnings, the idea stage, the hopefully maybe-this-time-I'll-get-a-yes moment.

I'm enjoying the though that one day my son's field trip and my manuscripts might meet up at the same place: the bookstore!

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

On Control and the Dangers of Horseback Riding

My daughter Lorelei is a timid horseback rider. She's proficient at the walk and the trot and is slowly figuring out how to relax and settle into her pony's canter. But I can see how she feels all over her face as she heads to the rail after her instructor tells her to canter. I can see the tension in her shoulders as they brace before the rush of the faster gait.

She's afraid.

And why shouldn't she be? She is perched atop an animal with a mind of its own, a pony that's pretty sweet and pretty cute but definitely has a naughty streak and a reputation for doing what it wants, when it wants. Lorelei has fallen off of this pony twice. Luckily for her (and for me), all that was needed was a quick dusting off of her backside and all was good.

But I believe Lorelei finds the canter unsettling because she feels out of control. She's a very logical child, likes things orderly and organized, likes to feel prepared for a quiz and aware of the schedule. The canter is fast and feels dangerous to Lorelei.

As a seasoned rider myself, I realize--but bite my tongue--that you've got to find comfort between controlling the horse as much as possible and having faith that the other stuff you can't control will take care of itself.

This danger, the question of control, and my daughter riding a 900 pound animal was on my mind tonight as Lorelei and Sadie walked to the ring for her lesson--because thousands and thousands of miles away in Australia, a mother like me mourns the loss of her daughter after her daughter was killed in a tragic riding accident. The girl, Olivia Inglis, was an accomplished rider and was competing in a riding event that required a cross-country jumping course. Her horse caught a leg in the jump and Olivia was thrown in front of the horse, and the horse fell on top of her. She was killed.

Talk about getting smacked in the face with the reality of control in our lives. A semi-professional rider loses her life because of one wrong movement of her horse over a jump.

It makes me suck my breath in, grab my stomach as if I'm still carrying one of my babies in there, sit down in order to take it all in. This control we think we have over our life is pure fiction.

Years ago when I was twelve years old and in the thick of my horse-crazy years, I also did eventing like this Australian rider. I was competing in exactly the same type of show--though a much lower level--where cross-country jumping was required. My horse, Flashdance, a borrowed chestnut I loved with every bit of my heart, was a good gelding who never let me down. We had done well together and I had no reason to think that that day should be any different.

Flashdance and I galloped around the field, following the prescribed course with good form and in good time. We jumped five or six fences, each substantial obstacles, before galloping downhill into a water jump that was combined with a bank jump. We slowed to a canter, splashing into the edge of the lake for a few strides, then I squeezed his sides to urge him up the two foot embankment to the level, dry land.

Except he didn't. We came at the jump wrong. He took off before he was fully ready. He didn't lift his front legs high enough and ended up hitting the bottom of his legs onto the front of the jump. We were going so fast and had so much momentum that Flashdance kept moving forward--though not as we planned. He did a somersault, landing on his back. Fortunately, I was thrown to his side, and he did not land on top of me.

But that was pure luck.

We both stood up, shook ourselves off, and responded to my instructor's yell: "GET BACK ON!" So I did get back on, and we cantered off to finish the course.

The amazing thing is my mother, like Olivia Inglis' mother, watched the whole thing. She actually got in on video tape. It happened so fast that her heart must have completely stopped and started again before her brain even registered what had happened. On the tape you can just see me and Flashdance canter down the hill, then four white feet in the air, then you hear an "Oh my God" and, before you know it, you see me jump back up on Flashdance and canter away.

Still, I let Lorelei ride. I don't know if it's the right thing, but I know I can't control fate. I celebrate her timid way of riding and just pray for her safety.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

The Things I Leave Behind

As I transition from living in a wooded lot in the ex-burbs of Northern Virginia to living in a cozy house with a grand view of the Puget Sound and Olympic Mountains, I think a lot about packing. I talk a lot about stuff. As someone who once lived out of a backpack for a few months in India and a few years in Thailand, I'm acutely aware of how much stuff I've acquired.

It's so American, but it's not all bad. This furniture has purpose, the board games help bond my family together, the books hold stories I'll reread, the kitchen tools often entice my kids to help out a little more with the cooking, the clothes (especially jewelry!) are fun ways to express myself.

As I plan for these items to be gently wrapped in bubble and paper and boxes so they arrive at their destination in tact, I think that there should be just as much focus on the things I'd like to leave behind.

I need to dig up some holes in the yard, I think, so the weight of the solid earth can hold down some memories and keep them from traveling with me. The truth is, I had some crazy moments in this house. I have three young children, so there were times that were ugly when my patience wore thin. I yelled, I spanked, I slammed things, and now I shudder remembering. I hope they don't remember. Still, I want to dig up a hole in the yard and put these memories there.

I want to bury even deeper the friction that occurred within these walls with my husband. Years six through eight of our marriage had some seriously un-pretty moments that I'd like to forget once and for all.

Another part of me I'd like to leave behind is the super-apologizing woman. I'm the queen of I'm Sorry. It's my default mode, my way of getting through an argument, the way to accommodate. It's so not the strong woman that I am during the rest of the day, and I have to leave behind the passive-aggressive way that I fight and believe that there is a healthier, better way for me to fight for myself as an individual and for me within my partnership.

This is life. These imperfections, these low points, these not-so-ideal parts of me. I get that, and I forgive myself for them (most of the time). But I'd like to move on to some new imperfections, because I'm a little tired of yelling, resentment, and having too soggy a spine. So I'll purposefully take them out of the moving boxes, carry them outside our sweet, yellow house, and place them into the earth. I think they'll be happier there. Who knows? Something might grow from them.

Monday, March 7, 2016

America Ninja Warrior Kids

My kids are obsessed with American Ninja Warrior. They can't walk in a straight line--they bounce off over cracks, hang from rails, balance along fences rather than walk from A to B. Our playset has become an obstacle course; additional toys and limbs and benches augment the monkey bars, slide, and rope swing.

So when my husband found a local Crossfit box that also had "ninja training" for kids and grown-ups alike, my kids' cheers catapulted him a few notches higher in the Father of the Year standing. We went yesterday, my kids having lost sleep because they were so excited. Would they have the warped wall? The quintuple steps? The double salmon ladder? 

Ben (7), more than the other two, was certain he would, in his words, "dominate." In truth, his upper body strength is outstanding. He travels across monkey bars with style and grace and confidence, hanging to showboat for a minute before heading back for another try. He is fast and confident and has a phenomenal track record in his few years in organized sports. If I didn't know about his internal anxiety, I'd say he was cocky.

Lorelei, (nearly 9) on the other hand, is known as the most timid horseback rider in the barn. Though she's not proud of that moniker she agrees with it, though I secretly believe she sees herself blossoming overnight into a confident, take-no-crap rider. Still, she's cautious and careful and rarely (never?) goes all out.

Kiefer (nearly 5) was going to be the youngest kid ever on this ninja course. That's no surprise. He learned to ride a 2-wheeler when he was three, gets spitting-mad when he can't keep up with speedy Ben, and throws himself into everything he does. We were worried that the obstacles would be too big for him, but...there's no way we could leave him at home.

And so we went. And observed our three very different kids on the different obstacles, with a trainer leading them through, giving them pointers as they tried again and again. Cocky Ben went out too fast and didn't slow down and concentrate, so his ego took a hit while Lorelei and Kiefer listened to the teacher, started slowly and then built up speed as they became more confident. Ben regained his composure when all of the upper body obstacles came into play--he was the only one out of all five of us to do the arm rings. But Lorelei's height helped her on the jumping spider. And Kiefer did them all, with the help of the enthusiastic, impressed coach Casey supporting him.

My kids learned a lot. They gained a lot. They were humbled by obstacles they'd only seen on television--obstacles that these athletes made look easier than they were. They got a boost of confidence as each of them did more than they thought they could--they conquered a few things and got close enough to taste victory on a few others. They remembered they were a team and cheered each other on. They had fun testing their physical limits, learned to laugh at themselves, and practiced not quitting.

In sum, in their words, it was "epic." We'll be back.

Sunday, March 6, 2016

Our Home Sweet Home is For Sale

Eight years ago we moved into this home seven days before my daughter's first birthday. She took her first steps in the kitchen--trying to get to the watermelon I balanced on a chair. We wrapped up her first birthday, Mother's Day, and my mother's birthday into one small brunch. In the photo from that day, my stomach is already round--I was four months pregnant with my first son.

Since those first few weeks, we've celebrated so much: countless birthdays, seven Polish Christmas Eve wigilias, class parties, family reunions with grandparents and great-grandparents. The other side of the spectrum crept in, too. My husband and I had some serious arguments, several yelling matches, a small handful of nights where one of us slept somewhere other than our shared bed. We had two dogs that trotted along these hard woods, but now we have just one.

This is our home. But in a few hours the Open House sign will have balloons on it and we'll invite strangers to walk through these memory-filled rooms and imagine making their own lives here. They'll walk into my daughter's room and it might be perfect for their teenage son. The kitchen where Lorelei first walked might get torn down and rebuilt by the end of the year.

As an "Army brat" who moved around, I understand that living in most houses is temporary. You move on to the next one without getting too attached to the one you're in. There's a whole fleet of people on an Army post that keep your house in tip-top shape. My dad didn't even own a toolbox until he got out of the Army--there was always somebody to call who would fix whatever the problem was.

Reflecting on these eight years and the prospect of selling and moving the only home my kids have ever known, I realize that my sentimental attachments to these rooms do exist. But the memories--really, both good and bad--that we've made here have been appreciated.

Having said that, I will still cry like a baby when we drive away in June.

Saturday, March 5, 2016

One Slumber Party Changes Everything

My third grade daughter Lorelei had her first sleepover last night.

She rode her friend Lara's bus home on Friday afternoon, and I arranged to pick her up at Lara's house on Saturday morning. I was so curious about the time at her friends: Would she have a blast, or would we get a call late at night to pick her up? Would she come home comparing our house with her friend's house? Would she like being in a house where there were three sisters, not one girl and two boys? Would she eat the junk food I keep away from our pantry? Would she watch movies, play on computers, cry a little out of homesickness?

I got my first clue into how her night was going when I received an email from her friend. From her third grade friend's personal email account. It was a little surprising, but fun, to exchange emails back and forth with Lara as she relayed my comments with Lorelei, and then typed Lorelei's responses back the other way. It was a little surprising, but fun, to receive funny videos in my inbox that involved big smiles and lots of hair-flinging by the two of them.

This morning her younger brothers and I went to pick her up. Lara's father is a charming Russian expatriate whose proper, creative use of the English language had me in stitches; the two of us chatted while my trio and his two youngest daughter climbed trees in his backyard.

After enough tree-climbing and chatting, we piled into my messy Suburban and the boys riddled her with questions. I was glad--like them, I wanted to know everything. Lorelei was happy to comply. Her afternoon and evening and morning included lots of wonderful little adventures: a bike ride on a borrowed bike, take-out pizza and not one but two helpings of chocolate chip cookies, a late-night walk through the neighborhood with flashlights, and even an hour of work on the project that initially brought the girls together: a birthday gift, a homemade math dictionary for the girls' beloved math specialist.

But what changed everything was the story Lorelei told of Lara guessing the email address of their classmate, Owen. They typed on "o" and then Owen's last name, and guessed he had a gmail account. Ten minutes after they sent Owen an email, a response came from one Oliver ____ (insert last name here). Lorelei reported that the two girls erupted in laughter and that Oliver informed them they had the wrong guy. Lara's big sister stuck her head in and said, "Yeah, I did that once, but the guy was really mad about it." More laughter.

And, just like that, my daughter interacted with a strange man online.

I know, I know--I'm blowing this somewhat out of proportion. I didn't say anything at the time. But the What Ifs started marching into my brain with Stormtrooper strength: What if he had engaged them in conversation? What if he had requested pictures? What if they had sent him the videos Lara had sent me? What if he started slowly, but surely built up trust with them, and then asked for things they should never, ever give?

Sigh. Just like that, the conversation about online safety needs to happen. Despite the fact that Lorelei is only in third grade. Despite the fact that she doesn't have an email address (yet). Despite the fact that all computer use is done in our kitchen. Despite the fact that she's so very naive to all the horrible stuff and creepy people that are out there.

I've turned to a new page of parenting, a new phase of guiding my daughter through potentially rough seas. I need a few days to let it soak in, think about what I am going to say to her, and then...that conversation will begin.

Friday, March 4, 2016

4. Hindu Puja

Puja in the Hindu religion is the act of showing reverence to a god, a spirit, or another aspect of the divine through prayers or songs or rituals. My understanding is that the essential part of the puja is to make a spiritual connection to the divine--I don't know if it has to be through streamline ways, or this connection can be done however the devout wants. Many times the connection is facilitated through an object--maybe a tree, a sculpture, a vase, or a painted piece of art.

A month into living in Calcutta and I knew this: There were a lot of celebrations. I felt like every other day, Indians marched through the street, exuberant with joy, dancing to loud music that made sense to everyone but this foreigner. Why were there so many holidays here? Why didn't we have more in America, and why didn't we join together to celebrate like this at home? I wondered.

Two of my friends and I piled into a taxi to head to the Hoogley River, where we had heard there would be "a puja." Always curious, I went down to witness whatever was happening. There was a lot to see. Dozens and dozens of Indian men pushed homemade statues (of a deity? of a family member? I wasn't sure) into the Hoogley, then lowered that statue into the river. They cheered, jumping up and down with excitement, as the statutes drowned.

We Americans are so reserved and private. The phrase "too cool for school" comes to mind when I think of how we refrain from being too exuberant (except sporting events, I realize as I type...what's up with that?). How surprising and exhilarating to watch this ceremony where throngs of men celebrated and honored a beloved together. This was such an example of what I saw again and again in India: a ceremony I only partially understood. I was a bystander in a foreign land, trying to figure out what was going on without the necessary information. At times in India I felt like such an outsider, who shouldn't be there at all.

But there I was, peeking at a life so very different from my own. Before leaving, my dad had asked, me why I feel the need to travel, and to try to answer the question or unfold the answer a little more every day I was away.

I still didn't know, and I wanted to figure it out. But now, looking back, I wonder--do all questions need to be answered? Can't I just travel because I want to? Does everything need to have some huge saga or lesson or reason?

Thursday, March 3, 2016

3. Packing My Bags for India

When I was 21, I packed my bags to volunteer in Calcutta for six months--or for however long I could until my money ran out. I had traveled abroad just once before: in high school, with my show choir, to London. That experience, complete with dance shoes and a sparkly unitard, did not help me much.

As my college ran an informal program to help students travel to and volunteer in Calcutta, I knew a handful of people who had been there before me. I met with them a few times, and they helped me figure out what to expect, where to stay, what to wear, what to pack.

I wish I had a packing list from way back then! The obvious things got thrown in: Non-form-fitting T-shirts that fell to my hips or below, rubber sandals, light hiking pants, my own mosquito net, a few hats, and a journal or two to capture all of my thoughts.

Amidst these expected items, I packed two things that really stand out as very funny to me now:

Somehow in the process of packing I had convinced myself that paper would not be available in Calcutta. Despite it being a thriving metropolis, I wasn't sure that I would be able to find paper on which I could write letters. And I am a letter-writing phenom. So I packed a plastic binder full of three reams of blank, lined (college rule, I'm sure) paper. On my second day in Calcutta, I pulled out this gigantic, heavy binder of blank paper to an empty table in the guest house in which I was staying to write a letter (I'm sure to my mom). An Italian man, in Calcutta to volunteer like me, sat with a group of his friends at the only other occupied table in the room looked over and saw me.

"Is that paper you have?" he called out across the room. He and his friends laughed so loudly at my paper, and I snuck back to my bed to write on my well-traveled paper feeling like the greenhorn traveler I was.

I quickly realized that I also packed my American desire for some privacy, so I moved out from the crowded guest house to a cheap hostel with a single (American) roommate.

In that cheap hostel were bugs--roaches. And I hate roaches. But luckily I brought along my own can of Raid. I'm not sure how it survived the pressure of the airplane, but it did. It was laughable then but sure came in handy when a creepy-crawly visitor wanted to live with me. Nope. I zapped the hell out of it with my enormous, American-sized can of Raid.

A few years later after I had unpacked my bags from Calcutta and packed another set for two years in Thailand with the Peace Corps, I did not pack years worth of stationary and cans of Raid. What can I say? I like to make new mistakes in this life of mine.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

2. Monica House

The taxi dropped me off at the Mother House, which sits at 54-A A.J.C. Bose Road. It is a gray structure that nearly touches the buildings to its left and right, rowhouse-style. I scooted up to the doorway and pulled the doorbell--literally a bell on a string--and waited until one of the Sisters of Charity opened it for me. A young girl, a novice I would later learn, studying and training to be a Sister, in a white sari with blue stripes greeted me with a smile and led me to the Sister in charge of volunteers.

Volunteers arrived every day; the Sisters requested that we check in and say how long we expect to be in Calcutta to volunteer, and to choose one of the homes for our entire stay. I chose Prem Dan, the home for sick and dying destitutes, and I told her: "Six months." Really, I would stay for as long as my college graduation money allowed me to stay.
The door to Mother House. Paint stays on nothing in Calcutta!

The next order of business? I needed a place to stay. The young sister suggested I see if there was a bed available in Monica House, a boarding house just one block away. One block seemed close, and I was weary from traveling. My eyes needed a break from taking in new, shocking images, and my brain needed a break from processing the images. One block meant that I passed only one family living on the street under a blanket-turned-tent, and only a few rickety rickshaws with their even more rickety rickshaw wallahs (drivers, though they actually pull the rickshaw).

Monica House used to be a single family home in Calcutta, when the city was more regal than filthy, and it sat back from the street with an actual yard around it. I can't remember grass and can't imagine it would grow much without serious attention and care, but I remember distance between the city and the house, and that distance was a godsend those first days. After checking in, I was ushered to the women's wing--a large room with a dozen beds thrown in all haphazard. No organization or neat rows here. Beds were about a foot apart. No privacy here. Mosquito nets hung from the canopy-tops of the beds, making it look fancy but was actually practical. No one wanted to get malaria here. The mosquito nets were second-rate: most had holes here and there. And the mosquito nets were horrible because they trapped in the heat, making the tiny sleeping area hotter in an already stifling room.

This bed in Monica House was going to be home for me--until I figured out this maze of a city enough to sleep somewhere else.

Tuesday, March 1, 2016

1. Day One

People told me that if I stayed for three years, my lungs would be as black as a heavy smoker's lungs, thanks to the pollution.

I went anyway.

The pollution did not disappoint. I'd never seen anything like it. As my tattered taxi drove me from the airport into the center of town, my eyes must have been the size of American dinner plates. Away from the streets, frames of buildings where people--whole families, or perhaps a small population--lived on open floors. Half-finished high-rises--buildings without walls--had colorful sheets flying on all levels, with people walking and sitting and preparing dinner and...well, living...without the protection or privacy of walls.

Closer to the streets my taxi honked its way down, people walked along the sidewalk and the flattened grass next to the sidewalk. Impossibly thin young men with business pants and button-down shirts passed weary, wiry old men wearing nothing but a sheet of cloth on their bottom half. All wore a type of slip-on flip-flop, their toes happy to breath the not-so-fresh air.

Women were the colorful part of the scene. Dressed in saris or salwar suits, gaggles of girls ran through the sidewalks, their faces and noses and ears often glittering with jewelry that sparkled almost as much as their big smile. Older women wore similar clothes, but had less energy. The older the age, the slower they walked.

Gangs of dogs roamed these streets. They were scabby and scrawny; they must always be looking for and thinking about food. They panted and trotted with some sort of authority no dogs back home knew. These dogs had a hard life.

The heat wafted in through my taxi window, bringing the smells of the city: burning fire, car exhaust, human waste, and the new and indescribable smell of heat itself.

I saw life from the windows of that taxi unlike I'd ever seen it before.

I flew into the City of Joy knowing of the dirt, the crowdedness, the poverty, and the misery I'd find there.

I went anyway.

The first day of any challenge pales in comparison to my first day in Calcutta, which was more overwhelming because I was a silly young girl with a limited perspective and a million ideas on how things should work. But here I am, typing on my computer 18 years after first arriving there, rereading my old journals and old letters, trying to recall every sight and smell because I feel compelled to write and remember and add perspective to my experiences there. I aim to return to Calcutta through my journals and the Slice of Life Story Challenge every day to see what resurfaces for me, to see what stories come to my mind. It's like I'm refreshing myself and remembering and recalling. I have too much to do in my real life to do this--my house goes on the market in two days, we're moving across the country, my three kids need to eat and play every day, I work out every day--but...I can't not do this.

So, I'm writing anyway.