Monthly Archives

November 2015

Solidarity Brothers and Sisters

Honor the Space

Tonite there is a space. A deep breath before the holidays burst to life, the visitors arrive, the food is served, and the festivities begin. There is a space. A quiet part of us that misses someone. Or, a lot of someones. And whether this space is new this year or it’s something you’ve grown to understand & have learned how to do, that space is still sacred. And quiet. So tonite, in the stillness before the season, I honor that space in you. And I honor that space in me. I pray that our hearts keep healing & that someone puts their arms around you & tells you that you are loved. Because you are.      — T. M.

My wise and altogether wonderful friend, Terri Mervenne, shared these words today and it was like a blanket for my soul. I suppose, too, that I read her note at an opportune time. Every surface of the kitchen was coated in flour. The living room looked like a stuffed animal breeding ground. There was an unfathomable amount of toothpaste on the bathroom floor. The only thing prepped for tomorrow’s feast was pie crust. Next to the refrigerator, there was a To Do list that had not been adhered to, and a 3-Day Master Schedule that had been woefully ignored. I felt, as I often do at the start of the holidays, on the verge of a meltdown.

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We all have this idea of how seasonal gatherings are supposed to be. And every year, between late November and early January, we are faced with the reality of how our holidays actually are. Sometimes that disconnect is encouraging. Perhaps we grew up in a quarrelsome family, but we marry into a clan more placid and accepting. But a lot of the time, the disparity between what we desire during the holidays and what we actually experience can be quite painful. And it is hard to know what to do with all that, what to do with the empty space.

My father is one of ten children. As adults, they fanned out around the country from Hawaii to Maine. Whenever they gathered for holiday photographs, they honored the missing siblings, and would assign inanimate objects to stand in. “Gina is the lamp,” they’d say before the flash. “Tommy is the dining room chair.” For years afterwards, that everyday item became the placeholder for the missing sister or brother 2000 miles away from the turkey dinner.

During the holidays, many of us do that same thing. We make grandma’s turnips or a great-aunt’s secret apple pie in an effort to hold a space for folks who have come before us, for loved ones who began our traditions long ago. But those marshmallow-covered yams and those green beans drowned in cream are such a far cry from the whole and wonderful person who once shared our table.  Often, the very things meant to honor the empty space end up exacerbating it.

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I have lived away from family for most of my adult life, and I have grown accustomed to the empty spaces around my table where siblings, parents, and cousins ought to be. But it wasn’t always easy.  I remember one Christmas Eve, years ago, before the kids were born. Ken was in the Navy, deployed somewhere in the Pacific. And I sat alone on my front porch with a Christmas tree lodged in the doorway. I was pruning its branches with a letter opener when Tom, a neighbor I hardly knew, walked by and asked whether I needed any help. I told him I was fine and turned to shove the bedraggled tree towards a stand in the living room.  When the broken-branched pine fell over for the third time, I looped twine around its trunk and tied it to curtain rods and the fireplace grate. I gazed upon my own personal tannenbaum with simultaneous triumph and defeat.

I had not been “fine” and Tom was kind enough to notice that. He and his wife invited me over that same night, and to this day, I am ever-so-grateful that they did. They saw a space in me and honored it, not by trying to assist my attempts to recreate Christmas past, but by welcoming me to their table.

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Since that night, I have cobbled together my fair share of hobo holidays — thrown-together affairs with lasagnas and Yorkshire puddings, rooms full of expats or enlisted kids too broke to fly home. One Thanksgiving, our tiny party abandoned the turkey to its half-thawed fate, and dined entirely on apple pie instead. As much as I cherish the Rockwellian memories of my childhood, I know they are rose-colored reflections. There were spaces at those tables, too. Over the years, I have grown to love the custom of opening our home and welcoming the stranger. I honor the space in my heart best when I am honoring someone else’s. In this way, the emptiness connects us.

Space is funny like that. It can either keep us distant or help draw us close

Whether you spend tomorrow at a soup kitchen, in your own kitchen, or at your great-aunt Hildebrand’s eating soup, whether you share your dinner with 27 people or 2, I pray that you will, as my friend Terri so lovingly put it, “honor that space” in everyone you meet.

Happy Thanksgiving, everyone.

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Health & Fitness & Oreos

In Defense of Head Lice

We have it again.

Not all of us this time. Not even most. But enough.

The tiny combs are unsheathed. The bedding has been bagged. The house smells like coconut oil and eucalyptus. Also frustration.

We should probably cancel the play date we scheduled for Tuesday. And alert the school nurse just to be safe. For a little while, anyway, we’ll be that family.

Which isn’t exactly fair, since head lice do not choose their hosts. They do not hand-select the most slovenly or ill-behaved among us. They simply cling to hats, pig-tails, and hoodies, and wait to catch a ride on the next person who leans in for a hug. If anything, you might say that head lice, well, they follow the love.

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But that’s not what it feels like at first.

When you find a bug on your kiddo, it’s disgusting. Serious heebie-jeebies. And for every one that you see, there are usually a bunch you don’t, including dozens of sticky little eggs (nits) cemented to your child’s hair. Of course, that grossed-out-ness morphs pretty quickly into annoyance. Because getting rid of head lice is a pain. You really do have to comb out your kid’s hair repeatedly, strand by strand, removing bugs and eggs as you find them, being sure to dispose of them in chemicals or bleach, in order to prevent them from crawling right back in again.

And even once you get the infestation under control, then, there’s the embarrassment. We can’t let anyone know. Once you are outed as a head lice family, it feels like the whole town is pointing. As though you purposely infiltrated their homes or gave bugs to their kids during baseball practice. Sometimes it’s enough to make folks shy away from befriending your kid. Which, of course, is heartbreaking. All over a couple of bugs.

So, I am here today to try to reframe the experience. It does not have to be like this.

Because, in addition to everything I have already said, having head lice is also kind of…nice.

Yeah, I said it. Lice can be nice.

If you are (un)lucky enough to discover a louse on one of your children, or (gasp) even on yourself, from that moment, you enter a holding pattern. Whatever you had planned is canceled. Wherever you were heading, you’re not. Instead, it’s kind of like a snow day. You are calling in sick and staying at home. To treat head lice. Which, while irksome, is also among the most old-fashioned of parenting rituals. Like churning butter. Or dipping string into pots of hot wax to make candles. There are plenty of monotonous tasks that bring people joy – weaving, knitting, chanted meditation. Combing out lice can be similar.

I know folks like to hire professional nit-removal companies to handle outbreaks. But I maintain that having head lice is an opportunity – to withdraw, bond, and connect with your kids. We use oil treatments instead of chemicals here at our house. But with either medium, I can’t handle it and do anything else.  When I comb out my kid’s hair, I can’t cook, or clean. Or fuss with my computer. Or play on the phone. I just have to be there, right next to my child, and detangle and talk, and talk and detangle, and try to take the bugs — and the stigma — away.

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It is a long process. If you comb out your kid’s hair in less than an hour, you have probably missed a bunch of bugs. So take your time. Enjoy this forced opportunity to gaze at your kiddo for longer than usual. Savor the break from the busy-ness of customary days. It’s like a vacation without the fuss of packing and actually going anywhere.

And as annoying as head lice can be, it is an opportunity for teaching perspective. It is okay to be initially dramatic. To panic and blame and kvetch. But it is also an opportunity to show kids the difference between an actual problem and a mere nuisance.  To discuss issues that are bigger than a few bugs on a comb. During our most recent louse bout, my daughter and I talked about peer pressure and dating, the Syrian refugee crisis, and veganism. We made plans to work at a soup kitchen over Thanksgiving weekend and to someday hike a portion of the Appalachian trail.

In this way, head lice was a little bit of a gift to us. It afforded us time to talk about things that matter.

If all of that is not enough, there’s the very phrase itself. When you comb eggs out of someone’s hair, you are quite literally “nit-picking.” In almost every other situation, this is an insult. Nobody wants to be nit-picky. But head lice gives you permission to be fastidious. To destroy every last invader. To painstakingly finish a task. I carry around lengthy To-Do lists and end nearly every day with dozens of tasks yet undone. There is something quite satisfying about giving into your inner nag, and completing a picky job.

And finally, a case of head lice is a chance for solidarity. No matter if it’s one kiddo infested or everyone, I always treat my hair, too. I douse it in coconut oil infused with a few drops of tea tree, and lavender, rosemary, or thyme, and I wrap it in an old towel or hair net. I do this for three reasons:

  1. I’m paranoid. It you ever have lice in your house, you will psychosomatically scratch whether you have them or not.
  2. It smells good. There’s nothing like a little aromatherapy to soothe a stressed-out soul.
  3. It is a message to my kids: I will not let them suffer humiliation alone. For all my preaching about the niceties of lice, other kids will sometimes ostracize, ridicule, and judge. I want my kids to see me in this battle with them. I share their discomfort and I am on their side.

If ever these little buggers hop on your little buggers and hitch a ride into your home, take heed. And take advantage of the time. Call off work, mix up some sweet-smelling oils, and grab a tiny comb. And accept the invitation these invaders offer – to be fully present for your children during a time of embarrassment, distress, and love.

 

 

Birthday-mania

You Say It’s Your Birthday?

So it was my birthday again yesterday. As usual, no balloons, no party, no fuss. Unless you count the kids arguing over who got to crack the eggs and their shells into my homemade chocolate cake. Just another day trying to love my children the best that I can.

The photograph you see here is not an AFTER shot. This is not the cake as it was after we had enjoyed our delicious little slices. This is the BEFORE. This is the cake we managed to create when the children complained they did not even like cake, or frosting, and so they wanted sprinkles, and Heath bar pieces, M & M’s, marshmallows, and whipped cream. I cut and plated pieces for all three kids to decorate themselves before we even decorated mine. This crumbling, chocolate Pac-Man cake was the finished product.

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The candles, well, we could only find the six we used back in August for Lizzie’s birthday. They started out as balloons, I think, but after repeated use, they looked like rainbow-colored apples with little half-moon bites taken out of each one. As the kids sang their birthday “Cha-cha-cha,” I could see the candles smiling knowingly at me. “You are almost there,” they implied. “Almost there.”

Because parental birthdays, as many of us have experienced, are a matter of survival. Can we just make it through the day before someone barfs, yells at, or pees on Mom? Any other day, any one of those things happens, and nobody bats an eye. But a birthday? Nobody wants to be the weakest link. And the pressure, Oh the miserable pressure, of trying so hard all day long to be extra special nice to Mommy…it’s exhausting. For everyone.

So as ridiculous as it was to share my cake, my candles, and my day with them, that is the grown-up reality of birthdays with children. I do not blame folks who flee to Vegas or Hawaii or NYC. Or those who cash in their about-to-expire Groupons for an overnight at the Casino or some quaint B & B. But if you are not going to hide from your children on your birthday, you are going to have to share it with them. And they will want a piece of everything. They will take bites out of your cake before you frost it. They will unwrap your presents, blow out your candles, and ask for extra snuggle time when you are trying to drink a freshly brewed cup of birthday tea. This can all seem utterly unreasonable — these demands, these pieces, these needs. But it is actually just love.

And, whether I like it or not, one by one, each of their birthdays long ago replaced my birthday, as the most important day of my life. This one? This old bag? It’s just frosting.

With sprinkles. And marshmallows.

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Awesomeness

Another Exciting Family Ocean Adventure

It was rumored there were whales in the bay today.

My husband and I decided to paddle out and see if it was true.

We brought the children with us.

That may have been a mistake.

Like most of our excursions of late, 66% of our kids professed disdain for and disinterest in the initial plan. Lizzie said she would only come if she could bring her new sketch pad. And markers. And snacks. When we explained that we were kayaking, she called us stupid and hid in her room. When we invited Katie along, she suggested going for fish tacos instead. When we said we’d really like to stick with the whale thing and that maybe we could grab food after, she told us we were ruining her life and flopped down on the living room floor. Only 3-year-old Henry agreed to come whale watching. He grabbed his five favorite stuffed animals and hopped in the car. It was only later that we learned he thought we were going to a movie theater.

We very nearly left them all at home. Hiring a sitter would have been easier. But, dammit, we were offering them a maritime adventure and they were acting like we’d said, “take out the trash.” Despite everything I have learned lately from the awesome book I’m reading about listening to my kids, I refused to take NO for an answer. It took us nearly two hours of cajoling, bribery, anger, and arguments, but in the end, we got all three children into those boats.dadvmom.com_ataleofatail_katiepaddling

This was not actually our first oceanbound endeavor to see sea life. Several years ago, we boarded a whale-watching zodiac off the coast of Victoria, British Columbia. After what seemed like fourteen hours of searching, our captain idled the motor long enough to show us a children’s picture book of what the whales might have looked like had we seen any at all. We returned to shore without sighting so much as a pelican.

A few weeks ago, Ken took the kids on a dolphin boat that failed to find any dolphins, and a lobster dive that resulted in near hypothermia, zero crustaceans, and dinner at a Chinese restaurant. But today felt different. Today, the whales were out there. And we were going to find them.

When we rented the kayaks, the gal assured us that it was only a “quick 2- to 3-mile paddle” out to where the animals had last been sighted. The water was described as “glassy” when we called to reserve the boats, but by the time we had had all of the arguments we needed to have, about markers, movies, and tacos, and actually found ourselves and our grumpy progeny seated in the kayaks, visibility had begun to diminish and the wind was blowing steadily onshore.

Still, we shoved off. Our paddles were identical, but Katie and I argued over who got the better one, and Lizzie yelled at Dad because the sea lion colony was too smelly. But we kept going. We rounded the breakwater toward the open ocean and found ourselves looking at 15-mile-an-hour winds and 2- to 3-foot swells. For true sea kayakers, these were still pretty good conditions. But for folks like us, who ate hushpuppies for breakfast, and had several passengers as moody ballast, the conditions were quite challenging. After the eleventh wave broke into the bow of his boat, Ken suggested we turn back. Considering the conditions, our ability levels, and the family temperament, reason was on his side. The children had probably been right about this “dumb stupid trip to see dumb stupid fish.”

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“Let’s keep going,” I said. I wasn’t ready to fold. At least we would get a workout in.

And workout we did.

We pointed our banana yellow kayaks toward a sailboat leaning along on the horizon, and paddled as though we might be able to catch up.

That’s when Ken saw a spout of vertical spray several hundred yards in the distance. None of the rest of us had seen it. He told me later about the cartoonlike gush of blowhole spray. He signaled to me and we picked up our pace.

We paddled swiftly for another hundred yards and that’s when Katie saw the tale. She shrieked and pointed, “I see it! I see it!” Ken’s boat cut in front of ours, and soon all of them were pointing and screaming about the whales.

Whenever we go visit my in-laws in the Texas hill country, we look for shooting stars. Away from the lights of the city, they are actually a pretty frequent occurrence. But I almost never see them. The crick in my neck gets to be too much. I crouch down to tie somebody’s shoe. I zip to the bathroom. Inevitably, I look away at the very moment the golden star streaks through the sky.

I felt the same way today. There were shrieks of delight from Ken’s boat as he and the little ones got closer and closer to the feeding grounds. Katie exclaimed repeatedly from the front of our boat, “Mom, did you see that?” “Did you see that?” Each time, of course, my answer was “No.” I am the only one in our family who wears glasses. I struggle to see things that are far away. My dollar store sunglasses merely compound this nearsightedness. Thus, I did not see the whale breach. I did not see it slap its tale or poke its nose above the surface. I did not see the water blowing vertically twenty feet into the air. Ken yelled that the whales were swimming away from us. I squinted my eyes against the sun glare, scanned the empty horizon, and kept paddling us out to sea.

I consoled myself. Wasn’t it more important, the most important thing, actually, for me to get my children out there? Wasn’t that a mom’s job? To be a vehicle of strength and opportunity, to chauffeur kids right up to wonderful moments, even if that meant never actually seeing the wonders myself? Even though my kids had been jerkasauruses, I knew they were going to remember this day for the rest of their lives. The day their mom and dad paddled them into the open ocean to see whales feeding. I would not ruin the memory by pouting about how I had not actually seen anything.

And then a tale stood straight up in the water in front of me. It was still fifty yards in front of our boat. But finally close enough for me to see. And hear. The low thump of an enormous animal stunning its prey. It was remarkable. Nothing like the picture of the whale in the children’s book. Majestic. Awe-inspiring. And a teensy bit scary. For nearly ten minutes, we watched these animals – there were three of them – thrashing, diving, and feeding. And then they disappeared as quickly as they had come.

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So very often, as parents, our schemes do not pay off. It rained on our camping trip. The hike to the waterfall was a bust. But, finally, here was an adventure that exceeded all of our expectations.

“If I had stayed home, we probably never would have seen them,” said Katie.

I considered arguing with her. Or turning her words into some sort of lesson. Instead, I just nodded my head.

We scanned the horizon, but we never saw the whales again.

It was hard to believe we had actually seen them at all.  In fact, when we looked at home later for photos and videos of the encounter, none of us had caught anything on tape. We had been too excited at first, and then, simply too far away.

Luckily, families are one another’s witnesses. We hold each other’s memories in our hearts.

“You are right, sweetheart,” I said to Katie. “Thanks so much for coming along.”

We turned our boats around, and with the sun setting behind us, paddled back to shore.

 

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(This is what it felt like to be near the whale tale.  Except it was not raining.  It was a different kind of whale.  And also we were much farther away.  This tail is from an upcoming Ron Howard movie, In the Heart of the Sea, which appears to be the opposite of our experience.  But which I will probably see anyway because, you know, whales.  And popcorn.)

 

Awesomeness

Bravery Takes Practice

I took my 10-year-old daughter to the Hollywood sign last week.  On clear days, we can see it from our house, and we’ve always talked about hiking up.  There is an easy route, heavy with tourist traffic, paved and well marked.  There is also a difficult one.  Two miles of rocky terrain and a thousand-foot elevation change.  That was the path we took.  At one point, the rocky trail traversed a ridge with a 300-foot drop on one side.  I made sure to keep Katie close to me for that part.

We’ve gotten better at these sorts of adventures.  I have become more patient.  Katie seldom cries anymore.   And though she is bold by nature, bravery still takes practice.  So, every few weeks, we plan an outing, and we test ourselves.  This time, it was the tough trail to the Hollywood sign. On other occasions, we have hiked the Grand Canyon, canoed white-water rapids, and snorkeled with leopard sharks (that one could have gone better).DadvMom.com_WhyWePracticeBeingBrave_SeaLions

Watching a movie, or playing video games together, would be easier.  And safer too.  Unless, that is, one weighs the risks of a childhood without adventure, of entering adulthood without having learned to navigate real challenges.  Sure, bad things might happen.  But such is the case with most things worth doing.  It’s the case with life itself. For my kids, the best way to learn the difference between risks worth taking, and ones better left alone, is to practice.

After our hike, Katie showed pictures to her friends.  A few were wide-eyed at the sight of the cliff.  She said, “Adventures are worth the mishaps.”  It’s clearly a borrowed phrase, and I am not sure Katie entirely grasps what it means.  But I like that her brain is starting to work that way.  She is beginning to understand the kinds of rewards that such endeavors can bring.  In time, she will appreciate the depth of character they can build.  And although our weekend exploits are mostly about the physical, they do feed another kind of bravery.

Only some of the challenges Katie is sure to face in life will require brawn.  The greatest tests will be moral ones.  I want her to be prepared, bold not only in the face of physical dangers, but brave in the way she treats others.  As proud as I am when she scales a cliff or surfs a big wave, nothing compares to what I feel when she draws on bravery to be kind.  As a ten-year-old, that may be as simple as inviting the new kid to sit with her at lunch – which she has done.  As a grown-up, standing up for others will involve far greater risks.

I can hope against hope that Katie will never be tested that way, never find herself staring down a mob or defending innocent lives in a warzone.  If I had my way, her greatest moral challenges would involve writing op-eds for the local paper or getting the school library to stock good books (you know, the ones with dangerous ideas). But I know my kid.  She is moved by the suffering of others, and will help those in need wherever that may lead.

That is why we practice being brave.  Some day, Katie will have to draw from the well we have filled together.  In that moment, she will learn how deep it goes.  And maybe, if I have done my job right, she will remember my hand on her shoulder, guiding her past the cliffs towards the big white sign over the next ridge.

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A version of this story appeared on Fatherly.com on Nov. 2, 2015.