Goals & Dreams & Sandwiches


When I was growing up, Lent was bleak. There were no donuts. The Girl Scouts delivered cookies that we could no longer eat. Once again, fish reared its ugly head at dinnertime. We went without things we loved (usually sweets) and were grumpy, or we cheated and felt guilty until Easter came, when Jesus rose, and there were jelly beans for all.

This time of year can be tricky as a parent. The holidays are over, winter is dragging on and on. We could all use a little infusion. A little reminder that spring will come again. Call it Lent. Call it Random Acts of Kindness. Call it Love. But if you are finding yourselves or your family in a slump, try some of these. I’m going to post the list and have the kids check one on those days we just need a little boost.


*Make your own ashes. Let go of old habits, sad stories that no longer serve you. Write them down or say them aloud. Watch those ideas go up in smoke. (Thanks, Glennon Melton, for this idea )

*Get bundled up and go for a walk together. If it is daylight, look for signs of spring.

*Call someone you love.

*Exercise together. If you are snowbound, pop in a workout video. Or bundle up and go run around the house. Or have each family member pick an exercise or two and everyone else can try it. Have fun being active together.

*Call a local food bank or meal provider. Donate canned goods and non-perishables. Or volunteer to help prepare or serve a meal to those in need.

*Plan and cook a simple meal together. Let the kids pick the foods even if they don’t “go together.”

*Gather for a compliment circle. Tell one another something you value or admire.

*Bring someone flowers ‘just because.’

*Put money in a tip jar.

*Fix something around the house that has been broken for a while. (For kids, this can even mean changing light bulbs.)

*Have a FREE stand – free donuts, or cocoa, or lemonade, or poems, or art work, or songs, or toys from your house you no longer need. If anyone insists on paying, give the money to a local charity.

*Have a family game night.

*Plant – garden vegetable seeds, flowers, herbs. Enjoy seeing green during the winter.

*Try a new sport or activity – ice skating, roller skating, trampoline, kayaking, library book club, knitting, yoga, swimming, karate, piano. Dare to do something you’ve always meant to do.

*Write a letter or draw a picture and mail it to someone you haven’t seen in awhile. Let them know they are special.

*Offer to babysit for another family.

*Visit an animal shelter. Ask if they have a list of needed items. Pick something and supply it.

*Bring a box of Kleenex, markers, hand sanitizer, or glue sticks to school. Teachers often purchase these items out-of-pocket this time of year.

*Snuggle on the couch with the television and computer turned off. Instead, read books aloud or tell stories.

*Have a donation scavenger hunt. Walk around the house and fill a bag with items to give away.

*Look at old photographs. Share the stories they capture.

*At dinner tonight, tell one another three things you are grateful for.

*Bake together. Share some of your cookies or muffins, etc. with your neighbors.

*Sing today.

*Dance today.

*Clean today. Scrub the toilets inside the house. Pick up trash outside the house. It does not matter what, just pick something and make it shine.

*Be affectionate today. Smile at one another for no reason. Say, “I love you” for no reason. Hug.

*Share memories of favorite family recipes. Pick one to try to recreate today.

*Wash each other’s feet.

*Whether it is for church, brunch, or your next family gathering, select a nice outfit to wear. Have everyone know what they are wearing to de-stress the process of getting a well-dressed family out the door.

Revised Feb. 9, 2016 — I started Lent a day early this year.  My To-Do List has been growing of late, and I noticed a trend:  I notoriously skip appointments related to my own health and well-being.  I am 14 months overdue at the dentist.  My teeth have begun to feel furry.  We have a family history of breast cancer, and I’ve still never been for a mammogram.  The dermatologist, my hairdresser, the guy who does the brakes on my car…all received calls from me today.  Sometimes, in our desire to care completely for our families, we forget ourselves.  Feels good to be entering this season with balance.

Also, I ate the rest of the girl scout cookies.  It made sense at the time.   

3-Beauty-out-of-ashes-600x350 copy






February 14.  The one holiday when it is impossible not to think just a teensy bit about the L-word.

Lima beans.

Wait, that’s two words. Okay, then. LOVE.

If you have not yet read Mandy Len Catron’s New York Times article entitled, “To Fall in Love With Anyone, Do This,” please go do that now. Seriously, it is better than anything I am about to say.

However, if you have already read it, or have just returned from reading it, please continue. I have a thought or two on the subject.

I have just finished helping my kiddos prepare their Valentine’s cards, a process that began with excitement, was hindered by crying and dishevelment — not unlike most projects around here – and ended with a sort of weary pride. This year, the prevailing argument centered on why I never let them buy the pre-fab boxed cards.

“Because that is cheating,” I said.

“Cheating?” said the Katie, the oldest. “But Valentine’s Day isn’t a test.”

“Besides, Mom,” complained my 5-year-old, “I can’t even draw a good heart.” It was at approximately this point in the evening that little Lizzie fled to her room to cry in her closet.

I had told the kids that hand-made cards were more thoughtful, and that Valentine’s Day was a chance to share our kind feelings with those we loved.

“But I don’t love most of these people, Mom,” Katie complained. “They are just kids in my class.”

Later, after the cards were completed and the kids were tucked in bed, I looked over Lizzie’s pile of professed mess-ups. There were more than two-dozen attempts to draw a heart. All of them lovely. So earnest. So sweet. So much like her. But she had had an idea in her head about what the perfect Valentine was to look like, and no amount of cajoling by me could bring her around to the idea that all of her hearts were wonderful.

Once again, I think I failed to teach the lesson I thought I was teaching.

Here’s the thing: Valentine’s Day is kind of stupid. Kids sending meaningless cards to other kids is stupid. For most of us, Valentine’s Day is just one more excuse to eat more candy than we should, drink more wine than we need, and argue with the person we love about why he/she didn’t buy us something better.

But, as a kid, I freaking loved Valentine’s Day. I would look carefully at each card I received in my brown paper lunch bag. Had Todd signed Love, Todd to everyone or just me? Did Jeff purposely give me the card with a red heart instead of a pink one? Everyone knew red hearts were more romantic. Of course, now that I have children of my own, I am certain that neither Jeff nor Todd nor any of the other half-dozen or so boys I professed to “love” on those Valentine’s Days gave much thought at all to their cards. They were doing what my kids were doing: just trying to get them done.

These days, teachers are smart. Both of my girls were asked not to put the recipients’ names on the Valentines. “Just pass out one to everyone,” Mrs. M. encouraged. That way, no one got anything special from anyone else. And, of course, no one got hurt.

Except we lose something, don’t we? when we treat everyone exactly the same. If Valentine’s Day serves any purpose whatsoever, it is a yearly reminder to demonstrate affection, to allow ourselves to know and be known.

Which gets me back to Mandy Len Catron’s piece. Catron referenced a study conducted twenty years ago by a psychologist, Arthur Aron, that purported to create love in a laboratory. In the study, two strangers were simply asked to answer a series of questions together. The end result: affection. Catron tried this same “experiment” herself, and described the strange intimacy of passing an evening puzzling through Aron’s questions with a person she barely knew.

It seems to me that all of us, whether we are in a relationship or not, could benefit from an infusion of laboratory-tested intimacy. Maybe this Valentine’s Day, instead of dinner or a movie, just sit and talk to someone you love (or are hoping to love). Not fake talk, of celebrity gaffes or television plots. But real talk. Find someone you love and answer some questions together.

This Valentine’s Day, allow yourself to be known.


For those who need extra encouragement, I’ll start:

Question # 4 – What would constitute a “perfect” day for you?

Years ago, this probably would have involved lying on a beach in a far off land or attempting to sing and dance on a Broadway stage. But these days, my perfect day is simpler. I would awaken feeling rested, having slept more than enough. I would eat breakfast in a chair, a proper eggs and bacon on a plate situation, rather than toast balanced on the washing machine or chips munched as I pack lunches. I would tell my kids I love them and see them walk safely into school among friends. I would exercise hard — run and lift and jump — and not hear a peep from my wonky knee or Achilles. I would bathe afterwards, and wash and comb my hair. I would remember to wear deodorant. I would write, read, and laugh with people I love. And then I would sleep some more. [As I read over this answer, it sounds so DULL, but honestly, most days, I don’t manage any of this.]

Question #30 – When did you last cry in front of another person?

Last Thursday. At Target. In broad daylight. And much to the chagrin of the lady working in Customer Service. To be fair, it had been a difficult shopping excursion. I had a sick kid. I was late for a party. I couldn’t find the tablecloths. No one would help me. Looking back, I don’t even know what triggered it, except that the lady in my checkout line was roughly the seventh person who had failed to help me that day. Raising kids takes a village and, that day, I was a shoddy solo act. I had all kinds of keenly mean things to say – about decency, and dignity, and the kind of women we should be to one another in this difficult world. Instead, I cried. More on that here.

Happy Valentine’s Day. Laugh. Cry. Go let yourself be known.



Christmas Cards Against Humanity

I am not sending Christmas cards this year.

This is not news. I did not mail any last year. Or the year before.

In fact, the only time I ever attempted December correspondence en masse was fifteen years ago, when we got puppies. I bought antlers and a Santa hat, and took photographs of our furry babies. I printed wallet-sized images on do-it-yourself photo paper – you know, in case my friends wanted to carry my dogs in their wallets – and made a list of forty-two folks whom I figured deserved a letter. In the end, I wrote, addressed, and mailed maybe six cards. I have not tried again since.

The holidays are busy and sending cards is a chore. I am flabbergasted anyone manages to do it. As a perpetual recipient and lackluster sender, I have developed a few theories about why these missives continue to crowd my December mailbox.

  1. Narcissism

Where there used to be images of shepherds or candles, cards are now adorned with portraits of perfect families. Archangel Gabriel is out. The Nguyen-Chestertons are in. When I rip open the envelopes, I am greeted by ruddy-cheeked children in gingham and plaid. There’s the family at Disney. And again at the seashore. Isn’t it neat how everyone is wearing khakis?

  1. Competitiveness

If you send someone a card this year, the rules state that they should reciprocate. If two years pass unrequited, you don’t need to waste any more stamps. They’ve moved on. And if at the neighbor’s eggnog soirée you notice a card on the mantle that should have gone to you, it is permissible to throw it in the fire. It is like a grown up game of Pokémon, or bad reality TV — The Real Holiday Cards of Somerset County.

  1. Duty

Every year, on December 8th, my grandmother used to set up a folding table in the downstairs bedroom, lock the door, and “do the cards.” She rolled up her sleeves and did the dirty business of communicating with family and friends. Who got married? Who dropped out of school? Who got pregnant with someone else’s baby, but we are all okay with it and the christening was Sunday. We send cards because we are supposed to. It’s what separates us from the goats.

  1. Love

Despite the fact that I see most of my friends on Facebook, and we exchange phone calls, emails, and Tweets, I still love receiving their preposterously darling cards. Especially the ones with actual writing – elementary school penmanship brought out once a year, just for me. And for those friends I haven’t seen in years, the ones off the grid — keeping bees in Cleveland, curing meats in Poughkeepsie — these cards are our only tether. I have watched hairlines recede and families grow and blossom. And I have watched my friends grow up happy. That is how I get to think of them year after year.

No matter where you come down on holiday cards — narcissist or Santa, baby Jesus or Grinch — I hope we can agree on one thing: they make for one hell of a drinking game. Some time this season, when you can’t face another ugly sweater party or white elephant exchange, just deal out the Christmas cards and pour the tequila. The rules are simple. One shot for fall foliage, two for matching cardigans, three for kids cuter than yours. And chug the whole bottle, worm and all, for anyone ridiculous enough to put antlers on a dog and send out wallet pics.


Originally published in the New York Observer.  Special thanks to my Aunt Kathy for the image of Grandma “doing the cards.”







You Say It’s My Birthday?

Another birthday has come and gone.

My children, God bless them, tried so hard.

All day, they squabbled incessantly trying to celebrate me. “No, I want to sit next to Mom!” “But it’s MY turn!” They shoved one another off the couch, and argued over who got to unwrap the presents they offered. The sunscreen. The stapler. The pancake mix.

There were the usual culinary efforts. Lizzie made me a box of macaroni and cheese, her favorite, and then she and Henry ate it themselves.

Katie measured the baking soda for the cupcakes and learned that “not all spoons are teaspoons.” The density of the puck-like cakes notwithstanding, this really was one of her better birthday confections. I much preferred it to the gluten-free pineapple upside-down porridge of a year ago.



This year, the children even gave me some alone time to write, journeying with their father to the 99 Cents Only Store. They returned with provisions for a new activity on the birthday agenda – Spa Time.

The basic rules are these:

1. Plunk Mom in the bathtub with her feet in a cold soak.

2. Slather her in cheap skin products.

3. Smile.

I am a person who eschews bottled fragrances. My children know this. I don’t favor perfumes, body sprays, or scented roll-on deodorants. Hand lotion makes me sweat. And I have never understood aromatherapy, unless is the actual real-life smell of cinnamon rolls or chocolate chip cookies. However, for tonight, my daughters had forgotten all that. And for tonight, I sucked it up. After all, it was my birthday present.

A sampling of the evening’s offerings included:

*Mango bubble bath

*Apricot facial scrub

*Coconut foot lotion

*Almond milk hand cream

*Lemon butter cuticle cream

*Mint chocolate lip balm

*And a lavender-scented eye mask.

My girls took turns applying all of it with a wash cloth that smelled like a moldy sock.

While Katie played aesthetician, Lizzie offered me a backrub she called the “poke and scratch.”

I hated every minute of it.

And I loved every minute of it.

Because even though my hands still itch from the horror the kids massaged into my palms, and my toenails are now painted hooker hot pink, for forty-five minutes, my daughters tried to pamper me, to say “We Love You, Mommy!” in the most indulgent way they could imagine. Somewhere beneath the sodium laureth sulfate and yellow number 5 was the admission that Mom’s days are stressful because of us. Tonight, because it was my birthday, they sought to give me ease.

It was a misery. And it was wonderful.