A Universal Time-Out

 

Life around here is always pretty full. But this past summer, when 80 degree days were in full swing, I had a particularly busy period, brimming with photo jobs and settling back in from vacation. A bathroom floor we were trying to finish, along with getting ready for a party with 40 people at my house and a visit from my dad. I was bustling around doing too many things at once. And I can operate there for a while, quite productively. But we are not machines meant to go at high speeds for long periods of time, at least not without some rest periods. There are seasons for everything.

I believe that if we don’t take these rests for ourselves, the universe hands them out to us. Like the next playing card you pick up in Monopoly. I call this The Universal Time-Out.

I rarely take these time-outs for myself. Rather, I wait until a brick wall in the form of some nasty cold or injury to take me out completely.  This past summer when I was running around trying to get it all done? I cut my hand on a glass jar. Deep enough to stop me from cleaning or sanding a bathroom floor. Or doing much of anything for the better part of a week. And it hurt.

“Nope. You’re in time out” said the Universe. And I took it. Because then I had no damn choice.

So I’ve been looking for these little moments. These places where I find myself in time-out (like a long grocery line or a slow-moving toddler). Places where I could pause and let it be. Because my instinct, truth be told, is to go running around “fixing” it. Find a shorter line. Hurry the kid along. Just make it happen. But I think there are lessons to be learned from the sitting still.

This morning I sat down with my brand new and lovely fingerling yarn to teach myself to knit some socks for the very first time. I had my knitting basket full of everything I’d need. My iPad with the pattern on it. A book to listen to once I got going. Lincoln was all nice and quiet with his toys because it’s Monday and Brice is in school so he can play with whatever he wants.

And then I took out my knitting and realized that I had to make the skein into a ball. But, that’s okay. That’ll be fine.

It took about 45 seconds to realize that “okay” or “fine” weren’t really the correct words. And within 3 minutes, I had a nice tangled mess of lovely yarn that must be dealt with before I can even start to make socks.  I don’t even know how it happened.

And I suppose I could just set the yarn down and go about the rest of my life.  There is always something to do.

But maybe, the universe is telling me that today is a good day to curl up and untangle some yarn.

I think today, I will listen.

 

 

 

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Two Years

 

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It’s the crunch of the leaves and the smells of this season. The cold bite of the wind through a warm day and the dark blue of the sky.  It’s how the steam rises from rooftops on crisp mornings when the sun hits them, and how the vines that grow all over my house are changing color. All of it signifies this season of fall.

It’s my favorite season. It always has been. Though I’ve always loved the hot days of summer, there is something about the way autumn shows up. How beautifully it is able to let it all go.

Which is precisely why, though I would still call this season my favorite, I’m kind of disenchanted with it at the moment.

My mom fell and broke her pelvis two years ago today. In the busiest period of my life, amidst the crunching leaves and beautiful changing colors. Like so many pivotal moments, time stood still and I noticed. I noticed so clearly the colors and smells and feelings of that fall. Because I was clinging to some normalcy outside of the everyday life that was taking away my mom.

As soon as I found out about her pelvis, I knew that it was the end. I recalled her doctor telling us the previous winter that she probably had one year left, give or take, unless she fell and broke a hip, in which case she’d be gone in a month. As it turns out, she lasted almost 2 months after her injury. But she was not the same, and in so many ways, who my mother was left her after she fell. She was heavily medicated, still in a lot of pain, and her whole body was shutting down. There was a handful of very lucid moments that almost gave me hope, but mostly she used those times to settle her affairs and say her goodbyes.

But it’s two years later and I so badly want to enjoy this lovely season. To feel happy about it, but mixed in is the bitterness of those terrible 2 months. Because we are creatures of habit who look to the past to guide us. And this lovely autumn makes me think of falling in love when I was 16. It also reminds me of the lovely October day that I met my husband, and when my niece Addison was born, and trick or treating as a kid. And my mother dying.  Autumn has become all of those things for me.

I tell myself, because it’s true, that we are beings that get to choose. We can only think of one thing at a time. Our brain does not have to run the show. We can choose our thoughts, but like all things, this is a practice. And a work in progress.

I will have to choose the joy-filled moments, over and over, for the rest of my life. There is no one-stop-shop where I can purchase a bag of something and be fine about my mother’s death. The hard stuff, like the great stuff, is built in as a part of our foundation. We would not even be us without it.

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So I will take today, with the lovely autumn light and the wind blowing brightly colored leaves off the trees, and I will miss my mom. I will let myself be sad right now. And then I’m going to remind myself of a better memory every time the breeze tries to pull me back to sadder times. I will bring my mother with me through my life in search of what is beautiful and worth remembering. I know that this is how she wants me to carry her with me.

Mr. Watts

 

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This is Watts. He’s our big orange tomcat. Can you tell he thinks he owns the place?

We adopted him from my cousin’s farm a few years ago. He was tiny and hungry and needed a home. He came to us startlingly protective of his food, and sort of fierce, yet willing to cuddle up in my sweatshirt and nap. He got really sick when he was still a tiny guy and we had to get him IV antibiotics. We were all so worried that you’d have thought he was a real baby. He is the least friendly cat I’ve ever owned, but even with his “dark side” as we call it, we all love him so much.

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Even as a tiny kitten, he has always been a commanding force. My niece Riley started calling him Mr. Watts when he was just a couple months old, and it fit so much that we still call him Mr. Watts. Which is funny because we don’t really stand on ceremony around here and the only people we give titles to are teachers. And cats, apparently.

Watts will gently headbump Steve, or try to clean my face if he’s in the mood. But most times, he accept a handful of pets from Steve or me before he gets frisky and starts to warn us to knock it off. He doesn’t hurt us, but I wouldn’t really test him. He puts his teeth on our hand without hurting us, just enough to tell us to back the hell off. He’ll come hang out with us on the porch or in the living room, but he insists on having his own chair and would never sit with us or beside us.

That said, Watts is the animal who would protect us from some evil force should we need it. I have no doubt that if something bad occurred, Watts would go down swinging as the one who tried to save us all. He will occasionally be cuddly and want our affection, but the majority of the time, he merely tolerates our affection.

When I took him to the vet the last time, he kind of freaked out and wouldn’t let anyone touch him. Not even me. They gave him something to calm him down and sent us home with a borrowed pet crate, for the protection of all of us. So, he’s kind of a wild card.

You can see why we might worry about bringing, say, a little kitten, into in the house.

Only here’s the thing about my tough guy Watts. He loves babies.

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All babies of all kinds. He loves the kids in some way that makes him seem like a completely different cat. His patience with them far exceeds what any other cat I’ve had would accept. He is happy to be cuddled with and kissed and dragged around. He works diligently to sneak into their rooms at night so he can sleep with them. He is mellow and sweet. He is a lover.


Every day, I watch my big beast of a cat play with our tiny kitten, Eleven. She wraps her paws around his neck and bites. In return, he cleans her. She wrestles him and bites him and he allows it. He plays back so gently that she doesn’t need to cry out. He wouldn’t hurt her. It warms my heart, this love. This sweet gentle love coming from my tough guy.

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It makes me think we all have this. These gifts hiding just on the other side of our dark side. That even a rough and tumble tomcat has a gentle side. A kryptonite that turns him to putty.

We all have something that make us crumble and turn to love.

My 3rd Parent and My 5th Child

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Two years ago today we moved into our lovely old house. It was built in 1896, so this place is celebrating its 120th birthday this year, as we celebrate 2 years of calling it home. I refer to this place as “mine,” but more accurately we are the caretakers here. There have been others before us and there will be more after. This house sees generations of humans, where I get one human lifetime.

On one of my favorite tv shows, a man owns an estate and a castle. He refers to his home as his 3rd parent and his 4th child. When I first heard that, something ran through me that left goosebumps. I completely understood the weight of that.

This big old house that I call mine is my 3rd parent and my 5th child…

In the way that it keeps me warm and dry, a safe haven of love and acceptance in a scary world. 24/7, always here for me. I never even think to doubt it.

In the way that it has constant needs and demands, always requiring my hands on it to fill cracks and sweep out corners and give attention. Such constant cries for my attention and affection.

In the way that it takes my time and my love, and seems to breathe it all right back into the people who step inside.  This home feels more like a person than a place.

Maybe it is the 120 years of history and stories and families that have lived here. Or maybe it’s because we believe this house chose us. But either way, it IS a part of our family. This may not make sense to you, but then I’m guessing you haven’t been here.

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I spent a lot of my adult life with a lot of responsibilities and not a lot of money. I had a couple decent places to live but mostly pretty crappy ones. I rented what I could afford, and often had very little heat or money or food and life was really hard. I dreamed for many years of a warm old house with extra bedrooms and plenty of bathrooms and room for all of us to gather or be alone at times. And two years ago, that wish came true.

If I could create any home, any place on earth to tuck away and be safe and sound from the storms of life, it would be here. With its flowery wallpaper inside and it’s vines growing up the walls outside. I feel lucky every day to be here, even when I’m scrubbing hundreds of windows. But especially today, as we celebrate 2 years caring for this parent/child house of ours. This dream come true.

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*** I sometimes write about how much I love my life and I worry that people think things are all “perfect” and I totally “have it together.” No one should be under the impression that I do not bitch about my big old house from time to time. ‘Cause I do. Nor should you be confused that I have a perfect life, as I do not. My toddler refused to leave his high chair all morning so I let him to watch 5 episodes of Barbie Dreamhouse because it kept him reigned in and allowed me to write to you kind folks…

 

Who My Son is Supposed To Be

 

My son Lincoln loves Frozen. Not so much the movie anymore, now that everyone in the house has it memorized. But he loves to play with his purple Frozen bucket in the sand box. And his pink and blue Frozen pajamas are such a hit that it’s a holy battle to get him to take them off. So when we went shopping for new shoes last weekend, he picked out fuchsia Frozen Crocs with Anna and Olaf on them. He looked around the whole store at all of the shoes, but these were the shoes that he clutched to his chest and carried proudly to the checkout.

 

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Lincoln loves dinosaurs and dragons, and he likes trucks. But he gets lost for an hour playing in the doll house that we found on Varagesale. It’s not unusual to find he’s carrying the set of babies that came with it around in his chubby little hands.

He gets excited about the real construction equipment that is working on the next block, but he could mostly take or leave the trucks at home. He does like to play with Optimus Prime on occasion, but I think that might be more about getting his big brothers undies in a bundle.

I spent a lot of my life doing “should be” things, for myself and my kids. Girls “should be” dressed a certain way. I “should be” a certain way. Boys “should” only play with certain toys.

Some of the norms we teach in our society are necessary, like manners, and hygiene. But some of the things we teach are not that important. Like what color our shoes are, or how we like to spend our spare (or play) time. They are small stuff but sometimes we talk about them until we convince everyone they are actually big stuff.

I’ve learned that some of the things I was brought up to believe (though taught to me with the best of intentions) do not fit me. I was not given the whole story, only the parts that our society and my particular family thought best for me. This is true for all of us.

We don’t have to take on all of the “supposed to be’s” in life. We don’t even have to pick them up. We are beings that get to choose. It is what makes us human. That, and the fact that we are all alike, but different.

Lincoln is just Lincoln, with his own set of unique fingerprints and his own multitudes of personality. A small human being with his own likes and dislikes. And fuchsia shoes.

I have no idea who he’ll “turn out” to be. But I’m going to do all I can to let him figure it out.

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A Year Without My Mom

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I’ve been thinking back about my mom. It’s been almost a year since she died, and the weather and the start of Christmas and Thanksgiving and all of it reminds me of her. And how even though I saw it all coming, it still managed to shake me so completely that she was gone.

The thing about looking back is that it’s really only helpful briefly. We have a tendency to give our pasts (both the good and bad parts) a lot of weight and importance. And it’s good to reflect, to learn from our past, to give it space and respect and reverence or whatever it deserves. The problem starts when we set up shop and start to live there. This seems especially common with the death of loved ones.

We wrap ourselves up in the memories of those we lost, like some warm cozy blanket. And for a moment it is all warm and cozy, but only until we remember that the past is all wrapped up into one. The jagged, pointy, barbed-wire part of our past is still in there too. And still hurts.

But we reason that at least the hurt reminds us of the one we lost, and so we stay wrapped up in our cozy-spiky blanket of the past, not realizing that there is a whole world we’re missing  that is going on RIGHT NOW but that we’ll never see or find this from our blanket.

It’s hard not to do this. Grief is a process, just like life is a process. But I don’t want to lie around in that blanket anymore. Mom wouldn’t want me to either.

There is this stupid app called Timehop. Have you heard of it? I shouldn’t call it stupid because I actually really like it. It’s always felt harmless, fun and sweet, and I thought it would bring nothing but good memories to enrich my life. It’s like the Facebook Memories thing, only Timehop did it first, so I’ve had it running on my phone for years. I see cool old photos and blog posts and where I was at and how far I’ve come. But then the damn thing updated and changed the settings and thus started to include old text messages that live on my phone. From my mom, cause that’s who I texted mostly. Messages from my mom. That’s what Timehop, and technology in general, started sending me.

At first, this was maybe August or September when it changed, the messages were welcome. She bought pumpkin cream cheese for Steve and a coloring book for Brice and a hat for Lincoln. The message were sweet because they were ours,  just setting up rides for her or visits, conveying our days and lives. Lots of “I love you’s”. So many “I love you’s”.

So I let the messages stay. But I knew what was coming. I knew she was going to fall on October 11th  and break her pelvis and that I would find a message that she needed help. I knew that it was coming but I didn’t shut the messages off.

Because, how could I? My mom’s last words to me every morning when I woke up. Like a gift, but with barbed wire inside waiting to show up.

Because now, looking back to a year ago this week, the messages are just really, really sad. Just heartbreaking. And this icy morning and the cold and everything suddenly feels so much like that time. Only she’s been gone almost a year and I don’t want it to feel so close anymore. I don’t want to remember the, “Dropped buzzer and can’t breathe. Call nurse for help?” anymore. I don’t want to keep reliving her death, but it’s hard not to. Even without the messages, it would be hard not to.

My calendar for this weekend said “No matter how hard the past, you can begin again.” I love the Buddhist proverbs for their simplicity. Not easy, but simple, nonetheless.

I will always miss my mom. This I know now. This will be a truth for the remainder of my days. Our parents bring us to life and then show us our own mortality in their passing. The show us the way.

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But I don’t always have to think about the bad parts though. I don’t actually have to think about that at all. I choose it, just as I choose to think of happy memories. Or to try to focus my thoughts on my current moments or some happy thoughts of the future. It’s up to me. I don’t have to let my thoughts run wild like a toddler.

So here’s what I did today instead:

I wrote to all of you about it. Because it’s the keeping it all in that gives our sad and heart-achy thoughts their power.

Then I changed the  settings for the Timehop app on my phone so that I don’t get old messages anymore. I don’t want it to keep bringing it back, and though I didn’t invite it, I was letting it in.

Then I made salt dough handprints with the boys. Because my mom did that with me, and it seemed a much nicer way to remember her.

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Thoughts From a Mother’s Heart

 

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Me with my mom, 1974.

 

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My oldest and my youngest, 2014.

I didn’t hand pick my children. They came to me as they were, with imperfections and sweetness and the smell of baby. And I loved them with all of me from the start. This is true of all mothers, I think. It feels built in and huge and primal to love them so completely, even though they aren’t some perfect fine china that I went out and selected. They come as they are.

This is very similar to life. We don’t choose ours, at least not our starting point. We get dropped in with parents in some house or city and life and we don’t know any different. By the time we can really think about it at all, our lives are merely our lives. Normal to us.

On this note, I think often about how privileged I am. I got dropped into a home with heat and running water in the cold Wisconsin landscape in 1974, a privileged time to be born in America. I had clothes and plenty of food and Christmas presents and good schools and parents who loved me. My life has never been perfect and I’ve had my share of hard times, like most of us. But I was set up for thriving in the place and time that I was born.

Again, I did nothing to earn this. Like a lighting strike, all factors came together and I came to be. If there is more to it than that, I have yet to prove it.

I’ve been feeling actually sick about the Syrian refugees. Because like me, they didn’t hand pick their children or their life, but I have to believe they love them with the same ancient old mother’s heart that beats through all women. (Yes, all women, even those that aren’t mothers, because we all have it. We are born from it. )

So I’m thinking of these moms trekking across treacherous landscapes and oceans with their babies. You know, the babies that they love like we love ours? Of course they do.

Only they didn’t get born into white middle class America. Or even poverty level America, which is more sad and terrible than anyone understands but it is still worlds better than what these refugees are going through.

But they aren’t refugees. They are people. They are mom or dad or brother or sister or cousin or friend. They are human beings.

Are there bad ones among them hell bent to cause hurt? Maybe. But there have been 750,000 refugees let into America since 9-11, and not a single one turned out to be a terrorist. This statistic makes me say there’s not a real worry there. We, the people of this once great nation, are causing the problem. We are bathing ourselves in fear and throwing it around. And we are leaving innocent people behind because our fear is more important to us.

And this causes hate. And I’m so freaking tired of this hate. I’m tired of everyone pointing fingers and blame and not doing their part. Really, other than posting memes on Facebook, what are you doing to help this world be a better place? Ask yourself that.

I see people stand behind Jesus like He’s an excuse for bad behavior. Or others who swing poor Jesus around above their heads to swing Him at folks, like He’s some form of punishment. Only that isn’t what Jesus was, and I do know that. I was taught about Jesus since I remember anything, plus for all the rest of my childhood. And the Christianity of today, the one that that fills our media with hate and has everyone pointing to reasons to be unkind, this religion does not remind me of Jesus at all.

I don’t know how to fix anything, but I do know that we’ve got to stop being enemies. All of us. With our Facebook wars and our drama-causing gossip. Especially since we’re standing here on our high horses in our warm homes on this rainy November day. Especially since none of us are aware of what won us the cosmic lottery, allowing us to be safe reading this on the internet while families are bombed out of Syria. Especially since the US sent like 8000 of those bombs. But no one wants to lay claim on that little coincidence.

All this hate in the name of terror. And it’s working. We’re so scared of the enemy that we forget we are not each others enemy. We’ve forgotten that we are all human beings with a responsibility for each other. Isn’t that what our children and our aging parents are here to teach us?

Be a human being today.  Do something nice. No judging, no fighting. No borders and religion. No us versus them.

Be thankful for your life and your privilege. Because this world needs some human kindness.

 

A Syrian refugee hugs her crying baby after arriving on a raft on the Greek island of Lesbos, October 27, 2015. Photo Credit: Giorgos Moutafis / Reuters