happiness · intentional happiness · motherhood · neighbors · sons

Fewer wrinkles

I’ll be the first to admit: America’s post-pandemic economy and post-pandemic societal norms are slowly robbing me of the will to live. Everything costs too much. Everyone’s tired of each other’s shit. People honk their horns and flip birds at each other over the slightest perceived transgression. (I confess I almost daily want to ramrod someone with my own vehicle.) Boundaries are subjective and unclear and therefore disrespected and overruled on a near-daily basis. Nothing is sacred, and yet somehow everything is sacred, and how dare you not know the difference. Microagressions abound, and you don’t even have to mean to hurt someone to be taken to the mat and given a dressing down best reserved for people who wipe boogers on things. Your bedroom is your office, the workday has faux bookends, and cc fields on emails are where wars are waged. It’s very confusing. Oh, and everything’s made in China and will stop working the second you brush your arm against it. Perhaps most concerning of all: Some lady on social media with a wad of gum wedged in her molars seems hellbent on selling me crotch deodorant. (Hi, Lume! I’m accepting free samples!)

But I know this to be true: Whatever we humans train our attention on will appear larger than it is. People who rescue dogs are forever stumbling across strays. People who collect heart-shaped rocks find them every time they look down on a hike. If you love owls or pink sunrises, model trains or vintage cars, big noses or small ears–whatever floats your boat–I guarantee that you see these all over the place and far more often than other people do. By that same reasoning, when you look for wrinkles, you find them. This blog is about seeking more pink sunrises and fewer wrinkles. On that note…

My son finished up junior high this week, and the school parent-teacher organization sold custom graduation yard signs as a way to raise funds while honoring the occasion. I bought one and placed it in the front yard. It just says, “Congratulations, Beckett! Class of 2023 [School Name] Junior High School!” Nothing fancy.

Mind you, in our new neighborhood, people communicate only through the same three barking dogs that wake us all up in unison each day. They don’t actually know each other or seem particularly interested in changing that. So I had no delusions anyone other than my son was going to read or care about the sign. But then an envelope showed up the day after I posted the sign. It was wedged in our front door, and this was what was inside:

How sweet was this? How thoughtful and kind? How generous? It made such a big impact on all of us and was a very bright spot in a seemingly endless string of stressors in our lives. In response, my husband picked up a nice card in the grocery store. My son wrote inside, “It’s good to know that there are people like you in the world.” I walked with him to the address listed in the card–several streets away from us, as it turned out–and we knocked on the door, hoping to meet these neighbors in person. They weren’t home, so we left the card in their own front door and walked home together holding hands, him chattering away in his cracking voice about one day traveling to Norway, plans to audition for jazz band, how exclamation points are announced in some African languages, the reason he doesn’t want a cell phone, and a zillion other things that I wouldn’t have otherwise heard had we not set out on that walk to meet the nice strangers. Through one single act of kindness, they created such joy!

If you are having a seemingly endless string of stressors or wanting to ramrod strangers with your car, I highly recommend giving yourself a homework assignment to notice something good each day. Fewer wrinkles, more sunrises. It’s contagious, and it helps.

babies · grandparents · happiness · intentional happiness · motherhood · speed-posts

Not Done Yet: The You Your Kids Haven’t Met Yet (from the Momplex Blog archives)

My living room walls are painted the color of old Coors cans. It’s a sort of muted golden yellow. I didn’t even realize I’d chosen Coors yellow until this week, when I got to feeling sappy about my childhood. The walls have been that color for five years. How could I miss the connection?


Source: Lovelypackage.com
Source: Lovelypackage.com

Coors Banquet Beer made regular appearances at my parents’ neighborhood barbecues when I was a little kid. And I can still almost taste the sweat I’d swipe off the cold ones, freshly popped by my dad and other mutton-chopped men, after golf tournaments in the crusty mining town we called home. They’d scoop them with their gloved hands out of ice barrels near the patio where their scores were posted. I can still hear the hot locusts buzzing as I sat cross-legged in a shady spot watching them, my hair smelling like chlorine and the sun-blistered skin on my shoulders starting to peel. I liked being there around all the dads. They looked mighty high on their low handicaps and tossing back those Coors.

I don’t remember my mom drinking beer, even though she’s the one out of my two parents who will indulge in a cold one now and again. “I never really was a drinker,” I’ve heard my dad say. I can’t argue with that. Knowing how memories go, there were probably just a few backyard barbecues and not nearly so many sweaty Coors cans as I like to imagine. We fudge our childhood memories a lot, maybe more than we think. And some of us take a longer time than others to realize it wasn’t all about us.

I spent this past Saturday in a primitive little hilltop cabin for a quiet getaway with my mom. We had no electricity or running water. The bathroom was an outhouse about 30 feet from the cabin. Snow was up to our knees in some spots, and we had only a wood-burning stove to warm our food. We took little hikes and naps and read quietly from our books. We ate homemade chicken-noodle soup and salad by candlelight and corked a bottle of wine using a shoe and a steak knife. (By God, we were going to open that #%$&* bottle!) At night we curled up together in a loft bed and talked. In the morning we chatted and giggled before heading out to build a snowman and then stab the snow with so many pretty icicles, it looked like Superman’s Fortress of Solitude.

Wait, I think I'm overstating the awesomeness of what we created. (Source: Wodumedia.com)
Wait, I think I’m overstating the awesomeness of what we created. (Source: Wodumedia.com)

None of this was the elemental thing of it all. No, the whole point, for me, was discovering that my childhood version of my mom wasn’t the “real” her.

My mom stayed home taking care of my sister and me for a long time. She and my dad were close friends with several couples that also had kids, and when we congregated, there was drinking and loudness and so much hilarity, the kids running wild and staying up a little too late and all of us playing games of badminton or cards. We were happy and nuts. I can still see my mom laughing and smiling in all these scenes.

When I was in college, she started to change. In fact, though she’s always been an angel to others, over the years, she’s become almost obsessive about helping the elderly, the mentally ill, the poor, animals—just everyone and everything that breaks your heart. Her latest thing is the fight against human trafficking. Sometimes talking with her is depressing. “Mom, I’m sorry. I know you think some of these death stories are sweet,” I remember telling her when she was working with hospice, “but they just terrify me.” There is sadness all over the world, and she can’t just relax. Sometimes I just wish she’d be her old self. I miss the real her.

But as we talked this weekend and I told her how much I hate these Wisconsin winters that I was never cut out to endure, she said this: “Imagine that you’re sitting behind our old house in Arizona, and it’s 100 degrees out, and the LAWN has just been put in—a lawn has been PUT IN—and you’re staring at the wall of dirt over you, where they’ve just cut through the earth so you can have a house, because they just did things like that. And flies are buzzing around your head, and you think, ‘This is where I live now, and I’m going to just live here for a long time, and this is it.’” She explained to me how she made a good life there, how she sought her friends and found ways to make it work, but the things that gave her days meaning were not the things I would have expected. It sure wasn’t the Coors banquet beer cans.

And that’s when it hit me, how blind I’ve been. I know good and well my kids don’t really know the whole me. They have no idea what a detour was taken when we decided to have them—before we moved to a town with polar vortexes that make me feel murderous. Before I quit my editing career to raise them. Before I put on stretch marks and wrinkles. Before I learned how to speak in whole G-rated paragraphs. Before I knew anything about time-outs or changing diapers or making sure homework gets done or shoveling snow or volunteering on school committees or teaching Sunday school—or, really, most of the things they’ll probably remember about me at this age. They have no idea that, like them, I’m not a finished product. There’s more than meets they eye. I’m still becoming something, and I may become many more somethings before I’m done.

So, that pretty much tells you where my “real” mom went. She went to the cabin with me this past weekend. Turns out she’s been with me all along.

career · happiness · intentional happiness · motherhood · Past life · preschoolers · writing

See that Mountain? Redefining Glory Days (from the Momplex Blog archives)

The month before I graduated college, one of my writing professors approached me to ask if the university’s English department could use my senior writing portfolio as a model for future classes. She said it was one of the best she’d ever seen. My sophomore year, there was some sort of essay-on-demand writing-proficiency exam required for all sophomores, and my graded essay came back with a letter saying it was so good, the grader had stopped the rest of the judges to listen to it read aloud. True stories.

My husband and I used to be cemetery fanatics. This one, from Savanna, was always one of my favorites. It was next to the husband's headstone, which was about 10 feet high and inscribed with every freaking thing he'd ever done or joined. Go ahead. Click on it. Behold the last line of the epitaph. That's what I call honest. Makes her husband look like a narcissistic wiener.
My husband and I used to be cemetery fanatics. This headstone, from Savanna, Georgia, was always one of my favorites. It was next to the husband’s headstone, which was about 10 feet high and inscribed with every freaking thing he’d ever done or joined. Go ahead. Click on it. Behold the last line of the epitaph. That’s what I call honest. Makes her husband look like a narcissistic wiener.

I think about these experiences sometimes, mostly how they make me feel (and sound) like Uncle Rico from Napoleon Dynamite: “See that mountain over there? What do you want to bet I can throw this football over it?” He takes his bite of pan-fried steak, his hairpiece glistening, and, oh, it’s such a pathetic sight. I guess I’ll take comfort in knowing I’ve done a few things between my supposed glory days and my current life.

It’s been about 15 years since I graduated from college. Before I even turned my tassle, I was working at a small educational publishing company as its managing editor. Since, I’ve worked from coast to coast. I’ve been a newspaper editor where Southern hog farmers and retired Yankees are fighting the final, fizzling skirmishes of the Civil War. I was the editor for the largest private-equity research firm in the Northwest, on the receiving end of a nana-nana-boo-boo letter from Bill Gates’ dad about a typo he found in a report I edited. (Yes, the rich and famous are just like us!) I’ve been a stringer for public radio. I’ve coordinated publications for the National Endowment for Democracy, where I got to meet some incredible champions of freedom, like escapees of North Korean forced-labor camps, survivors of rape warfare in the Congo, and one Azar Nafisi, the author of Reading Lolita in Tehran. More recently, I received a Pushcart Prize special mention and wrote a book. See that mountain over there?

Let’s be real. I haven’t landed among the stars, at least not the ones anyone expected. To quote a former classmate of mine from my 15-year high school reunion, a guy with something like 17 children and enough ATVs to entertain them all, “I thought you were going to go somewhere, be something big, like a lawyer or a doctor.” To boot, that was said during all the aforementioned accomplishments. He didn’t even know I was about to become what I am now.

These days, I am a mom and a wife in a Wisconsin home with a loud dishwasher that is making it hard for me to think as I type. My day went like this: shower, wake up the kids, make lunches, wake up husband, wake up the kids again, dry hair, wake up the kids again, make breakfast, search for kids’ socks, diffuse tantrum over socks not being fresh from the dryer, replace said socks with better-fitting socks, search for snow boots, drive kids to school, go to work, blog for a camera company, blog for a jeweler, pick up kids, go grocery shopping, miss yoga, make enchiladas, watch eldest pick onions out of enchiladas, go to science fair, do bedtime, and finally, sweet finally, watch some Modern Family. What can I say? I have two kids and came this close—this close—to choking a passive-aggressive, competitive parent tonight at a school science expo in a cafeteria, where the fluorescent lights no doubt showed off the greasy child-sized fingerprints on my glasses. Every day, I am so much more tired at the end than I intended to be at the beginning. Yes, I have #firstworldproblems. But, God, I love my family so much more than I ever loved anything I ever wrote. There’s that. No, there really is that.

Sometimes I’m plagued by the thought that I have not become what I could become. There are still little voices telling me I thought you would be a big deal. This is when I have to remind myself that life is longer than 15 years between college and now. What am I? Dead? It is no small deal raising children well while still becoming who you were meant to be. In fact, in my case, the two are inextricably related. And so I do my best. I march down from curing the hiccups, negotiating over cold or hot lunch, doing so many endless experiments with baking soda, and I try to turn on that thing—that magic thing—that’s still somewhere in there. Usually I can’t find it. It’s so hard to create beauty when you’re exhausted. In the end, I believe this isn’t a choice I have to make right now. I believe the writing will keep. My kids will grow up and move away, for we all know childhood’s fleeting. But the writing will keep.