The Underbelly

Pros: no seat belts, you can get up and pee whenever the need arises, electrical outlets at each seat, wi-fi, giant windows, no one has to drive (i.e. the parents can read or work and even do things with the kids), boarding is quick and easy, you can take lots of luggage without a fee. Cons: it takes a while.

We took the train from Kansas City to St. Louis for spring break this year. It was my kids’ first time on an Amtrak and they loved it. The pros beat the cons by far. But there was one additional positive outcome, which surprised me with it’s goodness. A plane gives you the bird’s eye view; the car gets you on the ground, feeling the distance and experiencing each place you travel through; but the train shows you the underbelly.

Clouds hung low and full over the fields as we sped through the countryside. The comforting rock of the train car, the clickety clack over the rails, the view from the giant windows all brought back memories from when I was a child traveling from Kansas to the east coast. Watching the landscape change as one state melted into another. Playing checkers in the observatory car, ordering apple juice at the snack counter, sleeping in the tiny bunks – these are the recollections that hang on in my mind. But on this trip, as an adult, I noticed something altogether different.

“The other side of the tracks” is a phrase for a reason. Trains live on the outskirts of towns. They run past scrap yards, through tunnels plastered with graffiti, over rivers lined with tangled wilderness rather than tidy vacation rentals. They frequent parts of the country most don’t often visit – the small towns of little value to many sight-seers. Amtraks’ once sleek, silver bodies have dulled to gray, and like an aging old man they carry the weight and wisdom of years spent traveling the byways. Even the lonesome whistle harkens back to the past, fits this forgotten mode of transport. I, for one, enjoyed soaking up the nostalgia.

The scenery was beautiful and ugly in increments: the greening fields of spring, crumbling walls of cement, Cottonwood trees dotted with eagles by the wide Missouri River, a hodgepodge of trailer homes and ramshackle houses around a lake, fields of purple flowering henbit and deadnettle. But it was all the underside of the creature – the hidden or forgotten or uncelebrated bit. The part of the country you don’t see unless you go out of your way to do so, for which there are no billboards to make it an attraction. And though I’m not against attractions, per se, sometimes it’s good to see the rest. To travel though a space as an observer, seeing just what it would look like without the train you’re on. Highways have en entire economic system built around them: Cracker Barrels, gas stations, fast food restaurants, Lion’s Dens (Missouri’s interstate is lined with adult video stores). But the train simply has tracks and a few scattered, mostly forgotten stations. It gets you where you want to go without the fanfare. But with an internet connection.

The people who take the train are the real deal, too. Not a single person was dressed in heels for travel (as I’ve seen plenty of times at LAX). There were families, singles in their twenties, older folks who needed help with their bags. One man had a lively yet vulgar conversation on his phone during one part of our return trip: “I know, they’re all bitches, but this one is the biggest bitch of all…if I divorce her she’ll take my boat!” The young man behind me and I looked at each other and laughed as we listened, then he put on his Beats and I opened my novel. Some of my fellow travelers smelled. I’ll just say it. And by the looks of their clothes they hadn’t washed anything for a while. But like the public pool, or Checkers grocery store where your cashier may or may not have all his teeth, being in the midst of that reality is good for a soul. To see the spectrum of local humanity and remember that not everyone is exactly like me. The world is much more interesting than that. I’m not ready to have the guy on the phone over for coffee, but I can sit on a train with him. I can learn about life from being thrown together with all sorts of folks.

Next month we will drive to Florida for a family beach vacation, and I will partake in the gas stations and McDonald’s rest rooms (but probably not the Cracker Barrels, and definitely not the Lion’s Dens). I love a good road trip. And such a long distance would take a week on a train, which is just silly. But my little jaunt on the Amtrak to St. Louis was a treat. Not a super-sweet sugar rush but a slow melting bit of dark chocolate – actually good for me even days later. I’ll do it again sometime. And I’ll watch for the secret places, both beautiful and not. Because together they equal what’s real. The top, the sides, the front, the back, and the underbelly.

 

And He Went. And I Let Him.

I let my son walk out the door this morning into potential heartbreak.

I wanted to keep him home. Hold him close. Shield him from hurt and hard choices. But I didn’t. I let him get into the car and drive off to meet his fate.

“School drama,” as he put it to another parent overhearing his dilemma, had erupted. Drama indeed. He came home yesterday with worry, and it followed him to bed. It woke with me in the night and said hello as soon as I cracked an eye this morning. A dull, gray cloud hanging above our house.

We talked it over. He called a friend to clarify a misunderstanding. He worked it through with Marc and then again with me. “I wish I had taken notes about everything so I knew what to say tomorrow” he fretted as I tucked him in. I told him the truth was all he needed to remember. All he could offer.

We dealt with the reality of the situation, not trying to escape the uncomfortable yuck he would face today: people will be mad; their mistakes aren’t on you; yours are; the number of people in the world who love you is greater than those who will be upset. As he wisely said the other night “It’s all about perspective.” Yes, buddy, it is. If my 11 year old can carry that through his day, I will be happily astounded.

The weight of carrying your child’s hurt like a trunk full of bricks on your back is…heavy. I could say I didn’t sign up for this when I became a parent, but that would be a cop-out lie. This is exactly the sort of thing a mother agrees to take on when she decides to give birth to or adopt human beings. To attempt to guide these small people through the maze of living. To help them discover the wonders present. To walk with them through the various levels of heartache. To be on their team when no one else will pass them the ball.

But it’s harder than I could imagine. Letting go enough to let them feel some pain, to learn from their own mistakes, to allow risk enough for them to feel the glory of their own triumphs. This is the work of restraint. Of not meddling. Of letting our children become.

There’s a song on Foy Vance’s Live at Bangor Abbey album (also his Joy of Nothing album, but I prefer the live, alive version) that has pointed me toward a phrase I’d like to employ in my life. For my whole life. It seems to be about the breakup of his marriage. An anthem of survival – something we could all use. It busts the album open with guitar, violin and drums, and this humble but matter-of-fact declaration:

Well I tried to do what I felt was right
And I know I fucked it up sometimes.
But at least my heart was open.

That last line is the title, and the point of the song. The astute reminder of how I’d like face my days. As well as what I hope for Luke.

Knowing that my son faced something hard, Mama Bear wanted to take over – protect and defend. Give a lecture to the entire 5th grade class. Overreact and pull him from school and wrap him up in my love to ward off all pain, therefore ruining his chances to grow at all.

But the better and harder reaction is letting my heart stay open. Calming down, doing what seems right, and avoiding building a protective wall, for me or my kids.

Luke didn’t balk about leaving this morning. He seemed ready to face the day.

His heart seemed fully open.

I want to guard that tender little center of emotion and character, but my job as Mom is changing. Mama bears have to let their cubs try to survive at some point – maybe when they’re the equivalent of 11? I had to let him go try. To do what he felt was right, perhaps mess it all up, and hope he retained his open, loving, forgiving heart.

And he went.

And I let him.

Deep breaths. Nervous anticipation for school pick-up. A propped open heart. These are my companions today.

Thank you, Foy Vance, for the beacon in the darkness. It’s helping.

Don’t Hold Me Down

We went apple picking last weekend.  Or we tried to go apple picking.  Unbeknownst to us the apples were all gone.  We drove for an hour plus, arrived at the orchard, noticed it was devoid of customers and got out of the car.  We wandered around the grounds, passing pumpkins that didn’t get chosen for Halloween.  Gift shops full of fall merchandise – apple pies, pumpkin butters, holiday jams.  A petting zoo of farm animals.  When we rounded a barn toward the apple trees they were bare.

That morning I talked Marc into visiting the area where my family picked apples when I was a child.  I thought of driving through the hills of Eastern Kansas into Western Missouri – yellows, oranges, and brilliant reds wrapping the winding back roads.  The picnic spot we often visited.  Walking in the orchards under the tempered fall sun.  I wanted to experience it again, but with my own children this time.  Let them see and feel the same things I did.  Recreate my fond memories to pass along to them as gifts.  But, luckily, the folly in my plan was made clear as the day went on.  Luckily, because it taught me something.  Folly, because everything changes.  It does, it must, and it’s good.

The leaves had all fallen by this first day of November, on which I hadn’t planned.  A few specks of pale yellow remained, but mostly the bare trees of winter lined the roads.  Then the orchard was picked through.  We joked about the free rotting apples on the ground – “Would you eat that if you were the guy in Unbroken?” – but there would be no picking today.  We tried another orchard close by, but the result was the same.  Clearly apples in the same area are on the same ripening schedule.  No apples here, no apples there.

I remembered this orchard.  There had been a conveyor belt where you could watch how apples were sorted by color and quality.  But it was turned off for the season. The only apples left to buy were Jonagolds which – yuck.  The kids raced plastic ducks in a contraption made of feeding troughs and halved pvc pipe behind the main gift shop.  I wandered the aisles looking at Christmas jam, trying to make the trip worth something, but it was no use.  Jam wasn’t enough.  We left with a jug of cider.

So it was a bust.  As far as making memories goes.  But for me it was a valuable way to waste a morning.  Marc was kind.  My motives were clear to him from the moment I suggested the trip, but he left me alone.  He let me try, probably knowing we would fail.  Because trying to recreate something that has happened before, especially something that carries the weight of childhood memories, is a dangerous goal.  It’s bound to flop, and that’s good.  My family now is new.  Its own entity, separate from the family in which I was raised.  So it makes sense to create new memories that are our own.  My childhood memories can remain my childhood memories and retain their value.  To me.  And as we create what will be my children’s memories of their growing years, the burden is off to make them equal to mine or the same.  I’m free to let them be what they are.  No pressure.  It feels wonderful to let that go.

What a silly thing to hold me down – fond memories.  I feel a lightness in pushing them off.  They can sit next to me, I can remember them when I want, but they won’t be a weight any longer.  “Hi memories.  I remember you; you were great.  Nice to see you.  Gotta go – new things to do.”

Luke and Lily came with me to Starbucks this morning, books and activities in tow.  On our way from the car Luke told me about a memory he has of coming here with Marc, getting hot cocoa and playing games.  They did that a few times one winter.  And it hit me that I don’t have to try to make memories.  They happen all by themselves.  I just have to think about what I want to do, what we want to do, and do that.  And it will magically, inevitably turn into a memory.  And as long as those things don’t mostly suck, they will be fond.  If we wrap them in love, and laughter, and especially if they involve a treat, they will be remembered as great.  Even if they do suck, they might be fond.  That’s how memories work, thank goodness.

In light of my new perspective of recollection, today I created the memory for my kids of getting chocolate croissants and reading while Mom wrote for her blog.  Sitting at the window seat like a grown up.  So simple.  And so much better than a two hour road trip for apple cider.  I’ll totally take it.

Boyhood

Another night of driving in the dark.  This trip has had many.  Tonight’s took us out of Yellowstone National Park, through part of Grand Tetons National Park, to our lodge.  A full, blue moon above the Absaroka Range and a handmade Spotify playlist were our companions and they gave me perspective on our road trip for the ages.  A collection of singer-songwriter stuff set the mood and worked it’s magic.  Hero from the movie Boyhood made me melancholy the moment I heard the first line, like a potion of guitar chords and earnest lyrics.  I looked at my boy in the back seat, nearly not a boy anymore.

Luke called a friend three times on this trip, a first for him – missing home, missing friends, thoughts far away on his own life.  He gave us a good 10-year-old dose of attitude, a pre-cursor to the next eight years.  And he posed for pictures with a serious face, clearly thinking he was cool and maybe even good-looking.  These are new concepts for him, and for us.  And it made the significance of our trip sink in.  Nearly gone are the days of us as the center of Luke’s life.  His allegiance and interest are shifting outside of our family, as it should be.  Just as the brain science and child development books say will happen.  He’s writing the preamble to his declaration of independence, slowly pulling away and becoming himself.  Which is good.  Which I love.  And which makes my heart ache.

There were many moments of connection with our only son on this vacation: when he listened to the Start Up podcast with us, season 1 and 2, which prompted all sorts of good questions about being an entrepreneur, dating relationships, appropriate and inappropriate swearing; making massive sandcastles on the beach with Marc for hours; a long walk involving deep questions and answers with my cousin and me; hugs and kisses and snuggles.  So all bets are yet to be off.  But I know those moments will become fewer and farther between as the years go on.  As the hormones rage and his brain re-wires itself.  Making this epic road trip one for the record books, as one of the last times Luke (mostly) wanted to be with us for a while.

I’m not a mom who longs for the days of babies and toddlers and changing diapers.  Those were precious and cherished years, but I’m great with remembering them instead of living them again.  However…I’m not immune to the heartstring-tug of change.  Of knowing that this road trip will not be possible in this form again.  Luke will call friends more next time.  Will complain more about not getting Taco John’s.  Will think Marc and I are dumber and even more out-of-touch.  (I already understand less than 10% of his obsession with Minecraft.)  The reality of that hurts.  It’s inevitable, and ultimately what’s best.  But a little bit sad.

As we drove through the dark, I looked back at Luke, up at the bright moon, and wanted to cry.  Just for a minute.  At that moment, everyone was happy – the girls playing “triage” with their fake laptop (learned earlier on the trip from a visit to the ER – see prior post for details), no one melting down despite the late hour, Luke pondering his upcoming Minecraft youtube channel.   The trip took on a rosy haze of nostalgia, though it wasn’t yet over.  I saw into the future by weeks and months and years to the time when we remember this trip as a past adventure, laughing at the mishaps, smiling at the good times and skimming over the bad.  And I prematurely looked back with a smiling, aching heart at this trip when the moon shone down on our car full of kids, on our boy who was still a boy, shuttling through the dark summer night.  Into the future.

 

Love Story

I just started a book my mom got me for Mother’s Day.  (The World Split Open: Great Authors on How and Why We Write).  And I mean just.  But I’m already hooked…

As Robert Stone states, with blazing simplicity: “Storytelling is not a luxury to humanity; it’s almost as necessary as bread.  We cannot imagine ourselves without it, because the self is a story.”  Amen.

It’s true — the universe would survive without decent writing, much as it did for a trillion or so years before writing was born.  And it’s true that the vast majority of people on earth will continue to live full, eventful lives without the benefit of Jane Austen or W. S. Merwin.  But by this reasoning, you could also argue that almost nothing matters.  (Or, rather, you could argue that if you knew how to write well.)  People can live without basketball, domestic pets and real butter, too.  If the question is simply one of literal survival in its ultimate sense, eating twigs in the wilderness or Pringles in front of the Xbox, we can survive with almost nothing, we’ve demonstrated that.  For those who want to live in a deeper, funnier, wilder, more troubled, more colorful, more interesting way, a way in which not only writing matters but also beauty, memory, politics, family, and everything else, put on your reading glasses and turn the page.  Your people have something to tell you…

– Jon Raymond

So ends the best introduction in a book I’ve ever read.  It left me both sure this writing thing is where my heart lies and convinced that I should stop trying to write at all, because I will never reach the level of artistry Jon Raymond clearly possesses.  He did his job perfectly: made me eager to read the book immediately, wishing I had the whole day to dig in, while also arguing a larger point with dexterity.  With technical accuracy, humor and logic.  I wish I could quote the entire piece.  But that would be illegal.

How can I add to this?  Not with any better argument in favor of the written word.  But perhaps with my own story to back it up.  A personal tale to defend the artistic genre that I love.  A story to promote the importance of story.  That’s all I can offer.  And so I do:

In my third year of college I enrolled in Fiction Writing I, along with my good friend Marc (who, because he had a harder time getting a story onto paper than onto film was taking it for the second time).  He wasn’t a great writer, but he knew great writing.  I was nervous.  I had been writing since I could remember.  Little poems, songs, stories, a scintillating screenplay for a puppet show when I was in grade school.  Then more poems, songs and a Poe-like short story (that in retrospect was reeeeeally similar to Psycho) for my high school Gothic Lit. class.  Then tons of essays in college.  TONS.  All of which were boring to write and probably also to read.  About other people’s writing, or historical events and their relevance to the present, or why Nietzsche was wrong.

But I hadn’t written fiction that bore my soul since I was little, when I didn’t care who knew what was in there.  I was old enough now to know people might mock.  Might not like what they saw.  And to worry that my writing might actually be terrible.

And Marc was in my class.

My Marc.  My secret future husband.  If my first short story was bad, he wouldn’t know what a hidden jewel I was.  Wouldn’t see me as I longed to be seen: as, duh, this beautiful, intelligent artiste.  Right in front of his eyes all this time.  The pressure was on.

So I went home and did my thing.  Saw a photograph in my American History textbook that sparked my imagination and began.  Hunkered down in my dorm room with pen and paper (yes, actual pen and paper, back in the olden days of 1995 when computers lived in the computer lab).  I got in the zone.  Threw in some historical details.  Scratched out entire paragraphs.  Wrestled with the words until I was happy with my story, or out of time.

Our class workshopped everyone’s stories, a few each class period, so we had to read them in advance in order to give each person feedback.  My day had come, and I was terrified.  I got up, dressed, walked down to the dorm cafeteria.  Knowing I would likely see Marc – his curly ponytail bopping around the cereal dispensers, the sight of which always made my stomach turn with excitement/anxiety.  And there it was.  I watched where he sat.  Got my daily dose of LIFE with milk and headed to the booth, heart pounding.  And when I turned the corner to sit, and he saw me, he stopped talking to his friend and looked at me.  For a long time.  Longer than necessary to acknowledge my presence.  Longer than anyone looks at anyone unless they are seeing them differently than usual.  Maybe for the first time.  I just about peed my pants.  I didn’t know what he was going to say – maybe he didn’t know how to tell me it was awful.  But then he smiled and I burst inside.  I stayed cool, don’t get me wrong.  I didn’t want him knowing how desperately I wanted him to love my story.  But he did.  And it was the beginning.  I had been right in front of him all this time, but now, to him, I was a writer.

And that, my friends, is just one of the love stories I can tell you about my relationship with the written word.  It’s in my bones and has worked its way out my whole life long.  I may not be as good as Jon Raymond, but I will defend this art form until I physically cannot.  By writing.  Plain and simple.  It matters in the world.

Now to read the rest of that book…

Later

She just decided.

Last Friday my nearly four-year-old daughter decided she was going to be potty trained.  We had hoped this would happen months, maybe even a year or so, before.  We started with getting the little potty out.  Making it available.  Having her try it with clothes on, then with nothing but a good book.  We then moved on to a very casual rewards system – “If you go potty, you can have a piece of chocolate,” we said with a smile.  No pressure.  A just-so-you-know situation.  As we neared three and a half we started getting antsy and upped the ante bit by bit: a piece of gum (highly coveted as a big-kid treat), ice cream, a special date with Daddy.  We took a trip to Target and she picked out what we hoped might finally motivate her: a pack of Little People princesses.  She would get excited – regale everyone we saw with the growing list-o’-bribery, wide-eyed with anticipation.  Then the eyes would return to normal size, a satisfied smile would cross her face and she’d say “I’ll do it later.”  Later.

I thought “later” meant never, but clearly, if she had the wherewithal to know it, she meant: “When I decide.  That’s when it will be.  I desperately want to be in charge, and in this one case I actually am.  Ha!  You can’t make me go, I’m in a struggle between my desire to stay the baby and become a big girl and need to work this one out on my own.  Got it mom?  Later.”

Got it.

She just needed time.  Which is the same thing I need when I’m working something out.  From the days when I, myself, potty-trained, to high school when I was attempting to decipher boys, to college when I was pondering what I believed about the universe.  To last week when I was figuring out why I was grumpy.  It all takes time.  And perhaps this year of waiting for Mae to crack the code of her own psyche is a good warm-up.  Foreshadowing her years of working-it-out to come.  I need to remember this.  As the internal investigations mount, and are more complicated than “To pee or not to pee,” I should look back at her potty training days and remember that she’ll get there.  Sometimes with my help, and sometimes all on her own.  She may just do it later.   Got it, Jenea?

Got it.

Bling

My now seven-year-old reached a milestone yesterday: she got her ears pierced.  She’d been waiting for two years – asked me when she was five and I said seven was the magic number, not sure why.  Mostly I wanted to make it some time in the distant future, and I had a faint memory of being seven when I got my own ears pierced, though I’ve since discovered I was way off.  It was just a number I was throwing out to put off the inevitable, but Lily latched onto it as she does all things in which she’s interested.  That girl is determined.  So SEVEN became a beacon for her, lighting the way toward big-girldom.  Toward bling.

We went to Claire’s recently on a mom and daughter date, post-donut and pre-library.  And when we walked in, Lily lit up.  Not like when we go to Sylas and Maddys for ice cream, or  when Nana shows up as a surprise.  It wasn’t just delight.  It was delight, plus awe, plus let’s-get-down-to-business-here-and-look-at-EVERYTHING.  Different than anything I’d witnessed in her big brown eyes before.

Sometimes Lily’s love of glitz and glamour nauseates me.  Sequins and glitter and furry trim, pink and pink and more pink.  It makes me want to give her a science textbook and some shin guards.  Steer her away from the typical, ditzy-girl stereotypes and toward something to better her mind and heart.  Make her strong, secure in herself without all the adornments.  But when I saw the utter joy on her face I had a realization: I was the same way.  I remembered being nearly seven and loving all things fancy.  I wore my ballet skirt and dress-up clothes like uniforms, adored anything shiny or covered in organza, longed for the day I could wear make-up and painted my toe-nails glittery shades as soon as I was allowed.

I forgot that I was just as bling-loving when I was young.  It’s been a long time since Hello Kitty was my preferred necklace charm.  Eventually I started to love muted colors, torn jeans, less bows and more Birkenstocks.  Pink wasn’t cool anymore.  Black and brown and olive green were better, and by the time I was in college I was in full oversized-flannels-and-giant-overalls mode, looking less like a woman than an earth-toned, unisex blob.  Make-up was silly, knowing how to “do” my hair was a waste.  I focused on my mind and heart, living comfortably in my skin without the adornments.

Except that I wasn’t comfortable.  I hadn’t realized the balance yet – that I could love both pink and black.  Could wear a bit of make-up without looking like I just stepped off a theater stage.  That having a hair style was ok, and my future husband would appreciate it.  A little bling didn’t mean I was dumb, just that I liked it.  I had swung to the other end of the fancy spectrum and it took a while to find my way back to the middle.

I forgot about that epic journey and wanted Lily in the mid-range with me right away.  Which was silly.  Just as silly as My Little Pony studs.  But less fun.

So I went with it.  Decided to go all in on this girl-time and do what she wanted most: to look at EVERYTHING.  With interest, not the distracted “uh-huh”s I dish out so often, but real, wow-look-at-these intensityWe spent lots of time in the earrings, then the lip gloss section, then the rainbow hair extensions and chalk, and finally chose a few things to buy.  When I decided to jump in it was fun.  Joining in on her love of bling, just because she loves it, was good for both of us.

So yesterday the ear-piercing was a celebration.  Of Lily turning seven, and of me embracing my daughter.  Just as she is.  She chose her birthstone for her first studs: fancy (fake) sapphires.  They look lovely in her tiny little lobes.  She was tough amidst the pain we suffer for beauty – tried not to cry until I said it was okay to let it out.  Then she curled up to me and wept.  I remember that, too.  The surprise of your skin being punctured, even though you know it’s coming.  I held her, rubbed her back, and congratulated her on this big event.  And after a few more tears she looked up at me with her conquering eyes.  She was proud of herself.  Comfortable in her own skin, even with the new adornments.  Which is all I ever wanted.

 

Our Last Goodbye

The fields were black from being burned, or burning as we drove.  The wind was whipping that day, jiggling the back of the minivan so much that the kids began to feel sick.  We were headed to Nebraska for the viewing of my Grandmother’s body.  The funeral the next day.  The older kids tried to read, then lay on the seat moaning.  I reminded them that I felt that way for three straight months when they were in my belly.  Eyes wide, they imagined the horror and became distracted from their own misery for a moment.

I didn’t appreciate my grandma when I was a kid.  To be honest, I thought she was my boring grandma.  The one who bought me fake pearls from Wal-Mart for my birthday, who wore polyester pants, who didn’t care who Michael Jackson was.  I thought she was out of touch and uninteresting.  Bo-ring.  I, on the other hand, was with it, trying hard to be cool and caring very much about MJ.  Meanwhile she was mattering in people’s lives all around her.  She cared who they were.  And who I was.

I was an idiot.

As I got older I appreciated my grandma more.  When I had my first child I somehow felt a deeper connection to this woman who had done the same.  She’d had four – and one when she was forty, before that was a normal, “L.A.” thing to do.  And she’d gone back to school after that, getting her undergrad at 49.  She’d grown up in the depression, poor, on a farm in the middle of Kansas.  She was a preacher’s wife, with all the sacrifices and casseroles that entailed, and she put up with a lot from him.  As a grown-up I could see her as a person, a whole character with a backstory who’d faced obstacles I never would and had kept her sweet spirit.  Her giggles that bubbled up easily.

Grandma’s service was beautiful.  Full of anecdotes from her kids, songs sung by people who loved her, stories of the lives she impacted.  The summary of a life lived with gratitude and without expectation, full of quiet ambition and strength.  She mattered in the world.  This woman who loved people well and gave herself for others.  She lived a long, full life and remained humble and happy til the end.  Giggling even on her last day.  I want to be like that.  A Jenea version of the same character and hope.  I want to be like Orpha Hooge.

The drive home from Nebraska was less windy, but otherwise it felt the same.  No anxiety.  No sorrow.  No “oh poor Grandma”.  We were glad for her and proud to be part of her family.  I’d cried some tears, yes, but not really out of sadness.  More out of thankfulness for who she was.  But for her all was well.  She was free from a body that wouldn’t work and a mind whose synapses weren’t always firing.  Free from the loneliness of a nursing home.  Seeing the result of the hope she’d professed for so long.  We saw the same blackened fields, burned to allow  new grass to grow.  The same hills Grandma knew as a child.  And it made perfect sense.  The bookends of our last goodbye to my lovely grandmother.

Bit by Bit

I never used to think about long-term goals.  From the time I was a kid to about ten years ago, I was short-sighted and I was lazy.  I wanted things to be fun, and if they weren’t I was done.  Piano lessons?  No thanks, too much work.  A paleontologist has to go to school forever?  Nope.  Cross that one off the list.   If the rewards weren’t immediate, they weren’t worth the effort.

I know this is a normal attitude of youth.   The desire for instant gratification, the lack of foresight, the thought that your world as it exists at any one moment is all that matters.  It took me a while to shake it off.  I realized the importance of forethought a bit late, after I was an adult, out of college (when it seems one would naturally consider the future), married (again…) at the exact moment I had a child.

When I became a mother, the future lit up like a flare, demanding attention, calling me to move toward it with intention.  With thoughtful motion rather than haphazard “we’ll just see” passivity.  I don’t mean that I didn’t contemplate who I was marrying, or that I gave no thought to what I wanted to do as a career, but the full gravity of the now on the later didn’t hit me until I saw those little blue eyes.  Suddenly everything mattered.  How I dealt with anger, expressed love, took care of myself, spent my free time, disciplined and protected and nurtured my son.  My new career, the first one I was certain I wanted to have, became mothering.  I took it seriously.  I read a ton of books (which was good and bad), and threw myself fully into my work.  I focused on what I wanted for my kids twenty years down the road and my actions followed.

Last week I attended Donald Miller’s Storyline conference in San Diego (goodbye below freezing temps, hello palm trees and time to think about the future) and was struck by the desire and the encouragement to do this for my other career – writing.  The last ten years have been primarily spent on momming, with the occasional trip to the gym or morning “off” to write my blog.  And it will remain my most important gig until my children are grown.  But it was good to be reminded that little choices I make each day, little spurts of work, matter.  That bit by bit I can aim toward a goal that may not immediately gratify.  The results might take years to see.  Just like being a mom.  And that’s ok.

My kids’ character development certainly isn’t an effort for which I expect quick results.  Lily’s tantrums have yet to stop, Luke is a bit of a spaz, Mae is nearing three and sure she’s the boss of the world.  But my goal is not to raise perfectly behaved children.  It’s to raise functioning and flourishing adults.  I’ve often expected my writing to be perfectly behaved though.  How confining, and scary, and silly.  So, as Bob Goff described at the conference, when pilots need to land a plane they pitch, pick and point.  Pitch the plane toward the ground, pick a spot to land, and point the plane toward it.  I need to do the same with my writing.  As best I can.  Bit by bit.

Sounds like a pretty good way to approach all of life.  I wish I would have done that a lot sooner, but instead of wasting time regretting my lazy, “whatever” attitude, I’m going to change things now.  This blog is the pitching part – at least I’m headed in the right direction.  Now for the picking and pointing.  Screw perfection, I’m just going to try to land.

That Very Word

 

          We’ve been looking for a new house for a year and a half, and in that time we’ve seen all sorts.  One option included a pool.  That got me thinking about whether I’d even want a pool if we could afford one.  And it made me consider the value of our summer trips to the public pool.  When I was a kid that consisted of a large rectangle filled with water and gagillions of peeing kids.  Now it has a zero depth entry, water “features”, a giant swirly slide, and water-squirting ride-on animals for the toddlers.  Slightly more upscale.  But some things (including the peeing kids) remain the same.

 

Lessons I’ve Learned from the Public Pool:

 

1.  I look just fine in a bathing suit.  Sometimes it’s a bikini day, and other times a one-piece is in order, but either way I can rest assured that the assortment of body shapes at the downtown pool are varied enough to include one such as mine.  The standards aren’t too high.  I’m not sunbathing poolside in Vegas, or at a country club, or in the protected confines of my own backyard.  I’m out in the world, being part of it, just one among all sorts.

2.  The pool is a microcosm of life in the outside world.  Kids play, kids get in trouble, people argue, people make out, there are beauties and nerds, jocks and bullies, black and white and yellow and brown, pale and tan, people with tattoos and those who would never get one, people who eat from the snack bar and people who think that’s gross.  And they’re all together in the same water, having a good time, accepting each other enough not to leave, learning a little about humanity in general.  Perhaps an enormous pool is the solution for peace in the Middle East.

3.  Sunscreen is important.  There are always a few at the pool who have turned to leather from years of baking in the summer sun.  These people are walking reminders to slather on the spf 30.  And to reapply in a few hours.  And to take a day off every once in a while to sit indoors and read.

4.  Always wear your flip-flops to the bathroom.  It’s not as clean as one might like, which forces some thinking ahead – a skill that everyone can use.

5.  People are people.  With worries and joys and values of their own.  They’re sitting in the pool chairs all around you – you hear their conversations, see them with their kids, observe how they act around others.  You get a glimpse into their lives and, therefore, view them as more “us” than “them”, which is always a good thing.

6.  Never disturb the lap lanes.  In the midst of the chaos – the big kids roughhousing in the deep end, the little ones screaming in the shallow one – the lap lanes remain a protected, peaceful area.  If you want that, pick a lane, put your head down and begin.  If not, stay the heck out so that those who do can freestyle in peace.  It’s a simple rule but does wonders for everyone.

7.  To everything there is a season.  Inevitably the novelty of the pool wears off.  In May, opening day can’t come soon enough.  By August the kids are bored of the swirly slide and sit on their towels eating peanut butter pretzels.  I have to remind them that they only have a few more days.  That soon the pool will close for the year and our only option will be indoors.  School will start.  Hours of free time will cease to exist.  But the thrill is gone and school doesn’t sound so bad.  Halloween costumes are already being imagined.  The pool’s shelf life has come to an end for another summer.  Turn, turn, turn; Solomon and Pete Seeger were right.

I, for one, am not ready to let the summer go; I wish I could hang on for a few more weeks.  Until I’m sick of it myself and ready for the cool weather to begin.  For my kids to be gone for a while during the day.  For earlier bedtimes and ritual to re-enter our lives.  But I can’t, and I’m not.  Even the frequent evacuations due to poop in the three-foot area haven’t soured me on the place, so I’m making this ode to the Public Pool.  That miniature version of the outside world, in all its diversity and imperfection.

Here’s to humanity being brought together by chlorinated water and a diving board.

Here’s to that very word –

“public.”