Friday, August 8, 2014

Read Elsewhere: Overwhelmed

From the book Blue Mind by Wallace J. Nichols:

Too many of us live overwhelmed -- suffocated by work, personal conflicts, the intrusion of technology and media. Trying to do everything, we end up stressed about almost anything. We check our voice mail at midnight, our e-mail at dawn, and spend the time in between bouncing from website to website, viral video to viral video. Perpetually exhausted, we make bad decisions at work, at home, on the playing field, and behind the wheel. We get flabby because we decide we don't have the time to take care of ourselves, a decision ratified by the fact that those "extra" hours are filled with e-mailing, doing reports, attending meetings, updating systems to stay current, repairing what's broken. We're constantly trying to quit one habit just to start another. We say the wrong things to people we love, and love the wrong things because expediency and proximity make it easier to embrace what's passing right in front of us. We make excuses about making excuses, but we still can't seem to stop the avalanche. All of this has a significant economic cost as "stress and its related comorbid diseases are responsible for a large proportion of disability worldwide."

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Read Elsewhere: Anna Quindlen

From Lots of Candles, Plenty of Cake by Anna Quindlen:

"Sometimes I tell my children - well, actually, frequently I tell my children - that the single most important decision they will make is not where to live, or what to do for a living, it's who they will marry. Part of this is the grandchild factor; I want mine to have two great parents if at all possible. But part is because the span of their years will be so marked by the life they build, day by day, in tandem with another."

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

On Not Eating Corned Beef and Cabbage

We've been quietly going to another church since January. People, I know, switch churches all the time for all kinds of reasons. But we'd been going to the same Catholic church since we moved here in late 2006: both girls in Sunday School, me volunteering, Jason cantoring, a fair amount of familiar faces. And Jason and I have been going to a Catholic church in one form or another since we were married, after a few months of struggling to figure out how, exactly, we were going to meld our different ideas about God and communion and worship into something that would work for our entire future family. He grew up Catholic, I didn't, and a bunch of factors (some more legitimate than others) swayed us to choose his tradition.

The new church isn't Catholic.

I love the new church so much I could almost cry just thinking about it.


You know how some people make a very big deal out of eating corned beef and cabbage on St. Patrick's Day? Well, maybe you don't, but I do, because I live with one. Jason has little - if any - Irish blood in his background, but he loves to buy a giant corned beef sometime mid-March, get his hands on a can of cabbage or two, and boil up a big, stinky Irish dinner for the holiday, even if he's the only person in our family who will eat it. He genuinely loves the taste, and he's adopted the tradition as his own. There's something joyful and meaningful to him about celebrating the holiday that way. He likes to have a few guys over, carve the beef into slices for reubens, and watch March Madness basketball. He likes the way the meal reminds him that spring is just around the corner. He likes how it smells and how it tastes.

In other, more Irish parts of the country, I imagine there are whole Irish families who annually celebrate in much the same way. It's part of their culture, and their grandmother or dad has been cooking this meal on March 17 for as long as they can remember. There are probably people in those families who don't necessarily love the taste of the beef or the smell of the cabbage, but they look forward to the holiday because of the tradition it represents and because it's a tie to their heritage. They eat the dinner. And even if the specific food is not their favorite, they likely enjoy the familiar celebration.


The Catholic Church had become like corned beef and cabbage to me. After over a decade of practicing the faith, it had never come to feel familiar. I had never been able to embrace the tradition it represents or connect with its culture. In addition, I had not been able to embrace it as an outsider, either; I don't genuinely like how it tastes and smells, it's not joyful or meaningful to me, and I wouldn't want to adopt it as my own.

Here's the thing: because I didn't genuinely enjoy it, and because I wasn't connecting with it out of familiar tradition, I had stopped eating it at all. I'd forgotten that there was a time in my life when I looked forward to going to church, when I genuinely enjoyed the traditions and connections, when I left church feeling like I'd been gathered around the table at my grandparents' house and was going back out to the world, fortified for the week and reminded of how loved I was. So I didn't want to go, ever, at all, period.


I have plenty of friends and family who find joy and meaning in the Catholic church, either because they genuinely appreciate the doctrine and worship style or because it's been a big part of their cultural and familial tradition for years. It's their home, or it's their adopted home, and they find joy and meaning and delicious sustenance there, and I am so very happy for them about that. But as our girls grew older and as Jason and I thought more about the messages we want them to hear and see, the Catholic church wasn't working for us.

So a few months ago we went to not-a-Catholic church again for the first time in ages. We've been going pretty regularly. And we never leave without a deep sense of gratitude that we spent an hour there. I remember the first time we were there for communion and the minister gave a little spiel that went something like, We don't presume you to be Christian in a certain way; it is simply our hope to be Christian to you. And that means that absolutely everyone is welcome here, and that anyone with any shred of belief is welcome to join us around this table, and I could have wept on the spot with relief. The rules and dogma and doctrinal scoldings at our old church left me feeling resentful, beaten down, and defeated. The Catholic church, when asked, "What are you sure of?" replies: "Everything. Fall in line." But here - here! right in our city - was a church that, when asked the same question, replies: Barely anything. But come figure it out with us.

Don't get me wrong; I like rules: speed limits, bedtimes, ask-to-be-excused-before-you-leave-the-table, pay your taxes, wait in line, be a good neighbor. But when it comes to God, I've long gone on record as being a little suspicious of anyone who seems to be too sure about anything. It is a MYSTERY. Who among us can really know much for sure beyond the Greatest Commandment (Love God) and the second, "like unto it," (Love one another)? Why raise our girls in a church where they, no matter how holy or wise or effective a leader, can't lead because of their gender? Why endure doctrinal scoldings during sermons about things that we never agreed with in the first place? Why remain a part of a church that wants to silence dissension, keep people away from the table, and offer communion based on a set of narrow parameters?

From now on, we'll be over here, eating at a table that nourishes us, celebrating the hol(y)days in a way that makes better sense to us, creating our own little family traditions.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Notes From Camp

She finished 4th grade, finished another soccer season, performed in the end-of-the-year piano recital. She's nine going on ten going on seventeen and we're technically required to call her a fifth-grader now. She has braces. She was awarded the "Fantastic Friend" award by her teacher at school, and "Best Technical Skills" award by her soccer coach, whatever that means. She's had an iPod touch for a year or so, for music and a camera and silly games, and she lobbied us for months to enable the texting feature, which we finally did this week on a trial basis with much trepidation and after multiple conversations about Responsibility and Trust and The Internet is Forever, so now she and her friend can use all the emoji while they text about which headband they'll wear the following day.

Also, she's at camp.

Camp, as in sleepaway, as in we dropped her off on Sunday and haven't spoken a word to her since. I didn't think this would be a big deal for me, since I've definitely been away from her for much longer periods of time (I pick her up tomorrow), and I know she's with three of her bestest friends, and I loved camp myself at exactly her age. But the complete lack of communication has thrown me -- can't I get a 60-second phone call: "Everything good? You're having fun? I love you!" -- and the house is so very quiet without her in it.

Not that the absence is all bad. Because in spite of the fact that she can still pass time by coloring, possibly still believes in fairies and Santa, and spent a big chunk of her first day of summer vacation playing an invented game with Jemma involving scooters, maple seeds, a sidewalk-chalk-drawn map on the driveway, and bad guys, she's moving into the teen-ish years more quickly than I can believe. The last week of school, she had an honest-to-goodness fit about her hair, which looked exactly the same as it has looked every other day of the last year, and declared it "square" and ripped her headband out and threw it on the ground. For the first time this school year, she actually got a little worked up about tests ("Quiz me on the state capitals one last time, Mom!") and she started faux-complaining about a boy or two in her class. I brought her to one of Ben's lacrosse games and after the game was over the two of them had a few moments of painful awkwardness, complete with strange voices and total lack of eye contact, before they remembered that they're friends who have known one another since they were born and went on talking and laughing as usual. She's moody and talks back and stomps off and is 100 percent a tween.

Before she left on Sunday, Jason and I tucked a few notes into the clothes she had packed in her duffel bag for her to find later. It was Father's Day, and as I was hiding a little blue note among her t-shirts, I  was remembering the way my dad used to do the same thing for me each year. I don't remember what a single one of his notes said -- I wish I had one still now -- but I can easily envision his spidery, all-caps handwriting and the little smiley face he always drew.

On Sunday, I had talked to him on the phone earlier that day, and he told Annie to have a great time at camp, and I wish I had remembered to talk about the notes with him when I wished him happy Father's Day. I always loved finding them, always felt loved and treasured when I thought about my dad remembering to tuck them in. As Annie grows up and away from us (grades and boys and camp and texts), more and more I think our role is to step back and watch her learn (and try, and fail, and try again) while we coach and encourage from the sidelines. I kind of can't believe I'm the person tucking the notes into the camp duffel, but I'm hoping she remembers it on a day next week or next year when she "hates" us, and maybe again in 20 or 30 years, when she's doing it for her kids.

And I can't wait to go get her tomorrow.

Monday, February 10, 2014


My grandma passed away yesterday. She was my mom's mom, the grandma I was closest to growing up. The one who had us over for sleepovers and let us shoot BB guns off the back porch at leftover utility line flags. The one with a huge backyard with a clothesline and a basement with spare bedrooms where my brother and I slept. The one who loved crossword puzzles and spoke German and Dutch and wrote me long letters from Florida in the winter, with spidery handwriting and drawings of the layout of their condo and maybe five or ten dollars inside. The one who was always doing dishes or wiping the counter. The one who served Ritz crackers and Schuler's bar cheese on Sundays when we went for coffee after church, who poured me iced tea out of a brown Tupperware pitcher. The one who came to all my birthday parties, hosted our Christmas Eve gatherings, went on our annual summer camping trip, cooked me the best fried potatoes ever with the container of bacon grease she kept under the sink. The one who came to the hospital to hold baby Annie on her first day of life. The one who canned peaches and pears and made strawberry jam and drove a school bus for disabled kids.

She was smart, stubborn, fastidious, faithful, and serious, though I remember her laughing a lot too. She drank coffee from morning to night. She smelled like lipstick and lotion. She had Alzheimer's, like her own mother did, and she hasn't been the same grandma to me for at least five years now. I brought her flowers and ate cake with her on her birthday in October. I saw her last weekend and I was stunned. She was less like my grandmother and more like a baby bird, lying in bed, unable to talk, unable to eat, opening her eyes off and on when we spoke to her or held her hand. For the last week, the image has been with me as I go about all the things I go about. As I was falling asleep, I was thinking My grandma is dying. As I stretched my hamstrings in downward dog, I was thinking My grandma is dying. As I hugged and kissed the girls when they got home from school, I was thinking My grandma is dying. As I took a bite of food, laughed with a friend, wrote an article, drove my car, shoveled snow, talked to my mom on the phone, read to my daughter before bed: My grandma is dying.

And now she's gone. She leaves behind my grandpa, her husband of 64 years, a number that is incomprehensible to me, and her four children, her grandchildren, her great-grandchildren. I am at once guiltily relieved that she is no longer suffering in that bed and incredibly sad that she is no longer in the world with me. I'll never hold her hand again. I'll never smell her smell. Two months ago, I still had both my grandmas; now I have neither.

I have friends who have lost parents, siblings, unborn children. This -- me losing my grandparents in their 80s and 90s -- is not particularly tragic, I know. It's simply sad. So for today, I'm trying to get down the good memories as best I can before they fade. I'm trying to find the threads of these two beautiful, smart, funny, strong, stubborn women in myself and in my girls. I'm trying to remember that, in the word of a favorite, Ray Bradbury, "no person ever died that had a family."

"Important thing is not the me that's lying here, but the me that's sitting on the edge of the bed looking back at me, and the me that's downstairs cooking supper, or out in the garage under the car, or in the library reading. All the new parts, they count. I'm not really dying today. No person ever died that had a family. I'll be around a long time. A thousand years from now a whole township of my offspring will be biting sour apples in the gumwood shade." - Ray Bradbury, Dandelion Wine

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Year End, 2013

It seems like, after weeks months of being absent from this space, I'd be bursting with things to report: lessons learned, moments savored, anecdotes recorded, adventures had. Instead, I find myself in the last hours of 2013 with not much to say. Not much to add, really, to a very busy season that went by in a blur.

Since I started working in an actual job at the end of the summer, my weeks have flown by in a new rhythm of life: Mondays are for cleaning, getting groceries, and running errands, Tuesdays and Wednesdays are all about writing, editing, and publishing a weekly issue, Thursdays are largely for meetings and various planning and management issues, and Fridays are a catch-all before the weekend appears. Email, once a fun link to the outside world, has become a whack-a-mole nemesis, something to be checked constantly and responded to multiple times a day. Writing, once a creative outlet for a brain that was subsumed with the details of mothering, has become a paid part of my existence. I'm responsible for a website that thousands of people read. I've met heads of foundations and city government and companies. A staff reports to me. I hired an intern. All these things sound like things someone else would do, and yet they are things I have done in 2013. I mostly love it.

Last week, Jemma lost her second front tooth, turned seven, and got her ears pierced in quick succession. She went from being a snaggle-toothed little one to a Big Kid in the blink of an eye, her new earrings glinting in her lobes, her new quiet confidence obvious in the photos I took on the 27th as she opened her presents. She's ripping into new piano songs daily, eager to practice and quickly catching up to her big sister. She has not lost her love for the Boxcar Children books, but she's branching out, too: Magic Treehouse, Nate the Great, Cam Jansen, and plenty of animal-related non-fiction, too. She had an All About Me week at school during December. I went into her classroom to bake with her, and I sent in photos for the bulletin board. She had to answer some standard questions (favorite book, favorite place, etc.) and under "I am special because . . . " she wrote, "I am special because I have a kind heart." Truer words never written.

Annie is blossoming into a curious, thoughtful, creative person. She notices everything. She has gobbled up fourth grade, and has been learning some good lessons about time management, studying, friendship, and responsibility. Her fall was full of soccer, and she was named captain of her team as much for her work ethic at practice as for her scrappy play during games. She's fast, smart, and tough, and I love to watch her figure life out. She'll spend hours at a time designing Lego houses (not from the books, but from her own brain), playing the piano, creating "training" courses for the kitties, and crafting bracelets and folders and god-knows-what from various materials she hoards in her bedroom. She's reading Harry Potter, singing in the school choir for the first time, and just learned to breathe to the side while swimming freestyle.

Jason and I fall onto the couch (or the porch furniture, or the hot tub) at the end of the day, just barely able to speak clearly about bank balances and car maintenance, holiday plans and vacation reservations. We've loved the last week: plenty of time to sit and watch the fire (truly plenty on the three separate times our power went out!), plenty of guitar and conversations and eating fudge and seafoam and watching Arrested Development. Six months ago, we were just getting back from Paris. I'm so very grateful we got to go there this year, and I actually dream about being there very occasionally and daydream about being there even more often. There is a small part of me that wants to live there, and you never know: it might prevail.

This fall, my annual college girls' weekend trip took us to Charleston, SC, a city I've now decided I'd be happy to retire to, and for some reason, this year was an extra-good dose of togetherness and excellent conversation, perspective, and eating. At a time when things were a little confusing here at home in the social realm, it was a solid reminder of the value of old friends and a lovely little getaway from the weekly responsibilities of being a working mom.

My grandma passed away a few weeks ago. She was 99 years old and had been begging, "Lord, take me now!" for several years, off and on. She was tough and beautiful and had a hilarious sense of humor along with a serious commitment to faith and family, and our Annie is her namesake. She was quite old when I came along since my dad was her youngest, so I never knew her quite the way my oldest cousins on that side did. At her funeral, though, I got a glimpse of a woman who, widowed young, found the courage to find love again; who, at age 65, took up golf; who, after having five kids in eight years, still managed to be a hearty and healthy mother and matriarch. I wished Annie (and Jemma) could have been there to hear some of her wisdom (we didn't take them to the funeral, just the visitation), but luckily my dad and I are still around to pass those traits on, and my grandma left behind a much-written-in Bible and many journals that give glimpses into how to be a strong and wise woman.

This Christmas, we surprised the girls with a little "clubhouse" of their own: an attic space that's been unfinished, now paneled with beadboard and wired with a little sconce and filled with beanbags. They've been holed up there for a few days with their Rainbow Looms and crayons and CD players and Legos, being lazy and cozy on their school vacation. Jason got me a Vitamix, which I've used daily and already wonder how I lived without, and I got him tickets to an upcoming concert in Ann Arbor, where we'll spend two nights sleeping in and eating out and enjoying good music together. There were, of course, other presents, but the clubhouse and the time with family were by far the biggest gifts.

I haven't been in this space much in the last few months, and I'm not going to promise to be here all that much in the future, either. Next week, we'll all dive back in to our crazy schedule and I'll dive into a much-needed detox from alcohol and red meat and sugar, and before I know it we'll be hauling out the porch furniture again and sleeping with the windows open. But I do hope 2014 holds more of the same (professional challenges, family time, travel, music, great food) and a few new opportunities, too. I hope for lots of small-but-wonderful moments. I hope for balance, and more vegetables, and spontaneous adventures, and meaningful service, and deepening friendships, and a better handle on my DSLR, and better posture. I hope we find a church that makes our whole family feel at home. I hope I remember that I only have this one wild and precious life and to seize the day with as much grace and good humor as I can muster.

No resolutions for me. Just pointing my compass in the right direction, fortifying myself with some green smoothies and hot yoga, and jotting down a list every night before I go to bed.

Happy New Year.

Monday, September 2, 2013

August and Everything After

It's the night before school starts, and I'm sitting in my office in the dark. Windows open, crickets chirping, my camera charging next to me. I'm sad to see summer go and fairly befuddled to see it go so soon. Maybe it was the two-weeks-in-Europe or the sort-of-crappy weather, but I never felt like we got into a groove this summer. I don't remember many hot, lazy expanses of time that we could fill any way we pleased. (There were some, I'm sure, and I was probably annoyed by them and tried to fill them when they occurred.)

So all weekend, I've been feeling a little stunned. A little emotional. A little desperate for the girls to leave tomorrow so I can finally think a thought or write a sentence without being interrupted -- "Mom! Mom? Moooooommmm?!?" -- every thirty seconds. A little panicky about how long it will be before they burst back into the house in the late afternoon. Their little outfits are lying on their bedroom floors, their new lunch bags and water bottles are waiting on the counter, their backpacks are hanging on the hooks in the mudroom. They're ready, even if I'm not.

This weekend, though, I've been replaying all the good things that we crammed into this past month. We jumped big waves with my parents at the beach. We spent a long weekend in a tent on the Leelanau Penninsula at a campground with a yoga instructor and got to soak in the sun at our favorite sandy spots. We ate at House of Flavors in Ludington, swung at the lake in Manistee, hiked through the Nordhouse Dunes to water, cozied into a booth at Harmony, ate Pronto Pups with cousins in Grand Haven, biked to Jersey Junction, made peach and blueberry crisp a half-dozen times. We spent a weekend at the cabin, playing cornhole and fishing off the dock and eating Pop Tarts for breakfast and reading in camp chairs. We went to the block party, had lemonade stands, hosted cousin sleepovers. We ate breakfast and drank coffee on the side porch. We played frisbee and baseball in the front yard. We tried to spend every possible minute outside.

This weekend, we stuck close to home: did laundry, mowed the yard, went running at the track a couple times, had friends over to watch Michigan football. We went to the home football game on Thursday night. Jason smoked a brisket and played guitar one afternoon, and we gobbled up the new downtown market two different days (tonight: filet, potatoes, cauliflower, and fresh tomatoes with goat cheese plus Love's ice cream on our crisp - all from the market. Swoon.). We picked peaches at Crane's yesterday, then spent the rest of the day at Pier Cove beach, where Annie made an elaborate castle and Jemma swam and swam until she was completely worn out. It was hard to walk back up the steps to the car and brush the sand off my feet; who knows the next time my toes will be in Lake Michigan?

Tonight we ate outside, and the girls donned sweaters (and Jemma, a hat), and I couldn't help but feel like it was the end of the season, and the end of an era. Tomorrow, when I leave them at school, I have plenty of work to come home to. I have meetings on the calendar and deadlines to meet and content to assign. I have a new computer system to master and a desk full of papers that need to be dealt with. Next summer, most likely, I'll be a "working mom," with some childcare juggling and at least a few days of the girls heading off to something sunny and fun while I edit articles or talk on the phone. I'm excited about my new gig - it's challenging and interesting work that matters in at least some small way to this community - but I feel a little wistful about "the good old days," when the girls were so small and the days unfurled at such a slow pace that I thought kindergarten would never, ever come. Tomorrow: first and fourth grade. Locker decorations. People who want to borrow my earrings and bring purses to school.

Ten years ago, I was starting my last fall as a teacher. I was training for the Chicago marathon and thinking (but only just) about becoming a mother. Tonight, I'm so glad for this strange, not-quite-normal summer (older kids, new job, PARIS), and my photos show a riot of color and joy these past few months. I wish I could slow it down, and I'm sure going to miss it.