The Road Taken

There’s a park on our country road that looks like a small picnic area. We recently found out about its short trail in the woods. My daughter and I walked it about a month ago. The barren winter stillness was only broken by the persistent call of a cardinal.

We picked our way through fallen twigs, crunching leaves, and mole rippled ground, looking up occasionally to see around a bend. When we came to a fork in the road, I tried to remember where each path went.

I shrugged. “Let’s go right.”

Forty feet around a bend, the trail dead-ended at a stream. A crumbling log was the bridge.

“Come on, Mom.” My daughter walked out on the branch, effortlessly turning back to wave me on.

I stood rooted in place.

“You can do it.”

This moment is but one of many that started when she was a kid and I learned to ice skate at the age of thirty-seven because said daughter wanted us to take lessons together. Aside from a few bruises and a wrenched knee, it was a lot of fun.

Then there are the vacation adventures. My other daughter talked me into parasailing. When the guide told us the ocean was rocky and offered us an out, I didn’t want to disappoint my daughter so I, who have major motion sickness, went anyway. Turns out being high in the air isn’t as soothing as it looks. I won’t paint that picture for you, but when they tell you to put your hand on your head and they will pull you in, don’t believe them.

Then there was snorkeling. It was a bright clear day. While my daughters happily swam out in the bay, diving down to admire the colorful fish and coral, I found myself panting through the mask and turned back before I’d have to take the life preserver away from the one child in the group.

And then there was zip-lining. I zinged from tree-to-tree, only once stopping short and having to be rescued ten feet from the platform. I’d go again in a heartbeat.

Just last summer, my hiking daughter talked me into going on a six-mile hike in 85-degrees with 90% humidity. I made it, barely. A month later we did seven miles on Oregon hills. At least the weather was cooler and there were multiple waterfalls to pause and admire. I could barely walk up stairs for days after that.

In Nevada’s Red Rock Canyon, I trailed behind as my daughters scrabbled down a steep slope. When I leaned over a little farther to see where they were going, they turned in unison and yelled, “No, Mom! Don’t try it!” I had more sense than that.

Now it was forty degrees and the log looked wobbly. Balance is one of the first things to go as you age and getting wet wasn’t appealing.

“Nope.”

I turned back and she followed.

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We backtracked and took the other fork, passed through a clearing and ended by the biggest tree in the park, before we walked out the way we came. Dusk was approaching. I wondered aloud if the hooting we heard was from the owl who visited our yard.

She shared a story about someone being attacked by an owl for being in its territory. Hmm, maybe crossing the stream was less dangerous than the walk.

“I almost got you to do it.”

I just smiled. She almost did.

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How to Fold a Blanket

To fold a blanket, it helps to have two people. Age and skill are not required as along as you are at least tall enough not to drag it on the floor. Seven or eight is old enough. If you have an older sister, chances are good she will be assigned to blanket folding with you.

With plenty of grumbling that you’ve been tasked with anything at all and some lingering animosity for something the two of you fought about earlier, begin.

First, with you at one side and your sister at the other, grab your two corners of the blanket, pulling them together to meet. Now grab both corners with your left hand while she grabs hers with her right. In sync, reach down for the fold you just created. Bring your hands to meet a second time, creating a long thin rectangle. Gently shake it to smooth it out, unless you’re still angry. Then whip it like mad till she loses her side and yells, while you primly say, “I was just trying to get out the wrinkles.”

Once she retrieves her end, walk together, arms held high, to meet in the middle. Since you made her drop her edge, she may make you walk all the way to her. Give her your corners and bend to pick up the bottom edge. Hand that to her as well. She will set the bundle down and smooth it with her hand.

Then begin again with the sheets. Fold so many so often over the years, that you both move easily in line. The task goes quickly and you smile across at each other.

Now that you have the process down, you can partner with your spouse, daughters, even friends on occasion, but you never quite achieve that synchronicity, that almost psychic sense of where she is going to move next.

Now miles and lives apart, you never lose the trust that she will hold up her end for as long as you need it.

On the Way to School

To get from home to school, you’d go out the side door, because the front door was only ever used when company came over. Your Beatles lunch box would be useful both to carry your sandwich and thermos and to swing it at the kid who’d always tease you at recess. Books in your other arm and your jacks in your pocket, you’d pass the front porch where in summer you’d sit on the bottom concrete step to strap adjustable roller skates onto your shoes. But no skating now. Not on a school day.

Depending on the year, you’d walk with your sister and one or both brothers and the friends who cut across the alley through your yard to meet you. You’d turn left right after you pick up the girl from the corner house (who was hit by a car in the alley one summer and you saw your father run, which you didn’t think he could do.)

Down just a half a block, you’d come to the house (who knows why there) where in second grade you always started to panic. After the first time just the idea of passing there set your heart racing.

But today you’d walk past fine, the older girls in front, you and your friend chattering behind, with the brothers trailing. You might pause to hike up your itchy tights, because they never stayed up and girls wouldn’t be allowed to wear pants suits to school for another couple of years.

Next, you’d turn right. The single-family homes would make way for two-flats and at the third one from the corner you’d pick up your neighbor’s cousin, who had almost the same name.

Coming up you’d pass the house of the tall blond boy, your first crush. Did he like you too? You’d never be sure.

At the end of that block you’d reach the spot where once a strange kid, a half a head taller than your little brother, tried to start a fight and you knew you couldn’t let your brother be hurt. So you wrestled the boy to the ground and pinned him. When a woman came out of her house yelling, you started to cry, and the woman wagged her finger at the boy, saying “I know you. You’re the one who causes all the trouble,” and let you go on your way.

In the fall you would scuff through crackling leaves. In spring you’d throw handfuls of maples seeds and chortle as they helicoptered down.

The street would T at the college campus, so you’d turn left and walk the final stretch to the traffic light. You’d rattle the coins in your pocket and think ahead to after school when you’d go another half block to the penny candy store to buy a paper strip of dots, Bazooka bubble gum and wax lips for a dime.

But now you’d pick up the pace as the bell rings. You’d hurry across the gravel playground, past teeter totters, high flyers, and a tall steep slide, along where the girls formed long lines to jump rope to chanting rhymes, toward the wall the boys used to play pinners where the trim met the brick.

You’d race up the steps and merge with the crowd of kids heading through the double doors to childhood’s past.

2017’s Most Popular Posts

It’s always a surprise to me which posts become the most popular. When I reached my first anniversary of blogging I re-posted my own favorites, but here are the top five with the greatest number of views.

Tied for fifth were “Questions,” an October post about the surreal state of our country, and “Marketing,” my reflections on a July visit to Portland’s Saturday Market.

In fourth was another July post, “Unhappy Camper,” a story about my mom’s one and only camping trip.

The Change” from August, about the way I’m getting through this phase of life, came in third .

In second was the June day I cleaned out my closet, “Downsizing.”

And in first place from back in May, my non-morbid look at end-of-life arrangements, “The Best Laid Plans.”

Come back in 2018 for more eclectic posts on the things I think about as I walk my dog and walk through life. Thanks for reading!

The Other Side

Her shoulders were tense and her mouth was set in a line, as she recounted the conversation she’d had with her teenager that morning.

I smiled. “Thirteen is the worst, isn’t it?”

“Yesss!” she said on a sigh.

“There’s hope,” I told her. “Seventeen was a turnaround age for my kids. I was sitting on my bed folding laundry, when my daughter came in, sat down and started telling me about her day. I thought, Who are you? And where have you been for the last few years?”

Her mouth turned up, but she still sighed.

This is what people dread when they say they never want their little ones to grow up. But every age has something we’re happy to leave behind.

Well on the opposite side of those teenage years now, I’m dwelling less on the rough conversations, late nights, and drama. I’m glad the full calendar, endless events and rides, my-needs-come-last time is over.  I do believe that kids must pull away from us to become adults, and that’s hard for everyone involved. But there were amazing moments from that time too.

Last week a coworker showed me a video of her son’s solo in the school musical. And I remembered many other recitals, plays, impromptu performances.

I recalled one daughter’s grace and speed, as she leaped through the air, legs perfectly parallel to the floor.

I thought of my other daughter’s purposeful drive down a soccer field, her powerful kick, coordinated team passes, aggressive play.

I remembered stories told from first jobs, caring for others. I reminisced about proms, lovely dresses and makeup, and where-did-my-little-girl-go?

When else in our lives are we both skillful enough and free to try on roles like hats: scholar, dancer, artist, athlete, singer, star? How many of us continue any of these identities past those tumultuous teenage years?

While you couldn’t pay me enough to go back to my own adolescence, now I can look back at my daughters’ teen years with a sense of wonder.

But for the mother of a thirteen-year-old, there’s nothing to do but wait.

 

Without Words

If I picked one thing to represent my mother, it would be the maroon patterned tote bag of library books she always had hanging from a doorknob. There were always several novels in it, because she’d need a number of books to get through three weeks between visits. It was conveniently placed to be visible from her chair in the living room and handy for grabbing as she went out the door.

My father was a collector of books. He owned far more than he ever read. We had rows of bookcases to house them. But Mom only collected volumes for reference, including an encyclopedia she won by submitting a word puzzle to a game show called You Don’t Say! back in the ‘60s. The ones she read for pleasure always came from the library.

My mother was a collector of words. She did crossword puzzles and was a whiz at Scrabble. We had an unabridged dictionary on top of one of the bookshelves and we learned to use it early and often.

Throughout my childhood, Mom read. She read to us when we were little and she read nonfiction to learn, but for herself, she read mysteries. She did six people’s laundry on an old machine where you had to move the clothes from the washer to the spinner. She cooked meat and potatoes for my father most nights, but experimented with quiche, boxed pasta, and even soybean burgers out of Diet for a Small Planet. She sewed and mended, did mountains of dishes, cleaned a bit, but through it all you might find her surrounded by folded piles of laundry with a book in her hand.

As we grew older and moved away, she had more time to read. By the time she was living alone, when we only came back to visit, she read so many mysteries, so quickly, that she sometimes found herself a chapter into a book she’d already read. So, she started a list of all the ones she had read and updated it regularly. Then she’d take the list to the library with her to check before she brought more home.

So, it was a surprise when we found the tote bag empty.

______________________

In the doctor’s office, she answered all the questions correctly. She knew where she was and why she was here. She told the date, the time and who the president was. She recognized all the people around her.

How could I explain my concerns without hurting my mother? Feeling disloyal, I started with the books.

“Mom used to read several books a week and now she reads none. She did crossword puzzles in pen. She’s the smartest person I know, and something is wrong.”

While the doctor answered in careful clinical-speak, I looked over at my mother to see how she was taking this, my betrayal.

I saw a familiar look on her face as she gazed at me, a half-smile of pride.

And I could see that she knew – she knew – what she was losing.

Small Blessings (a listicle)

 

Two weeks past Thanksgiving, I’m still feeling thankful. Yes, I’m thankful that the larger parts of my life are going well, and no, I’m not happy about the events in my newsfeed. But the little things in life have been catching may attention lately, small blessings that can make my day, in the same way that frustrations can ruin it.

I’m thankful when the sun comes out after days of gray.

I’m thankful that living in the country means I don’t have to rake leaves.

I’m thankful that my little Prius still runs well, for the simple reason that it’s the only car that I’ve ever loved and I want to continue driving it.

I’m thankful that my commute is ten minutes long. (Jealous?)

I’m thankful for a keyboard that had power to run for two years and especially for the friend that lent me her charger as soon as I questioned, “How do I charge this thing?” Because after two years, I had forgotten what that black cable was for and who knows where I put it.

I’m thankful for canceled meetings, like gifts of time opening in my day.

I’m thankful to be vigorous and active, though getting up off the floor isn’t as quick as it used to be. (Do you sit on the floor? I find myself there often, not just working with students, but playing with the dog, getting things off low shelves, and looking under the bed to find my missing sock.)

I’m thankful that I work with children, because with kids there is always hope for the future.

I’m thankful for peanut butter, especially the crunchy kind. (If you’re allergic, that’s unfortunate. I’ll eat it somewhere else.)

I’m thankful for openings at the doctor’s office when I need to get in and a good stick when I give blood.

I’m thankful for a cup of hot tea on a cold day and for chocolate, because who wouldn’t be?

I’m thankful not only for my wonderful daughters, but that their chosen fields make them great sources of information for me. My life is richer and better informed for knowing them.

I’m thankful that my friends still want to see me after we’ve had busy months away from each other. (That seems to be a condition of my friendship. You have to wait to see me and then pick up exactly where we left off.)

I’m thankful for new adventures, even if they are only online ones, and for the new people I am meeting through writing. (You can never have too many friends.)

I’m thankful for those who read my blog and come back to read more. I’m especially thankful to the ones who stop to chat, offer words of encouragement, yes, but also just share their thoughts and experiences. It continually amazes me that my words reach people around the world.

I am thankful that I come home to a wagging dog and to eat a warm dinner that I didn’t cook. I’m thankful that I have a comfy spot on the couch and can spend time with my husband as I end my evening. Then to bed, where I’ll be grateful to sleep.

Expectations

My young friend is expecting her first child. She pats the hard bump, already missing her flat stomach.

I say, “Remember how A. stayed her usual tall and slim, with just a basketball sized baby bump?”

She does.

“Everyone is different. I played golf when I was pregnant and the only shorts I had with pockets were two pairs of bib overalls, one red, one blue. I had big babies in my short body. I looked like Tweedledum or Tweedledee.”

She laughs.

I stop myself from going on. She’ll hear enough about all the changes her body will go through. Her nausea and fatigue are lessening. Her bump won’t be the only thing growing bigger. Soon she’ll feel the fluttering of life inside.

Right now, her heart is beating stronger and harder, with increased blood flow. But nothing will prepare her heart for the intensity of the love she’ll feel when she meets her newborn. No love at first sight could be as strong.

Nothing will prepare her for her physical need for her baby, to inhale his scent and kiss his soft cheek. No one tells you that sensuality and intimacy need not be sexual.

Nothing will prepare her for the dread she’ll feel when she’s scheduled to go back to work at a job she once loved. Driving to her first day back she will cry, wracked with grief and guilt for not being with her child, unprepared for the physical loss she will feel at not holding him in her arms.

If she chooses, and is fortunate enough to choose, to stay home with her baby, nothing will prepare her for the mind-numbing isolation of spending your days with an infant. Sleep deprived, she may go all day without a shower, starting and stopping the household chores she was sure she would accomplish, at the mercy of a tiny wailing being that takes all her feelings of worth and accomplishment and rips them to shreds.

Whether at work or home, life will go on. As her infant grows and she finds a routine and gets a little more sleep, as her baby grows rounder and more alert, as he lights up at the sight of her when she comes in the room, nothing will prepare her for the unconditional love of her child. She will be the center of his world and he, hers.

Once living in a world of the mind, the schedule of importance will shift. Having laundry done and food in the house will be measures of success.

Once measuring her worth through work, nothing will prepare her for the delight she will feel at her son’s rolling over, sitting up, crawling. Nothing will prepare her for her joy at the sound of her baby’s laugh. When he takes his first steps, her arms will be open, her smile wide.

Nothing will prepare her for the emotions of her son’s first words. They may be dada or dog, but the day will come that he calls her mama. While she has several names in the world, in that moment, that will be her favorite name of all.

Nothing will prepare her for all the years to come. Nothing can. But so many mothers have been unprepared. Everything will be fine.


Positive

I feel powerful today. I can affect change in others at the cellular level. You can too.

I can’t actually alter DNA, but I can change the way people’s genes are expressed. (Just Google epigenetics.)

Have you heard of the ACE study? All it takes to hijack someone’s future health and well-being is to create chaos in their lives. Of course, if you add drug abuse, food scarcity, or domestic violence to the pot, that could accelerate the change. But it could be as simple as berating them daily or shoving them or breaking things around them when they least expect it, so that they think about it and anticipate it all the time. It could be any of the ten categories of risk. The more adverse events are layered on, the greater the chance their health will be impaired. And those epigenetic markers will help pass those health issues on to their offspring as well.

What does this mean for you? It could be you or someone you love. Two-thirds of the people surveyed had at least one risk factor. Most of that group had two or more. By the time you reach four risk factors, your chances of experiencing health impairments like heart disease, addiction and alcoholism, auto-immune disease, even divorce, rise dramatically.

Of course, children are the most vulnerable. But traumatic stress affects adults as well.

The good news is that we can also epigenetically improve a child’s life.

An earlier study was done with newborn rats. According to Moshe Szyf, they found that rats whose mothers groomed them more were better adjusted and calmer than rats whose mothers didn’t. But the best part is that when they put the baby rats from lesser groomers with foster calm mothers, the extra grooming enabled the baby rats to become well-adjusted calm adults. So, nurture, not nature.

 The ACE study found that a single caring adult can buffer a child from the effects of the stressors in her life. A loving parent or grandparent, a family friend or a committed teacher can be the support needed to keep the demons at bay.

Nadine Burke Harris developed ways to intervene and reverse the damage. We can improve a child’s future and, by extension, the future of their children. We have the power. Providing the resources to create a safe, stable home, with adults who love and care for them, with nourishing food and enriched education, much of the damage can be reversed.

And then, what if we could intervene in small ways? What if the smallest kindnesses are not just moral choices, but biochemical ones, like drops in a bucket that added together could affect a change for the better?

Extend that to us and we can combat the chaos by providing that consistent positivity to those in our lives. The next time your coworker becomes angry, wait for calm and then ask if everything is okay. When an exhausted parent with a screaming child is in line behind you at the grocery store, offer to let them go ahead. When you know someone is going through a tough time, offer specific assistance. When something is off, but you’re not quite sure what, keep watching and waiting. Offer to lend a hand even when you aren’t sure the help is needed. Trauma isn’t always visible to those around.

Give the small kindness of a smile. The small service of a listening ear. The small gift of a calm presence.

Why should we care?

Because adverse childhood experiences affect all of us.

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If you want to assess your own risk, click here.