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!

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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.

____________________________________________________________________________________________

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

Mourning

I drive to the church and enter the foyer, joining the line of mourners waiting to pay their respects. The length we wait will increase through the morning, a testament to a life well-spent.

The flowers and photographs have been arranged to keep us engaged as we alternately step and pause on our way to speak to loved ones lined up along the front. I wave to old friends ahead of me. They smile but it doesn’t reach their eyes.

I let a woman pass me so I can speak to a friend in line behind. We talk about other deaths and funerals, the importance of letting others know you care.

That’s the thing about helping someone else grieve. It brings back every parting. I can’t help thinking of my own losses. Time has faded these, but there are moments like this, that they sharpen again.

I remember being in that receiving line, surprised by the faces that came into view, touched by those who came based on childhood friendship.

I say, “I know it meant a lot to me that so many showed up for my father’s funeral.”

My friend agrees, and then we talk in low voices about our families, his new job, because everyday life goes on.

This is one of probably hundreds of visitations I have attended. As a teacher in a small town I have a wide circle of community.

As a child, I went with my father to pay our respects to any extended family member who passed away. In my stiff, black patent leather shoes and scratchy tights, I’d look up at the adults talking over my head, faces serious. Later were the deaths of the great-uncles and -aunts that readied me for the more difficult goodbyes. My dad taught me to honor the dead.

But my mother taught me that visitations and funerals are for the living. Although I was acquainted with the man who died, I am here for his children, who are old friends. As I near the front, I hear snippets of stories.

We tell our own life stories, until the end. Death is one story we can’t tell ourselves.

This man lived a long full life and has a large, loving family mourning him as a legacy. Many are not so fortunate.

I have known people who knew it was time to go. But even after a long illness, their loved ones rarely seem to feel the same. No matter how much or little time we get, we always want more.

I reach the front, holding hands and expressing sympathy, then hugging as I reach the friends I am here for. I remember them when they were young and joyful, then young parents, and now, the generation between. They have been greeting and shaking hands for an hour now and, like pros, steer the conversation to the periphery of loss, the flowers, their kids, introductions to the next down the line. How else to get through a day like this? I feel their grief, but know that with time, life will go on.

Back in my car, I drive home, the whiff of a woman’s perfume following me like the scent of grief.

Unhappy Camper

I’ve been celebrating my first blogging anniversary by sharing my favorite posts this week. This was first posted July 19, 2017

My mother and I walked the three blocks to the meeting place that Friday afternoon. I wore my usual jeans, sneakers, and a light jacket, all suitable for Girl Scout camping in the spring. My mother, volunteering as a chaperone, wore her light blue trench coat and one of the few pairs of pants she owned. She sniffed and dabbed at her running nose with a tissue in one hand, while the other arm clutched her bedroll and her sack supper that she’d put in a beaded shopping bag made of pink plastic netting, with handles for easy carrying.

My back tensed as we approached the gathering group of girls and our leader, nicknamed Nuke. I was only still in Girl Scouts as a seventh grader because of Nuke. She made meetings fun, took us to camp, was stern when needed, but genuinely seemed to like hanging out with a bunch of adolescent girls. I set my bedroll down next to her daughter, Missy.

“Your mom came,” Missy said.

“Yeah.” My shoulders slumped.

“I love your mom. She’s so nice.” Missy smiled.

I looked toward Mom, standing talking to Nuke, her blond head leaning in toward Nuke’s brown pinned-up braid. I loved my mom too. But at home. Not out camping for the first time in her life, with her pink beaded shopping bag. I sighed. Maybe it would be all right.

It was almost dark by the time the bus dropped us off at camp. We dropped our sack suppers on a picnic table. Then we paired up to head to our tents scattered in the woods and lay out our bedrolls before the last of the light faded. My friend and I brushed leaves and dirt off the wooden floor of the tent and were about to head out to eat when we heard a screech. It sounded an awful lot like my mother.

I rushed toward her voice. There was my mom, looking up in a tree and yelling.

“Hey! Give that back!”

Above her, the pink shopping bag dangled from a branch, while a raccoon reached inside, grabbing bits of her sandwich.

The raccoon won. Nuke and I shared our dinner with Mom and our group settled around picnic tables to eat. We sat around talking, but soon Nuke sent us to bed. The real fun of camping would start early.

The next morning, we started a fire, cooked pancakes for breakfast, cleaned up, and hiked in the woods. Nuke supervised, but the work was ours. One of the girls blared a transistor radio playing top 40’s music as we washed up. I waited for Mom to ask her to turn it down, but she said nothing.

The day flew by. That night I breathed a sigh of relief as we sat beneath the stars around a crackling fire, making s’mores and singing camp songs.

“Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me….”

The weekend was almost over and no more Mom catastrophes.

Sunday morning after breakfast we sat in the sun with the radio blaring again, while we waited for the bus to pick us up. Mom cocked her head listening.

“You know, some of this music isn’t bad.”

_______________________

Now that I’m well on the other side of being the embarrassing mom, I see that weekend from a different perspective.

I asked my introverted, book-loving Mom once why she went on that camping trip, when she was so clearly out of her element.

She shrugged. “They needed a volunteer.”

Now I look back and see the lilacs blooming that my mother was horribly allergic to. She dressed for the trip the best way she could. These were the clothes she had and money wasn’t plentiful. The goofy pink bag made sense. It was hard to carry everything and blow your nose at the same time.

That weekend she shared a tent with Nuke, who didn’t like the way the bugs clung to the roof for warmth. So, they slept with all four flaps rolled to the top all night and Mom froze.

She had grown up in an era and town where they used an outhouse until midway through her childhood. Mom valued indoor plumbing.

Mom camped for the one and only time in her life because she loved me.

 

 

Unfolding From the Fog

(This is the post that I wish I’d thought to write to start the blog. It was first posted April 27, 2017.)

I am up before dawn, cursing this stage of life that doesn’t let me sleep late on a Saturday. I grab sweats from the floor and dress in the bathroom, while my husband sleeps on.

Downstairs, my dog prances around my feet, eager for her food and walk.

I bundle up for December, unprepared for the mild outside air. I step out the back door into another realm, my backyard transformed. Grateful now for an early awakening, we wander and linger as the sun rises through the fog.

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