The Ghosts of Everything Past

The 2018 holiday season has concluded. If you are reading this, I can only assume you survived.  There are 14 (at least) religious holidays alone in the month of December. I celebrate Christmas and can assure you that is plenty.  I have been pondering why holidays are so very stressful and furthermore why we continue to gather when it seems it drives many to the brink of insanity.  My holiday season this year was actually not stressful which gave me some good time to think on it instead of hiding in the bathroom in the fetal position (that was so 2004 me).  But-Why do we do even do this to ourselves?  What is causing all this strain?  So much drama.  There is the obvious.  The excess.  Too much food.  Too much family.  Too much on the schedule.  Too much running around.  Too much alcohol.  Too much money spent.  Too much expectation. Too many personalities. Too large a gap between hopes and reality.  Too much of everything.

I had a mostly idyllic childhood filled with fun holidays.  I know.  Nauseating right?  We had family over.  We had good food.  We had our traditions. Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s.  Predictable characters and patterns.  We opened gifts in order of age and on Christmas Eve.  I received Love’s Baby Soft many years in a row.  I ate rolls and cookies for dinner.  We had weird cousins.  My brother wisely remarked one year that we are their weird cousins because if you don’t think you have any in your family…you are the weird cousins.  It’s okay.  Even weird cousins are loved by loved ones and children of God and all that.  And I wasn’t even aware of families who lamented holidays until college.  I was living in a blissful holiday bubble. Also-can we go back to the 70’s?  Bold fashion choices.  BOLD.

thumbnail (2)

And as I aged and met more and more people, and got married and started to try to meld family traditions and meet all the expectations, I became aware. Acutely aware.  (Commence hiding in the bathroom)

Holidays are not cause for celebration for everyone.

Some are trying to heal from past disappointment.  Some are trying to carry on traditions that are plain unreasonable.  Some are nice quiet people who do not like chaos.  Some people have very difficult names on their guest list.   Some months are tough enough without adding a dinner that includes fatty foods and arguing. Some families are nuts.

A generation (or two) ago families got together and got together often.  Many extended families lived near one another.  (My grandmother lived in Prospect Park in Minneapolis and they had Sunday dinner together.  The entire extended family.  Every Sunday.)  Which is to say that a big holiday like Christmas was just one more on the list of many occasions throughout the year spent with extended family.

But now?

It might be the only time of the year to gather.  People fly all over the country and all over the world to “go home”  for Christmas.  It’s the one time to see the cousins.  It’s the one chance for so and so and such and such to interact.  It’s when we take many more photos because we are all finally in the same space.  Or possibly you are an “every other year” family.  So basically, we have elevated the holiday to either SUPERBOWL or WINTER OLYMPIC frequency and expectation.  And with infrequency comes the pressure to make it the end all be all most special most everything day of the year.  Good grief.  Who wants to try to participate in let alone execute that?

And then layered on top of the heightened sense of expectation can be a thin layer of pain.  Probably for everyone.  This I feel.  I think the common denominator is memory.  The holiday season brings up so many memories of every ilk.  Good holiday memories make me nostalgic and wistful.  Bad holiday memories make me sad and regretful.  Maybe we miss a tradition that got swept away with time.  Maybe we always wanted to start a new tradition but couldn’t.  Maybe we are missing someone around our table.  Maybe we always intend to make Swedish Kringle but couldn’t fit it in this year. (damn) Maybe the joy is missing this year. And ALL of that plus a tired crowd and Uncle Crazy Town starts a political conversation with Grandma.  And….KA-BOOM!

My brother bought me a gift this Christmas.  We are not supposed to exchange per new family rules. But not listening or following any Christmas giving rules might be our most long cherished family tradition.

IMG_6980

 

The acquisition of this set comes with a great story unto itself.  (he tells it better but I’ll summarize) Tracking one down.  40 phone calls to antique stores.  Research.  An hour drive north to pick it up.  Realizing it was not as advertised.  Colorful language.  But this is the set he gave me and I absolutely cherish it.  It’s at least 55 years old.  And while I am hardly passionate about all things vintage…this I adore.  Because it brings it all back in all the best ways.  My dad.  My mom.  Our family together.  Being young and waiting for Santa.  Being in college and still waiting for Santa.  Did you know Santa still fills your stocking in college?  He does because SHE is awesome and magical.  The Tom and Jerry’s.  (If you haven’t had one, you really must.  The rich batter.  The rum and brandy.  The fresh nutmeg.  It truly is a taste sensation.  I recommend one.  I do NOT recommend 3.)  The joy.  The loss.

So I’m thankful for all the shitty holidays.  All the times it just didn’t come together.  The year we were at the Minute Clinic on Christmas Eve.  The year my son gave himself a black eye 10 minutes before family arrived.  Occasionally when a family member lost their minds and said something ridiculous.  When someone forgot the orange juice or didn’t show up or showed up with extra people or when we were all trapped inside in -20 degree weather.  Because it made me appreciate this year.  It was a good one. I was reminded of so many people I have loved and do love and so many shared experiences and traditions.  I appreciate that each year is steeped in tradition and yet a tiny bit different.  And moving away from the pressure of the perfect experience and toward the gratitude helps me enjoy it.  And enjoy I did.

Cheers to 2019.  May we all focus on the micro moments of joy.  Because not every year is great or becomes a favorite…but every year has moments of greatness and creates favorite memories to be cherished down the road.

 

*Note: LOOK at Santa in 1978 and 1979.  They hired him AGAIN!??? He does not smell like Santa.  He smells like beef and cheese.  For sure.

 

 

Table for one: Join the club

I’ve been thinking about loneliness lately.   I am not lonely.  Or alone.  Nearly ever. The last time I can remember feeling lonely was in college. It was junior year. 1992.  Folks, that is a long time ago.  And the ironic thing is that I was not alone.  I was surrounded by people.  People who I loved.  People who loved me.  Living with my sweet,  gentle, long-suffering roommate/best friend.  I think I felt misunderstood. I was likely depressed. I felt isolated from others. Left behind. And quite full of self-pity.  It passed. Tip: If feeling lonely at 20 years old AND assigned to read The Long Loneliness by Dorothy Day AND then choose to fill other hours watching Oprah (often about weight loss or family estrangement) -You will feel worse.

Being alone has never been a negative for me.   I know that some people hate it.  I relish eating lunch alone.  Coffee out somewhere by myself.  Lunch alone. I see movies alone.  That is certain bliss.  I can choose the movie, the time, eat my popcorn without passing it, think my own thoughts and nobody interrupts to talk to me.  (I know I’m so selfish)  I enjoy a long drive alone.  I enjoy a few quiet hours in the house when the dog is at the groomers.  I think this means that although I fall squarely in the middle of the extraversion/introversion scale…I need introverted time.  But also…I’m very spoiled because I have options if I want people.  I have the people. They are everywhere underfoot.  My people are very loud people.

We volunteer as a family at a housing complex a few miles from our house.  We do odd jobs like cleaning windows and moving furniture, flipping mattresses, hanging art and boxing up holiday decorations for residents.  And then we also make and serve them lunch.  This is my favorite part.  That crew loves a good lunch.  I love to try to serve a good lunch.  I am always struck, every single time, how lonely people seem.  They are desperate for connection with others, with us.  They are excited to see us and see our children.  They just want to watch and talk to my children.  What classes are they taking? Do they LOVE school?  (they are begging my children to lie to them)  Do they like to fish? Do they play football?  They love our stories about pedestrian things.  They ask where we bought our spinach leaves and where I got the recipe for the egg bake.  They want to know if I know that HyVee will cut whole fruit for only a $1. I did not!  Many of the residents are elderly.  Most live alone.  Some are good at joining in.  Some are not as comfortable doing so.  There is a cool table.  I kid you not.  There is a cool table at the senior housing complex.

But when we leave, and this may all be in my head, I feel a lift in the mood.  The energy is good.  They have had a meal together.  Literally broken bread together-some of it gluten free.  They have had camaraderie.  A laugh. If someone is under the weather, someone brings up a plate.  They discuss the new changes at the building, the weather, politics.  They have heard a new story from outside the four walls of their apartment and shared a story of their own. (below a 2015 photo of dessert service)

IMG_3468

We all end up there, if we are lucky.  Living more on our own and with more strangers than family. Such is the cycle of life.  Some people seem better cut out for it than others.

I wonder how much craving a sense of belonging contributes to the strife in our crazy world.  Humans so desperate to belong that they will belong to the wrong things.  Young kids who don’t stand up for a classmate who is bullied.  Teenaged girls who get drawn into a rumor mill out of fear they too will be cast out of the group. All the hurt and vitriol when the student athlete doesn’t make the top team.  Neighbors who don’t include “that family” at the BBQ.  An employee who goes against personal ethics because coworkers expect them to protect the company.  Groups united by hate against something/anything/anyone because being united in rage is more important than being civil, moral, compassionate.  Is membership more of a survival skill than empathy?  It was MLK day two days ago.  I think he might openly weep at how few strides we have made.  If I read too many news stories, I think we are sliding backward if not standing still as a society.

Last week I dropped off my middle schooler at school in the morning.  There were groupings of kids standing around outside.  Girls with matching hair and matching backpacks and matching everything.  Boys playing basketball.  Kids at the curb on their phones.  My son had his backpack, his ski bag, his skis, and 3 other things in his hand.  He awkwardly hauled it out of the car, banging his bag on the side of my car.  A lot of the kids were watching as he got out of the car and I was thinking how lonely middle school can be.  I imagine there were lonely kids on that curb standing in a group but not invited to a birthday party.  Left out of the group text. Not included at the lunch table.  If loneliness was ever a mental construct , surely that age group has nearly perfected it.  Lonely plus narcissistic is a deadly combo.  As he shut the car door and juggled all of his things I heard someone yell, “JACK!”  Then another, “Jack!  with a wave.  He smiled.  And it made me smile.  And I held back any tears since Jack really needs me to ‘calm down’ these days.  Someone was happy to see him.  Someone called out.

Is that all it takes to not feel alone?

We need to have someone call out our name.

We need to call out to one another with a wave.

We look like a normal family. Kind of.

Long before Instagram and Facebook and Snapchat and all other filtered projections of our most perfect and curated selves there was the annual holiday letter.  Letters full of updates and accolades, achievements and vacations and job promotions.  Somewhere along the way this morphed into photo cards.  I LOVE holiday cards.  LOVE.  Love sending, love receiving.  I like seeing the families morph.  I like seeing the clever frames and banners and card styles and shapes and colors.  Shoutout to anyone who pays extra for scalloped edges.  They.look.amazing.  And I really, really like the weird ones we get and we get them almost every single year. Weird cards RULE.

One year I got a Christmas letter from a family member.  I am related to this person. The entire letter was about the deep and somber symbolism of the candy cane.  It was long and detailed.  According to this letter, the white of the candy cane represents the purity of Christ and the red represents the blood of lamb who was slain. (Insert surprised and barf emoji here) Uh…what?  Needless to say, I needed a very long break from candy canes and those relatives.

I had a friend who was divorced and got remarried.  A wedding photo was their holiday card.  But her name was the same.  I didn’t get it.  Did she keep her name?  Did he take her name?  I ended up having to place a phone call.  She married someone with the same last name the second time.  What are the odds? Note: Super convenient if you already have Pottery Barn monogrammed towels.

One year we got one from a colleague that worked with my husband.  It was a photo of a man and a woman on a horse.  They were on a beach.  It was signed: (I’m using aliases for their own protection) Tom, Linda and Gwen.  There were only two people in the photo.  Was it Tom and Linda?  Was it Tom and Gwen?  Why two female names?  Do they have a daughter not pictured?  Is the horse named Gwen?  Did they name their horse?  Is Linda more of a horse name? Why do you have a horse featured in your holiday card?  It remains a mystery.

I have a friend who has referred to the annual holiday card family photo shoot as “The Worst Day of The Year”.  He is a boisterous happy-go-lucky type so if it can take him out, it is certainly capable of making any of us crazy.

For years I have obsessed with the holiday photo card.  It’s a sickness.  Mainly because it is a complex multi-step process during a busy time of year and I am in charge of all the steps because I am the only one who cares WAAAAAAY too much about the result. The setting, the outfits, screaming at the people to get ready, hiring the photographer, the scheduling, the editing, the ordering, the addressing, the culling of the addresses from 23 places, the mailing, et cetera et cetera.  I do it to myself because I do like having a family photo from each year but in retrospect-none of them are what they appear and some years, I may have sent the wrong one.

I was going to send this in 2003.  I thought it would be funny because this year it felt like we were perpetually desperate for sleep and the kids were perpetually awake that year.  But I thought I looked like hell and I didn’t like the drool all over the baby onesie. My husband feels he has “fat face” in this picture.  Should have sent it.  I still think it’s funny.  Look at that tough guy look with the power fist on a 2 month old.

holiday photos 011

DSC00228

I always loved this picture but I didn’t use it for the card because the wind got into her hair and the baby pant leg crept up over his chunky leg and his diaper was way past slightly wet.  Now I think…Ahhhhh… we look young.  Babies having babies in that photo.

IMG_0649

Couldn’t use this for the card because I thought we looked “too sweaty”. And again the boy wasn’t looking directly at the camera.  It looks like us.  We were chasing young children while sweating.  …And we were just a simple family of four…

img_7941

This year I yelled at my son because he was eating pretzels in the car making his shirt a mess.  What kind of lunatic dresses kids this age in white?  Later in the day he slipped on a rock and stepped INTO a pool of water filling his shoe. (Mud on right pant leg) I thought it was complicated getting them both to pose and stay clean until…

FORTNER FALL PHOTO SHOOT 2008 060

Now…I did use one from this group of photos…but not this one because the boy is AGAIN not looking at the camera and the baby looks squished and I look so tired which I was because of well…all of them in the photo.  I literally have zero recollection of these photos being taken.  The whole day is lost. Oh hell…the following year is missing from my hard drive. I guess thank God I have the photo.  That’s a nine mile stare and a cry for help expression on my face.

enhance-3

I didn’t use this one because I didn’t like the way two of them had on shoes and one didn’t.  And my daughter had a weird spot on the knee of her jeans.  What on earth??? Who cares?  Now I can’t pick up any of them like that.  They can nearly pick me up!

enhance-8

I should have sent this one that year.  There was a lot of me begging and pleading for everything to JUST SMILE NORMAL.  All we did was wait for the baby to join us that day and that entire year.  He was not having it.  And I’m smiling but I was seriously irritated.  Hurry up kid.  We have a photo shoot with a paid photographer right.NOW.

enhance-10

I was mad.  At that face???  HOW?  How was that even possible?

img_7940

So I used this one.  This is my favorite holiday card that I have ever sent.  EVER. More than five people asked me if I photoshopped it.  Uh…No.  I had to physically wrestle/bribe/beg him to get him to just wear that shirt. He insisted he put it over the shirt he was already wearing.  I had used up all my energy trying to just get people dressed. Not photoshopped.  But…from the same day the one below…

enhance-7

THIS captures more about the family dynamic. The domination of a large personality packed into a tiny person.

Minted

This is very close to the one I did use.  More than one person asked me where we got the “cute vintage car with the tree” for the photo.  In the driveway.  Our driveway.  That was just my husband’s car.  He didn’t know he was being vintage cute.  Also…that’s our tree that we cut down that day.  Do people borrow cars and trees for their holiday card?

PC_5X7_FLAT_FRONT

Ok. I used this one.  I wanted a real snowball fight photo so we had a real snowball fight.  However, I specifically and LOUDLY told them to not aim for faces or someone would cry and then we wouldn’t have any photos.  As you can see, they listened so well.  You can also see that my daughter was struck in the back of the head as well.  We went home tired, wet and cold.  But it did make for a good photo.  Also, I spent an hour on the phone with the printer so they would move the text box. Because I’m crazy.

IMG_0804

I didn’t use this one because our legs looked weird to me and the wild man’s shirt wasn’t showing and it said, “Silent Nights are Boring”.  I like this photo though…because 30 seconds after it was taken…we broke the hammock completely and all fell screaming onto the ground. Max weight limit on that hammock < Our family.

Note: The photo I did use had full frontal dog nudity.  There was a dog penis in our holiday card that year.  For.real.

P1010133

Last year.  I sent a collage of imperfect shots because I.was.tired.  I did not include the ones where 2/3 of the kids turned and bent over to feature their butts.  Because we are classy.

This year…a panicked text message to a dear friend that it was snowing.  Big flakes in November.  We throw clothes on and race to the docks.  She takes this photo on my phone.

img_7508

I wanted it in height order because I am moving down the line and the kids are moving up.  Now…I look taller than my daughter but her knees are bent and my hair stands up.  Everyone looking the correct direction.  Even the puppy.  Good work. We look like a normal family.

img_7511

Here we are 5 minutes later.  Older brother throws younger brother’s frisbee into the water.  Cue innocent sister laughing.  Cue mom and dad screaming at kid to go retrieve frisbee.  Yeah…we know it’s cold.  Next time, don’t be an idiot and throw something in the  lake.

So…Long after I’m gone and only the photos remain…I hope my children realize, our real lives, family life-the very best of it was all in the outtakes.

This Old(er) House

I read that in the Nancy Meyers films (It’s Complicated, Somethings Gotta Give, The Holiday, Father of the Bride, etc.) that she feels that the homes themselves become main characters.  I feel exactly this way about my house.  I know it’s silly because my house is neither grand nor unique nor historic but it is where all the most important plot twists unfolded for me and my main characters.  Let me tell the story of how we bought this house…

One weekend in 1997, my husband and I got into an argument over something really stupid.  I can’t remember what it was about but it’s a very safe bet it was very stupid.   He came into the room holding the newspaper and said, “Let’s go look at this house I found.”  I said, “I don’t even want to live HERE with you right now.”  He said (sigh), “Just get in the car.  Let’s go look.”  I got in the car and crossed my arms.  I was determined to hate everything.  We drove out to the western suburbs and looked at the listing.  4 bedrooms.  Two way wood burning fireplace.  1 acre lot. Above ground pool.  Octagonal library with a ladder.  We loved it. We jumped up and down.  Argument forgotten.   Then we invited all of our parents out to see it and they collectively killed all of our house dreams.

Seriously.  None of them thought it was a good house for us.  There were concerns we couldn’t afford it.  (The bank thought we could and we had confidence in the bank)  There were concerns about the size of the lawn. (We thought mowing sounded fun)  There were concerns about the pool and the miles of redwood decking that surrounded it. (We liked the decking- decking is pretty and pools are super cool when you don’t have one) There were concerns about the cosmetic changes we mentioned we wanted to make. (How much could a few hundred changes possibly cost?)  Oh…and this.  They all seemed to agree that we weren’t “maintenance people”.  What??? We owned a townhouse and we painted rooms and changed the air filter regularly and my husband had changed a microwave fuse himself (while I watched encouragingly).  Sure we took naps EVERY Saturday and Sunday but we could become DIY/handy/maintenance people if we wanted.  They didn’t even know us.

We left there depressed and offended.  So in my infinite 26-year-old wisdom, I thought we should buy it and we get the pool, the library, the land and the satisfaction of sticking it to all of our parents proving them wrong. My husband, who is less prone to revenge purchases than I am, took a different approach. He thought we should look at 3 more houses in the area in the exact same price range to prove to them that this house was a great idea and a great deal and by far the very best of the four.  I was on board.  Now we would have research to back up our spite purchase. They’d be sorry.  But they weren’t.

We bought house #2.  We walked in and I made a beeline to the view out the bay window and couldn’t contain myself.

IMG_6662

Then my husband wanted to “talk her down” on the asking price but I dry heaved into the toilet and sobbed and begged him to “PAY HER WHAT SHE WANTS, THAT HOUSE IS OURS I CAN JUST FEEL IT’S THE ONE”.    Much to his dismay, as a sales guy and as a man…we did just that.

So we purchased this house in February of 1998.  It was built in 1988 so it seemed fairly new. It was so large. I remember thinking it was so much space, I would likely lose a future child here and I probably would have to yell loudly just to find my husband in our suburban castle.  The reality now is that I feel like we are all on top of each other 24/7 and we all own way too much crap to fit in this house and I can hear someone clip their fingernails two floors away.  It’s not large or new and the hideous oak vanity in the kid bathroom stuffed with both superhero bath toys and Smashbox eyeshadow palettes is proof of that.

In the marketing materials, this house was portrayed as a ‘charming doll house on a picturesque lake’.  This turns out to be code for quirky, poorly constructed house with zero storage, paper thin walls and a pathetic basement laundry hovel on a picturesque lake.

It’s okay though…because I freaking love this house.  Love.

Over the years we have looked at hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of other houses on the market.  Houses with mud rooms.  Houses in cul de sacs. Houses with laundry rooms that you could turn all.the.way.around.360 degrees.   Houses with less square footage and better layouts and more square footage and higher ceilings and windows that open correctly.  Houses with insulation.  Houses that are 2 million dollars out of our price range.  Then I typically find 24-73 flaws in each and every one.  We have always felt that if we moved we would just be trading the devil we know for the devil we don’t since every home has issues. Every single one.

We have had some crazy stuff happen at this address.  We are in the woods and on a tiny lake.  Before we moved here, a movie was filmed on the lake behind our house.  Sometimes when I’m out there freezing to death playing boot hockey, I like to think that Natalie Portman and Matt Dillon both froze their asses off in the same spot.  We had an epic carpenter ant infestation.  (had to replace two large windows) We had a spectacular nest of 13 red squirrels in the rafters of the porch . (Dad and husband + case of beer+ 2 BB guns and all but one was removed.  I shot the last one myself from inside the kitchen. Dropped him like a sharpshooter.)  There was a time that a raccoon was trapped in the garage and had a panic attack which caused him to knock every single thing off of every single shelf.  There was the chipmunk that ran into the basement when the babysitter was here. The rogue moose on the lawn that a neighbor tried to convince me was a deer.  Lady…I know the difference between a MOOSE and a DEER.  The year the beavers built a sizeable lodge and therefore mowed down all the trees on the edge of the yard. The hundreds of dollars and hours we have spent trying to stop the voles from building a subway system under our grass.  The red fox. The red fox that was foaming at the mouth.  The time I caught an opossum on the deck licking the grill tools.  (There was some talk about sanitizing them in boiling water and they ‘would be fine’.  No-they’ll never be fine. I’ll never be fine. Garbage.  Bye tools and disgusting opossum saliva.) The wild turkeys. The coyotes.  My favorite great blue herons stalking the spring frogs.   The theme here seems to be us enjoying nature while keeping nature at bay.

img_7408

So…it turns out we are not maintenance people.  Our parents knew us.  We hate it.  We like naps better.  But we do the best we can.  We have had some things remodeled.  We have left some things be.  We have made some concessions.  We gutted the kitchen when I was pregnant with baby #2, also the year my dad passed away and I had a 2 year old.  I don’t recommend that.  We spent a bundle on a new roof and flashing because apparently the builders thought rain coming in the house was optional.  We got a new front door.  We have painted and repainted and painted again.

But the best things that have happened here are the human stories.  The stories that have unfurled within these four walls.  The memories made.  The changing cast of characters and all of their small and large experiences.  This house is where we brought home each of our three tiny babies.  This is where the crib was put up and taken down 3 times and in two different rooms.  This is where all three of my children took their very first steps.  This is the house that my dad and brother painted one summer laughing and laughing. This is where part of my dad’s cancerous tumor (he called “the alien”) fell out of his leg.  My grandma sang in Swedish holding my infant daughter in the rocker on this porch.  My mom played badminton on this lawn with her grandchildren. These are sacred places for me now.


This is where great celebrations and great tragedies and showers and parties and fun holidays and so-so holidays have been shared with friends and family.  Our sweet dog Grover was buried in this yard. He slept in that corner. He curled on that couch.  This is where the average family dinners and the special introductions to future family members has occurred.  This house is where long standing traditions have been kept and new ones have been started.  This is where the kids have played and grown and read and  crafted and slept and had their friends over.  Sleepovers with 1,2,3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10,11 kids happened in this basement.  This is where the family photos were taken.  This is where we baked the cookies and made the popcorn balls and grilled homemade pizza and had game nights and movie nights and bonfire nights and Halloweens and ice skating parties and trampoline games and basketball games and fireworks.

Here. Here. Here. Here. Here.

I have now lived here longer than any other place. In February, we paid off this house.  This old house.  We made our final payment exactly 19 years to the day we moved in because I like ceremony.   I have come to realize that it is not common or popular to pay off your house these days.  This is because it is not common nor popular to stay.  Stay.  But we had been working toward this day diligently as we plan to stay right here.  Forever.

I’ve hugged and kissed and held hands and laughed and cried with all of my favorite characters in this house.  And as it grows older and falls apart all around me…it just becomes better. More important. More appreciated.

It’s my favorite place of all time.

Parents of Teenagers: You need a hug

(an edited version of this essay now appears on http://www.grownandflown.com)

About 14 years ago, I sat in a church service with my husband and tiny  daughter.

My mind settled on the family in front of us.  Two parents and three teenagers. I have thought about this family so many times over the years and even more often recently.  It was the early service.The teenagers were awake but looked rumpled. Two boys and a girl.  And I looked at them with envy.  That woman, the mother, she had done it.  She survived (it appeared) 17 years of raising children at least.  I had just barely begun.  And she got three teenagers at church sitting with their parents on time.  One of them had their head on her shoulder!  She did something right.  They looked like the perfect family. How did she do it?

Now I am moving into that stage.  I have two teenagers and an eight year old.  (Yes, we do teach family planning courses for couples who enjoy weird challenges and intricate school schedules and carpool planning that would make your head spin. Contact me for details)

Let me tell you something.  I had no idea about the teen years.  None.  This is some PhD level crap to deal with and I have a 4th grade level of preparation.  I am stunned and overwhelmed by the twists and turns of parenting teenagers.  This is hard work.  DIFFICULT.  Mental Jedi level parenting.  Nearly all of the stereotypes have really become true to one extent or another and I just didn’t want to believe it. All of that was surely not going to happen in this family. Pfffft.

They are moody. The moods.  Wow.  It feels like hugging some cacti over here. Lately I feel the need to announce that I might hug them.  It goes like this. Hey, it will be ok.  I’m going to move toward you now.  I’m going to hug you.  It’s happening.  I’m your mother and since I birthed you I feel you owe me this much.  Feel free to stand there woodenly and hold your breath until it’s over.  But make no mistake.  I am going to hug you…3,2,1.  

It’s hard not to take things personally when they are so crabby.  It’s a combination of their random malaise and my lack of sympathy that causes the rift.  I mean, sometimes their day- to-day lives are akin to what I associate with the afterlife.  Pick ME up in sub zero temps in a warm car within 34 seconds of my activity ending.  Hand me a cocoa.  Heaven.  Force ME to go to bed at a reasonable hour in fresh sheets in a clean room.  Heaven. Wash my clothes. Invite my friends over. Make me breakfast. Make my friends breakfast.  Leave me alone when I’m on a Netflix binge. Give me cash from time to time.  Ask me how my day was and soothe me when it wasn’t a good one. Heaven, heaven, heaven. And yet, I sometimes still get the large moods all up in my face.

They are self-focused.  They stand at the epicenter of their very own universe.  If I had a dollar for every time “It’s not all about YOU” was uttered in this house (by us parents) I’d have enough to actually visit the epicenter of the universe and fly first class.   The narcissism works against them.  I try to point out that literally nobody else notices their hair/skin/scowl/braces/pants/test grade/shoes/mistake/social gaffe because all THOSE people are self-obsessed too.  They don’t believe me.

They do stupid things.  Their friends do stupid things. They all are doing stupid things together.  (I’ll choose not to elaborate…wherever your mind is running off to right now-it likely happening with my kids, your kids and/or the kids they know or it will or it already has)  And they think nobody will know about some of these bad choices and parents will never find out which is just so painfully naive.  Newsflash: Everyone will know (faster and wider spread with the assistance of social media) and all parents find out everything eventually.  Whether we find out within minutes of the event or on our deathbed…we find out.  We parents are just one generation older who already did all the stupid things or were with other people while they did them.  Hellooooo. We invented and perfected stupid just like our parents did before us. Duh.

They think I am yelling if I ask them something or tell them something.   Example:  Could you please bring these dirty clothes to the basement so I can wash them?  This is met with large sighs, hunchback body language, eye rolls, a chorus of “I KNOW!!!!” and this…”You don’t have to yell at me!”  Um-what?  I wasn’t yelling.  Why would I add to the din of this house with yelling?  When I yell, you will know.  I could blow the roof off with the yelling. Do not test me.  You know not what I am capable of with yelling.


They act like typical teenagers.  They play their music.  Loudly. Early in the morning.  I  have some negative feelings toward Lil Uzi Vert at the moment.  Will he be the Prince of their generation? Nope. No he will not. And yet I suffer through him now.  They watch tv. Some of it is absolute crap. They know things about the Kardashians. Makes me want to cry. My son recently answered a geography bee test question correctly.  He learned the answer by watching 324 episodes of Modern Family.  I’m so proud.  They leave water bottles everywhere.  They argue with me for sport. They leave food wrappers on the floor of their rooms.  They fling their shoes in every corner-and sometimes they reek. They embarrass me sometimes.  I embarrass them sometimes.  We are in a cycle of mutual inadvertent embarrassment.  They get mad when I take their photo.  (see above) They eat all day.  A meal schedule means nothing to them.  A sleep schedule means nothing to them.  I’m awake when they are asleep.  They are awake when I am asleep.  They change their minds on a whim.  Their phones are an appendage.  They move chargers around the house and then lie about not moving the chargers.  They wear earbuds around and then act surprised when they can’t hear us.  They glom onto a ‘catch phrase’ and can’t stop.  If my son doesn’t stop saying the word ‘savage’ soon…I’m going to attack him ferociously.

Their friends are everything. This I remember well. It’s hard to shine a light on the fact that some of these friendships will be lifelong.  They might have a friend now that would walk through fire for them.  They will see them through good and bad and they will have their back and it will be unfathomable how life could continue without one another. Other friendships are all drama and destructive and exhausting and an avalanche of negative bull$h*t and when they finally figure it out and walk away, it will be like removing an anvil from their neck.  And sometimes as a teenager, you can’t figure out which friend fits into which category and it might take years to gather enough evidence to sort it out.

They think I “just don’t understand.”  And I don’t.  I don’t understand all of their experience and I really wouldn’t want to.  I remember the teen years but it this ain’t your mother’s teen years. I think it is worse.

My 15 year old often puts in 16 hour days.  She isn’t running a Fortune 500 Company…just going to high school.  On December 15th she was at school by 7:30am.  She had something before school during ‘zero hour’.  She had 6 classes (complete with tests/lecture/notes/presentations) and then went straight to dance team prep for a jazz meet.  She danced her time slot at 7:10.  Then she ran down the hall, changed into her orchestra dress and jumped into her spot in the concert orchestra (rocking some serious eye shadow and fake lashes) to play the violin at 7:43.  (We are now at 12+ hours spent in that building) Then she ran back and changed back into her warm ups to cheer on her team in their dances and be present for awards.  Then she hauled 50 pounds of cookie dough (music fundraiser), dance team bag, costumes, school backpack, etc. into the car to head home.  Home at 10pm.  Then she ripped out her bun form and hairnet and peeled off her false eyelashes at the kitchen table and ate something and finally sat down to start START on a few hours of homework.


OH MY GOD.  Who can live like this?  The teenagers.  They live like this.  A lot of them.

I’ll tell you, the modern teenager has full days but sometimes I wonder how much living they are doing.  They are on some sort of high speed treadmill and it’s nearly impossible to step off of it. The intensity level of school, activities, friends is relentless.  When they say “I don’t have time” they actually mean it.  They run out of hours in their day-often.  In some ways, it’s no wonder they shut down and lose civility once they get home.  This is the last bastion of relaxation.  Home.  Where people love you but then nag you about picking up your wet towel.

Needless to say, I have had to adjust my expectations.  A lot.  It is not my carefree adolescence of the 80’s.  They can’t just complete their homework on the bus or skip it all together (like I did).  They don’t have 45 minutes daily to devote to outfit selection and hair prep (like I did).  They can’t bomb 3 tests and make up the points with cute extra credit or daily work (like I did). The pressure they feel is product heavy and process light.  Achieve, achieve, achieve.  There are posters at our local high school boasting that it has been ranked “One of the most challenging high schools in America.”  Maybe that inspires?  It only depresses me and I don’t even have to go to school there.  Teenagers are under a lot of stress.  I had stress in high school…92% of it was self-inflicted.  I wasn’t bombarded by a competitive results focused message from my parents, my friends, my extra curricular,  my school district, my phone.  The pressure is taking a toll on their mental health.  How could it not?  It has somehow become my job to be the counterweight to ALL OF THAT and foster a “do enough” approach.  I never thought that would be my role.  I never thought I would want them to achieve less and work on cultivating more joy.  I thought I would be cracking the whip.  But the world is already set on whipping them.  They need encouragement.  They need a freaking break.

And this stage isn’t all bad.  They are fun.  So much fun.  And funny. Oh my God…funny! I enjoy their stories and they read better than any screenplay or novel.  I can’t even tell the stories here or they’ll never speak to me again. (I asked)  I should get a Finsta.  I could tell all my secrets there.  But I wouldn’t.  All that can be screenshot and saved-and it is.  I can talk to them now about the big things and be straightforward and they get it.  In some ways, I can be more myself than I could when they were little.  Occasionally they do their own laundry and cook their own food.  I love watching them learn.  Sometimes minor miracles happen and they load the dishwasher or help a neighbor or play with their little brother or make a positive but tough choice without input or without a death threat from me.  And sometimes they show glimmers of the adults they will soon become and it gives me great hope and energizes me to last through the day.

I think about that family in church.  Maybe one of the kids had to be dragged out of bed to make it on time.  Maybe one had been grounded for a week and slept in the clothes they were wearing. Maybe one was there of his own free will but was about to pick an epic fight on the ride home. Maybe all three of them had headphones in the entire ride to and from.   Maybe that mother was just sitting there for one quiet hour like I do now and think…

-Well (*sigh)…at least we are here.

Raking it all in…

Not sure if you heard-but there was recently an election here in the U.S. If you haven’t heard, I am completely jealous of you and your lifestyle and could I please come visit ?  I bet you are a really serene, happy American or live abroad and are a serene and happy person there.

My candidate didn’t win. I’m disappointed (which is putting it mildly) but I’m not moving out of the country. You’d have to drag me out of Minnesota let alone the U.S.  I am also very surprised at the outcome but I blame my own denial about the America I thought I lived in.  I.had.no.clue.  I also hope and pray I am dead wrong about the President elect.  If the ship goes down…we are all on the same ship and I won’t root for that.  Ever.

I have considered that the true travesty of this election could be that marijuana wasn’t legalized everywhere in this great nation because I sense growing bipartisan support for a deep collective inhale followed by a super long stretch of “Let us all calm the hell down.” Maybe that’s just me.

My mind has been in a tailspin.  I really am interested in talking to people (50% of Americans estimates say) who didn’t vote and hear their opinions on why they didn’t participate in voting and their views on the outcome.  But I need a break from the talking.  I need a break from social media, media, and talking to people about the election.

This one, it’s over.

I have been trying to sort out what I should do, if anything. There are many options but many of them just aren’t resonating with me. So I had chosen to do nothing until I found the right thing. Media coverage offers numerous examples of possible action.  Sign a petition. Wear a safety pin. Attend a protest. Write to local legislatures.  Wear a t-shirt. Donate to a cause. Donate to a cause that the other side opposes. Get involved in local elections. Join a like-minded group.

And then, I figured something out. I made a tiny shift in my own headspace.  I figured it out at a Boy Scouts event. Yeah. This is very ironic, since I find Boy Scouts to be an avalanche of red tape and paperwork with a patriarchal 1950’s attitude about a lot of things. It’s not my deal. Sometimes wisdom develops in the unlikeliest of places.

The Boy Scouts had a raking event at a house in the area. The homeowner had recently undergone surgery and the boys (who need service hours) were going to rake and bag leaves from a substantial yard for a few hours. I stayed to help and oversee (with 2 other parents) because with that many boys ages 11-15, it felt it would be further pain and suffering for the homeowner to manage that whole circus. Boys that age can be absolute squirrels. They raked. They bagged. They wrestled. They pretended the trailer needed leaf crushing (which consisted of them jumping in and smashing them down over and over again). They took breaks and leaned on their rakes. They fought over the leaf blower. They asked if they were done. They weren’t. They raked more. They picked up sticks. They stole each others hats and flung them into the trees. They cleaned out the gutter. They worked together and pulled heavy tarps from the backyard to the front yard over and over again. And so did I.

Three hours later and the job was finished.  The yard was not perfect but it was better.  The needs of the homeowner were met. The result exceeded his expectations. I daresay, the boys had some fun.

And it hit me. I want my country to be the best it can be for my children and children in general. I am only here for a blink of an eye and it won’t be perfect in my lifetime or otherwise.  America is imperfect as it is composed of imperfect humans.  There will never be a candidate that I agree with 100%.  Sometimes I disagree with myself.  Sometimes I change my mind.  I had thought it was important that my children see me fight for what I believe in. I thought it was important to have my kids fight for what is right.  I thought we were fighting for good.  But…I don’t want to fight for it. I want to work for it.

I want to work for good.

I want them to see me work for good.

I want them to work for good.

Fighting feels like getting a huge group of like minded people together to convince another group of like minded people that they are wrong.  Fighting is also easy.  I can quickly gather a group of middle-aged white women in MN with Master’s degrees and two car garages and fight for or against something.  Trust me.  We could take somebody down and still be home in time for lunch.

My children can’t feel me donate or sign a petition or write my legislature. They might not get it if I walk in a protest or attend some meetings or post political articles.  It’s the old “Don’t worry that your kids aren’t listening, worry that they are watching.”   My children are watching. All the children are watching. I am committed to setting a good example.  They can watch me serve. Serve neighbors, friends, family. I can work with other people of all different race, class, religion and creed and they need to see it. They can and do and will serve alongside me.  They can watch me exercise restraint in my words yet still employ miniumum standards of behavior for others in my life as well. I expect them to do the same.  They can watch me work out plans to include and empower and stand up for others that doesn’t involve ire. They can help. Let our service spread good and love like a wildfire.

Some of my best work so far is them. No election and certainly no singular individual in Washington could ever cause me to give up working for their good or the greater good.

img_0723

What I did on my summer vacation

This summer kicked ass.  Not like…”Dude, this summer was so kick ass.”  More like…”Wow. This summer really kicked me in the ass.”   If I were returning to school tomorrow and had to write the 80’s classic “What I did on my summer vacation” essay, it could be easily summed up with eight simple words:

I spent my summer vacation in my car. 

In this particular season of parenting, with a 15, 12 and 7 year old, our family finds itself wanting to go in 5 different directions and apparently four of us expect I’m going to drive everyone to and from.  I was just not home very much this summer and when I was, it was for a 92 minute interval to drop off groceries, drop off a kid, drop off the dog, start a load of laundry and pick up the next round of riders to get them off to their next marvelous event. I’m like an über cab that also provides you with petty cash and a ‘making good choices’ lecture.  Summer was full. Very, very full. (I loathe people who say they are busy.  Who isn’t busy? So I try to say full to convey gratitude, weight and still troll for sympathy)

In the best moments of the summer, I really felt like my kids were able to experience things that they will remember for a lifetime.  The school year is such a grind and I really want their summers to be for exploration and recreation and rest and earning some money (when possible).  We spent an unbelievable amount of money on camps this summer between all 3 kids.  I do know the exact amount but I’m not going to publish it.  I’m neither proud nor do I want it carefully documented.   The actual cost needs to fade from memory because it was a necessary evil. It meant they could try things without a giant time and/or financial commitment during the school year and see their friends and try something different and get out of each others hair (this is critical to my summer survival).  There was sailing camp (1 week Pram, 1 week Hartley rec, 2 weeks Opti learn to race!), scouts camp, dance camp (twice), vacation bible school, basketball camp, ninja warrior camp (no-I’m not kidding), YMCA day camp and old school church camp (which my son rated an 11 out of 10). There was some serious fun that was had.

In the worst moments of the summer, I felt like I was running a tiny Make-A-Wish chapter in my own family, yet none of the participants were terminally ill and they all had complaints to file.

Summer as always is far too short and fleeting so I am going to choose to remember the good and forget the rest.  This is what I am choosing to remember about the summer of 2016.

This is the summer my two eldest children passed me up in height. I went from the second tallest to the second shortest in our house just in the last 10 weeks.

This is the summer that each of the big kids took the little one on bike rides and walks with “NO parents”.  He found this quite adventurous.

IMG_0840

 

 

This is the summer I read The Boxcar Children and Pippi Longstocking to the youngest and he loved them as much as I wanted him to love them.

This is the summer that it was both a royal pain in the butt to drive my daughter and her cadre of friends everywhere and it was special because I know next summer she will be driving herself and I will miss her even more.

This is the summer that my older son and his friends biked (so adorable…shhhhh…) with fishing rods and bait in tow to fish under the bridge, off the dock, at the beach.

IMG_9739

This is the summer that I sat on the front step with my daughter until nearly midnight talking about all of the important things while the only other sound was the cacophony of frogs.

This is the summer that it rained so much that we grew accidental large strange powdery mushrooms in the backyard and my husband spent hours (days really) trying to eradicate the local vole population.

This is the summer the 7 year old requested that his stuffed animal Bunsers come and watch him play soccer.

IMG_9672.JPG

This is the summer that my two eldest starting getting along better. Neither of them take things as personally anymore.  They had some really nice moments that I witnessed.  Some inside jokes.  Some genuine give and take ‘asking for your opinion’ exchanges.  Some bonding over music.  It was like watching 2 caterpillars morph into 2 butterflies.  Butterflies that get along. It was strangely breathtaking.

This is the summer that we went to Madeline Island for the very first time and the little one went on a paddleboard by himself for the very first time. Also-I can’t explain his biceps in this photo.  I guess if you run everywhere and you have 0 percent body fat you are blessed with those.

IMG_0126.JPG

This is the summer that my 12 year old turned to me and said, “You are a pretty baller mom.” I’m quite flattered.

This is the summer that our 9 year old goldfish died, the front porch got redone, we had 3 monarch butterflies in the front garden, we were out on the lake frequently, the kids lost one fishing rod and broke another, our next door neighbor got 2 tiny daschund puppies, the boys obsessed over Pokémon go, we put up the new tree swing, Grandma moved just 3 miles away, we spent 8 hours in a row at the beach several times, my daughter and I did yoga on stand up paddle boards, I baked pies and sourdough bread, the youngest wore a swimsuit sans underwear to church, we went to 2 wedding receptions, we played cards and Ticket to Ride together, we went on bike rides, we drove long distances to try new doughnuts, we took naps in the middle of the day.

My 3 kids are not so little anymore.  It seems that each day is packed with activity without many long pauses…This is the new normal and I’m not entirely sure I like it all the time but I think they would say it was a very good summer.  And if the summer I envisioned had more long walks, quiet contemplation and unplanned stretches of time…

 

My summer starts tomorrow.

IMG_0944