Not The Summer Of Daisy Chains and Water Balloons

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It was one crazy summer. We moved. Again. From PA to MA. Again. Because we are masochists like to keep things interesting.

Our house in Pennsylvania sold quicker than we anticipated; a good problem to have, but disorienting nonetheless. Then the closing date was pushed up a month. Then, another two weeks. This meant we had to find somewhere to live between July 17th and September 8th.

I won’t bore you with the logistics; I drank my way through most of it and forget the details. I highly recommend self-medicating your way through moving. The relevant data is 7 weeks, 3 rentals, 3 hotels, 3 grandparent visits, 4 beach weekends across two states, and 2,710.7 miles logged.

The summer travel map

Earlier in the summer I read a great blog post by my friend Lindsey on her blog A Design So Vast. It was called “They are Not Long, the Days of Percy Jackson and Nail Art.”

Her post made me think of summer’s past, mostly the summers of my youth, and how each summer did in fact have a theme: a Rainbow Loom-esque obsession, a game we couldn’t get enough, or the one hit wonder song we played, rewound and played again until our ears bled.

I remember the summer of:

  • Jelly shoes and monokinis
  • Collecting the Cruisin’ Classics tapes from the Exxon gas stations
  • Riding my bike to the Florham Park Pool, my towel draped around my neck
  • Lip-sync talent shows with my cousins (We called ourselves “Surfer Bri and The Waves”)
  • Trying to be cool and hang with my older cousins while they played Gin Rummy and listened to Eric Clapton
  • Airbrushed sweatshirts from the boardwalk (Ok, that was three summers. I’m from New Jersey)
  • Jenga competitions and leg wrestling

I remember my summers as a teenager with less specificity. Instead they are defined by one big moment or milestone:

  • My first kiss (which I botched miserably and still wish I could do over)
  • Getting my driver’s license, which lead to a summer of…
  • No-destination driving with my best friend Helen, smoking Parliament Lights and listening to Natalie Merchant.
  • Night swimming in my friend Priya’s pool.
  • Smoking and eating Necco Wintergreen Mints in the PathMark parking lot with my friend Maureen.
  • The summer of fifteen pounds disco fries at the Nautilus Diner. With gravy. Lots of it.
  • The summer of my Uncle Bill dying.

I didn’t want my kids to remember this summer as “the summer of moving.” Which is ridiculous because, really? They were not going to notice that we began the summer in one state and ended in another? But, I have never been one to let the truth get in the way of parental delusion.

So despite the chaotic conditions, I was determined to make this the best summer ever because I have no in-between. Moving isn’t traumatic, it’s an adventure! We are gypsies! We don’t need a house, we have each other! Home is wherever I’m with you! We don’t need camp, or a pool – we can make our own fun! We have beads and a sprinkler and sidewalk chalk!

I wanted it to be the summer of daisy chains and water balloons.

And herein lies the rub of how you want things to be and how they actually are.

This disconnect became clear to me when, moments after filling about seventy water balloons by hand, my children began pegging them at my head. Like, aggressively.

By the time we reached Phase 3 of the move (two weeks at my parents’ house in New Jersey) shit started to fall apart. People were not happy. The girls love my parents but the level of frenetic change and constant togetherness was too much; they were at each others’ throats. The dog’s hair started falling out. I blame the episodic alopecia on Fox News, which blares from the TV all day long. I am pretty sure my dog is voting for Hillary.

So I do what I always do when I feel out of control: I read self-help books. In this case, those of the parenting variety: Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids, Peaceful Parent, Happy Siblings, The Explosive Child, The Conscious Parent...I listened on my runs, in the car, I read in bed, I took notes.

But the books only seemed to backfire. The more I tried to reflectively listen and use my Calm Earth Mother voice the worse things got. Emma called bullshit on my paltry attempts at Zen: “STOP USING THE CALM VOICE! I HATE THE CALM VOICE! I WOULD RATHER YOU SCREAM LIKE A LUNATIC THAN USE THAT ANNOYING CALM VOICE! THE CALM VOICE DRIVES ME CRAAAAZZZZYYY!!!!

Alright-y then. Noted on the calm voice.

After crying in the bathroom I called my therapist back in Philly. She listened to the trials and tribulations of my Mommy Day Camp gone wrong: the crafts no one wanted to do, the games no one wanted to play, the fighting, the backtalk, the tag-team temper tantrums. By the end of my rant, I was in tears.

“What am I doing wrong???”

She was quiet for a moment.

“Well,” she said, “I am not a parenting expert, but maybe you need to lower your expectations. Maybe this isn’t the summer of daisy chains and water balloons. Maybe this is the summer of survival. You know, if everyone is alive at the end, that’s a win.”

I laughed. “So you are telling me to lower the bar.”

“Just a bit.”

So this is the part where I tell you I dropped my expectations and there was a dramatic shift and everyone was happy and peaceful and in-tune with the present moment.

No. The summer in progress continued. The girls fought like alley cats. I yelled a lot. I dropped the F-bomb. In front of the kids. More than once. I cried in the bathroom again. The circumstances remained the same, but my response to the circumstances shifted. My motto went from “It wasn’t supposed to be like this!” to “It is what it is.”

It is what it is.

In her book Radical Acceptance, Tara Brach writes:

There is something wonderfully bold and liberating about saying yes to our entire imperfect and messy life.

Acceptance is a concept I struggle with, because I think I associate it with complacency. If I give up my vision of a summer spent reading the classics aloud while eating homemade coconut milk parfaits, then what? I just give up? What do we do then – watch Full House and eat Choco Tacos?

Actually, yes. That’s exactly what we did. And I have to say, those 30 minutes on the couch each night watching DJ tease her bangs for the big dance and Uncle Jessie get attacked by Kimmie Kibler’s ostrich were some of the most peaceful moments of the summer.

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Maybe there is a difference between giving up and giving in. Giving up on expectation and giving in to what is. To what is needed right now. Giving in to the possibility of the moment, even when it feels like it’s all going to hell in a hand basket.

So while it wasn’t the summer of daisy chains and water balloons, it was the summer of:

A hiatus from parenting books: Early one morning I sat on the porch reading The Conscious Parent.

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Emma, also an early riser, came outside and plopped into the chair next to me. She leaned over to get a peek of the title, her eyes still squinty and swollen with sleep. Then, she leaned back in her chair and said, “Why do you read these books? Can’t you just figure things out? I think you are smart enough. I just think it would be a lot more interesting if you just kinda figured things out.”

I laughed. “Is this a challenge?”

“Um, heck yes.”

So I went to the library that afternoon and got out a novel. And reading it felt positively luxurious.

Getting outside: We spent the summer in close quarters, in homes that were not our own. Things could get tight.

When it all got a little too close for comfort, it was time to go outside and go for a walk.

“Whyyyy,  I don’t wanna go for a walk, my legs are so tired,” was the usual response. But once we got out there, they usually cooperated. It helps when this is the view from the street:

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Bribing with ice cream also worked.

Simple Pleasures: sunrises and sunsets,

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walking the dog to the lighthouse after dinner,

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a ferry ride,

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cousins,

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Phoebe sitting quietly on the sea wall,

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a drive-in movie.

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These were the moments of the summer when I stopped, took a breath, and said to myself:  We will be ok.

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We are going to make it after all.

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I will remember this as the summer of radical acceptance.

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Which brings me back to my original mission statement of the summer:

Moving isn’t traumatic, it’s an adventure! We are gypsies! We don’t need a house, we have each other! Home is wherever I’m with you!

I now see the motivation behind these words, and it goes something like this: I am your mom, and I feel guilty that you are moving again, so I am willing to become a walking carnival in order to distract you from this unpleasant reality. 

And no one was buying it.

I think it’s ok to try and make the best of things. But maybe the “best of things” is actually the whole thing.  Moving is an adventure. We are gypsies of the suburban variety. And home is wherever I am with these three people (and our dog). This is all true. But moving can be a little traumatic, and sometimes a house comes in handy. This is also true.

Maybe radical acceptance isn’t giving up, or choosing one thing or another, but making room for all of it. The reality and the possibility.

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This Was 36

In the past year on The Huffington Post, there have been a number of posts  by writers I admire encapsulating what their current age “is” to them:  Lindsey Mead with This Is 38, Emily Mendell, This Is 45, and Allison Tate, This is 39. These lovely pieces made me laugh, cry, but most of all….reflect.

Thursday is my 37th birthday.

I feel a lot of resistance to writing about 36. I am not one to look back or dwell on what was.  I am the client who says to the therapist, “Oh do we really need to get into all of that?”

I’d rather look to the future – to all the possibilities that lie ahead.  I think this is because I don’t like to be sad.  Because when I get sad, I get REALLY SAD.  And I am scared that if I go down that hole, I will never claw my way out.

But as I sit here right now, straddling two ages….I can’t help but think you need to reflect upon where you have been in order to know where you want to go. See? I’m more mature already!  And it’s not even Thursday yet.

This is me on my 36th birthday.  It was taken at a beach party in Scituate that was actually for the 4th of July, but I pretended was just for me.  It was a magical evening.  I look really happy because I was.  I felt 100% alive.   IMG_2392

For me, 36 was about my family: Phil, Emma, and Phoebe, and until January, our dog Ellie. This is the family I co-created, and before this year I am not sure I really grasped the hugeness of that – the beauty and joy and bring-you-to-your-knees challenges of having your own independently run familial operation.  Which is what we became when we moved from Philly to Scituate, MA, a town where we knew not a soul.

36 was “just us.”  A kamikaze trust mission. 36 was not running away from an argument because you are 30 minutes from the nearest Target and you forget where it is, exactly.

36 was realizing that sometimes you need to be the strong one.  36 was being the glue, the one that held things together.  It felt good to be the glue for a change.

36 was being a cheerleader; it was being more Tigger and less Eeyore.  36 was saying, “We can do this!” when you want to say, “Do we know what we’re doing?”  It felt good to be a Tigger for a change.

36 was being a caretaker.  It was spoon feeding your kid ice cream when she breaks her leg.

IMG_270036 was playing Barbies on the couch for hours.  It was using a chopstick to scratch that itch inside her cast, even though the doctor told you not to. 36 was spray painting a wagon Caribbean Blue so she could still perform her duties as flower girl at your best friend’s wedding.

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36 was saying you weren’t going to cry at your best friend’s wedding, but then crying tears of happiness the entire weekend.

You remember all the years you didn’t cry at all, because you were just kinda numb.  So at 36, you are grateful for the tears, for the best friend singing Bon Jovi with the band, for the ability to feel real joy for someone else, all the way down to your french manicured bridesmaid toes.  Because for so many years you stood slightly outside the joy; you didn’t think you deserved to be in it.  At 36, you know that was a lie; that the only one who kept you on the bench was yourself.  So now you jump into the joy.

IMG_278836 was loving a dog through her final days, even though you never thought of yourself as a “dog person.”  It was letting her make out with you until you broke out in hives, letting her eat people food and lifting her up on the couch so she could watch TV.

IMG_348936 was lying on the floor with her in the vet’s office, crying and whispering “I Love you, Ellie-Dog” over and over and over until it was…over.  Your heart is broken, but you would do it all over again in a New York minute.  At 36, you see the tender beauty in having your heart broken.  At 36, you know this is a gift.

36 was about dreaming big.

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36 was learning that sometimes dreams change.  Sometimes dreams become a horse of a different color. And you just have to roll with it.  You have to believe that the real dream is bigger and better than the one you manifested in your mind.

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36 was wanting everyone to be ok.  And trying to make everything ok for everyone.  And then realizing that sometimes you can’t.  And you just have to roll with that, too.

37 will be different; I can already feel the shift.

Phil is finding his groove at work; he has his helmet on.  He is in it to win it.  He will be ok.

The girls are finding their feet back in PA.  Summer has healing powers.  They swim, do yoga in the driveway, sell lemonade on the corner.  I am amazed by their resilience.  They will be ok, too.

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And when school starts, Phoebe will be in all-day kindergarten.  Those precious years of just her and I are behind me.  My little buddy, my co-pilot, my Pandora DJ.

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So that leaves….me.

Me at 37.

I think it’s gonna be good.

I’ve got some ideas.

Stick around. I’ll let you know how it all shakes out.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Surrender Dorothy

I ran the Philadelphia marathon in 2010.  The long training runs are crucial to marathon training, but notoriously hard to squeeze into your schedule. Especially a schedule centered around children.  I had to bang out an 18 miler on a Friday at 3:00.  I had been running around all morning – from camp to the pool – and was not properly fed/hydrated. This because clear at mile 16 when I bonked on the Schuykill River Trail.

It started with my legs getting stiff and heavy.  My arms were noodles, my brain an overripe cantaloupe.  I started crunning (aka. Running + Crying = Crunning).  What the hell is happening?  How am I going to finish this? No one knows I’m here.  What if I lie down and die?  

My body had literally run out of gas.  I prayed to the patron saint of runners and poor planners: HELP ME.  I visualized a Gatorade and soft pretzel from Wawa. And then, the parking lot appeared over the hill like the Emerald City.  I’m almost there, at last, at last!

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But I can’t run anymore!  I’m so sleepy!

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Somehow, I made it to my car.  I drove to Wawa, where I staggered around like a mental patient, then stuffed my face with soft pretzel and Gatorade in the parking lot.  Someone was looking out for me.

Glinda-the-wizard-of-oz-5590466-600-400Why am I telling you this story?

Because staying home with children during summer vacation is a marathon.  It requires rest, hydration, (tip: Gatorade cancels out the vodka), and proper self care.  I discovered this yesterday morning while out for a run.  A short, easy 3 mile run.

Not so easy. My legs felt like cement. What is my problem?  Why am I so tired?  I started walking, a little disgusted with myself.  I walked by a little gift shop, and something made me go in.

I poked around for a minute, and my eyes landed on a little brown book with a red spine.  I opened it up to this page:

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Love the parts of you that need more loving. 

I got weepy when I read this page, which means -as we say in yoga – “there’s something in there.”  Something inside that needs attending to, that needs a little TLC.

In other words:

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We are four months into our move from Boston to Philly, and things are still….delicate.  I have been borderline obsessing about the girls: Why are they fighting so much?  Why is Emma not sleeping?  Should I put more on the schedule?  Less?  Why does Phoebe incorporate the word “vagina” into almost every conversation?   I am a snowball-worrier. One worry leads to another, culminating in an avalanche of fabricated scenarios.  This is very exhausting.

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And always, even when it is lots of work, love the parts of you that you would prefer to hide. 

I would love to be more like my husband, Phil.  He is spontaneous and cheery, at ease with new people and situations.  He is the ultimate extrovert; he gains energy from other people.  I, on the other hand, am introverted.  I become moody and anxious when deprived of solitude or quiet time, aka. Summer Vacation.

Moving, I am realizing, is basically hell for introverts, because everything is small talk.  I am a bumbling idiot when it comes to small talk.  No, really.  I MANGLE IT.  Where a normal person might say, “So, do you live around here?”  I say something like, “Have you ever had the feeling that you might have two tampons in?”

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Love yourself enough to give yourself the things you need. 

I need a good cry once a month.  I need Taza 87% Dark Stone Ground Chocolate in my freezer at all times. I need friends who have known me for 15+ years, because the fact that they still love me is a miracle.  But more than anything, I need time alone with Phil. He is my  soft pretzel and Gatorade.

When I got home from my “run,” I grabbed a water and studied the invite stuck on the fridge.  We recently joined a swim club, and the invitation was for a new member cocktail party that night.  We had the babysitter lined up and everything.  Phil loves these events. No, really.  He’s could be a professional cocktail partier.  I didn’t want to rain on his parade by being the emotionally fragile party foul.  But….

Love yourself enough to give yourself the things you need.

I took a deep breath and sent him an email: “Any chance you want to ditch tonight?  Just go to dinner somewhere?”

To which he replied, “Absolutely.”

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Sometimes, you need to be your own Glinda the Good Witch.

What Your Words Do To Me

Dear Emma,

Yesterday, you turned eight. Before bed, you said, “I am ready to say goodbye to seven. I have better luck with the even ages.” IMG_4871 It hasn’t been the easiest year, this is true. Maybe you are little angry with me and Dad. You don’t really understand why we did this to you, why we made you move mid-year. You had finally felt your feet sink into the sandy shores of Scituate, and now you are one those cats on a poster in the Scholastic Book Order; you know, the one with a kitty dangling from its claws on a tree limb with a goofy caption like:  I didn’t sign up for this. ??????????????????????????????? It’s true, you didn’t, which is a downside to being a kid with parents. But here’s the upside: you don’t need to dangle there with your claws digging, hanging on for dear life. You can let go. Because as long as I am around, I will catch you.  And even if I am not, you will be ok.

Believe me, if I could run underneath you with a safety net 24/7, I would.  I see you try to do it with Phoebe by being the big, protective sister. A few weeks ago, while riding in the car, you quizzed her on preschool social etiquette in the backseat:

“Now Phoebe, let’s say you are coloring with a purple marker, and your classmate comes up and takes it right out of your hand. Do you:

a. Say, “Can I have that back? I wasn’t done using it.”

b. Tattle to the teacher

c. Say, “Back off, Dude.”

Phoebe, as if on cue: “C. I go with C.”

I looked at you in the rear view mirror, your eyes closed, shaking your head. “No, no, Phoebe. The answer is A.”

Phoebe just shrugged. Pretty sure she stands behind C.

At my writing retreat last week, I watched a documentary called What I Want My Words To Do To You. It takes place in a women’s prison. The prisoners are given the opportunity to write their story through a writing workshop, and then actors come to the prison and perform the prisoners’ stories, reading their own words back to them.

I think everyone should have this opportunity, because you don’t have to commit a crime to feel imprisoned. Sometimes all our feelings can build an invisible cage that keeps us trapped; we want to escape but can’t find the key.

I’ll tell you a secret: your words are the key.

You are pretty amazing with your words – you can articulate feelings in a way many adults cannot. Just the other morning, you were trying to tell me how you felt about all the changes in your life and at school; about all the drawers in your head that are jammed with too much stuff. You even drew a diagram, pausing only to say, “You should use this in your blog, Mom. This is good stuff.” IMG_4872 And in my head, I got all cocky, thinking, This IS good stuff! Now we are getting somewhere! We are making diagrams, here People! I am NAILING this parenting moment.

Which of course is the moment it all falls apart.

Because I started giving a lot of advice.

I don’t remember exactly what I said – some paltry, parent-y sounding words of wisdom that ended with my closing statement of “it’s just going to take time.” Whatever I said, it caused you to storm off, because I “clearly don’t get it,” and what does that even mean, it takes time? What about right now? What about right now?

I sat there, abruptly alone, stunned. Crushed that I had blown it, this wonderful diagraming moment we were having. Then, I went for a run.

As my feet hit the pavement, I repeated your words in my mind. What about right now? What does she need from me right now? Right now, I need to stop and listen to the story that is taking shape for you, day by day. RIght now I can support you best by being with you, not doing for you. Right now I can ask more questions and give less advice. Right now I can be a little softer, because everyone is a little delicate. Right now I can paint your toe nails. IMG_4816 Right now I can try and make you laugh, or buy you a milkshake, or take you to yoga. IMG_4742 What I am NOT going to do is pretend I have all the answers. Because here’s another secret: I don’t.

I thought of the women in that prison, writing their stories. I thought of you, only eight years old, already writing your own story as you stumble through these new challenges, trying to make meaning out of these new – and sometimes uncomfortable – experiences.

But just as Phoebe is going to pick “C” even if you think the answer is “A,” she’s still going to do what she feels is right. And while you can offer your opinion, that’s her story. You don’t want Phoebe to get in trouble, you want to protect her by prepping her ahead of time. I get that. But you need to trust Phoebe enough that she can handle it, and if she get’s in trouble, that will be her lesson. IMG_4870 I understand the desire to feel prepared; to go into recess or lunch clutching a script written by someone “older and wiser,” with all the “right things” to say. But you don’t need a script; the right words are already inside of you. You just need to believe that they are there. And I need to give you the space to find them.

I know that coming into a new school midyear is intimidating.  But you – my sassy, strong-willed, pink-fedora wearing, Gwen Stefani loving daughter – are courageous. And you’ve got this.

IMG_4461 Last night, after your birthday dinner, you said to me, “Maybe we could write a book together, about moving and how its stinks, since we are like experts. I bet it could help people, to know…they are not alone.”

You are an amazing kid. At eight years old, you already understand the healing power of sharing our stories; of using our words to better understand ourselves and the diaphanous, cobwebby strands that tie us to others.

Your words are teaching me about what it means to feel compassion, to just be with someone, to really listen.

Your words are teaching me how to be humble, how to say I don’t know, how to release my grip on life, and on you.

Your words are teaching me how to trust that we know more than we think we do.

Your words are teaching me that maybe those we love need us to do less and be more.

That, my Emma, is what your words do to me.

Please keep telling me your story, and I promise to listen. Maybe someday, you will let me read it back to you. IMG_4714xoxo

Mom

Into The Woods

Just three months ago, this is where we lived:

IMG_0773It was a dream come true, to live this close to the water. I am a Cancer, a water sign, a crusty crab. The ocean puts me in my place; reminds me of my smallness in the grand scheme of it all. Yet at the same time, it’s vastness can help me to expand. Transcend. Feel closer to God…if I am open to experiencing God. Somedays I am not. And then the ocean can feel like the loneliest place on the planet.

Phil loves the woods. “So much life surrounds you in the the woods,” he says. “When I step into a trailhead, I go into a meditative zone.”

When we moved into our house in Scituate, I bought two prints by Mae Chevrette, one for my office:

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and one for Phil’s.

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We didn’t live there long enough to hang them up.

Now, we live among the trees, in a suburb of Philadelphia. This past Sunday (Mother’s Day), there was a heavy energy in the house. The girls were cranky and combative; repeatedly banished to their rooms. Phil – already uptight because Hallmark holidays give him performance anxiety – had no patience for their pinching and poking; for Emma’s quiet teasing and Phoebe’s maniacal response: “EMMA’S MAKING A VAMPIRE FACE!!!”

“To your rooms!” Phil ordered. “Now!”

And up the stairs they trudged, whispering to each other: “It’s YOUR fault.” “Nuh-uh! YOUR fault!” “Nuh-uh! No it’s not! YOU are the one…”

And so on and so on.

I was being a Little Girl in a Huff because it’s Mother’s Day and CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG? I decided to leave the job of prison warden to Phil and went outside to mow the lawn.

But the lawn mower, of course, would not start. I yanked and cursed, yanked and cursed, until I finally kicked the pice of shit gave up and flopped down in the grass. Lying on my back, I looked up at sky and said, “Ugh, HELP.”  Something had to give. Our collective energy was as gunked up as the mower.  I thought of other times this has happened to us as a family, when everyone falls apart at once our combined resources were low. What did we do to salvage the day, to declare a Do-Over?

We went to the woods. Even when we lived at the beach, we went to the woods. The day following the school shootings in Newtown, we went to the woods.

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When our dog Ellie died, we went to the woods.

IMG_3006I abandoned the lawn mower and went inside.

“Let the animals out of their cages,” I said to Phil.  “It’s Mother’s Day and I say we take a hike.”

We piled into the car and set out for Rolling Hill Park in Gladwyne. As we navigated our way down the trail head, I could feel us decompress; a collective “Ahhhhh.”  

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Emma, who has had the hardest time with the move, said, “I love trees.  They are so…inspiring. They all have different faces, like friends, kind of. I feel like I’m in a cocoon of trees…like they are giving me a hug.”

“Yes,” I agreed.  “I never feel lonely in the woods.”

As a kid I remember wondering if the ocean felt lonely in the winter. It felt good to spend two winters by it’s side, to keep it company.  Our time spent by the ocean taught us how much in this life is beyond our control, and in order to live peacefully we must learn to just let it ride. To feel exposed. To not hold on so tightly. To let go. To be free.

But I can’t help but think that wherever we are – right now – is exactly where we need to be. That right now, this lush, wooded place is waiting to feed my soul something it needs.  Wading in the Mill Creek beneath the shade of the towering oaks,  life is calling us to go within, to lay some roots, to feel our feet firmly planted on the ground.

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I think the lesson of the woods is to be still long enough to let our roots take hold. To reap the nutrients of the soil. To dig a little deeper into who we really are, what we really want, what we are here to do. To be sturdy and steadfast.  To stay. To grow older and wiser, together.

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Post hike, the girls crashed on the couch, and I finally mowed the lawn. When I finished, I resumed my position, lying on the ground looking at the sky.

Phil feels guilty for moving us away from the beach. He thinks he stole my dream. But as I lie sprawled out on the driveway looking at the trees, dirt, grass and gravel stuck to the back of my sweaty legs, I am peaceful.

Because what he doesn’t realize is, he is my dream.

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The Magic Bridge

The house we moved into two weeks ago borders Haverford College, on the “Main Line” of Philadelphia.  On the other side of the campus,  about 300 yards from our new home, stands our first apartment.  Phil and I could walk there easily by crossing the small footbridge that connects our neighborhood to the campus.

We used to call it The Magic Bridge.

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When we lived in the apartment over a decade ago, our favorite summer evening activity was to walk to Marita’s Cantina for chicken tacos and Tecates.  On the walk home, we had a Magic Bridge ritual.  Standing in the middle of the bridge with our eyes closed, we breathed in the heavy summer air, thick with the heady scent of wisteria.  The hum of the cicadas got louder with every passing second until it became a thunderous symphony pulsating in our ears.  Phil always knew the right moment to say what I knew was coming:

“Close your eyes and make a wish.  This is the magic transformer bridge, and wherever you want to go, it will take you there.  Whatever you want to be, you can become it.”

Disclaimer: When I say “we drank Tecates,” I mean like five six Tecates.  Each.

This is a bittersweet memory for me, because there was a desperation to this tradition. Two very scared people clinging to each other, wanting so desperately to believe that their love is bigger than their problems.  And there were problems.  Oh boy, were there problems.  But the moments on the Magic Bridge made us believe in transcendence. Standing on the bridge, suspended in time and space, I believed in the possibility of another way.  That there was hope for me/us yet.

After living in Boston, you would think that moving back to Philly would be easy. Like slipping on a glove.  Simple.  And in many ways, it is.  Family and old friends are close by. We can walk to WaWa. We drive around with the kids and point out our old college hangouts:

“OMG, that used to be Manhattan Bagel!  My roommates and I went there every Saturday morning but used to split the cream cheese because they charged like $1.50 for-

All Phoebe hears is bagel: “I’m hungry.  Do you have snacks?”

They have no idea what I am talking about, nor do they care.  To my daughters, I am not the hungover college kid with exactly $1.26 in her pocket after a night out at the bar.  I am the lady with the snacks.  Memories of my life before them have no context.  In their eyes, my life began at age 28, when I had Emma.

And in some ways, I wish it had.  Having kids anchored me.  The name Emma means healer, and she is just that. She healed me of my selfishness, my crippling neuroses, the helplessness borne out of my paralyzing fear of….everything.  And then came Phoebe.  Her name means light, and that is exactly what she brought into my life. She has taught me how to be present and joyful.  How to be free….free of the past.

Or so I thought.

Memories can be sneaky.  Familiar smells – hot dogs on a grill, burning leaves, Blistex Medicated lip balm – can bring me right back to a different time and place, as if it happened only yesterday.

For Phil, this is typically a good thing, as he relives his glory days as the Party Mayor of the Main Line, and his brief stint as a cable TV star on TLC’s The Dating Story.  Rumor is that he still has a fan base in Canada: “Aren’t you that guy from The Dating Story?? The Camden Riversharks guy?  Dude, that foam finger was HILARIOUS!”

Had my life on the Main Line been featured on cable television, it would be a Lifetime Movie:  psychiatric hospitalizations, eating disorders, social anxiety, etc.  Oh, and there was the removal of my entire colon due to a rare genetic defect found exclusively (before me) in Japanese cadavers.   My fan base includes the med students at Hahnemann University Hospital – although they may not recognize me with pants on.

Writer Madeline L’Engle said, “The great thing about getting older is that you don’t lose all the other ages you’ve been.”  Exactly.  Because believe me, I’ve tried to lose a bunch of them.  To be reminded of a time when I was so weak emotionally fragile was too painful. Too scary.  

In her memoir Magical Journey, Katrina Kenison writes:

For me, the big surprise of growing older is this: Fear never actually goes away.  But I’ve had a lot of practice by now in confronting it.

Maybe my reason for coming back here was not to re-open those wounds, but to finally heal them once and for all.

I went for a run yesterday past the old apartment.  I stopped for a minute and let myself go back to that place when life felt too overwhelming; when I felt so undeserving of everything I had.  I stood with my feet firmly planted and just let those memories wash over me.  Then, when it felt right, I ran home.  And I felt lighter.

A bridge cannot stand without two ends.

-Clarissa Pinkola Estes

I still believe in the Magic Bridge.  But, like The Giving Tree, I think the Magic Bridge meets us where we are.  The type of magic it gives changes as we change.  Now, the magic I need is not to be transported to another place, but to really be exactly where I am. To be present to my life.  And celebrate it.  Because it’s good.  Really good.

As I cross the bridge now, I try to be grateful for the life I had, and for the lessons that led me to back to this place, as a truer, less encumbered version of myself.

Then I run to meet the life that waits for me on the other side.

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Smash Your Fears

I recently received an email from Cameron Von St. James, asking me to help share his story.  Cameron’s wife, Heather, was diagnosed with malignant pleural mesothelioma -a form of cancer caused by asbestos – when the couple’s daughter Lily was only a few months old.  Heather was 36, and was given 15 months to live.

With the help of the Mesothelioma Cancer Alliance, Heather was able to find the right doctors, and eight years ago on February 2, had her lung removed.  In order to cope with their fears, Cameron and Heather named this date Lung Leavin’ Day and celebrate it every year. Heather explains,

Lung Leavin’ Day is about overcoming your fears.  I get together with my family and friends and we write our fears on plates, and then smash them into a fire.

The timing of Cameron’s email – just days before our move from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania – was compelling.   Moving is not cancer – note even close.  But it is scary in it’s own way, sometimes I think more for the parents than the kids.   In the last few weeks, anytime Phil would start to voice his fears about moving, I would shut it down by saying, “Look, we can’t give into that,” or “Let’s just focus on the positive.”  In my delusional Mommy Guilt-gripped mind, I thought I was protecting Emma and Phoebe from our fears. Basically – for anyone who has seen The Lego Movie – I had morphed into Unikitty from Cloud Cuckoo Land: “Stay Positive! Stay Positive!”

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If my therapist is reading this right now, he is shaking his head and massaging his temples.

Stuffing my fears is never an effective strategy, yet I continue to find excuses to do it.  I say things like, “We just need to keep it together right now,” or “The kids need us to stay upbeat!”  And yes, if the girls saw me crying into my coffee every morning, they may question my leadership abilities. But even Unikitty from Cloud Cuckoo Land knows that resisting “negative” emotions will eventually catch up with you:

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What I love about Heather’s story is how she chooses to live in a place of hope by facing her fears, not denying them. Inspired by Lung Leavin’ Day, Phil and I decided to follow Heather and Cameron’s lead and write down our fears about moving, and then conduct our own plate breaking ritual. My initial list looked something like this:

  • Fear of the girls not liking new school
  • Fear of Phil not feeling fulfilled at work
  • Fear of us losing a sense of adventure as a family
  • Fear of losing current level of closeness in marriage
  • Fear of losing Phil to his “fans.”

The first thing I noticed about this list is my fears are more about other people than myself, which I am sure in its own way is a form of hiding from the real feelings.  The second thing I noticed is that apparently I think I am married to Tom Cruise.  Or maybe David Hasselhoff.

By fans, I mean his “people.”  Phil is from a large family and has had a beer with pretty much everyone in the Philadelphia area. He calls it “The Long Arms of Braun.” Philly is his hometown.  When I was 25, I moved there to be closer to him, because I am from New Jersey, where we are bred to be resilient and adaptable with a slight inferiority complex. When I married him, I often felt like an appendage – an accessory to his former life. Moving to Massachusetts, while sad and challenging at times, was the first thing we had ever done as a couple that was truly ours.  It brought equality to our our marriage.

Love and fear are in this constant tug of war.  I love Philly, and moving back there feels like going home. We have a wonderfully supportive family and amazing friends.  But I also love the independent person I have become, and fear that moving back into our comfort zone will make that person disappear.  

So I guess my real fear was not about losing Phil, but losing myself.  Which seems silly when I say it.  But not scary.

After sharing our fears, we wrote them on plates.  Well, paper plates.  Our plates were already packed.

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An while paper plates don’t break, they definitely burn.

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The whole experience made me feel lighter.  When I look back at our lists, some of our fears are real – usually the things out of our control.  Other fears are real but manageable; fears that require planning and taking action.

But some fears are just not real.  My fear of losing myself is not real because I am right here.  I can feel my feet on the ground and the computer keys under my fingertips.  The fear of losing myself is an old fear…that I am not brave or smart or independent enough to do something scary, or be my own person.

But I have.  And I am.

But I guess I had to write it down to realize that.

Setting it on fire also helped.

Please support Cameron and Heather in their commitment to raising awareness for mesolthelioma by spreading the word about Lung Leavin’ Day.  You can learn more about Heather’s story here.  

Then, go smash some plates.

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