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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The Empty Your Bucket List

Bucket List: (n) – A number of experiences or achievements that a person hopes to have or accomplish during their lifetime.

I love lists.  They can be found anywhere (my car, the kitchen counter, the pool bag) and written on anything (a Post-it, a WaWa receipt, my hand).  I also love goals: Run a half-marathon, submit an essay for publication, do the Facebook 30 Day Ab Challenge.

So, when I started a Summer Bucket List a few weeks ago, I went after it like a true pathological goal-setting list-maker. The longer I spent writing it, the more charged up I became.  Each “task” added to the list was bigger and loftier than the last.  Essentially what I ended up with was a list of goals.

Lofty goals = Heavy Bucket.

Reading the list made me feel tired.  And I hadn’t even done anything yet.  Which of course made me feel like a loser.  Maybe I just needed to buckle down and get this shit done.

Then I had an a-ha moment.

Phil and I joined a pool this summer, and headed over there one late afternoon with the kids.  It’s a nice pool, nothing fancy – which is a good thing because we are also not fancy. Especially Phil, who believes “shorts” is synonymous with “bathing suit,” and needs to be reminded that in fact they are two separate clothing items made of different material.

But I digress.

So we are sitting by the semi-deserted pool, drinking wine on ice out of plastic solo cups, watching Emma go off the diving board while Phoebe back-floats like an old man in pink water wings.  A random guy with a guitar set up a little stage at the corner of the pool, singing the great hits of the 70’s.

And then, with Styx playing in the background, there was this moment that felt suspended in time.  Phil felt it too.  We looked at each other with tears in our eyes, and I said: “This is so…”

“….easy.” he finished.

Moving three times in 18 months with two kids under the age of eight requires a tremendous amount of frenetic energy.  You are constantly focused on where you are going or where you have been or where you might end up, rather than where you actually are.  It’s hard.  But without even noticing, you get kind of addicted to the hard.  You expect everything to be hard.  If you are not working hard, it means you are not doing it right, or not doing the right thing.

The summer is not the time for hard.  This realization has been hitting me slowly over the past few weeks – that I create difficulty where there isn’t any, because “hard” has become my weird, masochistic comfort zone.  I am programmed to rush: rush to make dinner, rush to wash the sheets, rush to give the girls showers.  When really….what’s the rush?  It’s not like the dirty sheets are going to run away.

Since that evening at the pool, I have started to notice how much I potentially miss by always having an agenda – by feeling the need to accomplish or achieve or be productive. I have tried to slow down and notice little things, like the woodpecker outside my window every morning as I drink coffee, or the ladybug trying to find her way out of the bathtub. Instead of rushing, I try to do more watching.  And man, there is some great stuff to watch:

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I went back to the Bucket List and started over, renaming it “Empty Your Bucket.” Instead of “what do I want to achieve or accomplish,” I asked, “What will make me feel more alive, more relaxed, more joyful?”

So for the rest of the summer, I will be working on “experiencing” my list.  Maybe I will blog about it, maybe I won’t. Maybe I will post next week, maybe I won’t post until August. It feels weird to be so noncommittal.  But in the spirit of Emptying My Bucket, I am just going to let things be…light.

The intention of the new list is to feel more like this:

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This is my favorite photo of me.  I look so free, so unencumbered.  So alive.  I know that little girl is still in there.

Maybe this list will help me find her again.

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Jessie’s Empty Your Bucket List

  1. Buy basil plant + tomato plant = Make Sauce
  2. Go Paddleboarding
  3. Read a book in a hammock
  4. See a movie under the stars
  5. Dive off a diving board
  6. Tie Dye Party
  7. Nightswimming
  8. Swim in a waterfall
  9. Outdoor music
  10. Get muddy
  11. Collect something
  12. Watch the clouds
  13. Screen-less Sunday(s)
  14. Play tennis
  15. Learn the Running Man (and get it on video)

What’s on your Empty Your Bucket List?

 

 

 

 

 

Rhythm Is a Dancer

Summer snuck up on me.

Maybe because last year in Massachusetts – after a winter of blizzard like conditions – the kids got out of school about 15 minutes before the 4th of July parade came rolling down the street.

But we ended this academic year in a Catholic school outside of Philly, and on June 2, it was all over. “That’s a wrap!”

Huh?  Already?

Transitions are not my thing.  This is because I tend to be rigid a creature of habit.  I enjoy spontaneity but only if it’s a little bit planned.  Spontaneity for the whimsically challenged.

Unfortunately, summer requires us to change our plans, to adapt them, to adjust to a different schedule.  This makes me incredibly anxious.  So I self-soothe by binge-planning; stuffing the calendar with random activities to overcompensate for my lack of an actual plan.

You know when you are at a wedding and the DJ blends one song into another, with no pause in between?

You are out on the dance floor.  You’ve just had half a vodka tonic and about 1.5 minutes into Billie Jean you start to feel like you are finding your groove, like your arms and legs actually CAN move simultaneously in a non-seizure like fashion.  You have found the rhythm.  Then, suddenly, Billie Jean morphs into Thriller.  Your little hip shimmy-jazz hands routine no longer fits the song.  You stand there, frozen. You have lost the rhythm. You completely blank on the Thriller zombie dance.  Where’s my vodka tonic?

My transition from school to summer was kind of like that.

Our first day of summer vacation was a disaster.  I started with the best of intentions, aka, a binge planning session.  I planned trip to a playground with a giant xylophone and self-cooling misty sprinklers built into the monkey bars.  I brought snacks, sunscreen, bug spray.  This lasted an hour at best.

“We’re hungry, we’re bored, we’re hot!”

On the car ride home I told them about my childhood summers of being dropped off at a dusty field where I was forced to play dodge ball for eight hours.  This fell on deaf ears because this parental strategy has failed for hundreds of years.

Craft projects made them frustrated.  Outdoor games made them hot.  “She’s touching me without touching me!  She’s making a vampire face! MOOMMMMMM!!!!”

After I caught Phoebe in the bathroom drawing a mural on her butt with a green Sharpie marker, I put on Peppa Pig, tapped my box of wine, and gave myself a time-out on the front porch.

It dawned on my that the kids were also struggling to find their rhythm; that they too were trying to find away to seamlessly transition from Billie Jean to Thriller.

Rhythm (rith-uhm) n.

1. Movement or variation characterized by the regular recurrence or alteration of different quantities or conditions.

Movement…alteration….different conditions.  All words that suggest ease and comfort with transition; an awareness to the ever-changing cadence of life, a tuning-in to the substrative hum of nature.  In the words of the German eurodance dance group Snap!:

Rhythm is a dancer; it’s a soul companion

You can feel it everywhere

Lift your hands and voices, free your mind and join us

You can feel it everywhere.

If Rhythm is a Dancer, then I am Elaine Benes.

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Sitting on the porch with my glass of Pinot Grigio, I listened to the sounds of summer: the whizz of kids flying by on bikes, the buzz of a fly circling my head, the swish of the leaves in an unexpected breeze.  Summer is the music.  But as a mother, I am the conductor.  It is my job to ease my kids into summer, to help them move from one song into another.

These things are easy to remember when I am sitting alone on the porch with a glass of wine. But I needed a mantra to ground me when someone Sharpies her butt.  And what words could be more poetic than those of hip-hop duo Rob Base and DJ E-Z Rock:

Cause I’m cool, calm just like a breeze.

I repeated these words to myself on Sunday as we drove home from a Father’s Day celebration at a beer garden in Philly.

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We had a great time, but I could feel myself getting sleepy…lazy.  Phil said, “Let’s take the scenic route.”

I could feel my mind start to do it’s thing: We have no food.  We still need to get Emma a tennis racquet for camp.  Do the girls have clean underwear?  I started scrolling through my phone calendar, obsessing about dates in the distant future that had no relevance to the present moment. I could feel the thrashing suffocation in my body, like an elephant trying to take off a sweater. Then, I remembered:

Cause I’m cool, calm just like a breeze.

I looked up from my frantic phone-finger gymnastics and gazed out the window.  We were driving down a narrow road perpendicular to the Schuykill River.  People sat in lawn chairs around fire pits and barbecues, talking and laughing while kids played tag.  One man strummed a guitar.  Hanging from the trees were the biggest wind chimes I have ever seen.

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“Where are we?  Are we still in Philadelphia?”

Phil smiled.  “Yup.  Like I said, this is the scenic route.”

“MOM!” That lady is on a HORSE!”

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As we stopped to take this kind urban equestrian’s photo, I decided to leave the laundry and meal planning for…whenever.

To find my summer rhythm, I need to let go of the metronome; the steady tic-toc that sets the pace for the school year.  Summer is not the time for things to run like clockwork. Sure, we all need some structure to our day, especially kids.  But summer is the time for taking the long way home, for reading novels, for eating waffles and ice cream for dinner and playing board games on the front porch.

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Summer is about lemonade stands and lightening bugs and running through sprinklers.

IMG_2174This weekend marks the summer solstice, which means “sun standing still.”  I love this. Because in between the inevitable bouts of whining and fighting, I catch glimpses of my two little suns standing still – relaxed and present, moving to their own rhythm, basking in their own light.

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