What will YOU dare to do? A guide, from A to Z….

I took the girls to the craft store yesterday. I needed to get supplies for Ellie’s First Communion banner, and knew the others would like to tag along (we love craft stores!). Mitzi used a gift card to buy some new watercolors, brushes and paper — and she got this poster. She didn’t show me until she’d hung it on her closet door last night. I love it! I’ve decided that every day I need to go in her room and read it, to remind myself that every day is filled with chances to dare.

Turns out, both of us liked letter F the best. What about you? What letter is your favorite? What will YOU dare to do today?

 

inspirational poster -- Dare to...

Ode to Wednesday

I think everyone has a favorite day of the week. Some people like Fridays, the end of the work week, a chance to have a few beers and some pizza in front of the TV, maybe, or just because on Friday, you know you don’t have to wake up the next morning before the sun. Others like Sundays, for the slower pace and fat newspapers and an afternoon of football or taking the kids some place fun.

My favorite day is Wednesday. I know, it’s Thursday today, and a fantastic one at that — it’s a quintessential Massachusetts fall day today, with bright sunshine and a cool breeze that makes the leaves swirl off the trees and the Halloween decorations dance from front porches. Fall is my season, and a day like today is my perfect.

But it still is Thursday, which means my beloved Wednesday is over.

The midweek day is a respite for me, a break in the chaos of the other six. By Wednesday, we all have ourselves organized and settled into the daily routine, and our mornings are not rushed as they are on Mondays. The day is also the only one that no one has any sports or activities, which it’s a great chance for the kids to have after-school fun with their friends, unfettered by anything other than homework (which makes them happy, and happy kids means less bickering among them, which makes a happy Mom). It means we can eat dinner at a reasonable hour. We can relax after and read stories or play games or draw pages of pictures. It’s a day that lets us re-energize for all the others.

Today is a glorious one, and I’m charging up my iPod, ever optimistic that I’ll find some time for a walk in the woods. My mood is positive; I am hopeful. And I’m holding the peace of Wednesday in a safe spot in my mind, so when the crazy returns (football practice from 6-7:30, basketball tryouts at 6, mounds of homework and projects and chores), I’ll have the touchstone to remind me that, yes, peace can always be found.

 

 

Take a shower — you’ll feel better

We parents are a bossy lot.  It’s not our fault — we have to be, from the time these tiny beings accompany us home from the hospital.  In the beginning, our bossiness is all about safety and telling our kids what not to do so they don’t get hurt.  Do NOT touch the stove top.  Do NOT eat lawn fertilizer.  Do NOT hit your sister over the head with that plastic race car.

Later, we add in some positives, words that intend to be encouraging but are in fact equally as bossy.  DO clean up your toys.  DO  say please and thank you.  DO flush and wash your hands.

Around the time kids start school, we throw in advice to the mix.  It’s a more subtle form of bossiness, but we’re really still telling them what to do.  Try working on one subject first, take a break, then tackle the next assignment.  Tell your brother how you feel instead of yelling at him.  I always feel better after going to bed on time, really, why not give it a try?

This is the time that kids start ignoring parents, whose voices have suddenly turned into the wordless drone captured so aptly in the Peanuts movies: wah wah, wah wah, wah wah.

Come on, you know it’s true.  How much can you remember of what your parents told you before you grew up and, as Mark Twain famously put it, your parents got a whole lot smarter?

Yeah, me neither.

But I do remember one thing my dad used to say all the time.  “Take a shower.  You’ll feel better.”  

He said it when I was in middle school and feeling uninspired to go to school that day (maybe some of those times I was actually, really sick, too).  He said it when I was in high school, feeling sad over something that had happened.  He said it so much over the years, it became more hilarious than irritating.

The thing is, he was right.  There is something about taking a shower that revives you — getting clean, washing away the dirt (both real and metaphorical), starting fresh.

Getting time in the shower can be tough for at-home parents. Obviously, when you are a parent who works elsewhere, it’s in everybody’s best interest that when you arrive at the office your teeth are brushed and your body clean. But for those of us who don’t *have* to make ourselves presentable first thing in the morning, getting bathroom time quickly falls on the morning to-do list. Plus, especially if you have a baby or toddler, chances are your efforts will be rendered meaningless after a bout of spit-up or a scrambled-egg food fight.

When the kids got older, I chose sleep over showering in the wee hours of the morning. But, lately, I’m getting tired of mucking around in yoga pants, which are, honestly, a half-stitch away from my pajama pants. In fact, the kids seem to think they’re one and the same — “Geez, Mom, are you gonna get dressed today?”  Me: “Why should I? I never see anyone but you people!” Har-dee-har-har.

The past year has been a tough one. Lots has been out of my control. There has been frustration and anxiety and depression. And somehow my laissez-faire approach to my appearance hasn’t done much for my state of mind. And so I remember my father’s words, and even though snuggling with my husband for a few more minutes seems much more appealing than waking up in the darkness, I get out of bed, have a cup of coffee, and take a shower.

If nothing else, I am clean and smell good, and if, god forbid, if someone happens to drop by unannounced, I won’t scare them away. But it’s more than that. When I was young, lazing about in sweatpants was the supreme act of comfort. Now that I am old(er), it’s just the opposite. The comfort now comes from taking care of myself, showing my best self to the world, even when things feel like they’re falling apart. Somehow that single act of taking a shower becomes one of hope, of optimism.

Dad, you were right. But don’t let it go to your head.

Easter brings new beginnings, big and small

Sure, I was an English major in college.  Sure, I write fiction and read a few books a week.  It’s not hard for me to see symbols and metaphors and allegories in the text before me.  But in the real world?  Sometimes I’m a little too skeptical and pessimistic about the mystical quality of the universe.

Most of the time.

Then I have experiences like my lost-and-found engagement diamond, where you have to wonder if finding the small stone in a house full of floor cracks and crevices was more than luck.

Other things are more subtle, less dramatic or laden with emotional weight.  A few weeks ago, a package came in the mail for Mitzi — six tiny caterpillars that we got so our budding scientist could watch them morph into butterflies some day.  And they did their thing, finally housed in dangling chrysalides, which we transferred to the butterfly house.  And we waited.

The first two butterflies emerged last Saturday, shortly after we’d finished coloring our Easter eggs.  We were thrilled, not only by the actual happening, but the timing.  What could be more special than new life on Easter?

But they weren’t through.  By the next morning, Easter Sunday,  another three had found their way out.  We marveled and ooh-ed and aah-ed  and hustled out the door for the rest of the day.  Number six was still hanging, and I was a little worried.  Mitzi would be very sad if something went wrong. Which of course, it didn’t, and as I was sitting at my computer that night, catching up on emails and Facebook status updates, I heard a crackling coming from the window sill where the mesh container sat.

Butterfly number six had broken free, wings wet and useless, clinging to the shell that helped it change so drastically, resting, waiting to fly.

I know that six painted lady butterflies, with their 3-week life span, are not going to make a difference to the big, wide world.  But in our little universe, in our little family, those six butterflies, rebirthed on Easter, have reminded us that change is always possible, that new beginnings can happen any time, and this is just the season to get started.

Learning to wait

You’d think that, eight years into the world of parenting, I’d have patience.

I don’t.

I spend a lot of my time waiting.  I wait for kids to come to the table to eat, I wait for them pick up their things, I wait for them to come home from school.  Oh, I don’t sit and stare blankly at a wall during those times.  I fill those moments with things like badgering them to get it done, checking my email, writing, or throwing a few dishes into the sink.  But I’m still waiting.  Time is never my own.

You’d think I’d have learned by now how to do it better, embracing the process much like zen masters advise us to embrace the moment we are in, rather than rushing to the next step.

Zen masters, apparently, don’t have bus schedules.  Or deadlines.

The publishing world is much like the parenting world.  Writers wait for responses to manuscripts just as moms wait for three year olds to put on their shoes at a pace smiliar to the growth of grass.  Writers are always waiting.  We wait for critique partners to respond to our new work.  We wait for agents to respond to queries.  We wait for editors to respond to agents.  We wait for books to go into production.  We wait for books to reach the store shelves.

And while we wait, we work on new manuscripts, and depending on the genre and how quickly the work is done, we then start the process of waiting some more.

The waiting never goes away or gets easier.  And, unfortunately, you can’t threaten editors with time-outs if they don’t hurry up.

I’m trying to learn patience.  I practice mindful breathing and try to see the unique beauty in the steps that unfold under my feet, be it Joanna struggling into her coat and refusing help, or working on a new story and trying to ignore the mail’s impending arrival.  I have a list of work under submission and know when responses should come — it’s posted next to my computer, and I can’t help but glance at it every once in a while as I type (mindfully breathing). Just as I relax and let Joanna succeed in her own time — and when she does, oh, the spark of joy on so many levels for us both — I do my best to sit down, get to work, and know that answers will come when they do. 

Being proactive is good.  So is being productive.   And it’s okay to recognize that kids do need to get to bed on time and finish their homework and learn how to not miss the bus — it’s impossible to pretend that one can be entirely loose about schedules and deadlines and real world responsibilities.  So waiting happens.  

But, maybe, in the waiting are those moments when, if we remember to look, we can see the tiny sparks of joy that are always around us.  And, maybe, those sparks are just as defining, satisfying, as is the moment when the wait is over and the preschooler has zipped up her coat or the editor sends a contract.

Maybe it’s not that we need patience.  What we might need instead is awareness.

But deep breathing helps.

Grandma’s rose

As much as I love gardening and flowers and a pretty yard, I’m not much of a gardener.   I’m kind of lazy when it comes to tending the vegetation around my house.  But the other day I got a nice surprise.

After Grandma’s funeral last spring, as we were packing up to return from Connecticut, my mom offered me some plants that had been given by friends as condolences.  I chose a small tea rose, knowing my inability to nurture house plants.  I figured this lovely, delicate bloomer was not intended to last that long, so when it went it wouldn’t be my fault.  I’d get to enjoy it for a few months, as I mourned my Grandma and Grandpa, both now gone, and its beauty might help as I struggled to take solace in the memories of my short time with them.

So it hung around in my dining room, perched in front of the big, sunny windows, and it bloomed for a while.  When the last petals faded, I was surprised to see that the leaves and stem remained healthy.  After the June rains, when I got motivated to dig a new bed in the backyard for some perennials, I added the rose.  What did I have to lose?

Again, I was surprised each day at its survival.  Normally I try to choose plants that don’t require much from me — no pruning, good in drought conditions — definitely not a rose.  Maybe thanks to a somewhat wet and cool summer, the little rose dug in and grew.

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Then the other day.  There it was.  A single bloom in the bright September sun, opening just as the kids started their new year at school.

I’ll enjoy the little bloom while it can.  I don’t know what to do with the plant to ensure it comes back next spring.  Maybe it will, maybe it won’t.  Because that’s the way things work.  You do the best you can, but so much is beyond your control.  At some point you have to step back, bask in the wonder of the ever-changing, unpredictable, and often glorious nature of the world we have such a short time to live in.  Much of the time, there’s not much more you can do.  

The wonder of this rose, that it hung on, flourished, even, has nothing to do with me, I’m sure.  But maybe my grandparents’ love had something to do with it.

And maybe that’s the key to it all, what you can always do when nothing else seems possible.  

You can love.

Zen and the art of loss

Yesterday I wrote all morning, fast and furious, and produced a manuscript I’m really very proud of, as rough as it probably is.  It might be my best picture book yet.  I was elated, mostly because I’d obviously recovered from my depressed Monday blues.

Then I spent the afternoon making marinara sauce, baking two loaves of banana-chocolate chip bread, and tackling some laundry.

Today after a morning of errands to get ready for the girls’ party on Saturday, I spent two hours washing the front windows.  Then I did more laundry and cleaned the house.  I also cooked a lot and went to a parent board meeting at the nursery school.

You could say it’s an overdue fit of domesticity.  That would be nice, wouldn’t it?  And I’d be happy to claim that as my motivation.  Uber-Mom!  It’s about time!

But the truth is, I’m struggling to control anything in my world.  Housework I can take charge of.   I can subdue over-ripe bananas and pound chop meat into submission.  I can dictate the course of the wash cycles.

Disease and death I cannot control.

We are all so worried about Grandma these days, wondering what the doctors can do for her to help her through the newest round of health issues.  My mom and her siblings confer, share information, draw conclusions, help Grandma make decisions.  It’s what kids do for aging parents.  But although we’re adults now, we grandkids seem so out of the loop.  Not that it should be any different than it is, and not that my mom isn’t forthcoming with information when I ask.  

But we’re so worried.  I’m so worried.  The phone rings, I jump.  What news?  What can I do?  How can I help? 

Then on a lesser, but no less heart-wrenching, scale is my friend Dori, and her recent decision to put down her aging, sick dog, Abby.  If you’ve ever owned a pet you know what I mean when I say there are no words to describe the enormity of this decision.  Dori got Abby as a puppy when she, my sister and I were roommates in Southie.  Abby chewed a lot of stuff (mail was a particular favorite, as I recall), got into some mischief, but was just about the friendliest, most loving, big galoot of a yellow lab that you could ever find.  We hung out recently, and my heart broke to see Abby, ever smiling even when she could not raise her own hindquarters from the ground.   What to do when the painkillers fail?  How can I help?

I cannot control any of these things.  So I clean.  I bake.  I do laundry and wash windows.  I organize my coupons and dust my moldings and sweep the basement workroom.  All along I tell myself that order is good, order is welcome, order will restore the universe.

If I were a Buddhist I could probably meditate on the idea that I should let the river wash over me and not fight it so much.  I should not struggle for order, but rather let the order of things be as they will.

But I’m not Buddhist, and my own meditation practice is not enough to help me ride the week that’s ahead, or the month, or even the years of events beyond my control.

So I clean.  I tell the kids to clean their rooms.  Put the toys away — make sure every teeny Lego piece is put just where it should be, not just in a jumble at the bottom of the bin — line up the shoes.  

Then I can breathe and look around and see peace.  It is a false peace, but a welcome one nonetheless.    

Some might say that I should find another way of dealing with these situations in my life.  Meditate, do yoga, go for a run, take a bath.  Sure, I love to do all those things.  But afterwards, when I climb out of the bubbles, blow out the candle, and snuggle myself into my softest cotton pjs, the chaos remains, whether it’s the chaos of a disorganized house or the chaos of the knowledge that I can’t always fix things or save people.

Self-awareness is half of the journey.  I know why I struggle to order my wild Mom’s World.  I know why I struggle to create order in this chaos.  I am aware.

But a little part of me is convinced that if we all just hung up our coats and filed the mail, the river would flow more easily, the universe would listen, control would be real.

Loss would not be.