On falling short.

The holiday season is absolutely brutal. All the expectations; all the money you don’t have; all the guesswork about what to give people you think you should know. There’s the mandatory joy amid the typically atrocious weather; there’s the politics of gift return; there’s the utter chaos of children who can’t manage their enthusiasm. (“No joy at the table!” my mother-in-law is reputed to have shouted once, in a rare fit of grump. Yup. What she said.)

Add into this the subsonic, chronic wail of my need to do more for the world than I do, and you’ve got a perfect recipe for feeling small, inadequate, undeserving.

But here’s the thing: if we’re not aiming long, we’re can’t fall short. I can’t give much to the causes I care about, but I can give something. So this was the year I decided to limit the self-reproach and turn up the joy. We made an Advent calendar of activities for the boys to do, and with the exception of going sledding, we’ve been keeping to it pretty well. It creates some much-needed magic. And so I AM falling short on gifts, on cards, on all the thoughtful details I expected I’d be ready to deliver. But I’m getting home at a reasonable hour; I’m playing with the kids; I’m making bread. I decided three weeks ago I wanted to make a wreath, and I cut and collected greens from the Mugo pine, the unpruned boxwood, the Christmas-tree-sales lot at the shop up the street. They are stacked on the porches, front and back, and slowly getting mauled by our feet, by disillusioned snow shovels, by repeated falls into the dirt below. Will they be usable? Not sure. Will we make a wreath? No idea. But I’m trying to let them remind me not of what I didn’t do, but of what I might yet still be able to create.




On light, or what’s left of it.

This is a hard time of year. I’m not a pumpkin-spice-latte person, though I do appreciate the return of baking season. But mostly, I struggle with the loss of light.

There’s a kind of subclinical SAD that reaches a lot of us in Northern climes, and that and the fear of shoveling give fall its bitter aftertaste. For some of us, of course, our reluctance to move on is also about the failure of summer: have we had our fill? Can we ever really have our fill?

The cold is not the issue for me, at least not until the threat of frostbite. So on the brightest days, these last golden moments, I make a point of walking. I schedule meetings at far-flung corners of campus and I wear my comfortable boots. I decline, sometimes repeatedly, kind offers of a ride.

One particular path takes me across the footbridge above Beebe Lake and its waterfall and gorge, and I swear to you there are poems floating up in the spray:

“Where the lake, so hard,
Approaches its edge and falls,
It is rinsed in light.”

We think of fall as bringing darkness, but maybe it just gives the light more play. Whatever it is, I’ll take it.

On being nibbled to death by ducks.

This is a phrase a friend of mine used to use, and I love it. I get the full image: someone lying on the ground, as after a fall, perhaps one incurred while tossing bread crumbs from a muddy bank. The ducks, which had been happy recipients of this beneficence, see their chance at The Whole Loaf and come splashing and quacking up from the water. They surround the fallen, a frantic, feathery flock, pecking and snapping at any available morsel, bread or arm or toe.

The flaw in the metaphor is: the image is comical. There’s no real possibility of danger, as these are not creatures that will drag you to the pond and pull you under. The water is still a ways off, and is by no means closing over your head.

In real life, however, the accumulation of all these “little things” is indeed enough to drown you. It wears you down with all the different needs for attention, for action, for soothing, for strategy. It renders your will and your spirit the sole arbiters of how you hang on, and that’s not always a good thing. Some of us are a little shaky in those departments. Or, perhaps, we’re just inclined to see the probability of bad if we can’t see the near-certainty of good.

And so, when the rental lease is almost up; the house-under-contract-to-buy is messing around with closing dates; the house-not-under-contract-to-sell needs all sorts of sprucing up (and is four states away); the job is overwhelming; the kids aren’t sleeping; the hubs isn’t finding the work he loves; etc. etc. etc…well, it can be hard to keep moving forward in a cheerful way.

And this is what I try to remember, then: Crying is okay. Friends are miraculous (and BLESS THEM, my amazing helpers!). Children grow up (and, presumably, less hostile). These are problems of great privilege. This moment is only this moment, even if it seems like lasting all day. Things can turn for the good just as fast as they turn for the bad. And I’ve done harder things than this and survived. (But holy CRAP there are a lot of hard things right now.) So we try to treat each other gently and breathe in and out and read Anne Lamott and Pema Chodron and anyone else who can remind us with grace and humor that survival is possible and maybe even desirable. Whatever. One moment — one duck — at a time.

On small gratitudes.

I’ve officially hit the point where I think about work all the time. Not in a pathological way, but because it is interesting and there is a lot of stuff going on and there are good challenges to mull. But let’s face it: I think about work all the time. This is a problem for me.

However, I don’t believe in un-thinking, or in chastisement, or in turning away from interesting things; I just want to give myself something better to think about. Something more whole, more shared. Like my brilliant, beautiful, beneficent husband; my fabulous but struggling kiddos; my bizarre good fortune at having a rental situation good enough to miss when we move again in another month. But when I stack up mental lists of gratitudes, I just feel cluttered. I get overwhelmed by all the thoughts.

So this morning, when my young sons went running out into the grass at 6 am in their stripey pajamas, I was otherwise occupied. I did not in fact see their small bare feet grow wet and stain green; I did not see their glee in locating the first dandelions, nor their careful planning of a Surprise for Mama. The first I heard of it was when they came back to the open doorway, faces bright with delight, with handfuls of yellow. “LOOK MAMA! THE DANDELIONS ARE HERE! Quick, let’s get a vase.”

Even the vase-hunting process had me in busy-mode, trying to find something small enough to be convenient in our under-equipped kitchen. But at least that hunt slowed me down and made me use my eyes, my hands, to size up the stems and faces of these flowers, to consider the array of vases we have in storage, to understand again what a central role flowers (growing, picking, arranging, admiring) have in my family’s life. I breathed. I became, for a moment, just a human deeply touched by the love and givingness of others.

Then I saw it: the small green vase a dear friend had given me the day before we left. It held all my gifts perfectly. I packed up my gear for the day — my computer and backpack, of course, but also my little canvas lunch bag from another friend, holding a container of the delectable soup my husband had made the night before and a few other treats. And I picked up my little vase of dandelions. And I felt, for the first time in days, ready to face the world, bolstered by these reminders of who I am, small gratitudes in hand.

On transition.

So it’s been, what, six or seven weeks since I went back to work. After five years off. After moving the family back from Maine with all the attendant chaos and confusion. And it’s been quite a ride.

Here’s what we expected: the five-year-old to wig out, because he’s lousy at transitions, and have huge trouble in school and at home; the three-year-old to be chill, because he’s always been chill and happy in pretty much every circumstance. I expected my hubby (now the stay-at-home parent for a while in this Grand Swap Adventure) to develop anxiety about being home and to get itchy and irritated because of missing his valuable and stimulating work. And I expected me to mope, missing the kids, and then to slip all too quickly into a crazy life of over-work, the glorification of busy.

Here’s what has happened, at least so far: the five-year-old took a week to recover and has since been largely philosophic about these changes, steering all of us toward a calm, forward-looking approach. He is, his teachers report, their most dependable helper. The three-year-old, on the other hand, has not only been flung headlong into transition, but he has also lost his transitional object (me, as a therapist friend pointed out). So he’s pretty much a basket-case. He sleeps poorly, is mostly grumpy, needs almost constant attention and support. Yes, of course, he’s three. So maybe this has nothing to do with transition. But surely it’s not helping. My husband is his perennial chillaxed and supportive being, and I am finding that, once past the first two weeks of chronic grief for lifestyle, friendships, and lovely house, I love what I do. I am not overwhelmed; I am balancing effectively; I am inspired and intrigued by the people I work with. Knock on wood.

So basically, don’t listen to a thing I say. I’m not at all right.

But here’s what has been happening, these last two or three weeks: all the transition baggage is starting to melt away with the snow. Don’t get me wrong, we’re still in transition (new house under contract, though we are sorting through the array of structural fixes it requires — ack). But it’s just that real life is starting to resurface. I suppose it’s the spring, the opportunity to dig in the dirt and plant some seeds. But suddenly I’m interested in cooking again, and relaxing, and writing, and flowers. All the leisurely details of life are back in the picture as my focus widens beyond survival mode. The boys, for example, are taking up soccer and watching birds.

When I was anticipating this transition, especially the shift from five years at home with kids and doing part-time consulting, I asked around. What is it like, I wanted to know, to go back to full-time work? How can I prepare us? No one had a meaningful response. Mostly because I don’t know anyone who went BACK to full-time work after five years at home. The one person I do know, a dry and witty friend, said merely: “There is no answer. Embrace the tragic consequences.” But I haven’t found tragedy. I’ve found change. And some of it is thrilling:

The other day, as we drive to campus, on our way to drop me off at work, our three-year-old is talking softly in his carseat behind me. I half-turn in my seat to hear — “what’s that, buddy?” He offers me a shy smile, pauses. Then: “Someday, I want to work at C____. Just like you.”

On changes. Big ones.

You may have noticed the echoing silence from yours truly over the last few months…it’s been quite a ride over here.

I was not looking for a full-time job.  I was not. But a brilliant one emerged, in the place we have most wanted to live, near family and natural beauty and amazing schools and a terrific food and sustainable-agriculture scene. And so I applied, and then it all happened at once, and so very fast. And we are thrilled, and also horrified at the chaos that has become our lives.

I will say this: children are resilient. So are the rest of us.

I will also say this: moving is hard. Very hard. On everyone.

And there’s not enough good stuff out there on how to help your kids through these big transitions.  I’ve found a few great resources I’ll share later — and really, maybe they are enough. Maybe the hard part is that they can’t do it for you. So here’s our approach, given the particular dispositions of our 3- and 5-year olds: involve them. Don’t share too much too soon, but involve them in the joyful fact of moving somewhere new. Help them think about saying goodbye and help them think about saying hello. If possible, have them see the house you’re moving into and the school they’ll be attending before the actual move. Invite them to plan out their room, if they can. Try to make special occasions of various stages — packing projects (pick your VERY FAVORITE animals to fit in this box…they will come with us right away! The others get to travel on the Great Big Moving Truck! What an adventure!); the move itself (we’re thinking walkie-talkies, though I’m sure we’ll regret it); the moving in (where to hang your favorite pictures? Where to put the always-necessary window-mounted bird feeder?). Build new rituals and say goodbye to old ones. You know the drill.  Parenting 101. Otherwise known as Being a Thoughtful Human 101.

We are excited. We really are. We are also very, very tired. Which is why I’m glad I had two babies’ worth of training in asking for help and accepting it when offered. Working that program pretty hard right now. And there are disappointments (not getting to see several new babies who will enter the world right after we leave) and worries (how will the kids adjust? What will it feel like to be back at work full-time? Will I lose all my hard-won compassion and patience and presence?). But I figure, that’s the deal. As the Indigo Girls say, “We’re better off for all that we let in.” And here we are, opening our arms up wide. Again.

On good sportsmanship.

We recently made a brilliant family investment by purchasing Dinosaur Bingo for our sons.  It is a total blast.  We really enjoy playing it together.  And it’s educational: you learn about the dinos themselves (lots of different kinds); you learn to scan for text and image; you learn letters and counting (how many spaces do you have left?); you learn the value of close attention (“Follow your BOARD, Papa!”).

It’s all fun and games until we get to the end.  The end really is the climax of the game, not just because we get to sort the world (again) into winners and losers, but because the winner gets to throw his arms in the air and shout “TERRIBLE LIZARD!”  “Dinosaur,” you see, means “terrible lizard.”

So we are happily playing in the kitchen one morning and then Malachi wins and shouts “TERRIBLE LIZARD!” and Ezra (4) has a hissy fit about how he wants to win TOO and maybe Chi is the VERY FIRST winner but he will be the FIRST winner and Chi is protesting vehemently and I am quietly resting my forehead on the table, perhaps giving it a gentle occasional thump.  I am breathing deeply.  When I have gathered my resources, I shush the boys and begin my lecture about how people don’t like to play games with other people who are always grumpy at the end, and good sportsmanship is about being happy for other people and can’t we just enjoy the GAME and PLAYING without having to worry about the issue of winning and losing?  And in the middle of my stream of thoughtful and strategic guidance, Malachi (who is two) turns to me, raises his arms, and shouts: “TERRIBLE MAMA!”

You’d think that might be the end of our day, but really it was the beginning.  I couldn’t help myself.  I guffawed.  I laughed till I cried, and the boys laughed too.  Laughing, you see, really IS more fun than winning.