Thursday, September 22, 2016

don'ts

Don't have children if you are overly anxious. Don't have children if blood makes you squeamish. Don't have children if you can't stand screaming and shrieking. Don't have children if you like to go out to eat at restaurants. Don't have children if you like to read uninterrupted. Don't have children if you enjoy alone time and freedom and calm. Don't have children if you like your body the way it is. Don't have children if you want to travel. Don't have children if you want to be rich. Don't have children if you already have a heavy load beat, beat, beating you down. Children will amplify it.

But do have children if you need to burst into spontaneous laughter again. If you've forgotten about singing aloud and dancing in the living room. Have children if you like colors and light and joy. Have children so you can be Santa Claus, because I'm telling you there is nothing better. Have children so you can hold one on your lap and wrap your arm protectively around him as you push your foot off the ground and you swing: higher, higher, higher. Have children so you can read Little Critter and Curious George and The Watermelon Seed. Have children to remember you before the "dont's" and the overthinking and the cynicism. Have children to remind you of what you've forgotten.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

shoulders

While looking over my last post, I noticed Brandon's shoulders. They are almost non-existent: his neck flowing into his torso like the slats of an "A." And maybe this is because I am a writer and always looking for symbolism, but I thought about how shoulders show us how much we can carry, like an ox with a yoke. I thought about Brandon's emotional fragility and then, as all parents with more than one child do, I compared him to his brother.

I began this frantic quest to look at shoulders. I scrolled through my Instagram photos, zeroing in on shoulders. I found Holden's to be more like the curves of an "m." And I thought about how Holden doesn't cry for much and isn't as sensitive and doesn't feel so passionately and urgently. Shoulders, I thought. It's all about the shoulders. 

I thought back to my post about prana and how we are given loads we can carry and I thought maybe Brandon won't have too much of a load, then. Maybe he will zip through life without many troubles or woes. And that was a good thought, until I thought about Holden with his ox-like shoulders. Then I thought that would mean Holden will have a heavy load, and that wasn't such a good thought. But he will be strong enough for it.

And then I hoped that it really is true, that we are only given loads we are strong enough to carry. I hope my A-shouldered boy lets his troubles slip right down those slopes and I hope that Holden can heave his troubles over the m-shaped humps. That was five days ago and I'm still noticing shoulders.

Thursday, September 8, 2016

budding independence

Today, Brandon started preschool. I didn't cry so much as when he was a baby and we dropped him off at daycare, but I did tear up. I mean, I'm still me.

Last month my female family stayed with us: first my mom, then my sister. Seeing my child through someone else's eyes made me realize he is still a baby in so many ways. But at preschool, he will learn to share and to obey someone other than mom. He will make friends and his independence will bud. He will enunciate his letters and boss kids around and be bossed around. He will shed his babyness.
Holden took it the hardest. Driving out of the parking lot today he shouted, "forgot Brandon!" to me. I explained that Brandon goes to school now and Holden cried. That is, until we got home and he got to swing without anyone grabbing on him and play playdoh without a fight. His tears are dried and he is happy and hopefully it is the same for Brandon at preschool, away from me, becoming who he is.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

state fair

Yesterday, after finishing my blog post, I decided, yes, we're going to the fair. 
Who cares that it is 135 miles away? Who cares that it's hot hot hot? Who cares that Steve isn't here to help me? My kids will love it.


So we got dressed and I packed lunches and away we went. I forgot to bring the iPad and some other road trip games and toys to entertain the kids, but it was just fine. They were angelic. We sang animal songs and talked about our favorite fair things and stopped for gas and stopped at a rest stop.
And then, two and a half hours later, we pulled into the fair parking lot. I come from a town that is famous for its fair. It is a giant ordeal, the whole fair thing. Parking alone can cost as much as twenty dollars. If you're cheap, you will find yourself walking a mile or more from your car to the fair entrance. When I pulled into this Nebraska fair parking lot, I thought, oh shit, I don't have any cash. But it was fine. Parking is free.

We walked to the entrance where there was some pleasant Nebraska woman giving each person individualized instructions. Personal instructions! And there was another woman offering me a free ticket. I went to buy a ticket for Brandon, but he was free. Kids five and under are free. This fair is amazing!  
 
We walked into the fair and I could instantly see the way it was set up. The kiddie rides were together with the petting zoo. The older rides were with the carnival games. The food booths were together, the barns on the outskirts. If I ever were to design a fair, this is how I would do it.

We started with the rides. Get this: it was only $15 for a bracelet to ride any ride. This is by far the best fair experience of my life. Both boys got bracelets. They spent a good half hour in the bouncy castles. No parents were allowed inside, so I watched them from the gate, choking up at the thought that my boys are alone in there, fending for themselves. Finally they came out: sweaty and thirsty.
We bought water and took a break from the sun to see the 4-H animals. Holden loved sticking his stubby little fingers into each of the bunny cages and proclaiming, "I touched a bunny!" The people at this fair aren't the coastal type I'm used to. Some stranger just took a bunny out of a cage and let my boys pet it. She wasn't annoyed or rolling her eyes or anything. She saw an opportunity for happiness and allowed it.
Then we went on the electronic rides. This was a first for both of them. I was so nervous to let Holden ride alone in something that went up in the air. I figured he'd find a way to wriggle out of the seat belt and jump out of the car. So the carnie (not sure if there's a more politically correct term) just told me to hop in with him. Without a ride bracelet! Is everything free at this unnaturally generous fair?
Sitting in the dumbo car with Holden huddled under my arm was my favorite moment.  We rode a ride just like one I had ridden as a kid. Up and down we went together in our car, with Brandon in the car in front of us shouting back to us that he could see the whole fair.
 
We didn't have to wait at any rides, we just hopped on and the carnies let the rides go long when no one was waiting. The boys tried out everything, some rides twice. When we went to get more water, the boys saw the carnival games on the way. This seems like something I would deny usually, but what the hell? I had cash in my pocket from the withdrawal for the water. So I paid for three darts and began showing Brandon how to hold one. While I was attending to him, Holden picked up a dart and just let it fly. I have no idea how he knew how to throw it. Holden popped a balloon and Brandon popped two. They each got a stuffed animal. They hugged them close all evening, so proud of this first thing they earned themselves.
We checked out the petting zoo, which was so much more than I expected. They had animals I don't ever remember seeing before: a kangaroo and a zebra. Then we left, having done everything we wanted to except the Ferris wheel (I didn't tell the boys that it is the only ride I am scared of - they think we just ran out of time).
  
I stopped at a gas station on the way out of town to get the boys orange juice and chocolate milk. I was parked in front of a gas pump for quite some time, pouring liquids from one container into something with a straw like I was a scientist with beakers. A gas station employee came out and tapped on my window and told me to move. Usually, something like this would make me grumble, but not yesterday. She was just doing her job. Nothing could pull me off our high. Yesterday I lived what I wrote and found it again to be true: the world is either an awful or a beautiful place to live in, depending how you look at it.

Monday, September 5, 2016

pocket baseball

Most of the time, I am alone with the kids. At home, this is doable. There is no public shaming or expectations of my parenting. I don't have to worry about being too tough or lenient for watching eyes. The kids are caged in so I don't have to worry about them escaping or being grabbed. I can change diapers and Brandon can go potty at anytime without frantically searching for a bathroom. They can eat food out of the pantry and drink milk out of the fridge. It's a parent's paradise: home.

But a lot of times, I take them on adventures. I am bringing this pain upon myself, I know, but I want my kids to remember something other than the color of our carpet. I want them to see the world around them. I encourage wanderlust and trying new things. But one of my children is sensitive, the other restless. I think these must be the two best or worst traits, depending on how they're used.


Yesterday, I took them to a baseball game. When we left, Brandon (the sensitive one) sobbed these big tears and needed me to hold him despite the fact that I had blankets and jackets and Holden in my arm. I corralled them as best I could to the exit where an employee saw Brandon's big ugly tears and retrieved a baseball from his pocket. The world doesn't owe us anything, but even so, this kind man gave the ball to Brandon. Then two drunk guys walked by us in the parking lot and one said, "You got a baseball? You're so lucky!" And I hoped Brandon would realize that one day.

Then we came home and Brandon turned sweet again and watched "Big Brother" with me then we read books together in my bed. Then, as he was about to fall asleep, he rolled towards me and looked at me with his giant brown eyes and said, "Sweet Dreams, mom." And I fell asleep, exhausted, but dreaming of a world where people are kind and pleasant and give out baseballs to crying kids. When I woke up, I realized that is really why I take them places, despite the hassle: because the world is a beautiful place, if you choose to look at it that way. You would never know that without leaving home.

Monday, August 22, 2016

write on

Before starting school, I wasn't sure what I was in for. I am in a low-residency MFA program, which means that we meet for a 10-day conference once a semester. The rest of my work is done independently from home, with no classroom time. I have never so much as taken an online course and only know of academics in the way I have experienced it, so perhaps I was a bit skeptical.

I left residency with a reading list of ten books. I had an epiphany at residency that I write when I read, but only when I read books which inspire something in me. What I had been reading hadn't inspired anything, and I hadn't been writing. So this list of books was exciting: fresh fodder. I was about to read books suggested by another writer specifically for me and my craft. And not just another writer: an accomplished, intelligent one who just happens to have founded this entire MFA program. Kind of a big deal.

At residency, I met friends: fellow writers who share my passion. We had long talks about books and authors and punctuation. It was my heaven. We work shopped each other: we each submitted about twenty pages of work and got feedback from fresh eyes. This feedback is not friends or family who want to protect my feelings. This feedback is from other writers who want to see me produce my best work. It has been so valuable. I immediately noticed patterns and tendencies I wanted to change. I have never liked the tedious act of revision, but I left residency excited for a fresh start on this same old novel I've been writing for over two years.

Yesterday, I submitted my first packet. Each month I submit a packet before a deadline. These packets are a collection of novel revision, new work, and critical essays over the what I have read. I hadn't anticipated writing anything except my novel during this process. But the new writing I wrote I found the most exciting. I dabbled in short stories and was invigorated by writing new characters, exploring characters, themes and epiphanies that would never fit within my novel.

I did all of this in the same month that I completed editing a large manuscript, worked a part-time job, and traveled to NYC for a week. I have a feeling of great accomplishment today. This low-residency MFA program is teaching me much more than I had anticipated. I have friends I met at workshop who look over my work before I submit it now and offer suggestions to improve it. I am progressing toward something now. But as my mentor replied in his email, just because my first packet is complete doesn't mean I stop. I have another deadline next month with the same requirements. Really, it's the momentum that I need more than anything: this force driving me to write on, no matter what.

Friday, August 19, 2016

Lessons from New Yorkers

It was only a week, but I feel it was sufficient time to learn a few lessons from the big city. New Yorkers are a different breed: resilient, tougher, with sharper edges. After my initial first day, when I was scared to death in a cab and made eye contact with a street vendor, I learned what the streets had to teach me. I even passed for a local after a couple days, giving directions to a pesky tourist.

1. Adapt quickly.
You are not in Kansas anymore. There is no grass, barely any trees and constant noise. But on the plus side, there are no squirrels, barely any bugs and bagel shops on every block. Rather than mourn what you've lost, take pride in what you've gained. Learn the streets and the subway. Find your way around. Even the pets there learn to shit on pavement, so you have no excuse.

2. Appreciate beauty when you see it
Because nature is sparse, what little there is is enjoyed. If you see a park, stop at it and enjoy lunch. If there is a place that isn't bustling with pedestrians, break out into a jog because you can. There is so much sameness (buildings, buildings, buildings), differences are magnified. We need sameness, but we crave difference.

3. Find calm amongst the chaos
The first few days in NYC, I kept thinking, "how do these people ever have time alone?"  But then I started to notice it: a delivery driver leaning against his truck taking a drag of his cigarette, a girl talking to her sister on her cell phone while she walked. People with earbuds on their commute. Books, newspapers. You don't have to be where you are all the time. You can transport yourself somewhere else when you need it. Find time to do what you love, to transport yourself.

4. Lose patience
It's a bad habit, any way. Faster is better. Decide on your coffee order and bark it out quickly, without hesitation. New Yorkers wait for nothing. Walk quickly. You will have time to stop and smell the roses that way.

5. Be adventurous
There are plenty of things to do right around you. Enjoy your options! Take in a show, or go to a museum or blow some money shopping. Whatever your flavor. Try a new flavor, too. You don't know yet what you've been missing.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

New York, New York

The trip to NYC started off with cramming, because my first packet is due Monday. This deadline is going to be my hardest one. The day before the trip, I finished editing a 526-page book. So now I am in full-on school mode. Well, ahem, now that vacation has ended, that is.
When the pilot announced our descent, my face was glued to my little porthole window. I didn't know then what these buildings were. I didn't know where downtown was, the upper east side from the upper west side. Looking at this picture now, it all means so much more to me, knowing.
We stayed right between Grand Central Station and the Chrysler building, which I highly recommend in case you ever travel to NYC. This is midtown and walking distance to just about everything (Central Park, Times Square, Rockefeller Center, Empire State Building, United Nations). You will need to lace up your walking shoes to get to Wall Street or the Brooklyn Bridge though. Or you can figure out the Subway.  Or there is always the option of risking your life in a cab, but no thanks. One scary cab ride is all it takes for me to shy away from them.
 On Wednesday, we did a tour of Central Park. Central Park is eighty acres, so walking it all would be insane, especially in the heat of August. We paid for one of those bike tours where a guy pedals us around and tells us about landmarks. It was a highlight of the trip. I recommend that also.
 The bike pedaler took this picture, putting me to shame with his panoramic abilities. I didn't ask him to, but I was glad he offered, because hello, SATC. 
While in NYC, we had to go to some of our movie and TV spots. I mean, c'mon, it's New York. We went to the Seinfeld diner, but we were disappointed to learn that none of Seinfeld was actually filmed in New York. They send staff out to take "establishing shots" of buildings or have doubles of the actors when needed in the streets. But all of the actual scenes take place on sets in LA. So the inside of this Seinfeld diner looked nothing like the set on the show. Also, the restaurant owner shooed us out, clearly annoyed by fans of the show who peer in his place without buying anything.
 Have you met me? I love "You've Got Mail." I geeked out, sending pictures to the other movie superfan, my sister, while at these spots. I sent her a blurry picture of "The Shop Around the Corner" (now an organic dry cleaners), of the Starbucks with her favorite line, "tall decaf cappuccino," of Joe Fox's apartment. At Cafe Lalo, she texted me madly quotes from Tom Hanks, undoubtedly picturing him shaking this very same cast iron fence.
Steve is an avid soup lover. So he had to try soup from the soup man (also from Seinfeld for those of you living under a rock). It ain't cheap. People have got to capitalize on their celebrity, I suppose. The soup was good. I had the clam chowder, Steve had the lobster bisque.
Yet another scene of me geeking out to "You've Got Mail." Riverside Park is a gem. Parks in NYC are tiny usually, save for this one and Central Park. It was gorgeous and sprawling and impossibly serene.
 We took a booze cruise on Saturday and I got sun burnt. Shit don't change.
The Statue of Liberty was beautiful from the water. The couple next to me were very obnoxious though, talking about how it was a gift from France and they wondered if it was gift wrapped. I can't even with these kinds of people.
On Monday, we went to the Brooklyn Bridge. See those sweat stains on my shirt? That's six stops in a Subway train without air conditioning. It's no joke.

NYC was great. We ate tons of good food and I drank probably a dozen iced caramel macchiatos from Caffe Bene. We slept in. We day drank.

It was fun to be in a new place, but I have never been so glad to see my boys as when I returned. I could travel the world, but in the end, I would always choose home.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

tips for raising two boys

Raising kids is no joke. It's fucking brutal. Raising two rambunctious boys is doing me in. One is extremely emotional, the other is extremely violent. Neither of them sleep much. You know that phrase, "I have one nerve left and you're on it"? That's how I've felt for four years and four months. Now, I am editing and writing with any moment I get, while the two of them fight it out in the next room. I am trying to build more structure and discipline to cope.

Here's some tips I've learned the hard way:

1. Always bring two of everything. Don't bring one cup of water to the park. The other one will want his own. Don't bring one hat. Don't bring one sand toy. If there's a reason to fight, they will find it. Best to squash that by being prepared. If you have two in the same style and color, all the better. You never know when they're both going to want "the orange one."

2. Trim their fingernails, religiously. Boys are going to get black eyes and bruises and scrapes. They're going to look like they get beat (and they do, but not by us, at least). You can prevent the scratches though. So trim those talons down to nubs.

3. No tool sets with wooden hammers, for Chrissakes! Anything that could be a weapon will be a weapon.

4. Turn on the water. It always works to cool them off, figuratively too.

5. iPads are great to buy you a few minutes of solitude. 

6. Let the jump on the furniture. They're going to anyway.

7. There's no such thing as "wearing them out." Just wearing me out.

8. Expect your grocery bill to be sky high. And expect to buy a whole lot of hot dogs.

9. Have a hobby away from the kids. If your husband doesn't let you, divorce him.

10. When hobbies aren't enough, there's always booze.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

moving the plot forward

I am back.
I just spent the last eight days sequestered away in a lodge, attending lectures and writing workshops. It was my dream.

Except for the missing of the kids and the husband, of course.
In some regards, it would have been better if I had done this right after my undergrad: before all these responsibilities piled on.

But on the other hand, I am more determined now.
I've done enough things that I didn't like to know for sure this is what I do.
I am less apt to give up when it gets hard.

So maybe it wouldn't have been better, it just would have been easier. 

Sometimes, I think that the last ten years of my life has been wasted, because I never moved forward toward my goal. I think that, because I think in terms of stories and plots.

But this past week, I realized none of it was a waste. We have built a home and a family. I worked jobs necessary because of life's demands. I have acquired interview skills and empathy. I have made mistakes worth writing about. And I have been writing this whole time.

Now, I will work on writing more, and for publication. But that doesn't mean the writing that preceded it was for naught. It wasn't.

And I'm glad that old writing wasn't workshoppped, because this whole time-word by word, line by line-I have been molding my craft.

My mentor compared writing to molding clay in a potter's wheel. That's what I've been doing. And now, after figuring out on my own what does and doesn't become me, I'm doing it with direction.





Monday, July 11, 2016

the moment

I have been focusing on finding balance in my life. I am a person of extremes. I keep myself so busy with a handful of things that I neglect the rest of my responsibilities. Like running, for example. That consumed my life for six months. Or with the boys: I am great at taking them places and giving them field trips. But then, we don't spend enough time reading books or painting or playing games. And my house is never as clean as it should be.

So now, I am making a conscious effort to spend some time reading, some time doing yoga, some time walking, some time cleaning and playing with the boys. I am editing a book, but haven't spent enough time on that. And on Friday, my ten-day residency for grad school starts. So I have put in my notice at the coffee shop. Shortly after residency comes our 10-year-anniversery vacation in NYC. And then, I am going to spend a month without a job, editing this book and writing. And Brandon will start preschool. I need a few weeks off for that. 

I am going to re-calibrate. I am going to find what I can do and what pushes me too far. I am going to rediscover what I love and stop losing myself in what I don't. I am going to be myself again, but without any extremes. I am not going to obsess about exercising or going places or documenting our lives as it is happening. I am going to be. Not be still, because that is impossible for me, but just work on being. I am good at obsessing over becoming, but I'd like to find myself in the moment instead.

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

enduring

It's been over a decade that Steve and I have been together. And I'm not one of those types to post a bunch of mushy stuff on social media about us, because that's not really who we are a lot of times. Much of our time is spent independently - him working and me taking care of our family and home.

We are still in love, but not in the daily-kissing-pictures kind of way. We have a commitment to each other and are still passionate about each other, but we also have roles we play now beyond "boyfriend" and "girlfriend." Our lives have become more complicated and bigger, with more responsibilities and decisions.

I watch "The Bachelorette" and I'm not even going to say as a guilty pleasure. I don't feel guilty about it at all. I watch it for the drama and maybe a little bit to watch the beginning stages of love, or something that is a lot like love. Last week, the bachelorette went on a date with a guy that is much like my husband. He is a realist. She is not. So she decided they were not compatible, because he didn't believe in the fairy-tale type of love. But I knew what that guy was saying. And then I finished this book which explained in words what I couldn't:

I closed my eyes, and it was Hugh I saw. His hands, the hair on his fingers, the Band-Aids on his thumbs. How real all of that was. How ordinary. How achingly beautiful. I wanted what came after the passion had blown through: flawed, married love...What I want is the enduring. The beautiful enduring. ~ an excerpt from The Mermaid Chair by Sue Monk Kidd

I love the way she puts it. In marriage, it is not all passion all the time. There are fights about chores and money and parenting. There is matching up socks and mowing the lawn and endless loads of dishes. There are budgets and spreadsheets and texts about dinner. It is not the stuff that movies are made of. But it is the stuff that life is made of.

Steve and I chose each other one day a decade ago, and each day, we choose each other again. We choose to endure through our arguments and come out the other side, hopefully a more compromising person. The hardest part of love is the "unconditional" part, but isn't that what makes it love, after all? Loving for flaws and all. The beautiful enduring. 

Wednesday, June 29, 2016

head in the clouds, dreaming

Brandon wants to be a pilot. So far, he has wanted to be a daddy and a scuba diver. There could've been more. I'm not the best at recording his ever-changing ambitions. I saw an idea once to write what they aspire to be on their growth charts, next to their height. I should do that, I thought. But clearly I didn't. But I want to remember this pilot one.

It was two weeks ago that I was in an airplane, in a blessed window seat. The sun was setting as we neared Minneapolis. I laid my head against the window pane, my eyes glued to the view. It was a sea of clouds - perfectly puffy, white clouds. I felt at that moment that I could jump on them and they would never drop me. At first glance, it looked like a vast ocean at sunset. But instead, it was this beautiful sky.

I thought of how on earth, everything can be explored by everyone. But up there in the clouds, only a few people get to fly around and see the world from a distance. I thought at that moment that Brandon's ambition to become a pilot was the best choice in the world. For I could think of nothing better than flying in the clouds each day, my head and body in the same place for once.

When I was a little girl, my dad obtained his pilot license. He flew me in this little four-seater plane. I had on headphones and a mouthpiece. I remember speaking into the mouthpiece, marveling at how the cars looked like Micro Machines. I was seeing the same world, but from a different perspective.

And the writer in me -- that person who loves to see ideas wrapped up nicely with a little bow, ending with a nostalgic nod to the way they started -- would love to have my son one day fly me in a little four-seater. I would love to tell him through the mouthpiece that he used to sit in the cockpit for hours at the Air and Space Museum and I bought a much-too-expensive pass to that place because I was hoping this dream would stick. Selfishly, because I want to belong in the clouds, too. 

Monday, June 27, 2016

life after running

I am learning to live like a normal person again, not a person training for a marathon.

I went to yoga class a few weeks ago, on a day that I had completed a long run. One of my classmates was impressed at my long distance feat.
"Runners are usually in the worst shape," my yoga instructor told him.
He was flabbergasted, of course. But I knew what she was saying.
Running uses the same muscles, forgetting the others.
I can no longer touch my toes. I was eating like Michael Phelps. This was not a normal life.

I knew that if I continued to act like a runner without running, I would get fat, immediately. I have a voracious appetite, which was fine when I was burning an extra thousand calories a day. But now, I must make better choices.

I have started juicing again, because truthfully I do feel better when I eat better. I am trying to think of nutrition. I read a quote once that I can't remember precisely, but it was something like, "taste is temporary, nutrition is forever."

I have stopped drinking coffee milkshakes at the coffee shop. I work a shift and just drink coffee now, or an almond milk latte. It's very dull, sure, but I don't feel terrible after finishing it. Sometimes my heart races, and I've noticed that it's always after eating sugar. So I can still have donuts, but only once a week. Moderation. A hard word for a person of excess, like me. I was excessively exercising, excessively eating. Now I must tame myself, live like the reasonable person I am becoming, rather than the savage beast I once was.

I am reteaching myself to touch my toes. I tried to do a chin up at the park the other day and couldn't even get close. I am going to start lifting weights again. It's time to diversify and try new things. It's time to rebrand.