Epiphany

My oldest daughter, who is not fond of change, gets the post-Christmas blues even more profoundly than our Elf on the Shelf when he is boxed up and stuffed back in the closet for the next eleven months. (If she knew this was Blackberry’s perennial fate, rather than returning to his cozy home with Santa at the North Pole, she might never recover.)

She says a prayer for Blackberry every December 24th because not only does his departure signal the beginning of the end of the holiday, she genuinely misses him and the magic he brings. She cries every year when the Christmas tree is left bashfully naked on the curb to be manhandled by city workers on recycling day. There are fewer tears with each passing year, but still. We extend Christmas as long as possible by waiting until Epiphany to take down the decorations. We bake cookies, build a fire, and recount our favorite holiday memories. The children also look forward to opening the very last present under the tree on Twelfth Night. Mostly we do this in an effort to ease our daughter back into the mundane world of routine as gradually as possible, where there is typically a stark lack of magic and wonder.

Last week, I rubbed her back and sang her to sleep because she was sad about returning to school. When I asked her why that made her sad, she whispered, “Time is just whooshing by and I won’t be little for much longer.” She is eight.

My instinct is to tell her not to worry. I realize this only makes her more anxious because she cannot help it.

In an attempt to cheer her up, I reminded her that we were planning a wonderful summer vacation with the extended family. She perked up a little.

“So, we’re going back to Pawleys Island again?” she asked hopefully.

“Oh, well…not this year,” I answered carefully. “We need a bigger house since there are more of us going.”

“So we’re not staying at Seacliff again?” she asked.

Seacliff, the splintered, weathered, oceanfront house we have visited so many times with the kids, is not fancy. It is exactly the opposite of fancy with its multitude of faded sticky notes advising you to jiggle the toilet handle so the water doesn’t “jump out” upon flushing, instructing you to lubricate the curtain rod with soap before attempting to take a shower, and warning you to never, ever, ever move the special screwdriver from atop the unreliable thermostat. (I am not exactly sure why, but I am not going to be the first one to find out.) Seacliff, the place we love to tease in the way only you can mock one of your own siblings, was the single house we could afford – in the offseason.

“No, Baby, not this year. We are going to stay in a cute house at St. Simons Island instead,” I encouraged. “It’s called Avonlea.”

“Oh,” she said flatly.

“Do you want to see pictures?” I offered.

“No, not really. I am sure it is fine.”

“Why are you sad?” I asked.

“Because it will be different,” she replied.

“Different doesn’t have to be bad,” I said. “There is a pool and bunk beds and a golf cart…”

“I understand,” she said. “But that house doesn’t have all our memories in it.”

I couldn’t let her know how much I understood exactly what she meant. If she sensed my wistfulness for the time when my toddling twins first ran down the beach, holding hands and laughing as the wind tangled their hair, I would never have a chance to convince her otherwise. This was the first place we vacationed after the baby’s first clean cancer scans. Countless fortified sandcastles destroyed by high tides, sweet Jack and Ruby who vacationed next door, ghost stories of The Gray Man; I had to check myself.

“That’s true,” I countered. “But we have the opportunity to make new memories, different ones.”

“Can you show me the pictures of the old house instead?” she sniffed. I obliged.

“See that blue couch? That’s where DanDaddy always reads us bedtime stories. And that screened-in porch is where we always eat our Cheerios in the mornings. And there’s the outside shower where we wash our treasures before we spread them out on the porch to dry. And remember the year you had Mary Hazel in your tummy and you didn’t even know it yet? That was the year we danced to The Beatles in the living room. And every night, we walked across the road to the creek to see the sunset and ring the bell on the dock. Remember, Mom?”

“Yes, I remember all those things,” I nodded and smiled. “What wonderful memories we made!”

“I don’t want it to be different,” she said. “I don’t want things to change.”

“We can’t stop things from changing,” I said. “We can remember the special things and look forward to new adventures at the same time.”

“I feel like the old house will be sad if we don’t come back.”

I wanted to tell her that the house wouldn’t know, that it doesn’t have feelings, but I didn’t.

“I’m afraid that I will forget everything,” she said.

What can a mother say to a daughter whose soul is older than weathered Seacliff itself?

Sometimes, I find myself overwhelmed when trying to take the weight of the world off my daughter’s shoulders. But I think the world is probably better off being inhabited by tender souls who feel too much. These are the artists, the thinkers, the poets, the saints. Would I take away all her worry in order for her to be a happier little girl? As her mother, yes, I probably would. But sometimes, even mothers do not get to choose.

I hope my daughter will grow up to understand one day that it wasn’t the house that made those vacations special; it was the fact that she loved and felt and noticed all the things she held important. Knowing she is blessed with her father’s keen memory and her mother’s sentimentality, I am hoping to read her memoir before I leave this world, knowing the reward for her anxiety just might be a beautiful thing.

Until then, I will continue to sweep up the piles of dried pine needles and wait until my daughter is happily distracted on a play date before I drag this year’s Christmas tree to the curb and throw away the last of the wrapping paper.

 

The Perfect Candidate

I’ve had this hip problem lately. Actually, the doctor tells me I’ve had this condition my whole life, but it has just started being a real pain in the last few months. It has a name and even an acronym, FAI, which I maintain stands for Frustrating And Inconvenient. The same doctor tells me it actually stands for Femoral Acetabular Impingement. I’m going to stick with my original definition.

Some would say that my Frustrating And Inconvenient hip problem came about as a result of excessive long-distance running this year and the recent completion of a 50K trail run which I may or may not have properly trained for. (Hey, it was on the bucket list.) I maintain it was merely a coincidence because, after all, I’ve had this condition my whole life. The doctor said so. Causation, correlation. Potayto, potahto. Doesn’t really matter because here I am, with this hip problem.

When the pain was at its worst, I summoned the warrior strength of the woman who nearly delivered her baby on the bathroom floor a few years ago, and still could not manage to lift myself out of the car. Nor could I carry groceries up the stairs, pick up my kids, or play a respectable game of hacky sack. I had to stop running completely; I had to start aqua jogging. Yes, aqua jogging.

The doctor told me he could inject my hip socket with magical medicine that would relieve the inflammation and restore my ability to put on my own socks and shoes again. This seemed like more than a reasonable proposition. I took him up on it, even after seeing the length of the needle. A few weeks later, I was able to walk without a detectable limp, climb stairs without gripping the handrail, and even carry my littlest to bed.

A few weeks after that, I tried running again. Slowly. Oh, so slowly. If my pain was a fight-back-the-tears 9 before, it was then more like a don’t-ever-let-them-see-you-sweat 4. Not perfect, but measurably better.

When I went to see the doctor again, he informed me that my hip anatomy was never going to get better on its own. He told me that I was the perfect candidate for surgery to correct my Frustrating And Inconvenient hip. He said things like “contouring the hip socket” and “reattaching the femur” and “six-to-eight-months of difficult recovery” that I found most off-putting and undesirable. But then he went on to say things like “extremely high success rate” and “proven results” and “pain free when it’s all said and done.”

I asked him what he would do if he were me. Like a wise old philosopher, or at least a prophetic country-and-western songwriter, he gave me the following advice: “Only you know how much pain you can bear and still live the life you want.”

I could have sworn he said, “Grasshopper” at the end, but maybe that’s just how I remember it.

Only you know how much pain you can bear and still live the life you want.

I know he was just talking about my hip, I think, but his advice resonated with me in a deeper place that was closer to my heart. Or even my soul.

Pain is a tricky companion. For some, it arrives with the death or sickness of a loved one. For others, it is physical pain that alters plans made in one’s hopeful youth. It can sometimes wear the mask of indecision that accompanies inevitable life-changing determinations that must be made. My sensitive eight-year-old daughter (and 60-something-year-old mother) have emotional pain receptors the size of their generous hearts; they absorb hurt that isn’t even theirs to carry.

Each person has his or her own version of and threshold for pain. And since I am often accused of being a chronic optimist, I am assuming that most people would never choose to live with it. But, and here’s the part that resonated, it is ultimately up to each of us how we choose to deal with our particular suffering.

I am an optimist, but I am equally guilty of being somewhat passive. Some may call it being zen; others may consider it lazy. I would rather navigate ripples than create them. I would rather weather storms than summon them. I would rather rely on my resilience than initiate chaos. It is not that I am weak. Instead, I think it is that I do not presume that I am necessarily better at choosing the proverbial lady or the tiger than if I were to just leave it to chance. Call it fate or predestination or a random collision of twists and turns that have brought each of us to our present. But at some point, it is impossible to avoid pain in one of its many varieties. There comes a time for each of us when we have to decide how to bear it and still live the life we want.

I kind of just wanted the doctor to tell me I needed to have the operation. Or not. But I didn’t get off that easy this time. The decision is mine.

I allowed myself until the end of the year (since all my deductibles are met) to decide how much pain, exactly, I am willing to bear. Do I simply adjust my expectations of what is livable or is it my behavior that needs to be modified? Or, perhaps, I opt for the more aggressive approach that brings pain of its own to the equation in hopes that the long-term results are healing and restorative.

All things considered, I am fully aware that my hip problem, as Frustrating And Inconvenient as it is, is not as painful as the many challenges others are currently contemplating in their own lives. But, like some of the best country-and-western songs I know, there is surely a life lesson in here to ponder. And I am the perfect candidate to do so.

Frustrating and Inconvenient

Frustrating and Inconvenient

Spring

Apple pie
Sweet whipped cream
Birds a chirping
Squirrels picking
Nuts out of the trees.

Dresses swaying
Boots a kicking
Boys and girls
Dancing ’til
There’s no more light.

Lanterns glow
Pretty dresses
Colorful shirts
Music festival
Dance, dance, dance!

Dance ’til Spring is done!
Tired, tired, tired
People go to sleep.

— by Poppy H. (age 7)

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The Sweet Spot

The hustle and bustle of the holidays are weeks behind us now. The stores magically disappeared the work of elves before I could finish singing the last verse of the Twelve Days of Christmas. A new holiday is already upon us, drowning us with reminders in the forms of super-sized, heart-shaped Whitman’s Samplers and cheaply constructed plush toys bearing promises of eternal devotion. And my dear seven-year-old daughter repeating at regular intervals, “But it seems like it was just Christmas. I just want time to slow down.”

I don’t think I wanted time to slow down until I was at least 30, but my sensitive, soulful daughter has already encountered something that has taken me years to realize. There is a very delicate balance between enjoying the anticipation of something and dreading its passing.

The day after Thanksgiving, we took Blackberry the Elf down from his hibernation spot in the coat closet. We placed him on a high shelf and waited for the kids to discover him the next morning, signaling the official beginning of the Christmas season. As expected, they awakened with excitement and set out to find him. Pitter patter down the hardwood hallway they echoed.

“There he is!” Poppy shouted. “I found him!” It was only a few minutes later when I heard her sigh at the breakfast table, “Well, only a month until Blackberry has to go back to the North Pole. I sure will miss that ol’ elf.”

“Sweetie,” I encouraged. “He’s only just gotten here. It’s only just begun!”

“I know,” she replied. “But I already feel how much I’ll miss him when he’s gone.”

“Why don’t we focus on the positive here?” I tried. “Aren’t you looking forward to baking cookies, and singing carols, and spending family time in front of the fire?”

“Of course,” she answered sincerely. “But when I’m in the middle of doing all those things, then that means that it will all be over soon and I will miss Christmas when it’s gone. I just want it to be Christmas forever.”

The poor girl is stuck between looking forward and backward at the same time. And this is her character, not just during the holidays.

She expresses with regularity the following:

  • “I don’t want to go to college because that means you and Dad will be old.”
  • “I don’t want to turn eight because I like being seven just fine.”

  • “I don’t like your new iPhone case because you got the last one when I was five, and I’ll never be five again.”
  • “Can you still find your favorite curl, Mom? If it’s not there, will you still love me the same?”

  • “You remember when Daddy didn’t have a boo-boo leg? I am starting to forget and that makes me sad.”

She strives to make everything special. She is devoted to the wellbeing of her stuffed animals. She apologizes to her towel when she steps on it. She tells us every single night that we are the best parents she could have ever gotten; sometimes while tearing up.

She envelops every moment in time with a sentimental blanket, hoping desperately to preserve its perfection, at that particular instant.

This is a lot of pressure for a little girl. This is a lot of pressure for her mama.

I often encourage my oldest daughter to live in the moment, not to worry so much. To find her happy place. We take deep breaths before bed and talk about what it means to be at peace.

Her brother and sister are the opposite. They seem rarely to do anything but live in the moment. They are like playful puppies, happily distracted by whatever comes their way. They appear fun loving and carefree. They rarely reflect on the context of the moment they are so effortlessly devouring. At times, I think Poppy wishes she was more like that. I am not sure which is the better fate.

Is it truly possible to appreciate the fullness of a moment if you are not also keenly aware of its temporary nature?

My husband has kept a journal for years. Decades, actually. Often he is worried when he has not yet documented the events of the day in the form of a permanent record. Sometimes I suggest, “Maybe you could catch up on the journal another day? Maybe spend more time doing and less time writing about the doing?” He always replies, “But I’m afraid I might forget something.”

Yes, I get that. That speaks to me. I don’t want to forget the good stuff either. But there must be a balance, a neutral place, where the anticipation and the reflection meet in the middle and shake hands. Where joy and perspective agree to play nicely with one another.

I wish I could help sweet Poppy come to peace with her predicament. Loving things (like family, holidays, cars, old socks, and worn out pajamas) so wholly and completely sure does make a little body vulnerable to the passing of time.

I do not have the answers for her. But I will certainly ride on the see saw with her and strive to find that balance between happy and sad, hopeful and wistful, fulfilled and lonely. Maybe, just maybe, we can find that sweet spot together.

Where I’m From

Where I’m From
by Poppy H. (age 7)

I am from a house that has a smooth front porch and scratchy carpet.
I am from a house that has lots of toys and cats.
And a dog.

I am from a noisy radio.
I always hear the news.
I am from Dad telling me stories every night.
We love all the stories.
I am from me playing the piano C to G over and over again.

I am from root beer and saucy pizza.
(It is so cheesy.)
I am from the smell of cat litter and poop.
And also fresh crusty quiche and berries so juicy.

I am from warm hugs and kisses.
I am from Christmas,
Being the first one up and the last one asleep.
I am from cancer check-ups.
I am from laughing all the time.
I am from Slackajack and Butter – my favorite toys.

I am from love.

Self Portrait

Calibration

When asked, I never call myself a runner. I mean, I do technically run and like a lot of other people who run, I have a love/hate relationship with it. I love the fresh air, the quiet, the feeling of accomplishment. I am not as crazy about the blisters, the obligatory side stitches, and the rarely sleeping in past sunrise. But I do it and have been doing it regularly for almost fifteen years. But runners are fast and, therefore, I am not a runner.

At first, my goals were humble:

  1. Don’t throw up.
  2. Don’t fall down.
  3. Finish the race. 

With several successful races (according to my goals above) and fifty less pounds under my belt, I became better friends with running. I still was not fast, but I was steady. And not having my thighs rub together was excellent incentive to continue. (Product endorsement alert: Body Glide is the best thing since sliced bread. The end.)

Other things that made me feel good about running:

  1. Having conversations with good friends about life’s major milestones like, “Do you think he’s the one?,” “OMG, I’m having twins!” and “Her cancer is still in remission.”
  2. Being awake when the rest of the world is asleep. The stars are brighter, the air is crisper, and the meditating begins.
  3.  Allowing myself to enjoy a guilt-free scoop of ice cream with my kids on the weekends. 

I was vaguely aware of my pace those first years, not really caring as long as I continued to stay upright and keep the skin on my knees.

Then, I got an iPhone. It wasn’t the phone so much as it was the running app that bore itself into my very soul. I became a little obsessed with feedback. There it was, in full-color graphs, for me to analyze. (As documented in previous posts, I am a total spreadsheet strumpet.) Initially, it helped my running game. I found myself wanting to beat my time from the run before. Motivation is surely a good thing, right? And I did get better. I was pushing myself to run harder, longer, and more often. Did I dare fancy myself a runner?

I noticed I was running alone more often. I became nervous about altering any single variable that might affect my finish time. This meant I also repeated the same routes and ran at the same time of day. When I plateaued a few months ago, I found myself getting a little distressed. Now that the thrill of shaving precious seconds off my 10K time was stalling, how would I stay motivated?! What else could I do?

A friend of mine suggested forced me to sign up for a military boot camp-style exercise class with her. I have done these in the past and really enjoyed them, so I welcomed the change to my rut. As expected, it was a good workout and calories were certainly burned, but I rediscovered something along the way that I had been missing for a while. Something intangible that comes along with camaraderie, teamwork, and goal setting that has nothing to do with pie charts or the voice of Lance Armstrong unexpectedly congratulating me through my headphones for a job well done. (The first time that happened, by the way, it scared the absolute bejeezes out of me.) I left the iPhone in my car. The most valuable feedback I got for six weeks was in the form of high fives, “Atta girls!”, and sweaty hugs. It was just what the Dr. (Scholl’s) ordered.

Me and Friendly Guy

The first session ended last week and some of us decided to go for a group run today. I ended up being on pace with a friendly guy and we chatted for the whole 45 minutes about “stuff”. We were winded, but not overly so. We took a wrong turn once or twice but laughed it off. We joined up with our fearless leader with a mile to go to the finish line. When we got back to the parking lot, we all looked down at our various tracking devices. Friendly Guy said something like, “That was a good 4 miles.” I re-checked my numbers and said, “I think we ran closer to 5.” Fearless Leader said, “Actually, I think it’s closer to 4.5.” Someone else asked me, “Have you ever calibrated your run?” At first it didn’t seem like anything earth shattering. What’s a few tenths of a mile? And then I realized that it meant quite a lot.

All those runs, all those times, were not accurate.

When I got back to my computer, I did some basic math (because I’m an English major) and discovered that for every mile I thought I was running, I was actually only running 0.93 miles. I wasn’t running sub-8 minute miles after all. Ever. When I glanced back over my log of runs this year, I felt kind of foolish. I was obsessed with beating a number that wasn’t even real. I was not, in fact, as fast as I thought. After I coddled my bruised ego for a few minutes, I thought, “Well let that be a big ol’ lesson to me.”

While running (for fun!) today, I felt fast. I felt satisfied and productive. I felt deserving of the leftover waffle bites on my daughter’s breakfast plate. And I felt good. It was clearly time for me to give myself a little grace, expand my narrowed perspective, and rediscover all the reasons running (and other things) make me feel good in the first place.

This runner just needed to be calibrated.

The Lesson

On the way to school this morning, MH asked to “play” a lesson.

“You got it,” I answered. “What’ll it be today? Rhymes? Counting in Spanish?”

“Hmmm,” she pondered. “Opposites!”

A favorite.

“Sure thing,” I agreed. “OK, I’ll start.”

“Up?”

“Down.”

“Big?”

“Little.”

“Day?”

“Night.”

“Pretty?”

(Long pause from the back seat.)

“Pretty?” I repeated. I glanced in the rear view mirror to see Bug casting her eyes up to the ceiling with her pointer finger resting on her chin.

“I don’t know,” she finally confessed.

I laughed and offered, “Ugly is the opposite of pretty.”

She thought on this for a minute and then asked, “Is Poppy pretty?”

“I think your sister is beautiful,” I answered.

(Long pause from the back seat.)

“Am I pretty?” she asked.

“Without a doubt,” I replied.

“But I don’t look like Poppy at all,” she said. “She has brown hair and I have yellow. She has curls, and I don’t.”

“Right…” I was really hoping to stay one step ahead of my three year old here.

“So we’re opposites, right?”

“Yes, well…”

“But we’re both pretty?”

“Of course…”

“So no ugly then? Just different pretties?”

Oh my gosh. I’ve been schooled.

(Long pause from the front seat.)

“That would be correct.”

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