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Wednesday, June 13, 2018

A Look Back on Lasts



Then: Excited to ride the carousel
Now: Probably a last ride

My son just graduated from middle school – one of the “lasts” we parents see coming, even if we still can’t believe it. It reminded me of this essay I wrote seven years ago, which still rings true. What about you? 

My almost seven-year-old son duly informed me this week that he’s grown out of Sesame Street. It’s not often you get notice that your child has done something for the last time. Firsts are noted and even diligently recorded: his first steps, first word, first tooth in and first tooth lost. But the lasts usually go out gradually and with such stealth that it’s months before you realize they don’t happen anymore.

When was the last time I was able to carry him around? The last time he wanted help with his socks? The last time I squeezed his chunky legs before they became the beanpoles they are now? It was just a couple of weeks ago when we were taking turns reading chapters from Henry Huggins and he said, “We haven’t done this in a while,” that it occurred to me he was right. I had read to him every night since he was a baby until he graduated to chapter books and started to prefer reading on his own. When did the switch happen? I’m not quite sure. We're happy to see our kids growing up, but can't they tell us when they do?

For the most part the lasts will be unknown but now I am keeping my antenna up. Those evenings he still wants to cuddle next to me with a book, I especially cherish. When he blasts his CD’s from his bedroom, I still ask him to turn down the volume, but it does make me stop and think how quiet the house will be the day he’s old enough to leave the nest. And that makes listening for the hundredth time to the Kids Bop version of Yellow Submarine just a little less cringe-worthy.

I must admit there are some lasts I won’t feel too bittersweet about. The last time he shows me what the half-chewed food looks like in his mouth? I can let that go. The last time he wipes his Dorito orange fingers on his pants? I don’t think I’ll be wistfully sighing at the loss of that particular habit. But the last time he’ll kiss me in public and not be embarrassed by it? That one will be a heart breaker. So just in case, I kiss him twice.

Sunday, May 13, 2018

ON MOTHER'S DAY, I THINK OF HER





I recall past Mother's Days when my son would wake me up at 6 AM, proudly bearing the gift he created for me, thanks to a kind teacher: the macaroni pencil holder, the painted rock, the tissue papered baby food jar vase (see photo)... Now that my son is a teenager, gone are the days of handmade gifts (although thankfully the cards keep coming). On the bright side, he sleeps in until 10 AM.

But, like all mothers, I didn’t become a mom because I thought I’d get to sleep in, receive daily accolades or collect a hefty paycheck. That’s not to say I don’t savor feeling extra special once a year. We do what we do because we’re blessed to have children. My blessing was made possible because of another woman’s sacrifice. I was lucky enough to become a mother through adoption.

Especially on two occasions - his birthday and Mother’s Day - I think of her. She lives in Russia and we know few things about her, but I know she must think of him and her heart must ache. I don’t know what led to her ultimate decision and I only venture a guess when our son asks us about it. I have not lived her life and so I cannot know. But there came a time when she had to do what was best for him or her or both of them and then leave the rest up to faith.

Our journey through adoption entailed a lot of research, a pile of paperwork, and months of preparation. And then we had to leave the rest up to faith. What a wonderful parenting lesson to learn so early on: I can’t control everything. Some people don’t know the gender of their child. We didn’t know the gender, race, or age. There weren’t any conversations about whether she’d have my curly hair or my (then) husband’s green eyes or if he’d be as creative as me or as intelligent as him. We couldn’t put any of our DNA expectations on him. From the get-go we had to let this child be whoever he or she was going to be.

It was our second day in Moscow and we were anxiously awaiting the meeting with the Ministry of Education who was in charge of international adoptions. After waiting for over an hour, we were finally led up three flights of narrow stairs to her cramped office. We were there with two other couples who were also adopting children, but she said our name first. She opened the file and the minute she said his name, Roman, I felt he was mine. (We subsequently kept Roman as his middle name.) She pushed a picture across the table, a small one of the day he was born five months prior. She was telling us in Russian what the file said about him and our translator was talking over her in English and all I wanted to do was shout, “Take us to him!” My hand shook as I signed the papers to begin the process.

Another hour in the car and we were at the fairly dilapidated orphanage. It was a sad sight and I was relieved not to have the opportunity to see any of the other children there. We sat in the director’s office with our agency liaison and one of the other couples who was adopting a baby girl from the same orphanage. We were nervous and didn’t say much.  Abruptly, a stout female caretaker came in carrying a baby all dressed in pink. I assumed it was the other couple’s girl so I was wholly unprepared when a few Russian words were hastily exchanged and then the five-month-old child was plopped in my lap. Obviously, blue and pink don’t have the same connotations in Russia as they do here. It was our son and my first thought when I looked down at him was, “How did we get the most perfect baby in the world?”

He turned fourteen last month and of course he’s not perfect - in fact, he has several challenges - but there are often times I think he is. We talk about his birth mother with love and gratitude. On this Mother’s Day and every day, I send her strength. And I hope she continues to have the faith she had that day, to know that he will always be well taken care of and fiercely loved.

Saturday, September 9, 2017

HONORING GRIEF





Have you ever had a friend or loved one have something great happen in their life and they tell you how happy they are? What do you say in response?

A: “That’s great. I’m so happy for you.”
B: “Don’t be happy. You should still be worried about that credit card debt you have.”
C: “You should remember all the starving children in the world.”

I’m assuming for most of you, it’s A.
So here’s another scenario. What do you say when a friend or loved one experiences a life altering event and they tell you how sad they are?

A: “I’m so sorry. That is really hard.”
B: “Don’t be sad. Think of all the ways you are blessed.”
C: “You should focus on everything you have to be grateful for.”

If you’re honest, it’s not always A, is it? In fact, more often it’s probably B or C. People who care about us don’t want us to be sad. It makes them sad and possibly uncomfortable. So they try to whisk away our feelings and replace them with positive catchphrases. The intention is to help their grieving friend feel better, I have no doubt. However, saying something like (B), “But think of all the ways you’re blessed,” dismisses valid feelings of loss and sadness. Saying something like (C), “You should focus on everything you have to be grateful for,” only shames us for our feelings.

The fact is, in order to move forward, we need to be allowed to grieve. Every therapist will tell you that: Don’t stuff your feelings. So why is it so often our instinct to be intolerant of others’ not-so-happy feelings?

Since the end of my 25 year marriage, I have come across a host of responses to my process of grief. Some friends haven’t been in touch with me in the past year since I’m no longer part of a couple, making me recognize I had a lot more friendships of convenience than I realized. On the flip side, the relationships that remain have deepened and new friendships have emerged. 

I don’t marinate in my grief nor would I ask my friends or family to wade through a constancy of sorrow. But that doesn’t mean they dismiss my feelings, either. I have several friends who have been through a divorce, and hearing, “It’s dark now, but it gets better,” has been tremendously helpful. It acknowledges where I am, but gives me hope -- simple and effective. I also have several friends who lift me up by unexpectedly pointing out the things they see me doing well during my difficult circumstances. These kind gestures are infinitely more encouraging than being told that I need to only focus on the good things in my life. What we are going through may warrant us to feel overwhelmed at times. So, tell us we’re brave. Tell us you admire our grace. But don’t tell us not to feel how we feel.
  
My sisters tend to empathize by echoing my feelings. I think some people might be afraid that agreeing with a grieving person might make us feel worse. If we’re telling you that we’re upset/stressed/overwhelmed/sad, we already know we are. You’re not putting those thoughts into our head. We’ll move through it eventually, but for now, it helps to have validation from those we love that it’s ok to feel the way we do.

Just as being happy doesn’t mean we don’t still have concerns and worries, grief is not a mutually exclusive emotion either. I can still be grateful for the good things in my life. I can still feel blessed to have my health and my son. I can even still feel joy doing things I love, but at the same time, I can be processing my loss. The good news is, emotions are never static.

The next time someone confides their sadness to you, I hope you will pause your instinct to offer a positive spin. Instead, consider honoring their feelings – just as you would if they were happy - and allow them the authentic space to move through their grief so they can truly heal.


Sunday, February 12, 2017

VALERIE BERTINELLI: MY FAITHFUL MAKE-BELIEVE FRIEND



Today I’m changing up my daily routine of throwing on my work-out clothes when I hop out of bed and exercising as soon as I finish my breakfast yogurt. It’s a snowy Sunday – a day that whispers get comfy - so I’m allowing myself to ease into the day with a cup of coffee. (That's after starting a load of laundry – let’s not get crazy.) 

Since I’m going for comfort, I turned on the Food Network and caught Valerie Bertinelli’s cooking show for the first time. I’ve made a few decent meals from cooking show recipes, but I mainly watch for the hominess of the shows, and frankly, whether they could be my make-believe friends. I like to watch TV personalities I'd hang out with...if, you know, they knew I existed. So, yes Ree Drummond, probably not Giada. Yes Trisha Yearwood, probably not Ina Garten. Yes Nancy Fuller, probably not Katie Lee. And definitely yes, Valerie Bertinelli.

You know what I like about her? (Beside the fact that we could totally hang out.) She turned out to be who I wanted her to be. I watched her as a teenager on One Day at a Time and she was rockin’ and cute, and sweet and relatable. And then in real life, she appears to be all the things I thought she was when we were younger. As an actor, she had no obligation to live up to her TV image, but I'm grateful she managed to keep my childhood nostalgia intact. 

I grew up in the 70’s, which meant television – and the people on it – were a big part of my childhood. Coming from a family of six children, I was close to living the life of The Brady Bunch…except, of course, my parents were nothing like Carol and Mike Brady. (Whose were?) As a young girl, I couldn’t poinpoint the traits I now know made Mary Tyler Moore so appealing to me. And, of course, there were all the boys I had crushes on: Leif Garrett, Scott Baio, Willie Aames, Paul Michael Glaser, Robby Benson, and both Cassidy brothers. Alas, we all grow up, some of us not as successfully as others. The fact that Mary Tyler Moore was even stronger in real life than she appeared on her show makes me happy. That Paul Michael Glaser is as bad ass as he was in Starsky and Hutch makes me feel like my daydreams about him were worth my time. The fact that Scott Baio is an unenlightened dolt, not so much.

It shouldn’t matter to me how these celebrities turned out, but somehow it seems a reflection of my childhood sensibilities. It doesn’t necessarily taint my memories, but for some, I’d rather not know what became of them. This also applies to my actual childhood friends, not just the pretend ones on TV.

I moved away from my hometown when I was sixteen, back before the internet kept everyone bound for life. It wasn’t until thirty years later, through the creation of Facebook, that I had contact again with the kids I grew up with. When you remain friends with people your whole life, you’re able to negotiate the departures in your lifestyles naturally. However, the only thing binding those of us who suddenly plopped into each others’ lives was our collective memories. A few of these long lost friends I’ve reconnected with in a meaningful way. Some of them I simply enjoy hearing what they’re up to. But there are others who have polar opposite life views than I have, which makes it difficult to isolate my childhood memories from the adults we’ve become. It’s bittersweet to know that I have little in common with people who once had starring roles in my life story. A certainty of my childhood is now tattered.

Maybe that’s why watching a grown-up, still rockin’ and cute-as-a-button Valerie Bertinelli brings me contentment. She remains the make-believe friend she always was. On a lazy day with my boy and our cat, combining food with childhood nostalgia is as comforting as a Sunday morning gets.

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2017 NEW YEAR'S RESOLUTION: LET'S NOT CHANGE


Heading into the new year is usually a time of reflection for me, as it is for most of us. I choose a new word each year that I try to keep in the forefront of my thoughts as a guide. The word alone doesn’t make anything magical happen, I just keep it as a reminder of my intention. One year my word was CREATE. By keeping that word in my thoughts, I also brought it to action more than I may have otherwise. I ended up doing a lot of it that year, creating a tribe for myself and writing a novel. Last year my word was CLIMB because I was very low and I knew my year would be difficult, I wanted to remind myself not just to keep going, but to rise as I did so. These past weeks, I have to admit, I have been putting off thinking of a word for 2017. With all the transitions I’ve faced in 2016, I hardly wanted to put in any more time reflecting. So, naturally, I turned to Facebook memes to show me who to be in 2017.


This makes me want to add: Don’t let others tell you what to do! 

Not that any of us feel compelled to live our lives according to a meme, but they do represent our collective mindset. We take in the Nike advertisements, we watch motivational speakers, we put “bungee jumping” on our online dating profile even though our interest is reading. We buy into all of this because at some level we are at least dissatisfied, at most unhappy. We all want change of some kind and so we look for these incentives as a catalyst for change. But I think we’ve been selling ourselves short. Change is not enough.

Let this be our new year’s resolution. In 2017, let’s not change. Let’s grow.

The difference between change and growth lies in where we start. If you're willing to try out a "word" this year, the one I invite you to use for 2017 is ACCEPT. Even though this wasn’t my word for 2016, it’s a notion I’ve embraced all year long. Accept what is. It might seem wishy washy compared to those other, more dynamic action words. It might even seem counterintuitive to growth. Stick with me.

Even though you may DO NEW THINGS and BE BRAVE, do you still find yourself where you’ve always been, only more tired? Sometimes those well intentioned sentiments don’t allow us to acknowledge when we feel weak or sad or powerless. We skip this step in order to BE FIERCE, SMILE MORE, and SAY YES TO EVERYTHING. We contort ourselves trying to fake it ‘till we make it. Those pithy proverbs promise us that if we can just be everything we haven’t been, we’ll be happy! 

If we have the blueprint thrown in our faces every year, why haven't we made lasting changes? Maybe it's because the things we are trying to change are unchangeable. I know, blashphemy in the age of self empowerment, right? Does this mean we should sit and marinate in our problems? No. What it does mean is that we must first receive the truth of them.

Try this: Sit with yourself and think about whatever the situation is you would like to make better. Then utterly, down to your core, accept it wholeheartedly. Accept it without any what if’s or if only’s or should have’s. Accept it without thinking, Life is unfair or Maybe if I did this or This wasn’t how I thought it would be. Accept it without any excuses or wishes, without giving or taking blame. Accept it because it is, without any qualifiers at all. 

This may not come easy. It most likely will not be a one-time event. My son has challenges I wish he didn’t have to face. I have to renew my acceptance every day or else I’d get stuck in the if only script. And from that position, I couldn’t do what I need to do to help him reach his potential. But I also have to accept that I’m not in control of him reaching his potential; I can only do my part. That’s an even harder acceptance, but just as crucial. That is where the peace lies. I don't expend my energies trying to change the problem. That fight doesn’t exist because I accept what is. I can focus on myself and how I grow from this and become better at helping him. The change is concentrated on where it needs to be, my own growth, not the unchangeable situation. 

Your unchangeable situations might not be as permanent as my example. It may be a job you dislike or where you live or a relationship. When you fully accept any of those things, you will feel less desire to change them and more desire to look inward. You won't simply be grasping at change, going back and forth like saloon doors. You will build your foundation of growth, which ultimately may change those outward circumstances.

Change is good. Change your hair style, change your shoes, change your toothpaste brand. But for lasting change? First root yourself in acceptance and grow from there. Because we are who we are, and we should accept that, too.



Saturday, September 24, 2016

BUSY, BUSY, BUSY


When other people say how busy they are, I translate that to mean how important and productive they must be and how much stuff they must get accomplished on a regular basis. I rarely feel as busy as everybody else is. Maybe because “busy” for me means sitting all day in sweatpants in a writing haze periodically feeding my muse with peanut m&m’s. I’m not out in the world like all the rest of the busy people getting it done. But today – a Saturday, no less – I found myself very busy for a change. So I decided to dissect my day so I can give myself some recognition for everything I’d surely gotten accomplished. Maybe a Type A personality has been hiding all this time under the comfy Sherpa blanket I use while binge-watching Bravo. Maybe busy is the new me!


Well, let’s see. This is how today went down:

7:00 AM. My 12-year-old son, Harry, wakes up on his own, ergo I should be awake, too, so he plops on my bed. Carl the cat joins us. I’m starting to feel like I’m in a page of The Napping House.



Harry feeds Carl then announces he’s doing his math homework before breakfast “to get it done.” I suspect aliens have switched my son, but I like this version, so I go with it.

He refuses to give up his summer wardrobe even though it’s 54 degrees out. The aliens have returned him.

8:45ish. Drop him off at the UCONN program for kids who like engineering. This is the first day and I am shocked we are on time.

Go home and revel in the fact that I am up and showered so early on a Saturday. So now I have 3 hours to get started on the (hopefully) final read-through of my manuscript. Let me just get a couple of things taken care of…

9:15ish. Put a load of laundry in, clean litterbox, take the “new” dehumidifier that’s been sitting in the basement since June out of its box so maybe it’ll get used, pay some bills.

Make myself a nice breakfast since I have so much time. Post a photo of nice breakfast on Facebook.  

Watch 10 minutes of Pioneer Woman. Can’t believe I’ve only seen it twice in the last year and a half and yet I’ve seen the re-run that they’re showing now.

10:30ish. How can it be 10:30 already? Remind myself I was going to start reading my manuscript.

Realize I haven’t printed out my manuscript. Begin printing. Old, slow printer. Try to recycle and use the backs of paper I’ve already used. Paper jam. Fix. Re-start. It prints from beginning. Push every button to get it to stop. Paper jam. Insert page numbers. Re-start. Printed manuscript in hand.

11:00ish. Too late to read manuscript. Run to Olympia Sports for some overpriced heel inserts before picking up Harry. My bum foot will need them walking hundreds of miles at The Big E fair tomorrow. (Ok, maybe not hundreds, but without the insert it will feel like it.)

At Olympia Sports and I suddenly remember that I bought gel inserts when I was at CVS the other day. Also remember that I left the clothes in the washing machine at home.

Run home to stick clothes in dryer.

11:30ish. Search for house key I JUST used to open the door. 
11:45ish. Find house key in the bottom of my sunglasses case. 
Now I'm late. Drive like a banshee to get Harry.

Not late. Pick up Harry.
            Me: “So what did you do for your first class?”
            Harry: “We just made some prosthetics.”
            Me: “Starting off slow, are you?”

Drive all the way to Rockville library, the only library that has a copy of the fiction book he left at school that he has homework on. He looks around for books to take out. He decides to choose only from the oversized section.
1:00ish. Leave with 32 pounds of books.

Stop by a craft fair to see a friend who was selling some products made by Harry’s art teacher. Coasters sold out, but lovely chat with my friend.

1:30ish. Head to Harry’s beloved Swap Shop at the Transfer Station (read: Dump) so we can continue to live in the 70’s, 80’s, and 90’s. He picks out albums for his record player, cassette tapes for his recorders, plus movies for his most recent under $6 Salvation Army acquisition: a state-of-the-art 1990’s VHS player. He picks up some classic movies and fills a large plastic bag with stuff he “needs.” I tell him he certainly doesn’t “need” any of it, while asking the volunteer for a box for the Christmas breakables I’m taking home. On the way out, he takes as many old National Geographics as he can carry. (If you’re looking for a Nat Geo magazine from 1968-‘72, we’ve probably got it.)




On the fourth trip from car to house to bring everything in, I wonder if the neighbors will recommend us for TLC’s Hoarders.

2:00ish. Late lunch on the deck. Beautiful fall day in the 60’s. Harry rubs his goosebumps throughout lunch, unwilling to acknowledge he’s chilly in his shorts and t-shirt.

Harry plays with swap shop loot. I text with my sister in NY who just completed her first 5k and finished 2nd in her age group. She literally just took up running 3 weeks ago. I pause scanning the pantry for dessert and vow to train for a 5k. Ooh, ‘Nilla wafers. What was I saying about running?

Walk to the pond behind our house so Harry can play in the mud with the frogs and I can do some meditating. “Mom, look at this frog.” “Mom, look at this wall of sand I built to make this stream.” “Mom, look at these bugs in the sand.” “Mom, look at…”
 No meditating. 
 

Back to the house to do the rest of his homework. On a weekend! Blasphemous.

4:30ish. Is it nap time yet? 

Fresh air from the open French doors is making Carl frisky. Play time with kitty.

Take the very wrinkled clothes out of the dryer from this morning.

5:15ish. Wonder if late lunch is enough justification for a cereal dinner.

Some computer down time for Harry. For me, wash dishes from lunch and prep for tomorrow’s trip to the Big E.

Guilt and hunger win over laziness. I make fish tacos for dinner.

7:00ish. Loveseat. Sherpa blanket. Harry. Carl. Me.
            Me: “Are we going to the movies to see Storks tonight?”
            Harry: “And leave the house?”
            Me: “You’re right.”
            Carl: “Purrrr…”

Carl, also Type A



Tuesday, September 6, 2016

BACHELOR IN PARADISE: THE EENY MEENY MINY MOE OF MARRIAGE





       Bachelor in Paradise! How have I never seen this show before? I've been watching it this season because I'm single now and when I go out, it’s only to buy cat food and bird seed, so my evenings are relatively free for new TV shows.

       The show’s premise is this: Some decent looking twenty-somethings from past seasons of The Bachelor/Bachelorette who learned zero relationship lessons on those shows get drunk daily on a Mexican beach together. Every day or two a new person joins them so there is never an even ratio of men to women. If the new guy or girl is cuter than the guy or girl they just spent the day before with, they are suddenly in a new relationship. It's like the whole of your twenties dating life condensed into three weeks. I have to say, being 50 never felt so good.

       Of course, this being a Bachelor franchise, there are rose ceremonies hosted by Chris Harrison. This is where paradise turns into hell for the ones who haven’t made a “connection” (i.e., they’re not as good looking as the person who just arrived). They are publicly told that no one wants them, and they are forced to leave Mexico immediately. You have to wonder how many women’s nightmares Chris Harrison shows up in. 

       The ones who are lucky enough to have found their soulmate based on the sheer fact that filming is coming to an end, get the delight of spending their last night in the fantasy suite. This is the show’s way of announcing that the couples will be having sex, which adds to the humiliation of the ones who get broken up with the next day. Because the final day is when they either break up or they get engaged. Because that's what the natural next step is, right? Nineteen days of making out on the beach and then a proposal or else we’re done. As one of the women put it, “If we don’t get engaged, we’re probably not going to make it.” Huh?

       The epiphanies continued the morning after the fantasy suite. One of the guys decided after getting matching tattoos of their combined names that maybe they should think things through a bit more. One woman said, “It was great having breakfast in bed together and finally being a normal couple.” Breakfast in bed is not a normal couple activity. Eating dry cereal for breakfast because the last of the milk is souring in his cereal bowl from the night before is more like it.

       Nonetheless, with Neil Lane handing out free diamond rings, three of the six couples got engaged. With such a solid foundation, I am certain they will make it to the alter and live happily ever after. The update confirmed it. After two whole months, all three were still going strong. As one of the guys said before he proposed, “I thought I knew what true love was in the past. But I didn’t. This is true love.” It’s kind of like what I say every time I start a new diet. “I thought the ones in the past would work out. But they didn’t. This one’s for real.”

       There was one guy who just couldn’t commit to the woman who declared her love for him. He had to break it off because he feels “too damaged to love anyone.” So what happened to him? They announced that he’s going to be the next Bachelor, of course! Why break just one woman’s heart when 28 more have signed up?