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How Do I Love Thee?

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Two nights ago, after a particularly devastating episode of “This is Us” (who am I kidding…nearly every episode is devastating when you’re either: child of an addict, recovering addict, married to recovering addict, estranged from a child, watching your daughter divorce, adjusting to the empty nest, a singer whose voice is in her past, struggling with body dysmorphia…), my sweet husband, who was sitting on the floor with our beagle, looked up at me with the most woeful, teary eyes. I climbed onto the floor and into his lap and we just cuddled and comforted. And with my arms wrapped around him, I wondered: Why? Why do I love him so? Why does he love me? Why? And not for the first time, I settled on this answer. Who cares why? It’s enough to know its truth.

We have, at times, even asked each other, “Why do you love me?” It’s an unanswerable question. This morning, I was listening to SuperSoul, and Pastor A.R. Bernard said that when we love each other for no reason- that’s unconditional love.

I mean sure, I can make a list of things I love about my husband. I love his laugh, his blue eyes, his easy access to deep and profound thought, his capacity for peace-keeping, his legs. I love the kind of father he is. I love how he wants to protect me from harm, whether it’s an advancing category five hurricane or a work colleague who is showing me something less than respect.

But why do I love him? I just…do.

I guess it’s what bothers me about making lists of why we love someone. This last Valentine’s Day, I saw one of those social media posts that tells you how to be a good parent. And you would put all these cut out hearts on your kid’s door with the reasons why you love them (specifically it said that, not “things you love about them”). And one of the hearts said along the lines of “You play basketball well.” And I thought…If I am a kid whose well-meaning mom said she loved me because I played basketball well, what would happen if I couldn’t play any more? What would happen if I couldn’t play well anymore? Kids want to know that they’re loved. Just because. Same with spouses. Just because.

Someday, my husband’s brain will be less sharp. His laugh will be creaky. His legs will be veiny. I know I won’t care.

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Elizabeth Barret Browning put it so perfectly in her famous sonnet, in which she enumerates the ways, not the whys of her love:

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways.
I love thee to the depth and breadth and height
My soul can reach, when feeling out of sight
For the ends of being and ideal grace.
I love thee to the level of every day's
Most quiet need, by sun and candle-light.
I love thee freely, as men strive for right.
I love thee purely, as they turn from praise.
I love thee with the passion put to use
In my old griefs, and with my childhood's faith.
I love thee with a love I seemed to lose
With my lost saints. I love thee with the breath,
Smiles, tears, of all my life; and, if God choose,
I shall but love thee better after death.

Truest, deepest love doesn’t have a reason. It just is.

Loneliness in Mothering

 

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This morning, I woke up about an hour before the alarm went off. I was lonely. Specifically, I was lonely for my son, who has not spoken to us for nearly six months. And you may be thinking six months is nothing-moms who send their kids for military service go far longer. And you would be right. But these have been six months of angry, insistent silence in a family that has always been close. Not only did he unfriend his father and me on Facebook, he unfriended his sisters. If there is one thing I have always felt joy in, it is that my kids loved each other as children, and they still loved each other and spent time together as adults. Until…

In anger, I took a stand and made an ultimatum about a relationship with a woman we (the whole family, hence the shunning of sisters) think is unhealthy for him. I made him choose, because I couldn’t stand to keep watching him struggle. I made the mistake of confronting them both in public, after an exhausting week of moving out of my house and getting our festival opened and physical therapy for two bulging lumbar discs. I had spent two straight weeks being bombarded by the needs of my colleagues at work while packing a house, arranging for utilities to be shut off, and gathering paperwork to prep for closing. And after months of renewed, impending panic attacks. I was, quite literally, at wit’s end. And my son and his girlfriend caught the brunt of it.

I have asked for forgiveness, it’s not coming. I have told my son that I will wait with arms open for as long as it takes, and I will.

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Each child you raise brings with himself or herself a unique set of gifts…and challenges. I remember with utter clarity the first moment I looked into my son’s eyes- they are a rich blend of blue, green, and brown, and they are deep. His hours-old eyes were like deep pools. I don’t even know how long we stared at each other that first day, we had been given the unexpected gift of quiet time with no one else in the room. It might have been two minutes or five minutes or forever. He was the one with the sour tummy-I had to nurse him in the restroom (in those days you did not nurse in public and I am glad that has changed) and I would set him on my knee to burp him. He could spit up so hard it shot straight to the stall wall and dripped down. At night, he could only sleep if I laid him against my stomach and patted his back. If I fell asleep and stopped patting, he awoke. If his dad tried to comfort him, it didn’t work. It was just me, and I would prop myself up on the headboard, patting his back and catching little snatches of sleep. I also fell asleep at my desk when my first graders were doing desk work. Those kids were so sweet- they would just sit and color or play with their math manipulatives while I caught a few zzzzzs.

He is also a master of hide-and-seek. Just like me. Once, in Tulsa, he buried himself in the middle of a round rack full of jeans. We couldn’t find him, the store did a full lock down, and he just quietly giggled in his hiding place until we finally heard him. When he was about ten, he wanted to take dance classes- he was really graceful and had a marvelous ear for rhythm, but one day when it was time to go to the studio, he ran. We found him in the bushes a couple of houses down the block. We found out later the boys in the dance class were bullying him. Sometimes we would find him out on the roof of our house. There were nights in his early teen years that we would have to walk the neighborhood to find him. But sometimes, he hid in plain sight. I get that. I do it, too.

There is a lot of loneliness in parenting.

It starts at that first moment when the nurse walks out of the hospital room, leaving you alone with your new baby for the first time. That’s when a hint of it drops- This little round headed, wrinkly, red tiny human is mine. To take care of. Loneliness sinks in a little deeper when you’re rocking the crying baby at two in the morning, wiping spit up off your robe-whether you’re the mom or the dad. It’s lonely when you’re hiding in a dressing room, nursing the baby. It’s lonely when you drop your five year old off for their first day of Kindergarten-especially if they go in happy. You want them to go in happy, right? It means they are well adjusted, confident, curious. Except…you kind of wish they would run back and clutch your legs just one time.

That doesn’t change when they head to California or Australia, either. You watch them drive away, or you watch them pass through airport security, and their eyes are sparkling with hope and excitement, and you wish they would run back for one last hug.

Laundry was lonely. My husband and I did share laundry duty, but as he took over more and more of the cooking, I made it up by handling more laundry. There was so much. We did cloth diapers, so there were buckets of soaking dirty diapers for a long time. Lots of bleach and fabric softener and scrubbing and folding there. Later, there were baseball uniforms, and even later, Renaissance costumes. If we came home from a wet, rainy weekend at the festival, there were piles of damp muddy velvet to wash.

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When the kids were really young, I somehow managed to get all the laundry folded and in its proper drawers. But as the years went by and we got busier, laundry ended up sitting in a clean pile on the window seat in the living room. Every morning, kids visited the seat looking for socks or undies or a particular shirt or dance leotard. Folding laundry was a lonely job. I didn’t do so great at it.

Parenting was really, really lonely in the months of early 2001, when I was separated from my husband and had to manage everything pretty much by myself- cooking, driving, homework. I fell to pieces in a parent teacher conference when I tried to explain what was happening. I got my kids to bed, the six year old sleeping with me because she couldn’t sleep anywhere else. I cuddled with her until she nodded off, then sat up and played Freecell on the computer while listening to Norah Jones and bawling. My oldest daughter just found the courage to tell me last summer that she had blamed me for every minute of that marital separation when it happened. That was lonely.

When your kids are young, it seems like the loneliness is found in the physical- the moments of exhaustion that accompany midnight potty trips and bouts of fever. But when they are teens, the loneliness is found in the moments you reach out to them- never really sure if they’re going to return the affection or use the moment to assert their burgeoning independence. You’re caught standing in the high school parking lot, watching your kids walk away to join their friends at Sonic, when you were hoping for time to take them for a milkshake.

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But in my experience, the loneliest time of parenting has been this one- kids in their twenties, going off and living their own independent lives. My eldest is divorcing after just two years of marriage. That’s lonely. My son is dating a young woman who is, ultimately, a good person. She’s got some damage. We want, for her sake and his, for her damage to heal. We hope it does. My youngest daughter just moved out (again), she’s figuring it all out and having a lot of fun while she does. At 23 years old, that’s how it should be.

Of course, it’s what parents want- we don’t really want them to live with us and use up our toilet paper and laundry soap indefinitely. Each time my adult daughters visit, then drive away, I hurt for them. I wish for a day when they climbed in my lap for snuggles.

And I keep wishing, on every dandelion I can find, that my son will find his way back to the lonely mom who longs for him.

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To Raise Happy Kids: Dance!

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Walking out on the faire site today, I was listening to music. One of my projects during the quiet December days in the office was to upload all of my old CDs onto my iphone- stuff I have not listened to in years. Really, years. Old Amy Grant, Eric Clapton, and Beatles tunes now have a place in my playlists alongside Lady Gaga and Bruno Mars.

With the sun shining in a blue sky and my breathing ever so slightly elevated, my mind was drifting along, unknotting some tricky work questions, when BAM! The swinging, groovy strains of Billy Joel’s “River of Dreams” started, and I was instantly transported. It’s what happens with music, I think.

Suddenly I was in the living room of our tiny rent house in 1993 Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, bare walls streaming with sunlight, dancing with my two year old son and four year old daughter. Silly, goofy dancing. Fingers pointing randomly at the ceiling, feet flexed awkwardly, and our voices raised to the roof, we danced with complete abandon (sometimes we danced when Daddy was home, but I never let myself get quite so…weird…looking then. I danced really weird with the kids- like Julia-Louis-Dreyfus-on-Seinfeld-weird).

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When my kids were little, we had lots of these silly spontaneous dance parties. Even though I was always doing workout videos (anyone else have that Cindy Crawford workout on VHS? The one where she wore a crimson leotard and perfectly tousled hair and never broke a freaking sweat), my best calorie burn came from these moments.

Dancing really is great. Kids do it instinctively, even boys (until we tell them they have to stop because dancing is only for girls and put a football in their hands instead. Sorry- I got off topic a little).

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The National Dance Education Organization says: “Dance embodies one of our most primal relationships to the universe. It is pre-verbal, beginning before words can be formed. It is innate in children before they possess command over language and is evoked when thoughts or emotions are too powerful for words to contain.

Children move naturally. They move to achieve mobility, they move to express a thought or feeling, and they move because it is joyful and feels wonderful.”

It is! It’s joyful! And what could possibly be better than joyful kids? Nothing. Nothing at all.

Joyful kids and a good cardio workout are not the only things you get from dancing with your young children. Here’s what silly dancing with your kids gets you:

  1. Kids that see an adult being unafraid to look foolish. Rich lives are built on risk-taking. Trying out for the spelling bee, swinging at that curveball pitch, asking for that dream date, applying for that seemingly out-of-reach job, sending that novel off to a publisher- those are all risks on the same continuum. If we want our kids to have courage, to be brave enough to live even when suffering egg on their metaphorical faces, we show them that from the very earliest age by being silly and awkward and breathless.
  2. Relief. That means looser shoulders, a smoother forehead, and a relaxed jaw. It’s impossible to stay tense and stressed when you’re cutting a rug with little ones. We do carry so much when we’re parenting: bills, job expectations, home repairs, health concerns…well, you get the picture. When kids see too much of that in Mom and Dad, they become fearful. Adults can show kids how to let go and get down.
  3. Kids that love music from an early age. Music is awesome. We all know it. Every culture ever has found ways to create music. Get them singing and humming and banging from day one! Oh, and the better music you choose, the better their taste will be (for the love of Pete, no Kidz Bop!)
  4. Memories. Precious, life affirming memories. In my acting training and teaching, we often draw upon the concept of “sense memory” to evoke the responses we want from an actor. How many times have you smelled a scent or tasted a food and been immediately transported to a beloved location, if only in your mind? When you dance with your wee ones, especially if you choose some special songs to always dance to, you and they will always associate that music with fun and family and love. Dancing, play, hugs, and kind words lay a firm foundation for a child’s self concept. In those awful schoolyard moments, when their confidence has been shaken or when their heart is broken by first love, those deep early memories, whether recollected consciously or not, hold the frame of the child intact. Yours too, by the way. And someday, when you’re twirling with them on the dance floor of their wedding reception, you’ll remember. And you’ll cry. And you’ll be thankful.
  5. Kids that read. Again, the NDEO: “Dance helps children develop literacy. To the young child, verbal language and movement are entwined. Preverbal movement expression does not cease when a child develops language. The road to literacy involves the translation of movement expression and communication into words. Learning language and learning dance are not separate threads, but are woven together and incorporated into a fabric of communication and understanding.”

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I tried to find photos of these impromptu dance parties, but discovered I have nary a one. And as I puzzled over that fact, I realized that it’s because I was too busy being connected and truly present with my kids in those moments to bother looking for a camera. I just had to trust that I would remember. And I do. So very vividly.

In the song I mentioned at the beginning of this post, “The River of Dreams,” Joel sings about “something sacred [he] lost.” The childhoods of my offspring are over. Sacred, but lost. But not in my heart, not in my dancing feet.

“In the middle of the night
I go walking in my sleep
Through the desert of truth
To the river so deep
We all end in the ocean
We all start in the streams
We’re all carried along
By the river of dreams”- Billy Joel

Let the river and the beat carry you and your kids. Namaste, and “shake your groove thing!”

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No, I Would Not Like To Sit On the Couch, Thank You.

 

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My first memory of her is a body curled up, sleeping with her back to the living room, South Carolina sunlight streaming in the windows. I was three years old, and my mother was napping. Almost every memory of her after, no matter what age I was, includes a couch.

That first couch was a deep red with a Spanish styled print. I don’t remember that from being three, but from having sat on the edge of that couch right through seventh grade. That couch moved from Tennessee to South Carolina to Texas.

It’s always puzzled me, that couch. Red? My mom loved yellow and orange. Spanish? She hated all things Latin. A shield with crossed swords hung on the wall along with what I think was a painting of a bull fighter or something. The coffee table was a heavy wood with Spanish style turned spindles and doors trimmed in burnished brass. Where in the world did all of that come from?

She liked to call me to come sit on the couch to talk to her sometimes. She might ask about my day at school, what boys I had crushes on. Interestingly, she rarely asked about my female friends. She asked about teachers. She told me that I must go to college.

She lay there and smoked cigarettes, drank Coke or Pepsi with lemon, and watched television for my entire childhood. Soap operas, game shows, and classic horror and sci-fi were her tv of choice. She didn’t mind if I joined her for game shows or “Lost in Space,” but when it was time for “Guiding Light” or “Days of Our Lives” I had to make myself scarce.

She never got up and went to the bed in the bedroom that she shared with my dad in name only. Sure, her clothes hung in a closet in that bedroom, and there was a dresser where she had drawers of underwear and socks and chiffon nightgowns left from her bridal days. But she rarely went in that room. She was on the couch 24/7. One time, when I was about twelve, I got out of bed to get a drink of water and found my father laying on top of my mother on that couch. Sex happened on the couch. Meals happened on the couch. Sleep happened on the couch. Her life was lived on the couch.

Right around my eighth grade year, we bought a new couch: sort of a nubby weave of lime green and golden yellow. I didn’t sit on the edge of that one quite as often, as the divide between my mother and I began to widen. Confiding in her was dangerous- if I shared something I was worried about she would use it against me in an angry moment. Her own depression began to sink her into an apathy of lethargy and sleep.

Perhaps my most vivid couch memory was the day it tipped over. Let me set the scene:

It’s summer, 1979. I am out of school, my dad is at work, and my little brothers are outside playing. My mom seems…off. Her speech is slurred, she’s holding on to the walls as she makes her way to the toilet. I call my dad at work, he asks if I can just stay nearby and keep an eye on things. So I grab a book (most likely a Ramona Quimby story) and catalogs and settle down on the shag carpet for a quiet day of reading and looking at clothes in the Sears Big Book; and I watch.

My mom comes back from a bathroom trip, sits down on the couch, then pitches forward headfirst over the coffee table. Her feet were tucked up under the edge of the couch, so it flipped backward.

Turns out she was completely strung out on pain killers. This was the day we learned about my mom’s addiction.

My mom was…difficult. When she was young, people tell me she was engaging. A tremendously talented athlete. In many ways she was brave- she could face down a speeding softball, catching it and pivoting to throw it to first base in the blink of an eye- this was a gift that I saw a glimpse of when she convinced me to join the church softball league with her during one of the infrequent “good spells.” She was fast as a whippet, graceful on the field despite the numerous broken noses and arms (fearless on the softball field, nothing would stand in the way of getting on base or stopping that ball- not even her face).

She was also beautiful. there are photos that show this to be true, even after she married my dad and had me. Big blue eyes, golden olive skin, blonde hair coiffed to perfection, and impeccable style in clothing, she was a knock out.

But something changed for my mom. Depression and probably bipolar disorder intervened. I say “probably bipolar disorder” because that really wasn’t a thing that was being diagnosed in the early 1980’s. Instead, she was diagnosed as paranoid schizophrenic, which isn’t quite right, but maybe as close as a 1982 psychologist could get.

Women didn’t typically have careers in the late 1960’s and 70’s. They were housewives. I don’t know that my mom found much joy in this. I think she was lonely and bored. It’s not that she didn’t love us. But she was just too sad. So she slept a lot, watched a lot of TV, got depressed, then got addicted, then got crazy. All on the couch.

The last time I visited my mom in her section 8 apartment, where she was living alone, my husband and I slept on the double bed that my grandfather had given her. She said she had tried to sleep on it, but she just couldn’t. She was still sleeping on a couch. This time, an old couch that I think might have come from the Goodwill store. She died when she was living in that apartment.

When we packed it up, my husband and I took the bedroom furniture, but not the couch.

And when I enter a home, friend’s home, or even my own home, I don’t sit on the couch unless there just are not any other options.

A few months ago, I decided I would try to join my husband on the couch- that’s where he likes to hang out. I spent about a week propped up against the arm rest, tucked under a blanket, and having flashbacks to seeing my mom living on her various couches. Not just chilling for a bit, but living. I moved back to my chair.

It’s funny how we are shaped in the strangest ways. An innocuous piece of furniture that exists in nearly every American home can become a subtle, subconscious reminder to me of that child, preteen, adolescent, then young married woman that I was, who observed the long, slow decline of my mom from happy and vibrant young mother to lonely and sad woman. And then, because I can, because somehow I figured out how to step out of her shadow, I rise each day. I sit in an office chair at work, I read in a wicker patio chair in the evening, I watch TV from my comfy chair and then sleep in a bed with my guy every night.

I just never sit on the couch.

 

On Golden Pond

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This week, I began my journey to Golden Pond. I had seen the audition dates months ago, and in a rare case of wanting to do a show badly enough to make sure I remembered the dates, I put the audition dates on my calendar. Circumstances out of my control took me out of town on the weekend of the audition dates, so I told myself that I clearly was not meant to do the show, that I had never worked with this director, so he probably wouldn’t cast me anyway, that my high school reunion conflicted with one of the show dates so I would just go to my reunion instead, that the 45 minute drive to the theatre was too much trouble.

Then I found out auditions had been postponed for a week.

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I spent several days reciting all the reasons above and skipped the first night of auditions. On Monday, I posted on Facebook about my struggle and asked for advice: audition or high school reunion? The overwhelming response was “Audition!” So I did. Most of my friends are theatre folks, they totally get how doing a show can trump just about anything, and my high school and college friends know that I have always been a performer first, so they probably weren’t too surprised!

Auditions are hard for me. I don’t get stage fright on opening night, but at auditions I can barely breathe and I keep having to dash to the ladies’ room. Auditions are scary because you’re being judged, you may not have seen the script, you’re sometimes partnered with folks who are not helping you be your best, and if it’s an open audition, everybody there is watching.

But I did pretty well, I thought. I remembered my Shurtleff guideposts, thought through the relationship/objective/obstacle/tactic mantra, and tried to use the breath like my teacher said to. If I ever felt disconnected from the character, Chelsea, I just visualized my mom. That did the trick.

On Tuesday, I tried not to strain to hear the ring of my phone. It didn’t ring the entire day at work, nor on the drive home. When it finally did ring, I missed the call! I called the stage manager back, and she asked if I could come for a call back.

Last night’s call back was nerve wracking: me and one other lovely lady, both reading with the actress who had been cast as Ethel, the mother. My competition was pretty, tall and willowy with a sharp pixie cut and a cute dress. I recited my mantra while she did her reading, then went on stage.

Magic happens on stage. True magic. If you’re an actor, you know that sensation. Suddenly, the story takes over. If it’s a good script, the playwright’s words dig deep and a well of emotion springs forth. Sometimes laughter, sometimes tears. If you’re lucky enough to be on stage with actors who know how to connect with their scene partners, it’s exhilarating. I was lucky.

Last night, after I got the call that I had been cast, I got a Facebook message from my stage father saying he was looking forward to the show. He and I used to work together teaching theatre, and it was a rough relationship. I am both excited and nervous about that- this play may be instrumental in closing that chapter.And I just got off the phone with my stage mommy, a local actress I have wanted to share the stage with for quite some time. She wanted to let me know how excited she is that we are going to be working together. It’s always nice to work with folks who are giving.

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I am looking forward to working on this script. My relationship with my own father was not fraught with the antagonism and misunderstandings that Norman and Chelsea face. But my mother’s relationship with her own father was. She was ever the little girl, trying to be pretty and thin enough to please him, still chasing softballs to earn his praise until she just couldn’t physically play any more. I think this play will help me get into my poor, damaged, addicted, deceased mom’s head and heart just a little.

I bet I’ll cry more than once. And I think I will learn something about myself. I think Ethel’s words to embittered Chelsea will resonate deeply for me:

“Don’t you think that everyone looks back on their childhood with a certain amount of bitterness and regret about something?  It doesn’t have to ruin your life.”

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Plays can heal. Relationships can be mended. Hearts can be opened. Family can be made. Right, fellow Thayers and Thespians? I love what actress Juliet Binoche says about the power of theatre to create connections:”Choosing to be in the theatre was a way to put my roots down somewhere with other people. It was a way to choose a new family.”

What’s coming? I don’t know. Late rehearsals, exhaustion, sweat, tears, bright lights, these I know will happen. But there’s a whole world of exploration, revelation, and love to come.

Let’s Go Fly A Kite!

kiteI think kites are dreams. I mean, really, when you’re flying one, don’t you sort of feel as though you’re floating alongside it, aloft like a dandelion seed, rising and falling on unseen wafts of air? I have not flown a kite in years, but I used to love to send a kite up into the air, running with the string, giving it slack or yanking it taut to keep it soaring.

My daddy loved to fly kites. When I was a kid, he would sometimes bring an armful of newspaper to the kitchen table and call me and my brothers into the room. We would gather scissors and tape, I would usually decorate the kite, and Daddy always stressed the importance of the tail. On other occasions, Daddy would see a kite at the store and on impulse, he would snap it up and take it excitedly to the cash register. This was a real splurge for us, money was always scarce. I think maybe Daddy bought kites when he was feeling discouraged and needed a lift.

Maybe kites are prayers, too. Though always a man of faith, church was not something my daddy attended regularly. I am not sure what his personal faith journey was, I know there were some real hurts inflicted by well-meaning but misinformed church leaders. I know that in my own arrogant twenty-something faith years, I probably landed a few good blows, too.

Perhaps my daddy sent kites up when he wanted to connect with the Almighty. Maybe by getting his focus off the heavy gravity-soaked earth under his feet and onto the vast expanse of blue sky, he could send a little whisper to God on the breeze. Maybe God whispered back.

The year my daddy turned fifty, I learned something new about my him. While visiting us for Christmas, he and I had stayed up late to talk. He told me, for the first time, that he had always wanted to be an Air Force pilot. That was his aspiration throughout childhood. When he applied for the Air Force, his eyesight prevented him from being accepted into flight school, so he went to the Navy instead.

Maybe for him, kites were also Air Force jets.

Anyway, once our kite was ready, Daddy would load us three  kids in the car and we’d head to a field, usually at the nearby elementary school, and we would fly our kite until it broke or darkness fell. Those are some of my favorite memories with my dad and my two brothers.

11427195_10152818410851097_4664171811351207828_nRecently, my eldest daughter, Hilary, posted a photo on Facebook of she and a friend flying kites on the beach in California. She’s another dreamer, off in L.A. pursuing a career in film, putting away doubts and only listening to voices that encourage. I love that image- sun, sand, kites aloft, and my daughter’s smile.

My daddy was not the only one who loved kites. The Chinese are credited with inventing them thousands of years ago. The Afghan people fly kites competitively. Khaled Hosseini’s novel The Kite Runner is an exquisite chronicle of a father and son who run after fallen kites. I loved that book.

When I taught junior high theatre, there was always a day after standardized testing when the kids took the kites they had been building in math class out to fly. The halls were filled with such laughter and excitement- flying a kite is way better than sitting at a desk doing endless formulae, and I know that flying their very own colorful creations is probably one of their favorite school memories.

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Poor Charlie Brown never could get his kite up past the kite-eating tree. Dreams denied, indeed. The classic loser cannot fly a kite.

And then there’s the classic Disney film “Mary Poppins.”

I always cry at the end of the movie “Mary Poppins.” Somehow, the Sherman brothers, who wrote the song for Walt Disney’s film, perfectly captured the joy that comes when you fly a kite. With its lilting melody and hopeful lyrics, a kite lover can close her eyes and remember exactly how it feels to send a kite soaring, all at once “lighter than air.” In that film, the kite is a symbol of a healing family: “Up, through the atmosphere, up where the air is clear, come, let’s go…fly a kite!” A family needs a moment when the air is clear. So does a dreamer, or a God seeker, or a middle-aged former teacher who wonders at every turn what in the world she’s supposed to be doing.

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Life is kind of like kite-flying, I guess. Wind dictates direction, sometimes we go in ways we never envisioned. The glass-covered strings of our enemies can cut our own fragile strings and send us plummeting to earth, shattered and broken. Hopefully, a kite runner, maybe a loving family member or an attentive friend, occasionally even an random stranger, picks up our damaged kite and, with glue and tape and love, puts us back together so we can give it another go.

All this talk of wind and adventure and dreams has made me want to go kite-flying. I’d better go find tuppence for paper and string. Time to build my own set of wings.

Where Are The Stairs?

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It’s so weird now. My husband and I raised our kids, for the most part, in two-story houses. The first one we bought was a cute 1,750 square foot house built in the 1980’s, with high ceilings and a loft playroom. The kids liked to raise and lower toys in a purple plastic bucket tied to a jump rope, and the older two tormented the baby by dangling her toys in the bucket just out of reach. It was the first two story house I lived in, and I felt so uptown! The next one was an early 1970’s number. We had driven by it, and I hated the exterior- ugly arches and hideous outdated paint were a deterrent, but eventually we did go in and see it. It had yellow kitchen cabinets, which I loved, so we made an offer after just one tour. When we walked into it after closing, I sat down on the window seat and bawled. I had just bought the ugliest house on the planet. Dated Brady Bunch wallpaper, carpet that had been just cut and spread by the owners,  not properly installed (there was so much furniture in it when we looked at it, we couldn’t tell), dingy walls, and mildew soaked powder blue carpet in the master bath. But it did have a second floor! And bedrooms for each child, a separate formal dining room, and the most beautiful pine and oak trees. I immediately set about transforming it. I’ll tell all about that in another post.

As our youngest child approached her high school graduation, we decided to sell this two story haven/money pit and move into an apartment. We wanted to be ready to relocate- we thought we might look for jobs in Florida, New York, California, or maybe even overseas, and we didn’t want anything concrete, like a piece of property, to be an anchor. As so often happens when we mere humans make grand plans, the universe giggles and throws a curve ball. We ended up taking jobs just 25 miles from the house we sold.

Back to the drawing board!

We hated apartment life, so we embarked on building a new house.

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I have always known that building a truly custom home would be too overwhelming for me- finding an architect and contractor, choosing from ALL the faucets and doorknobs and paints, trying to find a plot of land…just…too much. So we opted for a neighborhood where we could choose our builder, choose from a list of floor plans and options, and choose from a specific set of finishes. A year ago this week, they broke ground.

I love my new house, and in another post I will write about the building of it. But what is striking me about my new house this week is its mostly-emptiness. And its lack of stairs.

We don’t really need all the space of a two story house anymore. It’s just the two of us. We have our bedroom, a guest room, and each of us has his/her own room for personal use. Mine is a yoga retreat complete with laminate flooring, a dance barre, and lots of sunlight thanks to the biggest double windows of the house. Trav’s is a study, furnished by a wooden desk, sleek leather recliner, and vintage Star Trek posters.

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Our kitchen table has four chairs. The two yellow ones get dusty because no one ever sits in them.

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I can do laundry just once a week. The attic is no longer full of toys. Trav and I can watch whatever we want to on television.

I no longer make Kraft Macaroni and Cheese for summer lunches, I no longer decorate my refrigerator with kid art, and I don’t have to stand at the bottom of the stairs, bellowing for one child or another to get a move on.

Because there are no stairs.

Because there are no children.

Since this whole blog is supposed to be about “finding peace in the middle,” I gotta say that this part is hard. I am conflicted- I want my kids to be independent, but I keep having to transfer money into their bank accounts. I miss throwing noisy birthday parties, but I love that birthdays now consist of alcohol filled brunches and dinners with the kids (no more babysitters). I miss the Disney movies, well…scratch that one, Disney movies still happen. I love the quiet and the neatness, but I miss their noise and energy.

I miss climbing the stairs at night to kiss each one and tuck them in. But my knees love having no stairs. It’s all part of the journey, I guess. Loss and gain, tug and release. All on the same floor.

Hilary takes wing

 

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Earlier this summer, while starting to pack for our impending move,  I discovered a pile of brown detritus inside a decorative bird cage on my porch. It looked like just a pile of dead leaves and pine needles, so I carried it down three flights of stairs to dump  all out in the green space behind the apartment. As I turned it upside down, though, I heard squeaks. It was not a pile of dead leaves, it was a nest, with three tiny birds. Scrawny, pink, eyes sealed shut, hungry beaks gaping, they chirped fear and indignation at my up-ending of their safe home. I looked up, and the mother was perched on the rail near my front door, worried and watchful.

I returned the nest to its cage and carried it back to the porch. We checked on mother and babies for weeks. One didn’t make it, but after a while the two surviving hatchlings, covered in soft down, left the safety of the bird cage and flew to the pines just behind our home.

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I don’t think it’s a coincidence that my eldest child, my own hatchling, has an affinity for birds. My goodness, she even based an entire faerie character, Avian, on a bird. She carried around an egg and had little patron girls help her nest throughout the day!

She has little birds all over her room, and last night, as she finished packing to fly the nest today, we had to discuss which decorative birds she would take, and which she would leave.  Happily, she left me some that I will be using to decorate my part of the new house.

My first bird just flew away in her Easter egg yellow Chevy Spark. I don’t think she saw me standing in the parking lot, watching her until the speck of her sunny car disappeared around a curve.

A couple of weeks ago, she found a box of old letters that had been in storage. Most were notes passed in junior high between she and her (still) best friend, Mandy. But tucked in amidst all the expressions of adolescent angst was a letter I had snuck into her backpack on her first day of high school. As we read it, both crying, we realized that my words to her in 2004 were the very same I say a decade later as she heads halfway across a continent to chase her dreams: remember who you are.

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I wrote to her then, and it strikes me now, she was the one who awakened my mother’s heart.

There are a lot of precious firsts in this life: first day of school, first two-wheeled bicycle, first kiss, first car. But there is nothing, absolutely nothing, that compares to the first time you feel the flutter of tiny feet or hiccups inside your own stomach,  the first glance into the eyes of your first-born child, or the first time you put that child to your breast and hold her close as she draws nourishment from your very own body. With Hilary, I learned how to change a diaper, swat a behind, and deal with a child’s digestive distress. I discovered how to make a ponytail, waded through parent/teacher conferences, and practiced listening without judgment (or keeping that judgment to myself). I learned about letting a kid make and clean up her own messes and how to let her make some truly unfortunate fashion choices.

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Hilary is a study in contrasts. Her diminutive stature, enormous eyes, and button nose perfectly match her sweetness. But she has a salty side, and a will that is nearly indomitable. She is, as Shakespeare described, little but fierce (not, however fierce enough to face a tree roach unarmed. At age 11 she clad herself in toe-sock gauntlets and a jester hat to do battle with the one in her room). She is an introvert who illuminates a stage.

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I will never, ever forget the breath she took as Ondine’s memory was erased, the smile that lit her face. Performing started at age four as a clown in the Wild West show in Annie, Get Your Gun, continued with her first endeavor as a director-actor-costumer with her musical pantomime to LeAnn Rimes’ “The Middle Man,” and drove her life through dance recitals, high school plays, post collegiate work, and now to L.A.

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As she has become a young woman, I have discovered the truth that your daughters become your best friends. We drink way too much pinot, have watched every episode of So You Think You Can Dance together since 2008, and have tentatively learned to share secrets about being women that have only deepened our love for each other. I am so very blessed that she was my first child, and even more blessed to behold the woman she has become. One of her very favorite plays is J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan. I think these words perfectly sum up why: “‘Pan, who and what art thou?” he cried huskily.
‘I’m youth, I’m joy,’ Peter answered at a venture, ‘I’m a little bird that has broken out of the egg.’”

Fly, my little bird.

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When I was in eighth grade, that oh-so-painful age of adolescence, I wanted a pair of blue jeans so badly I was quite nearly in agony. Please remember that this was the age of Brooke Shields, who never let anything come between her and her Calvins, and Gloria Vanderbilt’s straight, super-dark-blue-with-gold-stitching disco ready denims. I didn’t necessarily care that my jeans be designer label, I understood only too well my family’s poverty. I was dressed in garage sale clothes that didn’t fit, or repurposed clothes from my mother’s 1970’s remnants (one of my favorite outfits was a blue chambray maxi dress covered in strawberries that my maternal grandmother had helped me redesign and sew into a skirt and blouse. I was vintage before vintage was cool.) Genie pants were a trend when I was in seventh grade, I had tried (with disastrous results) to tie yarn around the ankles of a pair of brown polyester slacks I found in my mom’s closet. When all my friends had braces, I wrapped a rubber band around my front four teeth and tried to convince my classmates I was starting orthodontics. Yes, that really happened. And yes, my teeth were sore for days. When my family moved across town and I started a new school, I saw my chance to be someone different, someone who had not utterly embarrassed herself by doing a cartwheel at cheerleading tryouts, only to find every single other candidate standing in perfect formation and kids in the bleachers pointing and laughing. Someone who looked and lived like everyone else.

I wanted jeans.

I rarely voiced my wishes, resources were so scarce, but I must have voiced this one. When I look back, I realize that wishing for appropriate school clothes was not wicked of me. I honestly just wanted clothes that were appropriate for my age and fit right. And I wanted to blend in. Isn’t that the great conundrum that faces junior high kids? You want to blend in, to be like everyone else, but at the same time you ache to find your own identity.

My father did not know how to make these jeans happen. He just did not have the money to do it. So unbeknownst to me, he called my grandmother, a master seamstress, to see if she could help.

One day I got a box in the mail, addressed from Lubbock, Texas. Usually, these boxes were filled with dresses or blouses made from the leftover fabrics from my grandmother’s clients. This time, I opened the lid to find dark blue denim. My blessed grandmother had made me a pair of blue jeans! Now, as a seamstress myself, I can tell you that denim is a real pain to work with. It’s heavy. It breaks needles. And the finished, flat-fold seams that are standard on the sides and yokes are quite literally impossible without special industrial machines, so my jeans were actually made from a women’s trouser pattern. I didn’t know any of that then. I just knew that I could wear denim on the bus the next day!

The next morning, I put on my jeans with a favorite peach colored top (also one made by my grandmother) and a pair of too-small Famolare shoes found at a garage sale (remember those- they had wavy rubber soles?) I fixed my short frizzy hair and rubbed on eyeliner taken from a jar of shattered Mary Kay kohl left over from the sixties, and walked to the bus stop.

And here is where I learned that no matter where I went, I would always be the girl kids loved to make fun of. Instead of my jeans helping me fit in, they stood out like sore thumbs. No back pockets, no side seams, no pretty stitching, no designer label. I was that morning’s bus target.

I did my best to put a dignified face forward, shielding my thoughts from the mean-spirited peers surrounding me. At first those thoughts were of burning the cursed pants. Well, not really burning, but maybe ripping or burying in the bottom of my closet. But then I thought of my grandmother sitting at her machine, pins in her mouth, humming hymns or listening to Paul Harvey, sacrificing time sewing for paying customers to make me a pair of jeans. I thought of my father setting aside his pride to ask this of her. And I wore those jeans.

Eventually, some of my peers became friends. I never really got invited to sleepovers, but I had people to sit with on the way to and from school. Once my voice was discovered, I became the bus entertainment.

What I learned was that family love trumps everything, and that family love doesn’t always come from where you think it will. That same dear grandmother was still showing her love for me at the sewing machine two years later, making my white dress with a blue satin sash for my role as Liesl in the school musical, five years later with my pink and blue graduation dress, seven years later, helping to make my mother’s dress for my wedding, and then again making crocheted booties for my first child.

I miss that dear lady. She taught her children and grandchildren that loving family matters. She showed each of us that love is not always spoken, it is proven in serving and forgiving others. Loved by her husband, siblings, and descendants until her very last breath, her life was a testament to the power of family love.

Fashions come and go. Grandmothers are forever.

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