Undecking the halls

Is there a sadder annual chore than taking down the Christmas tree?

When we trim the tree, there’s such hope. Not only “hope” in the traditional Advent kind of way. But hope for the season. That all the presents will be perfect. That all the children will be happy all the time, even on long car rides. That everyone will get along. That all of the food will be ready at the same time. That you will take advantage of the long university break and work out every day and clean closets and figure out how to use an iPod. That your sister will make apple pie for New Year’s dinner. (Never mind.)

Actually, I usually start the holiday season with fairly realistic expectations. I know that, like most things, there will be good and there will be not-so-good. That nothing is perfect. That much of how it all turns out will be out of my control. (Imagine that, something being out of my control.)  But somewhere along the way, I get sucked into the Christmas vortex. My expectations rise.

And, as usually happens in life, there was good and there was so-so and there was not so good.

Not every gift was a delight. Some will never be played with and will be taken to Goodwill as part of next year’s pre-Christmas toy purge.  (And one or two didn’t even make it through Christmas morning without a tiny-but-important piece being lost.)

Feelings were hurt.

Situations were uncomfortable.

People got tired and cranky.  (Mostly me.)

Kids got bored and crabby and threw french fries at each other in the car.

But there was lots of good as well. Laughter with family and good friends. Long days with no plans and no goals. Cookies and carrots that magically disappeared after Christmas-eve bedtime, much to a 4-year-old’s amazement. Presents that delighted. Reconnections with people I don’t see very often.

And now it is over. The tree comes down and the decorations go back into storage. Until they come out again, bringing with them the hope of next holiday season.

When everything will be perfect.

 

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Nine lies and a truth

It seems that my most frequent blog topic is around why I haven’t had time to blog. Here’s the latest list (see if you can spot the true one):

1. First-grade math is kicking my ass.

2. Spending every spare moment with Lisbeth Salander (the heroine of the “Girl with the Dragon Tattoo” series). (“Daaaaddyyy, I’m heeeere…”).

3. New episodes of “Glee”, “Parenthood”, “30 Rock”, and “Modern Family.”

4. 24-hour coverage of the Chilean Miner rescue.

5. Trying to learn the rules of soccer. (Rule number one seems to be that everyone is not supposed to cluster around the ball.)

6. Navigating the torn-up streets in south Oak Park adding hours to my commute.

7. Sewing homemade Halloween costumes. (Ok, that one’s obviously a lie.)

8. Buried under mountain of art projects sent home from preschool every day and trying to find my way out. (This week’s theme was “leaves”. Oh boy.)

9. Exploring run for mayor of Chicago. (I think I have a better chance of winning than Rahm.)

10. School, work, soccer, gymnastics, cross country, homework, piano lessons, college visits, birthday parties, running, getting ready for Halloween (seriously, did Halloween require this much preparation when I was a kid?)

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Molasses and salsa

September makes me want to get organized. To throw things out. To find out how many jars of molasses I have in my cupboard and put them all together. (4. I have 4 jars of molasses in my cupboard. All of them open. And I have 4 bottles of Worcestershire sauce, 8 jars of salsa, 4 large containers of Crisco and more bottles of vinegar than I can even count. And cumin. Man, do I have cumin.)

But I digress. (Maybe it’s been a few Septembers since I organized the kitchen cabinets.)

September makes me want to go through closets and get rid of things that don’t fit anymore. (Don’t fit the kids anymore, I mean. Of course, everything still fits me.) To get rid of the mountain of papers in the office. To organize and fold. To clean that utility closet that still sort of smells like the cat died in it  bad.

I’ve long thought that the Jewish calendar, with the New Year in September, made so much more sense than the random January 1 date in the middle of winter. (Of course, I realize that it’s not winter everywhere in January. Typical American-centeredness, I know.)

September, with its cool (er) nights and low (er) humidity (okay, on some days), gives me energy. The start of school makes me feel like it’s a new beginning. Like the world is full of possibilities. Like anything is possible. Like this is the year that I will get organized and stay organized. Like this is the year I will write songs, and write in my journal every day, and talk to all the people I care about on a regular basis.

Yep, this is going to be that year.

And in the meantime, just let me know if you need any molasses.

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The way things are supposed to be

I recently heard a remark. One that I’ve heard many times before. One that’s difficult to disagree with. Someone was praising a young woman who called off her engagement, saying, “At least she called it off before they got married and brought children into the world.”

Now it’s possible that I’m a tad bit sensitive on this topic, having had two marriages that produced children and then ended in divorce. I do feel the sting of such comments. And I’m so grateful for the exact people that my children are, that I can’t imagine a world without them. And I don’t regret the choices I’ve made.

And when I hear people make comments like, “At least the person didn’t do ____”,  “Thank goodness she didn’t do ____”, I realize how my philosophy of all of that has changed in the past several years.

I’ve come to believe that things play out the way they’re supposed to. The way they’re meant to. The way they just do. Not good or bad. That young woman called off her wedding because it was supposed to play out that way.  Because millions of years ago, for whatever reason, things were set in motion. And each generation shaped the next generation. And as a result of all of that history, each of us came to be who were meant to be. To behave the way we behave because of the forces – parents, friends, circumstances – that shaped our lives. That our parents acted the way they acted because of the forces that shaped their lives. And so on. Back through the generations.

I stop short of calling it predestination. Short of believing in some grand being who knows in advance how everything will play out and watches it all happen. Because then you get into the whole, “how could a loving God allow all those bad things to happen” discussion, and I don’t have good answers, and then it gets icky.

And it’s not to say that we’re just puppets in some big “Kukla, Fran and Ollie” episode (sorry, I’m showing my age here), unable to make our own choices. We are able to make choices. And we do. It’s just that there are reasons why we make the choices we do.

I don’t second-guess the past (much, anyway.) I try to learn from it and move on. I try to inflict as little damage as possible (sometimes unsuccessfully.) But I don’t wish that things had been different. Because they were what they were.

And they are what they are.

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The one where David learns to swim

When Emma was a baby, I threw away all the parenting books. Because I decided that many people who were a lot stupider than me had successfully raised children, and if I trusted my gut, I would probably be okay. (I actually did think those exact thoughts. This was obviously before I learned humility and became the compassionate person I am today.)

And usually when I trust my gut, I’m okay. (And when I talk myself out of what my gut is telling me, I get into all kinds of trouble. But that’s a topic for another day.)

But sticking to what my gut tells me to do is still scary, painful and very unpleasant at times.

David has learned to swim. Not that he has a beautiful stroke or anything. But swim as in “if he falls into deep water he can get himself out without drowning.” Which when you get down to it is really the most important thing when it comes to swimming.

In four weeks, he has gone from crying every night on the way to swim lessons to telling me how much he can’t wait to go to swim lessons and wanting to practice his swimming every chance he gets.  In four weeks, he’s gone from saying, “Why does Margaret get to stay in Level 1 and I have to go to Level 2?” to saying, “Don’t worry, Margaret. Someday you’ll get to be in Level 2.” (Not that she looked worried.)

In four weeks, he is like a different kid.

Many of you know that I almost relented. I was thisclose to telling him he didn’t have to do it. Thisclose to not being able to stand the breathless sobbing all the way from camp to the pool. Four nights a week. For four weeks. And when he wasn’t crying, he was complaining.

But something told me that if I stayed calm, and told him overandoverandover that he could do it, told him to think about how good he’d feel after he proved to himself he could do it, that it would be okay.

I will be eternally grateful to Derek – the patient, kind – yet firm – college student who helped David overcome his fear. (Not that Derek was too thrilled about it in the beginning. He told one of Emma’s friends that he specifically signed up for Level 2 so he wouldn’t have any criers, and he was not too happy that he had a crier.)

Now if I could just get Derek to come to my house and convince David to take the training wheels off his bike.

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Summer fantasies

Ah, the fantasies of summer.

Each year (round about April) I have this fantasy of the way summer is going to be. Long, lazy days with no homework, no 8 a.m. school arrival times, no cross-country practice, no ACTs to prepare for. No food-service cards to recharge online. No keeping track of when pajama day is. (Or when show-and-tell day is. Or what the show-and-tell theme is.) No identifying 15 things in the house that start with the letter Y.

Nothing to do, nowhere to be. Late dinners of simple, grilled food. Trips to the pool after dinner. Relaxed bedtimes. Relaxed wake times. Low stress.

And I count the days until the end of school.

At which point reality sets in.

8 a.m. school arrival times (to the elementary and preschools 6 short blocks from our house) are replaced by 8 a.m. (ok, “-ish”) arrivals at the day camp program (a 20-minute round-trip from home). And the same trip in the evening.  Homework is replaced by swim lessons four nights a week. The camp also has pajama day. And super hero day. (Which I forgot have no memory of ever knowing about.)

Grilled food is actually a rotating selection of pizza/macaroni and cheese/scrambled eggs after swim lessons. Relaxed bedtimes are actually hurry-up-it’s-late-and-you-have-to-get-up-for-camp. Post-dinner trips to the pool are replaced by I don’t even know what.  Relaxed wake times are not possible because…oh yeah, I still have to go to work in the summer.

High humidities eliminate any hope of low stress. (Stop touching me.)

So here I sit on August 3, fantasizing about the start of school and the start of Fall. Counting the days (or at least the weeks) until we are back in our regular routine. Dreaming of cool nights and cool mornings. Of school shoes and new backpacks. Of hot dinners in the crock pot. Of seeing the other school moms on a regular basis.

And in my Fall fantasies… it will be perfect.

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Evidence of a Benevolent God

I recently had a conversation with a friend who stated that it’s not that he doesn’t believe in God…it’s just that he’s not sure he believes in a benevolent God.

Hmmm…that was a new one for me. No God? Possible. God who wants bad for people? Much harder for me to grasp. (It’s the devil’s job to be bad, and God’s job to be good, right?)

So of course that started me thinking about the reasons I believe in a benevolent God. Not a God who steps in to fix things. Not a God who prevents evil. But a God who wants good things for me, even if I manage to muck it up much of the time.

I could list lots of things – snuggly children. (Could be preservation of the species. If they’re snuggly, you’re less likely to kill them.) A day with low humidity after a summer of 70+ dewpoints.  (Could be just random weather. Or more preservation of the species. If the humidity is down, I’m less likely to kill people.)

But the best I can come up with is my experience that there are no coincidences in life. That experience of the exact right person with the exact right experience, or the exact right wisdom, or the exact right piece of knowledge, showing up in my life at exactly the right time.

Like the time I was at a conference (at the ripe old age of 23) and confided to a man that I’d just met that I was thinking about going to business school but that I was scared to quit my job. And he said, “My firm just conducted a survey of the best business schools in the country and Kellogg came out at the top of the list. My daughter just graduated from there. You can go stay with her for a weekend in New York and learn more about it.” And then I did. (I’m sure she must have been ready to kill him for sticking him with a stranger in her apartment for a weekend.)  No coincidence.

Or the many times I’ve been searching for information…the times I was considering job changes and came upon just the right person with just the right angle on the situation. The times I was struggling with a kid issue and came upon someone who had faced exactly the same thing.

But the best example was on Sept. 11. 2o01, when we were stranded in London and I was so scared that I’d never get home, and I prayed for God to send me a sign that everything would be fine, and then I walked into the American Airlines office and standing in line ahead of me was the mom of one of Emma’s classmates who was stuck in London too. Emma changed schools soon afterward, so I only saw that mom one more time, several years later, when she explained to me that she too had prayed for a sign that everything was going to be ok, and then SHE saw ME standing in that line. No coincidence.

In most cases these people disappeared from my life immediately (or soon after) after our encounter. We didn’t stay in touch, or even pretend that we would. We just had a moment. Or a few moments. Or a few days.

Now, I know that I played my own part in these experiences. I opened up to the people in question. Shared with them what was going on in my life or in my mind at that moment. Invited them in to my life.

Do I believe that God picked them up and put them there? No. I don’t know how it happened. But I just can’t believe that it was random. For me, it was evidence.

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Filed under Gratitude, On Being Episcopalian