Reflections on Age, Cancer, and Gratefulness

There was a twelve-year-old talking on the sports radio station in Jack’s truck. Or so it sounded to my fifty-three-year-old ears. Jack explained that he was a former University of Minnesota football player. So he’s not that young.

Well, he sounded young to me. I think back to when I was a kid and how every adult fit into one category for me. Old. My dad was fourteen years old when his brother was born and not much older when his youngest sister came along. I remember visiting my grandparents as a child. My aunt and uncle were always there at my grandparents’ house. Of course, they were! They weren’t much beyond their high school years and still lived at home. I thought they were cool. They gave my sister and me their old forty-five records. We took them home and listened to the Beatles and Lobo over and over and over again. My parents didn’t have forty-five records. Dad listened to the polka station on AM radio in his car. Mom had Elvis’ G.I. Blues and a Charlie Pride album that she’d play on the stereo which resided in our living room.

Still, I didn’t draw the distinction between my dad being an adult who held a job, owned a house, was married and had four children … and my aunt and uncle who were technically adults, but still very young adults. All of them fell into my mind’s very vague category of “old.” I was young. They knew everything and they were old.

Now I’m old. Sometimes I feel definitely old. Especially when I look in the mirror and notices the “eleven” lines between my eyebrows and the smile creases around my mouth. Most of the time I still think of myself as young though. I try to maintain that mentality. Maybe keeping a young heart and mind will help me live longer and better. Or just help me live better while I’m here.

When I was a child, death and funerals were such shocking and traumatic events. I was in second grade the first time I truly experienced the heartbreak of losing someone I loved. It was my sister’s godmother. Our families were close. Kenny was just a year older than me and I remember crying over the fact that he would have to face the world without his mom. I was just shy of my eleventh birthday when my grandpa died. It felt like I cried forever. I couldn’t imagine how any of us could ever be happy again.

Fast forward to old me. Lately, I’ve had thoughts of stocking up on sympathy cards so I’ll always have one at the ready. Older relatives, and parents of friends are leaving this world with some frequency these days. It’s an inevitable consequence of an ever-widening circle of family and friends, as well as having lived this long so far. And the older I get, the better I seem to cope with it. My faith has matured and my fear about the afterlife has significantly decreased with age. My sadness is often accompanied by a fascination and something along the lines of jealousy at the thought of the beautiful place I imagine and believe people go when they leave this world.

Regardless, I always still feel a bit shell-shocked at the news of a terminal diagnosis or death, especially when it comes much too soon. Even though death is a given, an inevitable, I guess I’ll never fully get used to it. I was reminded of this recently when I learned that a high school classmate’s life had been derailed by cancer.

I didn’t know Dee well at all in high school. We were not friends. At best, I can say that I knew who she was, and I’d be surprised if she knew who I was. She ran with the in-crowd. I was awkward and painfully shy and did my best to start forgetting my high school days the minute I graduated. A couple of months ago, Dee sent me a FaceBook friend request. I wasn’t entirely surprised. I’ve received my share of friend requests from people I barely know or don’t know at all. Besides, I know some of the high school crowd like to maintain connections with as many classmates as possible.

I didn’t think much about Dee’s request, and merely noted with mild interest a handful of posts she made on FaceBook. She seemed to be doing well and living a good life, at least as far as I could tell from the highlight reel of social media. And then one day, she posted about her cancer diagnosis. It’s bad. Really bad. I’ve been following her updates lately and can’t help compare her situation to that of my best friend who passed away three years ago at the age of forty-seven. Dee wrote a New Year’s message reminding all of us to wrap our arms around our own lives and loved ones. She said most of us don’t know when or how we will die. She doesn’t know when, but she knows how. She’s working with a palliative care nurse, so I know she has accepted that the end is coming, and coming soon.

Cancer RibbonDee is heavy on my heart every day. I’m not entirely sure why a person I barely knew then and barely know now remains so present in my thoughts, although it stands to reason since when I think about her, I think about my best friend. I think about Dee every day and I pray for her. I pray for a miracle for her, and then I don’t know whether or not to hope for it. I prayed for a miracle for my best friend. I never for a moment believed she would actually die until I was sitting next to her hospital bed, holding her hand and praying for God to take her from the pain she was in. She died the next morning. The miracle I was hoping for did not happen.

Maybe Dee is so often in my thoughts because I’m supposed to do something for her, even if that is merely to pray. Maybe it’s to remind me that life is short and there may not be endless days ahead to do all the things I want to or should do. Whatever it is, the thought of her continues to remind me to be as happy as I can be, to relax, to be gentle with those around me and forgive often.

Today as I think about Dee, I am grateful for my health, to have come this far protected from trauma and disaster, and for the blessing of an imperfect yet beautiful family and wonderful friends. Today I will be grateful for the single day that lies before me and not worry about the ones ahead. Today, I am very grateful that a person I barely know so poignantly reminds me of what is truly important. And I will continue to pray for her.

Finally a Normal Saturday (I guess I’ve missed these.)

I think every year around this time I speak (about 600 times) some really (not so) original words of wisdom along the lines of, “The holidays are always wonderful, but there’s something to be said about getting back to normal.”

There is. I’m one of those people who loves Christmas time … really loves it! I relish the joyful and generous spirit that permeates the air, the planning and giving of meaningful and simple gifts, the idea that our Christmas gatherings will be absolutely, totally, completely perfect in every way … even though the beauty of it is that they never will be. I love Christmas time so much that I usually experience a bit of blues in the days immediately following. This year was no exception. I woke up on December 26th, on break from work. I worked out. I showered. I drove the neighbors to the airport. While driving back home, I listened to Little Women on audiobook and contemplated grand plans for immense productivity during the remaining hours of my day.

Upon arriving home at approximately 10 am  … I promptly plopped onto the couch, reached for the remote, … aaand spent the next several hours watching movies and napping.

I can’t say I felt good about that. I tried to. I told myself, You’ve earned this. You entertained on Christmas Eve. You shopped. You wrapped. You cooked. You baked. You gave up precious hours of sleep. I told myself that my lounging was well-deserved self-care. But I’m not a person who feels refreshed after such a day. Unless I’m doing it due to illness, I just feel guilty. It’s one of those things I want to work on in this new year. Sitting and being still once in a while. Though maybe a bit more purposefully, and probably not while zoning out in front of a screen.

This brings me to my point which is that I woke up this morning feeling grateful for the relatively normal weekend that looms ahead. Sure, the Christmas tree still needs to come down in addition to the usual household chores and errands that I typically tackle during my weekends. But if I don’t get it all done? Who cares? Because no one is coming over to see my messy house! And if they do? Well, that’s another one of those things I’ll continue working on in the new year. NOT thinking that no one may come over until I have a Pinterest-perfect house. Besides, if I wait for that day, no one will be allowed over. Ever.

IMG_8999It was nice over the holidays. There were moments between the chaos when I glanced into the living room where all of my adult kids (and Lucy Pie) were lounging together, the Christmas tree lights glowing in the corner, and the kids’ teasing and laughter like music to my ears. Those moments filled my soul with such warmth and happiness. I adore those moments and will gladly take as many more as I can get. But the rest of it? It was wonderful but a bit exhausting as always. So today, the pressure is off. I’ll get to the shower when I get there. If my vacuuming doesn’t make it to the lower level this weekend? Oh, well. Today I raise my coffee cup in a toast to routine and normalcy.

New Year’s Resolution? Be Better.

Oh, how cliché. It’s New Year’s Eve 2019 and I’m making a pit stop at my much-neglected blog. Forgive me WordPress, for I have sinned. It’s been two months since my last post!

Cliché or not, I have the time (paid holiday) and inclination (new year inspired stirrings) to write something today. I’d like to say this will become a regular habit again, but I make no promises. After fifty-three years on this earth, I’ve learned that simply making resolutions and thinking that’s enough to make them stick is only a recipe for failure. I have one goal as we round the corner into a new decade. Just keep working at being better.

One thing I appreciate about getting older is that I’ve relaxed a little bit. My perspectives toward others and toward myself have softened. We are all human, and humans fail. Repeatedly. Some worse than others. What I’ve come to realize is that not all behavior is a conscious choice, but often the result of circumstances and environment. I think we can all love each other a little better if we remember that. And so maybe we can love ourselves a little better as well. I’ve begun to understand at this point in life is that the only true failure is accepting the shortcomings. Without hope, without perseverance, life can get pretty miserable. In 2020, I will keep pushing forward, pick myself up when I fall, and take another step.

One thing that I will not have to work hard on is fitness goals. That’s because, over the past year, I’ve found something that works for me. I have never been an athlete, and for the first thirty or so years of my life was not particularly health-oriented. When I finally made some changes for the better, they were pretty limited. I just didn’t know how to make the right changes. Still, it all worked well for a while, until it didn’t. As I entered my fifties, my body began to rebel. At the same time, I was spending a lot of time caring for elderly parents and I was simply tired all of the time. When my gym buddy’s schedule no longer fit with mine, I chose to stay in bed more often than I chose to get up and go to the gym … where I was barely breaking a sweat anyway.

IMG_8975One day my daughter mentioned that she was curious about a particular at-home workout program. It sounded familiar, and I remembered a former coworker who was active and coaching in the same program. I contacted her, signed us up, and was invited to join an online accountability group … a tribe of wonderful people who encourage each other through the failures and successes on a daily basis. That tribe was the key. I learned to eat better (not that I always do!) And I started out slowly, streaming the at-home workouts and committing to move my body regularly with a four-day per week program. Instead of doing the same few stale exercises day after day, during which I never broke a sweat anyway, I learned a multitude of new moves. I discovered that I can and do sweat! I learned that I could get stronger. I woke up in the mornings excited to start my workouts and didn’t even have to leave the house to do it. My confidence grew and soared, and it felt SO good. Every time I finished a day’s workout, I gained momentum and motivation to come back for the next one. And just this week, I finished the eightieth and final day of one of the more intense programs. I worked out and worked hard six days a week. I’m seeing toning in my middle – a place I never thought would be toned again. I’m noticing muscles I didn’t know I had. My body feels better than it has in years, but more importantly, so does my mind.

The workout program I just finished is something I never before would have attempted. And without the support of my coach and other challengers, I likely would never have kept trying. I literally cried with happiness when I completed the last day. It makes me want to keep working, and I will. I want to be fit and healthy so that I can not only live longer but live better during the years I’m around.

The realization that I can tackle hard things makes me believe I can do other things I’d sort of given up as lost causes. Every year, as one year comes to a close and a new one looms ahead, there are things I think I should do better, or simply start doing. Spend more time with family and friends. Write. Volunteer. Go back to church. There are things I used to do routinely, with little thought. I just did them. Some of these things seem so simple, and yet now that I’ve let them go, I struggle to take the first step in getting back to them. Next thing I know, a whole year has gone by and I’ve failed to do most of them. The days and weeks pass in a blur. When I come home from work, I often give in to the belief that I’m too tired to do anything productive. I tell myself I deserve some down-time to relax at the end of a long day. And sometimes that’s true. But sometimes, it only compounds the belief that there’s nothing left in my tank. I think I could use a bit more balance. I know that often, when I have specific plans after work, or simply talk myself into doing something more productive than vegging on the couch, it’s easy and it feels good. I feel accomplished and less sluggish. I want to do more of that. The mind is such a powerful muscle. It can literally make you … or break you.

This coming year, I’m not holding myself to a checklist of things that ultimately adds up to a list of failures and successes. I’ll be kinder to myself. I’m not saying I won’t try at all, but instead, I’ll encourage myself – like my fitness accountability group does – through both the accomplishments and the pitfalls. I’ll talk to myself like I would if I were talking to my daughter or my best friend. One day at a time, I’ll just keep trying to be better.

Weekend to Weekend

2019.10.20_2bLast Saturday and Sunday were brilliant weather days, and left me with such an immense feeling of gratefulness and contentment. Clearly, this is my time of year! With Jack off on a hunting trip last weekend, I got the house cleaned and in order, and then spent Sunday afternoon fulfilling a promise to bake cookies with the little guys from next door. We had agreed on “after lunch,” so when my doorbell rang at 8:50 am Sunday morning,  I was taken by surprise. I pulled the door inward, only to find E standing on the front step beaming hopefully and asking if I was ready. I gently asked him to come back later, after I’d made a trip to the grocery store and when I’d be more prepared.

E and Little J later showed up at the agreed upon time with a friend in tow, the little guy from the other next door. Not long after, Big J and yet another neighbor boy came knocking at the door. Apparently Little J had told them I would only allow three boys to come bake with me, but Big J thought he and his friend would chance it and I welcomed them inside. I hadn’t planned on hosting a party, but they were all (mostly) so polite, and the house was filled with their laughter as they made jokes about pumpkins and underwear. As I watched them sneak candy sprinkles and dabs of frosting into their mouths, mix the frosting colors together, and generally make a big mess, I realized my patience has grown significantly since I was a young mother. We had a great time and everyone took home a plate of Halloween cookies.

After last weekend’s picturesque days, this past Monday arrived bringing with it an all-day rain and chill, along with a heavy dose of the Monday blues. The rain began to subside on Tuesday, but clouds and cold remained. By Wednesday, the sun returned and I took a break from work to go outside on my lunch break. A friend and I took two laps around the pond, kicking through a blanket of dry leaves and inhaling deeply the crisp scent of autumn. It’s the time of year that I always wish desperately would hold on just a bit longer. Driving home from the office on Thursday, I marveled at the explosion of color all around me. It wasn’t just the leaves on the trees. Even the air seemed tinged with a golden hue.

2019.10.25

View from my parking spot at work

It’s such a bittersweet time of year. The landscape will soon be gray and still, the temperatures encouraging a reluctance to leave the house. And like every year at this time, I’m contemplating ways to enjoy the outdoors so that winter doesn’t feel so depressing. I’ve been considering cross-country skiing, though I’ve never done it and have yet to get serious about finding some equipment.

The past week seemed sluggish after the previous week’s travels to Madison, and yet also felt a bit whirlwind-ish. While I returned to the routine of going to my own office, the workdays were hectic, in addition to the fact that Chesney’s life is changing course quickly. All I can do is sit back and watch. Her job interview went well. She was offered the position and she accepted. She moves out next weekend already, and starts the new job on the fourth of November. I can almost hear a clock ticking in the background during the hours we spend together. I’m so very happy for her, and yet still want to put the brakes on her time at home. She’s my dinner cooking partner almost every evening, and my go-to person for conversation of all sorts. We share the same weird sense of humor and taste for t.v. shows that offer an escape from the often dismal stream of world and local news. We encourage each other in our efforts to be healthy and share a mutual adoration of the family dog.

As news of her engagement, new job, and pending move spreads, she tells me that many people ask her how her mom is taking it. “Not great,” she tells them, and we laugh each time she conveys another of these exchanges. She’s kidding, sort of, when she’s says I’m not handling it well. I’m not desperate that she’s leaving and there’s never been any question in my mind that my kids would all someday leave the nest. Still, I’ve made no secret that I’m a bit saddened at the idea of not seeing her every single day, and I do love having her at home. But we both know that if she were to remain at home indefinitely, neither one of us would be completely happy about it. Her time has come to spread her wings. And it’s probably time for me to spread mine again as well.

This morning I awoke long before the sunrise. I tried to go back to sleep, but with Jack’s elbow in my back, and the rumble of his snoring filling the room, it was not to be. I start most mornings with a workout I choose from an at-home program I joined last March. It’s my habit to tackle it before I do anything else each day. So still yawning, I changed into my workout clothes, figuring I’d get it done in time to have coffee with Chesney a bit later on. I’m in the midst of an eighty-day program and just finished the first third of it yesterday. Today was supposed to be a rest day, but I felt the need to stretch out, and decided to try a yoga routine from the library of options. While the stillness of the night encompassed the rest of the house, I rolled out my yoga mat and pushed play on a beginner’s course.

Lucy tends to be an early riser too, especially if she hears me moving. I filled her dish with kibble, waited for her to finish, then let her outside and back in again before settling down on my yoga mat. As the recorded program walked me through some initial breathing exercises, Lucy sat square in front of me, trying to lick my face and making me laugh. I knew I wouldn’t master my breathing this way, but I couldn’t help reaching out to stroke her fur and give her a kiss. As long as I was sitting in the cross-legged position, Lucy continued to try to look into my eyes, and kept resting her paw on my knee. She finally gave up when I moved to get on all fours to do the cat and cow positions. She lifted herself up onto the couch then, settling into her morning nap on a blanket that had been left strewn there the night before.

As I finished my “practice,” the household began to come alive. I made some protein pancakes for Chesney and myself, the only ones who regularly eat breakfast. Jack got up and quickly left to go help a family member with a yard project. Chesney left for work, reveling in the fact that it’s the last Saturday she’ll have to spend at work from now on. Ryker, ever the night owl, remained sleeping in his room. (Nope, the nest still won’t be empty as long as he remains a full-time resident, though it will be much quieter. He’s rarely here except to sleep.)

For now, at least until mid-afternoon, the house is mine and the weekend is here. Two whole days to catch up, catch a breath, relax and take whatever these days may bring.

Season of Change

Fall has hit its prime around here. I can’t count the number of times I’ve paused this week to take note of the absolute stunning beauty of this time of year. While driving to and from Madison this week for work, I spent the nearly four-hour drive marveling at the expanse of trees lining the highway, the rural landscapes boasting a chorus of red, orange and gold. As much as I might complain about the Minnesota winters, this time of year makes me so appreciative to live where the world looks so spectacular at times.

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My backyard view

The past week has been hectic with me being away from home half the week. I’ve been in my “new” job just over a year now and have established a pattern of going to Madison about every other month for in-person meetings with my team. I’ve had my ups and downs during that time, thanks in large part to the fact that I completely underestimated the challenges of being the sole remote employee. I’ve realized that learning to understand and work with other personalities can be a hurdle when you’re not in the same physical space every day. And I’ve had to learn to speak up about my workload and ability to handle more. There was a brief period of time in which I was anxious, losing sleep, and questioning whether I belonged, but I’m happy to say that I’m in a pretty good place now.

Upon arriving home from Madison Wednesday evening, tired and ready to unwind, I came through the door to find that once again, my little buddies from next door, E and Little J had just arrived and were looking for me … and hoping for some dinner. Thankfully, Jack had found a rare inclination to do some cooking during the past few days and at that very moment there was homemade vegetable beef soup simmering on the stove. The aroma of it had my mouth watering, but I wasn’t so sure E and Little J would eat it. I told them they were welcome to have supper with us and cautioned them about what was in the soup. “I like vegetables,” E insisted. “Me too,” said Little J. I was wary, but invited them to have a seat.

Jack and Chesney had just started eating before I’d come home. E and Little J scrambled up onto two open stools at our kitchen island while I ladled the soup into bowls for them and myself. I found some crackers in the cupboard for the boys, sure that they’d need something solid once they realized they didn’t really like the soup. But I was impressed when each of them polished off their bowls and asked for more. When they’d had their fill, it was the crackers that hadn’t been finished.

2019.10.16 (2)After dinner, the boys found the markers and paper that I’d added to the stack of games and cards I’ve begun to keep on a shelf in the living room for the times when they stop by. They settled themselves back at the island and went to work on the big sheets of white construction paper, remnants from a long ago school project that Chesney found in the game cupboard. Whenever I ask the boys about school, they’re most enthusiastic about art class, and I’m beginning to see why. They both exhibit a real sense of creativity, and Little J especially has a serious knack for drawing. On Wednesday evening, he composed pictures of Jack, Chesney and me. I tried not to laugh when I saw the likeness of myself. I’d like to think I don’t look nearly as old as he depicted me, but regardless, I was impressed with the detail. While he was working on it, Little J had said he needed to put glasses on me. I mentioned that I only wear them for reading. The finished product showed me holding something in my hand. When I asked about it, he said, “It’s a book!”  The drawings took a place of honor on the refrigerator, and the boys beamed with pride.

The following night, the boys were back again and hungry when I returned home from a hair appointment. I wasn’t nearly as ready for them this time, so I stirred up some pancake batter and we ate them smothered in syrup with a side of apple slices. Little J liked my habit of smearing peanut butter on the pancakes first, and then drizzling them with syrup. He ate at least four pancakes, and after dinner, he wanted to draw again. This time he produced a rather disturbing character that looked like something out of an adult horror movie, complete with an ax in hand, dripping with blood. Still … his talents were evident. For obvious reasons, I chose not to display that one on the refrigerator.

While I realize that by letting the boys spend time with us, we’re filling some gaps in their lives, they probably don’t understand they are filling one in ours. They bring variety, laughter, and innocence to what can sometimes feel like a stale and aging routine. The older I get, the more I realize that one of my needs is to take care of others (even though I might complain about it in some aspects of my life.) That is the gap that the boys fill for me. And especially as I think about how quiet the house will become as Chesney makes plans to move out and begin her own life, I know that I’ll welcome the boys’ presence all the more. 

Speaking of Chesney, things are moving quickly. It’s only been two weeks since she got engaged, and already she’s had a phone interview for a job in Farm Boy’s town. She and I spent Friday evening shopping, in search of something new to wear for her in-person interview tomorrow. If she gets the job, she’ll be leaving home much, much sooner than I’d anticipated. While all of this is somewhat bittersweet for me, I’m so happy that her life is gaining traction and moving in the direction she wants it to go. These past few years have been very happy ones with her at home again. She’s my best friend and such a source of joy and laughter. But now it’s her time to forge a life of her own and this will bring a whole new variety of happiness, I know. It is definitely a season of change around here.

And all of a sudden…

As I write this, the sky is dumping fine grains of snow to the ground here in Minnesota. On October 12th. This is a bit too early for my liking and I’m holding out hope that this is a fluke thing and the real fall will return again before winter truly sets in. But considering this, it’s no wonder I often find myself marveling about how quickly time passes. Then again, I guess it all depends on where my mind is focused, because at other times, life feels like stream of dull routine that seems to bleed slowly from one day into the next.

Not long ago, feeling tired of viewing life as stale and rote, I jotted down some goals intended to keep me invested in things that would improve my mind, body, spirituality, and relationships. The neighborhood dinner we hosted a week and a half ago was the result of a goal to spend more time with people and doing things outside of my own household. (The dinner was a huge success, by the way. The lasagna was a hit. Little Man next door who seems to like nothing but Pop Tarts and soda ate two pieces and took leftovers home.) We took a vote to keep doing it. Next time I get to relax and just be a guest.

My other goals are aimed at trying to spend some time in the Bible at least a few days a week, working out at least five days a week, and writing one to three days a week. Three out of four ain’t bad, right?

Last weekend, daughter Chesney’s boyfriend of nearly four years, Farm Boy spent the weekend here with her. Saturday was another day in a long line of rainy, cold and/or generally miserable days. But when the sun rose on Sunday, the weather was exactly as the weatherman had promised … a picture-perfect fall day with a clear, blue sky. The sun’s golden rays beamed brilliantly down to the ground, and the trees rejoiced in their autumn colors. Chesney and Farm Boy suggested we all go to the apple orchard. This played nicely into my goal to get out of the house and do something interesting more often, so it was easy for me to agree. We decided to visit a quaint little family-owned orchard that we’d discovered and enjoyed last year. When we arrived, Jack steered the truck past the old farmhouse and down a muddy dirt driveway to a grassy and soggy “parking lot” in back. We then trekked our way back toward the house to the orchard festivities along with a throng of other fall revelers who had similar thoughts to enjoy the pleasant weather while it lasted.

There was a food stand, a band, areas for photo ops (of which we took advantage,) and there were chickens and goats in large pens. Visitors were allowed inside with the chickens and we laughed, watching young parents encourage reluctant toddlers to approach the curious chickens. Down a small hill, just beyond the animal pens and a make-shift store (a garage in reality) was a large pumpkin patch. We strolled down to the patch and perused the pumpkins, looking for the most likely candidates for carving. Upon making our selections, we decided to first pay for the pumpkins and take them back to the truck, before moving onto the apple picking.

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The orchard offered rows and rows of trees, bursting with ripe apples. Jack sent Chesney and Farm Boy toward the rows of Honey Crisp trees while he and I went a bit further to see what other varieties there were. We tasted a few and picked some before heading back in the direction of where we’d left the kids. Just as we walked past a particular row, I heard my daughter’s voice call out, “Mom!”

IMG_8685We turned and headed down the row toward her. Farm Boy was holding a nearly full bag of apples as Chesney said to us, “Guess what!” Before we could guess, she pulled her left hand up in front of her and it took only a split-second for us to notice that the sunshine was sparkling brilliantly off of her hand!

Knowing full well what I was looking at, I’m not exactly sure why I exclaimed, “What is that??? Is that an engagement ring?” My eyes brimmed with tears of joy as Chesney nodded, Farm Boy beamed, and Jack and I took turns hugging each of them.

While we spent a weekend at the cabin last July, Farm Boy had sought Jack’s permission to ask for Chesney’s hand in marriage. An old-fashioned boy he is! No wonder I love him so much! He had said he wanted to propose to her down on the dock with the lake in full view – one of her favorite places. It didn’t happen that weekend, or the next time we were all there together. For a while, we waited in anxious anticipation for him to pull the trigger, and then I guess we just stopped thinking about it so much.

I hadn’t thought about the pending proposal at all last weekend, and then all of a sudden there it was! My baby girl is going to get married! We couldn’t be happier! She and Farm Boy clearly adore each other and he is so good to her. I couldn’t ask for a better man for my girl.

And also … my baby girl is going to move out. I mean, not right now. But eventually. Not like I didn’t know this would happen at some point, but it’s been almost four years since she graduated college and moved home. She’s been here ever since. It’s been longer than I thought she might be here and I have loved every minute of it. Every day I thank God that we have such a close bond, that she enjoys hanging out with me, and that we just get each other. When she moved away to college it was hard for me. Really hard. But I got used to it. I guess I’ll just have to get used to it again.

However, I was not prepared for everything to start happening so quickly. First came the proposal. And it’s been no secret that Chesney and Farm Boy have been looking for a home to share … probably closer to his parents and the family farm where he’ll continue to lend a hand for the foreseeable future. That’s about an hour away. Still, the engagement just happened last weekend, and, in my mind, Chesney moving out again was still someday away. Until the middle of last week when she was offered a phone interview for a job with a company in the town where Farm Boy lives. Yes, I know it’s just a phone interview which may or may not transpire into a job offer. But still.

Chesney and I chatted one day this week about all of the looming plans and possibilities. She mentioned that Farm Boy had said he knew she was going to cry when she had to leave her mom and Lucy Pie. Just hearing her say that brought tears to my eyes and I told her I couldn’t talk about it anymore just then. Jeez, I love that kid! I always envisioned her living within fifteen minutes or so from me. I imagined calling her up on a Tuesday and saying, “Why don’t you come have dinner at home tonight.”

Well, you know what they say … Tell God your plans and watch him laugh. Yeah, I know. I’m getting way ahead of myself here, already living in some perceived future instead of just being in the moment. Besides, I’m well aware of my tendency to be a bit dramatic. An hour away is really just an hour away. Some people drive that distance to and from their jobs every day. Still, I told Chesney that when she and Farm Boy find a place of their own, they should be sure to have some space for me. Even a couch. I’ll be visiting frequently. Chesney said Farm Boy had already stated as much. Again … it’s no wonder I love him so much. He gets me too.

Jack, of course is taking it all in stride. And on the flip side of my tears, I thought about the fact that as much as Chesney is one of my most favorite people to be with, because she lives in my house and I love hanging out with her, I’m less likely to make social dates with friends. If she and I are engrossed in conversation as we often are, I don’t make time to write, and I don’t read as much as I might otherwise. I guess that in the years since she’s been back home, I constantly think that I should make the most of her presence before she’s no longer present in my life every single day. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. But as parents, it’s our job to push our kids out of the nest and watch them fly successfully into lives and worlds of their own. And maybe … just maybe in this perceived future I’ll enjoy a little bit of quiet and time to focus on my own stuff. And probably … our times together after Chesney moves out will be that much sweeter.

Just last night, Chesney said to me, “You know you’re going to have to hang out with Dad more when I move out.”

Yup. Probably not a bad thing either. Maybe he’ll take her place in the kitchen and begin to enjoy cooking dinner with me. One can dream, right? 😉

The Neighborhood Dinner

Our neighborhood has always been fairly close knit. It’s one of the many reasons we’ve stayed here since we moved in thirty years ago. It was a brand new development back then during that first year after we were married. After moving into our new and basic little home, we spent the first couple of years curiously watching other new homes go up around us and wondering who would soon move in. On many evenings when the weather was agreeable, we’d put the kids in a stroller or wagon and stroll the streets to gauge the progress of  new construction. Would we like our soon-to-be neighbors? Would they like us? Would they have kids the same ages as ours? As the years went on, we made new friends and our kids made new friends. I eventually recognized the unique bond that forms among those who live in close proximity to one another.  Community.

By now, some of the original residents have since moved away, and a fresh crop of young families have arrived to take their places. But like us, some are here for the long haul. Over the years, as we’ve matured and our financial situation has improved and stabilized, we’ve remodeled and improved that basic little house into something closer to the home we’d always envisioned for ourselves. We’re well on our way to becoming the old-timers of the neighborhood!

Our home sits on the outside edge of this four-block square development. Our yard is on the western end of our block, sandwiched between two other houses. As the back yard is against a busy thoroughfare, it was probably one of the less-desirable properties when this place was just an old farm field with a plan mapping out a number of lots. We were young, newly married, and it was what we could afford at the time. Early on we erected a privacy fence along the back to make it a bit quieter and we’ve done a lot of other work to make the yard cozy and uniquely ours. A swing set and play fort has come and gone. It now resides in one of the yards next to us where it continues to be frequently used. A chain link fence on either side of the backyard kept our kids safe when they were young and it continues to keep Lucy contained, but allows an open view and access to the neighbors on either side. Many days over the years have found us leaning against that fence as we chatted with those on the other side.

The front of our house looks into the rest of the neighborhood. Our east-west street eases into a north-south avenue, not a true intersection but merely a curving of one road into another. And it’s this specific location where a little community within a community has evolved. We’ve developed a tighter bond with the neighbors directly to our west, the two just across the street, and one right around the curve. We’re an eclectic bunch of personalities who likely would not have become friends were it not for the fact that our homes sit so near each other. But that’s the true beauty of friendship, I think; how we can appreciate others for our differences, how we can learn from one another and grow as a result.

During the summer months on an almost daily basis, as I’m pulling into the garage after work I can already see in one of the driveways a gathering of lawn chairs occupied by the residents of our corner of the neighborhood. One of the families is younger than most, and their seven year-old son might be tossing a football with friends in the front yard, or circling on their bikes out in the street. The adults sit and discuss what’s going on in life, neighborhood happenings, sports, and sometimes politics. There might be some gossip, and there is often a lot of joking (both of the appropriate type and the not-so-much.)  There is always much laughter, and there has been the occasional spat between certain members, but everyone always comes together again eventually.

Known simply as “happy hour,” this little party is almost always in progress before I get home and for some time afterwards. It’s a true happy hour in the sense that some members always have an adult beverage in hand. But others may not. It’s definitely not a requirement. Among the participants, one works part-time, two are done working by mid-afternoon, one works retail with days off during the week, two are out of work, and one is retired. I’m the only one who doesn’t get home until later in the afternoon … after 5:30. I stop by the gathering once in a while, but usually just wave and head straight into the house to make dinner. 

On one particular occasion, happy hour was happening in our driveway and so of course, I was in attendance. As it often occurs, someone asked, “Tee, why don’t you come to happy hour more often?”

I gave my usual explanation about wanting to make and eat dinner at a reasonable time. Since Jack is a regular attendee, and if I were to join him, it would be seven o’clock or later before we ever eat dinner. And that just doesn’t fit my life and other responsibilities very well.

LykkeIt was at that moment I had an idea. I had been reading a book at the time called The Little Book of Lykke: Secrets of the World’s Happiest PeopleThe book described what makes the Danish some of the happiest people in the world, and one of the reasons is their habit of creating a strong sense of community, not just at work, church, or school, but in a much larger sense. In some Danish neighborhoods residents not only share a cup of sugar or the occasional power tool with one another, but they go far beyond. They offer regular help to each others’ children with homework, provide childcare so young parents can have a night out, and most surprisingly, eat dinner together on a regular basis. The cooking and cleanup duties are scheduled so that once every so many weeks each resident takes a turn as part of a crew that does all of the meal planning, grocery shopping, cooking and clean-up. Everyone else gets to sit back, relax, and enjoy a meal among friends. As I sat at happy hour that evening, I proposed my idea.

I said that I didn’t see myself ever becoming a daily attendee at happy hour, but would continue to show up as often as time allowed. However, I reminded the others how summer has a habit of fading away and everyone inevitably retreats into their own homes for the winter. I suggested that it would be nice if we continued to connect all year long, and that we consider incorporating a once-monthly neighborhood dinner. (I admit, this was a bit selfish on my part. Since dinner is important to me, I wanted to incorporate the neighborhood gathering into my own schedule.) I briefly described what I’d been reading in the book, and the others were quickly enthusiastic about what I’d proposed. There was much discussion about whether each dinner should have a theme. Should it be pot-luck? What night of the month should it be held? Should we dress up? Come as you are? Paper plates or real dinnerware?

We ultimately decided that there didn’t have to be a definition to these dinners. We would simply take turns hosting. The host family gets to decide what and how it will be served. If they want to invite others to contribute, that’s fine. The most important thing is to make time for each other on a regular basis.

As I had proposed this idea, Jack and I were nominated to host the first neighborhood dinner. Scheduling the exact date proved challenging as we tried to work around work schedules, other social commitments, kids’ sports schedules and what-not. September was supposed to have the first gathering, but it got away from us. Still, we finally found a night that works for everyone and this Tuesday evening I’ll be welcoming the neighbors into our house for a lasagna dinner. I’m trying not to worry about the fact that our most recent home projects aren’t quite finished and the house isn’t perfect. But will it ever be? Probably not. Besides, I still have so much vacation time in my account at work that I decided to take some time off to prepare for our guests. The house will be clean and I’ll have plenty of time to cook. No sense stressing out any more than I have to over this thing, right? So what the heck. I made it a four-day weekend. Besides, when my life comes to a close am I going to wish that I’d spent more time working on the house than spending quality time with others? I certainly hope not.

“I’m here to be babysat.”

These are the words that have greeted me several times lately upon answering the front door. One of the neighbor kids, Little J has clearly decided he likes spending time at our house.

A little background… A few years ago, Little J’s family moved in next door. Theirs was a yours, mine and ours kind of family. But in the short time since they settled in the house, life changed and their family situation became challenging. To make a long story short, Dad has primary custody of eight year-old Little J and his two older brothers, E and Big J. The boys are often home alone. Dad works the afternoon shift and often doesn’t get home until late. The boys often have to take their meds on their own and tuck themselves into bed for the night.

In recent years, this neighborhood has seen a boom in young families again. Much like when my kids were growing up, the yards are often filled with bunches of kids playing whiffle ball or tag. Gangs of children are often racing their bikes around the neighborhood streets. Little J is usually in the mix. And he’s often in the middle of a stir. Either the other kids (or parents) eventually ask him to leave, or he removes himself from the situation. All too often we’ve seen him trudge home slowly across our front yard, his head hanging dejectedly.

Jack, who is usually out in the garage or yard working on one project or another during the warmer months, is often witness to the fracas. On such occasions, he started calling Little J over to ask him what went wrong. Inevitably, there’d be some talk about how Little J might handle himself differently in the future in order to get along with the other kids. But nothing much changes. Little J has more than your typical share of emotional and behavioral issues to work through. With the boys’ dad being gone at work so often during these times, Little J began relying on Jack to be his friend when the other kids no longer wanted him around.

One evening not long ago when I wasn’t home, Little J and E were on their own while Dad worked. They had been outside playing with the neighborhood kids when it began to rain. All of the other kids ran to their own homes, but as there was thunder and lightning in the dark sky, the two boys were afraid to go home to an empty house. Jack invited them in, and unbeknownst to me, later spoke to the boys’ dad to let him know we’d be happy to help out with the kids whenever help was needed. Dad seemed embarrassed and said the kids didn’t need a babysitter, but he was grateful to know they had someone with whom they could check in during times of need.

Little J had other ideas. The following day, I had no sooner arrived home from an exhausting day at work when my doorbell rang. I pulled the front door open and there stood Little J.

“Is Jack home?” he asked.

“Nope,” I replied. “He’s supposed to be, but I’m not sure where he is. Sometimes he works later than usual. He’ll probably be home soon.”

“Well,” Little J responded looking away, “I’m supposed to be babysat.”

I was tired and had planned on plopping down on the couch to read for a while before making dinner. I made a mental note to remind Jack that if he was going to offer to babysit the neighborhood kids, then it was his responsibility to be at home to do the job. But Little J is so stinkin’ cute, and in my heart I knew that the kid just needed some positive attention, so I said, “Come on in.”

He barreled through the front door, and kicked his shoes off while Lucy barked and circled him excitedly. He squeezed her face and rubbed the fur on her sides making her all the happier to see this new face in our house.

Little J followed me to the kitchen and he climbed up on a stool at the island, looking to me expectantly.

“Do you have some homework to do?” I asked.

“Nope.”

“You sure?”

“Yep.”

“Okay,” I said. “What should we do? Do you want to play a game?”

“Yeah, let’s play tag!” he shouted.

Feeling kind of old and wondering how that worked with just two people, I suggested, “I think we might need more people for that.”

“Okay, how about hide and seek? We can play it in your house!”

Considering that I might not want this kid roaming through our rooms, squeezing under beds or in closets, I laughed and suggested we go out to the back yard. I was sure we must have something in the shed that might be interesting to an eight year-old. We eventually settled on bean bags and spent some time tossing them back and forth, each trying our best to land the bags on the boards or better yet, drop them in the hole. Little J experimented with underarm tosses and pitcher-style throws. When it was my turn, he’d quietly chant, “Miss! Miss! Miss!” When I’d hit the board, he’d groan at his disadvantage, but when he gained ground, he’d brag and shout obnoxiously. I let him. I knew he needed to enjoy having the upper hand sometimes. When it grew too hot to keep playing, he asked if we could go inside and play video games.

“I don’t have any.” (It was a white lie. We do have a Wii and several games to use with it, but it’s not hooked up.) “But we can go see what other kinds of games I have.”

Back inside, I managed to locate the old dominoes game and we spread them all out on the kitchen island as I explained to Little J how to play. Surprisingly, this rough-and-tumble, unfocused little guy was extremely intrigued. I showed him how to count the dots on each domino in order to match it up to one that had already been laid. As we laid out chains of dominoes, he incorporated the idea that he was building a path towards me in order to blow up my “fort.” I figured I’d allow it since he was managing to keep his focus on the actual game at the same time. Not long afterwards, he looked out the front window, saw his brother, and decided it was time to leave.

A few days later upon arriving home from work, the doorbell rang again. There was Little J announcing once again that he was “here to be babysat.” When I again welcomed him inside, he asked me to hold on. He sprinted back to the end of the front walk and called out to his brother.

“E! Come on! We’re gonna get babysat!”

And so ten year-old E joined us. Big J was at his mom’s house for a few days and so at least I only had charge of the two boys. E, who hasn’t spent as much time around us as his younger brother was a bit reserved initially, but he soon grew comfortable. This time I told them that I had to make dinner and couldn’t play right away, so they’d have to entertain themselves for a while. But I was ready for them this time. I had picked up some crafts and coloring supplies at the dollar store. They were excited to color Halloween decorations while I cooked and they chatted with me about school, their favorite subjects, and a million other things. E told me he loves to cook and bake and he offered to help me. I told him we’d plan a day to bake cookies soon.

Daughter Chesney arrived home from work and began to help me in the kitchen. I invited the boys to stay for dinner. I was sure that they wouldn’t like the food I had made as it was geared more towards an adult palate. I suggested they run home and grab whatever dinner Dad had left in the refrigerator, but they insisted they wanted to eat what I was making, salmon and some wild rice soup. And they did. And they asked for seconds. I made sure they ate some fruit along with their meal and gave them each a glass of milk. I wondered how often they ate balanced meals at home if no one was there to supervise them. And so the small sense of resentment I may have felt about my unexpected babysitting duties was alleviated when I thought how much these little guys probably just needed someone to help steer them in the right direction.

After dinner, the boys ran home to feed their dog and grab a couple of board games. When they returned, we sat down on the living room floor to play Fortnite Monopoly (which, for the record is not like real Monopoly in the least!) The boys wanted Jack to play, but Jack, while happy to have the boys hang around and help him with his stuff, is not much for board games or playing in general. He suggested to E that they play vegetate instead. E looked at me and said, “I know how to play Monopoly but I don’t know how to play vegetate.”

I rolled my eyes at Jack and explained to E, “He’s teasing. Vegetate means to sit on the couch like a vegetable and do nothing. It means to be lazy.

My criticism didn’t deter Jack so Chesney, the boys and I played the game while Jack watched t.v. I told Jack he had to watch something that wasn’t inappropriate for young minds. So no Live P.D. or anything too dark or violent. The game was fun, even if Little J’s focus kept drifting to the television and I had to keep tapping him on the knee to remind him of his turn. The boys were enthusiastic, shouting “Oh yeah” each time a move worked out in their own favor. They seemed to like having Chesney around and grew comfortable teasing her and generally treating her like a big sister. Before long, it was getting close to their bedtime and Jack broke the news that it was time to go back home.

“Who’s going to walk us home?” Little J asked, not really looking worried, but merely expectant that one of us would chauffeur them back to their house. Jack said he would accompany them and make sure they got settled okay. They went out the front door into the darkness while shouting out their thanks to Chesney and me. As they made the short trek across our driveway and over to their yard, my heart broke a little bit thinking of all the nights they have to settle in all alone. I decided there would be no more resentment, not even a little. These boys need someone. When Jack came back, he described how they got their pajamas on in quick order, put in a movie, and settled into their beds without much direction from him. Clearly they’ve got this down.

There have been a few more visits from the two younger boys since that night. Dominoes has become the favorite game, and we’ve been known to play two or three games in a row without a trace of boredom in the little guys. We recently added Uno to the options and I’ve realized that the boys are surprisingly good at board and card games, especially considering the digital age we now live in, and how often Little J continues to ask if we can’t play video games. I told them I thought our house should just be the video-free zone, and they didn’t actually seem too upset by that. I’ve noticed that although Little J often has trouble getting along with other kids, he’s charming, polite, and perfectly well behaved when he’s with us. (Which is exactly what my mom used to tell me about my Ryker when he was young. Sometimes he just needed time alone with Nanna to prove what a great kid he was.)

LJandE

I find myself thinking about the little guys when they’re not here. When I’m planning my grocery list, I’m thinking about what I might pick up for the nights they might be with us. I’m enjoying the chance to sit in the evenings and play simple, old-fashioned games again. I love to listen to them talk and laugh. E was so excited to show me his folder from school this week. It contained a page showing all of the points he’d earned for good behavior in school that day. He was especially proud to point out all of the zeros in the points-lost column. I told him I was very impressed. He suggested we start tracking points for the times when they’re with us. Maybe we will.

The boys’ dad is a good man, and he’s doing everything he can to take care of his family. But he’s stretched thin on many counts. I like the idea that we can help out in some small way, and that we’re able to fulfill some of the boys’ needs when Dad can’t be around. And whether they know it or not, they’re filling in a hole in my life that I didn’t even know was there.

Boosted

I talked to my friend, Kim yesterday. She is an amazing friend and always such a source of encouragement!

I first (virtually) met Kim years ago when I began blogging. I’m not exactly sure how many years it’s been since we began to form the bonds of friendship, but I think it’s safe to say we’ve stayed connected for more than ten. We’ve met in person only once, and it continues to amaze me that our friendship has not only endured, but has grown as deep as it has . After all, when I first started doing this, I didn’t really consider that any connections I made online might actually turn out to be real. And while Kim and I have both continued to write throughout the years, she’s undoubtedly done it much better than I. While I’ve written hundreds upon hundreds of blog posts, I’ve shut down a few websites and started fresh on new pages several times over. There have been long gaps between my writings. It used to be I couldn’t imagine a day without writing. For the past few years, I’ve been lucky to write something once every few months. In stark contrast to my scattered patterns of writing, Kim has maintained the same blog where I first found her, and more importantly, if she wasn’t blogging, it’s because she was busy writing and publishing several books. (And she’s good!)

At some point in recent years, Kim texted me and asked me to download an app to my phone, one called Marco Polo. The app allows us to record and send video messages to one another. I felt awkward about it at first, but really grew to look forward to Kim’s messages and to sending my own in return. With such busy lives, Marco Polo allows us to actually talk to each other without both having to be present in the very same moment. But like my pattern of blogging, sometimes Kim and I will stay in touch regularly, and other times there will be long periods of silence. For most of this summer, we had been out of touch.

After my couple of days of deep thinking last week, I was alerted to a Marco Polo message from Kim. As soon as I had a chance, I watched and listened as she shared some good news about a new opportunity she’d just accepted, something she’ll be doing in addition to her full-time job, in addition to taking care of her family and parenting, and in addition to her writing. On Saturday morning, I had a chance to respond and tell her how impressed I was with her seemingly endless energy. I also wanted her to know that her timing couldn’t have been better, and told her how much she encourages me. I gave her the cliff notes on what I’d written about just that morning, about the funk I’d been feeling for much too long, and explained that I was finally feeling as if the clouds were beginning to part. I told her she was such a great example of embracing all the life that is right in front of her, and she just made me feel as if anything can be possible if you can keep steering your mind in the right direction, which admittedly, I haven’t done so well lately.

IMG_8580[975]What followed was a quick succession of messages back and forth, with a few tears on each side, and much laughter as well. In true Kim fashion, she was not about to let me slide backwards now that I’d expressed a desire to make some positive changes. She gave me some clear directions on what she thought I should do to keep moving forward, including the purchase of a BIG dry erase marker, specifically purple or pink, with which I would write daily or weekly goals on my bathroom mirror. And she instructed me to identify in those goals how many chapters of a book I would commit to writing and finishing during specific time periods, and the goal for completion of said book.

Kim has a lot of faith in me! And I am so very grateful for her!

But … I was soon recording my laughing response. I promised to make a list (although it will more likely reside in a notebook rather than on my bathroom mirror. However, I do think I can agree to making it purple or pink!) I also told her that I was thinking I should start with baby steps, rather than ginormous, Big Foot steps. I don’t – and may never – have any great ideas for a book. But writing does make me happy. It’s cathartic, and this blog is a good place to begin (or more accurately, resume.)

Ready to turn a page?

I was doing some deep thinking this week, stepping off the hamster wheel for a rare few moments. And I arrived at a conclusion. Not that this actually comes as a surprise to me, but this stage of mid-life? It ain’t easy.

Within the last several years, I’ve felt a dramatic downward shift inside, probably for reasons that I’ve written about in nearly every post on this site during this time. But it wasn’t until this past summer that I really realized I wasn’t just passing through some typical stage of life, but that I have probably been at least a bit depressed. And I realized this because summer came along and instead of invigorating me as it usually does, I still often felt as if I was trudging through the winter doldrums.

My job, after some honest conversations with my boss, has improved somewhat. But it is still a huge source of stress and something for which I am always fighting to get in control. Outside of work, my days are filled not only with actual to-do lists composed of various chores and unfinished projects, but also with mental lists of areas where I’m lacking, like connecting with extended family or friends that I haven’t seen in too long. Typical of what others tend to feel as the years march on, time seems to pass more quickly with each passing day. And I seem to have developed a habit of always telling myself that whatever I’ve accomplished, whatever I’ve experienced, it’s not enough.

I was wondering why I’ve continued to feel a mild sense of depression for such a long time. This summer, we finally had time to make a few weekend trips to the family cabin. I love it there, surrounded by nature and simplicity, but always felt like I had to catch up in some way upon our return home. Why this constant sense of never being on top of anything and never just being content? Have I allowed myself to get stuck in some stage of grief?  Do I just miss my life with young kids when the future seemed to stretch on endlessly? Am I now so focused on the idea that everything in this world is on a timeline to the degree that I can’t just enjoy any particular moment? Or is it just that I’m getting older and realizing that we don’t have infinite opportunities? That particular idea really hit home when my boss encouraged me to go back to school because the company would subsidize my tuition. I though about it for a split second before I wondered how I would fit this in when I already feel I never accomplish enough in a day and almost always feel mentally exhausted by the end of the workday. How would I even manage homework? Ultimately, I decided that I’m closer to retirement than I am to an entirely new career path. I want to have a life that I can live separately from my job. Besides, I’m satisfied enough doing what I’m doing, and don’t feel a strong desire to climb the ladder any higher than where I am now. But if I were a bit younger, maybe I’d feel differently.

All of these kinds of thoughts have been swirling around in my head for some time to varying degrees of consciousness, and without leading to anything definitive. I’ve just been making my way through each day as best as I can. But in the past few weeks, there have come a few specific ideas about what needs to change. I don’t want to keep riding along in this same rut. Maybe there’s finally a light at the end of the tunnel.