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You can know people and not know them.

At any given moment, things can turn a corner.

I know this is true.

Last week I had a birthday. Most birthdays are ho-hum affairs. A little extra attention from the family and a close friend but otherwise, meh.

This birthday came at me like a sudden summer cloudburst, raining down shock and awe in the form of a surprise birthday party.

On a weeknight. At a friend’s house. It was festive and fancy.

There was a Pinterest page devoted to the planning and execution of it.

Seriously, this is not the status quo for me. This, along with a few other surprise developments, are the exhibits to make the case that my life has changed dramatically in the last year. I’ve engaged with the real world one hundred fold in the last year. I’ve opened myself up to any possibility. I’ve allowed vulnerability into my life and acquiesed to offers outside my comfort zone. I’ve tried to put others before myself to be part of the “village” that we all like to talk about so much.

The results stun me at times. I’m still a fawn on wobbly legs most days, making the mistake of expecting from others what they cannot give. Some days I expect too much from the universe. On those days I see how my ego is still running the show.

The other side of this is that 100 percent engagement in real life means a major drawback in the online world. And it’s not just me. I scrolled through my blogroll (I know, that’s so 2005.) and many of my favorite, longtime blogging friends have vanished. They’ve moved on, vaporized, left behind polite but vague messages, given up, or reinvented their online persona.

While I doubt I’ll close this site, I’ve certainly scaled back. That’s fine with me. I never had the big numbers. I’ve made some amazing connections and that’s just bonus material. I need a place to write and this is it. If someone, or two, comes around and likes what they see, thank you. If not, I’m OK with that, too. I’ve learned that online engagement is an enhancement, a side dish, to the entrée of life.

And last week that entrée was a bizarre tribute to me and the community that holds me up. As bizarre as it is to even write that sentence, I accept it as the new normal.

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Just say it

There is nothing subtle about this. The cat knows we are leaving and he wants to come along.
Cats don’t mess around. Give them what they want and they are pleased. Mess up in the delivery of water and kibble or forget to scoop the litter box clean and you’re bound to step in a warm surprise on the staircase.

It’s the same with children. Slip some water wings on Girl from the East, let her splash in a hotel pool until her fingers and toes turn to prunes, feed her a plate of macaroni and cheese, let her have a sugary dessert and all is right in her world.

Children let us know what they want. They ask. We answer. Sometimes there are tantrums. Unpleasant as those outbursts are, we know how they feel and they know where we stand on an issue.

Then we grow up and become vague adults. We assume things. We talk in riddles. We hold grudges and pile on the baggage. We don’t say what we mean or ask for what we want. We allow ourselves to be manipulated or attempt and fail to micro-manage the lives of everyone around us.

Then, one morning, someone stands up and shouts: Enough!

The morning after that someone else wakes up alone, with no plans for the day and asks: Why? What did I do?

 

Wordless Wednesday
(on Tuesday): country road

Every so often I just need to escape.

Holiday tradition is nice as long as it doesn’t feel like a leash.

I’ve felt a tightness around the neck lately.

So, we’ve taken to the road with idea of visiting the shore, hiking through woods, and maybe we’ll even have tacos for Thanksgiving.

 

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C what I mean?

by stevendepolo via creative commons

This post is brought to you by the LETTER C as in codeine, which stops the hacking long enough for me to talk and to sleep a bit and which wraps my world in a warm, fuzzy of blanket of calm.
C also stands for Christmas, the day on which my robot battery pack failed. After nearly two weeks of scrambling to shop, clean, keep up with everyday stuff, shop, attend holiday concerts and events, wrap, stress, shop, cook and stress some more, I gave in on the 25th.
C also stands for clammy sweating and chills. I faked it through the 23rd and 24th. I went roller skating on aching legs and ignored the creeping malaise. I pushed one of those ridiculous wonky carts through IKEA, past all those inviting couches and beds, whose siren songs had an almost irresistible pull. I sang Christmas carols at a candle light service on the 24th in spite of a raw throat and watery eyes. I skipped sleep one night to scrub my guest bathroom clean.
On the 25th we hosted dinner. So I downed some NyQuil, used some nasal spray and throat spray, put on extra makeup and a big smile and carried on.

“Are you sick?” one of my relatives asked post-dinner, when we were sipping tea and munching on home-baked cookies.

“Me? Oh, no… allergies, I think.”

Denial. Why the denial? There’s a family history.

By the 26th I was flat on my back. No more faking or denying. I missed two holiday parties. I missed an opportunity to go ice skating and sledding and to get together with friends over coffee.

C also stands for common sense, which is in short supply around here. I finally realized that practicing medicine without a license never ends well.  So I went to my awesome doctor, the one who treated me two years ago after I mixed the NyQuil/Benadryl/nasal spray/throat spray denial cocktail — along with real cocktails and outdoor swimming — on a trip to Las Vegas. I didn’t come home with a hangover. I came home with pneumonia in my left lung. My doctor is a swell guy, and he spared me a lecture this time around because this time I came in before I started coughing up blood. He just gave me the much-needed pills and cough medicine. He also gave me a copy of my chest X-ray on CD.

The good new is that my X-ray is clear. No scary dark spots. Just a bacterial infection of the respiratory system. That does not begin with C.

Cheers.

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Wǔ jiǎo xīng

“Mom, we should get a tree topper for our Christmas tree.”

Girl from the East and I were in the car, on our way to Target for household items.

Rather than fire off all the reasons why we didn’t need one, I considered that we actually might need a new tree topper. The old Father Christmas model with the burned-out candle light and yellowed fur trim was purchased when Girl from the West was a baby, when her father and I were newlyweds, trying to assemble a set of decorations and decide on a theme. We never did. (He wanted a monochromatic, modern tree. I wanted traditional pieces.)

Each year, without thought or question, we mounted old Father Christmas on the tree, making passing jokes that he had  a stick up his butt. Aside from a few Baby’s First Christmas ornaments from the early 1990s, everything on our tree reflected my new life with my second husband. Everything but the worn-out, stick-up-the-butt Santa. Yep, it was time to get a new tree topper.

Inside Target, Girl from the East and I made a beeline for the holiday decoration department. Thankfully there were a number of toppers available. I let her choose. She grabbed a box containing a sparkly red five point star — or a wǔ jiǎo xīng as we like to call it around here. It seemed kind of big and unwieldy. We bought it anyway.

At home, we unwrapped the star and placed it atop the tree. You know what? I love it. I love that my five-year-old came up with the idea and made the selection. It’s not something I would have picked. This is a wonderful thing. She is her own person. She is leaving her mark all around our house and in our hearts in so many ways. This is the upside, the amazing benefit of having children.

Children open your eyes and your heart to endless possibilities.

This one, she said.

The amazing topper and transformation

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Empty chairs and envelopes

One of my favorite holiday rituals is dusting off Vince Guaraldi’s “A Charlie Brown Christmas” CD and putting it in the musical rotation. Guaraldi’s nimble hands dance on the keyboard in “Linus and Lucy” and before long I’m toe-tapping, shoulder-shrugging and head-bobbing my way around the hardwoods.

The classic recording serves up a combo platter of emotions: generous portions of cool jazz, sprinkles of childhood joy, all swimming in a thick soup of  nostalgia.  I’m reminded of what the holidays are really about. I’m reminded of what I like about the season and what breaks my heart.

What kills me are the empty chairs. Consider my holiday ruminations: It is often lonely to be married to an only child of divorced parents who live far away. It is also lonely to be the daughter of one living parent and the sister of an unmarried, childless sibling who almost never comes home for the holidays. It’s a little heartbreaking to be the parent of one child whom I must relinquish each Thanksgiving as dictated by custody agreement. It’s frustrating to be the parent of another child who cannot understand what a custody agreement is and why she can’t see her sister. This past weekend had mental moments reminiscent of Ebenezer Scrooge slurping cold gruel in his drafty apartment.  I longed for a brightly lit room filled with laughing children. I longed for the Ghost of Christmas Present.

In the midst of this contradictory state of dancing and moping, two envelopes — not two ghosts — came into my life.

The first, a white business-sized envelope slipped to me at a holiday party,  contained a set of reprinted photographs from Independence Day weekend and other events from the mid-1970s. Back then, my brother and I were scrappy kids with bony knees and gapped teeth. My parents were a young couple, both smooth-faced and seemingly joyful. My dad had a mostly full head of auburn hair and huge sideburns. My mother’s long locks reached halfway down her back.

The pictures stirred long-buried memories and a deeper understanding of the swift passage of time and its sweeping changes. I admitted out loud that I missed my father, or at least the concept of having one around. He was both the party giver and the life of the party. He had a way of gathering a crowd while he spun one of his hyperbolic tales of work and life. He loved Christmas, singing Christmas carols off-key, getting into character, and lots and lots of crazy dancing. Christmases have never been the same since he died.

The second envelope arrived in the mail, a card of thanks and encouragement from an unexpected source.

I’ve learned a lot from this person in the last two years, made a lot of mistakes and probably went over the top in an effort to prove myself. I never knew if any of it registered. I figured my journey is mine alone and it’s not about the accolades. So, to get  a pat on the back like that out of the blue? Well, it was better than a double serving of pumpkin pie with whipped cream. Way better than cold gruel.

Dance like the Peanuts gang, my friends. Dance every day.

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Post Father's Day post

Photo from MZ archives

Yesterday was Father’s Day. It’s an easy day for us as there is only one father on which to heap all the attention. (Father-in-law lives out of town; father is deceased.) My husband is a lucky man, getting yesterday all to himself. Mother’s Day is tougher, what with all those mothers elbowing for the spotlight. I need to claim a super-secret Mother’s Day all to myself.

In honor of my late father, I composed the following list:

Things I learned from my father:

  • Know how to read a map.
  • Plan your route before you leave.
  • Have a back-up plan.
  • Deviate from the main road and enjoy.
  • Develop an intimate relationship with nature and respect its rules. (Dad regularly took us on vacation to a private cabin in northern Michigan where we lived a week or longer without electricity, running water or heating/cooling.)
  • Don’t be over-reliant on technology or modern conveniences. (See above. My father was a major technophobe. I don’t know how he would regard today’s 24/7 connectivity. He didn’t much like it when cordless phones came around.)
  • You can’t have too many good books or good records.
  • Don’t underestimate the healing power of a Sunday drive to somewhere interesting.
  • Fill idle hands with books, brooms, rakes, paint scrapers and brushes. My father had an amazing work ethic. The only time he rested was either to admire his work or to assess the damages. (He was suspicious of idle TV viewing, sunbathing and other mindless pursuits.)

Things I learned indirectly through my father:

  • Humor is an essential ingredient in almost every situation, but particularly in those that challenge your patience and sanity.
  • Humor has both healing and hurting power. Use with care.
  • Never part ways in anger.

Things I wish I’d taken the time to learn from my father:

  • Our family history
  • How to plant and maintain a perennial garden
  • How to grow organic fruits and vegetables
  • How to read the stars
  • Don’t believe everything your parents tell you.
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Summertime and the livin' is queasy

Warning: This post is not funny.

If you want funny, watch Bossy’s latest theatrical production.

This post borders on whiney. If you want something moving and sad and funny all at the same time, read this (maybe) swan song post by Bejewell.

If you must wallow in misery, well, come on in then.

So how was your Memorial Day weekend — the unofficial starting gun of summer?

While most people celebrated by hosting or attending barbecues, going to outdoor festivals or heading away to a lakefront cottage or a camping spot in the woods, we stayed home.

I could say it’s because we have so much yard work to do, it takes an entire holiday weekend and then some to get it going for the season. That would be true.  But it wouldn’t be the whole truth.

I could talk about how Girl from the East and I made a commitment  to march in our city’s Memorial Day parade, but that wouldn’t paint the whole picture, either.  I could go on about how Girl from the West spent the majority of the weekend sequestered in the basement office finishing her semester-long project, how this could not have been accomplished in a deep-woods cabin without electricity.

The missing pieces, the untold chapter in part is realizing it may be another season of restraint. See,  we are not out of the woods yet. We are not out of the hole, not by a long shot. School is over today for one child and soon will be for the other. Volunteer commitments are grinding to a slow churn for the season. Summer programs, sports and activities are not in the budget at all.

We had a big road trip planned but that is now on hold.

Things were supposed to be better this year. In small ways, they are. In bigger ways that involve dreams and fantasies and wish lists, it’s very much like last year.  We’ve had a good run of it these last few months, almost enough to pretend like everything is OK. But underneath the denial is the truth: Eighteen months ago the bottom dropped out and we free fell to the basement. We survived the fall with deep cuts. We’ve gotten this far because we say to ourselves: This is temporary; this is not our lives.

I watched the “Hoarders” marathon on A&E yesterday afternoon because a band of storms blew through the area and ended my weekend of yard work. The takeaway: after while these people get so used to their reality  they no longer realize it’s offensive to outsiders. Their extreme dysfunction becomes normal.

Now I’m not saying my life is any of those things, but it made me think: You get used to something and  before you know it IT IS YOUR LIFE. You realize you are responsible for some of the mess you are in. Maybe you are responsible for the whole damned mess. Maybe you didn’t manage your money wisely. Maybe you took some miscalculated risks with your career. And then you say: Is this the life I want? If not, can I make it OK for me? Are there aspects to this that I can view in a positive way?

I realize everyone has something big that knocks them down and from this they must learn to stand again. For some it’s the dissolution of a marriage, a devastating illness, or an early unexpected death of a loved one. For others, like us, it’s job loss and a long road to financial recovery.

I’m trying to remain positive that Girl from the West will find a part-time job to pay for some of the things she wants and to save for a car. I’m trying to remain strong that I can get through another year before Girl from the East is in school full-time and I can seek something realistic in the employment front that doesn’t require 40 hours of daycare. I’m holding out hope that the economy  will lighten up here so we both can be fully employed and rise up a few more rungs toward the light.

Sorry, were you expecting something about a cookout?


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A small confession

Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

I almost forgot.

I’m a Mick by birth. I hope this doesn’t earn a black mark on my permanent record.

I remembered after I’d dressed this morning — in khaki and a multi-colored top that had only one trace of green in it — that I needed to wear green today.  I rooted through my jewelry box until I found a rarely worn necklace with green beads. I added that and a green tank top to my ensemble and declared myself celebratory.

Irish is big around here. It’s big in a way that encourages drinking, spending money and acting crazy. We have a few annual parades organized by Irish cultural groups, but that is the extent of ethnic recognition.

As I ran my errands this morning,  I noted  the number of green-clad revelers wobbling along the pavement as they hopped from pub to pub. (I hope they gave their young livers notice that they would be working double-time today.)

As the descendant of Irish immigrant dairy farmers who settled  on the flatlands along the Detroit River, I grew up proud of my roots. My father made a big deal out of March 17. If we didn’t make it to the annual parade, we at least had corned beef and cabbage for dinner. My mother baked several loaves of soda bread. We all wore green. My dad would drink too much beer and sing “Danny Boy.”

When I studied American history in college, I was shocked, devastated really, to learn that the Irish were not embraced upon their arrival in the United States. They were despised and treated poorly. It dulled some of the shine on my Irish pride.  Since those days, aside from giving my oldest daughter an incredibly Irish name, I’ve not done much to embrace my Irish.

In fact, in the last decade, I’ve almost ignored the day altogether.

I confess: I don’t like corned beef and cabbage.

I don’t like Guinness.

I’m not a fan of “Riverdance.”

I don’t know all the words to “Danny Boy.”

I don’t even like shamrock shakes.

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Valentines I've known

Photo by MZ

Last night we dumped out the contents of a pale pink paper bag that came home from school with our girl from the East. Onto the rug spilled squares and rectangles and heart-shaped greetings. Some were store-bought. Some were home-made. Mixed in were heart-shaped lollipops, foil wrapped chocolates and one homemade heart-shaped sugar cookie coated in pink icing.

This is the idealist’s Valentine’s Day: a magical day that stands along Halloween, Christmas and birthdays, when treats are handed out in equal measure and intentions are sincere.

The reality of Valentine’s Day emerges with a crush or first love. The day becomes an exclusive event between two, no longer shared with the masses.

Depending on the state of your love life, February 14 can swing between elation and misery. Break-ups, unrequited love, divorces and dry spells deliver bouquets of crushing loneliness tightly wrapped in agony.

I’m firmly planted in the middle this year. A decade into a marriage, the crazy overkill of new romance is behind us. Yet over dinner last night (and a bottle of wine) our eyes locked and we shared a moment of joy realizing that we are still together and going strong. We don’t need cards or candies to confirm that. Still, cards and candies are always nice.

It hasn’t always been so good. Here’s my list of good, bad and ugly valentines.

The good: My first serious boyfriend, who gave me my first real bouquet of red roses and a big heart-shaped box of chocolates.  Together we gave our parents serious stress. We stayed together a little more than 3 years, split amicably and still talk occasionally.

My  husband — who still gives me “that look” even after all these years.

The bad: Opening an excessively romantic card bleeding with explicit intentions, from which spilled a stack of cheesy candid self-portraits, from my long-distance boyfriend, whom I had broken up with days earlier by phone and called off our Valentine’s Day romantic weekend/reunion. I’d called without knowing of this package working its way through the U.S. mail system.  He’d sent it my way, unaware of my intentions to break it off for good. Awkward. Painful. Embarrassing.  It was the right thing to do, but I felt like such a jerk for hurting him when he obviously didn’t see it coming.

The ugly: Having the dubious distinction of being  the only woman in the office one year who didn’t receive some token of affection to display on her desk.

Dating someone who didn’t believe in observing Valentine’s day or any other so-called “Hallmark holiday.” Likewise, being in a relationship with someone who tosses a gift at you that is so obviously an afterthought that it’s offensive, such as a pair of garish earrings still in the bag with the receipt, showing the cheapness of the gift as well as the fact it was purchased within the last 30 minutes.

I’m glad my Girl from the East can enjoy this day as something pure and sweet, like the sugar cookie she devoured immediately after opening the pink bag. I’m relieved my Girl from the West hasn’t had her heart broken yet, but I hope that when and if it happens, she’ll feel comfortable enough to come to me.  Finally, I’m grateful that my relationship stands on solid ground and that I’m past the days of bad and ugly valentines.

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