October 2013 archive

The Dinner Bell

It was our first date.  Actually he says it was a date, I say I was going to a Pistons game with a friend.  We had court side seats through a work connection, but our conversation and his jokes were the thing keeping my attention.  On the way home, we got lost in a town we were both new to and drove an hour out of our way before finally ending up at an Irish pub.

For the last decade and a half I’ve stood firm that this evening was not a date.  However, when we found ourselves back in the Detroit area for the first time in several years last winter, I insisted that we take our kids to that Irish pub so they could see it.  He grumbled about the time, I persisted and as we pulled up, the familiar banter started,

“That was totally a date by the way”

“No, it was not – we were just friends”

Then he calmly smirked and offered a statement that forever claims his victory in this debate, “well considering that we’re dragging our three kids into this pub, I’d say it was a date.”  He threw the mini-van gear shift into park, did a little finger tap on the stirring wheel and then went in for my surrender, “don’t you think?”

During that first date (or not-a-date), at the Irish pub we talked about many things including what we called life moments.  Sitting on a wooden bench with a band playing U2 cover songs, a fire going and a cider beer in front of me I pontificated about the significance of life moments.  He nodded in agreement and described a time when he camped out in Arches National Park with his college roommates.  I told him about how I had a conversation with my father in Ohio from a pay phone on a ferryboat while I was making an overnight crossing of the English Channel, and how the idea of that still blew me away if I really thought about it.

Our conversation quickened as we excitedly shared grand, adventurous moments.  Times Square on New Years Eve!  Touching a bullet hole in the side of a building in the old East Berlin!  Taking a mystery flight with college friends and ending up in San Francisco!  Getting a massage in Budapest!  We went on and on, subconsciously one-upping each other by following the previous story with a bigger, better, more elaborate one.

There we were.  Two twenty-two year old kids nodding and laughing and enthusiastically agreeing that we knew all about life moments.  We thought we knew it all.  But what we didn’t know was that right then and there, sitting in an Irish pub after getting lost on roads that are sometimes called 15-mile and sometimes called Maple, we were in the middle of a very big life moment.  In fact, that moment would become the first of our shared life moments.

There have been many more big moments in our life together since.  There are the grand ones that involve international destinations, or major cultural events.  We spent Independence Days on the National Mall and the Millennium too.  We’ve traveled a fair amount and have seen rainbows over the Cliffs of Moher, bald eagles from a kayak in the Puget Sound and sunsets in Mallory Square.  We’ve attended presidential inaugurations and witnessed American history in both its most proud and most disgraced moments.  We happened to be sitting in the House chamber viewing area during the impeachment vote of President Clinton.  And we cheered with thousands of other Chicagoans in Grant Park when history was made and then saw the newly elected Barack Obama give his acceptance speech.

And then there are the major and magical more personal life moments like our wedding, the birth of our children, a champagne toast over pizza on the floor of our first house, renovating another house and the achievement of other professional, athletic or personal goals.

But there have also been many heartbreaking life moments.  The death of aging loved ones.  Trying to find each other when we lived in Arlington, Virginia on 9/11.  Challenges within our families, relocations to new towns and new parts of the country and medical emergencies.  And then there is the biggest one of them all, the death of our second child who was unexpectedly born still.

Gosh, there are so many big ups, and so many big downs, in a lifetime.  They say its a roller coaster and isn’t that the truth?  I suppose the key to surviving it all is to hold on tight during the dips, and to throw your hands into the air, surrendering yourself to the sheer delight of the peaks.  And we have to know that these two extremes are not mutually exclusive.  While there is value in both and lessons in each, one would not exist without the other.

But really, its more than just the old adage, enjoying the ride, isn’t it?  Its about where you focus and how you define those dips and those peaks.  What are your life moments?

Perhaps traveling to a secluded beach in an exotic location, or maybe the achievement of climbing to the top of a mountain.  But it might also be something entirely different and entirely more subtle.

Tonight during a typical Wednesday night meal of meatloaf in the suburbs of Chicago, I looked around my dinner table.  In a dark bay window a small stained-glass angel served as a quiet reminder of who was missing, while the colorful art projects and paintings hanging from the chandelier above proclaimed the presence of who was there.

Around the table I saw two little girls with hair still wet from swim lessons, one complaining about eating her asparagus and the other being sent to a Time Out for pushing her plate away.  I observed a nine-year-old boy hanging out somewhere between his childhood and his tween years chatting about the school play he was in earlier that day and the costume he would wear for Halloween the following day.  A middle-aged man smiled at the conversation, but his heavy eyes revealed the burden of a difficult day and difficult decisions at work.  I myself felt tired and worn down as I reminded the kids that they still needed to practice piano, finish homework and clean their plates if they wanted to ring the dinner bell.

The dinner bell is just a silly little decoration that I picked up on sale at a big box store.  In theory I would have found the bell at an antique market, or had it handed down to us through the generations.  But in reality for just $7.99, we have a dinner bell.

The kids were so excited about it but arguing over who got to ring it.  I told them that whoever makes the dinner gets to ring the bell.  But I also established that each one of them is entitled to a small ring, when they finish their dinner.

Tonight as they each finished their meal and eagerly reached to ring the bell, I thought about how we’ve created a family tradition without even realizing it.  Someday the kids will think about the the dinner bell, and the rules for ringing it, as a part of their childhood memories.

I sat back and smiled and indulged in a deep breath.  And right there, right as it was happening, I recognized it.

Its not always an exotic adventure in a far off land, or a majestic landscape.  Piano lessons, swim team, school plays.  Costumes.  The dinner bell.  All of this.  This is the high.  This is my peak.  This is my family.  This is the wonderful.  This is one of the life moments….our shared life moments.  So I’m throwing my hands in the air and enjoying the sheer delight of the ride.

First Snow

Today was an ordinary day turned extraordinary thanks to a gift bestowed to us in the most unexpected of ways, and at the most unexpected of times.  While its arrival time varies, this gift is consistent in that it appears every year.  It comes without warning but with fanfare, because it always seems significant in a small way.   

Its hard to say what’s so special about this day.  Perhaps because it always feels like a surprise and a gentle reminder that we’re really not in charge after all.  Perhaps because for a moment it makes us stop and take stock of the events that have unfolded over the last year.  Perhaps because the event can mute the rest of the world briefly.  Or perhaps because it has a remarkable way of suspending time, yet paradoxically denotes a shift in seasons and announces change in the air.  

Likely we treasure days like today so much because sadly, we are all aware of other days that have started out as normal, then news breaks that is not only disruptive, but devastating and turns the day into something entirely different.  

Yes, days like today are the good ones.  A universal treat arrives that moves people of all ages.  This is the gift of the season’s first snow.

The first snow of the season can elicit excitement in many different ways.  When I was in college the evening of the first snow was welcomed every year by men in the freshman dormitories answering tradition’s call and streaking across the quad lawn.  As soon as someone spotted the first snowflake, giggles would erupt and move across the hallways and cafeteria with a wave of anticipation.  We would whisper, “tonight’s the night”.  

But as we laughed I always spotted at least one guy sitting quietly with a nervous look on his face.  I would pause for a brief moment and wonder if this boy had any idea of the school tradition, and his future obligation, attached to the residence hall listed on his freshman housing assignment.  I could just imagine him sitting in his parents’ backyard on a warm summer day holding the envelope in his hand.  He would be blissfully unaware that in just three to four months he would have made the transition from home to college, started classes and made friends.  Yet just as he was finding his undergraduate footing, he’d be propelled into a campus-wide dare and spectacle to disrobe and make a mad dash in the frigid night air, all in celebration of the season’s first snow….and all because he happened to live in a certain dormitory.  One look at his face, and I knew he was far less excited than the rest of us about the first snow.

Now that I’m a mother of three young children living in Chicago (without an attached garage!), my excitement about the first snow has significantly waned.  In fact, my feelings about the first snow are likely closer to the dread of that college boy living in the famous dormitory than to the giggling girl I was full of anticipation and excitement over the evening’s events.  These days the first cold snap of the season doesn’t mean much more to me than a scramble to dig out winter coats and hats from bins in our crawl space storage to determine what fits which child.

So today when I spied the first flake of snow I wasn’t excited, or titillated.  I was downright grouchy.  After all, the calendar told me that we were just officially into the second half of October and thoughts of Halloween costumes were swirling around in my sinus congested head.  I was sitting in a parked car, on a conference call and trying to hush the three-year-old in the backseat when I looked up and spotted the first damp drop of white on my windshield.  At that particular moment, the arrival of snow was decidedly less magic and decidedly more nuisance.

As my conference call came to an end I drove in the falling flakes to pick up my nine-year-old son and five-year-old daughter at school.  I couldn’t believe it was snowing so early in the season.  I kept saying it out loud partially to my three-year-old and partially in disbelief to myself, “snow!  Can you believe it?  Already!”  The trees were still painted with the spectacular splendor of fall and were still clinging to the leaves to fill out their canopy, at least for another few days.

The snow lessened and turned into a cold rain.  I sighed as I saw my children walking across the school yard and realized that they did not have the appropriate attire for rain or snow.  No hat, no umbrellas, certainly no boots.  As they plopped down in the car with their damp hair, I braced myself for complaints and misery.  Instead, my daughter’s bright blue eyes were wide and contagious with excitement as she proclaimed, “today it snowed!!”

I looked over at my son and said, “did you see the snow today?” and he answered, “well, sadly we didn’t see it, but we heard about it.”

I asked what he meant and he explained.  Today his class was on a field trip with hundreds of other grade schoolers watching a play based on a book in a large, ornate, old theatre.  When the show ended and the red velvet curtain closed, an announcer came out and told the students, “just so you know, its snowing outside…..right now.  Today is the first snow!”

I couldn’t help but smile and asked my son what everyone did when the speaker gave the announcement.  He completed the image in my head, explaining that all of the kids cheered and started dancing and singing “Jingle Bells”!  

With that my children and I laughed about singing “Jingle Bells” in October.  My daughter asked about how we would build a snowman when he hadn’t even jumped in leaves yet!  The kids made up stories about a leaf snowman and created silly songs combining Halloween jingles and Christmas carols. 

In that moment, to me the first snow stopped meaning wet shoes, messy floors and runny noses and instead I allowed myself to see it through my children’s eyes.  To the kids the first snow meant surprise, smiles, imagination and bright eyed wonder.

Wonder with innocence and without expectation.  Wonder at the unfamiliar and inexplicable.  And wonder at nature’s glory.

Today I was reminded that the first snow is the promise of a season, an affirmation of the beauty in what lies before us, and the joy for what is still to come.  

Thank you for today’s gift.

A Liebster Award

I was delighted when a friend that I admire reached out to tell me that she was nominating this blog for a Liebster Award, which apparently is like a Grammy for Bloggers.   (Finally!  I have an excuse for all of the times I’ve stood in the bathroom mirror practicing my acceptance speech and holding a hairbrush as a mock trophy).  In all seriousness, a Liebster Award is a nice way to discover new blogs and writers.

The friend and blogger is Emily who blogs at Em-i-lis.   She is a funny and witty mom with a big smile and spitfire spirit.  She describes herself as a servantless, stay-at-home, and cooking obsessed mom.  Emily and I met this summer at the BlogHer Pathfinders day and I felt like I had known her for years.  Check out her blog and you’ll feel that way too.

Nomination Questions Posed

Below are the questions that Emily posed to me for the nomination and my responses:

What is your favorite nickname, bestowed by another or self-inflicted?

Kiki. My brother called me Kiki when he was little and couldn’t say Carissa. Its become a term of endearment from him, my husband and many others throughout the years. It was a lot of fun in college!

With whom would you most like to have dinner (that you’ve not yet)?

My 7-year-old daughter, Annabelle.  I’d welcome the chance to share a meal with her and remind her to finish her vegetables while she rolls her eyes, picks on her siblings and listen to her explain the best part of her day.  She died unexpectedly when at 38.5 weeks into my pregnancy, I had a placental hemorrhage for no explainable reason so I can only imagine the sound of her voice or favorite foods.  

Our dinner table always feels like someone in missing.  Always.  In fact, if the day ever comes when I sit down for a meal and it feels like my family is complete and entirely present, then I’ll know that I have arrived in Heaven.

Why do you blog?

I was a Facebook enthusiast and used the social site as a way to stay connected with long distance friends and family.  Everyone told me I should blog, but I didn’t even understand what a blog was.  After enough encouragement from others I thought I’d give it a try.  However, I kept the blog a secret for years until The Huffington Post published a piece I wrote last winter.  Since then its been a great tool to connect with people all over the world and make friends near and far.

Mostly, I enjoy the blog as a way to keep myself diligent with my writing and to capture memories in the making and work through my thoughts.

What’s your favorite way to spend an afternoon?

I think my ideal afternoon would be spent surrounded by the people I love the most, outside near a large body of water with beautiful fall colors as a backdrop and the temperature being just warm enough to feel the sunshine on my face, but cool enough to be in a cozy fleece and sneakers.

What have you learned about yourself and/or your interests via blogging/writing?

Blog posts, Facebook updates, Instagram photos and Twitter tweets have made me more mindful of the everyday beauty in life.

Let’s break for an easy one: Sweet or salty?

Both – at once.

Off the top of your mind, what are your favorite three books that aren’t your own (for you pubbed authors)?

The Giving Tree – Shel Silverstein
Cutting For Stone – Abraham Verghese
The Red Tent – Anita Diamant

But most recently, I really loved:  
The Fault in Our Stars – John Green
(so it might possibly knock one of the others out of the Top Three)

What’s some of the best advice you’ve ever received?

Stop complaining and make a change.  That was from my mom during my sophomore year of college and propelled me to make one of the best decisions of my life and study abroad in Luxembourg.

If you love to cook, what’s your favorite utensil? If you hate to cook, what’s your favorite dish prepared by others?

I absolutely do not love to cook, but I do love the tradition and simplicity of a good old fashioned wooden spoon (but Emily, I love that you asked this question!)

What’s one of your favorite destinations (you could have gone once or many times)?


My Nominees and Questions

In the good old Girl Scout spirit of making new friends, but keeping the old with some being silver and some being gold, I’m nominating women bloggers that I’ve known a short time, and women bloggers I’ve known a long time.  Some I connected with via my pieces on The Huffington Post, some I connected with via friends of friends, and some I connected with back in college.  But all have content that I enjoy reading and I hope you do too.

Elayna at 5280mama.com in Denver and Meg of Mom Meet Mom. Both are doing something pretty great in connecting moms to each other.

  • What inspired you to help woman connect to one another at this stage of life?
  • How about a round of Rose and Thorn?  What was the best part of your past week, and what was the worst?
  • How is how you grew up similar to how your kids are growing up, and how is it different?
  • What is the one book you want your child to read when they are older?
  • What do you collect?
  • If you could take a cross country road trip, who would you invite to join you and why?
  • What is your guilty pleasure?

Also Mary Clare at Westward Ho who is chronicling her journey from the Midwest to the West Coast and Alexis at The Page of Aquarius who is a wise soul with important thoughts to share.

  • What inspired you to start blogging?
  • How about a round of Rose and Thorn?  What was the best part of your past week, and what was the worst?
  • How is the way you grew up playing a role in your current adventures?
  • What was the last book that you read?
  • What do you collect?
  • If you could take a cross country road trip, who would you invite to join you and why?
  • What is your guilty pleasure?

The Friend That Every New Mom Needs

My That’s Ok Friend

I believe in friendships that last a lifetime, and not because you stay connected on a weekly basis via phone, coffee date, email or even facebook.  But I believe in friendships that last a lifetime because for as long as a lifetime lasts, there is someone out there who values the characteristics that are unique to you (good and not-so-good) and feels the same level of appreciation and respect for you that you feel for them.  

A true friend doesn’t come with obligation or guilt to remember birthdays or reciprocate social invitations.  A true friend comes with the security and power of knowing that they love you always, celebrate your successes no matter what, and feel your heartbreaks deeply.  

I have one of these true friends and she is about to move hundreds of miles away.  She explains it well when she says that a friend doesn’t just know you, a friend gets you and loves you anyway.

This particular friend is my “That’s Ok Friend” because she’s cool with everything.  If our opinions differ, that’s ok.  If I don’t call her back, that’s ok.  I met her when our children were very young and at a time when I needed permission for everything to be ok.  New to my role as a mother, yet still without a revised self-identity I was in a foreign world, wading my way through motherhood and life in the suburbs.  It’s a stage in life that can be full of self-doubt, loneliness and opinions from others who are also trying to navigate their own way through.  

But not my “That’s Ok Friend.”  We have a mutual approach towards one another to just appreciate who we both are and not expect anything else.  I like to think that we share a common trait of viewing the world around us, including things that are different from ourselves, through a lens filtered by curiosity, not judgement.  Sometimes we recognize that we have a lot in common, and sometimes we recognize that we don’t have much in common with each other and with others.  And that’s ok.

During our first conversation, our babies crawled on the floor around us and she revealed to me her plans for securing her children’s admission to an Ivy League school (it involves making a move to South Dakota when they are teenagers).  I loved her wacky but brilliant theory and liked her instantly.  

As our children went from toddlers to preschoolers to grade schoolers, she continued to provide me with knowledge, laughter and intellectual stimulation during a stage of life that often lacks those things.  

She confirmed my suspiscion that when people say they went to school in Boston, it’s really code for going to Harvard.  I bounced ideas off of her and secured feedback on extra curricular activities for the kids.  We debated religion, politics and a moral compass with settings unique to each individual.  We played cards and drank cabana drinks.  At parties, she would go outside for a smoke and while not smoking, I’d join her in the cold night air, just for the chance to steal a few minutes of solo conversation and laughter with her.

She encouraged me to start writing years ago.  And when I finally did she cheered my successes.  

When my life turned upside down after my second child was born unexpectedly still, she offered support in a perfectly gentle way.  She didn’t force conversation.  She just kept persistently inviting my toddler and I over for play dates, simply offering a safe place and way to get out of the house during those long winter days.  

The visits were never fussy or high-maintenance.  She had post-it notes with spelling words for her kids stuck to her walls and I explained to her how to make a crock pot meal.   She wore her high school cheerleading t-shirt and I wore my maternity jeans five months postpartum and that was ok.

A few years later when we were celebrating the anniversary of my daughter’s death and birthday, my dear friend sent me a prayer and helped make that day a little closer to ok.

I still share this prayer every Thanksgiving:

On this day, looking around this table, we naturally think of what God has 
taken away from us.  And, you know, I’m still pretty angry about it.  
But right now I am looking around this table at my friends and family 
and just thinking, wow, Look At What God Has Let Us Keep.  
And for that I am thankful.”

She knows that this is a valued part of our holiday even without a big heart-to-heart conversation where to I told her as much.  And that’s ok.

When I was pregnant with my third and fourth children, I didn’t discuss baby names with many friends or family members.  But I asked this friend for her opinion on names and listened intently as she offered it (even though she admittedly named her daughter after a soap opera character).

That soap opera name is written in black Sharpie on the inside of many of the sweaters hanging in my daughter’s closet.  We receive her hand-me-downs as they come through a clothing trail our friends use to pass on the stuff their kids don’t wear anymore.

As our kids grew older and we got busier with their schools, our paths didn’t cross as often.  But when we did get together, it was always treasured time.   I loved hearing about her family vacations around the world and she appreciated our adventures.  We swapped thoughts and philosophies on a continued variety of topics.

Now our oldest children are turning ten and she is moving from the Midwest to the East Coast.  I know how this will go, and that’s ok.  

We’ll keep in touch casually with a text every so often, and she’ll give me a facebook “thumbs-up like” every now and then, but she’ll never post anything.  And that’s ok.

I’ll send her a holiday card every year and she’ll send me an email to let me know how much she likes it, but she’ll never send a card back.  She doesn’t do cards.  And that’s ok.

On the birthdays of my kids she’ll send a text with well wishes and I’ll feel her warmth over my phone.  But I’ll never remember to reciprocate.  And that’s ok.

And someday, I’ll read about how one of her kids is a nominee for a seat on the Supreme Court or Nobel Peace Prize (no, kidding, I really will!), and I’ll think to myself, “oh look at that….she did such a good job raising those kids.”   I’ll be so proud of my friend, even though I won’t have talked to her for years.  And that’s ok.

Its all ok because that’s how a friendship for a lifetime goes.  As we all know, we go through stages and phases of life.  Along the way we pick up people who need to be there to accompany us through that particular stage.   During this stage of adjusting to young motherhood in the suburbs I needed this friend for a sanity check as I navigated through both everyday stuff and life crisis stuff.

But just as this stage comes to a close, the friend who was an important lifeline is moving away.  And that’s ok.  

Because I know, and she knows, that life is continued movement.  And things always go most smoothly when that movement is in a forward direction. But every so often, we’ll get caught up in wave of nostalgia and look back on this stage of life with a reverence reserved for only the most sacred of times.  This is the phase where we discovered ourselves as mothers.  And the people who surrounded us during this most sacred of times will hold the most tender spots in our hearts.

And so my friend is off for a new stage and new phases, and that’s ok.