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Forces of Nature: My Messy, Beautiful


My chest tightens.

There’s a dull hum in my ears.

I am feeling crushed.

I can’t breathe.

It may be a bit dramatic to say that this is how I felt when I read the assignment for the Messy, Beautiful project at Momastery, but it’s at least partially true. I wasn’t literally buried in the rubble of an earthquake, but thinking about writing this story brought on a fast-heartbeat and tightness in my chest. It’s a messy story. Usually I prefer to write about things that used to be messy, but that I have since tidied up into shiny little life lessons.

Last summer, my husband and I went through what some may call “a rough spot.” We underplay these things when we talk about them, don’t we? I am fairly certain that every couple goes through “rough spots,” and I am also pretty sure that these periods of our lives feel more like natural disasters than little bumps in the road: scary, disorienting, filled with extreme emotions high and low that make time draw out on a wire. Last summer, every unaddressed issue that has ever bubbled under the surface of my eighteen-year marriage erupted somewhat unexpectedly. I woke up on many summer days feeling raw, vulnerable and scared; not knowing how it was all going to resolve itself. Other times, I knew in my heart that we would all be OK – regardless of what OK looked like. However, the unknown terrain between “anxious discomfort and ugly, loud arguments” and “everything’s mostly OK” was like surviving an earthquake. Dust would start to settle, and we would begin to navigate the new landscape of our relationship, only to experience aftershocks that altered our surroundings further and left us both more exhausted, frustrated, and sad.

On one particular day, I found myself crying in the bathroom. (Why do we relegate ourselves to the bathroom to cry? I think it has something to do with being in a small closed space, like a womb. No one can come in looking for a missing baseball glove/sock/TV remote, and you don’t have to come out until you’re ready). As I sat on the cold tile in a pool of my own tears and snot, I tried to practice some of the things I am learning about living in the present. I reminded myself that crying is my body’s way of telling me a few things: that I am sad, that I have something to let go of, and (the good news) that I am alive and breathing and feeling something. Being alive and feeling something is far better than the alternative.

I told myself, “Self – you have a choice right now. You can sit here and cry, or you can try to find the bright side of this situation. You can look for the ways to create order from the chaos, the way you like to do; you can move these circumstances forward to a more peaceful, shiny outcome and then glean some wisdom from the experience.”

I surprised myself when I replied that I would like to just sit and cry a while longer, thank-you-very-much. I remember consciously deciding that I would get back up on the proverbial horse tomorrow instead of today. “Self,” I replied, “I need to cry and wallow a bit right now, but I promise I will try to love the world again later.”

Funny thing about choosing to wallow: my choice was followed by a wave of relief. It was suddenly incredibly obvious to me that the suffering I was experiencing was temporary. To say I “enjoyed” the rest of the cry would be a poor choice of words, but it is a cry I will remember with a perverted twist of fondness – almost an out-of-body experience – because it crystallized how temporary everything is; that the good, the bad and the ugly will all pass. I can only do what I can do on a given day. On that particular day, I wasn’t strong enough to climb back up on the horse. On that day, I needed to lie in the muck underneath it and take a nap. But that day passed. Since then, there have been days when I have climbed back up, appreciating the view and forward motion a little more acutely. There have also been days when I have had to just rest.

Post-summer-storms, we’re both tender, but a few weeks ago, we took a trip without the kids. We re-discovered that without the mess of everyday life, we mostly really enjoy each other. If we could magically quit our jobs and have the kids in bed by 6:30 p.m. each night, life would be easier, perhaps. Or maybe it wouldn’t. Probably there would be other things changing the landscape. Regardless, right now we’re holding hands while we navigate. I still trip over rocks sometimes, and I hold no illusions that I am forever done with earthquakes or storms in the future. I am hoping that as we continue the journey, I will be less shocked by sudden changes in the weather, better able to focus on the step in front of me, and better equipped to know when it is time to rest, when it is time to climb, and when I am able to gallop freely with the wind in my hair.

I fear I may be doing it again: turning something messy into something that used to be messy, but now makes sense. But I won’t apologize for it – it’s one of the reasons I write. Writing is the cleanup crew and relief volunteers that show up after an earthquake changes my landscape. My life is made up of long lists and short days, jagged pieces and round holes. It will never be completely orderly and predictable, but I relish the process of organizing and reflecting nonetheless. Engaging in that process reminds me how precious it is to live this messy, beautiful life.


Birds, Bees and Flower Protectors

My son had just turned four when his sister was born. During my pregnancy with her, my growing belly prompted a lot of questions from him. “How did that baby get IN there, anyway? I know you told me that Dad planted a seed that’s growing into a baby, but HOW did he plant that seed?”

Where Did I Come From? bookI decided to buy the same book that my mom read to us when we were kids, Where Did I Come From? by Peter Mayle, illustrated by Arthur Robins. If you haven’t seen this book or its sister-book, What’s Happening To Me? (a guide on puberty), I highly recommend them. They are a hoot, and they are actually quite helpful in explaining everything simply, truthfully and with cartoon illustrations. When my son first connected the dots regarding the physiology of human reproduction, his reaction was, “GROSS!” I left the discussion at that, figuring that when he was ready for more information, he would ask. I’ve heard that we’re only supposed to answer our kids’ questions with enough details to quench rather than drown. He had questions, and so I answered them truthfully and simply until he clearly did not want any more information. We’ve had more talks since then, but I have learned that sensitive topics like these should be approached slowly with him. He processes the information in small bits over longer periods of time.

About a year ago, it occurred to me that I hadn’t had any of these conversations with my youngest, because…well… she is the youngest.  Boy-O’s questions started when he noticed my body changing during pregnancy, but there is no more pregnant happening in this house, so one night, while we were chatting about her new-baby cousin, I asked my daughter, “Do you know where babies come from?”

“No,” she replied.

“Would you like to read about it with me?”


She has always been inquisitive and curious, but I figured it would be a quick read-through, like her brother’s, followed by maybe a question or two and then a kiss goodnight.

That child, at age six – SIX – interrogated me for an hour-and-a-half. Her least controversial question was, “Mom, if the special hug feels so nice, how can you do it without making a baby?”

Never in my wildest imagination could I have predicted that I would be having a birth control discussion with my six-year-old.  (I went with, “Well…um…there’s actually medicine for that after your married,” rather than touching a condom with a ten-foot pole, but I made a mental note that we should probably have a condom conversation by the time she is a teenager. Oy.)

To be perfectly honest, I get a huge kick out of these conversations with my kids. They feel like very important “keep calm and carry on” practice sessions for future conversations, when the decisions for which they seek input will be far weightier than whether or not they can drink soda at a birthday party. I want them to keep coming to me when they are seeking answers, even when the questions are hard. I want them to keep talking to me when they need someone to listen, even when the topics are scary or painful or downright embarrassing. I want them to know that I hear them; that I understand them; that I won’t fly off the handle over something important to them, even if the idea of letting them decide something big on their own has me shaking in my shoes. That little one is preparing me for big, hard questions (no pun intended). Deep breaths. It’s all good.

Happy Cancerversary*

Happy Cancerversary

I made another new online friend yesterday.  One of the perks of this Listen To Your Mother show, my latest adventure, is that people are reading and commenting on my blog; people just like me, who enjoy pouring out their thoughts on the internet with the hopes that someone will read and say, “Me, TOO!” I find it validating to connect with people who also love to write and share their stories.  But there was one message this week that stands out from the rest: I got an email from a fellow cast-member yesterday who told me she looked forward to meeting me, not just because we are both moms in the show, but because we have something else in common: a history of thyroid cancer.

Those who have followed this blog know that my cancer experience was largely the impetus for me to start writing. It wasn’t too long after the surgeries that cancer started to offer new perspectives; that cancer surprisingly offered gifts and compelled me to share them.  Cancer was quite pushy about it, actually.  Stories and messages and lessons have been coming to me more than they ever did before, with some regularity, and with an urgency to get messages of peace and hope, gratitude and love “out there.”  Thanks to cancer, I am living with a greater sense of purpose than I did before.  It’s either thanks to cancer, or it’s thanks to entering my 40’s.  We’ll stick to crediting cancer, so that I can maintain my positive attitude about the whole thing.

My new friend Michele wished me a “happy cancerversary” in her email.  She had noticed that February 17 marked the four-year anniversary since my surgery.  The funny thing is that the day had come and gone, and for the first time in four years, I hadn’t even noticed.

Time is certainly one of the great healers of all things.

As the months are turning into years, I do find myself less and less anxious about regular blood work; less worried about how my medication is affecting my moods.  It seems I may have finally arrived at the “new normal” people talk about when life changes you profoundly in some way; when lines in the sand are drawn.  This is not to be mistaken with complacence – I remain hyper-sensitive to gratitude, and vigilant about maintaining a positive attitude – two lessons that this whole experience has taught me.

Today I am feeling acutely grateful that cancer is far enough in my past that I let February 17 come and go without a blink.   And I am grateful for my new friend, another traveler on the journey of “Me, too’s,” who is also cancer-free since 2010.  I wish her all the best, and I look forward to whatever is coming next on this adventure called My Life.

*Cancerversary is a term that I must credit to my new friend, Michele Mariani Vaughn.  I look forward to meeting you in person, Michele!

The Thaw


It’s been a long, snowy winter here.   Long, snowy winters tend to not be the greatest for my mental state, but since I am aware of this fact, I think the toll has been less so than in the past.  That said, it has been a long, snowy winter, and my moods have mirrored the sky: gray, empty, cold.  During the winter, it takes a conscious effort to find the little miracles in my day that seem to sparkle much more readily when the sun is shining.  When it’s warm outside, and I walk my dog, I stride thoughtfully with my head held high, watching the birds and the clouds, drinking in the sun or gazing at the stars.  In the winter, I walk quickly and hunched over, staring at the ground, breathing inside my coat in an attempt to stay warm.  I want to look at the stars, but it is just too damned cold to allow the heat to escape when I lift my head.  Shoot.  I’ll just put the dog in the yard and skip the walk.  Like water as it turns to ice, the molecules that make up my body seem to slow down to near stillness. I try to run on the treadmill, but I find that reaching my “happy place” is frustratingly beyond my grasp…so I’ll just walk for a while.  If I could authentically listen to what my body seems to be telling me, I might hibernate until April.  I just want to sleep, or at least sit still, maybe in front of a fire with a good book, and I am cranky because all of these other THINGS keep getting in the way of that –  like work and snow days and dinner-making and laundry and life.

But today, the sun is peeking out ever so slightly from behind the clouds.  Not too brightly – I can still look directly at it without squinting – but enough to notice.  I find myself staring at the sun, trying to drink its warmth. It feels like I am desperately sucking the last drips of water from a glass with a straw; an attempt to recharge during this long, snowy winter.  And then, good news arrives.  It appears that I have been selected to read one of my essays in the 2014 Listen To Your Mother Show in Washington, D.C.  Suddenly my Facebook page is abuzz with congratulatory messages.  I went to the gym and ran a few miles on the treadmill (slowly).  I still didn’t reach my epiphany-inducing running state, but I did find myself remembering that everything is temporary, including the gray winter, and if the news of an opportunity to share my writing can offer a glimpse of warmth to my heart, then spring will indeed come. Maybe not tomorrow or the next day, but it’s coming.

As the snow slowly melts on my driveway, the molecules of my being are beginning to stir.  I am writing this blog entry, for example.  I am breathing in and out.  And the good Lord willing, we will not have another snow day tomorrow, and I will get to go to my favorite yoga class for the first time in over a month.  It’s been a long, snowy winter, and I am ready for the renewal that comes with the thaw.  I am also really looking forward to meeting all of the amazing women who will come together for what appears to be a fabulous event.

My sister shared this lovely poem by Joyce Rupp with me a few days ago.  Here’s to winter’s (eventual) graceful step aside so that the newest adventures of spring can begin.

Blessed are you, winter, dark season of waiting,
you affirm the dark seasons of our lives,
forecasting the weather of waiting in hope.

Blessed are you, winter, you faithfully guard a life unseen,
calling those who listen deeply
to discover winter rest.

Blessed are you, winter, frozen and cold on the outside,
within your silent, nurturing womb
you warmly welcome all that longs for renewal.

Blessed are you, winter, your bleak, barren trees
preach wordless sermons about emptiness and solitude.

Blessed are you, winter, you teach us valuable lessons
about waiting in darkness with hope and trust.

Blessed are you, winter, season of blood red sunsets,
and star-filled, long, dark nights,
faithfully you pour out your beauty.

Blessed are you, winter, when your tiny snowflakes
flurry through the air, you awaken our sleeping souls.

Blessed are you, winter, with your wild and varied moods,
so intent on being yourself,
you refuse to be a people-pleaser.

Blessed are you, winter, when ice storms crush our hearts and homes,
you call forth the good in us as we rush to help one another.

Blessed are you winter, your inconsistent moods
often challenge spring’s arrival,
yet how gracefully you step aside
when her time has come.”

– Joyce Rupp

Boys, Girls, Actions and Words


Boys: Will remember the details and statistics of every play of the game.
Girls: Can tell you that Joe Flacco married his high school sweetheart in 2011 in Philadelphia, near the town where they grew up together in NJ.

Someone once told me that if I wanted to get my son talking about his day, I should take him for a walk.  Get him moving, and he will talk.  So I tried it, and it’s true.  If I want to hear about the in’s and out’s of my boy’s life, I just convince him to walk the dog with me.  As soon as we are in motion, he starts chatting away. Sometimes, if he has a lot on his mind, we’ll do several laps around the neighborhood.

I wasn’t always confident in my ability to mother a boy. (I still don’t always know what the hell I am doing, even 11 years in).  Growing up in a house where girls outnumbered boys two-to-one, I had always imagined mothering daughters.  When I found out at the 20-week mark of my first pregnancy that I was carrying a boy, I freaked out a little.  I didn’t think I would know how to relate to little boys at all, and I didn’t even try to fathom anything beyond the age of four.  Sure, I had held my own in many a neighborhood kickball game as a kid, but my childhood nostalgia mostly consisted of Barbies, pretend-play with dolls and girly sleepovers. I fantasized about sitting on my future-daughter’s bedside having long conversations about Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret, the way my mother did with me.  I wasn’t sure how that was all going to work with a boy.

Instead of panicking (in addition to panicking?), I read a book called The Wonder of Boys, by Michael Gurian.  I most vividly remember the introductory chapter, where Gurian talks about the development of the male brain vs. the female brain in utero.  Apparently (and forgive my lay-person interpretation of the science), the hemispheres of a male brain develop one at a time, with connections forming between the two afterwards, whereas the female brain is forming connections throughout the developmental process as the two hemispheres grow simultaneously. This is supposed to explain why a boy with a Barbie is more likely to use her as a weapon or hurl her through space, while girls will give names and personalities to a fleet of Matchbox cars, making them talk to each other about the color of their paint and the day’s events.  It’s pure biology, and it’s fascinating.

(I am grossly simplifying here, but I just wanted to point out that there is science behind that which I am trying to convey.  Michael Gurian does a much better job at laying it all out.)

As he grows up, my boy’s perceptions of the world continue to intrigue me.  Mothering him has also provided unexpected insights about the grown-up man with whom I also live.  My long-term observations of these two fine specimens, coupled with what I know of their biological development, recently brought me to an epiphany that I like to call “The Activity Theory.”


If you want to be closer to any boy in your life – child or grown – introduce an activity to share.  Whether it is golf, hiking, running, poker, shooting pool, walking the dog, or even having sex, men bond when they share an activity with someone.  My husband has golf buddies, hiking buddies, poker buddies…you get the idea.  Sit a man down at a table in a coffee shop with another man, tell him he needs to stay there and just talk for two hours, and he will likely find the experience to be awkward and torturous.  Sit him down with the same friend at a bar with a football game on TV, and he will engage in the shared activity of watching football for four hours, which, consequently, involves actively observing other men hurling objects while moving through space.  The act of moving through space, whether actually or vicariously, seems to make all the difference in the world in a man’s social relationships.

Women are different.  We more often than not will prioritize the person in the room over the activity being shared.  If we are in the company of someone we like, an hour in the waiting room at the dentist’s office can be the best part of our day. Whereas my husband will gladly play golf with a stranger, I will gladly attempt golf if my best friend is doing it, too, and if there is the promise of sitting down to discuss it over a cup of coffee afterwards.  Maybe we will just skip the golf.  The point is that for me, the activity is almost always secondary to the company I am keeping.

I have gathered empirical evidence of this phenomenon in my children, too.  When our family is invited to a party, my daughter will ask, “Who is going to be there?” while my son’s question is, “Will there be a basketball hoop?”

I was pretty proud of myself when I came up with this theory…until a counselor gave me a CD to listen to, and on it were two psychologists discussing my theory.  Which brings me to another theory: I don’t think there are any new ideas out there to be had, just different means to come to the same conclusions, and different words to describe them.  Ce la vie.  My theory won’t win the Nobel prize, but it has been helpful not only in raising a son, but also in navigating a marriage.

Want to be closer to a boy?  Figure out what he likes to do, and then do it with him.  If he wants to be closer to you, hopefully, after the activity is complete, he will sit on the couch and listen with enthusiasm as you retell the story, exploring the deeper meaning of whatever it is you just did.

*Disclaimer:  This essay is based solely on my personal observations of the limited sample of males with whom I live.  I will not be held liable for dysfunctional or warped views.  I do not claim to be an expert on boys, nor do I play one on TV.  These observations should not be substituted for medical advice or for family counseling. I am quite certain, as with all things, that there are exceptions to the Activity Theory.


Photo credit:



This year I am resolving to do less.

Less running around.
Less stressing out about trivial things.
Less snapping and barking.
Less work.

Yes, less work.

If I keep my resolution to do less, I am fairly certain that the work that takes precedence in my life will be born of inspiration rather than obligation.  And inspired work isn’t work at all – it’s play.

So I resolve to play more.

Write more.
Sing more.
Do more yoga.
Hold hands more.
Hug more.
Look into the eyes of the people I love more.
See more sunshine.
Take more walks.
Sit still more.

I look forward to the ideas and dreams that flow when I allow myself time to be still.  I look forward to the feeling that spurs me to stop sitting so that I can write down the ideas and dreams born in stillness.  Over the last few months with the holiday rush and a growing list of work obligations, I have really missed that feeling.  When ideas would come at all, I was rarely in a space to write them down.  And if I don’t write them down when they are happening, they tend to disappear like dandelion seeds on the wind.

I originally planned that I would “schedule” my time to sit still, to think, to dream.  But the problem there is that inspiration doesn’t always adhere to a schedule.  So I must also resolve to be more flexible.

As I slow down and do less, I resolve to enjoy the smell of my daughter’s hair, to lose myself in the sweetly awkward, angular hugs of my growing son, to notice the twinkle in my husband’s eyes when he talks about the things that excite him.  The work I am resolved to do more of is that of finding magic in every day.

Happy New Year.

Photo credit: Tim Hamilton

The Kids’ Table

Thanksgiving-tableOne of my favorite essays by Martha Beck outlines a “Bingo” game you can play with your friends if you are stressed out about visiting family over the holidays.  Instead of worrying about whether dear Uncle Fred will get sauced and behave inappropriately, Martha suggests that you put together a bingo card with each of the outlandish things that are possible in your family in a square.  Have a friend or two do the same with his or her family, and while you’re home for the holidays, whenever you witness one of these things, you mark it on your card.  The first one to get “Bingo” calls or texts the other players, and the other players buy the “winner” lunch, dinner or much-needed drinks as a prize after the holiday is over.  The game helps change your perspective on potentially stressful situations.  You find yourself “rooting” for the inappropriate behavior so that you can “win,” which supposedly makes the holiday fun instead of stressful.  It’s a funny idea.

I am happy to report that my family’s Thanksgiving went off without any big drama.  Had I played the Bingo game, I would have lost.  This, too, is obviously a good thing.  The only episode we endured yesterday was compliments of my son at the dinner table, but it was a tiny scene; one that in relation to past holidays doesn’t even register on the Richter scale.  The issue: he was terribly insulted to have been relegated to the kids’ table, which consisted of him, his cousin and his little sister.

Aaah, the kids table.  As the child of one who is the youngest of six, my siblings and I never seemed to be able to outgrow it.  I, too, hated being stuck at the kids’ table, so sure that I was mature enough for the grown up table at every possible age.  I felt for my son.  My husband did, too, and graciously offered his seat at the grown-up table, which my son refused.  My sister moved her plate over to the kids’ table, renaming it the “cool table.”  This didn’t work either.  When I pulled my son aside to talk to him, I found that his thoughts were surprisingly much less egocentric than mine were at his age.  He said, “Mom, I am not even just thinking of ME.  Thanksgiving is when the WHOLE family is supposed to sit together at one table, so if Dad is at this little table while I am over there, it still isn’t right.”

He was still brooding after dinner, so I took him with me to walk our dog around the block, and we talked about my notion of opposites – the idea that when something upsetting happens, if we can train ourselves to look closely enough, there is an opposite that is also true.  It is a similar practice to the Bingo game, really.  The reason that we didn’t all fit at the table this year was that everyone who was invited was actually able to come – this means that all three of my siblings and their loved ones and both of my parents and their spouses were actually in the same room at the same time; a rare phenomenon indeed.  It also was a signal that our family is growing – I have a two-year old niece now, and another of my nieces, who has been somewhat estranged from us for the past two years, came home.  My sister has found love in her life, and we were thrilled that her new significant other wanted to share the day with our family.  A full table is a sign of thriving love.

I saw the wheels turning in my son’s head as we chatted.  It was actually he who reminded me that one of the filled chairs was due to the happy reunion with my niece, whose company I have really missed over the past couple of years.  I was glad to see that he understood what I was getting at, although he still stubbornly insisted that it was better when we all sat at the same table.  I agreed.  He promised to think extra hard about all of it when I threw in an extra fifteen minutes of video game time to help seal the deal.  I know I totally caved, and it was likely that he was working me on the video game business, but the idea of his 11th year being the “worst Thanksgiving ever” because of a lack of togetherness was too much to bear.  It was the least I could do.

By the time we returned from our walk, it seemed that all was well.

There have been holidays when I am fairly certain I could have won the Bingo game hands down.  This year I am thankful that the only drama I witnessed was my son growing a little bit more into a young man, within a family that also continues to grow and evolve.  There is much for which to be thankful.

Happy Thanksgiving.

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