Saturday, December 31, 2011

2011 Retrospective

2011 was the kind of year wherein the fasten seat belts light remained on for the entire ride. The world outside seemed turbulent and bleak from the vantage point of our little home, and on a personal level, we drastically changed our way of doing business as a family. And the middle of a year of uncertainty, I had one perfect summer with my boys, and the engine of love that we are tending together as a family continued to get stronger.

January: Winter was not kidding around this year. We weren't sure where we were going to put all the snow that just kept falling. It was tough on our cars. I dented the side of the van pulling into park on our snow-narrowed street; Josh had an accident with a snow plow on the back roads at work.
February: The pregnancy test had two lines.
March: Ellis turned eight. Alaska grandparents came to visit. Josh and I sat in a darkened room at the clinic while the ultrasound showed that a miscarriage had happened. Afterwards, we drank beer and ate walleye sandwiches at a former favorite lunch haunt of ours and grieved. We picked up the kids from school and daycare and went through the car wash. We tried to make sense of it all.
April: I took my first trip to New York City since moving from there ten years ago. It proved tremendously healing and creatively inspiring. It challenged me to commit to making big changes in my life.
May: Spring took a long time to get here. I quit my job and pulled Charlie out of daycare. We embarked on a new model for running our family.
June: The perfect summer began. My days were filled with writing, cooking, gardening, and adventures with Charlie. Charlie turned two and Nate turned seventeen. Ellis learned how to ride a bike without training wheels.
July:  Charlie and Ellis and I became beach bums and farmer's market regulars. Ellis and I took a road trip to Chicago so I could attend my 20th high school reunion and reconnect with a wonderful group of old friends. My mom's dementia had worsened to the point that she couldn't recognize me when I came to her door during the visit. We picked wild black raspberries by the river.
August: I attempted to make pickles (update: epic pickle fail). Josh started brewing (way more successful than the pickles). Another pregnancy test had two lines, and we held our breath. We went camping and to the State Fair.
September: That sick hormonal feeling that I called "the blurgh" began around Labor Day. Writing, exercising, and adventures with Charlie were greatly curtailed. Despite this, I was never so happy to be nauseous and tired in my entire life. Josh took a day off from work each week to help out. The older boys went back to school. Alaska grandparents came to visit.
October: The midwife found the baby's heartbeat (go, baby, go!). I turned thirty-eight. I took Charlie trick-or-treating for the first time. He makes everything fun.
November: Josh turned forty-six. It stayed warm for a very long time and we enjoyed the extra chance to be outside. We spent a lot of time thinking about plans for aging parents. "The blurgh" subsided enough that I could cook my share of Thanksgiving dinner.
December: The baby began wiggling up a storm inside me and we got to see "Bumby" in action during our second trimester ultrasound. It seems that we used up our allotted snow fall last winter and none was left for us to have a white Christmas this year. Despite the ineffectual weather, the solstice sleepiness kicked in right on time and we enjoyed our customary lazy end to the year.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

The Long Dark

Winter came quietly on snowy feathers this year.
Into the cave of this long night we go,
waking tomorrow to begin the journey
to tilt closer to the sun.

Happy Solstice.

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Tuesday, December 20, 2011

December Traditions - Indoor Activities With My Kids

Some people do Advent calendars, but I prefer the construction paper chain countdown because it brings me fond memories of elementary school. Right now this activity is mostly shared between Ellis and me. We have the fun of making it (I cut the rings, he staples them and writes the dates on them) and he loves to wake up every morning in December and cut off yesterday's ring. For anticipation's sake, it helps that the chain sits on the piano below the presents that he can't wait to open. I'm looking forward to next year when Charlie's growing skills allow him to get more involved in this tradition.

This weekend, Josh remarked that some cookies are about the product and some cookies are about the process. In my opinion, there are definitely cookies that are more delicious to eat than decorated sugar cookies, but in terms of pre-holiday weekend fun for kids these are the best.

For me, making sugar cookies is also a spiritual exercise in battling my inner control freak as I let go of my anxiety about how much colored sugar and sprinkles gets poured on places other than the cookies. It helps to have two grownups on the task, and with each passing year I get rewarded for not being uptight as the kids motor skills improve. It is indeed about the process.

Sometimes the most fantastic traditions are ones you stumble upon. When Ellis was four, he went to a birthday party around the winter solstice and got some glow sticks as party favors. That year, when it hit peak darkness, we had fun playing with the colored light during the long evening.

Last year, Charlie fell in love with glow sticks sometime around Halloween and began calling them jack-o-lanterns. When the solstice rolled around, I revived the tradition of darkening the house, putting on music and creating our own light show.

This year, I made sure to pick up a pack of glow sticks during my Christmas shopping, and I eagerly anticipate enjoying them tomorrow.
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Monday, December 19, 2011

December Traditions - Decorations

When I started focusing on building my own family's holiday traditions, I stripped away the things that made me unhappy about the holidays as I'd previously celebrated them and instead mined the past for my favorite things. If I had to choose just one seasonal decoration for my house, paperwhite bulbs would win hands down. I had no idea about indoor bulb forcing until I met my former mother-in-law, an extraordinary gardener. While we no longer have a relationship, I am very grateful to her for teaching me ways to enjoy plants year round.

On my search for bulbs a few years ago, I discovered the beautiful compostible swags that the folks at Mother Earth Gardens in Minneapolis create. It's now a post-Thanksgiving tradition for me to stop there for each years' selection of winter plant joy. I leave my greens up on my door all winter, then toss them into the compost bin just as I'm getting ready to start my tomato and pepper plants in early spring. It makes the time when my garden is dormant much more enjoyable.

Hands down, my grandmother was my number one influence for how to do the holidays. At this time of year, I choose to remember the gift she had for making things beautiful and delicious. She was heavily influenced by her own mother-in-law and incorporated a lot of Swedish elements into the way she orchestrated the holidays. When my sister and I were little girls we'd sit on the floor by her coffee table an spin her Swedish Angel Chimes for hours on end. The chimes I have were a gift from her, and I love to light them with my own children and watch how something so simple can be so magical.

Also thanks to my sister, I have a wonderful stash of the tree ornaments my grandmother had when we were little. I love that my children can enjoy the whimsy of these mid-century treasures as much as I did.

Many years, we have only a small tree, depending on how easy it is to move things around in our small house. Instead, I tend to create a small and manageable Christmas display on top of the piano, where it can be enjoyed by little eyes, but is less likely to be disturbed by little hands. Josh refers to this as the "Christmas Shrine." It's something that is uniquely my idea, partially created out of necessity, as I've always lived in small spaces, and partially out of the way I am drawn to creating beautiful sacred spaces on a small scale. It changes a little bit every year, but is always the place for the hand-knit stockings I made the year we celebrated Charlie's first Christmas plus all the presents.

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Friday, December 16, 2011

December Traditions

Sometime in November every year, I always think there's no way that I'm going to do the holiday thing. I fantasize about ditching all the traditions and going away to someplace warm by the ocean. While I don't rule out that this fantasy will become reality one year, December rolls around and something almost primal kicks in and I find myself comfortably engaging in the rituals that I associate with the shortest days of the year.

The truth is, I used to hate the holidays. For much of my young adulthood, they were about family obligation and using precious vacation days to travel to places I didn't want to go. Then I got divorced and Josh and I got together and I extracted myself from the obligations and refashioned my year-end rituals to ones more conducive to joy. I held on to traditions that I loved - many of them learned from my grandmother (Sans the dramatics about how no one ever appreciated what she did. Because I did, Gram.) I added new things that were fun for all the members of the family we've created, and I scaled things to acknowledge my ursine nature as the light fades - the part of me that just wants to hibernate. My goals have been to have things be beautiful, delicious, full of love and fun, while prioritizing the need for restfulness this time of year.

Next week, as we wind our way through the Solstice and wait for Christmas, I want to catalog some of the things I do every December to make these short, cold days a little warmer and full of light. There are decorations, activities (or lack thereof), yummy things to eat and drink, and gifts that we give each other. As I post, feel free to share some of your favorite things, too. I always appreciate inspiration from my friends.

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Friday, December 9, 2011

Life With Charlie

Luigi went missing for a few days. While he was gone Charlie accidentally broke off one of Mario's arms. When Mario and Luigi were reunited, this is the conversation Charlie made them have:

"Hi, Luigi."
"Hi, Mario. What happened to your arm?"
"It fell off."

Charlie to Mama: "This is a picture of when you, me, and Ellis became babies. We went inside this guy's tummy and made him sick!"
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Friday, December 2, 2011

Circle of Excellence

A couple of summers ago, Ellis brought home a bunch of cast-off corporate awards and trophies for a project he did at Leonardo's Basement. I got rid of most of the trophies, but kept the one pictured above because the "Circle of Excellence," is just, well, excellent. Earlier this week while doing some cleaning, I came across this very special award again and thought that it would come in handy for something.

Ellis has been struggling to memorize his multiplication facts for the past couple of months. He hated it so much that he would "forget" to bring home his homework and try to avoid doing practice drills whenever possible. I tried apps on my phone and math gaming sites online to try to entice him, but the most effective strategy was simply spending half an hour one-on-one with him everyday. I would use a combination of no-nonsense drills and talking about different patterns and tricks for remembering (especially those dreaded 7's an 8's). I'm most proud of teaching him tricks for remembering the 12's. Ellis rocks the 12's.

With all his hard work to master something that did not come easy for him and struggling against all the negative feelings that can cause, I decided to award Ellis the Circle of Excellence on Wednesday. It was silly, but it was awesome, and I think the Circle of Excellence will make repeat appearances in our family along the way. Josh and I are also tempted to make use of one of our neighborhood businesses to get some custom trophies for the kids related to their struggles and achievements to develop and grow as people. It's a win-win: support a University Avenue business during Light Rail construction and let the boys know that we recognize how hard they work at the challenging task of growing up. (Plus they'll have tangible proof of how crazy their parents are.)
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Monday, November 28, 2011

Digging Out (and Managing Expectations)

Somewhere around Labor Day when I started feeling what I called the daily blurgh of pregnancy, I let a lot of housework go. With the help of other family members (especially my heroic husband) the dishes and laundry were washed, the bathroom got cleaned, and we still ate most of our meals at home, but the rest of the house fell into a state of epic disrepair. At first, it didn't bother me so much. I counted out weeks on my calendar based on my previous pregnancies and figured I'd feel better by my birthday and would pick things up again. Then my birthday came and went and while I felt "better," I didn't feel BETTER. No real second trimester perk up came and daily gagging and mega-fatigue remained my constant companions. "Holy crap," I thought, "Am I going to feel like this the whole time?"

Then I got sick and was congested, and as if it were possible, more tired for weeks. Then it started getting dark at 5:00 p.m. Then it started to seem like everything happening in the world was very very bad. November has been a confluence of suck. "Well, at least it's temporary," I thought. And then I thought, "I'm just going to go lie down." My dreams of heading back to my regular workout schedule and tidying up the house dissolved in the gray sludge of my mood, which now matched my physical condition in extreme blurghiness.

I'm digging out now, though. The key has been to acknowledge that it's not an all or nothing proposition. I don't have to be my normal crazily active self or lie in a big lump. Some days I can only do one thing. Some days I feel great and can do lots of things, and then the next day I have to sleep for 12 hours to make up for it. The holidays have spurred me on a bit. Thanksgiving was easy. Since it was only us, it came down to cooking and clearing off the dining room table. Christmas presents more of a challenge. Charlie has begun talking about Christmas trees, and it's going to take a bunch of good days for house cleaning to make room for that. The thing is, I'm starting to have a vision for how it's going to happen, on a manageable scale, with lots of room for naps and feeling baby kicks growing stronger inside. There will be happy children (and happy parents) in our house this December.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thanksgiving 2011

In our house, it's all about the pie. The little boys humor me by eating paltry portions of all the other food I make and hope the rest of us hurry up eating so they can just have their pie already. Three years ago, I started making sweet potato pie for Thanksgiving and became the hero of our household. The rest of the meal is really for Josh and me, and we enjoy the process of cooking it together as much as eating it.

This year, I am thankful that the food aversions and nausea have dissipated enough that I could enjoy my day in the kitchen. I am also thankful (and I know Josh is, too) for our first Thanksgiving with a dishwasher - yes, that's us on the couch watching a movie instead of standing at the sink cleaning up.

I am also thankful for the opportunities life presents to continue learning things. My mother has dementia, and when I talked to her on the phone today for the five minutes of conversation she can handle, I realized how much I miss talking to her on the phone. Our conversations weren't always great, but there was a time we talked every week, and being able to share things about my life with her meant more to me than I ever realized at the time. I am grateful to understand that I don't ever want to miss things that are good just because they contain aspects that are painful, too. I want to be able to feel sad or angry without having to cede the things that are precious to me in complex relationships.

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Tuesday, November 15, 2011


Our second trimester ultrasound is just weeks away and Josh and I were trying to decide whether we wanted to find out the sex of the baby or not. I found out ahead of time with both Ellis and Charlie and liked knowing, but since this is the last time I'm doing this, I thought it might be fun to have a delivery-room surprise to see what that's like. It's outside my comfort level as a super-planner and I like that.

My only worry was that while we had identified a fantastic girl name that we love, we were really stumped trying to come up with a similar caliber boy name. I can tell you the well runs a little dry on male names when you've already named three boys. What if our fourth son arrived in the delivery room and we were forced to settle on some mediocre name? "Sorry, kid, we just ran out of steam."

Josh and I decided that if we couldn't come up with a boy name that we loved as well as the girl name we've chosen before our ultrasound at the beginning of December, we would find out the baby's sex. That way, if the babe's a girl, we could relax, and if he's a boy, we'd have five months to buckle down and choose a great name for him.

I'm pleased to say, the pressure worked. This week, we found our baby boy name (and no, I'm not sharing either of our choices). The problem is solved and I will get to have the additional delight of discovering whether our last child is a son or daughter when he or she first arrives in the world. Of course, now I have the problem that I love both names so much, that I'm a little sad that we'll only be able to use one of them. I keep crossing my fingers for there being boy and girl twins growing in there. Josh keeps teasing me that we can just use the other name for our next baby when I forget how sick I was during pregnancy and my legendary baby lust has me begging for "just one more." Not going to happen, though, I swear. This is the last time.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Outside November

The mild weather continued all weekend. We headed to Harriet Island so the boys could run around at the playground and I could take some photos. Every chance we get to be outside deep into fall feels like another opportunity to store up for the winter. It keeps my spirits high as the light fades to be close to the river and commune with the likes of paper birches.

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Saturday, November 12, 2011

Long Weekend

Extra time off is good for climbing trees and throwing rocks into the Mississippi near Hidden Falls. Autumn has faded into the pale chalky tones of November. The mild temperatures call us outside into the thinning light. Ellis says, "I wish this were our backyard." I think, "Close enough."
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Monday, October 31, 2011

Seasons on the Block

Yesterday, some of our neighbors had a Halloween party for the kids on our block. With winter just around the corner, I realized that we're about the enter the four or five month period where we just don't see our neighbors that much, except for the times we have to dig out our street together to move cars for a snow emergency. When we resurface again in April, the kids will all be bigger and the adults (and our houses) will seem a little more worn around the edges. This the yearly rhythm on our block. After a couple of nights of raucous candy gorging, we are about to slide into the quiet time.

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Sunday, October 30, 2011

Why Is It Funny? I Don't Know. It Just Is.

In my first job out of college, I worked for a large corporation. The work wasn't particularly exciting, but I had a lot of fun because I shared a workspace in the cube farm with three other twenty-somethings who were just as misfit for corporate work as I was. We made each other laugh a lot, often by inventing silly games. One of my favorite games we played was called "Names That Are Verbs."

The rules were simple: shout out any name that you could think of that was also a verb. Of course there were the obvious ones: Rob, Pat, or Sue for example. Because it was an oral game, the homophones were particularly delicious: Phil, Wayne, Carrie, and (one of my all time favorites) Russell. I also loved Bea, the only intransitive verb, lovely in its existential simplicity.

I hadn't thought about that game for a while until recently during our explorations for names for our current baby-to-be. I had the magnificent delight of discovering a new one: Neil.

I still giggle when I think about it.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Birthdays and Half Birthdays

I spent the morning of the day after my birthday listening to the heartbeat of the baby that's growing inside me. If all goes as expected, we'll welcome our sixth family member somewhere around my half birthday at the end of April.

I'm happy to be firmly planted in the second trimester now. The first one was a little rough and I didn't feel much like going on adventures or writing or taking pictures or pretty much anything besides lying down to calm the seasickness and fatigue. Charlie was very patient, especially when Mama would randomly fall asleep during the day. He's also been a really fun side kick to take to prenatal visits. He's got some very cool ideas about what exactly the baby is doing in my belly right now. I think that he's going to be a natural at being a big brother just like our other two seasoned big brothers.
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Monday, October 24, 2011

I like 38

I've been looking forward to this birthday. There's just this feeling I've had that this is going to be a good age for me. I like being young enough that my body still mostly does all the things I want it to do and old enough that it's not all about my body (or face, or hair) any more. I can't say that I've achieved any sort of perfect zen-style enlightenment, but what I have developed is a cool, calm governing voice (the inner wise woman) that counters my swirling emotions with a level head and a great deal of compassion. I like that woman. She helps me like me, and she helps me like others.

I can't say I have a bunch of goals for this year or this time of my life. Mostly I'm just grateful for the way every day seems so rich, especially the ordinary ones. I'm savoring the place that I'm in right now and know things will change when it's time for them to change. It's funny how as you age and have less time, the less of a hurry it all seems.
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Friday, October 14, 2011


I find that when I am seeking answers from the back catalogs of human wisdom I tend to consult artists rather than "experts." The priests of religion and the priests of science, the pundits and self-help gurus forget that their task is to construct useful paradigms to describe the indescribable. They practice idolatry when they mistake their frameworks and tools as ultimate reality itself. Artists have the good sense to merely point to the thing - "Look at that!" Artists remind me, when I am lost, that living my life is how I'm supposed to find the way. When the world has knocked off the glasses from my myopic eyes, the best way to achieve clarity is to take a few steps closer to what I want to see.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Butterfly Weed Seed Pod

While playing ball outside with Charlie yesterday, I noticed a stage in the life cycle of my butterfly weed that I'd never seen before. Once again, I am grateful to live in a neighborhood that doesn't mind the fact that I care way less about landscaping than I do about the amazing canvas of plant biology that is happening in my yard.

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Thursday, October 6, 2011


"It isn't until you finally run up against your deepest demons, your unsolvable problems - the ones that make you truly who you are - that you're ready to find a life-long mate. Only then do you know what you're looking for. You're looking for the wrong person. But not just any wrong person: the right wrong person - someone you lovingly gaze upon and think, 'This is the problem I want to have."

Andrew Boyd, Daily Afflictions

"True love is not the kind of thing you should turn down.
Don't ever turn it down."

The Avett Brothers, "January Wedding"

I have to be careful in the fall. Transformative stuff can happen in my life when the leaves begin to turn red because sometimes the universe has things in mind for me. Maybe it's because I was born in the fall, or because I'm so sensitive to the decline of the light, or because it's a natural time of transition. I don't know, but I have spent a lot of autumns in extreme emotional turmoil, extreme passion, or both. The three most significant romantic relationships that I have had in my life all began in the fall.

Seven years ago this October, I was stuck in a crappy job and an increasingly unhappy marriage. I hadn't had a full night's sleep in at least eighteen months. It was warm that year, like this October, and the trees were amazingly vivid during one sunny day after another. To me it felt like the sky had opened up and like the ocean of my unconscious was roaring to the surface. I'd blame it on the sleep deprivation, if it weren't for the fact that it happened to him, too.

Sometimes when you think everything is lost, you get a little help to see things differently. Sometimes you realize that the person that has been the best friend you've ever had isn't so far out of reach, and it's pretty likely that you were meant to save each other. Sometimes you're standing on a street corner with him and he says, "I want you to come with me," and you realize that you don't know where you're going, but there's no way in hell you're turning down that invitation.

Seven years later, I'm even surer that we made the right decision.
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Wednesday, October 5, 2011

More Charliespeak






What do birds eat?
What do Charlies eat?
Inside food that is not for animals.

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