Author Archives: Rachel

Chocolate Chip Cookies, Boogers, and Board Books: An Honest Inside Look at the Life of a Working Mom

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Let me paint you the scene. It’s midnight. I just finished baking Nutella stuffed chocolate chip cookies. I’m in charge of our “connecting activity” for work tomorrow and I have carefully planned five “Minute to Win It” games. I’ve somehow also managed to sign up to bring food for the breakfast tomorrow, so along with the white elephant gift exchange present, the props for Minute to Win It, and the 9 X 13 pan of cookies, I am picking up bagels and cream cheese early tomorrow morning.

For a minute this afternoon I contemplated trying to make it to the 6:15am group work out class at the women’s gym I joined last month. Don’t worry, I’ve eaten enough chocolate this evening to tamp down that idea.

Tis the season, right? The season of way, way, way too much to do. I have always felt this way, but somehow having a son and wanting to squeeze every moment of time with him out of each day leaves very thin margins on the book-ends of my day to accomplish, well, everything.

And I do mean… everything.

This week we had a professional development for work. And she was there. You don’t know her, and yet, I’m pretty sure you do. She’s adorable, she got a work ethic to make Ben Franklin proud, she’s a step higher on the career ladder. She’s so nice that it’s annoying and yet, you realize that you can’t not like her because, ugh, she is so nice. She doesn’t have a kid yet, but I can guarantee that when she does, her days will have extra hours and she will not be awake at 1am writing a blog about how much she envies someone else. She will instead be busy being the President of the United States. Or something like that.

I’m exaggerating. Obviously. But there’s nothing like showing up to a work event having barely brushed your hair and wearing a Coldwater Creek shirt you bought from Goodwill that may or may not have gone out of style ten years ago that can send you into the spiral of down, down, down into the comparison game. Or maybe it’s just me.

I do not need anyone to remind me about how this is NOT what Christmas is all about. For that matter, I don’t need anyone to remind me that this is NOT what mothering, being a woman, being a person is all about.

And yet, here we are.

For some reason, what keeps coming into my mind over and over, and I do like to pay attention to such things, is this moment of conversation I had with a coworker this week. Not “her”. A different one. Her name is Katie. She’s the kind of person that asks how you’re doing and really wants to hear the answer. So I told her.

“Last night my son screamed for three blocks through the middle of downtown Oak Park, bucking his body wildly against me because I wouldn’t let him play with a knife at the restaurant where we’d ordered dinner.”

She had true compassion in her eyes, probably because her son is only a few months older than mine, so she gets it. And then she went into a several minute long story about, and I am not making this up, sucking boogers out of her son’s nose with the Nose Frida.

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It might have been the best conversation I had all week.

What in the world do boogers have to do with Christmas, the comparison game, and being up way too late?

I guess nothing. And everything. Because she offered me such a gift. Katie offered me the honest, real look at her day to day life. And right now, in a tale that is very familiar, her day to day life consists of… boogers.

Right now my days consist of speculation on and about the rhyming patterns of Sandra Boynton books. I can explain in incredible detail how and why Barnyard Dance is superior in every way to Birthday Monsters. My husband can chime in on the conversation because (and this is a little embarrassing) we talk about it. Kinda a lot.

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I was an over-committer long before my son came along. I can’t blame him for that. But having a son has spread the icing on the cake thin enough that it’s embarrassing to serve it. Things have slipped, and there are glaring holes in the facade I like to believe I used to be able to pull off. (For those who know me well, just go with me here. No need to burst my bubble.)

Yet, here I am. Blogging in the middle of the night after a marathon day of “doin’ too much.” Adding a few more things onto my plate so that maybe I can fool everyone else into thinking that I haven’t slowed down at all since becoming a mom. I really can do it all.

But the truth, as I’ve already laid out, I can’t. These days I get really nervous just trying to make small talk. I hate the moment in conversations when it lulls and I am expected to fill it with some thoughtful remark. I scan the Rolodex and more often than not land on… boogers. Or Sandra Boynton. Or my son’s screaming through Oak Park. Not exactly cocktail conversation.

Maybe the best I can do is this. Writing this. Telling my own version of the booger story and letting it all hang out for you to see. Would it probably have been even more meaningful, a larger step away from the comparison game, if I had bought cookies from the store? Maybe. Does it help make my point to know that I ate way more than my fair share of chocolate chips today? Maybe.

But know that despite what my chocolate chip cookies and sunny Christmas card may imply, I’m just winging it. Like everybody else.

Probably even “her”.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

How I’m Talking To My Son About Race and Police Brutality (Guest Blog)

I recently asked my friend Conni if she had any ideas about how to raise her white sons to become thoughtful people, engaged in the conversation about race, willing to speak up, but not over. Willing to listen and to learn.

Because she’s wonderful, she agreed. Here is her post:

Right now we are in the throes of what we will come to remember as the glory of boy days. My oldest is four with a blonde, pageboy haircut, bright eyes, and a ready smile. He is, as the expression goes, “all boy” and will spend hours playing with Legos, swords, and cars, and loves rough-housing with his daddy. He is not too old to snuggle in Mama’s lap, to listen to silly poems, or dance with the family in the kitchen. He kisses his baby brother and is a help around the house.

He is also “all four” in his insistence on testing boundaries, his emotional stability (his tantrums call to mind images of drunk rock stars trashing dressing rooms), and in his seemingly limitless curiosity. These days there are scores of questions. He asks all the questions. And no matter what answer I give, how simply it is packaged or how long I take to answer him, there is always a follow-up question. He would make an excellent reporter (just not TMZ, okay? ::crossing self::). And the follow-up question is almost always, “Why?” Thus, nearly every question becomes existential in nature.

Here is an example of a typical conversation:
S: Mama, what does that sign mean?
Me: It means cars need to slow down and look out for each other
S: Why do car needs to slow down?
Me: Because there’s not a lane for everyone in this part of the road
S: Why is there not room for everyone?

See what I mean!

I can’t fault the kid. He’s trying so hard to organize this grey world into neat compartments in that growing mind of his. He wants to know wrong and right. He wants to know how things always are or never will be. What all boys do and what all girls do. Who are the good guys and who are the bad guys. He loves words like always and never. They’re clear. Safe.

And so making dinner at the end of the day, the contents of the stove-top bubbling, the news on the radio blaring, my heart is turning over all the race-based headlines, the discussions on police brutality, comments on Facebook that suggest I must pick a side: blacks or police.

Here is the bottom line about my son and his race: nobody will ever be surprised by his success or question it, they will not assume they know what kind of music he listens to, or question that he has a right to be wherever he is. We know that, statistically, he will pay less for a car, get paid more than female or minority peers at the same job, and if he should have to interact with the criminal justice system (again, ::crossing self::) will be sentenced less harshly than men of color.

In light of this privilege, how will I begin to talk to him about the others who will meet a very different reality? How am I talking to him and his four-year-old brain about race?

As adults we realize that there’s no group of people that are always the “good guys” or always the “bad guys”. We know of others in trusted professions (clergy, teachers) who have abused their authority. But these nuances can be trickier to impart to a four-year-old.

My approach is based on the following Maya Angelou quote, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them.”

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This is what I tell my son, “When people, your friends and especially a group of people, tell you their stories, believe them.” Believe them. Believe them when they tell you it hurts when you climb on their head or that they despise grape jelly. Believe them when they tell you they are afraid of the police (even the people you know and love and trust!) Listen for all the feelings behind their words. Focus on the people as they share their stories and fears.

Someday we will talk about the history and science behind racism. We will discuss what is known about the lingering effects of slavery, Jim Crow laws, the GI bill, the Tuskegee institute, and the mass incarceration of black men and what that has done to black communities. We will discuss the differences in how white and non-whites are sentenced, how they are treated when they apply for a loan, or enter a department store.

But not today. Today we will talk about people we know and their stories.

My friend Robyn is black with a young son and bravely navigating this alternate universe that I had little idea existed. Her boy’s name is Alex and he has amazing chipmunk cheeks and a dimpled grin. He knows all about trains and knows the soundtrack of the DC metro. “Door opening, please step back” he chirps.

In an email, Robyn writes she is thankful Alex smiles so readily at strangers because maybe this means the police will perceive him as friendly, less threatening and suspicious. Because one day soon, Alex will be a young black man and will be perceived as more threatening than my son who could be walking right beside him.

Robyn worries at night. She wonders if her husband has enough storage and charge in his phone so he can be sure to video tape any encounters with the police in case anything should happen to him. I worry about my son and husband getting in car accidents. She worries they will encounter the police.

And here’s the thing: hers is only one story but theirs are the faces I see. I know there are many, many more stories like hers. But as my son grows and I encourage him to believe people and their feelings and respond accordingly, I don’t want him to think abstractly about “black people”. I want him to think about Robyn and Chaz and his friend, Alex. I want him to understand he doesn’t have to abandon what he has come to trust in order to hear and believe their stories and advocate on their behalf.

I know most of this is beyond his understanding now but I can’t help dreaming. Dreaming that together my husband and I can raise a listener, a man who can see and hear and believe experiences that are radically different from his own and then, in turn, use that knowledge to be a peacemaker. To be able to hold two hard things at once and with belief: his love and value for his friends in the black community along with respect for the policing profession.

conniConni

Winter is Coming

My maternal ancestors were homesteaders. They traveled across oceans and prairies, mountains and rivers, and settled in Canada, Northern Wisconsin, and ultimately North Dakota. Growing up, one of my favorite books was My Prairie Year, a picture book with pencil sketches that tells the true story of one year in the life of a girl growing up in the prairie: canning foods, hanging out the wash to dry, tying string from the house to the barn during a blizzard so the path wouldn’t be lost in the mountains of snow. You know, the usual.

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To be totally honest, there is little to connect me to the life of a homesteader. I got excited last night because I managed to make a crockpot dinner, which I believe was delicious, with only five minutes of prep. I literally dumped items into the top, put in some thawed chicken thighs, and then picked up my screaming son, who was of the opinion that five minutes not in my arms was five minutes too long.

But I think about my homesteading great great grandparents, especially as the weather turns from crisp to frigid. I remember visiting my grandmother one Thanksgiving a decade ago. We had eaten too much, so I decided to go for a walk. My mom had talked about being young in North Dakota, the wind cutting through you like a knife, and a Minnesota native, I believed I knew what she meant. I didn’t. Bent at a forty five degree angle, pushing with all my power, I managed to walk to the edge of town, probably only due to the houses breaking up the wind. Once I hit the farm land, game over. I nearly had to crawl on hands and knees to get back to my grandma’s home.

I wonder what it was like to fear the coming of this intense cold, no houses to break up the wind? What was it like to watch the dying of all vegetation, hoping and praying you had planted enough tomatoes and onions to get through the whole of winter? Did we harvest enough? Did we preserve enough? Will we last until February? Will we see the first bud of the next spring?

I wonder, and I know. Because I ask the same questions myself this year. I have a Costco a mile from my house, and my survival needs are met, but it is this time of year that I wonder if I have stored enough to get me through the cold. It’s this time of year when the stark, bare trees and snow turned crusty and charcoal from car exhaust turns me thinking inward, wondering whether I’ve planted enough sunshine, goodness, and love to endure not weeks, but months of gray, gray, gray.

I could move. I suppose the homesteaders could have, too. There are places the sun never leaves, the plants always grow. But despite the fear of the shortening days, and the quieting of colors, I’ve also grown to anticipate this emptying. I’ve learned to prepare for it, maybe in the way of my great, great, great grandmothers, spending autumn soaking up the rich red and gold of the trees, eating freshly picked apples and tomatoes still warm from the sun, taking long walks in perfect sweatshirt weather with the desperation that only comes from knowing that the days are numbered and few.

And then, to quote Alice Walker, comes the time to live frugally on surprise.

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It’s that time of year for me now. Today is gray, and I can’t remember the last time the sun peeked out. And as much as I’ve anticipated the emptying, when it happens all I want to do is spend my days curled in bed, hibernating for winter’s end. It’s the time of year when it seems certifiably insane that anyone ever stopped a covered wagon in this place and thought to themselves, “Here. This is far enough.”

And then, like discovering a shelf of forgotten canned produce, comes a surprise.

A kiss from my husband after a long day at work, the outstretched arms and sleepy grin from my son when I wake up in the morning. A compliment from a colleague, a phone call from a dear friend, the right song at the right time, a warm bath, a beautiful poem.

One such poem was sent to me by my father several months ago, and I pulled it out today, a jar of preserved tomatoes, and savored it’s words again, knowing that I needed the sustenance more today than I did in the summer when it was first sent.

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One Good Thing

It’s been a dead parade
of hours since 5 AM
a march of the bland
with the meaningless and
I can think of nothing
I have done to merit
mentioning or
remembering.

But now, at 8 pm,
I am bathing my son
in a tub filled with bubbles
and blue battleships,
the soapy water over
his Irish white skin
makes him glisten
like a glazed doughnut

and I should tell him
to stop splashing
but this is the first time
all day I have felt like living
so how can I scold
my boy who’s found joy
in something ordinary
as water? And when

I wash his hair
with Buzz Lightyear
shampoo, Liam
closes his eyes and
smiles like a puppy
being petted as I massage
the sweet lotion into
his red curls and I know

this is one good thing
I have done with my life
this day that has waited
for this moment
of water on my sleeve
and soap on my nose
to turn emptiness
into ecstasy.

…Edwin Romond

And that poem may not be enough to get me through all of winter. But it’s enough for today.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

It’s OK to Buy Bigger Pants

Last Saturday some friends hosted a lamb roast at their house. I had worked in the morning, then visited with a family friend in the afternoon, so the fumes I was intending to use to get through the final social engagement of the day were not quite sufficient to get me through the evening. I’m generally an articulate person, but that night I found myself staring at a friend, child on my hip, realizing that a whole chunk of dialogue had passed and it was my turn to talk, but I had nothing to say. I think I nodded and said, “Yeah.” I say “yeah” a lot lately.

So “yeah”, that’s been happening.

On Tuesday night I had a whole night free to myself since my son hasn’t realized that the time change has occurred, and therefore has been falling asleep an hour earlier than usual. There were a million things I could do with my extra time. I chose to watch four episodes of Gilmore Girls while eating pickle flavored potato chips with ranch dip.

So “yeah”, that’s happening, too.

Neither of these stories are newsworthy or even that interesting. But I have found myself really down lately, wishing that I could make choices that got me more in the direction of where I want to be: namely, well rested, articulate, back in shape, consistent with times of reflection and contemplation, balancing work and friends and family. And I am so unbelievably not in that space right now.

To be fair, I don’t know that I have ever been in that space. Except maybe in college, but I guarantee I had too much angst to fully appreciate it.

My friend tells me that the key to getting a healthy relationship with myself is to treat myself with kindness and curiosity. Doesn’t that sound just wonderful? Like, “Hmm, it’s so interesting that I ate a bag of potato chips, I wonder why I did that?” Or “Wow, you must have really needed to watch those four episodes of Gilmore Girls to help unwind. I’m glad you took some time for yourself.” Instead of the tired script in my head that says, “Why did you waste so much time again? Why didn’t you just GO TO SLEEP?” Or, “Do you really want to be fat forever? STOP EATING!”

At the lamb roast, during one of the conversations I did manage to track, one of my female friends was lamenting the fact that her pants weren’t fitting well anymore. Another woman joined in the conversation and said that she makes herself go on week-long diets so she can fit back into her clothes. The first friend just looked at her and said, “Nope, I’m gonna buy bigger pants. I’m gonna do it this week.”

And I laugh thinking about it right now, since it is literally the monologue that goes on in my head, the tension I ride between restriction and resignation. And it isn’t just about the size of my jeans. It’s about everything. My use of time, the hot and cold of relationships, the way I spend money, my commitment to generosity toward others, carving out space for prayer and contemplation.

My husband and I had a heart to heart this past week. It’s been a rough couple weeks for both of us. The ebb has been more than the flow. He said he had been feeling badly about not running lately. A five time marathon completer, he has been hoping to get back into the pattern of running again. When he said something about it to his father, also an avid runner, his dad just said, “Why? When you were a baby I didn’t run for years.”

And so we talked about how there are seasons of life, and having a small child may just be one of them, when maybe we have to lower the bar for ourselves a little bit. There are seasons of our life during which our triumphs are less about the fifty pound weight loss, and more about our ability to convince a fourteen month old to eat green beans. There are seasons when we need to buy the bigger pants, not out of resignation, but out of grace.

My friend Brittany, after reading one of my blogs about my body image issues, said, “You know what, Rachel? That stuff is hard. It takes time, but you’ll get there. And don’t even bother getting into shape between the first and second child. ”

It’s amazing how easy it is to treat others with curiosity and kindness, and how hard it is to do the same for myself. But in the midst of everything else, I admit that right now, I like the idea of buying bigger pants more than the idea of going on a week-long diet. At the very least, it seems much more manageable. Maybe that’s giving in and giving up. Maybe it’s resignation.

Or maybe it’s grace.

grace not perfection

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

My Mental Breakdown in the Middle of A Target Store

I am losing my mind. Little by little.

This past month my son has been sick. It hasn’t been a major sick, it’s been a cough that wakes him up three to four times a night sick. Roughly translated, that is a “wake your parents up three to four times a night” kind of sick.

For a month.

Add to this fact that the weekends have been filled with mandatory professional developments on Saturdays.

I’m feeling a little panicky even talking about it.

My husband said recently that a baby’s REM cycle is 45 minutes. On nights when I am too exhausted to sit in a chair and rock my baby back to sleep and place him in his crib, opting instead to bring him into the bed with my husband and me, I imagine I’m waking up about every 45 minutes.

I am showering a lot less than I used to. Back to the sloppy ponytail. My brain feels like someone has replaced the gray matter with Styrofoam. As a friend of mine said, her own children grown and this stage of mothering far behind her, “This level of sleep deprivation is outlawed by the Geneva convention.”

And yet here I am.

But this happens, right? Those days when the most basic needs seem to be too much work, so they are stripped to only the most basic of the basic needs.

It became clear that my sore throat on Monday, coupled with the delirium, mandated a day away from work, a day for rest. Except, after tossing and turning for over an hour, sleep was not available to me. So I did what every other person losing his or her sanity does.

I went shopping at Target.

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I had no illusions about my intentions at the Target. I was there to SHOP. I grabbed the cart, not the basket, and started making my way methodically though the entire store, letting my cart push me more than the other way around.

To be fair, this was a trip that had been needed for some time, but because I could not be bothered to write down the many items needed in our home, like outlet covers to keep our toddler son from electrocuting himself, it became necessary to walk through every single aisle just to make sure I wasn’t forgetting anything.

Or that’s what I told myself.

Among my purchased items: a loofah, cream of mushroom soup, a sippy cup, a suspension shower rack, 2 picture frames, outlet covers, 2 bins to fit inside our IKEA bookshelf, and gum. I also scheduled an eye appointment, since apparently Targets are now small countries with infrastructure and eye clinics. I almost scheduled to get a strep culture to see about my sore throat, but I have an HMO and wasn’t willing to pay $90 out of pocket.

Oh, and I bought a candle.

It was actually the purchase of this candle that put me over the edge.

There I was, standing in the candle aisle at Target. You know the one. It makes you remember all the yoga and meditation that you should be doing to live a more mindful and healthy life. It’s the one that makes you feel like maybe if you just lit a few more of these beautiful candles in your home, a fung shei fairy would appear and magically transform your house from what it is into a Zen garden with straight lines and empty space.

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The candle I picked up had a big red label that said, “BE JOYFUL!” in tall font. I smelled it. The combination of peppermint and sage transported me to the moments of sitting in our living room in Minnesota, unwrapping the Christmas decorations one by one. It reminded me of my dad’s collection of nativity scenes, many with candles whose heat causes the whole scene to spin and spin. It reminded me of Christmases when money was too tight for a tree, and then the doorbell rang and a tree was sitting, like magic, on our front porch.

The tears came immediately. Because I desperately wanted to hug my dad. And because those precious moments, like the ones with my family at Christmas, are so perfect and beautiful, tight with love and light. I cried because I wanted that candle to transport me to my family, to Christmas, to sleep. I cried because I knew that it may take a few months, but Christmas will come again.

I cried because sometimes just the thought that Christmas will come again can make the sleep deprived moments when I am a lunatic crying in a Target seem a little less lonely, a little less frantic, a little, well, less.

And, I cried because I was tired.

My mom promises me that one day I will wake up and I won’t feel tired anymore. I’m holding onto that promise for dear life. That promise, like Christmas, helps me keep getting up, keep doing the basics of basic, even after the days when the tears flow in the middle of a suburban Target store.

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I took the “Be Joyful” candle home. It has not transformed my living room. But smelling it is a good reminder that this moment is fleeting, and there can be pockets of joy even in the midst of losing my mind.

henri nouwen

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

Making Time for Making A Marriage

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Last night I got home, took out my computer to watch some Gilmore Girls while cleaning my living room, and immediately realized I’d forgotten my power cord at work. It’s a sinking feeling, knowing that you don’t have access to your favorite toy, and that you won’t have access to your favorite toy for a whole day. I circled the room about six times, rushing because it was the small sliver of time for me to accomplish housework before my husband and son arrive home from work and daycare, and also because it turns out not having my computer when doing said housework turns me into a chicken without its head.

After settling on playing music on my phone, I accomplished approximately one tenth of what I was hoping to. Nonetheless, I could not wait to snatch up my kiddo and kiss his rosy cheeks the minute he stepped into the door. After our greetings and settling in, I told my husband about the computer.

Me: “I forgot my computer cord at work today. So I guess we will have a technology free evening” [checks Facebook on phone]

Ok, maybe I didn’t immediately check my Facebook. But I did immediately realize that not having one of our laptops hardly would guarantee a technology-free evening.

And we didn’t have a technology free evening. We didn’t even have a phone free evening, since I got a work phone call on the way to Mariano’s grocery store (our date destination, because we like to live it up).

I don’t know about you, but my husband and I do it about three times a week. By it, I mean watch several hours of Netflix. We enjoy finding a show and watching it together start to finish, processing the characters and plot as we go. It provides inside jokes and entertainment. It’s a great way to relax. It’s fun and simple, requiring little to no pre-planning. In a period of my life when I seem to be running a half hour late for everything, that is nothing to take lightly.

With the million ways that “to do” and duty pull at my mind and my day, it is easy to let it end there. My husband and I make a point to intentionally spend time together. But sometimes I think back on the month or the week and wonder, when is the last time we had fun together? When is the last time we talked about our goals for our relationship, our family, our money?

Having a toddler can sure slow all of those conversations down. But I don’t think I can place all the blame on him. I found plenty of ways to be distracted even before he entered our lives. When I go through my Netflix queue it can be a little startling to notice how many television series I have watched start to finish, and the sheer number of hours that represents. Have I spent at least that many or more hours in conversations with my husband (or my friends)?

So last night the idea of having a technology-free evening, one that we could use to play a game or have a conversation, felt like a good one. A great way to have fun together. Because I’m me, and make grandiose plans, it also felt like the beginning of something new.

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We put our son to bed, ate dinner together, opened a bottle of wine. We talked for awhile, mostly about how tired we both were feeling. And we were about to get grab one of our board games to play when our son started crying. Screaming, in fact.

The best laid plans.

But we have made some important strides in intentionality. Like, for example, sectioning off Wednesday night as a night that we won’t schedule other things. The occasional exception may arise, but I don’t offer Wednesday as an evening to get together with my girlfriends or to stay late at work. We also try to keep our phones away during dinner time. And sometimes it surprises me how hard it is to keep this time sacred.

But more often, it surprises me how sacred the time is, how desperately I crave it. Even more than I crave the next episode of Doctor Who. I notice how easy it is to default to the easy, like watching a movie together, instead of being honest about what has been going on in my life. And I notice that when we do take the time to hear about what is going on in one another’s lives it is a lot easier to be kind and thoughtful and go the extra mile for one another.

Or maybe that’s a coincidence.

To sum up, I believe that my husband shouldn’t be finding out about my inner thoughts and goals from my blog, he should be informing my blog through our conversations. And in the interest of including him, you should know that the line about doing it three times a week was his. We make a good team.

261755_10150290602379874_2436766_nRachel

My Church Gave Me $500 and It Has Brought Me Nothing But Angst

A few weeks ago my pastor announced from the pulpit that each congregant in our church would be receiving a check for five hundred dollars. There were a lot of emotions in the room, but the general sentiment was surprise, and perhaps, amazement. After all, it’s a pretty incredible gift to be given. Five hundred dollars can make a big difference in a person’s life, in several people’s lives. Five hundred dollars is an incredible opportunity.

That was how I knew I was supposed to feel. And it wasn’t how I felt.

Backing up a little, let me explain that the money came from the sale of property the church had invested in thirty years ago. I had heard that the church had received a large sum (1.6 million, to be exact) of money, and in conversations with my husband had come to the conclusion that regardless of how the church decided to use the money, we would stay out of the decision making process. We haven’t been involved in how the church chooses to spend its annual budget thus far, and a significant increase in the amount of money wouldn’t and shouldn’t change that.

And then we found out that we were going to be very closely involved in how that decision was made. Each of us was given $500, part of the first ten percent of the 1.6 million dollars, to spend as we see fit.

So my first reaction was more along the lines of, “Isn’t it someone else’s job to make these decisions?”

Frankly, I’m having a hard enough time figuring out how to find time to do the dishes and the laundry. (How many times can you wear work pants before dry cleaning them?) I don’t want to be responsible for the thoughtful discernment of how to spend five hundred dollars.

Also, I don’t really want to think about money at all. I much prefer to leave that to my accountant husband. I’d rather not have to take a look at the total sum of how much money my husband and I spend eating at restaurants each month. I don’t want to know the total amount of money I spend in a year on my daily ice tea from Dunkin Donuts.

My life is pretty much working for me, and for the most part I’m pretty generous. My husband and I support different charities and give money to our church. We get involved in the occasional volunteer project. Add to that the fact that I am working in an urban school district, helping children receive a quality education, and I’d like to think that I’m doing pretty well for myself with my talents and my skills and my contributions to the world. (And for the record, I get my daily iced tea in a reusable mug.)

In the past three weeks hardly a day has gone by without me saying to my husband, “And maybe we could give some of the money to this.” Whether the “this” be to a friend who is struggling to meet rent, to a former student who is paying for college tuition, to another friend who is providing weekly meals to people in Chicago, or to a charity working to stop the spread of Ebola in Western Africa. The need is all around.

In other words, getting this five hundred dollars has been forcing me to engage with the world in a new and uncomfortable way.

It would be one thing if it stopped there. But it doesn’t. Because the other truth of my first thought when I got this money was, “Wow, that’s not very much money.”

Because in the greater scheme of things, it isn’t. And because in the greater scheme of our family budget… it isn’t.

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It’s not that my husband and I are Scrooge McDuck, swimming in a sea of gold. We still have student loans and a mortgage, we were recently hit with a large auto repair, and re-doing the roof of our house cleared out our savings.

But generally speaking, if we want something we have the means to get it. Like my daily Dunkin Donuts iced tea. Or a recent dinner out to Alinea. Yeah. So while we may not have $500 to give away every day, we could probably give away more than we do.

I remember once talking to my mom and hearing her say that she rarely goes to Caribou Coffee because she knows that at five dollars a drink, going there five times is the equivalent of sponsoring a child through World Vision for a month. By the way, she will hate that I wrote that, because she doesn’t say these things to be showy. She told me this in the most matter of fact kind of way possible. Most likely while doing my laundry. Because my mother is lovely and loving and wonderful. And because I hate doing laundry.

I, on the other hand, do not think about the child I could be sponsoring if I gave up my Dunkin Donuts tea addiction. In fact, I get pretty surly when my husband asks if I would ever be interested in brewing my own iced tea at home. Because seriously, where does that line of thinking stop? Should we sell our house and live in a tent? And so what that I paid two hundred dollars to get my hair cut and colored? That’s how much it costs, and I need to look professional for my job. The job, I would like to remind you, where I help change the lives of children. Fueled by the caffeine in my REUSABLE mug.

And on and on and on.

So no, the five hundred dollar check, still sitting in the trunk of my car where I left it the Sunday I received it, has not brought unlimited happiness and celebration. It’s brought a lot of tough reflection.

My husband and I are in a small group with three other couples that go to our church and we have been talking about pooling our money and creating a fund of $4,000 that could be used in a variety of mutually agreed upon ways. While discussing how this might work, I said, “A big part of me wants to write a five hundred dollar check to the charity of the moment, because that’s so much easier than having to pay attention to all the needs all around me.” And I stand by that. The check is a hot potato I’m more than ready to pass to the next person.

But despite my whining and complaining, I also recognize that this discomfort and frustration, this magnifying glass to my own financial choices, well that might very well be the point. (And yes, I am whining and complaining about being given five hundred dollars and if that is too much entitlement for you to get over, I can’t really blame you.)

We haven’t decided how to use our money. We’re talking about pooling the money and then contributing more money to the pot on a monthly basis, and making it a part of our biweekly meeting time to talk about how to spend different chunks of the money. We’re talking about using the money to match contributions we make to various people and organizations we see.

We’re talking about how we can make it more than just writing a $500 check and being done with it, how we can keep the conversation going, how we can continue to give, even when this $500 is gone.

And so it is that this $500 is the beginning, albeit an uncomfortable one, of a new engagement with the world around me. Because maybe small things like brewing my own ice tea (note, I am not committing to this) can add up to make a big difference, and maybe if I actually believed that, and other people did, too, then giving each congregant in a church $500 wouldn’t be such a big deal. Maybe that kind of giving would be normal.

Maybe it should be. And maybe that starts with me.

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Facebook is Ruining My Life

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I’m getting a new phone on Saturday. My iPhone 4S (yes, people still have those) has been slowly dying. First, my son ate the Otterbox Defender case. When I went to try to replace the case at Verizon I was told that they no longer keep the 4S cases on the floor. After convincing the salesclerk to go into the back and retrieve the box of unwanted iPhone 4S cases I decided it might not be worth $60 to buy a case for a phone that doesn’t even warrant display in a Verizon store. (This made the salesclerk’s day.)

So my phone has been naked for the past several months, and during that time I have dropped it approximately three hundred fifty seven times, and my son has chewed on it more times than that. Only one speaker works, it shuts off completely at random intervals, the battery runs out after twenty minutes, and the screen has a small crack in the corner.

Still, all in all, I’m pretty impressed with this small piece of technological wonder, and its ability to defy all odds and power on with 95% reliability.

However the newest development has caused me to bite the bullet and purchase a new phone. Why? Well, my phone no longer opens any programs except phone, chat, and music. While it technically opens Safari, it only provides a 3G network. According to the Verizon representative I talked to, that’s the equivalent of dial-up. So basically, my phone has the computing ability of my 2007 Motorola Razr.

This development has meant that none of the apps I have downloaded will load. The phone crashes when I try to look at Facebook, for example. Just an example.

Well, technically, it’s THE example. Because I look at Facebook a lot. A LOT. And not being able to access Facebook on my phone for the past week has shed some light on the depth of my addiction.

My average day, it turns out, generally starts by turning off the alarm on my phone, and immediately checking to see if I have a red number hovering over the blue f on my phone’s home screen.

But it doesn’t stop there. Oh no. When stuck in traffic, car at a stop, I find myself reaching for my phone. Yes. Please shame me for this, because it is terrible.

Then there are the moments throughout the day, those moments when there is even a tiny little pause. It’s those moments when I get the sensation that I am forgetting something, that there is something I am meaning to do. Then it hits me. Facebook. I should be checking Facebook.

The evening continues with much the same. Facebook is a constant fixture in my life. I’ve checked Facebook four times already while writing this post.
But seriously, does that even matter? I can’t possibly be checking Facebook any more than anyone else. How many times have you checked Facebook today?

But not having Facebook has forced me to spend my time differently. I’ve been sending longish emails to some of my friends. I’ve been tracking what I eat into My Fitness Pal. I talked to my coworkers at lunch today. I ordered reeds for my clarinet so I can start practicing again. I’ve been reading books.

And then when I do get on Facebook, generally at night after my son is asleep, I notice that there are 12 notifications and I quickly browse through them to see if there are any I even care about. And the answer is that I mostly don’t.

But I sure do like that red number. Especially when it is such a high number after a long day away from the page. But there’s a lot I don’t like.

I don’t like that Facebook is controlling so much of my life. I don’t like waiting for my Facebook to load, hoping that someone somewhere has noticed something I’ve said or done, and feeling badly when the red number doesn’t appear.

I don’t like that I’m the person who looks at other people’s kids and thinks about whether they are as cute as my own. Obviously none of them are. Except for that one. And that makes me angry.

I don’t like the news stories that leave me hopeless.

I don’t like looking at pictures of my friends with kids and hoping to see that they, too, still wear their baby weight.

I don’t like hating the posts from my family members who disagree with me politically. I don’t like how self-righteous I become, justifying how balanced and fair I am because I get angry with people on both sides of every issue.

I don’t like the jealousy when I see someone has bought a house, or published a book, or discovered the secrets to the universe while I fumble along learning a new job.

I’m tired of the compare game, because I always lose. And even when I win, I still lose.

For the record, I have checked Facebook two more times while writing that last part.

So maybe, as much as I don’t like those things, I can’t help myself.

Wouldn’t it be great if I could end this post by telling you that I am quitting Facebook? Wouldn’t it be a fantastic declaration of mindfulness and balance, rising above it all by quitting the comparison game? Wouldn’t I be so incredible?

Well, I’m not quitting Facebook. I love the updates from family and friends. It’s still my primary source of news, local and abroad. It’s still where I look to find the funniest memes.

It is, after all, a pretty incredible means to keep in touch with my family, spread between three continents. And I do actually enjoy seeing my friends’ babies, even the ones that aren’t as cute as my son. Especially the ones that aren’t as cute as my son.

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And I like being liked. In the Facebook sense and the real world sense of the word.

So there are no declarations of quitting Facebook to end this post. But maybe when I pick out my phone on Saturday I will think twice before downloading my Facebook app.

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My Dog Has Serious Bathroom Issues and I’m The Center of My Universe

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My dog has been peeing and pooping all over our house. Literally, all over. Every room. I have stepped in poop three times this past week alone. It’s been maddening to continually bend over and clean up her messes. The baby gates we purchased to keep her out of the areas of the house upon which we’d like to traverse without stepping into feces, well it turns out that those baby gates have slats on the side just large enough for her to squeeze her tiny, six-pound Chihuahua body through, though she feigns captivity when we are watching. None-the-less, eight hours later, returning home after work, poop is waiting in the kitchen. Or the front room. Or our bedroom.

Thankfully, the gates do keep our toddler son sectioned off into manageable, poop-free zones while either my husband or I attend to the remaining toxic rooms of the house to deep clean.

OK, that’s dramatic. We don’t really ever deep clean.

Also, my son has been sick. I don’t think it is related to the aforementioned lack of cleanliness in our home, but I can’t say it isn’t. In any case, he has been waking up throughout the night, and my heart just breaks as his body shakes with coughs fit for a pack-a-day, lifetime smoker. He’s ended up sleeping next to me for the last few nights. A part of me can hardly resist having his little body asleep next to mine, and another part of me recognizes that the sleep deprivation is starting to catch up to me.

There’s been other stuff, too, like getting a flat tire and taking it into the shop, casually mentioning that I would also like to get the driver’s side headlight replaced (I apologize for ruining your games of pediddle) and maybe an oil change. Three hundred dollars later I left with my car, and with more descriptions than I wanted to know about the melting of wires in the headlight, and the need to reconstruct the whole thing-a-ma-bob, and an, “oh, by the way, we don’t actually have the capability to repair tires or order you new ones, but hey, here’s a recommendation for another place that will charge you three hundred dollars to replace your tires.”

Which I went to. And they did.

By now you might have inferred that I’ve been feeling a little sorry for myself. Licking my wounds. Consoling myself with Caramel Apple Milkyway candy bars (this really is the best time of year) and lots of episodes of Scandal on Netflix.

A few days ago I had a rare moment at home alone and I took my dog for a walk. It’s hard to explain her jubilee when I picked up her leash, and I’m ashamed to admit the weeks it had been since our last walk, and more ashamed to admit my general pet owning negligence, having grown even larger since having a child.

While on the walk, I kept thinking about one of my favorite moments in public speaking: David Foster Wallace giving his commencement speech called, “This is Water.” I first read the transcript while up one night nursing my son, and I have since watched the youtube video of his speech more times than I can count.

One part in particular started percolating into my mind.

“…the traffic jams and crowded aisles and long checkout lines give me time to think, and if I don’t make a conscious decision about how to think and what to pay attention to, I’m gonna be pissed and miserable every time I have to shop. Because my natural default setting is the certainty that situations like this are really all about me. About MY hungriness and MY fatigue and MY desire to just get home, and it’s going to seem for all the world like everybody else is just in my way. And who are all these people in my way? And look at how repulsive most of them are, and how stupid and cow-like and dead-eyed and nonhuman they seem in the checkout line, or at how annoying and rude it is that people are talking loudly on cell phones in the middle of the line. And look at how deeply and personally unfair this is.”

Seriously, this talk is well worth the twenty minutes of your time. If he had spoken these words at my commencement, I like to believe I would still remember them today. As it is, I don’t remember the name of my commencement speaker.

But the idea, that part about me being at the center of the universe, that all of life is happening TO me, well, it strikes pretty close to home. Or rather, it strikes home. Because it sure feels like my dog has been purposefully leaving spiteful packages for me to clean up, and that meetings are scheduled on the end of the day on Friday just to make my life difficult, and the world is conspiring to steal my sleep and my money.

And also, that walk was the first really kind thing I have done for my dog, Lily, in a week. Truly. When I picked her up she licked my face and jumped up and down on the ground as if I had just pledged her a lifetime of chicken scraps and string cheese. (Which for the most part, I have.)

Not totally connected and yet maybe kinda a little connected, I also started to spend intentional time with my baby boy this week. He’s at this incredible joyful age, full of wonder and amazement and glee. Thirteen months is my favorite age yet.

I’ve been feeling a little haphazard as a mother lately. I am relieved and excited to finally see my son after being apart from him all day, and I am also feeling the pull of the forty things I really want to do, like read a book or watch Scandal.

That was really embarrassing to admit, by the way.

While on the floor with him on Monday I started to play a game with him. OK, mostly we were just putting the empty LaCroix cans in and out of a paper bag, but that is probably his favorite game in the world right now, and has the added benefit of teaching him the life skill of helping clean up the recycling.

I sat there with him and coached him through how to put the can in and out of the bag, and celebrated how he dropped each can into the bag, and how he often did so while standing on his own. My phone was off and my computer was put away, and the world was just him and me.

The next day we played with blocks, and the day after that we went to the park as a family. Yesterday we went on a boat ride.

And this week I’ve been thinking about what the world is like for him. At the center of his universe is his father and me, and I’ve been thinking about the joy we bring to his world with such a small amount of intentionality. And I wonder why it often seems so much easier to watch a forty minute TV show than it is to spend forty minutes of uninterrupted playtime with my child.

This is really embarrassing to admit, by the way.

So it’s been making me think about whether this week has been any different than any other week in the monotony and sacredness of the everyday ebb and flow. It’s been making me think about the connection between times of generous kindness and times of, if for only a small moment, being able to step outside of my default mindset that I am the center of the universe, the victim of the events around me.

It’s late and my son has been asleep for the past few hours. My dog is sleeping next to me on the couch, barely having left my side since I got home from work. With such adoration it is no wonder I so easily slip into thinking I’m the center of the universe. With such adoration it’s even possible to forgive some ridiculous bathroom issues.

After all, she’s forgiven me for the missed walks.

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Minding Your Own Business

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For my third year of teaching, along with switching schools for the third time, I also started teaching third grade. Previously I had identified as a middle school teacher, ending the day reeking of sixth and seventh grade hormone dust, much to the chagrin of my roommates. The transition to becoming a third grade teacher was, let’s just say, tearful. For everyone involved.

For starters, third graders are tattle-tales. The neighborhood rubbernecker has nothing on a third grade student. They are relentless in their scrutiny of their peers, and itch for the moment to tell on anyone who falls out of line. This can be tiresome. Multiply it by thirty students and it is downright exhausting.

The result: I coined my first third grade teacher catch phrase. After intentional instruction and “family meetings” with my students on the rug, the mantra we created and reiterated was, “If, for the rest of your life you only worry about yourself, that will be enough.”

This provided plenty of humor when students would come up to me and say, “I know I’m supposed to be worrying about myself, but Anaya just ate the eraser on her pencil.” But oddly enough, making this part of the daily rhetoric helped calm down the tattling, and helped steer the conversation toward self-reflection, a skill that has recently been difficult for me.

I’m generally a reflective person. Probably an overly reflective person. I’m the person who reflects on my reflecting. I have full conversations play out in my head and have, on more than one occasion, been known to make hand motions or facial expressions in fitting with my rehashing of an event. I promise I’m not crazy. Well, not too crazy.

But lately there’s been some stuff going on. Lots of big life changes. Family members are moving to other countries. I’m missing my parents, who live 400 miles away. The routines of my job are not automatic, so the mental requirement is taxing, and I’m examining every movement under a microscope. Reflecting on my reflecting, if you will.

While this has been going on, I’ve noticed a trend. The more stuff going on in my personal life, the more pissed off I get at the news. Mind you, there is always plenty in the news to get worked up about. It never disappoints. But a lot of the time I can still find that inner calm and resolve, keep chipping away at my piece of work to do, my part in creating the world I want to see. Or something like that.

Not lately. Lately I’ve been seeing Facebook status updates and having twenty minute rants to my husband, or my friends, or the check out person at the grocery store. No seriously. Lately I’ve been seeking out information from friends that will allow me to get opinionated and ornery. Lately I want to get out my measuring stick and start whacking knuckles to keep everyone in line.

There’s this rush I get when I am angry. It’s heady and powerful. There’s something so satisfying about identifying as righteous and holding myself a full two feet (two hundred feet) above everyone else.

So anyway, I go to church, at least a couple of Sundays a month, and one of the things that we talk about in church is when Jesus says to look at the log in your own eye before being concerned about the fleck of dust in your neighbor’s eye. And I think it’s pretty amazing how easy it is to see those small flecks in everyone else’s eyes, and how hard it is to notice the log in my own, weighing me down day after day.

Put another way, by my favorite Ani Difranco, “I’ve got something to prove, as long as I’ve got something that needs improvement.”

Maybe part of it is that it is so much easier to feel powerful than to feel powerless. It’s so much easier to look at Facebook and the world news and pronounce myself the arbitrator of right and wrong, and hypothesize whether or not our country should go to war than it is to do the pile of dishes that has migrated its way into our living room.

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It’s so much easier to look at my friend’s financial decisions and raise my eyebrows and shake my head than it is to reflect on whether or not we should be eating out for the fourth day this week.

It’s so much easier to look out than to look in.

This past week I have been coaching first year teachers. There have been so many surprises, so many ways in which the teachers have already surpassed my expectations of what it means to teach for a first year (my expectations being set, of course, at the most basic, fall on your face level of my first year). There has been one refrain I’ve heard over and over.

“They are (fill in number here) graders. They should know how to act by now!”

My response has stayed the same. Maybe they should know how to do this by now. But let’s say that they don’t. Let’s say that they don’t know how to do this. How are you going to teach them?

Because, after all, there’s a lot of things I should know by now.

I should probably know by now how to worry about myself. I should know how to spend time in quiet and reflection. I should know how to cry when I am sad and how to laugh when I’m happy and how to hold other people in love and kindness. And sometimes I do. And sometimes I don’t.

Thankfully, I’ve had a lot of good teachers in my life, ones who have assumed that regardless of what I should know, sometimes I need to be taught again.

I have teachers who remind me what it is to be the person I am, the person I want to be. Like my husband gently reminding me that the first week of the school year is always impossible. Or Karen reminding me that it never hurts to go out for a walk. And Lenora telling me that maybe it’s time to lay off of Facebook for a little while, at least until a little balance returns to my life. My teachers step in and tell me it’s time to put down the measuring stick, all the knuckles are broken.

In short, they remind me that If, for the rest of my life I only worry about myself, that will be enough.

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I’m going to a bonfire tonight.  And I certainly have some firewood to contribute, at least metaphorically speaking.

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