There Was A Cake…

There was a cake. The intention behind the cake was good, pure, and kind. My niece was coming with her family for Thanksgiving, and her sixth birthday falls on or near Thanksgiving each year. My own grandma’s birthday was always circled by the holiday, and I know she sometimes felt lost in the shuffle. With that in mind, my intent was to ignore all Thanksgiving, and create a pink birthday suitable for a 6 year-old. Thanksgiving could take over the next day, but prior, everything would be pink, darlings!

The best of intentions, eh? I mean, the decorations were fine- the pink fluffy unicorn stuffed animal taking up most of the table was perfect, the plates, cups, cutlery, straws, all in shades of bismuth. I,  carefully made the cake into six layers of rainbow, whipped up a batch of Mom’s buttercream, and layered that baby up on my favorite cake stand.

Using a star piping tip, I covered the cake in pink roses, and was putting the finishing touches on the trip around the bottom edge, when the ENTIRE CAKE TUMBLED FROM THE CAKE STAND, face down, onto the My Little Pony pink plastic tablecloth.

I gasped terrible enough that all my family ran into the dining room where I was working- and then they stood there, paralyzed, looking in horror at the mess. (what a great symbol for November as a whole, right?) I wanted to cry, but my brain was also simultaneously whirring as the silence broke and we all started laughing. There was nothing else to do.

Jeffrey got me the pizza-peel and we managed to flip it back over, scrape all he icing off, and make up batch #2. I used the first batch as a sort of spackle to stick all the layers and crumbling chunks back together. It wouldn’t be pretty when we cut into it, but I could probably salvage it- family was due later that night, and I didn’t want my niece to walk in to this monstrosity.

Two two cake mixes, four points of sugar, four sticks of butter (and I didn’t even swear, which is a miracle. Swearing is my comfort food) we had a repaired and serviceable cake.

She never knew.

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New York, New York

In our quest for more experiences and fewer things, we packed the kids up the first week of November, and headed off to New York City. Other than our trip to see Hamilton back in May, I had never been to NYC, either- I’m not sure the five hours in May counted as an actual visit. Jon’s sister and her husband met us there for three days of city exploring and fun, and it ended up being a pretty much perfect family trip.img_8674The drive from DC to NYC is only a few hours, and even Bean can manage that. We were able to leverage a great room in Midtown, where we not only had space (miraculous in Manhattan!) but the free Marriott breakfast buffet was included every morning. We figure we saved about $300 on breakfast alone, so totally worth it.

The first NYC Miracle was this:

img_8684Jeffrey immediately discovered the $1 pizza slices- Kelsey had been to NYC several times and was showing him the ropes. Our first foray, while we waited for Jon to return from parking the car, was the to the pizza stand on 6th and 39th. As I ordered slices for the other kids, Bean looked quizzically at me, and said, “Where’s mine?” Maintaining a calm facade, while freaking out and cheering inside, I slid another dollar towards the pizza man and asked for another slice of cheese. Pizza man, if he noticed me, might have been wondering why I was tearing up over his cheap pizza.

Having Bean in the city had me a little worried; how would he respond to the crowds of people, the smells, the noise? We’d talked about it, and part of why we got a midtown hotel was in case he needed to withdraw— it would have been easy for me to get him there, while letting everyone else go about their fun. Turns out it was all worries over nothing. He loved the city. He ate new food, he never wandered off, he communicated well, he seemed to just thrive on the energy- it was a complete, pleasant, surprise.

Jon met us back at the hotel, and after marveling at the views, we headed to Times Square. I wanted the kids to see it first in the dark, in all its flamboyant, garish, glory. They were not disappointed, and we walked through the throngs of people, laughing and with great smiles on everyone’s faces. Pro Tip: Dressing Bean in very loud clothing helps keep track of him—evidence to follow.img_8702Then, of course, we made our way to Hamilton, right as the night’s performance was getting under way. These kids, like a bajillion others, enter the lottery as often as possible, in hopes of someday getting a golden ticket. Someday it will happen!img_8701On Day Two, Bean donned what he named The Party Suit. Makes it very easy to keep track of him, honestly. We made massive use of the Marriott breakfast buffet, and headed out for our first NYC subway ride.

We headed down to see the September 11 Memorial. That was somber and more powerful than I anticipated; I knew it would be emotional, I just wasn’t quite prepared for how. I found the name of James V. DeBlasse, the man whom I wrote about in the 2996 Project, and stood still for a bit, thinking about that day. Three of our five kids weren’t even born yet, and none of them really remember a world before then.img_8724It’s a short walk from there to Trinity Church, where we were able to visit Alexander and Eliza Hamilton’s graves, and marvel at how many other people come to see them now. We found Angelica and Hercules, too, and then spent some time in the gorgeous sanctuary, where the kids lit a candle for David. It was a lovely pause in the middle of an exciting day.

Leaving the church, we made our way down Wall Street, visited General Washington, and headed towards the Battery. If you’re a #Hamilfan, you’re already singing all the same songs we did on our walk. The weather was sublime for November, and the skies were crystal blue and clear, with only a soft breeze. We didn’t need coats, and were fine in light sweaters. It was perfect.

Catching the Staten Island Ferry is a great way to get close to the Statue of Liberty, but keeping it affordable for a big family- we couldn’t get off, but for free, eight of us got to ride the ferry, see Lady Liberty, take our pictures, and everyone was happy. The ferry was easily Bean’s favorite part, but Abby was disgruntled because there were tall people in front of her- a fact she neglected to tell us until we’d disembarked. I think she still had fun anyway.

By the time darkness (such as it is in the city) settled in, everyone was pretty tired and ready for a break. We headed back to the room and ordered pizza, which for the first time ever, made EVERYONE happy! How great is it to feed all your kids the same food??!

Day Three, Jeffrey declared at the Breakfast Buffet that he was defeated. He was finally full, and the Marriott had won. Jon and I fist-bumped and marked the day.img_8776Much to our delight, Kelsey and I found a flea market on our blocked-off street, and we hurried down in search of souvenirs and treasures. It went on for blocks and blocks- food, vendors, crafts, junk, it was so amazing and fun. We wandered around until everyone was ready to head uptown. It was much colder than the day before, so cute scarves were in order, and easy to find. Everything is pretty much easy to find in NYC, right?img_8814

We headed uptown, towards the park, only to be stymied by the New York Marathon and the throngs of humans there, cheering on the runners. On Jeffrey’s food-bucket-list was a pastrami sandwich from Carnegie deli. Since no one else wanted one, we insisted he get it to go, and we wandered off to Rockefeller Center, where Bean desperately wanted to go ice skating, and Kelsey was her amiable self, happy sharing a piece of cheesecake with Abby.

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Our last stop was Grand Central Station, before we had to say goodbye to family and head our separate ways. Everyone was tired (according to the fitbit, we’d walked more than 23 miles in three days) but everyone was also happy. This is the first family vacation we’ve taken where there was no stress, no conflict, everyone got along beautifully, and everyone really had a great time. It’s so much easier to do this now that they’re older, and this just makes me even more determined to swap out stuff for experience. They are all still talking about what a great time they had, but have already forgotten the Lego they bought at 30 Rock. It’s pretty clear we have a plan for the future now.

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Okay, campers, rise and shine and don’t forget your booties ’cause it’s cold out there today!

Well, it’s December 1st. So how about that November, eh? I half expected to wakeup this morning and have it be November 1st again, and we’d get to Groundhog Day the whole month until we got it right. What a piece of nightmarish grace that would be, eh?

Mostly, I am trying to hold still, breathe, listen and pay attention to the things that actually matter, and not the twittery, shiny-bits meant to distract thoughtful folks from anything meaningful. Like so many Americans, I am trying to figure out what the new temperature is, and even though it’s not a season I chose or wanted, I can adjust, I can raise my voice, I can disallow my own silence, I can examine my dis/comfort (both of which are revealing).

We’ve had some good talks with the kids about our Republic, about the democratic process, the vital importance of voting, rule of law, and fact-checking. We’ve circled around to revisit well-known topics like bullying, standing up for one’s beliefs, being respectful to those who are different, but being courageous when called upon to stand. The biggest change is our complacency. I am guilty being certain in the arc of justice, and of not doing my part assure that truth. We are now actively seeking ways to volunteer in our community, to be involved, not just as a nice thing to say or at the holidays, but in a for-reals, boots-on-the-ground way. I don’t know yet where those steps will take us, but I’m doing it anyway.

I’m going to circle back around to a position of trying to say “yes” more often to experiences in my life. It’s so easy to allow gravity to do its work, keeping us in place. Even for things that would be enjoyable- but I remind myself, I am *always* glad when I break my own gravity and say yes to something new.

So for December, aside from living a sort-of normal life and enjoying the holidays, I’m going to pick back up on the memoir writing challenge, I’m going to write about New Orleans and New York City, where I have become enchanted, like so many better writers before me. I’m dialing back on physical Christmas gifts, and focusing on experiences and *doing* rather than *stuff*.

Some bullet points for my posterity on the last few weeks, and notes for forthcoming posts:

  • We should have know the Cubs winning the World Series would usher in Biff.
  • We started out the month in New York City, where we met Jon’s sister and her husband, and took the kids for the first time. We geeked out at Hamilton (didn’t get in, of course), visited Trinity Church, the Battery, and the NYPL. We walked nearly 30 miles in three days, ate cheap street pizza, rode the Staten Island Ferry, rode the subway, ate more cheap street pizza, watched the skaters at 30 Rock, waited in line for a ridiculous pastrami sandwich of Jeffrey’s dreams, and introduced the world to Bean’s Party Suit. It was magnificent, and we can’t wait to make it a family tradition.
  • The night before the election, we watched a film on women’s suffrage, and the girls wore white and accompanied me to vote. Regardless of the outcome, this was an outstanding lesson in civic duty and history.
  • I’m proud of the artists and poets and creative ones who are finding ways to use their art—as ever—to make the world safer, brighter, and better. Even when it’s hard. Especially when it’s hard.
  • I started stress-knitting after the election, and I think I have 30 socks now. Upside, right? Stress knitting > stress eating, at the very least.
  • The dog… oh how the dog has been loved this month. Everyone wants him to lay on their feet, and he follows me from room to room. I never expected to love him so much.
  • Birthdays were celebrated by my dad, my brother, Auntie Heather, and my adorable niece- and there was a colossal birthday cake debacle, of which there are pictures.
  • Penzey’s Spices, already my culinary accompaniment of choice, further solidified their bonafides in my kitchen. I will be loyal forever.
  • For Thanksgiving we were overflowing with family, and it was wonderful.
  • All twelves of us went to see Moana, and I cried at least three times, and will write down my complicated thoughts at some point. But L-MM’s voice though… seriously.
  • Christmas Tree Day was honored and the halls were decked- it was chaos, and I had a mea culpa moment with Jon, after I insisted on a life tree, then chose poorly. Have to put up a Christmas tree on day, only to take it down a day later and replace it with another? I have!
  • To wrap the month, and in keeping with our quest for experience over stuff, we used airline miles for me to accompany Jon on a work trip to New Orleans. It’s been on my list for decades, literally, and I have been walking the streets in amazement. I shall return and report shortly.

Fragile Like a Razor Blade

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When I was a child, my dad had one of those old-fashioned shaving razors where, to change the blade, you twisted the handle and two safety-brackets swiveled up to release the paper-thin, wickedly sharp blade. Sometimes, I would play with it, marveling at how something so thin and perfectly flexible could be so destructive when handled wrong or carelessly.

This week has been devastating in ways I never fathomed feeling as an American. There will be treatises and thesis written by people much smarter than me on what went wrong, and I cannot even begin to dig myself out yet from the avalanche- I don’t think anyone can see clearly yet what has been wrought. I have never been a doomsday predictor, nor a fan of apocalyptical thinking. As many have already said, this isn’t just that the candidate I favored lost- that’s happened to me many times. I have lived fairly and peacefully under presidents and congresses with whom I disagreed and under whose policies I protested. This however, feels different. Not just different in magnitude, but categorically.

I’m not going to wade into the weeds and I absolutely am not interested in argument. What I am doing is recording for my children where their mother stands. I see now that believing voting was enough was wrong. I see now that blind faith in the arc of justice being fair and finding its own way was wrong. I see now that complacency in my own comfortable life was wrong. I see now that the racism from which I was protected by the accident of my birth is an actual, real danger to my brothers and sisters. I see now that post-racial is a myth. I see now that I must not assume anything, but must purposely pop the bubble around myself and move into the world with purpose.

A black friend said to me, “You’re so surprised. We are not. We knew this.” and I realize how I and my other feminist friends have failed utterly to listen. Listen, listen, listen. My friend comforted me in my sorrow and fear- feelings with which she is far more familiar and acquainted than me, and I apologized. She told me it was not necessary to apologize, but to stand up, speak up, move forward with faith. This is dance she has been mastering the steps of for generations, and we would do well to pay attention to her voice, and the voices of all those who knew. Listen listen listen. And then move forward.

The ideas that constitute the American experiment are some of the finest 0f inspired human directives- e pluribus unum, liberty, justice and freedom for all in a pluralistic society. We’ve not moved in a straight line towards those goals, not ever- but the beliefs holding those ideals up have been our guiding principles for 240 years. We’ve failed before. We’ve hurt ourselves before, and we’ve healed. We’ve cut ourselves now pretty badly on the razor’s edge of our experiment, but we’re not broken. We just forgot how sharp the edges were in our complacency.

As best you can, bandage your wounds, roll up your sleeves. I will help. Lets get to work. I’ll be there with you.

Day 25: Outside

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Uvas Canyon, Morgan Hill CA

Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Twenty-Five.

When you went down the steps from the old white house, you could turn one way towards grass, the gully, and the high tall oak up the hill where the swing waited. If you turned the other way, a gradual downhill took you across a wooden footbridge over a shallow seasonal creek and up through the apricot orchard where the dads occasionally set up bales of hay for target practice with compound bows and sometimes even loud guns. The shots would echo up the canyon, and while we kids were shoed suitably far away, the reverberation would rattle my teeth.

In the creek, feet covered in clay and balancing on smooth stones, us kids would find small green and black snakes, small bumpy frogs, and sometimes even a crawfish. Following the creek down behind the barn led one past the hog pens, and I liked to find a switch from the oaks and scratch the backs of the 2 or 3 auburn-bristled hogs milling about grunting softly. There was a horse pen next to the hogs, but I wasn’t allowed near the only semi-tame painted horse. The pony was the same auburn as the hogs, and I loved sauntering around the property on his slow, tired, dusty back.

There were no parents managing us kids, not really- we’d be expected to check in periodically, but mostly we were free to range. We’d walk down the dirt road towards the pond, toes leaving imprints in the silky dry dust, feet toughened by days upon days of being outside. We’d swim in the steep-sided pond, sharing the space with harmless garter snakes, and knew enough to keep our eyes out for less harmless rattlers. We’d start a pick-up whiffle ball game in the gently sloping dirt driveway, bases created from whatever we could find. Dogs barked and ran among us, and an occasional stiff breeze reminded us the hogs weren’t far away.

If you meandered up through the apricot orchard, your bare feet would crush the wild growing native oregano with each step, perfuming the already impossibly scented California air. The edges of the orchard were deep with pines and oak scrub, dark and sighing. We didn’t go there.

The house was old, had been moved there years before, and in my earliest memory, doesn’t even have indoor plumbing. There is an actual outhouse and we bathe in a galvanized apple tub in the front yard. On the old wood stove near the gully the water is heated, and the dirtiest kids go last. The water was either tepid, or scalding hot, and moms were waiting with warm dry towels to wrap each child fresh from the tub.

We’d be ushered upstairs, where bunk beds and thick, dusty quilts awaited our sleepy, tired bodies. I could peek out the wavy old glass windows into the night, and fall asleep watching the parents gathered around a bonfire, their distant laughter and happiness drifting over the cooling night.

Day 24: Retreat

 

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Twenty-Four.

Home. Home has always been my retreat. I’ve always been careful about crafting my home, and on Crazy Chicken Annie’s advice, even as a young woman, I was careful about what I brought into my home. “Make sure you surround yourself with things you love.” It’s been a recurring theme as I’ve moved from a wild(ish) young woman, through my twenties, into motherhood, and into a more mature space now in my forties, where the house will  slowly begin to empty. I have always wanted home to be my safe place- and by extension, for my home to feel safe for anyone who stepped over my threshold.

The chaos of having so many children in and out of the door means it’s not always a retreat, and earlier this year our smallest room emptied out as the first child headed off to college.  My husband graciously asked if I’d like to turn that room into an office, so I could have my own clean, well-lit space. Oh yes. Yes, I thought, I would like that very much…

The empty room was actually surprisingly sad for the other kids, who miss seeing their sibling. I involved them in paint color opinions and in scouring thrift stores for lamps, curtains, and ideas, and then started slowly working towards creating a new, inviting space.

Over the course of the summer, I carefully curated the things I brought into the new room. It’s ostensibly mine, but it’s quickly become one of the most favorite, frequently peopled rooms in the house, despite it being the tiniest. Everything in this room has personal meaning, is important, or sentimental, or makes me feel good. The lighting is quirky and makes me happy, the sitting chair is old, sturdy, and the most comfortable seat in the house. Jon and Jeffrey compete for it, when the dog isn’t trying squeeze onto the old cushions. I have mementos from my travels, photos of loved ones spilling from a cork board, baskets of yarn and knitting needles, free to use. There is a clay bowl filled with black sand from a beach in Greece, a heart-shaped rock from a California river, a feather from Tyrol, a small cream pitcher from my great-grandmother, and a crystal from Mo hanging in the window.

The shelves have books I have read and love, books that have helped me, saved me, and become as friends. There are gentle inside jokes, gifts and drawings from the kids, my Hamilton playbill, and original art from dear friends. Bean has a pillow near Wallace the Bookcase (my best thrift store find) where he’s stake out “his spot”. Tiberius, never more than a few inches from me, snores soundly and my feet and I have to be careful not to step on his velvety ears when I stand up. The things that I love fill this space, and it’s where I go to write.

An interesting thing has happened— it’s become everyone’s favorite room. My husband keeps his computer in here now, leaning against the comfy chair, instead of at his own desk. At night, the kids will fill all the space, taking the chair, laying on the floor reading, giggling and talking. There is a closeness, not just because it’s a small room, and six people and a dog are hanging out. The low light in the evening, the careful curation of items invited in, the sense of place and story and care in the space- humans respond to this. We can feel love in different ways, and we can feel when someone loves something. Everyone who comes in this room can feel it, and they seek it out. It’s become a retreat not just for me, but for my family.

Day 23: Suffering

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Taking part in the Ann Dee Ellis 8-Minute Memoir Writing Challenge. This is Day Twenty-Three.

Love and suffering and are so woven together as to be inseparable. Any time we endeavor to love, we know there will be suffering- we don’t know when or exactly how, but love simply cannot be uncoupled from suffering.

Love is worth it anyway- and you cannot even fight it. The only way to avoid suffering is to avoid connection, friendship, relationships- the very things that bring us our greatest joys. When you love another being, you know there will someday be loss. When you marry, one of you will lose the other. When you have a child, there will be pain, both received and given. When you become attached to a pet, at some point there will be loss. And we do it anyway.

But we needn’t fear loss and suffering. To paraphrase Kahlil Gibran, love and loss are from the selfsame cup. The heights of your joy are mirrored by the depths of your sorrow. Don’t be afraid. Allow these things to roll over you.

I know this is true. I know the things I imagined would break me, while they hurt like hell and brought me to my knees, also, over time, became things that broadened my heart, grew my humanity, expanded my compassion, deepened my empathy and my ability to love. And the cycle repeats.

Love is always worth the risk. There is no other way to be fully alive.