Land vs. World

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I’m not yet prepared to sort thought the tangle of emotions that accompanied the shooting at my kids school last week while I was away (for the very first time ever!). I mean, the confluence of things happening all at once makes me think I should have bought a lottery ticket instead of taken a flight to Florida.

But Florida it was. And my, my, my…

Of course Florida is home to wonderful communities, indigenous people, and regular lives. One of the reasons I opted to join Jon—other than never having been to Florida and it being a 48-hour gig—was because a close friend lives there and I wanted to see her. She’s a regular person—a college professor, a mom, and a recent PhD. But that regular part of Florida? That part with real things? That’s not what I found in Orlando.

I’m sure there must be countless evocative think-pieces on the artificiality and sprawl nurtured and fed by the enormous monster that is the Mouse-centered tourist industry in central Florida. I maybe should have read them first, because folks…I was not prepared. Mile after flat mile of low-slung hotels in inoffensive pastel colors with Bahamian shutters surrounded by man-made lakes with a single fountain (mosquito abatement, I was told). I suspect it’s a different experience if one stays on the Mouse properties and is seeking the entire Experience. What I saw, instead, given that we were not there for that experiences, was stark tiers of privilege and class.

Orlando–at least the parts down near the parks, struck me as a perfect Potemkin Village. Nothing is real, it’s all artifice. Depending on your socio-economic status, you can buy the really pretty village where the curtain is meticulously cultivated and maintained, where you’re carefully protected and insulated from the reality behind the scenes. But man, does that come at a cost.  People who cannot afford that level of cultivation—most folks, I imagine—have to opt for whatever they can afford in an attempt to experience this fantasy, which will be on one of the outward radiating circles from the Mouse-eared epicenter.

Every restaurant was contrived. Every store was packed to the rafters with mouse-themed merchandise–licensed to be sure, but not the same as available inside the parks, because that would dilute the brand and violate the curtain. Outside this most privileged and expensive circle, there were the Plan B parks—some of which appeared to be very nice, but make no mistake, they orbit the center, not the other way around. Without the Mouse, even the nicest knock-offs wouldn’t be there. I won’t even touch the exploitive nature of parks that monetize sea mammals. Just watch Blackfish.

I think this is what happens when one moves from creating a -Land to a -World.

A Land is a nice place to visit and spend the afternoon. A World requires everything around it to sustain it. I’m not at all casting aspersions on the people who enjoy this, or who are employed and like their jobs. I’m simply noticing, as an outsider, what a strange feeling it is to be in a place that feels so completely unnatural.  As an aside, I am concerned at the caste system that seems to have sprung up in these parks—once up on a time, everyone paid to get in and everyone waited in line and everyone got to ride the same rides. Now, it appears wealth can buy access to shorter lines, earlier entry, more attractions, and a completely different park experience.

As someone who literally grew up in the -Land, I cannot imagine Mr. D sitting on his park bench waiting for his daughters and thinking what has happened to his dream was a good thing.

Anyway, Florida is weird. I saw an armadillo. I met a glorious white boxer puppy at the supermarket. We never did find any good food (but I know this was entirely because of where we were staying), but I did get to meet my friend for breakfast. I did get a two nights with my husband, which we spent hanging out in one of the several hot tubs at our pastel-painted bahamian-shuttered hotel.

And then we tried to get home.

(I know people are passionate in their love and defense of Disney, and if you love love love the parks and it’s your happy place, believe me, I understand. I just don’t experience the same feelings anymore, for a host of complex reasons—some of which I tried to share here—and that’s okay too!)

Nah, **** it

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There’s a laundry list of things I need to write about, but it’s like when a kid has a giant cake they don’t quite know what to do with or where to attack it. And it’s not necessarily a delicious cake. It’s a cake made of parenting wins and fails, testing boundaries all over the place, travel chaos, the uncomfortable lack of control that becomes more and more apparent as life goes on, life-changing decisions, standing on the precipice of a new act, and maybe even some actual laundry. Sound like a cake you want? Like so much in life, what I want isn’t necessarily relevant. Open wide.

To quote Jeffrey from last night, as Jon and I were on the last leg of a nineteen-hour travel nightmare trying to get home, “I don’t want to be Mom anymore. It’s hard.”

So here are the things I am ruminating on, and which deserve more than a small blip, but I’m starting out with a blip so I can bookmark these thoughts while they coalesce into something more substantive (maybe?).

  • Jeffrey had his senior portraits taken and graduates in less than a month. He’s been accepted into Utah State University. He’s seventeen now, and I am perplexed by the somehow constant and still fluid passage of time. It’s trite, but yesterday he was holding my hands and testing his little chubby feet in his first steps, and today he is 6’2″ and can easily pick me up with a giant laugh when I am annoying him while he gets his portrait taken. I haven’t quite figured out what to do with these things, and time doesn’t care about my fluidity, the constancy marches on.
  • For the very first time, Jon and I decided to leave the kids overnight while I accompanied him on a short (<48 hours) business trip to Florida. That’s it’s own post, and I think I understand the “Florida man…” memes now. But…
  • Within two hours of our departure, while we were still on the airplane, there was a shooting at my kids’ high school. Maybe you can imagine the full-body panic as I turned on my phone on the tarmac in Orlando and watched the horrifying notifications roll up my phone—but I hope you never, ever have to feel it. The next 48 hours are something I need to catalog, especially since I was suddenly stuck hundreds of miles from home and completely powerless. We’re all mostly powerless in so many ways, but nothing brings that home quite like not being able to get to your children. I have thoughts.
  • Then, in a desperate attempt to actually GET home, what should have been a less-than two-hour flight turned into a nineteen (yes, 19!) hour ordeal that included mechanical failures on the runway, over-sold flights, a plane leaking water in my lap from the ceiling (I have video!), failed standby attempts, requisite lost baggage, and even lightning strikes. It became a nightmare-ish comedy in which I had an epiphany about the absurd tragedy of life and the lengths to which we go to make ourselves feel like we have some control (over anything) but really…we just don’t. Laughter and human connection is all we have. That’s it. But it also happens to be everything.
  • I’ve accepted a spot in law school, and classes begin at the end of August. This is really happening. And, surprise surprise, I have thoughts.
  • Add Sane Gun Laws and Gun Control to my list of things on my law-school agenda. I can tackle IDEA, disability law, SpEd, and the NRA, right??

So I plan on unpacking my overnight bag, taking a long, hot shower, picking up Jeff’s graduation announcements, and mailing the last batch of peanut butter (I know some of you are waiting still and I’m sorry I’m a week behind–The stores are sold out!)

I know some folks still read here, and I’m planing on moving back to more long-form writing. I’ve withdrawn some from some forms of media, and I realize I really need the catharsis and practice of writing in more than 200 characters, though I also appreciate the brevity and humor those constraints have helped cultivate.

Basically, I’m back babies.

(It said ‘bitches” but then I decided to be more well-behaved. But then I decided, “nah, f*ck it.” That might be my new motto.)

For Charlotte, Whom I Love

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My former mother-in-law, Charlotte, died today. She went the way many of us hope to, in her sleep, and in her 90s. But I am rather shocked at the depth of the loss I am feeling. She was a deeply good woman who was kind and forgiving. She walked beside me, a quiet, unassuming but constant presence, through some of the hardest and most painful years of my life, and she was always there.  She forgave me my youthful pride, and she quietly loved us, through and after the loss of her son, my former husband, my children’s father. Her loss is being deeply felt in our hearts.

I humbly offer this piece I wrote about her a while back, when I realized what a gift she was to me, and to my children. If there is a merciful and loving God, then David was there waiting for her this morning, and she is wrapped in light and free of pain.

Our hearts are broken today.

I owe my former mother-in-law an apology. Years ago, back when life was safe and normal, and my then-husband was allowing me the luxury of staying home with my babies, I had a very unforgiving opinion of my then-mother-in-law. I’ve long-since revised that opinion privately (and to her), but it occurred to me I wrote some very harsh and frank pieces about my interactions with her, and while I have experienced the shift and nuance of that relationship changing, my written record, and what stands as a testament to my character, has not reflected those changes.

My MIL and I are very different people. Our life-experiences and generational perspective are worlds apart— and while that can probably be said of most women in our stations, here it’s particularly true. She had my husband later in life, and is actually older than my own grandmother would have been. It was easy for me to forget that she wasn’t of my mother’s generation, and actually had children the same age as my parents. It made for a complicated dynamic which I was not mature enough to fully understand. It’s likely I still can’t. But I at least wish to acknowledge my own complicity in what was so frequently a complicated and difficult relationship.

My MIL is a good person. Even when we seemed to be at cross-purposes, she was never unkind. She loves my children greatly, and has gone out of her way to always make sure they know it. When we’re young and have the hubris of still thinking we know ‘everything’ we can miss the subtlety of differing forms of expression. I made this mistake— a lot. Because my MIL did things differently than my own mother, differently than I would have, I felt secure in disregarding her perspective. I can’t imagine how frustrating this must have been to her, and I wish to apologize.

Throughout the colossal disaster of her son’s and my divorce, she continued, though I’m sure her heart was daily breaking, to reach out to me. It was actually in the painful shards of mutual loss of her son that I think I finally was able to see her as a mother and woman. Her continued kindness, despite my own howling pain, came to be something stable and reliable, and I am grateful to her for not giving up on me.

Now, nearly four years out from the divorce, and living across the country, we don’t see each other anymore. I still try and make sure she gets pictures of the kids, and I could certainly be better about having them call her. She still offers support and sends the kids cards and occasionally video chats with them. I’m grateful for her willingness to continue to help my ex-husband; it’s through her support that he is working on his recovery and able to successfully be a part of his kids’ lives, even if at a distance.

She has seen more than her share of heart-break, and as time has marched on, I have found my respect for her growing. I don’t know why some folks gets heaping piles of heartache in this life while others skate through… I may never understand. I am, however, deeply indebted and grateful to this particular woman, who has provided an example of compassionate love and forgiveness in the face of more than her share of tragedy.

I hope that sets the record straight.

Winter Wrap Up

Happy Spring! Let’s do a winter wrap-up before I start really trying to look forward.

It has been the cold season of brake-jobs for Jon and Jeffrey. Together they replaced the brakes on the family car, then Jeffrey, with Jon’s oversight replaced the brakes on Jon’s commuter car. Once that was done, Jeff moved on to replacing the brakes on his own car. It took a couple of weekends, some You-Tube videos, and a few seriously busted knuckles, but our cars all stop and also don’t make any terrible noises. Ordering the parts and doing the labor ourselves literally saved a couple thousand dollars, and we have a kid who feels pretty confident in his abilities and proud of himself.

Bean has started playing quidditch—I mean, Lacrosse. I was trying to describe it to someone the other day, and “quidditch” was I could come up with, drawing a total blank on lacrosse. It’s been a long time finding him a sport he enjoys; the chaos of team sports is hard for sensory kids, but this one finally seems to have clicked. He really genuinely loves it, and has been working hard. He also really loves carrying a big stick.

Kelsey turned 16 and Abby is getting ready to turn 13, which will bring our household total officially to four teenagers, two cats, one enormous dog, and two flummoxed and tired parents. Kelsey gets her driver’s license the same time Bean can get his permit. I’m not sure we’re ready for this, but that’s pretty much the story of parenting: You’re never ready.

It’s harder than I thought it would be trying to choose a law school. So far I’ve been accepted into three programs, am waitlisted on another, and haven’t heard yet from the remaining three schools. The clock is ticking on making a decision—I have until mid-April before I have to commit. It’s harder than I expected. There is one program I particularly love, but it has some real hurdles to our family if I take it. There is another that’s significantly more convenient for our family, but isn’t as appealing academically to me. I haven’t figured out what the right path is yet. It’s nice to have options. But it’s also a little scary.

It’s been a tough season for grief. This surprised me, though I feel like it shouldn’t. I think maybe that’s just the way it goes.

We picked me up a little inexpensive commuter car. After driving big family-mobiles for the better part of two decades, it’s pretty delightful to be in something small, fuel efficient, and zippy. She’s a stick, which is also utterly delightful, and which all children will now learn. I have named her Stella Blue. Abby will turn 16 when I’m graduating from law school, and I suspect Stella will convey over at that point.

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This might be burying the lede, but we had some wonderful news family-wise yesterday. Our extended family is gaining two new cousins, who have come to us through the foster  system. We are over the moon that these children, who we already love so much, are going to be adopted in and be our family forever.

Bean has some exciting peanut-butter and austin related news we’ve been working on for months, and I think next week we’ll be able to make it public.

If you read my memoir, The Burning Point, you might remember my first apartment, across the street from David’s white-painted victorian? I found an old picture, and you can see the piano-shop sign on the building next to it, and my first bug, Apple, parked in front. My apartment was the second story, the open window is the kitchen.

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Happy Birthday David

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The sun is very definitely in Pisces, and it feels like you.  It also feels like home to me. Of course it does, I can hear your laughter and see you pointing at me. I think it’s your laughter I miss almost more than I miss being able to talk to you. As the kids get older, there are so many times I want to reach for the phone, to get your input, your wisdom. I’m a little surprised to find myself occasionally mad. Grief is such a fluid animal. I know you didn’t leave on purpose, but dammit, sometimes I get angry that you’re gone. I recognize that’s about me, and is mine to deal with, but I also know you well enough to know that you’d nod and tell me that it was okay, feelings just are what they are.

Each night lately, the kids all gather in the bedroom with Jon and I, and I read a chapter of the book I wrote about us. Between the five adult-sized humans, the giant dog, and now two cats (did I tell you that? we added cats) the room is overflowing. Bean usually lays on the floor with the dog, while Abby and Jeff take the two reading chairs. The cats do whatever the hell they want, because they’re cats. All three of the kids wanted to read the book, but all three said it was really hard, and having me do it would help. Thus began our evening project. The best part is that we can stop, talk about what’s happening, and I can fill in details and answer questions, and they can discover their own memories tied to where we are in the book. It turns out writing is an excellent way to preserve memories. Who knew? There is a feeling of closeness and anticipation that I didn’t expect; three teenagers actually want to listen to their mom read every night.

It’s also allowed me to see how small a sliver of who we were that I’ve managed to preserve. But it’s better than nothing.

Remember how I said I was going to maybe focus on something more academic for the future? Well, I applied to law school. I know, right?! I’ve spent the better part of a year on it, but we’re in the home-stretch now; I’m getting back answers on my applications. It’s all theoretical until you get that yes… but what an impact that yes makes when it comes. So far, I have heard back from two of the half dozen schools where I applied. Both said yes. It feels surreal and I never imagined I could actually do this—I have some imposter syndrome crap to work through, but it looks like I’m going to law school. I can hear you laughing, saying give me a bucket, because of course.

Jeffrey is getting ready to graduate high school. That’s even more surreal than me going to law school. He’s nearly the same age I was when we met. He’s such a good kid, you’d be insanely proud of him. Just this week we got an email from is criminal justice teacher praising his character and recommending him for a scholarship. He’s interested in forensics and investigative law enforcement, and he was accepted to Utah State. I’m not sure any of us are ready for that, either—including him. But he’s also brave and has a very strong sense of self and who he is. He wants to do good in the world.

Bean has had quite a year. He’s become something of a minor celebrity. Through a series strange and weirdly modern events, he won a lifetime supply of peanut butter from a German grocery store chain. Because he’s Bean, he looked at that lifetime supply and told me we needed to share it. So he did. With the help of the grocery store, he had two giveaways for furloughed federal workers, and then he donated another 1800 jars to a local food bank. He shrugs off the attention, and keeps being Bean. He’s started playing lacrosse, and is enjoying it far more than football. Hey says there are no asses on the lacrosse team. I trust him.

Abby flies under the radar as much as possible. She made all-county band and is an alternate for all-state band as a 12 year-old. We didn’t find out until we showed up for the concert and looked at the program. She just kept telling us she had a band thing, but she didn’t think it was a big deal. (The two cats are hers, by the way.) She’s insanely talented at drawing, but her real passions is still in science. She goes to the high school with her brothers each morning for classes before heading back to the middle school to finish her day. She’s finding her grove and has a quiet Taurean resiliency about her.

Our tradition now is to celebrate your birthday each year with Hobbees shakes and papa’s papas. Tonight, Bean has a lacrosse game, so our birthday meal is being pushed to tomorrow morning instead. When we discussed this last night, the kids all felt you’d understand, and that you’d probably rather watch Bean play his game anyway.

There are times it feels like you’ve been gone for a lifetime, and there are times it still feels like yesterday. I hope you are occasionally able to be nearby, and that you can see or feel the kind, decent, beautiful humans our children are becoming. I often think about what you said after Jeffrey was born. You told me it wasn’t about us anymore. That, to paraphrase Kahlil Gibran, our children were the arrows we would launch into the future, and life was now theirs. You weren’t wrong. You seldom were.

We miss you. I hope you have found peace.

Tracy Leigh

Yes (now what?!)

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I love this picture, taken the other night by my sister-in-law at her house. Jon’s not mansplaining (he doesn’t do that) but for some reason the way this looks tickles me.

I’ve been accepted to my first law school. There are still half a dozen applications pending, so I don’t know what will ultimately shake out as a plan, but the truth is this: I threw my hat in the ring, and have a concrete Yes.

That incandescent “yes”…the smile didn’t leave my face for hours. I smiled at everyone I passed, and if I’d had a hat to throw in the air, I would have. I got a Yes. And it wasn’t just a Yes—it was a yes with very generous scholarship attached.

This amazing thing has happened. It was something I worked hard to do—I studied for months, I took a really hard test (while waiting on gallbladder surgery, woke with pink-eye, the brakes went out on both my car *and* Jeffrey’s car, which I drove to the test—test-day was almost ridiculous in its absurdity) and I did well enough that I not only passed, that a law school has offered me not only a place, but money to attend their program. Achievement unlocked! So why was it easier to accept the hard parts of studying and applying than to accept the reward?

For someone like me, for whom trauma still sometimes surprisingly rears its head, good things happening can be scary. Even acknowledging it being scary is scary. I have a hard time trusting good things, and that sometimes affects…everything?

I think acknowledging the complexity of accumulated experiences is helpful. I’m not telling myself not to feel these feelings, but I *am* telling myself not to get too wrapped up in any one of them. They’re just feelings. They come and go, and I don’t have to amplify my anxieties, nor do I have to minimize my joy.

So this really amazing thing happened—something I wanted and worked hard for. That’s great! This really amazing thing also brings with it decisions, shifts in focus, and potential changes not just for me, but for my family. That’s new and maybe it can feel a little scary, but it’s also okay. I acknowledge I am incredibly fortunate—my husband and kids are fully behind me and are cheering me on, even when I’m afraid.

If I have learned anything over the last two decades, it’s that change is the constant. There is no stasis in life. None. Some changes we choose and welcome, some not. But life is in a constant state of flux and flow, and finding ways to be emotionally okay with that truth is a step towards a meaningful life.

Either way, deep breaths are called for, and required. And if you see me randomly smiling to myself in the clearance racks at Target, it’s not because the jeans were marked down. Well, maybe it’s that, too…

Thanks for coming to my personal pep talk.

Busy Be Back Soon (Again)

IMG_5389The last week has been insane. You know when you have so many plates juggling you don’t know where to look? I’m there.

My kids’ godmother lives in Ohio, and we took an impromptu road trip to see her and help support her and her family over some bumps. It was a good trip–I pulled my three kids from school early on Friday and we took advantage of the three-day presidents weekend. While we were on the road, why not also tour a law school or two? Oh, and maybe a snow storm could blow through for the majority of the drive? Yes, great!

We had fun though, and it was worth it. Jon got a weekend at home with Kelsey and our expanding zoo. I made a bid for another puppy–a brindle mastiff girl who ended up in rescue. Someone else got to her before me, so I hope they love her as much as we would have. I’ll keep trying.

I’ve applied to six law schools now. I’ve heard folks apply to 18 or 20, hedging their bets. I’m kind of wracked with existential anxiety over whether I’m not being smart, or whether I’m being realistic–I cannot pick up and move across the country, and I’m not getting into an Ivy, and I’m a “mature student” *gag* so I have to be smart, and I’m targeting select schools where I think it makes financial sense to focus. Like so much in life, it’s about balancing all the advice, weighing it out, and then doing what you’ve worked out is best for you and your family. It’s hard. I have two more on my list, so maybe making it a lucky 8 would be good.

At the same time, we’re helping Jeffrey navigate this process from the other end. Adulting is hard when you’ve been doing it for almost 30 years, and it’s hard when you’re just learning how to begin. There are so many variables and unknowns right now.

The kids were in school for all of two days this week—not because of me and my lackadaisical approach to long weekends. The district called snow days on Wednesday and Thursday, though it was 47* on Thursday. Go, Virginia! The superintendent of our district actually sells joke merchandise about school closures, because he moved here from New York, and like me, is floored by the calls they make about snow.

There are potentially exciting things coming down the road for Bean and Autism activism. I will report more as I am able. He’s also being honored by the school district for his community service and food bank donations. It looks like he’s going to stick with lacrosse, and he’s decided he wants to learn how to drive.

Abby was so content to spend the weekend with her godmother. They have a special relationship, and I deeply appreciate the bond they share. Abby made all-county band, and is so humble, she forgot to tell us, until the day of the concert. She kept telling me she was just practicing for a “band thing.”

Finishing off the week, I have a contract to go over and sign, student aid forms to fill out for both me and for Jeffrey, book club, a friend in from out of town, and…I think that’s it? I mean, other than the regular stuff of running a house with four teenagers, three animals, and two parents.