Falling down

This fall has been a whirlwind.

I started teaching elementary school. Third grade. I did this without any training or background in education. I did this with only a certificate from the state that said I could and my own belief that this had to be better than what I was doing.

I have cried and given up and lost my temper and continued to show up every day, because at the very least that’s the best I can do. I owe those 8- and 9-year-olds in my care at least that. My presence.

Teaching reminds me of the first time I was pregnant. I had no idea what it would actually be like to be somebody’s mom, but I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Life will be different, sure, I’d thought. But I can handle that; we’ll figure it out without too much trouble.

Flash forward to two weeks after my son was born and I was thinking,¬†“What did I do to my life?”

He wouldn’t sleep unless he was nursing, and “nursing” for him meant snacking and pacifying until he fell asleep. It was an endless, thankless cycle. He was also tongue-tied, so nursing was a lot of work, and he was never full. There is a photograph of 25-year-old me and 4-week-old him, and he looks like a skeleton with taut, pale skin. I can barely look at it.

So teaching has been that. It has been the false confidence that I could figure it out without too much struggle, without so much exhaustion, without the roller coaster of emotions. It has been that I was wrong about everything.

In reality, it has been an overdrawn checking account and generic food from the grocery store.

It has been resilience so many times, if only in the fact that I haven’t quit.

I love the kids I teach. I do not love much else. Picture any job you’ve ever had and the drama that came with it. Then, put 500 elementary-school-aged children into that picture with you.

Yeah.

That.

However, one boy told me he wants to go to Stanford when he grows up. This is the same boy who reaches out to the autistic child in my room to make sure he’s OK, the same one who quickly goes to help a classmate who accidentally knocked over the caddy full of crayons and glue sticks.

Another girl found out she was receiving an award at school yesterday and came to school in her best white satin dress and high white heels. She had curled her own hair.

During work time in writing yesterday, she came to me and said, “Mrs. Harvey, I can’t believe I forgot to shave my arms!”

She brushed her hand over her forearm, and I said,” Your arms? No, sweet pea, don’t shave your arms!”

Then she told me her mom does, and so I showed her my forearm and told her most women don’t shave the top of their arms (“just their armpits,” I whispered).

She just smiled at me, like I simply wasn’t in on the way real grown-up women (and third-graders) do things.

She is one of my favorites.

Another boy is a foster child with the most charismatic smile ever.

Another boy sobbed yesterday because two classmates wouldn’t let him join their math game. But when I pressed him, he said it was really because he hasn’t seen his dad in a year.

A girl in another class, to whom I teach writing, chose her family as the topic of an informational text she is writing. Her first chapter is about her mom. Her second is about her dad. Yesterday, she said, “I don’t really know much about my dad. He’s never been in my life. How do I write about him?”

Maybe you don’t, sweet pea. Maybe I don’t know. Maybe there is so much I don’t know.

At home, we are sometimes good and many times stressed. Lila has figured out that she’s 2 and that there is a phrase that rhymes with “Merrible Moos.” She has discovered her voice. That one that sounds really loud and shriek-like whenever she doesn’t get her way. This week, she learned that she can pull the keys off the MacBook Pro when left unattended with our family’s only computer. I am now typing on a keyboard that’s missing the M, D, Z and other non-letter buttons.

Fantastic.

Lila, though, has also learned to say, “I love you,” and give Eskimo kisses and talk regularly in full, complete sentences and dance and laugh and twirl and make us laugh more than anything else. She is the sun.

Rye tried out for a competitive boys basketball team the other night. It was courage in action. It was him knowing other boys are better than he is but deciding to show up anyway. It was a round robin of layups, dribbling, jump shots and scrimmaging while the coaches with clipboards circulated, quietly talking to each other. It was the way the world is; it was the haves and have-nots, the who you know and who you don’t; the who knows you or your husband; the who has the right basketball shoes and Under Armour technical t-shirts and who doesn’t; whose mom has the cutest tall leather boots, expensive jeans and straightened hair; whose mom knows the other moms.

I had to leave the gym a couple times to go outside and run because I was suffocating from it all.

Rye did not make the team. He choked back tears as the coach on the other end of the phone told him he hadn’t made it, that he should keep practicing, working on his skills, blah, blah, blah. Sitting next to him in the living room, I could tell he just wanted to hide, to pull himself into a ball and tuck himself into cushion of the oversized chair.

I cried for him; he moved on. The next day, he told me most of the kids who tried out hadn’t made it and he’d just play in the recreational league. He is OK. And I hope he is as proud of himself as I am of him.

I also hope I can let go of the Mama Bear inside who is raging at the way the world works, the way rejection feels and wishing my Wonder Woman bracelets could keep that pain away from my babies.

Lots of work to do.

Onward.

Laughter as often as it comes

The babies are back and the new one is growing and, whew, where does all this life go so fast?

Six weeks until my due date with this little creature inside of my belly. The way she turns or pokes or prods or whatever it is exactly she’s doing sometimes startles me. Like last night, curled in bed next to the rock star, little pieces of feet or something¬†began protruding just underneath the thin skin of what was once the inside of my bellybutton.

I could feel the body parts, someone else’s body parts, under my skin. It’s unsettling. And amazing. Sort of at the same time.

This hasn’t been the pregnancy I envisioned, and it’s been difficult for me to not compare this experience with my last go-round at growing a baby. Then, my life basically on the brink of imploding, the pregnancy was second string to the emotional mess I’d made of so much else. I ate very little, I cried all the time, I exercised a lot … consequently, I gained only 25 pounds and was back in my pre-pregnancy clothes within two weeks.

That part – the appearance part – was lovely. So was the labor and delivery, which was fairly quick and easy and uncomplicated. And, of course, the sweet, sweet baby girl, who along with her brother, continues to make my world go round.

That was all good, despite the mess of the rest of my life (those dark days, of course, would eventually lead to where my life was supposed to be all along, and for that, I am thankful). But at the time, I wasn’t sure where we would all land.

So this time around, happily married to a supportive, gentle, trusting man, I gave up exercising months ago and I’ve pretty much been eating whatever I want. I’ve already gained 33 pounds.

(Which, yes, does freak me out, and if anyone follows me on Pinterest explains the numerous workout pins of late).

But the baby is growing as she should, and I’m rolling myself out of bed each morning as I should and ignoring the swollen stumps my legs and feet have turned into as best I can and getting on with it all, enduring, moving forward, with anticipation and hope and laughter as often as it comes.

Isn’t that, at the end of the day, the best we can do anyway?

Looking forward with laughter and love and hope that tastes like sun just might be the answer to it all.

So much more than we can ever know

Photo copyright Amanda Wilson/photosbyaw.com

My sister graduates high school this spring. She is 18 and grown-up and not – all at the same time. It is the life stage where you’re supposed to know – what to do, how to do it, what you want, where to go, etc., etc., etc.

I want to tell her it’s OK.

To not know. To not have a fucking clue what comes next or how to get there.

None of us know.

Yet, we go through moments where we think we might. Like the year I decided to be a journalist. I was in eighth grade and in academic love with words, with writing, with books and minds and the power of a sentence that was written like no one else could ever write it. I had a fantastic English teacher who pushed us farther than many wanted, but I craved the direction, the challenge, the insight he had into books and the way that world worked.

That was the year I watched every Chicago Bulls game on TV (thank you, WGN) and many times took notes so I could write a story about the game afterward. A newspaper story, like for the Chicago Sun-Times. I did this just for fun.

That was also the year I read “Hang Time,” a book by a Sun-Times columnist named Bob Greene, who somehow worked it out so his career would include following around Michael Jordan, the greatest basketball player ever, and then writing a book about it (two, actually).

I decided I wanted to do that.

And back then? Back then in the days where we were told by everyone who could that our dreams were within reach, that we could be whoever or whatever we wanted if we just worked hard enough for it? Yeah, back then. Back then, I decided that’s what I would do. Be a sportswriter. In Chicago. For the Bulls.

The dream morphed over the next several years. By my senior year of high school, I’d decided to replace Jane Pauley as anchor on NBC’s newsmagazine show, “Dateline.” Again, I thought this was reality.

So I majored in journalism, broadcasting first and then a double major with news-editorial (print journalism, in plain speak). But by the middle of my sophomore year, I dropped broadcasting. Want to know why? Because I’d decided learning about different types of microphones was boring and I wasn’t interested in studying for a test on them.

It’s unbelievable really, that someone with my work ethic and grade point average would have given up so quick.

But, I figured, I’m a better writer than broadcaster anyway, and wasn’t writing my true love way back when?

Sure.

But I no longer had a dream. I no longer had a pie-in-the-sky goal. I had a boyfriend who pretty much called all the shots – about everything – few friends, straight As, some talent in writing, sure … and … huh.

Maybe this is all life is.

I got through college by doing what was expected, going to class, writing the papers, getting the internship. But none of it was inspiring. None of it felt like what my heart really wanted.

But it felt like what I was supposed to do. And I hadn’t yet figured out how to live outside the system we are all raised within – the 9-month school calendar, the 3-month summer vacation, the coaches and teachers and built-in praise, the straight As, the hustle awards … all those things that don’t matter. At all. Once you’re outside.

Even after graduation, I got married – I actually remember saying, “That’s what comes next, right?” (OH MY GOD, was I for real?!), and I got a job. At a newspaper. Because that’s what I’d majored in.

It was all uninspired. It was all supposed to. It was all headed … where?

Of course, memory is subjective and years give us wisdom we couldn’t have had back then, in the midst of it. But I think back to that time now with regret.

Life is short. Our days are not guaranteed. We get no do-overs.

So your twenties are hard, little sis. By the end, I felt like I knew enough to know what I wanted – and what I didn’t. That doesn’t mean I got there the way I should have.

Now, it’s different. And isn’t. But it is, really, truly. Everything we endure is a lesson, everything we experience helps teach us more about who we really are, what we really want, how we might be able to get there, with what partner we want to share the journey, the importance of treating what – and who – you value most in life the way a child would handle the Christmas gift he never expected to actually receive.

Life in its potential is infinite. We CAN – within reason – make our lives what we want them to be, if we go about it the right way, with grace and kindness and care and resolve.

Something I wish I knew, way back then: Life is so much more than we can ever know. When we’re 18. When we’re 22. When we’re 45. When we’re 75.

So, little sis, I want to tell you to make choices. Be bold. Be brave. Take chances. Do not ever-ever-ever let a boy make all the choices for you. He cannot know what is deepest in your heart. Only you get to figure that out. You get to steer your own ship, and that is a gift life, in its complexity, gives us. We are lucky if we find people by our sides to support us and make the road trip together.

Just as important: Treat others well, especially those you don’t want to lose. They deserve it. So do you.

Finally, let yourself off the hook. We all mess up. It’s life. Pick yourself up, and do it before you waste too much time, and get back on the horse.

Grab the reins. They’re yours. Go.

All of our days, 2013

I’ve never been into New Year’s resolutions. If you want to make a change, go ahead and do it, whatever time of year.

I did, however, this early January make a slideshow of our last year.

The quality would not win any awards, and even Kyle looked at me after he watched it this morning, smiled and gave me that look that usually means, “Wow,” in some form or another. (In this case, it clearly meant he never would have made such a slideshow).

But I love it. And he likes it.

And we’re happy.

I wonder if it’s a wanting all the time

The world of wanting is cruel, that feeling of never quite having everything you’ve ever wanted, that even if you do, you don’t.

How did we get that way?

Is the grass only greener in America? What about Europe? Asia? I hear Chinese couples may get to start having multiple babies one of these days. I imagine that’s happy news to so many ears, and, to me, that feels right. That feels like it’s about time. That feels like such a stupid horrible rule to begin with. I’d be lying, though, if I said I didn’t think about all those girls sold off into an underworld I don’t want details on, those girls who could have stayed, those new moms who could have cried a little less, if China had never had something so ridiculous as population control.

I bet those Chinese mothers want just as much as I do, as we do. I wonder if it’s a wanting all the time.

I am thinking about things and needs and wants and excess and greed and happiness and fulfillment and why it – life – all feels so hard some of the time. Because Christmas is coming, that holiday we celebrate secularly like so many others across the world, Christians included.

I saw a plastic Santa at a thrift store today. It was one of those retro-looking light-up ones that stands in your yard. Plastic Santa was probably about 4 feet tall. I wanted him.

He was $25, though, and $25 on a Christmas decoration sounds like a purchase I shouldn’t make. And I didn’t.

But the kids, those sweet babies of ours, will expect presents on Christmas. Of course they will. They are kids and we live in America and Christmas, at least as far as I’m concerned, should be as magical and innocent and beautiful as it can for as long as we can make it last. Gifts in paper in excess in living rooms under a sparkly lit-up tree are part of that magic.

I do not want to go to Wal-Mart on Thanksgiving. (I want to go there never, but even less so on Thanksgiving.)

I also do not want to participate in Black Friday. The thought of all those people and all those cars and all those clothes that no one will wear two years from now and all that plastic that will break or be swept up by Mom’s broom or forgotten in the closet and all that chaos and energy and need … no. I’m good. I’ll pass. No thank you.

But.

We need presents for our kids, and money doesn’t grow on that tree out back yet and I’m still figuring out how to inherit a rich relative who falls instantly in love with me and leaves us her life’s savings or how to write my own version of “eleanor & park” that I can dedicate to my own loves.

So I’m contemplating going to Wal-Mart.

On Thanksgiving.

And I hate this. About me, about life, about society, about the fact that we’re never satisfied. Why isn’t great good enough? When will it be? And how?

I’m in love with my life. That is not hyperbole.

I am so full in love with my husband that that right there should be enough forever and always and to the moon and back.

And those babies? Those babies who are now 8 and 4 and who sometimes I ask for advice because they just seem that grown up? Oh my world spins because of them.

And everything else – just about – that makes a life: friends, family, a house to call our own, a very good job, music, laughter, streets to run on, cats to cuddle and coffee to warm our souls.

Yeah, I have that. All of that. My color is yellow.

Yet, I still yearn for things we do not have. An upstairs. Sunday dinners with family. More money. More time. More fill in the blank.

So it goes, I guess. Courage and cowboy boots and bottomless red wine maybe can’t change that sort of human nature.

But we can try and cheers to that.

The beginning of it anyway

We had breakfast parfaits at work this morning. Yogurt, granola, berries. I forgot to bring the box of granola I’d set on the counter because I was too worried about the little girl missing me and the boy who seemed so tired he could barely stand. I was worried about their second day of school, whether the dog had been out, where the cat (cats?) would pee in the house today … if I’d be late for work.

So I forgot the granola.

Which was alright because I’d decided I’d stop for Starbucks today anyway, for the cup as much as the coffee, which, really, I can make at home.

The little things, though, can change your day. A cup of coffee can matter. The treat of it all … well, so what? What’s $2.50 once a week and a Treat Receipt I’ll never use?

Today is a co-worker’s birthday. She sits in the office next to mine, and today over yogurt parfaits she passed around a framed photo of her dog on a tricycle.

Yes.

That happened.

She is 29.

“One of my favorite years,” I told her after peeking my head next door before yogurt parfaits. “I hope you have a great day.”

What makes a great day? A great year? Why is 29 one of my favorites? What will make her 29th birthday more special than any other day in this long cycle of life’s days?

I have no idea.

On the radio this morning, after I passed my friend eating what may have been yogurt on her way to work, the Yale or Harvard or Stanford or someplace smart like that expert said 99 percent of our DNA is bacteria. That gut bacteria has more impact on who we are – our behaviors, our personalities, our choices – than anything else.

I’m not sure what to do with that sort of information.

I was 28 when my body began to grow my second baby. I was 29 when I got to meet her, hold her, begin this marathon of helping her be.

I was 29 when I decided to call it quits from that first chapter of grown-up-dom, when I decided to leap with my arms spread wide, hoping just maybe I’d catch a breeze just right to cushion the fall.

I was 29 when I told my first husband I did not love him. I was 29 when I began to somehow survive that.

I was 29 when I decided I deserved to be me, on my own, of my own volition.

I was 29 when I met the people who saved me, the girlfriends who listened like no one else I remembered, the ones who brought me frou-frou drinks from Scooter’s the morning of a garage sale designed to help clear out the past, the ones who smashed a backyard shed and painted a backyard deck so I could sell the house I no longer wanted – for so many reasons – despite the fact I left Little Kitty behind.

The friends who took me out, held my hands, picked me up from the airport, gifted me with my first (and only) facial, moved into the house I no longer wanted so I could pay the mortgage and not feel so alone …

That all happened, the beginning if it anyway, the year I was 29.

It is strange to think back to that time now, on the other side of the bend, with a husband who loves me and my babies like I could have never imagined, with a career that – finally – feels as fulfilling as the one I lost, with a home and a family and friends and laughter and music and love, with a life that really, truly in so many ways is so very lovely.

But today, on my co-worker’s 29th birthday, I am nostalgic. Even the nearly empty Starbucks cup on my desk reminds me of so much. So much that’s so big I can’t write it. And if I let the so big simmer too long it starts to feel heavy, that weight that earlier this year spilled out on the kitchen table and that I’ve somehow managed to neatly pack away thank-you-very-much since then.

Memory might just be the force that makes us who we are, the force not to be reckoned with, the energy that makes our tiny little worlds go round.

On the night before the first day of school, my kids got to see the moon in a telescope. A telescope so big, so powerful that the crater’s mountains were visible.

“It’s a crescent moon,” Paige said.

“Wow,” Rye said. “My class should take a field trip here.”

And I’m reminded right now, right this second on this shifty, spinning planet we live on, that letting your kids see the moon up close might be the most important thing you do all week.

All the time, just the same

Sometimes, the hardest part is just beginning.

Just deciding to start and deal with the hurdles as you go. Because you may not even know what they are if you never start.

But being brave all the time is exhausting and sometimes I just can’t do it. Or I think I can’t so I don’t and then I hold all that anxiety inside for too long where it simmers and boils around and then spills out on my husband’s poor unexpecting soul and then.

Then we just have a mess to wipe up off the linoleum.

And then we’re just back where we were anyway, if I would have just kept on being brave all the time, every day, even when it felt like too much work.

Laziness never got anyone anywhere.

I had influenza a week and a half ago and it kicked my psyche into some corner of some room of this new house that I didn’t know existed. I was the only one there (thank God), but, man, was it intoxicating. In that dangerous, crack-heroin sort of way.

For a few hours on a few days, I thought to myself, “I’m never going to get better.”

And I was so feverish sick and my head was so full of crap and the bubble I was existing in so thick, I believed it.

And that didn’t help my mood or my temperament or the way my family felt about me at all.

Or so the crazy thoughts told me in my head.

It was a few days after the bubble burst and I climbed out of that dank corner that the mess spilled out onto the kitchen floor and across the K-Mart table where we dine and the husband reminded me he loves me all the time, just the same, whether I’m living in a corner of self pity and doubt and anxiety or not.

But he has more fun when I’m just me.

So, shit, man, what now?

Well, right now, today, yesterday, too, and even the day before that, I’m trying to chill the fuck out. What’s wrong with my life anyway?

Not one thing.

What’s so great about Omaha anyway?

I don’t know. For the first at least half of my time there, I wanted to leave. To come back here.

Oh, goddess of irony, I will name you Daffodil and Scotch-tape a picture of you in your vintage crew-cut cardigan onto the wall above my dresser. So there you can mock me.

And I can be reminded.

That maybe I don’t need that as-of-yet unopened bottle of Celexa in my medicine cabinet. That there’s no reason I should feel sad about a website for moms that, yes, played a huge role in my life. Back then. Not now.

That my friends who are my friends will always be my friends. That my friends who aren’t my friends won’t.

And I can miss them, or maybe more specifically, I can miss the way my life with them as part of it was back then. But now?

Big deal.

I’m the secular version of blessed in every sense of the word. I have an amazing man who loves not only me but also my kids who are varying degrees of nice to him, depending on the minute. I have a home that we own in a just-as-nice-as-anyplace-else town. We are not poor or sick or hungry or ugly or mean.

Our babies are beautiful as they come.

We have friends and family and cats and pasta and swimsuits and words and coffee and beer and wine and acoustic guitars and sun on our faces and hikes just waiting.

And beauty. In so many things.

We have people who love us. We have people to love.

What else, really, does anyone need?

Not Omaha. Not momaha. Not women who I still care about but who maybe never liked me that much anyway.

Not even the yellow house in Dundee.

Today and yesterday and so many days before that … and tomorrow … and next month … I need what I have.

Drink the sweet syrup of the simplicity of that.