Sparking & Spreading Joy

What the world needs now is Marie Kondo. I mean, yes, of course…the world needs love, but also Marie Kondo, which can be kind of the same thing. Although she is getting absolutely skewered by critics, who say she really isn’t doing anything life-changing or even that admirable, I have to respectfully disagree.

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One of my last set of blog posts on Magnolias & Mimosas was about my mission to apply the KonMari method of de-cluttering our home last January…before the Netflix show was a thing, but after her New York Times bestseller was starting to pop on the shelves at Goodwill. And full disclosure: I did not read the book. I read some blog posts by people who had read the book and then took what they learned and used it. My philosophy was that I didn’t need to read the book and who had time for that anyway? I had a 3200 square foot house to tidy. I just needed the bullet points.

At the end of about 3 months, we had a yard sale. We sold (or donated) about 4,000 pounds of stuff and made about $8,000. Now some of that was bulky living room furniture that looked fabulous in our first home with the cathedral ceiling and the open floor plan, but had since made moving every 24 months more challenging. The question loomed with every new house: It’s great, but will the entertainment center fit? So, out with a bunch of furniture, sound systems, molded plastic toys with enormous footprints, and so. many. clothes. Also, a lot of gifts that I had held onto because I valued the relationship with the person who had given it to me. But when I held that particular item in my hands and asked myself if it sparked joy, nothing. Not even a cricket. That was an eye opener for me and a tremendous weight lifted that I didn’t even know I was carrying. Marie Kondo had given me permission to free myself of things in our house that were taking up space and consuming energy.

Someone once said that Marie Kondo said that if you do it right, you should only have to KonMari your home once. I don’t know if she actually said that. She mentions in the very first episode that her daughters, who are very young, make organizing and cleaning difficult sometimes, but I’m here to tell you that I nailed it the first time and that there will definitely be a second time and probably a 22nd time. Not everything will have to be measured for joy, but when you stop to think about how much…stuff…is coming into our houses constantly, well there’s no way you will only have to do this once. If for no other reason, at some point we forget how good it feels to throw out and pare down. And right now, I want to keep every single school paper Blue brings home. Like all of them. The math worksheets, the daily writing assignments, the spelling tests, and this adorable picture he drew of Martin Luther King Jr. last week. They are all precious to me…right now. But as time goes on, I will be able to view them with a more objective eye and decide which ones are truly worth the space I give them. I think as Marie Kondo’s daughters grow, she may address this part of parenting. Or perhaps it will get lumped in with de-cluttering sentimental items. But even now, she is always demonstrating to her young children how to embrace what brings joy and release what does not.

I do believe the Netflix show, Tidying Up, is perfectly timed for the world we are in today. Marie Kondo has gotten a lot of undeserved flack for saying she likes to keep her book collection limited to 30 books, for being too chipper while she’s tidying, for being too…I don’t know…Japanese? She does “weird” things like greeting the house and thanking items for their usefulness before getting rid of them. But if I had read the book before diving in, I would have learned why she does this and, most likely, deemed it a worthy part of the process, too.

Kami, to way oversimplify things, is the spiritual force in animate and inanimate things, according to the Japanese religion, Shinto. There’s much more to it (and some who practice Shinto believe it is reserved for inanimate objects specifically in nature), but for the purpose of de-cluttering your home with a Japanese professional organizer, the reason we thank items before sending them out of the home, is because they have kami. This life force is also the reason we clean and organize our possessions that we have chosen to keep. By folding our clothes, by dusting our shelves, by cleaning the toilet, and washing the sheets, we are honoring the kami in each item. We can also respect how many people, how much work it took to create the things we own. Who made the ottoman? How many hands touched my arc lamp before it found its way onto the Target shelf? Just by thinking of what I own in this way, I have inadvertently started taking better care of it. I put things back where they belong and make sure they are clean before doing so. It takes a lot of work to maintain a home and everything in it. It certainly makes me think twice before bringing anything else in and helps me have gratitude for what we do have.

What the world, and especially America, needs now is a tiny Japanese woman in a wool skirt and cardigan showing us how to rediscover what is most important by peeling away the layers of junk, both physically and emotionally. Our possessions are either adding or subtracting from our enjoyment in life. Keep what sends a zing down your spine when you hold it, thank and get rid of the things that don’t and your home will always bring you joy. And you will enjoy it more with the people you share it with, which will spill over into how you interact with others outside of your home. Clutter and possessions that don’t bring us joy take up space in our houses and in our minds, making us less creative and less able to problem solve creatively. It is a weight that is unnecessary and completely self-imposed. A woman outside of our culture, who speaks mainly through an interpreter, is teaching us how to live more fully with less. She is sparking joy in Americans who take the time to embrace her method and complete the process, which is partially rooted in a Japanese religious ideology. Tidying Up with Marie Kondo is not about competing, but it is about winning; it isn’t about being judged, it’s about being grateful. We haven’t even made it through the entire series yet and she has already changed our lives so I call BS on all those couch critics.

Tidying Up is streaming on Netflix (or you can add it to your DVD mail if you’re resisting the streaming trend like my mom). Also, check out this article from The Atlantic for a fabulous description of the rest of the series and this article from HuffPost that describes the Shinto roots of the KonMari method.

 

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In Praise of Courage: A Review of Netflix’s Medal of Honor

I have received free merchandise in exchange for my review of Netflix’s series, Medal of Honor. Although the product was a gift, all opinions in this review remain my own and I was in no way influenced by this company.

We haven’t had cable in 6 years and, most days, I’m OK with that. With the exception of missing a UK game here and there, I am fine with not having to flip through 150 channels of reality shows, which really bear very little resemblance to reality. Remember when the History channel showed documentaries about…history? Now they hunt ghosts, examine conspiracy theories, and pick through people’s storage sheds. And the Travel Channel transported us to festivals in Rome or holidays in China. They also hunt ghosts now. And the Food Network focused on cooking shows instead of cooking contests. My competition cup runneth over.

Our answer was a Roku, which allows us to stream Netflix, PBS, PBSkids, and, yes, even most UK basketball games. We’ve been able to keep up when party conversation turns to Downton Abbey, Sherlock Holmes, A Series of Unfortunate Events, and The Crown. Blue has discovered a world within Netflix that includes Storybots, King Julien and a slew of Magic School Bus shows. So, when Blue Star Families approached me about a partnership they had formed with Netflix to screen their Docu-series, Medal of Honor, I was all in. Fortunately for me, so were my neighbors. They may or may not have been in it for the Trader Joe’s appetizers (pancake bread, anyone?) and Shiner Bock.

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None of us had ever heard of the show so we had no idea what to expect. We all assumed it was a fictional series akin to Army Wives or SEAL Team. Historically accurate, but crafted in someone’s mind, nonetheless. There is one season with 8 episodes and they are independent of each other. So, the wives let the husbands decide which one we should watch. They chose the Medal of Honor recipient from the war in Afghanistan. For the record, the wives would have chosen someone from World War II or the Korean War. Or…pretty much anyone from any time period except the one we are in right now. The husbands wanted to relate, the wives wanted to distance themselves. Such is life with service members and spouses, I suppose. We poured another glass and settled in.

Episode 2 tells the story of Staff Sergeant Clint Romesha, an Army veteran who was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions at Combat Outpost Keating in Afghanistan on October 3rd, 2009. At the mention of COP Keating, several of our neighbors nodded in recognition of the name, but the room soon fell silent as the Battle of Kamdesh unfolded. One of the wives leaned over and whispered, “This is so hard to watch. I hate thinking of what they go through over there.” But that’s true for every military-inspired film or show that prides itself on authenticity. Hollywood can recreate, with alarming accuracy, what it’s like in the thick of war. That’s all made possible by producers willing to hire veterans and those veterans volunteering to share their stories or offer their perspectives. And on the Medal of Honor set, every role that could be filled by a veteran, was, starting at the top with a Marine.

Medal of Honor‘s executive producer, Brandon Birtell, came up with the idea for the show during Marine Corps boot camp in 1996. The Marines’ final challenge, called The Crucible, is a series of obstacles named for Medal of Honor recipients. When I read about that in this Stars and Stripes article, my first thought was, “I can only name one Medal of Honor recipient – Sergeant Dakota Meyer.” And that’s because he grew up 2 hours south of me. But most Americans only recognize his name because he was married to Bristol Palin. What about the other 3,400 Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen, Marines, and Coast Guardsmen who have received the honor since its inception in 1861? Shouldn’t we know their names? Shouldn’t we share their stories? Unimaginable bravery should be lauded and passed down to future generations. The award demands respect, but the story behind it deserves to be told. It should be just as familiar as that little medallion that dangles from a sky-blue ribbon.

Our neighbors agreed. The box of Kleenex had made its rounds.

I sent out a little survey after the screening, asking those who attended to share their thoughts on how the show differed from what they were expecting and whether they would recommend it to friends. Overwhelmingly, the response was, “YES!” Everyone appreciated that the story was told well, accurate and engaging. And our friends concurred: we all, Civilians and Military, need to hear these stories. Maybe we won’t sit down and read a 700-page book by Jake Tapper, but we can certainly watch a 55-minute show. I love The Great British Baking Show as much as the next girl, but this is important. This helps us understand what happens on our behalf, what we are asking of our service members when we send them into battle, and what they accomplish against all odds.

Over 3,400 Medal of Honor recipients and Netflix has created an episode about 8 of them. I don’t know how they ever narrowed it down or whether a second season is in the works, but I’m certainly glad they at least started the conversation.

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Silencing the Noise

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It’s funny how a brain dump at 10 PM after a long week can, unexpectedly, result in a slew of responses from friends who are having the same thoughts and feelings. I fully expected to piss off a lot of people with that last post. It was just a cathartic ripping open of my heart, with little regard for who would be reading it or what their reactions would be. It wasn’t journalism. But it made me feel a helluva lot better. And I slept great that night.

One of the comments I got on my last post was from a friend in my neighborhood. Also a writer, she said something about how interesting it is to watch someone sift through their emotions through writing. And that’s exactly what this blog is for me. It’s a place to sift and sort, to proclaim and then sit with it for awhile. And to absorb your reactions, let them sit with me for awhile, too. Maybe I did piss off some people. They just kept scrolling. After all, who wants to be told their hometown sucks? I can still see the faces of people back in Pennsylvania when I would tell them (usually after they had apprehensively asked me how we liked it there) that we love it so much we want to retire in the area. They absolutely glowed. Pride leaked out of every pore and they stopped dismissing its beauty, if only for a little while. The Lebanon Valley in Pennsylvania is not New York City or Chicago or Los Angeles. It’s not even Atlanta or Nashville. But it is picturesque and quiet. People take pride in their homes and cars, even if the homes are small and the cars are old. We also loved Kansas, Virginia, and Georgia and every resident that I talked to was always braced to hear the worst, but practically giddy when I told them how much we were enjoying the area. I was unprepared to have the opposite conversation here.

And, really, when we get to the heart of the matter, isn’t that the problem? Expectations. I have always placed a high value on knowing what to expect and, intentional or not, I have passed that on to Blue. I mentally prepare myself for whatever I am getting ready to face; from going to the dentist, to moving across the country, to driving on the 405 at 5 PM. It’s why, even before we have orders in hand, I’m on area Facebook pages asking spouses where to live, what the schools are like, where to find great pizza and what we can do as a family. Six times I’ve done this and six times I’ve realized, after about 6 months of living in the new area, that my expectations were wrong. Five of the six times, I had actually underestimated an area. Man, it blows when you overestimate it.

But how do you not overestimate a place like southern California? Palm-tree lined streets everywhere, not just on Rodeo Drive or Sunset Boulevard. Movie stars that could show up at your famer’s market at any time. Old VW buses parked down at the beach with a surf board strapped to the top and 2 guys in the front who may have just started a band in their parents’ garage. Seafood on the pier and taco trucks down the street. And realizing that you know exactly what they are talking about when Jimmie Allen sings, “I see the sun sink down on a coast in California” or when Kenny Chesney sings, “Baby, here I am again/kicking dust in the canyon wind/waiting for that sun to go down./Made it up Mulholland Drive/hell bent on getting high/high above the lights of town.” When Maverick pulls up to Charlie’s house on PCH and when you find out that all of the campus scenes of Larry Crowne were filmed at the college in the next town over, it does make you feel like you are in the middle of something bigger than yourself. Tiny fish in a fast-moving ocean. This is where it is all happening and I think a lot of people crave that atmosphere. It’s just that I don’t. I should have known better. My favorite film maker is Ken Burns and the only series I’ve seen every episode of is M.A.S.H. Sometimes I flip through People at the check-out line and realize I only recognize the actors who are older than me. I’m doing good to remember the names and faces of people we were stationed with 10 years ago, there’s just no space left for famous people. Except Gary Sinise.

Today is one of those days that is saving me, though. It’s January 24th and if we lived almost anywhere else, we would be bundled under at least 3 layers. Our faces would be chapped from winter winds, practically frozen in place, and I would only leave the house if I absolutely had to. But here, today, it is 75 degrees and full sun. Low humidity and warm enough to have all the windows open in the car and still drive with a breeze. It is, dare I say it, perfect. It is that first really warm spring day in Kentucky – when the girls are out on the quad with blankets and bikinis and the convertible top drops for the first time since September. When music of every genre can be heard at a stoplight because everyone has their windows down. It’s the first day of spring break when summer is actually a possibility and not just a promise. And I turn up the country music because that’s what spring break is to me – Shania Twain, Kenny Chesney, George Strait and Dierks Bentley. Take off your socks, pour a margarita, soak up the sun before it turns chilly again.

Days like this aren’t enough to keep me here, but they are enough to get me through. I’m going to get off this bucket list hamster wheel for a little while. It will never be completed anyway. I’m going to stop trying to do everything that’s uniquely California…or even uniquely L.A. I don’t need to go to a cat-themed pop-up that’s sponsored by Fresh Step or to a movie premiere every month. I need to find the nature that is out here and remember that that is why people flocked here. For the unpredictable Pacific and the whales that fluke as they pass through on their way to Mexico. They came because you can hike a mountain in the morning and build a sand castle after lunch. And because the fruit trees grow like crazy and the grapes make the best wine. All of this stuff that’s man-made? The museums and the shopping centers, the tourist destinations and the boutique cafes? Those are distractions from what is truly beautiful about California. That is not where my time is best spent and that will not refill my cup. I need to go to the places where I can see God and I need to show the light of Jesus to those who have been kicked down while living here. The rest of it is just noise.

Thank you for always supporting me, even as I publicly sift through this rollercoaster of emotions. While I was at the dentist’s office getting my teeth cleaned this morning, I was chatting with my hygienist, who is 30 weeks pregnant with her second child. We had a good laugh about how completely lost we were with the first child. Those first few weeks of motherhood with a newborn are frightening, exhausting, and overwhelming.  If I learned anything from giving birth, it’s that I want to get this right the first time. I don’t want to look back only to be disappointed by the fact that I didn’t put more effort into finding the good. And just like childbirth, I won’t get a second chance to do it again. This is it and I need to make it count. I have adjusted my expectations and I’m ready to start over.

A Cloud Over SoCal

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I’m going to let you in on a little secret. One of my truths when playing 2 truths and a lie is that I changed my major 5 times and have been engaged 4 times. The four engagements is a story for another time, but 1 of my 5 majors was journalism. When I left the University of Louisville (and my theater major aspirations) in the rear view mirror, I set my sights on the University of Kentucky and a journalism degree with a minor in telecommunications. I lasted exactly one semester. And I can’t even remember why.

My frantic desire to excavate the truth of a matter has often, interestingly enough, made me gullible and naive. Even when the logical and analytical traits of my Virgo nature kick in, I haven’t fared much better. Did the explanation seem rational? Possible? Ok then. End of story. No questions left to ask. I have fallen for so many schemes and untruths over the years, that I’m quickly overtaking my husband in the race for Most Cynical Person Living in This House. And every day there seems to be a new reason to hold my tongue, wait for more evidence, ask more questions, withhold judgment.

The majority of teachers in my son’s school district are on strike right now. Maybe you’ve seen something about it on the news. Los Angeles Unified School District is the second largest school district in the country with about 650,000 students. Only New York City outranks us with almost a million students in the district. On day one of the strike, UTLA (United Teachers of Los Angeles), the union that represents many of the educators in LAUSD, set forth their reasons for striking: smaller class sizes (many high school classrooms in L.A. exceed 40 students but the overpopulated schools seem to be an issue throughout the district), more counselors, deans, librarians, and full-time nurses, (some schools share the staff that fill these roles so a librarian or nurse may only be on hand 1-2 days per week), smaller special education case loads and, of course, an increase in pay (6.5% that would not be contingent on district finances).

But it has only been in the last 2 or 3 days that everyone has started to discuss the elephant in the room: charter schools. And to my husband’s credit, he made this argument over a week ago. When you release the reigns on charter schools, public schools will hemorrhage students who come from households where the parents are educated, value education, and can afford to pay for that education (or whatever booster clubs are created by the charter school). Parents will flock to charter schools out of fear for what a public education will fail to provide or to cash in on the promises made by these privately run institutions. Either way, the result is the same: the money that the state has set aside for his/her child is taken away from the public school and given to the charter school. And while most economists would argue that the free market system is king, it certainly isn’t doing any favors for anyone who is left behind in the public education system. The unrestrained growth of charter schools is one of the reasons that LAUSD is searching for a spare billion in the couch cushions and Californians are just now, one week into the strike, willing to discuss what they have done to themselves.

But, per usual, I spent at least a week convinced that the arguments presented from both sides were complete and transparent. There couldn’t be anything else to the story because everything sounded logical. I would have gotten eaten alive in journalism school.

But honestly, while we are temporarily inconvenienced by the strike, homeschooling our kids in a show of solidarity with the teachers walking the picket lines, we don’t really have any skin in this game. For better or worse, military families are in and out so fast it makes an administrator’s head spin. Since October, 2 of our neighbors in Blue’s class have moved and just as quickly, 2 more moved in. We are not here for the long game so while I support teachers in general, it is my opinion that whatever mess the district has created financially, this is the bed they have made after years of bad (and, perhaps, politically corrupt and greedy) decisions. The schools are obviously over-crowded, the teachers are clearly at a breaking point, and the funds are being funneled elsewhere. Easy for me to say, but I don’t know that the 70 degree weather makes up for all the other shit shows that debut daily around here. And what passes for public education in this country (which has already been whittled down to what’s on the test, thanks to funding based on school performance), is further reduced to a sliver of leftovers after the charter schools in L.A. have carved out their slice. It’s hard to watch, even harder to live and certainly not what we want for our child’s education, even if it is only for a couple of years. I may have become complacent about dressing fashionably, eating a plant-based diet, and watching less TV, but I think this where I draw the line.

I didn’t mean to take several weeks off from blogging. I have found it unusually difficult to organize my thoughts lately. Mostly, I’m just incredibly frustrated…with the fact that my neighbors and friends are starting to feel the harsh effects of a government shutdown while their husbands go on to work for the FBI or the Coast Guard…with local businesses who have come out of the woodwork to support L.A. teachers but have actually turned away Coast Guard families seeking the same support…with local parents who are begging for gift cards to give teachers because they aren’t paid as long as they are striking, but, practically in the same breath, are admonishing military families for sending their kids “across picket lines” when they really have no other choice. If your Coast Guard husband must still report to work but isn’t getting paid, there’s a chance you will have to go get a job. Paying for child care when the schools are still open is just not an option. But mostly I’m frustrated that I don’t feel like we have been able to live our best lives, be the best version of ourselves out here. I am depressed that the homeless community is so massive. It feels hopeless. Seeing garbage piled up on streets and in green spaces everywhere is a bleak reminder of how many people don’t care about our environment or take pride in the place where we live. And depleting our savings just to do a few fun things here and there steals the joy from those memories.

Part of me was terrified of living in Los Angeles and part me was electrified by the idea that, for the first time ever, we were going to be in the middle of it all. But after almost 8 months, I feel like I’ve opened the portal, had a solid peek in, and observed the wizard of L.A., furiously pulling this string and pushing that button to make everything appear far more glamorous. These streets of gold are paved with $63 parking tickets and washed clean by the tears of an army who just can’t get back on their feet. Coastal winds whip hypodermic needles under the fence of a public park while someone barely making rent dresses up as Cookie Monster and posts up outside the zoo, making rude comments to children when their parents don’t stop for a picture and offer a tip. Maybe you pass Angelina Jolie on the Runyon Canyon trail. And maybe you see Bruce Willis buying his daughter an empanada at The Grove…but so what? They are probably sending their kids to charter schools and your kid, in the same district as them, is taking the hit. And the house cleaner’s daughter? The gardener’s son? Are they in charter schools? No, they are in LAUSD, waiting for things to get better. This strike is their saving grace because they are finally being heard. Over the drug-related shootings, the car chases through Long Beach, and the sirens racing to someone who was just robbed, they are being heard.

Whatever Los Angeles used to be, this city of angels, this wild west, it is not for me. I will walk her beaches and hike her trails, maybe spot a celebrity and buy an overpriced cupcake in Beverly Hills, but when the time comes, I will close this chapter and shed tears only for the people we leave behind. The next place will have greener pastures if only because it won’t be plastered with the incessant evidence of overpopulation.

Know Better, Do Better: The Christmas Edition

The question came up last week, as was inevitable: “What does Blue want for Christmas?” My mind went absolutely and completely blank. Because what I heard was not, “What does he want for Christmas,” I heard, “What does he need for Christmas?” And honestly…nothing. Our child wants for nothing. Sure he will tell you that he needs another Star Wars Lego set or some more Jungle in My Pocket toys. He will beg for a laser tag set and a whole semi-truck full of stuffies. But all he truly needs is an attitude of gratitude. Santa baby, can you slip that under the tree?

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I understand that this problem is almost 100% of our own doing. From the time we found out I was pregnant, we have been buying for him. First it was all the toys that, according to numerous mommy bloggers and the Today Show, he had to have. I rolled my eyes at the wipe warmer, but he had a giraffe teething toy (but no teeth), the cutest little shoes (before he could even crawl), and a crib full of stuffed animals (many were bigger than him). Over the years, we’ve tried to supplement the growing footprint of toys with “educational” gifts. An entire library full of all of the “recommended” books, “brainy” toys – some requiring batteries and some made of wood, marble runs, and bins upon bins of Lego. There were plastic animals of every size and species, Army men and all of their accessories, Hot Wheels cars with the accompanying track and even a suitcase to carry them all. Ironically, nothing has made all of that seem excessive like living in and exploring around Los Angeles.

It is impossible to go anywhere, besides within the gates of our own neighborhood, and not see a member of the homeless population. Whether you drive or walk, you will see at least one person who is homeless every single day. Across the street, across town, in the parking lot of the vet’s office, outside of Starbucks, in the park next to the aquarium, sleeping on the beach. They live all along the L.A. river, under wind-shredded tarps that are strewn across sun-faded tents. They usually aren’t asking for money or help, they are simply moving about their day, just as we are. Some are passing the time by watching traffic, some are sleeping, and some -judging by their awkward propped positions – look like they may have passed on. I don’t know any of their stories, but I hear the locals talk about their “favorites”. Most are known, many are liked, some are helped. It has taken me months to be even a little bit OK with this. I want Oprah and Ellen to give every single homeless person a house, but the reality is that isn’t the root of the problem or even a viable solution. And the most difficult part for me to accept? There are so many homeless children.

When the school year started, I had to log into an L.A. school district website and confirm that we have a home. The default was not that everyone lived in a house, it was that everyone lives in something other than a house or apartment. The school district wanted to know if we were living with friends or family, in an RV, in a tent or in a shelter. I almost felt guilty by the end. No, no, no, no…no to all of that. We have a house. I’m so sorry, I wish they all did. And the truth is, there are children in Blue’s school, children he sees and plays with everyday, that are homeless. And I don’t think he had ever noticed. I wasn’t about to bring it to his attention, but a few weeks ago he began saying variations of, “This is the worst Christmas ever.” I let it go (for probably longer than I should have), but by the second week, I had had enough. We had a chat.

“Do you remember the people we see living in tents on the side of the road? Did you know that some of those people are kids? Did you know that those kids don’t have toys or stuffies or even a bed to sleep in? Did you know that those kids sometimes only eat when they are at school?” Once I got started, I couldn’t stop. Tears welled up in my eyes and a look of remorse washed over Blue. Homeless had become part of his lexicon, just as Amish had in Pennsylvania. The difference, he was beginning to understand, was that one chose the life and one did not. Sometimes I have serious doubts about moving every two years. Like when I remember fondly the Christmas traditions we shared with my grandparents and cousins when I was growing up. I become nostalgic for a time when my grandmother would stick the Bing Crosby 8-track tape in the player (which was installed in the wall) before decorating the tree. And I think, “Blue will never have this to reflect on each Christmas season. We are ruining his childhood.” But then we have a Come-to-Jesus about how he is not having the worst Christmas ever, although there are kids in his class who certainly are. Like Billy from The Polar Express….Christmas just doesn’t work out for them. And because he can look out of the car window every single day and see someone having the worst Christmas ever, he has stopped saying that. Next week it will be something else, but at least he has come around on this topic.

All of this was spurred by a Facebook post shared by a friend this morning. It urged people to stop giving Santa credit for the expensive gifts their children received. The iPads and gaming systems, the 52424-piece Lego kits and the new iPhones. Because when kids talk (as they inevitably do), it will appear that Santa is more generous to the families with more money. How old were you when you realized this? I was today years old. Why? Because our child has never wanted for anything, just as I never wanted for anything when I was a child. I never wanted a pony, but I wanted a My Little Pony. When I was Blue’s age, I got an entire stable full. One Christmas, the hot item was a Cabbage Patch doll. I received three. And now I’m doing the same thing. We wait for Blue to tell Santa what he wants for Christmas and then we order it from Amazon, with Prime shipping of course. The greatest irony is that for Blue’s third Christmas, we began the rule of 4: something you want, something you need, something to wear and something to read. Then Santa gave him everything else. We seriously restricted what he got from us and let Santa have a field day. Up until this morning, I thought we were doing what was best for him.

We are all doing the best we can as parents, which is sometimes a train wreck, often a fly-by-night operation, and occasionally flashes of brilliance. I’m certain we are going to look back in 20 years and regret many of the decisions we’ve made along the way. But if we’re lucky (and willing to accept that we are learning as he learns), hopefully the result will be an empathetic, kind, generous, well-rounded, and productive member of society. Blue may remember the countless renditions of A Christmas Carol that we dragged him to, the hours we spent sipping hot chocolate while strolling through the most decorated neighborhoods, Jingles the Elf fishing for marshmallows in the toilet, eating candy thrown from floats in Christmas parades, meeting reindeer at the zoo, sitting on Santa’s lap at the Macy’s in New York City, and any number of other unique experiences that we treat him to every Christmas season, but hopefully he will also remember dropping a $5 in the Salvation Army bucket, collecting food for a family in the church, buying toys to donate, making a meal for a friend, and sending care packages to our troops overseas. He will remember that at the center of Christmas is Christ and the light that He brought to a dark world (we can certainly argue until the cows come home about when Christ’s actual birth was – but that’s for another post). And when Blue has a family, he will share the traditions that we got right, change the ones that we got wrong, and do something for those who are having the worst Christmas ever. (And if there is karma in parenting, he will get to have a similar conversation with his own child.)

I love this post by Karen, whose blog, And Then We Laughed, is full of insights about life’s little moments. She and her husband have made the commitment to make more purposeful decisions and this post reflects that change. The Christmas season is full of things we do on auto-pilot, much we do because that’s how our parents did it. But there is no shame in stopping to take stock of our family’s needs and changing our traditions so that they represent what Christmas…Christ’s birth…means to us.

What Blue Star Families Means to Us #Giving Tuesday

On the second morning of our honeymoon, as Neal and I sipped coffee in our bathrobes on the veranda of our B&B in Charleston, SC, I confessed to him that I hated my job. It had become indisputably clear that I was terrible at selling gym memberships, which was the first bullet point in my job description. Neal mulled this over for a second and then asked, “What do you want to do?” It wasn’t said in a judgemental or demeaning tone. He truly wanted to know what would make me happy. “I think I want to be a massage therapist. I want to go to massage school,” I answered. He flashed his trademark Neal smile and said, “Well, there you go, then.” One month later, I was enrolled in massage school.

When Neal was offered the opportunity to move from a Reservist position to active duty with the Active Guard/Reserve program, there were 2 stipulations: we had to move to Macon, Georgia by the middle of May, and he would be deployed for one year to Iraq within 6 months of the move. We readily agreed knowing that this door, which had been opened so unexpectedly, would shut without any guarantee of it opening again. We arrived home from a vacation in Hawaii at 4 AM and at 7 AM, the moving truck arrived to take all of our worldly possessions south.

Prior to that first move, as the wife of a Reservist, most of our challenges were centered around being apart, from deployments, to annual training and the drill weekends each month. I became the FRG (Family Readiness Group) Leader, simply because no one had expressed any interest in the position. I ran fundraisers for unit events and I called to check on spouses when the Servicemember was deployed with a different unit. I was involved, but I wasn’t immersed in the military culture. My knowledge was limited to what I had experienced since meeting and marrying Neal.

Our first PCS changed everything.

With a house full of boxes and the realization that my parents weren’t just down the road, I sat down and cried. Neal went to work, met people, made friends, and had conversations throughout the day. I tried to figure out how my Kentucky massage therapy license would transfer to Georgia and wondered where I would work if my clients didn’t have a military ID to get into base housing where we lived, all while emptying box after box in our carport. I was suffocating under the sheer weight of chaos and loneliness. I put on the brave face for Neal as he relayed the ups and downs of his day, but I wanted to scream, “Take me home! I can’t do this, I’m not cut out for this life. I want to go back to my friends and family and our little house on the cul-de-sac with the pergola and the clematis!” Six months later, he deployed to Iraq and I did go home. But it didn’t feel like home. Now I was a visitor who had missed out on birthdays, births, weddings, and funerals. Everyone was glad to see me, but they also knew I couldn’t stay. For the first time in my life, I felt like a flower, ripped from the stem and stuck in a vase. No longer rooted to anything, eventually I would wither.

It feels a little melodramatic to even write that from where I sit now, but it is exactly how I felt back then. I was 32 years old and had never been away from home for more than a few months. I went to college next door to my hometown, along with most of my closest high school friends. As it was in 1989, so it was in 2009. Sitting on the back porch of our house on Robins AFB, huddled around a fire pit with new friends, we rang in 2011. Neal would be leaving in a few weeks for Iraq. I had no job and no job prospects. We had made friends – some from the base and some from Neal’s work – but it was the first time I had ever felt depressed. Nothing was as I had imagined it would be.

Over the years, we’ve gotten better at this military family thing. I can make a new friend in 4 minutes flat (Blue can do it in 3) and I’ve finally come to accept that most businesses don’t want to hire someone just to lose them again in 24 months. I don’t blame them – that’s a lot of time and energy to invest in someone just to have to start all over again with someone new. I know because we do it all the time. It’s emotionally exhausting. I conceded that my life would revolve around making sure that Neal didn’t have to worry about anything at home. Whether he wanted to help with the chores or not, everything would get done – from packing and unpacking when we move, to daily tasks like cleaning the litterbox and cooking meals. He only had to focus on work and spending time together as a family. And on most days, that has been enough for me. But there have certainly been times in the past 8 years when I shake my fist and shout, “This doesn’t have to be so damn hard!”

Like when we moved to Fort Lee, VA, when Blue was 3 months old because Neal was picked up for Captain’s Career Course. On-post housing had a wait list so we leased a 3-bedroom apartment behind a strip mall. An hour after the movers had emptied the truck into every room of that apartment, the housing office called to say they had a house for us.

Like when I couldn’t get a spot in the Child Development Center at Ft. Knox because all of the slots were full, which meant I couldn’t go to the gym for an hour each day because the gym had no childcare.

Like when we were stationed on a National Guard post and not only was there no housing, but there was no way to meet other military families outside of the unit.

Like when the contract for our dental care was switched to a provider who reimbursed pennies on the dollar and all of the good dentists stopped accepting Tricare because they have to make a living, too.

Like when we were stationed in Southern California and the first time we went out as a family, we paid $12 in parking and $75 for a barely palatable lunch.

This is not a list of complaints, these are the challenges that we encounter constantly. But we have grown resilient and resourceful. We take a deep breath, pour a glass of wine, and figure out how to solve the problem.

We loved that little apartment because in the strip mall was a grocery store and an Italian restaurant, which made pizza that we still talk about to this day.

At Fort Knox, I joined a group of moms who worked out on a playground while the kids played. Sometimes wrangling kids back onto the playground was part of the workout. I took that idea with me to Fort Leavenworth and implemented it there, because we weren’t going to let a lack of childcare keep us from exercising.

I met my neighbors in Pennsylvania and then took a job writing for the local magazine so I could meet even more. And sometimes they turned out to be fellow military families.

I wrote letters to our Congressmen and women about the dental insurance situation and rejoiced when I found a phenomenal dentist with military ties and an office just 40 minutes from our house. Some of my friends were driving an hour each way.

And in the last few months before we were due to leave Pennsylvania, I met Joanna. A spouse in our unit suggested we meet at Joanna’s coffee shop for breakfast and some adult conversation. During a lull, Joanna sat with us and we chatted about living in Pennsylvania, military life, and her new position with Blue Star Families. “OH! They do the Blue Star Museums every summer! We love those people,” I exclaimed. Joanna laughed, “Yes! And we are doing a new thing this summer called Blue Star Parks!”

And that is how I came to join the Blue Star Families network (which is to say I went on the website and entered my information – which is free and open to all military families) and continue to be indebted for the ways they are improving our quality of life everyday. Sometimes I wonder what it’s like to sit in one of their staff meetings. What ideas get written on the board? Which ones get tossed out? It feels like every week they have devised a new way to make life a little easier, make it a little more enjoyable.

Yep, making new friends every 24 months is draining, but what if you could do it around a table with a Starbucks latte in your hand? The Starbucks Neighborhood stores commit to holding Coffee and Talk events for military families.

Yes, sometimes we get stationed in exotic (read: expensive) places and after each little expense is raised, there’s very little left for exploring the area where we live. Blue Star Museums, Parks, Theatres and their partnership with Disney ensure we can enjoy the same opportunities as residents whose pay more accurately reflects the cost of living for that area.

Absolutely, it would be amazing if every spouse who wanted to work outside of the home was given that chance. Blue Star Families Careers Center not only actively partners with businesses who have voiced an interest in hiring military spouses, but also provides career coaching, training, and mentorship.

And if you want to work outside of the home, what a blessing it would be to have access to reliable and affordable child care close to base housing. Blue Star Families is working on that, too.

They also see the need for an improvement in access to mental healthcare – for the entire family – and providing more tools for caregivers. There are a lot of moving pieces when you are talking about a military family, regardless of the branch of service, regardless of the rank or where they live. Blue Star Families wants to address it all.

But they aren’t going it alone.

One of the reasons, I think, they are so successful is because Blue Star Families is always on the lookout for new partnerships. Starbucks, Disney, National Endowment for the Arts, National Parks Service, Elizabeth Dole Foundation, Academy of US Veterans, Ebates, CSX, USAA, The Boeing Company and so. many. more. Those are just the ones I saw in a quick scroll through their Facebook page. They are consistently reaching out, daily, to close the gap between military families and the civilian communities where they live and work. When I had thrown my hands in the air and decided the divide was too wide, they decided to build a bridge, initiative by initiative. They must do at least 3 impossible things before breakfast each day.

We all have a story…a difficulty that has lessened because an organization exists to address it. Making Strides Against Breast Cancer, the American Heart Association, The Ronald McDonald House, St. Jude’s, United Way, American Red Cross, Make-a-Wish Foundation, Girls on the Run, World Wildlife Foundation, Doctors Without Borders…and on…and on…and on. We must support the organizations that touch our lives directly and, if we can, choose one or two that touch the ones we love.

Blue Star Families is the one I choose and that is why I support them today, on Giving Tuesday. I want to do everything I can to further their work, their mission of helping military families all over the world. When I look into the eyes of a newly married military spouse or a Servicemember who is leaving his/her family for another deployment, I want to be able to say that we are doing everything we can to support them. And that takes money. Blue Star Families has an excellent track record of putting it to good use.

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Hanging out at the Skirball Cultural Center, a Blue Star Museum, over the summer.

These Are a Few of My Favorite Things

In a perfect world, Black Friday and Small Business Saturday would be switched. Shoppers would be setting alarms and trudging out into bitter cold winds, bleary-eyed with coffee in hand, to every locally-owned business in town. Small businesses would get the first cut and big box stores would get whatever was left over the next day. But that’s not how it is. So, it’s important to not blow the whole wad at Target or Walmart and to give just as much priority to the little shops on Main Street. Or the businesses owned by our family, friends and neighbors…even the multi-level marketing businesses. Get your Posh and Scentsy fix now!

Today, I’m going to share with you a few of my favorite small businesses from 2018. One is an MLM, the rest are one-man/woman shops…they are all amazing and I give them my personal stamp of approval. I know of many more, but since I haven’t worked with them directly, I’m going to leave that up to you all to recommend small businesses that you love. These are in no particular order.

1. Green Cleaning With Ashley (Norwex)

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I’m just going to go ahead and lead with an MLM because they get such a bad rap. Ponzi Scheme, pyramid scheme…basically a lot of scheming (which is never a good thing, just ask Bugs Bunny). But in reality, each consultant is a small business and the face behind that small business is someone who is passionate about the products he/she is selling. While I don’t sell Norwex, a fellow military spouse (and my neighbor across the street) does and after using products I earned from a party we hosted in September, I’m ready to sing the praises of several items.

1a. The mop system. I hate mopping. Besides cleaning toilets, it’s my least favorite chore and I used to be able to postpone it indefinitely. But when you add a kid to the mix, floors take a hit. Unfortunately, having to do it more often didn’t mean I had come to enjoy it. It actually made me grumpier about spills, drips, drops and trails of milk. Using the mop system the past 2 months has changed all that. I use the dry mop pad to sweep up the big stuff and the cat hair, then I follow it up with the wet mop pad. And by using only water and the silver back-loc Norwex mop pad, I can get all the floors in my house clean and germ-free. And it takes about 5 minutes. Total. Yeah, it’s pricey, but regaining my sanity is worth every penny.

1b. The Enviro-Sponge. I think this came as a hostess gift, meaning it wasn’t on my list of immediate must-haves. But it has rocked my dish washing world. It cleans the dutch oven, the silpat mats, the cookie sheets, the pots I boil pasta in, even stains in the sink. And because it also has that bac-lock technology, after 24 hours, the silver has neutralized the bacteria and it’s ready to go again. The Spirinets (like steel wool but without leaving rust marks all over the sink edge) gets an honorary mention here for being equally as awesome.

1c. The Enviro-Wand. Our ceiling fans run 24-7. In the summer, they run one direction and in the winter, they run the other. They never stop and regardless of the climate, they accumulate a foul amount of dust, cat hair and whatever else is floating around in the air. Cleaning the ceiling fans comes in right behind cleaning toilets and mopping floors. There has just never been an easy way to reach and clean all those blades without clumps of gross falling all over the bed and floor. But the Enviro-Wand (with its little micro-fiber tentacles) has solved that problem. And it takes about 30 seconds to clean a fan. My car may look and smell like an entire Kindergarten class is living in it, but my fan blades absolutely freaking sparkle.

1d. Dish towels/Enviro-Cloth. Basically, you can’t go wrong with any of these. From mirrors, to toilets, to cat puke in the carpet, they clean everything with minimal scrubbing. I have like 8 of them and I wouldn’t mind 8 more.

1e. The lens cleaning cloth. This was another hostess gift and not something I really thought I needed, but I was so wrong. It comes hooked through a clip so it can be attached to my purse or camera bag. It is so handy for cleaning sunglasses and camera lenses and cell phone screens.

If you are interested in trying Norwex, Ashley has a party open right now. You can find it here. I think my next 2 purchases will be a hair turban for when I get out of the shower (Ashley says it cuts her hair dryer time in half and girl has some hair) and the vegetable cloth. I do love a shiny vegetable.

2. Jarrett Rutland

If you have read my blog for any length of time, you know I’m all in when it comes to Jarrett’s art. His illustrated watercolor of our family spurred many of my friends to purchase their own because, truly, he is just that good. But he also has a new children’s book coming out next month. We (along with several of you) got an advance copy of Chilly da Vinci and we are simply delighted by the story every time we read it. I have a more formal review coming next week, but one of my favorite aspects of this book is that it teaches children that when we are problem solving, we rarely get it right on the first try. As the mother of a child who thinks everything should come easy to him and if it doesn’t, then he should just give up, this lesson is invaluable. You can find my review of Jarrett’s work here and you can pre-order your copy of Chilly da Vinci here and you can check out his Etsy shop here.

3. Sew Sweetness Monogramming

Rebekah and her monogramming machine are a force to be reckoned with. Her office (which is really where our dining rooms are supposed to be in base housing, I think) is filled with fabric of every pattern, thread of every color. Monogramming blanks (from purses, to kids’ lunchboxes, to shawls and shirts) are stacked on tables and hung from racks, ready to be customized. Her niche is certainly Disney shirts and while I have a few of those from her, I also have a purse and a shawl (which is patiently waiting for cooler temps in Southern California). Rebekah’s attention to detail and eye for design means I can let go of the reins and let her do her thing – which is always perfect. As Reese Witherspoon has been credited as saying, “If it isn’t moving, monogram it.” And if you’re going to monogram it, you need Rebekah.

4. 1 Canoe 2

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While I don’t personally know this artist, I purchase a hand-lettered postcard from her every time we PCS. Sometimes they rhyme, sometimes they don’t…but they are always precious. Her Etsy store is full of goodies: greeting cards, recipes cards, fabric, notebooks, and (my favorite) presidential drinking glasses. If she added Obama I would have my Christmas shopping done already.

5. Switchables

While this business is no longer small, it is still family-owned and operated by Joyce and Bill Birchler. Located in the New England area, Switchables sells nightlights and changeable stained glass nightlight covers, as well as ornaments and jewelry. I don’t know if they still do this, but when they were building the business by attending area craft shows, the Birchler Family handcrafted each piece of stained glass. I can certainly attest to the craftsmanship. I discovered Switchables while perusing one of the shops in Harbourtown on Hilton Head Island. I bought the sailboat for Blue’s nursery a few months before he was born and I won the turkey in one of their giveaways last month. The sand dollar was a birthday gift for my mom so that she can always have a piece of the beach in her home. I’m already scouting out which one I want for Christmas. It’s so hard to pick!

6. KC Cool

Based in Kansas City, of course, this small business is owned by a gentleman who is pretty KC cool himself. I met him at our church’s Christkindl Market several years ago and snatched up a who’s who of BBQ shirt for Neal and a red/white/blue shuttlecock shirt for Mom (because the giant shuttlecock at the Nelson Atkins Museum of Art is everything). Unfortunately, he has since changed the shuttlecock colors so Mom got me this one in the photo instead. The shirts are so soft and they haven’t pilled like so many of my other soft t-shirts have. If you know someone who lives in KC or just loves to visit, this is a great place to pick up some KC swag.

7. CraftFit

The husband-wife team that owns this small business is truly a dynamic duo. They perfectly complement one another’s strengths and the result is an Etsy shop full of awesome. Megan and Del create wooden flags that can hold the coins that Servicemembers are given by their commanders and I just saw a new piece: a sign that reads As for me and my house, we will serve tacos. I literally snorted when I saw that. I found Megan when I needed some vinyl t-shirts made for the Derby Day Color Run at Ft. Leavenworth a few years ago, but I knew she and Del had been creating beautiful pieces together long before that. Although they move just as often as we do, they waste no time getting the shop set back up and the production line moving because their art is in high demand. Whatever you get from them, you won’t be disappointed.

8. Swatara Coffee Company

If you’re lucky enough to live in the Lebanon Valley area of Pennsylvania, make sure you stop in for a cup of coffee and a sandwich or a pastry at Swatara Coffee Company. SCC, which just celebrated its first anniversary, is everything you want from a coffee shop. Fun-loving owners, John and Joanna Guldin-Noll, have created an oasis for everyone, whether you are a coffee drinker or not! Pop in for craft night, game night, a local crafters’ market, a bag of ground coffee for your morning commute, Meet the Artist night, yoga or any number of other activities that fill their calendar each month. It truly is the most happening place in Jonestown, but even if you can’t make it to PA, you can still have a cuppa SCC in your mug every morning. Ground coffee can be purchased on their website and shipped! That Shoo-Fly Pie Coffee they just listed online is going to be mine very soon! #TreatYoSelf!

9. A Touch of Kentucky Bourbon Mastery

If you are in the Central Kentucky area and love all things bourbon, a hi-top table and chairs or a side table made out of bourbon barrels is exactly what you need! Rita and her husband have been creating upcycled bourbon barrel gifts for many years, long before I got our first lazy susan with our name and wedding date painted on the top or the bourbon barrel table that lives next to the couch. If we are ever stationed back in Ft. Knox, we are going to have a problem because every gift giving holiday will include something from this couple.

10. Daisy & Elm Jewelry

Wait…was that pure, shameless self-promotion? Uh, yeah…it kind of was. I have been out of the game for a year, partly because moving across the country is no small feat and partly because I had run head-first into a creativity block. I had been designing jewelry since 2009 and I simply no longer craved the excitement or satisfaction that came with each finished piece. And, to be very honest, dealing with the public can make a person crazy. I started out designing jewelry for myself and to give as gifts. Then I turned it into a business. Then I was miserable. So, I took some time off and went back to creating just for me. I firmed up some personal boundaries, picked up a few new tricks and made designing a priority while Blue is in school. I feel like I’m ready to come back and re-launch D&E, just in time for my 10th anniversary in 6 months.

And that’s my top 10 small businesses for 2018. I know I have barely scratched the uppermost layer of all of the wonderful businesses there are out there. I’m counting on you all to share your favorites with the rest of us! Sharing is caring….and it’s also helping us finish our Christmas shopping!

When It’s More Than a Cup of Coffee

I’m not going to sugarcoat it…the week leading up to Veterans Day was pretty brutal in Southern California. It began with a mass shooting in Thousand Oaks (about 90 minutes up the 101 from us), which was carried out by a decorated former Marine with PTSD. Before the first funeral could be held, a spark from a fire in Malibu jumped the 101 and scorched a wide swath through the same region. All the while, the Camp Fire absolutely leveled Paradise, California and took dozens of lives in the process. Although our home on the south side of Los Angeles was never in any danger, the air quality took a hit as the smoke hung ominously between us and Catalina Island. It blotted out the sun and the ocean seemed to glow with shades of yellow and orange. Simultaneously beautiful and devastating. We weren’t impacted, but we were definitely affected.

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So, when the box arrived from Blue Star Families in the middle of the week – a volunteers’ kit with buttons to hand out at Starbucks on Veterans Day, I was filled with a sense of dread. The death toll north of us was climbing daily and I was supposed to hand out buttons to people buying coffee and thank them for supporting military families? I hadn’t really laughed in a week. The last thing I wanted to do was half-ass something for Blue Star Families, an organization that has given our family more than we could ever give back. But I had no idea how I was going to pull out of my funk enough to be convincing. I set the entire box to the side and decided I would worry about it later.

When I woke Sunday morning, I was no more cheery than when I went to bed on Saturday night, but I put on the t-shirt from the box. The front of the t-shirt read ” It’s more than a cup of coffee.” The back proclaimed, “It’s all about communities.” The Blue Star Families and Starbucks logos almost seemed to be holding hands. I felt a little better. I picked up the bag of buttons and started walking out of the neighborhood, to the Starbucks across the street (where we all go because it’s so dang convenient). When I entered the store, I asked to see the store manager and when I introduced myself, her entire face lit up.

“Thank you so much for doing this,” JayIssa said. “I’m so glad you’re here.”

I felt the some of the week’s burdens let loose and float away.

“Me, too. Thank you so much for supporting military families. It means everything.”

The lunch rush began and 2 of my neighbors, Ashley and Candace, joined me. We distributed the buttons while mentioning that if they purchased a tall brewed coffee that day, 15 cents from each cup would benefit Blue Star Families. We also let Servicemembers and their families know that Starbucks was offering them a free, tall cup of brewed coffee to celebrate and honor their service. I certainly wasn’t at the top of my game, but with each smile, with each thank you, with each proclamation of “Happy Veterans Day”, the load seemed lighter. We were all neighbors and we were gathered at our Neighborhood Starbucks. It was about the coffee and it was about communities.

When we ran out of buttons, we chatted a bit more with JayIssa, who is eager to partner with and support the military community. She showed us the postcards that are available for customers to write notes to Servicemembers who are deployed or injured and the gift cards that were available for purchase, which also benefit military families.

She mentioned future possibilities like providing coffee and baristas for military events. Her passion for linking civilian and military communities is exciting. JayIssa’s offer to provide her store and staff as a way to do that is a substantial commitment to supporting military families.

Finding the places where civilian and military communities intersect and looking for ways to broaden that overlap is one of the many strengths of Blue Star Families. But they also work diligently to improve the quality of our lives, including sharing data results from the Annual Military Lifestyle Survey (which I completed last spring) with Congressmen and women so they have a better understanding of our challenges and ways in which laws can be crafted to address those challenges. They also partner with the National Endowment for the Arts to host Blue Star Museums every year and the National Parks Service to provide the America the Beautiful Park Pass. Their partnership with Disney has allowed us to visit Disneyland FOUR times this year, which would be out of our price range otherwise since every little thing costs more in Southern California, but Neal’s income doesn’t reflect that steep increase in the cost of living. We have not yet taken advantage of Blue Star Theatres, but as soon as the holidays have passed and life calms down a bit, we will get tickets for a children’s play that Blue has been asking to see. But they also provide support in other ways, like the Caregivers programs, which are so important for military spouses who have become caregivers for one reason or another. They truly address all of the challenges that come with serving our country.

There’s no doubt that of all of the military focused, non-profit organizations out there (and there are a lot), Blue Star Families is the one that we feel most directly impacts and improves our daily life. Because of that, we are happy to support their #GivingTuesday challenge on Tuesday, November 27th. This actually links to Ashley’s Facebook event so if you are having problems viewing or donating, please let me know and we’ll fix that. The funds raised on Facebook will be matched by Facebook and PayPal so your donation is actually doubled! And it directly benefits military families through the work Blue Star Families does on our behalf everyday. Funds raised will create more programs like Blue Star Museums, Blue Star Books, Blue Star Parks, and Blue Star Theatres – all of which are available to the entire family, not just the Servicemember. If you are going to give on Tuesday, this is a great organization to give to!

Things have started to calm down a bit around here. Blue and I took my mom to Santa Barbara yesterday, straight up the 405 to the 101 and although you can still see where fire suppressant was dropped by helicopters to protect the towns, the air has mostly cleared and it’s business as usual. The cloud has lifted, it’s once again sunny in SoCal and we are grabbing a coffee from our Neighborhood Starbucks on the way to the beach today!

Friday Favorites

Hip Hip Hooray for another edition of Friday Favorites! Just so y’all know, this is a carefully curated list that I keep updated in the notes app on my phone. I add to it all week and whenever something strikes me with its awesome, I add it to the list. So, here we go!

1. On Saturday, I experienced my first ever Bunco night. And all of my hand-wringing over how hard it would be suddenly seemed silly. Roll the dice, count, drink, repeat. A game of chance pairs perfectly with a slightly chilled bottle of Chardonnay. It was also, of course, Halloween-themed, so everyone was encouraged to dress in costume and bring a dish to share. I bought 2 cans of crescent rolls, a can of black olives and one bag of sundried tomatoes for these squiggly snakes. Apparently, if you take 5 minutes to loop your food around a skewer, it makes your food all curly and Instagram-worthy. The recipe actually called for pizza dough, which is what I will use next time, since that would be better suited for the marinara sauce I bought. But seriously, how freaking cute. And even easier than the mummy hotdogs I made last year. Thanks for everything, Pinterest. But most importantly, thanks for not being around yet when I was planning our wedding.

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2. Speaking of Halloween-themed Bunco, I couldn’t resist getting a selfie with my Birthday Twin. I was a character from a popular children’s book and she was the liquor that had me praying for mercy to the porcelain god at my friends’ wedding (here’s to you, Matt and Ginger). Any guesses?

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3. There aren’t any pictures of this, but that was also the night I discovered the sweet nectar of the gods: warm apple cider and caramel-flavored vodka. Fortunately for me (and anyone else who would encounter me the next day), I didn’t come upon this combination until the end of the evening. But just one glass was enough to make walking home a bit perilous. And when I sat down to remove my hooves, I nearly sat on this guy, who was the only one still waiting up for me. He was the last person I expected to see lounging on the couch.

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I texted the girls and they immediately shot back with a slew of jokes about being surprised by a little Woody. Yes, of course they did.

4. Our neighbors down the street, who have 4 boys that are 7 years old and younger (one set of twins in there for y’all who are doing the math at home), invited us to their Halloween Cooking Challenge. One parent + 2 boys form a team and one parent + 2 other boys form a team. One night during the week, the chosen team prepares an appetizer, entree and dessert, all of which must feature a Halloween theme. We arrived after the appetizer (Mummy Hotdogs), but in time for the entree (Bug Guts Stew) and dessert (Witches’ Brew). Costumes were also strongly encouraged. We didn’t get that memo before leaving the house, but luckily for us, they had a trunk full. So, I grabbed a hat and Blue morphed into Creek-Wading Captain America. We drank crow’s blood from claw goblets and sipped our stew from cauldrons. The battery-operated candles flickered as 6 boys debated if the soup was better with shredded cheese or without. And I knew instantly that our friends are killin’ it as parents. Most of the time it’s like herding cats trying to get out the door to school and often there is something going on with at least one of the kids, but on this night, I completely understood that these 4 boys are having a most enchanted childhood. It’s not always slaying dragons and saving the princess, but it will be happily ever after, for sure.

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5. Sitting in traffic on Thursday, I looked over and noticed this piece of weathered sheet music just laying in the turning lane.

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It was such an unexpected thing to see in the road and it immediately brought forth all sorts of questions about how it came to be there. Was it a mini-van full of musicians on their way to play at the Hollywood Bowl when it suddenly blew out of the back seat? Did it fall out of the shopping cart of a once-famous violinist who now lives on the street, but longs for her Stradivarius? Was it shoved carelessly into a backpack while hastily packing for piano lessons and then whipped by the wind all the way down Sepulveda Boulevard? I will never know, but I did think, just for a second, about leaping out to grab it before the light turned green. Then I remembered my mom reading a news story last year about a scrap of paper that was covered in a powdered drug and left in a parking garage. A toddler picked it up (as they tend to do) and the drug entered his blood stream and killed him. They just had a nasty outbreak of Typhus on Skid Row. I left that piece of sheet music, along with all my unanswered questions, at the intersection.

6. I have discovered another wonderful blog. I’m not even sure how I came to click on it, but I’m sure it had something to do with the title of the post: I Millennial Mom So Hard. I believe the person who had shared it on social media commented that finally someone else was unapologetic about the internal contradictions many of us live with everyday: like why I will spend $5 on a quart of organic strawberries, but let Blue have a bag of frosting coated animal crackers after school…or why I limit his TV viewing to mostly PBS shows, but we have a growing collection of Pokemon cards. Parenting is hard and I think she absolutely nailed the reason behind our decisions, which seem erratic and inconsistent to most, but make perfect sense to us.

7. A welcome (and rather exotic) addition to our neighborhood Momfia is the Lizard Lady. I’m not sure exactly how many lizards she has, but I think there are at least 10. They lounge in the Rubbermaid storage container under the SoCal sun (and right next to the sea because the Lizard Lady has one of the best views in the neighborhood) and wait to be showered with attention, whether it’s at school pick-up or Friday afternoons when the kids don’t have to finish homework first. Filed under, “You can get used to anything”: I don’t think twice now about seeing the Lizard Lady at the school gate, with a lizard tucked under a bra strap, waiting for her little one to meet her at the top of the stairs. The other day, she had one swaddled in a Crown Royal bag and as we chatted about duty stations and military stuff, he just crossed his little claws and listened intently. It was just about the cutest thing I’ve ever seen a reptile do.

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Here’s what it looks like when a lizard lives the good life.

That’s all for today! I would love to hear YOUR Friday Favorites!

Our Family of Four

Shortly after September 15, 2009, I learned all about October 15, which is the date that has been set side for Pregnancy and Infant Loss Remembrance Day. I didn’t know the significance of that date because there was no reason to. But by the evening of September 15th, everything had changed. In just a few short hours, my and Neal’s lives altered course, drastically. I used to think it was wholly for the worse, but as time has passed, I can see just the faintest glimmer of a silver lining.

The day I found out I was pregnant with Shepherd, I was vacationing at my sister’s house in Florida. As the 1 line became 2, she hugged me and said, “Welcome to The Club, sis!” On September 15th, I joined a completely different kind of club. That one came with hugs and tears, too, but also immense feelings of guilt and isolation. In the 9 years since, I’ve met many more women in The Club; some have been members for awhile, others newly inducted and gasping for air in an ocean of pain. Angel Moms don’t always recognize one another upon first meeting. But once we share our stories, there is an instant acknowledgment of our shared journey. All feelings of alienation fall away as we silently affirm, “I know your pain because I’ve felt it, too. One day we will be whole again.” What’s remarkable is that there has never been any comparison of experiences. We describe them, but we don’t measure them against what another mother has endured. We all simply agree: there is no greater grief than burying a child.

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I have always believed, although I am loathe to ever say it to someone in the depths of despair after a loss, that everything happens for a reason. I could blame my Southern Baptist upbringing – an indoctrination that God’s Plan is like one giant game of Life where we are all just buying houses and cars and having kids as we move along the squares, racing towards The End. I’ve long since abandoned that particular denomination but some ideas sunk their claws in and just refuse to release. As if my physical and spiritual growth couldn’t expel them so they just grew around it, all-encompassing, no matter how irrational and incongruent those ideas are with my current belief system. That means that, for me, losing Shep is part of The Plan. I believe it now, I even believed it 9 years ago, although that didn’t make any of it easier. God had some serious ‘splainin to do.

But, of course, God doesn’t explain. He doesn’t need to. We simply don’t understand. We can’t. But we can begin to see a little something good bubble up from the black. For me, it happened about 6 or 7 years ago. We were stationed at Fort Knox, 90 minutes from my hometown. Blue and I drove back almost every Sunday to attend church and visit with family. One Saturday afternoon, Mom called to tell me about a childhood friend’s baby, who passed just a couple days after birth. The funeral would be the following week in my hometown. I sat down next to Blue, who was immersed in a fierce battle between Thomas the Train and his best friend, Percy, and cried a river of tears. I cried into Dear Liza’s bucket, y’know…the one with the hole in the bottom so it never fills up. What could possibly be the reason for this? It was September 16, 2009 all over again. Except…it wasn’t. I had 3 years of being an Angel Mom on my resume and I had found a level of peace that this new Angel Mom couldn’t even imagine existing. She was surrounded by well-intentioned family and friends offering their platitudes of hope because they didn’t really know what else to say. But I knew exactly what to say. Maybe it wasn’t exactly what she wanted to hear, but I had the words because they had been forming on my lips for 3 years. Most importantly, I could look her in the eye and offer her my guiding hand through the rockiest terrain during the darkest days. She didn’t take me up on it, but I didn’t know her that well, either. Still, she knew it was there if ever she needed to reach for it.

Ah. The Plan. I could be a Guide for God. I always thought when God finally decided to talk to me (or, more likely, when I finally decided to listen), there would be some great flash of light or maybe a movement of earth under my feet. But instead it was a small voice, sounding much like my own, rising up to form an idea. Had I not been paying attention I would have thought it was my idea. But I knew better. It would never be my idea to put myself out there as a person who can be called upon to sit with someone experiencing bottomless grief. That was God’s voice, God’s idea. My calling.

It has been 9 years and I’ve met or known at least 9 new Angel Moms. Honestly, it is heart-wrenching. Every single time. Because for about 5 minutes, I time travel back to the morning of the 16th, climbing gingerly into that old Prius. Reaching over to scrape off the remnants of dried blood from the previous day before I will allow myself to get in. We make that awkwardly silent trip down Nicholasville Road, from the U.K. hospital to the house, with Neal’s hand on my thigh and my head resting on the window. I dread going home, to the nursery and the clothes and all of the baby items I had been buying in eager anticipation just a few short days before. I wanted to run away, maybe with Neal…maybe alone. I did not want this life and I sure as hell didn’t want to face anyone in it. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to live, either. And there I existed for longer than I ever care to admit. Yes, my beloved Angel Moms, I know your pain and I’m not going to tell you that everything happens for a reason. I’m simply going to remind you as often as I need to that you are not alone and that it is not your fault. And that God loves you. We all do.

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Not all of us can (or will) talk about it. I tend to gravitate most quickly to the ones who do, but that’s only because we don’t mind to attach words to our feelings and I always get along better with someone who I feel comfortable communicating with. Nothing is taboo with me because to make it unspeakable is to give it more power than it deserves to have. Grief does not get to rule (or ruin) my life. I will call it by name, give it the time it needs, and then ask it to move to the back of the line. It’s someone else’s turn – Happiness or Joy or Peace.

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Every now and then I meet another willing guide; someone who is open and honest about such unimaginable pain. She talks about the thing that no one wants to talk about. She offers a glimpse into this grief, without apology or reservation. She seeks to help those who haven’t experienced it understand, in a judgment-free space. Yes, we welcome your prayers. No, we don’t want to hear that it will be better when we get pregnant again. This most recent Angel Mom and Guide is blogging at A Mother’s Journey to Healing, which I have found to be an astonishingly courageous recount of Candice’s life, beginning with the passing of her Angel Daughter during the beginning of the 3rd trimester. What is the best way to support an Angel Mom (or Dad, for that matter)? To simply be willing to hear (or read) our stories. If you will take the time to listen to our perspective, it will undoubtedly alter yours. And when that occurs, you become more aware of what you say, what you do. Being a little more mindful of those we occupy space with is never a bad thing. And it keeps you from looking like an egocentric power couple when the Miami Herald reports that you’ve just announced your pregnancy on the one day set aside (in the U.S., as well as the UK, Canada, Norway, Italy, Kenya and parts of Australia) to honor and remember those women affected by pregnancy and infant loss. There’s nothing quite like looking royally apathetic or, at best, oblivious.

Tonight we light a candle and say their names. We take some solace in seeing others do the same. We tell ourselves that those babies have found each other Up There, that they are playing hop scotch and tag. We remind one another that we will see them again. Until then, we have each other.

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