Bowl by Bowl
It’s craft season. Again. For other makers, craft season isn’t just the fall holidays. Many Etsy sellers and craft show veterans keep working all year round whether their micro-business is their main gig or not. That’s their jam and, you know, respect. That’s not how I do it. I do one show. That’s it. Some years I sell online, the thought of which makes me want to roll around on the floor, whining and kicking like a toddler; most years I sell to friends and family in person after my one show. I gift what I don’t sell, which usually isn’t much, and I start each year fresh. It’s one of my rhythms. It’s what I do.
Every year about this time, as if I have no concept of how a calendar works, there I am again, running around in circles, screaming and waving my hands in the air, wondering how on earth I’m going to pull off a craft show in the time I have left. You’d think I’d learn by now to manage my time better, or at least recognize that I always throw the most in September and October once the kids are back in school. You’d think.
It’s like being surprised every year how Daylight Saving Time works. “Can you believe how dark it is so early? Isn’t that crazy?” No. It’s not. It’s the same every year. What is wrong with you?
Even so. Even with that underlying stress that I’m not going to make it, WHY DIDN’T I START SOONER? I’M NEVER GOING TO MAKE IT! I know I’m going to make it. I know this, because I’ve made it every other year. Proof of my ability to do one simple, local craft show is in my personal history multiple times. Calm down.
I was thinking about this as I went for a run this morning. This past weekend was the one year anniversary of my finishing a half marathon. As I ran, I wondered whether I would be running any more races. I kept coming back to, well, you know you can, because you did. Yes, I’m obese, yes, I run slower than most people walk, but, I finished a f*@king half marathon, you guys. I even have the 13.1 sticker on the back of my car to prove it.
I am not the greatest potter or writer or nurse. I can’t run fast. But, I’ve made pottery on and off for two decades. I have written this blog for almost eight years. I have a couple of degrees and I am licensed by the state of Pennsylvania to take care of people, professionally. I no longer have to wonder if I can do it. I know I can do it. I’ve done it. Now it’s just a matter of doing it some more, of keeping at it even when I don’t feel like it, which, really, has always been the true hurdle.
The problem is, it all seems so big sometimes. Making a table full of thrown, trimmed, glazed, twice-fired pottery feels daunting. Running a marathon feels daunting. Earning a Master’s degree feels daunting. Surviving cancer feels daunting. But, you don’t do it all at once. There is a beautiful book on writing by Anne Lamott called Bird by Bird where she tells this story that I’ve started to consciously turn to when it all feels like too much:
Thirty years ago my older brother, who was ten years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day. We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, “Bird by bird, buddy. Just take it bird by bird.”
Right? What kind of a sadistic teacher assigns a report on birds to a ten year old?
That aside, bird by bird is the secret to all of it. It is how anybody accomplishes anything. I can’t make a table full of finished pottery all at once. Even if I could, it wouldn’t be much fun because there would have to be machines involved and it would no longer be the craft that has become a part of my idea of who I am. I make pottery one piece at a time. Mug by mug. Plate by plate. Bowl by bowl.
When I started running, my first goal was to jog for 60 seconds. I used a couch to 5k app and after five minutes of walking, I jogged for one minute. That was it. I built on that one minute until I ran 13.1 miles at one (long) go. If I ever run another half, or decide to run a full marathon, it will still have started with that one minute. Some minutes really matter. I’ve written about that before.
Of course, self-imposed complications aren’t the only things I need to take on one moment at a time. There have been rough patches where I was sick or someone else was; or even rougher patches where grief was so consuming that I was positive I wasn’t going to make it through to the other side. But, I did. I’m still here.
Sometimes I took it one day at a time, sometimes I took it one hour at a time, and sometimes I knew if I could just get up, even if I couldn’t stop crying, if I could just get up and do something, anything, that would show me that I had it in me to keep going. After a while I knew I could do it only because I did it.
I try to remember this when I see pictures on social media of everyone’s highlight reels. One smiling shot is not the whole story. All of the suffering has been cropped out. When I see a before and after picture where somebody lost 60 pounds in the blink of an eye, I’m tempted to wonder why it was so easy for them. But I know better. I know what that picture doesn’t show are the weekly Weight Watcher meetings, the hateful, endless salads, the trips to the gym when she really didn’t want to go, and keeping track of all of those godforsaken points.
Pictures of smiling couples don’t show the ridiculous fights over how to properly load a dishwasher or why can’t you put down that phone? Pictures of smiling children holding trophies or ribbons don’t show the hours of practices and driving to meets. You can’t see from the picture of the graduate with his mortar board and diploma whether he ever got a detention for playing Tetris in history class, or whether the smiling mother next to him ever questioned the millions of decisions she had to make as his parent.
Life can be so unbelievably overwhelming sometimes. Not only are we trudging away through all of our obligations, but bad things happen that we don’t expect. We don’t have to get through any of this all at once. We break it into little pieces. Weeks. Days. Hours. Breaths. Heartbeats. We get through the hard parts and try to remember to stop and smile and capture the good parts and share them with our people.
A month from now, on November 18th, I’ll be standing behind my table which will be covered by pottery that represents hours of work. Throughout the course of the day I will hear one of two comments by almost everyone who stops to talk to me. Either, “have you and your husband ever recreated that scene from Ghost?” Hahahahahaha… Seriously. Multiple times. Every year. Uh, no. You don’t touch someone while they are throwing pottery. It throws them off center. My husband knows this and respects this.
Or, they’ll say something along the lines of, “I always wanted to do that.” Of course, they could do it. Anyone can. The nature of a craft is that it is something anyone can learn how to do. But that’s not really what they mean.
They don’t want to start from day one, where you slap a blob of clay in the middle of a spinning circle and it is a complete freaking mystery how to get something that so obviously wants to lay flat to stand up. They don’t want to spend hours upon hours learning how to make mugs out of mud. They don't want the hard parts. They want to just know how to do it. Like magic.
But, that’s not how it works. In order to do almost anything interesting or difficult, you’ve got to put the time in. You’ve got to sit and practice and keep at it. And keep at it some more, bowl by bowl.
The unbearable lightness of no tests
Long ago, in a living room far away, I had a late night conversation that set in motion a plan to be in school for FIVE MORE YEARS. By long ago, I mean three years. Which, math fans, means I have two left. Right now I’m between semesters, looking down the barrel of summer break with the uneasy feeling that there is something else I should be doing. I should be studying. I should be researching. I should be schooling! I should not have this feeling of being academically obligation-less.
Well, mostly obligation-less. The soul crushing nature of a program where you have to take boards at the end means you could always be studying. For me, it will be the Family Nurse Practitioner certification exam. That test is ever-present. That test is the kind that sneaks up on you when you think to yourself, I’m free, I have nothing to do, and whispers, “you still have me” in a menacing, sadistic voice, like a serial killer who is toying with you before he makes his final move and throws you in the back of his van on your way out of Wawa.
That might be a little dramatic. But, there is something about that unfinished feeling that comes with being in school. It hovers over you while you watch t.v., or sleep in, or, heaven forbid, read fiction. (Scandalous.)
Even with that sneaky bastard nipping at me, I still have a mostly unencumbered feeling that begs encumbering. There is a big hole in my brain where schoolwork had been hunched that is pulling for more obligations like a vacuum. Fortunately, I have the fall pottery season to shove in there. Before I was even out of the parking lot from taking my last final, I thought, gosh, November is getting close and I have nothing made.
Still. Call me midlife crisis-y, but, I constantly feel like I’m running out of time to get life done. That is what sent me down this school rabbit-hole to begin with. Being an RN didn’t feel like I was finished. Since nursing was something I fell into without much forethought (don’t judge me, I had a baby, my brain was barely functioning) it didn’t feel like I was finished cultivating a career. So, here I am, back in school, and in the midst of being a graduate student it has finally dawned on me that one does not finish a career. You freaking work. You try to do your best. You aren’t finished until you stop working. And, even then, you aren’t finished living. There’s still stuff to do.
Which makes me wonder, when/if I finish my degree, will that make me feel finished? I’m guessing it won’t. I don’t think finished is something my brain is capable of understanding. (I can't speak for anyone else's brains, but I know my mother felt this way too. Does everyone?) As long as my neurons are firing, there is something else to get done. Always. It’s like never being done with laundry as long as there are still family members out in the world wearing clothes. The laundry isn’t finished. The laundry will NEVER be finished.
If that is the case, did I really need to go back to school? If I was never going to feel finished anyway, wouldn’t it have been easier to stop where I was? I really like being a PACU nurse. Being around people when they wake up from anesthesia is like being there when people are getting off a roller coaster. Their hair is a mess, they’re disoriented, and there you are, calm and stabilizing, helping them reclaim their bearings so they can go back out into the world. Yes, sometimes they puke, but mostly, they’re just looking for someone to be there so they can say, “can you believe that just happened to me?”
I guess the part of me that decided to become a nurse practitioner is the part that wants to be there before the roller coaster ride. When patients come to me now, all the decisions have been made and the intervention is done. I’m a receiver tasked to catch them so they land softly and can get back on their feet. The bossy, opinionated part of me wants to get to people well before they are rolled into my bay. My goal as an NP is to help people find the motivation to make healthier choices so that some of them can avoid the hospital entirely, let alone the recovery room.
Maybe my unfinished feeling is the part that wants to walk along the beach throwing starfishes back out to sea, counseling each one to go forth, eat healthy, exercise, get enough sleep, and manage their stress as I send them on their way. 'Cause isn’t that what we’re all looking for? Someone to rip us off the hot beach and throw us into the cold, unforgiving ocean?
Yeah, no. We don’t want to live healthy lives. Living healthy is effortful and un-delicious. It is not until we find ourselves sick that we wish we could go back and make different choices. I know this. I live this.
Can I get people to choose a different path? I don’t know! Maybe somebody! And since there are 7 billion people on the planet that all need to make healthy choices, it is not possible to ever be finished promoting healthy living. Health promotion is like laundry.
So, I haven’t finished learning, or my career, or my personal mission, and I never will. I won’t be done until I’m Done.
Even so, summer break is here. There will be sunshine, bored kids, fast vacations, pottery, easy reads, air conditioned runs, Harry Potter movie marathons, walks in my forest, and, of course, work. But, I won’t be writing any papers in APA format. I’m getting some school-free relaxing in. I'm guessing the twitchy no tests feeling will be replaced with the twitchy these-kids-are-making-me-crazy feeling soon enough.
And to all the students graduating this season: Congratulations! You might feel the same emptiness where schoolwork used to be too, but my advice is to think carefully before you choose to fill it with more school. Take some time. Dig into work. Dig into a creative outlet. Dig into the unscripted, undefined life that you get to design for yourself. The real test is the one where we choose to follow our dreams and values or not. That's the only vital one you have left to pass.
Well, that and knowing when to avoid creepy vans at Wawa. Constant vigilance, you guys!
New Year, New Me! Again!
“That’s it”, she said, for the 30th year in a row, “this year is the year I’m going to stop being a fat person.”
But, does she really believe it? She said the same thing last year...
Hell yes! She has believed it every year because she's stupidly optimistic. But why on earth would this year be any different? You know what, nobody likes a downer. Besides, fresh starts are awesome, aren’t they?
It’s arbitrary, of course, when we turn the calendar to start a new year. It’s not even at a good time. Honestly, who wants their fresh start to be right after the beginning of winter? Who would really choose that? Starting an exercise program when it hurts your skin to go outside? Starting to eat healthier when there are no vegetables growing? What a terrible idea. Thanks a lot, Pope Gregory XIII.
But, maybe it’s for the best. Winter is when people would probably most naturally not be eating well or exercising because of how much harder it is than in ALL THE OTHER SEASONS BECAUSE WINTER IS TERRIBLE. So, having an extra incentive to kick it in rather than hibernate is not all bad, I guess.
But why am I so much more able to eat vegetables in January than in any other month? Why is it so much easier to start than to keep going? Well, because it is. Starting is delicious and new and exciting and fresh and our little novelty-craving brains just love it. Where’s the fun in maintaining momentum? Where’s the spark? As someone who has been married going on 18 years, I’m here to tell you, fresh and new are not sustainable. There has to be something else to keep you going.
Truth be told, vegetables in January are so easy because it’s been so long since I’ve had any. That is the sad reality. Vegetables and lean proteins feel new again! But, every day? Forever? Well, it wears on you. There needs to be something beyond novelty driving the Let’s Go! train. Otherwise, mmm, Let’s Not... will takeover.
So, what's the secret? When the novelty is gone and all that’s left is the drudgery of day to day, how do you choke down another salad? Hell if I know, but, I’ll tell you what I’m going to try this year that is different. Maybe this will be the thing. You ready? You ready for my big epiphany-like breakthrough? Here goes: I’m going to keep doing it even when I don’t want to anymore.
Shew. I know that’s a lot to process, so, feel free to stop reading this post and go have a celery stick or something.
For those of you still here, how, you may ask, obese person who has never successfully kept weight off, do you plan to achieve such a mind-blowing victory? Well, I’m glad you asked. I have a three pronged plan:
Avoid hunger. Hunger leads to terrible decisions like Chinese food and cold french fries.
Almonds. Skinny people are always counting almonds, you guys. I think they know something. So, I’m going to carry almonds around with me to ward off fatness. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to eat them or not, so, I’ll have to get back to you on that. Because maybe I’m supposed to form them into an actual shield of some sort. I mean, I’ve never seen a shield made of almonds wielded by a skinny person, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. OR, maybe they really just keep counting them. The skinny person you know may have been counting the same almonds for the past 12 years.
Have a plan when steps 1 & 2 inevitably fail. Because, you guys, hunger and not having any almonds will happen. They just will. Life does sneaky things. One day I’ll find myself at a restaurant, I will have missed a meal and I will have forgotten my almonds. The grilled chicken breast and broccoli is not the choice I’m going to make. It’s just not happening. First of all, I don’t eat broccoli. Second of all, I love things with gravy. Gravy makes everything better. If I’m hungry and almondless, I’m ordering something with gravy.
BUT THEN, and here’s the real crux of it all, I’m not going to hop on the Let’s Not... train and bagel and ice cream and pizza it up until it’s January again.
Once I come down off the gravy high, I’m going to take a walk with my almonds, regroup, and go back to eating healthy even if I don’t want to anymore.
There you go. That’s it. That’s how this year will be different. Or it won’t be. But even if I only manage to eat healthy 1/12th of every year, there’s hope. Waking up some January 1st without the will to at least try to be healthier scares me a hell of a lot more than being a fat person.
So here’s to you, fellow Fresh Starters. May our vegetables be crispy, our chicken breasts be savory, our feet be move-y, and may we never find ourselves without almonds.
On Being a Democrat
I do not handle confrontation well. My mother taught me, just as her mother taught her, don't make waves. Avoid talking about politics and religion. Keep your mouth shut and get along.
I’ve done my best.
I’ve stood by my belief that the relationships I have with my friends and family are more important than our differing political views. I believed that what happens in our day to day lives is more real than the abstractions in Washington D.C. and on Wall Street. My biggest wish was for my Facebook friends to keep political engagement light so that we could enjoy peace.
That didn’t happen.
Instead, I slowly watched my feed get enveloped by the political machine. I saw blatant propaganda being shared as though it were news. And even though I didn’t post my own beliefs or engage in comment wars, I didn’t feel any more connected to the people in my life; I felt less so. Additionally, as friends and family members posted hostile things that questioned the intelligence of “Libtards” or people whose views tilted left, I felt personally insulted.
I literally (not figuratively) felt the urge to challenge some of these people to an IQ test. I’m not even kidding right now, you guys. I had this vivid image of myself sitting across the table from someone whilst angrily filling out scantron bubbles thinking, “call me stupid again, mother f*@ker!”
This is not healthy.
So I would like to take the opportunity to tell any of the Republicans in my life (and there are many) who took the low road and insulted me for my political beliefs, perhaps without knowing it: I am not a stupid person. If you would like to have an IQ battle with me, I’ve got my sharpened #2 pencils ready. Bring it.
I don’t think the problem is that people who know me think I am stupid, though. I think the problem is more likely you make assumptions about all Democrats and don’t understand what being a Democrat means to me. Thus, this post. I’m done being quietly misunderstood. If you read this and still think I’m an idiot, then at least you’ll have made an informed decision.
Here are 10 of the reasons I choose to be a Democrat:
1. I believe in the equality of all human beings. People should not be treated differently based on how they look, on whether they are boys or girls, on what religion they choose (or don’t choose) to practice, on how much money they have in the bank, or on who they love. Freedom and equality are the founding principles of this country. They are what make me most proud to be an American.
2. I believe we have a duty to not trash our environment. Climate change aside, there are real consequences to poisoning the earth, air, and water that we depend on to survive. Cancer is one of those consequences. As a childhood cancer survivor, this is not a small issue for me. The idea that my children could do their very best to live a healthy lifestyle and still get sick because the air they breathe or the water they drink has been poisoned is beyond depressing. We owe our planet and the people who will come after us basic stewardship.
3. I believe some people could really use our help, especially the elderly, the disabled, and children. Judging from the misinformation I’ve seen fly by on my feed, there is a lot to be learned about entitlement programs. To be clear, I find the practice of able-bodied people choosing not to work and instead soaking off the labor of others to be a shameful way to live. However, the bulk of money spent on entitlement programs is spent to help the elderly. For example, Medicare is an entitlement program.
Did you know that Medicare is universal healthcare? I know a lot of people don’t think about it that way, but that’s exactly what it is. Only, for the most part, you have to be 65 or disabled to be covered. Medicare is an expensive proposition because it covers people at the time in their lives when they most need healthcare. Without coverage, paying for things like knee replacements and heart surgeries would be cost prohibitive for our seniors. Their choices would be to keep working until they died, pay premiums that would be outrageous because of their age bracket, liquidate all of their assets including the house they spent their entire lives paying for, or live with the pain/die earlier. That doesn’t seem very nice.
Did you know that the bulk of Medicaid, another entitlement program, is also spent on the elderly? Nursing homes are mad expensive. Without the government stepping in to house seniors whose families are unable to care for them on their own, what is their other option? Alzheimer patients left at home to wander off, forget to eat, or burn the house down? Bedridden people left alone all day while their loved ones go to work? I mean, honestly, what’s the plan for these people if we don’t help them as a society? Will you have enough money in the bank at the end of your career to pay for someone to take care of you full time if you can no longer take care of yourself? What about if something happened to you right now and you could no longer work?
4. I believe that healthcare is a basic human right. The idea that if a child breaks her arm after falling off the monkey bars that we wouldn’t fix it if her parents couldn’t afford to pay a surgeon or that an elderly man with diabetes who can’t afford insulin or glucose testing supplies should be left to die is just not okay. We live in a civilized society with the resources to care for these people without putting their lives in financial ruin. What does that say about us if we do nothing for them?
5. I believe the minimum wage should be a livable wage. The argument that a cashier does not deserve to make enough money to support herself and her children, even if she works full time, because she didn’t get a good enough education to get a better job is a disgraceful argument. Not everyone is lucky enough to have the means or the intellectual capacity to get through college or other specialized training programs. Plus, if these people aren’t paid a livable wage, can you guess where they turn for help if they can’t afford food or healthcare? Public assistance. The taxpayers are expected to help support the employees of large corporations. Because of this, corporations are able to pay millions of dollars to top leadership while not paying those at the bottom enough to pay their rent. This isn’t fair to anyone: not the employee, not the taxpayer that is expected to pick up the slack.
6. I believe a mostly male government has no business trying to dictate what a woman does with her own body.
7. I believe in the 1st Amendment and freedom of the press. I depend on people uncovering the truth and keeping people in power accountable for their actions.
8. I believe in the 2nd Amendment. People have the right to have weapons with which to hunt and to protect their people and property. In fact, as a person who grew up watching the movie Red Dawn, I’m depending on our military, our retired military, and our armed citizens to protect us if we ever get invaded by the Russians or any other power hungry regime. However, I think people convicted of violent crimes or who have serious mental health diagnoses that indicate they are mentally unstable should not be able to buy a machine gun on a whim, no questions asked.
9. I believe we should have a strong military to protect us and the people around the world who have no one to stand up for them. However, I don’t believe that our military should be wielded for personal gain and the use of extreme force should be taken very seriously.
10. I believe in access to quality education. Without the ability to comprehend the world around us as a result of historical reflection or an understanding of what constitutes scientific discovery, people are less able to make informed decisions. They don’t develop the ability to review each new piece of information with a skeptical eye, nor do they recognize their role in the larger context of civilization.
To be honest, if I had more faith in humanity, I’d be a libertarian. We should not have to depend on an incredibly fallible government to tell us how to live. We shouldn’t need all these rules and regulations telling us how to be decent. Unfortunately, history has proven repeatedly that human beings, when left to their own devices, don’t always make the right choices.
Corporations have poisoned water supplies, they’ve let people die from faulty products because the cost of recalls are higher than the cost of lawsuits, they’ve sold us medications that they knew caused more harm than good, they’ve discriminated against people based on gender, age, ethnicity, disability, and sexual orientation. Time and again people have proven that without rules, they will screw their fellow man for money. Pure capitalism, with no regulations, paves the way for snake oil salesmen on a global scale. Wall street left unchecked leads to depressions and recessions. Greed and a desire for power can cause people to make incredibly bad choices.
Call me a bleeding heart liberal all you want. I’m a nurse and a mother. I care about people. I care about the world we share. I don’t believe money or the pursuit of it should be the driving force in all of the decisions we make. If that makes me stupid in your opinion, well, you’re entitled to it. But, I bet I could still kick your ass in a game of Words With Friends.
Move Along, Summer
Okay teachers, I’m crawling across the mat with every last bit of effort trying to reach you so I can tag out. I just can’t anymore. You’ve got to take them back.
I know what I said in May, all right. So don’t be that guy. You know, the one who crouches over the poor bastard who broke his leg in a skiing accident, who’s suffering from hypothermia, and says, “I thought you loved winter?” We all hate that guy.
I do love summer. I love how alive and bright it is. I love that I could go outside naked if there weren’t laws against that and I didn’t have such deep-seated body issues. I love how I can feel warm to my core without having to hide in the bathtub for hours, cursing the Earth for tilting away from the Sun. I love that there is nothing looming over me or my kids. There are no tests to study for or projects to work on or books that have to get read. It is okay to simply exist for a while.
You know, in theory. In reality, honestly, it’s mostly freaking noisy.
I tried to have a plan this summer to keep the wretched creatures, I mean, darling angels engaged. I wanted a structure on which to hang lasting summer memories. For each of the twelve weeks of summer, I chose a book for us to read (or one we’ve already read) and came up with ideas for crafts, foods, photo booth props, and a field trip. It was all very exciting.
Our first book was Awkward, a graphic novel by Svetlana Chmakova about art versus science and how they can come together to form a gestalt. Our craft was drawing comic strips. Our food was a barbecue because one was mentioned in the story. Our photo booth props were large black square outlines meant to look like the outline of a comic.
Our field trip was to the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia, a science museum that happened to be hosting The Science Behind Pixar exhibit, which was about how science is an integral part of the art of computer animation. I mean, hello. You guys, I NAILED week one.
Week two was Alice in Wonderland, by Lewis Carroll. And that’s where it turned to shit. Yes, I said week two. First of all, though, if you haven’t actually read Alice in Wonderland, and have only watched the movies, or read it when you were a kid, I’m telling you, revisit that book. There is a reason people keep going back to that story. As visually compelling as it is, the words are even more captivating.
The week started off well. We did a picnic at my local thinking spot while I read the story to my kids. Even my youngest recognized that it was a treasurable moment. The weather was perfect, the view was sweeping, the story was interesting and funny, and we got to eat cookies.
The next time I went to read to them, though, in our house, while folding laundry, they just weren’t into it. If I had to pinpoint an explanation as to why we all gave up on Camp Shuker it would be because it felt like more school work and we all really needed a break.
Even fun things take effort and we just wanted to lay around and drool for a while.
So we did.
Then Pokémon Go happened. My youngest, Charlie, has been obsessed with Pokémon for years. And he’s only seven. That an app came out that would allow him to catch Pokémon after dreaming of doing just that for as long as he could remember is proof to me that magic exists. So out in the world we went. And went and went and went.
That’s when I had the brilliant idea to backdoor Camp Shuker. I picked a book based on what we were doing, rather than the other way around. I even got the audiobook so I wouldn’t have to do any work.
The book was Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, read by Wil Wheaton. It is about a guy trying to win an immersive, virtual reality video game. He spends all his time playing the game only to realize that real life is where the living happens. That’s right, I kind of Inceptioned their asses. I mean, it didn’t work. They’re all currently glued to their electronics as I write this. But, still. They got the message. Probably.
We’re ready to get back to work is what I’m saying. We had a break. We lived it up as sloths. Now when we cruise by the school supply section at Target I’m not the only one who lingers. Last time, Charlie asked for a flash drive. “What do you need a flash drive for?” I asked. *sigh* “My data,” he said.
Teachers, I implore you. My seven year old has some data. I need you to help him with that. I'm done.
Ready to Break
I can not believe I’m going to say this, but, I’m ready for the school year to end. I know. I’m worried I was abducted by aliens and replaced with a cyborg, too.
As someone who believes snow days are a personal affront to my sanity; as someone who responds to people who choose to homeschool their children with, “dear God, why would you do that to yourself?”; as someone who has considered instituting a ritual wherein I meet the first day of school bus wearing nothing but body paint and a smile while dousing my head with champagne and pounding on freedom drums; I, Heather Shuker, am looking forward to the last day of school.
It’s not that I’m looking forward to the long days of summer, mind you. Much as I love me some warm weather and sunshine, when my children are home with me all day for weeks on end there is an ongoing and brutal electronics war that I invariably lose. This mostly consists of my own internal battle between trying to be a good parent and wanting some freaking peace.
It goes something like this:
ME: Sweet, precious, small people, because I want your brains to be nourished with the fruit of the natural world, please, spend your days outside soaking in the glories of nature.
MY KIDS: It’s hot.
ME: Darlings, I understand the weather can be uncomfortable, therefore, how about you improve your minds with thought provoking literature that transcends time.
MY KIDS: How long do I have to read before I can go on electronics?
ME: Dear ones, build your unity, interpersonal connectedness, and problem solving skills by playing board games or Legos with each other.
MY KIDS: Will you play with us?
ME: Hell no.
Then, in an attempt to boldly follow the endless articles touting the importance of limiting screen time, I just take the electronics away and deal with the consequences....
After several days of whining, fighting, complaining, complete destruction of my house, nagging, and unquenchable hungers, I relent. Much like throwing steaks toward a pack of hungry wolves in an effort to keep them from annihilating you, I throw their electronics at them and run for cover.
Now, I ask you, who has the Herculean strength to consistently choose “enrichment activities” over electronics all freaking summer? Well, good for those people. I’ve only got a few good fights in me a week. The rest of the time I just throw the guilt onto the pile of all of the other things that make me an imperfect parent. (It's not a small pile.)
Why am I looking forward to the end of the school year, then, you ask? Well, for those of us who have less than perfect children (*gasp*! Am I allowed to admit that?) the school year can be a gruesomely long game of "oh god, what did he do now?" every time a teacher e-mails, calls, or sends home a note.
Which isn’t to say I don’t love me some teachers. If any of you blessed angels are reading this, thank you one billion times for having the patience to teach my children and all of those other knucklehead children I see out in the world. (Not your children, dear reader, yours are perfect.) I am forever in your debt for teaching my kids to read and write and do math things.
I know it’s not easy. I once tried to spend the summer improving my kids’ handwriting. I got the special paper. I looked up all these inspirational quotes for them to practice writing. I printed out letter forming guides. I even sat with them to work on my own handwriting.
Well, you would think I was asking them to write their names in blood, Umbridge-style. There was wailing. There was crying in the streets. There was mass hysteria. Every single time I tried it, I ended up sending someone to his or her room and pencils were thrown by at least one of us. So, yeah, 180 days of trying to shove knowledge into these animals? Y’all deserve metals.
But, I need a break. A break from homework, a break from catching the school bus, a break from lunch packing debris all over my kitchen every morning, a break from the relentless schedule of who needs to be where when, a break from worrying about grades, a break from the downpour of papers, and, most of all, a break from, "do you know what your kid did?". No, but I can't wait for you to tell me.
Just, everybody, SHH. Pause. Regroup. And, come fall, we can do it again with a clean slate and a fresh bottle of champagne.
Dropping This Ball
“Mom, what’s wrong with your website?” my son asked.
I know, I haven’t posted in a while, between school and my current existential crisis I just haven’t felt inspired…
“What do you mean what’s wrong with it?” I asked back.
“It says your domain has expired.” he said.
Pulled it up and he was right. My site was gone. In its place was Go Daddy asking me if I wanted to bid on it in auction.
Cue full blown panic.
I logged into my account and sure enough, the 5-year renewal was up in March. My site went down on St. Patrick’s Day. (Where was the luck of the Irish? Is a Leprechaun showing up at my door telling me to check my old Hotmail account’s junk box too much to ask?)
My precious real estate on the internet evaporated because I didn’t update my e-mail address.
Now, you might think, gee, Heather, how popular could heathershuker.com possibly be? Seems awfully specific. Well, as long-term readers might remember, there is a photographer in England named Heather Shuker. Ms. Shuker is a rather pleasant lady whose e-mails I’ve randomly received over the years. Because of the ongoing mixup, she had mentioned that she’d like the .com domain if I were ever to give it up. (She uses heathershuker.co.uk.) Did she get it? Did she get my site?! Oh, the horror!
Well, obviously, she didn’t. I called Go Daddy, whined a lot, and they fixed it.
You get real clarity about how much you care about something when you are at risk of losing it. (Even more when you actually lose it, but, I’ve already written about that.)
And while this site might be an idle distraction for my visitors, for me, it is the embodiment of not giving up on being a writer or a potter. I’m getting older. I’m running out of time to do all the stuff I want to do. But, when I go to work, when I go to school, when I make dinner and do laundry and dishes and help my kids with homework, I can still say to myself, you might not write or throw as much as you’d like, but you still do it. You have a website and business cards so it must be true.
But, is it? If I’m not making time to write or throw can I still claim those identities? I certainly would stop calling myself a runner if I didn’t strap on my shoes at least a couple of times every week. (Although, “run” is still a strong word to describe what I do.)
I’m a firm believer in actions over words. Don’t tell me, show me. “Words are wind” as George RR Martin likes to say in Game of Thrones. (Yes, part of my problem has been sinking down that rabbit hole. Five books and you still aren't finished telling the story, George? Really?)
Well, here I am. I’ve written something. (They can’t all be winners, you guys. Sometimes, a girl just needs to show up to prove she still means it.)
Yes, I’m a writer. Yes, I’m a potter and a runner and a student and a nurse and a knitter. I’m also a mother to a boy who has my back. (Bless you, Hayden, for saving my domain!) I can’t do all those things at the same time, though. If I tried, everything would get really messy. (You know? Because of the clay? It is mad filthy, you guys.) Instead, I have to take them one at a time. I have to prioritize and negotiate and dig deep for motivation. Sometimes, showing up to work in clean scrubs is all I’ve got.
But, I know from experience, if I keep throwing those balls in the air, even if I have to pick them all back up off the ground every once in a while, it’s worth it. It’s worth the fight. It’s worth the effort. It’s worth overcoming the sometimes overwhelming feeling of why bother? to define myself by getting shit done. Excuses, forgotten plans, unrealized goals are made of useless words. Pride is made of actions.
The 60 Second Hurricane
My mother had an idea for a book. It was how your world could change in the matter of a minute. She called it: The 60 Second Hurricane.
When she described her idea to me, I knew exactly what she meant. I had experienced a couple of hurricanes already. They are those moments that feel as if someone reached into your life and flipped a switch, like a train switching tracks. The reality you were living changes almost instantly, and often permanently.
I received a text at 5:27 a.m. on Tuesday, February 10th, 2015 from my sister telling me I needed to drive to a hospital in Virginia. I knew my mom had been admitted the day before with pneumonia in both of her lungs. My sister and I had thought some IV antibiotics and respiratory support was all she was going to need to get through this illness. After all, my mom had turned 66 just five days before and she was the picture of vitality.
What was troubling, though, besides the early hour of the text, was that my sister isn’t one to panic. My sister is a nurse. She has worked exclusively in ICUs and ERs. She knows what sick looks like and she knows how to stay calm when the world around her is in chaos. So, when she says it’s time to get in the car, you know things are bad. And you get your ass in the car.
My hurricane didn’t come, however, until I saw her face.
I was on the highway, driving toward the hospital, and I looked down at my phone and saw that I had a missed FaceTime call from her. Curious, I FaceTimed her back. (Admittedly, it was a really stupid decision.) My first thought when I saw my sister’s face on the small screen was, she looks bad.
“You look like shit,” I said. She didn’t snap back at me like she was supposed to, though. She looked away. My sister, who prides herself on being tough in the hardest of situations, couldn’t look me in the eyes.
And that’s when the hurricane struck. I knew right then that I was about to lose my mom.
Less than 24 hours later, after every last possible shred of hope was gone, I was standing at the end of my mother’s hospital bed, holding my sister’s hand as we watched a nurse remove life support. She turned off each of the IV pumps. She and a respiratory therapist removed the endotracheal tube. Within minutes, the impending doom that I had read across my sister’s face became a reality. We watched our mother die.
I spent that day thinking I couldn’t imagine a worse pain. This had to be the most anguish a human being could experience. I felt like I was dying too.
The following afternoon, I got another text. It was from my husband. Our 10 year-old son, Hayden, was just diagnosed with pneumonia. The same disease that just swept in and took my mother away was now squatting in my child's lungs. My imagination was revitalized. I found myself back in the car, again desperately hoping that the worst wouldn’t happen, only this time with the freshly acquired realization that sometimes it does. Honestly, I have no idea how I made it home.
An infectious disease doctor recommended that all of my and my sister’s family take antibiotics to prevent the freight train infection that killed my mother from claiming another one of us. The pain of losing her was somehow tempered by the fear that things can always get worse.
Between us, my sister and I have seven children. Valentine’s Day morning, the day of my mother's funeral service, instead of chocolate, I was handing out little pink shots of Augmentin. My sister and I were desperately trying to keep safe the precious branches that extend from us on the family tree, as we prepared to memorialize the branch that made us.
And, thankfully, that storm passed us by.
I don’t know what my mother’s take on The 60 Second Hurricane would have been. I don’t know what conclusions she would have come to while writing a book she thought she still had plenty of time to write. But, for me, those hurricanes have brought the kind of clarity that is only possible when you have been knocked down. As you struggle to right yourself, you feel the push of all the people who love you, nudging you back into the light even if you’d rather spend more time in the darkness. And you realize that the endless words of comfort from everyone around you swirl together to send one cohesive message: You are loved. We are here for you. Please keep going.
The best way I know to honor that message is to believe it. I am loved. I am supported. And here I am, still really sad, but, still going. I have made it through every major holiday. I have made it through my birthday. I have made it through her birthday. And now, I'll do it again. I'll take another trip around the sun without her, even if, sometimes, I don't want to. I am loved. I am supported. I will keep going.
Thanks, again, for all the pushes.
I turned 39 on my last birthday. I’m not exactly sure why we’re so hung up on ages since they represent exactly zero guarantee of how much time we have left, but, we are. *sigh* Forty is coming. There’s a scene in When Harry Met Sally where Sally is having a bit of a hysterical, existential crisis and says, “I”m going to be forty!” Harry asks, “When?” Sally cries, “Someday!”
I saw that movie for the first time as a teenager but I still got the joke. Forty has long been a demonized age. It is celebrated with black balloons and cards that indicate you are now “over the hill”. (Which I'm totally guilty of perpetuating... with reckless abandon.) It is the tip over point into oldness which is, of course, the ultimate enemy. (Well, except for fatness. But, she and I are old buddies.)
As the dreaded year approaches, I’m wondering where this doom and gloom came from. If your body really feels like it’s turning to crap at forty then you are either not taking very good care of it or your genes kind of suck. (And I'm truly sorry for you.) I finished my first 5k six days before my 39th birthday. I couldn’t do that when I was 29. Hell, I couldn’t do that when I was 19.
And while we’re talking about running (okay, fine, that’s all I’ve talked about for months), being over the hill is a good thing when you run. At that moment, once you reach the crest of your last hill and think, “it’s all downhill from here;” THAT’S A GOOD THOUGHT! It’s a happy, I’m totally going to make it; I’ve gotten through the hardest part thought. Downhill comes with a surge of relief and accomplishment.
Maybe we all need to take a closer look at how life was when we were on our way up the hill. I’m not saying my 20s and 30s were all bad, but they certainly weren’t easy. I was broke (and/or spending more than I made) for most of my 20s and I’ve spent the better part of my 30s dumping every drop of blood, sweat, tears and milk into turning babies into functional school aged children. (Can I get a Back-to-School hallelujah?)
Well, some drops of bodily fluid were spent on becoming a nurse… You know what, lets go ahead and be done with that metaphor. Let's stick with hills.
ASIDE: I almost didn’t become a nurse because of my fear of what my fellow humans might ooze on me. After being in it for a little while now, though, bodily fluids aren’t even close to the worst thing that can happen to you on a shift. You throw on some OR scrubs and go about your day. The worst part of your shift is when you or someone near you either yells or calmly commands, “Get the cart.” As in Code Cart. As in someone is having a very bad day. Being part of that is way worse than a little blood, sweat, tears, vomit, urine, stool, mucus, etc. being sprayed on the pajamas and/or shoes we wear to work.
Anyway, raising kids is hard as hell and I would definitely characterize it as an uphill battle. Also, my eldest will become a teenager the month before I turn 40. From what I understand, that is the steepest, hilliest part of parenthood. So, from where I sit, being “over the hill” is a decade off.
Although, people do seem to be catching on because the black balloons again come out for 50th birthdays. If you aren’t dead yet, you get a whole ‘nother black ballooned birthday celebration to remind you that you’re going to be one day.
I say, whatever. You know what, bring on the black balloons. Black is slimming. Also, yoga pants are black and I enjoy both yoga and being comfortable. I also enjoy chocolate. Basically, fat people love black so piss off, ageists.
I certainly don’t want to wish away my 40s (or the remaining months of my 30s) but I can’t say that I’m dreading the prospect of cruising downhill. Things like having all of my children out of the house, weddings, grandchildren, having my mortgage paid off, being able to take nicer, childless vacations, driving a convertible — these are all part of being over that hill. Where’s the bad part?
Oh yeah, aging. Dying. I mean, I get it. Through my work, I’ve seen people aging poorly, and I get that there’s not a small amount of pain involved, for some more than others. But, like I say to all of my patients who tell me “don’t get old”: It beats the alternative.
And, of course I’m going to die. We all are. As Ray Charles sang, “Ain’t none of us gonna get out of this alive.” My biggest fear of death isn't so much the death part as it is leaving my children before they are fully grown. And, if I’m being honest, I’ll be irritated if my time is up before I get to see Hawaii or Italy. (Or the Redwoods... Or Portland... Or Montana…) But, I’m otherwise okay with my inevitable departure. Dead is where my mom is and I miss her so terribly.
Whether these next 11 months are my final ascent up the elusive hill, or whether I have another decade to go, I appreciate the chance. My someday is now. Struggling uphill or cruising downhill are both signs that I’m still here. I’m here with my kids and my family and my friends. I’m traveling and writing and throwing pottery and being silly at work with my nurse buddies and patients. I’m knitting and reading and hiking in my forest and, yes, I’m still running because it turns out I’m crazy.
My age is not a secret and it’s not something I feel ashamed of. Though, yes, I dye my hair. I’m also good friends with my tweezers — hey, I never said I was all that into looking old. But, being old? Bring it. Please.
Keep going, it gets better
I ran 3.8 miles this morning. Well, run might be a strong word since my pace is one others might define as, “Sunday stroll.” Still, there is no mistaking that the girl who had to start out running for 60-second painstaking intervals has come a long way. Which isn’t to say I now find running easy. Yeah, no. But for a few stretches where I’m going downhill, in the shade, with a breeze, and listening to a great song, I’m basically forcing myself to take each step. But, those stretches do exist and I love them. I really am a runner now, you guys.
People love to go on about how great beginnings are, about how important it is to just get started, but I think beginnings kind of suck. Look at the beginning of people. Babies are terrible. They’re needy little noisy poop machines. If all of parenthood was dealing with babies, I don’t think I’d make it. But, they get better. They eventually deal with their own excrement, feed themselves, and buckle their own freaking seat belts. One day you are able to say, “We’re leaving, get in the car,” and your children actually do. (True story, new moms, I’m not making this up.) You sit there in the driver’s seat, waiting for buckles to click, and think, “this is it. I have arrived.”
I’m at my sister’s house and all seven of our children are in this great summer camp. It’s two weeks long and it consists of hiking, swimming, archery, crafts, capture the flag, and pure childhood bliss from what I can tell. They’ve been going for years and in the beginning, it was a nightmare getting them out the door.
Trying to get each of them dressed, breakfasted, lunch packed, shoed, supplied with a towel, and covered in sunscreen took two grown women and a ton of self control. Every morning at least one child was crying about something — usually the sunscreen. Now, morning send off is more like an exit interview. Have your towel? Lunch? Water bottle? Shoes? Have you been sunscreened? Great. Get in the car.
After a while, parenting switches from dragging yourself through the motions to enjoying the process. From what I hear, that’s what happens to you as a runner. Much like parenting, you go from asking yourself, “what in the hell am I doing here?” to “I don’t hate this right now” to “I’m really glad I chose to do this.”
As my moments of non-hate stretch, I can’t help but look back on the skeptic my former self was about my ability to be a runner. I want to be there for her in the beginning as she is trying to force herself through those 60-second intervals, doubting that she’ll ever be able to run her 3.11 miles goal, and whisper in her ear, “Keep going. It gets better. You’re going to make it.” Come to think of it, I’m pretty sure she heard me. That new runner, that new mom, that new nurse, that new potter, they’re all still me. They are the me that kept going. They are the me who has arrived.
I like to throw things.