Thursday, August 26, 2010

Finding Freedom in the Kitchen

I come from a family with an absolutely pathological commitment to homemade cooking. My grandmother was a dietician, who bore six children in the 1950s and cooked hot meals for breakfast, lunch and dinner every day. She taught her five daughters and one son to eat a plate of food only if it had different colors of food on it, and at least one of them had to be green.

So dinner growing up was almost always meat, carbohydrate, green vegetable, salad and a glass of milk. In college I continued to eat like this. My roommate called me "the Side Dish Queen" because even when I was cooking for only myself, I'd dirty every pan in our little kitchen making rice pilaf, steamed greened beans and pork chops.

Grandma, Mom and my four aunts took their upbringing seriously, too, and never, ever brought anything store-bought to a holiday dinner. Not even rolls. There wasn't always a lot of joy in this tradition. Food prep was pretty stressful, especially when the yeast mysteriously didn't rise in a double-batch of Thanksgiving rolls. And the only time I ever remember my mother cussing was when she made the family pie crust recipe; made with flour, egg and lard, it is legendarily tempermental. I avoided pie making for years, believing the phrase "easy as pie" to be a cruel ruse on the American housewife. Still, when I was newly married, my husband suggested we bring a Marie Calendar's pie to my grandparents' house and I looked at him in horror. I would be humiliated to show up with a pie in a box.

These days, I'm easing up on things, however. I really do love to cook, and I do prefer just about anything homemade to store bought, but giving myself grace in the kitchen is part of my new life philosophy. Born out of my thirties and my mother-of-young-children life stage, I like to call it Imperfectionism. Trader Joe's frozen side dishes, and even entrees, often find their way on my table, and my kids like them better than the "whole foods" that I make from scratch.

I can't be an Imperfectionist alone. Like any other addiction, kicking the habit of always doing things the hard way in the kitchen takes a support group. I'd like to take this moment to thank my sponsor, Tristina, who believes that ordering good food in is actually a spiritual discipline. She told me about all Trader Joe's wonderful bottled salad dressings. She encourages me to show up at our mommy groups with a box of doughnuts instead of homemade muffins (she doesn't even want me to transfer them to a pretty bowl with a homemade napkin). And she makes me order pizza for our families when we get together instead of cooking -- and even to have it delivered!

I'd also like to take this moment to thank a couple of other women who have helped on my path to recovery.

* Jenni, for getting me on bagged salad, and also introducing me to Costo's pre-shredded Mexican blend cheese

* June, for teaching me that you can be a good person who loves the earth, and still occasionally buy bottled water

* Grandma Gardner, for buying me the Cake Doctor cookbook, which uses boxed cake mix to make incredible desserts

* Susan, who, despite being a phenomenal cook, turned me on to Pilsbury pie crust. It is seriously so good.

* And finally, my mom and dad, who actually praise me whenever they come to my house and find me serving something I didn't make, like frozen quiches. They celebrate the freedom my generation has found.

Now, farewell, friends. I'm off on vacation. When I return, more on my conversion from a Perfectionist to an Imperfectionist.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Cowgirl Up

I'm about to steal one of my pastor's stories.

Every year, my pastor Kenton Beshore goes to Texas to spend six weeks with his kids and his wife's extended family. They boat, fish, swim, wakeboard, and eat. One year he was relating vacation stories and he said something that stuck with me:

"It takes work to have fun."

Then he described a family member who was prone to lounge-chair sitting and beer drinking while all the other men where helping get the boat in the water. One of the feisty Texas women in the family walked by him, smacked him in the back of the head and said, "Cowboy up!"

I thought of this today as I surveyed the pile of gear stacked in my backyard in preparation for our camping trip, for which we depart tomorrow night. My daughter caught me sighing as I was packing today and said, "Don't worry, Mom. Soon we'll be on vacation, and then you won't have any work to do."

True, darling daughter. Except unpacking the car, setting up tents, cooking food over a live fire, doing dishes in a plastic tub, bathing your three-year-old sister in an outdoor shower, and supervising you both so neither of you fall in the river or expose yourselves to poison oak, and then packing it all up again in four days and driving six hours home.

Being the good mommy that I am, I didn't say this out loud. I don't think.

But today I was seriously wondering if this is all worth it. Especially since two out of four people in our family have had strep infections this week, and another a cold and fever.

But just when my camping mojo began to wane, I got a vision of my girls sitting on the picnic table in Big Sur eating the tiny packets of sugary cereal they're so excited about, swinging their little footed pajama feet. I saw myself drinking camping coffee by the fire, and my husband floating down the river in his new inflatable boat. Suddenly I felt that I could go on.

My fondest memories from childhood were of spending time in my grandparents double wide mobile home (quite luxurious for the 1960s when they bought it) at Lake Havesu. We'd wake up in a sleeping bag mosh pit of cousins on the living room floor, have a huge breakfast, and head out for an entire day of swimming, water skiing and picnicking on the cove. We'd come home ravenous and eat a huge barbecue dinner.

Now as Mommy, I remember what was only in my peripheral vision as a child: the army of aunts, marshaled by five foot tall General Grandma, all cooking, packing, list-making, and tidying up around us and we reveled in vacation bliss. They were a bunch of tough women: skilled in the kitchen, strong of heart and arm, and hell on skis. And the last I remember as a central part of those great times: My mom and all her petite sisters, taking a break from their labors and getting back to their adolescent selves, tearing it up on a slalom ski.

So, it's my turn now. It's vacation time, and it's up to me to make it happen. Time to pack, cook, pitch tents, and hit the river with my paddle. It takes work to have fun. Cowgirl up!

Friday, August 20, 2010

Panties on the Head, and Laughter in my Heart

My almost three year old is not potty trained. Not even close. A month ago, when I asked her if she'd like to wear big-girl underpants like her sister, she gave me a look and said, "No mommy. I where diapers. I'm the only one in the family that wears diapers."

Well. That was that for a while.

But yesterday, for reasons known only to herself, she decided she'd like to try on some of her underwear. She wore them around the house for several hours. She didn't actually use the toilet, but neither did she wet the rug. This is progress of a kind.

Today she wanted to wear underpants again, but this time, she wanted to wear them over to a friend's house for a play date. This friend (hi, Tris) happens to be a bit of a germ-a-phobe, and I also happen to know that she just had her carpets cleaned due to a doggie doo doo incident this week. So, I had to tell Livie no, she could not wear her undies. But she could bring them with us and show them to Auntie Tris.

Half way over on the car ride, I checked the rear view mirror, and there in the back seat was Livie, sporting her pink undies with the white polka dots -- on her head. She looked exactly like Brett Michaels with his bandanna on. Only with leg holes. Despite the danger, I immediately snapped a photo with my cell phone. I'd post it if I had the equipment or know-how to do so.

For once, my stubborn almost three year old found a compromise to make herself happy all on her own. It may not be a socially acceptable compromise, but it worked for Mommy. Just one of those moments I had to celebrate in blog. Good times.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Holding it All Together

One week from tomorrow, we are heading off for our family of four's first ever camping trip all on our own. The real kind of camping, with tents and fire pits and everything. It will be an adventure for sure, and not necessarily in the way Hubby is envisioning it. Realistically, I think my Mommy jobs can only get more complicated by the simple life in our camp site. But we're going for it, and I'm excited.

The kids are over the moon about the trip. Sophia (age 6) felt we should have a team name for our family while we camp. So she dubbed us the Four S'mores. Hubby and I like it so much we're considering having matching shirts made.

When my sister-in-law heard our new name, she wanted to know which of us represented each s'more element. We decided Hubby was the chocolate, sweet Livie was the graham cracker, feisty Sophia was the fire, and I was the marshmallow. "Because as the mom, you're the one who holds it all together," sis-in-law said.

What a nice compliment. Too bad, though, that the next day, Sophia asked, "Mom are you the marshmallow because it falls all apart, and you fall apart?"

Ooh. That stung a little bit.

But then I laughed, thinking about the ways in which I did "fall apart" over the weekend that prompted my recent "cranky" blogs: like when I surveyed the damage in our backyard on Sunday, filled with the detritus from a day at the beach and a morning of my husband's garage sale foraging. Or when an econo-pack of toilet paper rained down on my head while I was trying to get picnic supplies off the laundry room shelf. Or when Livie had her 10th tantrum on Sunday, apparently not caring that the Sabbath should be kept holy.

"Well, sweetie, Mommy does fall apart sometimes," I told her. "Sometimes I just get very tired. But that's not why I'm the marshmallow."

Look at me: I'm growing. A few years ago, Sophia's comment would have sent me in a week-long Bad Mommy Shame Spiral. Now, I'm comfortable with the fact that sometimes I do indeed fall apart. But only because I know how hard I'm working to hold it all together.

I'm in charge of feeding, cleaning, dressing, supplying the house, signing forms, making appointments, keeping the social calendar. I'm responsible for my kids' relationship with one another; for socializing them with their peers; for teaching them to respect their elders. I plan the birthdays. I schedule babysitting and make sure Hubby and I get date nights. I'm the one who makes the dreaded statement, "Honey, we need to talk about our relationship." I say the bedtime prayers and answer the questions about the universe, nature, God, what TV does to their brains, and what sugar does to their teeth.

And humbly I can say, this job is too much for me. I don't mind the fact that my daughter knows that. Being a woman is hard, wonderful, scary stuff. So I'm allowed to fall apart once in a while. And when I do it in an unhealthy way, like yelling or saying something unfair and hurtful, I don't mind apologizing to my kids for losing it. It gives them the opportunity to extend grace to me, and teaches them how to ask for forgiveness, too.

That, in fact, might be the best lesson I have to teach my kids: I am not enough for them. I am not strong enough for this job. But I don't have to always be strong, and neither do they.

I rejoice in 2 Corinthians 12:9: "But he [God] said to me, 'My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.' Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ's power may rest on me."

When I fail the kids, I can point them up, to their perfect parent, who loves me so much that I can make mistakes without feeling condemned. I can tell them that freedom is available to them too. I also rejoice, that God gives me the opportunity to be the marshmallow, the one that holds my little children's lives together, and gives me the power to do it, not perfectly, but well enough.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Renegade Gardening

I am the Johnnie Appleseed of Irvine!

If you know me well or – for some odd reason – read my blog extremely carefully, you know that I have a love-hate relationship with Home Owners’ Associations (hereby referred to as the HOA). While I like having lots of trees, well-kept lawns, and no cars up on blocks in the front yards, I’m not crazy about the way they stifle creative expression. HOAs typically favor beige paint and sturdy, unassuming plants, the kind my clever neighbor calls Default Shrubs. You know the kind: they bloom pink for about two weeks of the year, at which time they attract an unholy amount of bees, and the rest of the time they just fade into the background.

There’s a little rebel left in this suburban mother’s soul. So every once in a while I defy our HOA rules, hopefully in small, victimless crimes. My kids and I continue to color the walkway with sidewalk chalk, for example, despite the fact that we have actually received a written note insisting we clean it up as soon as we’re finished creating. My repertoire includes portraits of the girls and their friends, chalk outlines of the kids (looks like a very colorful CSI team was working the block when I’m done), and the main characters from Monsters, Inc. Many of the other neighborhood kids join us in this, so I don't believe we're actually bothering anyone, and so often forget to clean up. Hubby, however, whose inner rebel is much less developed than mine, and who will also have to pay the fine if we incur one, usually comes home and hoses it off.

But my favorite underground activity is what I like to call Renegade Gardening. In between my next door neighbor’s back patio and my own is a small patch of earth, cursorily planted with – what else – the default shrubs. I pass this area half a dozen times a day when I enter my house, and used to get a not-so-lovely view of the gas meter and our circuit breakers. It really drove me crazy. So, whenever I planted seeds in my garden, I’d “accidentally” throw a couple over the fence, hoping they’d take root. Unfortunately, they never did.

But this spring, when I was removing a root-bound and leggy geranium from a pot, I decided to sneak into the HOA owned plot, and plant it. I’m happy to say, it’s growing beautifully. Meanwhile, my Black Beauty Geranium, the pride of my tiny garden, has worked it’s way under the fence and quadrupled in size. The gas meter is completely obscured! (My apologies go out to The Gas Company employees who have to read my meter. I have no bone to pick with you. But the cause of Beauty must be forwarded at all costs.)

Even better, now joining the geraniums are the leafy tendrils of a Black Eyed Susan, an unruly vine I removed from my yard two years ago, but whose seeds must have scattered and lay dormant all this time. They have also taken root in the boring ivy beds that line our carports, and I water them with love. I rejoice in these small victories. They help reconcile me to all the beige stucco.

Johnnie Appleseed, as the legend goes, was a friendly eccentric who walked the American wilderness scattering seeds, wearing a saucepan on his head. My extensive Internet research of this afternoon revealed that he was actually a nursery owner and a missionary named John Chapman, who planted orchards throughout Illinois, Indiana, Kentucky, Pennsylvania and Ohio two hundred years ago, some of which are still growing. He believed in trying to mimic the goodness of God, and envisioned a country where no one would go hungry because there were always enough apples to eat. My mission may not be quite so altruistic, and my geraniums, not to mention my condo, will be long gone in a century. But I do believe I’m practicing senseless acts of beauty as the bumper sticker used to say. Plus, I’m satisfying my inner rebel at the same time. Not a bad use of my energies when all is said and done.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

Not Cranky Any More, a Gratitude List

Is it any fun to read what someone is thankful for? I can't make it funny like I can my complaints. But just home from an evening swimming with Aunt Kari and Uncle Cody, and remembering what summer fun is supposed to feel like. After two days of serious crankiness, I'd like to reboot with my gratitude list for this evening.

1. Thank you to the community planners of my neighborhood, who, back in the 1970s, built this beautiful swimming lagoon -- water slides and all -- where I can take my kids.

2. Thank you to same for including a very close parking lot, warm showers, and a bathroom.

3. Thanks to Ralphs grocery for putting graham crackers, Hershey bars, and juice boxes all on sale on the same day.

4. Thanks be to God for our wonderful siblings, all of whom are stand-up kind of people and two of whom married stand-up kind of spouses. (Just to be clear, the others aren't married yet but I'm sure will chose well when the time comes.)

5. Thanks be to God for my two beautiful nieces and one more on the way.

6. Thanks to our parents, who raised us to love each other and never compete with one another. These beautiful relationships mean our kids have the priceless gift of cousins, plus aunts and uncles who spoil and love on them.

7. Thanks to our neighbor for a bundle of really old, really dry firewood that made a righteous bonfire.

8. And finally, thanks to the inventor of the s'more. I love you, whoever, wherever you are.

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Fun Mom -- An Oxymoron Part 2

*** caption 1: Our fantasy family, happy in our giant sand castle we built. ***
*** caption 2: Our family the reality, exhausted from carrying the ridiculous amount of gear we take to the beach. ***

I used to be a girl in a Beach Boys' song. Now I am a cautionary tale.

Watch me as I walk the three blocks from my inconvenient but cheap parking space to the beach. On my back is a folding chair complete with pocket. As I walk, its solid aluminum construction bangs me in the funny bone every third step. In the crook of one elbow, my Target-dollar-bin beach bag, overflowing with a variety of sunscreens and swim diapers. On the end of the other arm, a toddler, who would rather be carried and is therefore whining the whole way.

This is the sound I make as I walk: rattle, rattle, clank (elbow-chair frame collision), groan, shuffle. Rattle, rattle, clank, groan, shuffle.

My husband, who in the years before fatherhood carried only a towel, our matching fins, and a board and looked quite sporty and hot, is now wearing an uber-uncool boogieboard bag, stuffed with two boards, two kids' spring suits, the umbrella anchor, a kids' chair, a frisbee, a kids' umbrella, a smash ball set, and our matching fins. (I will not get to wear my fins, because someone will have to stay on the sand with the toddler.) He pulls a wagon filled with cooler, towels, sand toys, and enough dry snacks for a preschool classroom.

Our six year old Sophia skips along, carrying nothing. Then after three minutes, she complains that she is tired of walking.

Young, scantily clad couples cruise past us on beach cruisers, obviously thanking their stars that there is such a thing as birth control.

I felt so cranky on this walk today, when I was also shivering because the sun refused to shine despite what said, that I decided to try smile therapy, like quirky little Fish on the TV show Ally McBeal. Sophia looked at me and said, "Mom, you're making a really weird face." At least that made me laugh.

Again, as I wrote yesterday, I really want to be a fun mom. But at no time do I mourn my former self more than on a beach day. If I squint I can see that old self, lying prone and half asleep, tanned as a pinto bean, reading a paperback book.

Not that it's all bad now. In between guarding the cooler from the kids' sandy hands, wrestling them through sunscreen application, and feeding Livie who literally NEVER stops snacking and still is tall and thin as a golf club (perhaps her modeling contract will pay for college), I do get to build sand castles. I just love bending over in my bathing suit in front of dozens of strangers. Then I can catch sand crabs (more bending over) in the 60-degree water with Sophia. And then, while Jeff takes Sophia out in the waves, I can feed Livie again, until Sophia comes out with blue lips and sand in all possible crevices, possibly crying with fatigue. I wrap and coddle her, feed her, and then feed Livie again.

Then we pack up and walk back to the car. Rattle, rattle, clank, groan, shuffle. Rattle, rattle, clank, groan, shuffle.

Why do it then, you might ask? Most mothers of young children I know simply don't go to the beach much. There are two reasons why I persist in this madness. One: I love my husband, who works in a windowless room all week and dreams of the moment that he can dive into a wave on Saturday, no matter how cold the water is. Two: I really do love the beach. I love body surfing, sun, sand in toes, searching for seashells. I love the crusty feeling in my hair and the way my skin smells on the way home.

Before my young married beach days, there were teenager beach days, with a pack of friends and a stack of Seventeen Magazines. Before that, there were family beach days, spending hours in the water with my dad, and being fed Jack-in-the-Box strawberry shakes on the way home by my mom. My parents' first date was on the beach; I probably ocean swam in utero. I want my girls to be Beach Boys songs, too.

So. Look for me on Saturdays between Newport's 32th and 30th street jetties. I'm the one standing in the giant hole my husband dug, waving at him and Sophia as they catch a wave together. And if you see me as I lug all my gear back to the car, say a prayer for me. Or at least offer to carry my chair.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Fun Mom -- An Oxymoron?

There are days when I'm grateful for the ways my kids keep me young. Days when they make me go down water slides and order sprinkles on my frozen yogurt. They keep me in touch with my inner dance diva. We just love to "clean" the living room and boogie to ABBA or Sugarland at the same time. We watch vintage movies like The Parent Trap and read all my favorite books from childhood -- from Frog and Toad Together to The Chronicles of Narnia.

Then there are days like today. When having kids has aged me by about 10 years.

No dance diva today. Today I am housemaid, chef to an extremely picky and yet ravenous clientele, and a referee. Mainly a referee. Today I said things like "you'll eat it, and you'll like it" and "If I hear one more whine, I don't care whose fault it is, I don't care who touched/licked/sat on/looked at who, you're both going to your rooms! With the doors closed."

I'm behind on housework, so we stayed home today to clean. Why do I ever think that this is possible? No way I can clean all day while both munchkins are at home. The worst of it is, it's their mess: their clothes that need cleaning, their rooms that need vacuuming, and I won't even talk about what needs to be done to the sinks and toilets and why. I want to be a fun mom, girls, but y'all are beating it out of me!

I can't be a good housewife and a fun mom on the same day. Or at least not for more than 15 minutes at a time. It's 3:30 and I'm looking at dirty lunch dishes piled next to me. There are tents in the front yard (looking forward to the written warning from my association that should be in the mail shortly). To top it off, we had to do the Kiddo-Won't-Nap drive again, but this time I drove to Party City for birthday party supplies so I could at least complete one task for the day. Alas, when I got home, I realized the checker had left at least half of what I purchased on the counter, but since Toddler is now sleeping, we'll have to go back tomorrow! So much for crossing that off the list.

But, in an attempt to cheer myself up before Hubby comes home and stop the tiny sympathetic violins which have started playing for me, (and without the help of a Vodka Cranberry, the ingredients of which are in the house and beginning to beckon), I shall write a list of the good things, the keeping-me-young things, from today:

1. Sophia dressed Livie for me this morning, resulting in a crooked diaper and an outfit so loud Al Yankovic would look twice at it.

2. The girls spent 15 minutes this morning playing hide and seek in the sheets this morning. I had to totally remake the bed, but it was worth it.

3. I made them their first ever aluminum can and string telephone, and got some belly laughs listening to their conversation. (Sophia: "Little A, come in, Little A." Livie: I'm in! I'm in!")

4. Sophia is watching the BBC version of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe in the living room, but just ran in here to plant a kiss on my elbow.

Okay, I feel better now. And tomorrow is another day. I'm praying for water slides, sprinkles, and wonder.

Thursday, August 12, 2010

This Loop Could Be My Last

My life is going in circles. Literally.

I just returned from the dreaded Kiddo-Won't-Nap-So-We're-Taking-a-Drive. Livie is three in less an month, and since the installation of her Big Girl Bed, napping is a hit or miss activity. It took her a couple of weeks to realize that nothing was stopping her from getting out and playing with toys. Then a couple other weeks to realize that she could get out, play quietly with toys for an hour, get back in back in bed, and then call out "Mommy, I'm done napping."

It took me a couple of days to realize that this was she was doing (hey, that "Everyone Poops" book wasn't on the floor an hour ago...).

So, at least twice a week I find myself loading up both kids in the car and driving the 3-mile circle that loops around our suburban community. Yale Loop is actually its name; "The Loop" to locals.

This is if my fourth cycle on the Loop. The First Loop era was as a brand new mom, trying desperately to stick to my self-soothing methodology with infant Sophia. But when she just wouldn't "cry it out," and I just had to get an hour of peace, that car ride always did the trick.

Then there was the Second Loop, when Sophia was three and beginning to give up her nap time. When all my bribery and alchemy failed (story, song, sippy cup, slinking from the room), we'd head to the car. This happened so often my neighbors got used to the routine. Pregnant with Livie and exhausted, I almost held my breath as we drove in circles, willing her to nod off. Then I'd lug her droopy body upstairs to her bed, collapse onto mine, and go totally unconscious until she called me two hours later.

Third Loop: then a mother of two, struggling with postpartum depression,and finding the methodology that worked for the first child was not working for the second, I'd pack both kids in the car at 2 p.m. Often with tears in my eyes, I'd look at the rear view mirror and see that my four year old daughter was sound asleep, but my infant's blue eyes were still wide open.

And now, I'm looping in what is likely my last Loop. For Livie is my Last Baby. The "Nap Zone" sign that hangs on her door will soon be one of many relics of their babyhood. I'm not as devastated as I thought I'd be. Just like I wouldn't try to keep the kids from walking when they're ready, I have no desire to fight for a nap that is no longer necessary. It's tedious and frustrating to force things that are developmentally inappropriate; this revelation is one of the blessings from the second child.

Plus, I've had a good run. I've made the most of nap times for the last six years: napping myself, catching up on the phone with friends, reading, occasionally scrubbing a toilet. And I'm looking forward to having weekends where our activities aren't planned around someone's nap, besides my own.

Check back with me in a month or two. We'll see how I really cope with two pairs of eyes that are open ALL DAY.

In the meantime, I'll savor each Loop because it might be my last.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

I Don't Want to be a Blessing Hog

I have a somewhat shameful reason for not exercising. I can’t make working out about being healthy. Vanity is my primary motivation. And because no exercise regimen I’ve ever done has actually gotten rid of my cellulite or made my bottom smaller, I have little hope of reaching that goal. The whole time I’m doing my thigh-busting Pilates tape, what I’m thinking -- besides that I wish my toddler would stop sitting on my ankles – is “fat thighs, fat thighs, fat thighs.” And so, since I would rather not think that, I just choose not to exercise.

As I was packing my bags last week to head off to the MOPS convention I made the mistake of telling Hubby that they were having 7 a.m. workouts in the hotel for the moms. “Oh good,” Hubby said. “You can take your work-out clothes.”

“Why in the world would I want to do that?” I asked. “I’ll be on vacation!”

“But you’ll have time to exercise for a change,” he said. Isn’t it sweet that Hubby thinks it’s time keeping me from exercising? I’ve got time – I’m blogging for goodness sake. I sew at least once a week. I read about a novel a week. Do you see what these things have in common? They are all goal-oriented activities that give me a sense of completion. Plus, they’re all done sitting down.

“But what possible good could two workouts do?” I wailed. “It’s not like I’ll keep it up when we get home.” But guilt got the better of me, so I took up a good third of my carry-on suitcase space, packing my monstrous size-10 trainers.

The first morning, attending an exercise class was not a possibility, since the 7 a.m. start time felt like 4 a.m. to my West Coast body. Meanwhile, the rest of the day I got lots of mental and spiritual exercise. I attended a seminar on leadership skills: how to listen, set goals, and inspire your team. I also spent very helpful process time with my friend Maggi, the Coordinator from our church’s Thursday morning MOPS group.

Maggi and I agree that the hardest part of team leading for us is delegating. It takes more organization skills and the willingness to give up control to let the other members of the team do their job, rather than just doing it yourself. (This is also very true in mothering, by the way. It’s much easier to pick up your kids toys for them then to teach them to do it themselves.)

Maggi gave me a great new expression during one of our conversations: “Don’t be a blessing hog.” We experience so many blessings when we serve: learning, humility, a feeling of purpose and competence. The list goes on and on. So if I deprive my sisters and team members of the opportunity to serve, I would be hogging their blessings.

This concept took an amusing turn that evening. Forgetting that Maggi had run three miles on the treadmill that day while I lolled by the pool, I told her about my exercise conversation with Jeff, looking for an, “Amen, sister.” Instead, she insisted with her surprisingly stern mommy look that we both get up for the class in the morning, because "any movement, Amanda, is better than no movement."

I picked up the phone to order a wake-up call. “Oh no,” Maggi said, pointing to the clock radio on the nightstand. “It will so much more soothing to wake up to music.” Two minutes after watching me fumbling lamely with the alarm buttons, took the radio out of my hands, and set it herself. I humbly let her serve me in this way.

It’s really true that letting others serve allows them to experience a blessing. And in this case, it blessed me too. Because at 7:15 (the class began at 7, remember), Maggi and I both woke to the sounds of static, which had apparently been buzzing in our ears for at least 30 minutes.

“Praise God!” I cried, and rolled back over until 8 a.m.

Hang in here, friends, while I pull this all together. Maggi's right. Any movement is better than no movement. It's perfectionism that keeps me from exercising. If I can't do it awesome, I won't do it at all. And the same perfectionism can keep me from letting others around me do things their way. I'm looking forward to putting these revelations to good use, if not on the Pilates mat, then at least in my ministry and my motherhood.

Monday, August 9, 2010

A Prayer for My Neighbor's Digestion

This is a story about good intentions gone bad.

I just got home from a long weekend spent on Planet Mom. Thursday through Saturday I attended the MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) International Convention in Orlando, Florida. I'm happy to report that all my travels went smoothly; I navigated the ordering of taxis, packing carry-ons, suffered the indignities of removing my belt in a public place (did NOT make me feel like a lady) and made it to my hotel.

What a thrill to spend three days at a resort with about 2,600 other mommies. Everywhere I walked, I felt I ran into a sister, a woman who "gets it," a person that would be my friend within five minutes if we sat down to talk. I picked up some valuable skills, and a little bit of a Texas drawl (met lots of nice gals from Wisconsin, too, but decided I like saying "y'all" and "Bless your little heaaaart" better than saying "bowt" for "boat."). Now I find myself looking at every woman I pass, and assuming she and I have lots in common. The moms in the airport I encountered might have wondered about me, the goofy stranger with the benevolent smile.

MOPS International's mission statement is "No Mom Alone." This is a mission close to my heart. I’ve never felt so alone as I did in the first six months when I was a mom, working part time from home, and feeling like not one of my relationships had been unaltered by this transition. When I walked into my first MOPS morning, I immediately felt at home. In my last six years in MOPS, I’ve seen our community of mothers help each other through everything from potty training and weaning to marital problems and major kids’ illnesses, to downright identity crises. I’ve stayed so long in this group and made it my ministry because of how much I believe that women need each other, especially in these formative years of our children’s lives.

I left Florida feeling downright inspired to help other moms find connection and community, both in my position as Coordinator of our church’s Friday MOPS morning and in my neighborhood. One woman in particular came to mind: a very pregnant woman I’ve seen walking her little dog around our complex. Last time I saw her was just before I left for Florida. I spoke to her for the first time, asking when her baby was due.

“Yesterday ,” she said with a groan, and then jumped up and down, trying to get that precious baby to drop!

This morning I saw her walking the dog again, looking distinctly smaller around the middle than she did last week. I rushed over, introduced myself, and got the vital stats (healthy baby girl, 8 pounds, 9 ounces). I decided to surprise her and her husband with dinner and homemade bread, remembering how hungry and tired I had been in those first few weeks.

So I made up a double batch of baked ziti with sausage and grilled vegetables, and handed it off to her surprised husband, who was dozing on the couch. Then I went home and fed same said meal to my family. Here’s where things go awry. An hour later, my husband came down with some serious indigestion. It would be a breach of our premarital agreement to go into details here. Suffice it to say, he felt bad enough that I thought I should warn my neighbors that my dinner might not be safe for consumption.

Girlfriend advice was critical here, so I made a phone call. After a forgivable interval of giggles, Friend said I better go over there, and realizing it was pride only that caused my uncertainty (pride is never a good motivation), I made the walk of shame across the cul-de-sac. Here I made the further blunder of opening the front screen door unexpectedly on a breastfeeding woman.

My neighbors were very gracious; they had eaten and enjoyed the meal, didn’t appear to be doubled up with stomach cramps, and were very grateful. Promising to return another day to retrieve my dishes, I smiled and sheepishly headed home.

The pastors at my church are speaking in a series called “That Was Awkward,” and last week it was loving your neighbors, even if it's socially awkward. I blame them for this situation. I wonder if they’d anticipated anything this embarrassing. But I have no regrets. Who knows, maybe this new mommy will show up at my MOPS group, and six years later be joking about this first awkward encounter with me, and how the stomach upset was worth all the comfort and companionship she eventually gleaned from our connection. In the meantime, please join me in a prayer for her and her husband’s digestive systems, and pray that I’ll continue to reach out to my sisters, even if I stumble along the way.

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

I've Forgotten How to Fly

I know longer know how to fly. The last time I boarded an airplane was over four years ago, when Hubby and I took Sophia to Lake Las Vegas for the weekend. This is a bizarre realization. We did a lot of traveling before we had children -- I was even a travel writer and did international trips -- and now, I find I have anxiety about heading to the airport by myself. My church is sending me to the MOPS International Convention in Orlando this Thursday,and originally I was so excited just for the novelty of getting on a plane; they could have flown me to Dallas/Fortworth and back in one day and I would have been thrilled.

But as I've been preparing, I realize I'm ill prepared! The rest of the world has been lamenting the changes in air travel, but I'm just now experiencing the irritation of paying to check bags and converting all my extremely necessary toiletries into federally approved bottles. I'm booking shuttles online, printing my tickets, and feeling totally out of my element. If I were taking both the kids for an 8-hour day at Disneyland it would be no problem. But this is daunting! It's making me realize how much I have checked out of the adult world.

I fear being seen by my children as obsolete and incompetent. I know some level of this is inevitable, especially through the teenage years. And I think my generation of mothers has it harder in this area because of the way technology has exploded and taken over the youth culture. My friends with middle-schoolers are fighting over buying itouch phones. In seven years, I can only imagine what the girls will be begging me for. It will certainly be a device I have no idea how to use.

I take comfort in the fact that I can't possibly be more clueless than my own mom (If you're reading this Nani, love you love you love you), who bought me a personal computer for college and shipped it up to me with all of the power and connecting cords missing. "I don't even know what you're talking about!" she wailed when I called her. It is for this reason that I joined facebook against my inclination, because I thought at the very least I need to know how to navigate a social web site, though the kids may be totally over that by the time they're 13.

What I didn't realize when Mom sent me the incomplete computer, and my kids may not realize either, is that it's largely the kids' fault if you fall out of touch with the world. I used to be a professional journalist for goodness sake (okay, a fluff journalist, but still...), and now I think the only time I have even watched "The Today Show" for bits of light news in the last six years were when Hubby and I were on vacation, and when I was in the hospital after giving birth to Livie. We have "Sesame Street" on here, every morning. I have a friend who's an online news junkie, but she isn't a quilter. I'm using my scant free time to be creative.

What with pediatrician appointments, reading parenting books and magazines, diaper changes, dishes, tantrum management, Kindergarten homework, Girl Scout paperwork and more, continuing your education as a stay-at-home mom takes major will and time management skills. I gave up my job to be here and don't regret it even a little bit, but it's alarming to think of the technical publishing skills I had that are -- in just six years -- practically useless now. I've got mad Mommy skills, but I can't help but mourn the slight loss of self.

In the movie "Hook," Tootles, a Lost Boy who came back to London and grew old, told an agent of Scotland Yard, "I've forgotten how to fly." The agent looks at him seriously and replies, "Well, one does." In the Peter Pan sense, I still know how to fly. As a stay-at-home mom, my sandcastle building, tree climbing, creative coloring, and ocean swimming skills are still in tact. And if my more adult aptitudes are slipping away from me and technology is passing me by, well, there will be time -- oh too soon -- when the kids are gone and I will be able to play catch up.