01 December 2014

Untying Knots

This post was inspired by the novel The Mill River Redemption by Darcie Chan, about two estranged sisters who are forced to work together to uncover the hidden inheritance by their mother. Join From Left to Write on December 2nd as we discuss The Mill River Redemption and enter to win a copy of the novel.  As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.  

Addiction and forgiveness can be, and often are, tied up in big ugly knots together.  No matter which side you are on, whether you are the addict, or you are someone who cares about an addict, you are going to have to face up to forgiveness.  You have to ask for it when you don't want to, or when you don't feel like you deserve it.  You are going to be asked to forgive when you don't think you want to, or don't think you can. 

Sisters have a wholly unique relationship: part best friend and secret keeper, part antagonist, part protector, sometimes even part mother and caretaker.  

I have sisters (who are all of those things to me!) who are not addicts, and I have a very dear friend, almost like a sister, who is a recovering addict. 

When my friend was sliding downhill toward her rock bottom, I watched helplessly, unable to think of or say the right words to make her stop and think about what she was doing.  She told me later that I was really the only person who knew the truth about how bad it had gotten, before she really understood what the problem was, and sought help.  She said some ugly things to me while in the grip of her drug of choice, things for which I eventually needed to extend forgiveness. Our friendship was fragile for awhile but it has regained solid footing as she has regained her equilibrium and is walking a healthier path. 

My sisters....oh, my sisters.  I love them and they drive me crazy.  We lost our mother when we were all very young and we've all dealt with it in very different ways.  Our lives have all traveled down various roads, parallel and intersecting all over the place. My oldest sister naturally took over the maternal role and in my case, she literally raised me, becoming my legal guardian when I was a teenager. I behaved as only a snotty teenage girl can, behavior for which I then had to beg forgiveness. My middle sister thought that mom's absence was hardest on her and sometimes still pouts about it, taking her loss out on everyone around her. She has a very difficult time with asking for forgiveness and that inability is tying up some knots in my family even today. 

But what if your sister is the addict, and you need to forgive, but she hasn't asked and  you don't want to? Oh, boy. Those are some industrial sized knots that are going to take time, and possibly divine intervention, to untie. 

Forgiveness and reconciliation are not so much actions as they are a journey, with stops and starts, big strides and backward slides. The journey may sometimes look hopeless but ultimately it's worth the trip.  They say that forgiveness isn't something you do for another person, it's a gift you give yourself.  I wonder if the Di Santi sisters would agree?  

27 October 2014

Making Memories

The 13th Gift Book Club Banner FL2W

***This post was inspired by The 13th Gift by Joanne Huist Smith, a memoir about how random acts of kindness transformed her family's bereavement and grief during the holidays.  Join From Left to Write  on October 28th as we discuss The 13th Gift. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.***There is so much pressure surrounding the holidays.
So much pressure to get just the right gift, and present it in just the right way, and make just the right meal and set just the right table.
I'm guilty of it on occasion, I'll admit it; getting caught up in the outward appearance angle of Christmas.  Wanting to make sure that the kids are appropriately "wowed" when they come barreling down the stairs in the morning.  Wanting to make each Christmas better than the last.  Wanting to make special memories.
I've never had to try to make Christmas feel normal for my kids just a couple of short months after the sudden and unexpected death of their father.  I do, however, remember distinctly one Christmas when I wanted nothing more than to pull the covers over my head and not come out till mid-January. It was the year my marriage very nearly fell apart, right around Thanksgiving. Going to family dinners and big festive holiday parties was miserable; who wants to listen to a tale of marital woe and dry tears when everyone else is merry and bright? Our kids were little; too little to understand what was going on and why Mommy and Daddy were sad all the time, and still little enough to need the magic and the wonder of Santa Claus.
My sister would call and ask if I had gotten one of the boys this toy or that toy; she had seen it on sale and just picked it up because she thought they'd love it.  I finally had to ask her to stop shopping so I could have something left to give my kids.  If only I could make myself go out and get in the damned holiday mood! It was a tense and awkward holiday and as much as Captain America and I tried to act as if nothing was wrong, it was painfully obvious to everyone around us, that something was indeed, terribly wrong.
The holidays came and went, the kids got gifts they loved, and the storm in our marriage passed in time.  But I'll never forget how much pressure I felt to make everything wonderful, when all I wanted to do was hide from the world and even from my own family.
I don't know if I can really say I enjoyed reading this book, because it is, in some ways, a very sad story.  It brought tears to my eyes, and it made me want to hug the whole family, really hard. But I guess I'd have to say I did enjoy it, in a sense. In spite of its sadness, though, it is a hopeful story.  There ARE kind people out there, who WILL go out of their way to ease someone else's pain, and do for a hurting person what they can't do for themselves yet. It's hopeful because although Joanne really didn't want anything to do with the anonymous gifts at the outset, they reached her anyway. It gave me hope that God does indeed send angels when we need them.  In a funny coincidence, I live very near to where this story took place, and every street name, every town name, every store and school mentioned was like chatting with a neighbor.  In a way, it was comforting to know that such a hopeful story happened right here in my neck of the woods.
Memories aren't just made when the table looks like a magazine spread and the gifts are piled high.  Memories are made from being with the people you love, and memories are made even when the holiday spirit seems to have skipped your house, and you don't want to play.  Treasure those moments anyway, because you're still making memories.  Just ask Joanne's family.  

08 October 2014

Who Do You Want Me To Be?

 ***This post was inspired by 
by OKCupid co-founder Christian Rudder, 
where he analyzes online date to find out that people 
who prefer beer are more likely to have sex on a first date.  
Join From Left to Write on October 9th
as we discuss Dataclysm.  As a member, I received a copy 
of the book for review purposes.*** 

I have a love/hate relationship with social media.

I love it for all the same reasons everyone else does: keeping in touch with family and friends, seeing pictures of them and their families, getting recipes and decorating ideas, all the hilarious memes; you know, the same reasons that everyone loves social media. I hate social media because it can swallow an entire day whole if I let it. I allow myself to get sucked into political debates (I am fascinated by politics and could talk all day) or get into conversations or I go on Pinterest to find an idea for a kids' Halloween party.  The next thing I know, it's 5:30 and little people want to be fed. 

And I will say that ten or twelve years ago, I might have thought it ridiculous that you can meet people online and develop real and lasting friendships, but I am singing a different tune 
today.  I have actually met some really great people online who have become friends There are message boards, forums, chat rooms, comment sections on blogs, and mobile apps for discussing everything from parenting to politics, and from airline travel to dog grooming. I, like millions of others, have jumped into the data pool.

This past summer, my husband, kids and I went on vacation with some members of a group of people I'd met via Facebook.  We all met and shared a cabin for a long weekend and it was really a great time.
Everyone was EXACTLY who they had portrayed themselves to be on Facebook. 

And therein lies the potential problem with making friends online; how do you know that they are who they say they are? 

I have a group of moms that I have known online for nearly eleven years. We met in a parenting/pregnancy forum and we all have kids born in a particular month and year. I have met one of them in person, but the rest I have not.  We share pictures of our kids and our families and ourselves.  There is one in the group though, I have never seen a picture of her.  I believe she is who she says she is, but I have to admit I wonder sometimes. 

My kids are old enough now to have an online presence and it worries me greatly.  I know that this is the world they inhabit; they need to learn to navigate it safely and wisely.  We talk about online safety, and I demand their passcodes and their passwords. I follow them on Instagram and I read their emails. I tell them very bluntly upfront, upon receipt of an iPod or a tablet or any other Internet access device, that they have ZERO expectation of privacy, and if I catch them lying or hiding, their access will 
be closed down. I sometimes shake my head at the things they post; it's silly and not really very funny to me, but it sure is to them.  Some of it has been borderline inappropriate.  I've seen their friends posting completely inappropriate things, and I have talked to them about them.  In one case, the kid in question has been friends with my boys, literally since they were babies, and I reached out to him via text message and talked to him about what I saw on his Instagram wall. 

I sat my kids down and showed them videos about how online predators seek out and victimize kids who don't know better or who think they know who they are talking to.  At the end of one of the videos, my oldest son turned to me and said, "I don't think I want a Facebook account anymore." Yay technology! 

I'd like to think that most of us social media users are honest and legitimate; we are who we say we are.  We're on Facebook to see pictures of our kids and grandkids that live far away, or to find old high school friends. But I have to be realistic too; not everyone is being upfront.  

If I meet people on Facebook that I don't know from Adam and then take my family out of state to meet them for a vacation, how can I tell my kids that the Internet is dangerous and they don't need to be on Facebook anyway? It's a fine line to walk; helping them learn to navigate their virtual world (even though it scares me sometimes) or shielding them from it completely, for their "safety" and to their detriment. 

Parents have always struggled with how much rope to give their kids as they grow toward adulthood.  The online world can be a lot of fun a lot of the time, but it's those unanswerable questions that make me not want to give my kids much freedom: who are these people that "like" your post?  Who are these "followers" you have?  How do you know who they really are?  Who do they want you to be?  

Are your kids online?  How much freedom do they have?

15 September 2014

The Weaker Sex? I Don't Think So

**This post was inspired by The Underground Girls of Kabul, by journalist Jenny Nordberg, who discovers a secret Afghani practice where girls are dressed and raised as boys.  Join From Left to Write on September 16th as we discuss The Underground Girls of Kabul.  As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.**

I do not consider myself to be a feminist.

I believe in gender equality though,  and from where I sit, those two things don't always look the same.

Women have been defined as "the weaker sex" for as long as I can remember.  My father had very definite ideas about things that girls just didn't do.  This is why, at the age of 43, I have never mowed my own lawn.  Mowing the lawn is a boy's job, or a man's job.  He taught me lots of other things about why life worked the way it did for boys and for girls, and not many of them have played out the way he told me, at least not in my life.

As a mother of boys, I am keenly aware that how I interact with the world, with their father, and with them teaches them a lot about women in general.  I don't want them growing up thinking things like, 'she can't do that; she's a girl!'  When asked what I do, my first answer is that I am a stay at home mom. A very traditional role for women, yes? That's what I consider to be my most important work, my most valuable contribution to the world, raising decent young men and productive members of society.

But that's not all I do.  I am also a military reservist, a freelance writer, an advocate for abused and neglected children, a pregnancy resource center consultant, and a very active volunteer in my community. My husband travels frequently for his work, which is for the most part what puts bread and butter on the table.  But because he is away so much, all of the rest of the household work falls on me.  And not just the cleaning and the cooking. My boys see a mom who takes care of business whether dad is home or not.  They see a mom who can still beat them at HORSE when we play basketball together, a mom that they run to for help when they get hurt, a mom who owns and shoots her own guns, a mom who can cook and bake and get stains out of their sports uniforms, a mom who fixes things and kills spiders, and a mom who is capable and trusted in a military organization.  My boys are taught not only how to shoot a decent lay-up and how to safely handle firearms, but they are also taught how to do their own laundry, they're learning their way around the kitchen, they take their hats off at the table and they open doors for people.

I'm just one woman juggling my crazy life.  There are women who lead nations, who perform life-saving surgery, who argue cases in front the Supreme Court, who sit on the bench in the Supreme Court, who run large corporations and institutes and teach in universities. So many of these women come home at night and still have the full-time job of mothering and taking care of their families and children. Moms interact and parent differently than dads do; it's proven.  It's how it is supposed to be.

Women give birth.  Childbirth is allegedly one of the most intense and difficult to bear physically painful experiences known to man, and women do it every day. Many women do it again and again, voluntarily.  That alone should be enough to disqualify women, forever and ever, from the title of "the weaker sex."

I know a lot of husbands who say about their wives, "I don't know how she does it all."

So where does this idea come from in the first place? Who says that there are things women can't do?

Reading the stories in this book about girls who must hide who they are to be seen as valuable is heartbreaking to me.  I can't imagine being thought of as a burden to my family because I produced daughters.  I can't imagine thinking of my daughter as a burden or worse, as completely worthless. I simply cannot imagine it.  It shocks me that there are societies in which that is the norm.  I know it's out there, but it still shocks me.  To the core. I sometimes fall into the trap of thinking that everyone thinks like me, and people all over the world live like I do. Reading this book has given me a major-league wake-up call.

To see up-close and personal what these young women go through in order to have some worth just reinforces my belief that women are far stronger than they are given credit for.  I am reminded that women survive. Women overcome circumstances and make a way. Why do women and men have to be in competition with one another? We were made to complement each other, not arm-wrestle each other.  You will never convince me that women are the weaker sex.  Why does there have to be one anyway?

22 July 2014

Who Would You Take?

This post was inspired by the classic Charlie and The Chocolate Factory
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, by Roald Dahl, which
celebrates its 50th anniversary this year. 
To celebrate, Penguin Young Readers Group, in partnership with 
Dylan's Candy Barthe world-famous candy emporium, and 
First Book, a non-profit social enterprise that provides books for children 
from low-income families, is launching a year-long international celebration.

Head Over to From Left to Write to learn how you and your child can 
have a chance to win The Golden Ticket Sweepstakes where the grand
prize is a magical trip to New York City plus much more! For every 
entry submitted, Penguin Young Readers Group will make a donation 
to First Book.  Then join From Left to Write on July 24 as we discuss 
Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.  As a book club member, I received 
a copy of the book for review purposes.  


Here are our excited faces!  

I just got to read Charlie and The Chocolate Factory with my middle man-cub, Larry (as in Moe, Larry and Curly).  I remember seeing the movie as a kid and LOVING the story.  I loved the idea of a magical candy factory right in the middle of the city, and an eccentric ga-jillionaire who could, and did, do any old thing he wanted to. 

I have to be honest, I did not see the more recent version of this movie.  Not because I have anything against Johnny Depp, but because I loved the classic movie so much I was afraid it would be ruined for me, by being remade.  I'm not opposed to new versions of classic movies or songs or stories, but there are some that are, in my mind, so perfectly perfect that you just cannot improve on them.  I hated Madonna's version of 'American Pie.'  

But I digress. 

My son didn't really know the story and didn't know what to expect with the book, but he barreled through it in a day. He's a fast reader, when something grabs his attention, and this book grabbed him, all right.  He was fascinated with the idea of a never-ending supply of candy, and he liked Charlie the best out of all the kids.  He liked that the "humble, modest" kid got a Golden Ticket and he LOVED that Charlie was the one who got the big prize at the end. 

I really enjoy reading books and discussing books with my kids, but they are all boys and they are very literal and concrete.  They don't really think in the abstract much, or nail down themes very well. When asked what they liked most about a story, a typical answer in my house is "all of it." When asked about the best part, a typical answer is "the whole thing."  This is something we're working on! 
When I really get into a good story, it transports me.  I imagine myself in the characters' shoes, and think about how I would handle the circumstances of the story.  I imagine what if? 

So I asked Larry, if you won a Golden Ticket, who would you take?  He answered almost immediately, "You and Dad. You're allowed to take two adults."  

Hmm.  Too easy.  I wanted him to THINK a little.

So I asked what two adults he would take if you weren't allowed to choose your parents.

He thought for a minute and answered, "Ben and Lauren." Ben and Lauren are his two older siblings, my grown stepchildren.  My kids don't see as much of their older siblings as I would like; they are adults, out in the world living their lives.  They both live in other states, but one is much closer than the other.  One is married with a two year old and a brand new baby, the other is a night owl that works third shift and lives on almost the total opposite side of the clock from us. 

I love that he loves them so much, in spite of how little he gets to see them.  I love how they aren't "out of sight, out of mind" for him.  They may not have that close relationship that siblings have when they are closer in age, and see each other all the time, but they are never far from his thoughts.  

If he does ever win that Golden Ticket, I'll arm-wrestle them both, though.....I'm going to the Chocolate Factory.  Just saying.  

Who would YOU take on the adventure of a lifetime?  

17 March 2014

On Divorce and The Divorce Papers

The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger

***This post was inspired by The Divorce Papers by Susan Rieger.  Young lawyer Sophie unwillingly takes her first divorce case with an entertaining and volatile client in this novel told mostly through letters and legal missives. Join From Left to Write on March 18 as we discuss The Divorce Papers.  As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.*** 

I'm just going to come right out and say, I loved this book.  I thought it was witty and intelligent, and I thought the way it was written, in the form of emails, legal documents and letters, was clever and interesting.  It was snarky and biting in places, and just plain fun to read.  All of that being said, reading this book made me take another look at my marriage, and I experienced a huge wave of gratitude that I am not in the shoes of any of the characters in this book!  
I did marry a divorced man, and I have two stepchildren who are now grown.  While I didn't experience Captain America's divorce right alongside him, much of the wrangling back and forth over what seemed to me, the reader on the outside, to be petty things rang true, for sure.   My husband did not have what anyone would call an "amicable" divorce, and I am not wholly convinced that such a thing really exists.  I would like to be wrong about that, but I have never seen one in person.  And truly, the ones who feel the sting of that reality the most are the kids caught in the middle.  I am sure that my husband and his ex-wife were angry, hurt, resentful, and bitter; I am sure they felt the effects of the emotional hurricane that blows through a family that is falling apart.  I have watched from the sidelines and tried to help pick up pieces of emotional wreckage left in a divorce's wake.  
But their pain is not the worst of it.  The kids suffer more, they just do.  They are young and they're generally not equipped to deal with not only the implosion of their family, but the burden of being the go-between for Mom and Dad, who can no longer bear to speak to one another, the burden of the son who must be "the man of the house now." The weight of the heartbreak of the parent who didn't want to split up and leans on the kids a little too heavily; the responsibility of the daughter who has become her mom's confidant.  Or the burden of the adult issues that should simply stay between the adults, like money and financial decisions. 
I am not naive enough to believe that every marriage can be saved, and I know that some marriages are just not built to last.  I hope that divorce is not in my future, but if it is, I want an attorney like Sophie. 

03 February 2014

A Well Tempered Heart

A Well Tempered Heart by Jan-Philipp Sendker

This post was inspired by the novel A Well-Tempered Heart by Jan-Philipp Sendker.  Feeling lost and burned out, Julia drops her well paying job at a NYC law firm. After hearing a stranger’s voice in her head, she travels to Burma to find the voice’s story and hopefully herself as well. Join From Left to Write on February 4 we discuss A Well-Tempered Heart. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

I read the prequel to this book, The Art of Hearing Heartbeats, and fell in love with the author's writing and his powers of description that transport me to the sights, sounds and smells of Burma, so I was very excited for the opportunity to read this next book that continues the story.

What struck me about this novel was Julia's willingness to literally go to the ends of the earth to solve the mystery that had sort of taken over her life in a very real way, and the question that I kept coming back to was, would I walk away from the familiar, from my life and my home, to find the answers?

In my post on the other book in this series, I wrote about the idea of home.  And home continues to figure in to this story as well, at least it does for me. Maybe that says something about me :)
Julia seems to be adrift at the outset of the story, and the stranger's voice she hears in her head hones right in on that, alternating between issuing warnings about her colleagues at work and whether she can trust them, and asking some very pointed and uncomfortable questions.  Without giving away too much of the rest of the story, Julia goes to great lengths to unravel the mystery of the stranger's voice and has reasons to contemplate what and where her home is, where she feels at home, and with whom she feels at home.

I moved away from my childhood home, the city where I grew up, when a relationship showed signs of becoming serious.  My boyfriend at the time, who eventually became my husband, lived in a city about and an hour and a half away from me, and we did the long distance thing for a while.  It was okay, it worked out, but both of us wanted more.  He was unwilling to move because he was divorced and his kids were still young, so he didn't want to move any further away and possibly spend even less time with them, so it was really up to me to move, if one of us was going to.

So I did.

It all worked out fine: I moved toward him, we got married, had three kids, and have happily bloomed where we were planted. But not without some growing pains, mostly on my part.  I didn't move so very far away, but I always considered where I grew up to be "home." Where we lived was where we lived, but it was not home.

Only recently has that begun to change.  When I go back to my childhood home, the city has changed.  I don't know it so well anymore.  New stores, new neighborhoods, new schools, new people, new highway layout.  I don't know where I am anymore, when I'm in that city, where all of my family still lives.

We were discussing the possibility of moving for Captain America's job a while ago, and we asked the kids how they would like to live in Columbus, where Mom grew up and where lots of aunts, uncles and cousins live?  They immediately howled, "NOOOO!  We'd miss our friends and our school and our house!" And that was that. Thankfully the need to move never materialized and the discussion was moot.

But it planted a seed in my mind, and I began thinking of Columbus less and less as "home."  I began seeing where I live now, small town USA, as my home.  I have wonderful friends, a lovely community of people with whom I share my faith, my children, and my life.  We're halfway done paying our house off.  I've now officially lived away from Columbus longer than I lived there. And my desire to go home has finally disappeared, mostly because I have realized that I already am home.

What does "home" mean to you?

05 January 2014

What Makes You Happy?

Happier at Home by Gretchin Rubin 

This post was inspired by Happier at Home by Gretchen Rubin, where she runs a nine month experiment to create happier surroundings. Join From Left to Write on January 6 as we discuss Happier at Home. You can also chat live with Gretchen Rubin on January 7 on Facebook! As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

I was very excited to read this book; the title is so enticing.  The author, Gretchen Rubin,  previously wrote a book called The Happiness Project, and this follow-up sounded like the perfect how-to book for a frazzled mom who sometimes wants to leave home to get a little peace and quiet.  

It wasn't quite what I expected.  It didn't really read like a "how-to" so much as it chronicles Gretchen's own efforts to create a happier home, which are admirable and something to aspire to, with the "shelf by shelf" de-cluttering process, and one-on-one Wednesday time with her daughter and the twice-daily spouse-kissing.  I love all these ideas.  

It's just that I'm the only one in my house that clutter bothers.  I have by no means given up, but I realize I am fighting a losing battle.  Given that my traveling spouse, Captain America, is gone half of every month and the travel schedule changes from month to month, and all the kiddos are in school all day, that pretty much takes care of the Wednesday Adventures and the twice-daily kiss.  

So, my own happier at home happiness project would look a little different from Gretchen's.  And that's ok.  She makes the point several times, that what makes each of us happy is wildly variable, and frankly, I've operated by the seat of my pants for so long now, that having Captain America home every night for dinner at 6 would just be weird.  I love my children more than my next breath but I need them....no, I mean I REALLY NEED them to go to school all day.  

While the book wasn't quite what I expected, it did get me thinking.  What makes me happy?  Am I unhappy?  Do I need to do something differently?  How can I be happier?  Do I need to be happier?  And I came to the conclusion that I'm pretty darn happy most of the time, and I'm not all that introspective.  I'm happy with my chaotic, often cluttered home, and my chaotic, overcommitted life.  If I am unhappy, I can generally point to a specific reason, a thing that has happened or an attitude from one of my kids, that has made me unhappy.  I don't spend much (ok, any) time considering whether or why which possessions make me happy. I kiss my husband more than twice each day he's home.  Unless I'm mad at him, but that's not often.   But in the end,  I pretty much always default back to happy.

It's good to take time now and then to check in with yourself, especially when you're in the trenches of parenthood and attempting to maintain some semblance of a marriage while raising people at the same time.  But at the same time, I don't think it's wise to spend too much time contemplating and analyzing and working on your own happiness; life will pass you right by.  Your spouse's life will continue to happen and your kids will be moving into their first college dorms or tiny walk-up apartments far sooner than you think they will.  I will have more time to work on my clutter then.  

What makes you happy?  Would you embark on your own "happiness project"?