It’s Monday night, the night after Christmas. In case you didn’t see the family photo tagged with our location, we traveled over the holiday. I told the world and myself I wanted us to have a chance to reconnect as a family. Truth is, it was all about spending some time with my boy, my sixteen year old son.These days, he walks out the door more frequently than he walks in. I spend too much time wondering every time I hear a car drive by or a siren shriek.

I’ve finished unpacking, almost finished unpacking, well, I’ve started unpacking and can say that all of my shoes are where they belong.

I’m scrolling thru Facebook, and I see all the happy family photos. My heart swells with pride at the likes under ours taken by a very kind, patient hostess. We are standing in front of a fireplace, arms linked, smiling.

It wasn’t really like that at all.

Well, parts of it were. There was tubing down Cranmore with C, legs linked, tires spinning. I screamed, he laughed.

There was s’mores by the fire after a sleigh ride. My daughter sat next to my son. He went into the lodge and got her hot chocolate.

There were the moments before we had to leave for the sleigh ride, when his dad had to stuff his feet into his brand new boots because he didn’t want to go.

There were arguments over phone chargers, pillows, homework, bad language, and whether or not one should stay in a jacuzzi for an hour at a time.

In other words, it was like being on a vacation with a toddler that has far more words and muscle at his disposal when he wants to take a stand.

On our way home, we stopped by the outlet store. He walked over to me, held out his arms and pulled me close. He said- “I’m glad I came. I had fun.”

He finds joy in a Nike store, and bliss when he knows that moments after we leave he will be swaddled in a new Nike sweatshirt and sweat pants.

I’ve probably crossed the line here, but I’m giving myself a pass this time.

I’ve decided it is time to stop rambling on about the challenges we face.
They are his challenges now, He deserves privacy to be who he’s going to be and figure out what he needs to figure out.

I will take a step back to find my place in the audience while my son goes about becoming a man.
It won’t be easy.

I remember wondering if things would have been different if I’d read him more bed time stories or made him join Boy Scouts.

You reminded me that one less chapter of Harry Potter, or four more camping trips probably wouldn’t have made a bit of difference.

Some of you let me know you are dealing with some of the same problems; and that you are as lost and confused as I am.

Sometimes it’s incredibly easy to feel totally isolated, in a room full of people, in a community of millions, at the dinner table with family.

We are as connected as we allow ourselves to be. We are not alone.

Neither is he.

I hope he figures that out.

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This is the holiday season. I don’t need to tell you that. The songs on the radio are carols, everyone at work is counting down days and feasting on cookies, kids are looking for elves on shelves and parents are wondering why they ever started another tradition that involves one more thing do during the season that demands the most of parents of young ones.

I’ve wanted to write about the holidays. I’ve tried to say something meaningful about slowing down and finding the spirit. I was going to talk about decorating our tree.

We didn’t decorate our tree. My husband dragged it in one night while we slept. He strung the lights while I was working. My daughter hung ornaments with a friend of hers while they were trying to decide what movie to download. My contribution was to straighten out the tipsy angel, and sweep, daily, the tinsel, that seems to be growing, like sweet potato vines all over the first floor. I sweep, it slithers down and creeps along carpet while I sleep. I sweep again. The dog finds the whole process weird.

I shopped for the first time yesterday. An eleven year old and a fifteen year old, both of whom just got new smart phones a month ago. $600 smart phones we will be paying off while we are trying to figure out how to send them to community college because we don’t have any money.

If the holidays aren’t enough to make me crazy, I’m always on the verge of something.

I’m on the verge of everything.

I’m on the verge of killing my son, throwing him out onto the street with a bus pass and a back pack. I’m on the verge of falling at his feet and begging him to just watch one episode of the Middle with me. Like the good old days. He smiles, I think- what has he done now. He grimaces- I wonder- what have I done? I’m constantly cataloging our conversations, expressions, text messages and I’ve reached no conclusions other than he is my son, and he is a complete mystery to me, and I really, really hope he knows I love him more than my own breath.

About a month ago, I asked my boss where I was heading, in a general way. I’ve been at the same job a year, my title has nothing to do with the job I do every day. I’ve been hoping for a new one, or a title, and a little more money. Tomorrow, we are having lunch at a nice restaurant. I can’t imagine he would take me to a nice restaurant to give me good news.

I’m going to the gym every day, and I’m eating cake, and large bowls of pasta, and putting cream in my coffee. So I guess I can’t say I’m on the verge of getting in shape. But I do go to the gym every single day, and walk the dog, and take the stairs. I look up healthy recipes and I think about them. So maybe that qualifies.

Today, I drove my son to school to talk to the principal about an argument my son had with a fellow student. I picked up some Christmas presents for my nieces. I spoke to some students and reached out to one organization and two high schools about working together, me and them, to help more kids come to Quincy College. I went to Marketing for cookies and the Registrar’s office for sandwiches. Based on my conversation with my colleagues, I am the only person in the world that hasn’t finished shopping. I ate too many cookies and had a cup of soup.

Today I sprinted thru being on the verge of bribing an assistant principle, spending grocery money on really, really nice tee shirts, and getting a serious stomach ache. Thankfully, none of that happened.

I made it to my therapist’s appointment where we discussed the anxiety of the holidays, and since I was in a rush, we made it quick. She wrote me a prescription. I am not on the verge of a nervous breakdown or I’m too well medicated to notice.

I raced home. Katy had a friend over to practice for their flute holiday concert this evening. I made them dinner while they mangled “Oh Holy Night.” I had a glass of wine, and served them two huge bowls of spaghetti. While they ate, I gathered my clothes for the gym. I wiped counters. I kissed the dog and promised her we’d walk before the rain came.

We got to the concert. Katy and Madeleine played first. I’d warned Madeleine’s mom, “they weren’t very good.” I asked Madeleine’s dad to tape them on his Iphone.

The girls played “Joy to The World” and “We Three Kings”.

They played beautifully. I sat on my metal chair and looked at them, poised and still in front of the music stand. I have never heard such beautiful music in my life.

I didn’t want to write my boss an email. I didn’t want to go the mall, or walk the dog, or lift a weight, or climb the corporate, or any sort of ladder.

My girl brought me Christmas.

It is eight pm. Sophie is at my feet. She will take me outside to look at the lights. I won’t count my steps, I won’t check my heart rate. I will pick up her poop, and I will let her sniff that weird patch of grass on Wood Street for as long as she’d like.

I’m inside my life. I share it with horrid, funny, magical kids, a husband that remembers a tree in the middle of his shift, and picks out the best one, the college, where my supervisors, students and colleagues teach me something new every day. Sometimes, the lessons get a little redundant. I think I’m pretty clear on the importance of patience in world of academia, but I’ll know when I know.

The month of December seems to be a time where too many people live on the verge- of losing their minds, going bankrupt, trying to keep up with the neighbors, smacking their kids, or wishing they’d never fallen in love.

From this moment forth, I’ve stepped away from the verge, and I’m not going anywhere near it. If I shop, it will be without a list. If I buy gifts, it will be because I’d like to give something to someone I love.

I’m not even sure what verge means any more. Maybe it’s when I choose something, horrible or amazing, to swallow up my entire focus. While I wait- I eat too much, I snarl at kittens or kids, I check my email, I scroll thru Facebook to glare at people who do not seem to be on the verge, while reassuring myself that Facebook lies and almost everyone is on the verge of something. Even if they don’t know it.

I do know, by definition, to be “on the verge” implies resting one foot on one spot, a less than desirable spot, while the other foot hovers and waits for a better space to open up.

That’s seems pretty silly.

I’m home now.

I’m blessed.

I’m pretty sure Colin loves me, and if he doesn’t at the moment, he’ll remember soon enough. I love him. I love so many people, and I’m so lucky that in the middle of this life, I’ve made enough space to know them.

The rest will come.

Right now, everything I want and need is here. I’m not waiting on anything.

The rest will come.

Peace.

It’s the middle of December. This is the time of year, more than any other, when money weighs heavy on my family. We can’t afford to sign the kids up for ski lessons, we have eggs for dinner not because breakfast for dinner is a lovely novelty but because it’s a cheap meal. I throw out the mountains of flyers in the Sunday paper because looking at all the wonderful gifts we can’t afford is depressing. We aren’t poor, for God sakes my kids do not suffer because they can’t fly down a mountain on a few carefully crafted pieces of plexiglass. And we like eggs. But sometimes it feels that way. Our town is made up a lot of people who shop for sport and go to Aspen to snowboard.

The other morning, I woke up way too early. Too much on mind, not much I could do about it. The day was spent, and I’m kind so I’ll make this brief, struggling thru a yoga class before the sun was even up, driving twenty miles to a mall to try to replace a broken phone even though, and I heard this five times in the course of my time there, I wasn’t due for an upgrade. Next, I burned another twenty dollars of gas racing to work. I am employed at a local college where I also attend classes. A few emails, a brief review of what I needed to know for my finals next week, and then I raced back home to deal with dogs that needed walking, kids that needed feeding, and a mountain of half damp laundry in a dryer that hasn’t worked that well for years.

It was a long day. By the time the dishes had been cleared, and my notes reviewed, and the dogs sent to the back yard for too little exercise but a chance to shriek at anyone with the good fortune to pass by, I was weary.(Yoga at 5:45 is a lovely idea in theory, but I should really only indulge if I have time to nap in the afternoon.) Our tree was standing in the corner. It smelled good, but none of the lights worked, so the rest was going to have to wait for a trip to Ocean State Job Lot on the weekend.

I went next door to say hello to our neighbors. I walk their dog. They look after my daughter when I’m working late. In a month or two, or if we are lucky, three, they are moving across town. I’ve known this for weeks. I didn’t really know it until last night.

This is a family that is very different from our own. They are from another country. The mom is young and beautiful, I think she used to model. She sells fine jewelry on ebay. I am older and attractive if I work at it really hard and the lighting is good, but I never photograph well. I don’t wear earrings any more because I always loose one, and I’m not stylish enough to pull off asymmetrical jewelry.

Her daughters are a little bit older than my little girl. They have more than one pair of Uggs. They have impeccable manners and always call me Miss Julie. They take off their shoes when they come over and they like my popcorn. They laugh at my jokes but that might be because they are really polite. Watching them grow up has been one of my favorite things.

We are very, very different. Yet, in the course of being neighbors for ten years, I eat cereal out of a bowl that belongs to them. She sips coffee out of one of our mugs. She notices when I lose weight, I can tell when she hasn’t slept well. I went over to their house the other night at eleven pm to borrow a belt from her husband because my son needed to wear one to school in the morning. He got out of bed, found the belt, and told me to keep it.

I don’t know them that well, and I know them better than my friends. I know they like to sleep really late on the weekends, and that she loves her leopard slippers. Her daughters have danced around my living room and my son has cleaned their garage. I know them because they are in our lives and have been in our lives almost every day for a very long time. And even though I don’t always understand what my next door neighbor says, and I know she sometimes thinks I talk too fast, we have chosen each other as family.

At end of my long, long, day, I chose to visit the family next door. It’s the holiday season and I think they must miss their home, far, far away, and their family, on the other side of the world. After our brief visits, to talk about kids, to take their dog for a walk, to borrow a stick of butter, I always feel better just knowing they live right next door.

When I got home, I realized that all of the boxes in the kitchen weren’t parcels from online shopping. That in a month or two or three, they will be gone. They will live on the other side of town. We will see each other in the drug store, or at the school for a Christmas concert. But how much can we say when we aren’t standing in each others kitchen, at the end of the day, and really listening thru all of the barriers language leaves between people from different sides of the world?

All of the stuff that had weighed me down heavier than a thousand rocks fell away, and I started missing my family of friends while they got ready for bed next door. My son came down stairs and put my head on his shoulder, and promised me that we would always stay in touch with the Vo’s.

The tree is decorated now. And Katy is outside playing in the snow with her very best friend in the whole world. And I will ask her mom tonight, when I visit her kitchen, if her daughter can sleep over again.

This may be their last Christmas as neighbors, but it won’t be our last Christmas as friends. My son promised.

I am fifty years and have been actively involved in celebrating Christmas for about forty five years. And tonight, for the very first time in my life, I took down our Christmas tree.

I lifted the ornaments from the branches and wrapped the delicate ones up in a newspaper bought just for this task. I jammed the nonbreakable ones, the stuffed snowmen, the pine cones, the little watercolored masterpieces from nursery schools a few years back, in between the little balles of paper. I swept up pine needles.

I stood on my tip toes and lifted our angel from her perch. I nested her inside some of the “snow” that looks awfully similar to asbestos, and placed her on top. I swept up pine needles.

Next I began to deal with the lights. I was the one that wove them among the branches, it was only fitting I was the one that began to untangle the tangled web I wove… four different strands of lights. At one point, the length was so long and I was pulling so hard to free them in a long single strand, the Christmas tree fell back into the foyer. I finally dragged the entire tree, stand and all, and miles of lights out to the sidewalk. There I had room to work. And so I did. I’m sure the people walking and driving by were thinking of better ways I could have gone about the whole task. But no one made any suggestions. If you are one of those people, next time, I’m open to any and all advice. (There is so much in this world I know absolutely nothing about.)

Next was the storage of the lights. In the past, my husband has wrapped them around empty paper towel rolls he’d saved for this purpose.

I used one paper towel roll, after I unrolled, according to the wrapper, 250 feet of paper towels. I began at one end, slowly reeling in yards and yards of twinkling stars,  using the steady  gestures a fisherman uses when bringing in a good catch. I think. I don’t fish. But I imagine it feels similar.

When I was done with the the first line, I searched for alternatives. The remaining lights are wrapped around one sippie cup, one bottle of almost empty toner, (Bonnie Bell, left over from a brief horrid period of adult acne, thank God I’m finally too old for that,) and one tube of sunblock, still full, but number 15. Nobody uses fifteen anymore, the ozone layer is going to disappear any minute and using fifteen would pretty much guarantee skin cancer the following week.

And then I swept up pine needles. I lifted up the rug,I  think I saw some from last year, and swept them up too. I took down the Christmas cards, and the stockings, I untangled tinsel from shoes,  I put the last scraps of wrapping in the recycling, and ate the last Hershey’s kiss hidden under a log.

This was the first time I put Christmas away, into a box. Wrapped it up, onto a cylander. Buried it under fake snow. They say that we need to keep Christmas in our hearts all year long. It doesn’t feel like Christmas tonight, it feels like the end of an era. An era when I didn’t have to responsible for unplugging and angel and tucking her away for a year.

But change is good. I’m going to go sweep up some more pine needles. I hope it still smells like Christmas for a day or two. Those candles that claim to smell like trees just smell like the home of someone that smokes that thinks they are keeping it a secret.

But that’s another story.

Happy January 6th, my friends.

P.s. And if you haven’t taken your tree down yet, start saving your paper towel rolls.

Life is hard. We don’t have any money. We live in a world where the rest of the world does. Have money. I apologize all the time. And we eat a lot of pasta. Really macaroni, but if I call it pasta it doesn’t feel so bad.

But we are healthy. That sounds corny but I just read a book by Jodi Picoult and I do read the newspaper and I am forced to count, among my blessings, we are healthy.

And we laugh a lot. Quite often our giggles are because I try to dance. And our dog finds my moves very, um, exciting. Or one of the kids tells a very stupid joke. Or makes a very stupid face. Or farts.

It’s tough, but it’s not. We are fine, but we are not. When I look at the whole world, we are so blessed. When I check out our neighborhood, I am such a failure. Katy wants to know why Santa is so generous with others, Colin cries when he thinks he went over his data allowance on his phone.

How can I feel so lucky and so cursed inside the same breath?

How can we giggle and laugh and weep inside the same hour?

We are so very happy and we are so very sad.

And I have no choice, I have to hold onto the moments of joy. I have to examine the pain and try to fix it, or not.

I have to move thru it all with grace, and joy, and dignity. I have to acknowledge sometimes it sucks and honor the moments it does not.

How can I grieve when people are starving? How can I laugh when everything breaks?

And I do. I shall. I will laugh and grieve and weep and giggle and go on. And show my kids how to go on as best I can.

Because I have the option. And having options, and choices, the ability to choose whether or not to laugh or cry, to celebrate or mourn… that merits a celebration, a toast, and a prayer.

Happy New Year.

Whine and Prayer

November 11, 2012

It started the week before Halloween and I think it’s only going to get worse with the holidays coming.

I went to IParty with my nine year old daughter for the annual search for just the right Halloween costume. I knew when we went I had a limited amount to spend but I’d heard somewhere they were having a Huge Sale, (that intel might have actually come from Katy, my daughter, not a good go to source for the latest in discounts.)

The costumes ranged in price from $20 to $50 dollars, with the lower priced ones were not much more than a polyester sheath accompanied by various cardboard/plastic props.

We don’t have $20 bucks to spend for one night, we don’t have $20 to spend on a pair of jeans right now.

So I checked out Goodwill. I came home with a devil costume, it probably came straight from IParty, plastic trident, plastic horns, a shiny red gown. Katy wasn’t interested; whether it was because she recognized the bag it came in and decided casts offs weren’t going to cut it, or she just wasn’t feeling particularly demonic, I don’t know. Our next door neighbor loaned her her costume from last year. My daughter went out this year as pirate. I had to spring for a $3.00 eye patch from CVS, Thankfully, that was in our budget.

I went to Walmart for candy and spent more on 5 bags of KitKats than I do dinners to last us a weekend. I’m not ready to be the person that shuts off the lights. I parked about a mile away from school that week, saved about $30 on what it costs to park at the garage.

That was Halloween. Now, we are heading,  we are crashing towards Christmas. I have no idea how I’m going to pay for a Christmas tree, much less put many presents underneath the damn thing. I have a twelve year old as well, and twelve year olds have expensive tastes.

We live in a pretty well off New England town. We chose this spot because it’s close to the city, because it’s right in the middle of the woods, the schools are good, the people are smart, there are lots of dogs, and parks,  and there is a really, really big swimming pool in the center of town where we swim all summer under the pine trees.

Most of the time I’m thrilled with our corner of the world. Sometimes it’s tough when Colin watches his friends go off to practice for a basketball league we can’t afford. Or when I had to explain to Katy that a birthday party was out of the question, the best I could do was take her and her best friend for mani pedi’s.

You know what?  Colin points out that he likes having the time to stay on top of his homework and that he can keep his skills sharp at the park down the street.  And Katy swears her afternoon with Tue was the best birthday ever.

Maybe all these tough times have something to do with the two incredibly kind children I get to share my life with. They tell me they know things will get better. They tell me they know I do my best. And when they have given me my faith back, and I’m smiling again, I tell them just how lucky we are to have each other.

Sometimes, all of us telling each of us how lucky we are is not enough. When I feel it’s time, I sign up for a shift at Father Bill’s, a local shelter about a mile away. Sometimes we need to stand behind that counter and see the faces of the people in long lines, standing or shuffling in a line on the other side of the counter.  Some of the people seem permanently broken, they don’t  look up from their plastic tray or the floor or their shoes, they mutter under their breath, or say nothing at all. A lot of them are really, really happy to see us, many of them remember Colin and Katy’s names. They welcome us back and ask how we’re doing in school. Some people just smile as they hold their plates out, meet my eyes, and smile so big and warm, I never feel like my smile is enough.

We need to make sure we spend a lot of times doing whatever we can do this holiday season. We need to make a point of going to Father Bills’s and where ever we can help all year long. My family and I live in a town with a lot of haves, and once in a while I start to feel the stigma of being a member of the have nots. This is a choice that I make, and it is not a choice I am proud of.

I need to be mindful that while I am a part of the this small town in New England where so many have so much, I am grateful that we are welcomed into their midst. Our neighbors  and friends are generous in one more ways than one.

But even more important, I need to remember that I am part of a much larger community. I share this earth with many, many people without homes, or hope of living another month, or carrying the grief of loss. I am part of a family of people that share the world, and we all have and we all have not, and we have all been young, and we are all, (or most of us) going to get old. And I will try to celebrate that for right now, I’m alive and I’m sharing my life with some of the most amazing people I have ever known. And I’ve been around awhile.

Amen.