When it comes to Wisconsin winters, any temperature over 40 degrees can almost feel tropical. This weekend, we took advantage of the warm weather and made the drive to Kohler-Andrae State Park. Located in Sheboygan, the park features miles of Lake Michigan shoreline, nature trails, and some really cool dune cordwalks.
The beauty of this park was an unexpected treasure, especially smack dab in the middle of winter. The kids loved running up and down the dune cordwalks, paths that seemed to spiral into the distance with no end. At times, we felt as if we were the only souls in the entire place. Huge chunks of ice were strewn across the beach, settled into the sand like lounging seals. The kids enjoyed climbing and jumping off these "ice rocks," their boots splashing into the tiny rivers of water below.
As the kids hunted for treasures and made stick drawings in the sand, I found myself looking for signs of life along the beach, picking up shells to see if any tiny inhabitants might still be inside. No such luck: any critters had long since moved out, likely relocated to the belly of a hungry seagull or another animal.
Then I happened to see this peculiar-looking little dude lying on his back in the sand. A quick Google search suggested he was a Whirligig beetle, which typically swims on the surface of water. The kids ran over and we debated on whether our little friend wanted to swim or just keep hanging out in the sand. Gingerly, I flipped him over to his stomach, and almost immediately, he began moving in the direction of the water. He had impressive speed and seemed to move instinctively toward his destination.
We watched as his body broke the surface of the waves, his tiny legs propelling him forward with a natural grace. He even flipped to his back and performed a pretty solid elementary backstroke. We walked along the shoreline for a while, following his progress. Eventually, the kids worried that our little friend might be getting tired, so we fished him out and placed him in a shallow pond a few yards from the lake, flanked by a couple of ice chunks. The girls decorated his pond with some moss and a few seashells, so he would feel cozy and at home.
Who knows if this particular stretch of beach really was his home, or if we'd inhibited or aided him on whatever journey he might have been attempting. Maybe we'll see him, or some of his family, again when the real spring arrives.
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On the radio recently, I heard a social media expert discussing the different platforms people use today. She remarked, “Facebook is really for older people; young people prefer to connect in other ways, such as Twitter.”
I opened my mouth to protest, “But I use Facebook, and I’m not an older person!”
Or am I?
I have to admit that I have plenty of habits that might correlate with a person of a more mature age than, say, a teenager. For example:
But I don't feel old, I think to myself. Surely, age is just a number. Besides, don't store owners have to card you nowadays if you look younger than, say, 65?
I was at a school event recently, and one of my daughter’s classmates greeted me with a polite, “Hello, Mrs. Rich.” For a moment, I was taken aback. Mrs. Rich? Who the heck is that? No matter how the world may see me, in some earnest part of my soul, I really do still feel like a kid, not a mature, responsible grown-up warranting such formal salutations.
In many ways, I'm afraid of saying goodbye to my more youthful, carefree years. Someone once told me, "The best years of your life are between ages 15 and 25," and that saying stuck with me. If I believe this, then looking ahead is a bleak prospect indeed.
But what if it's not true? As 2016 winds down, I'm choosing to challenge the notion that those earlier years of life were a peak, after which everything trends depressingly downhill. Maybe life is a series of peaks, in which moments of excitement and accomplishment are interspersed with more quiet times. So while I can't predict the future, I'm looking forward to what's ahead—grey hairs and all.
~ ~ ~
One day last week, the kids and I were engaged in our usual after-school routine: as they raided the pantry for snacks, I dug through their backpacks, hoping not to find another letter announcing the presence of lice in one of their classrooms.
I'd just breathed a sigh of relief (no letter this time) and was preparing to excavate the remains of my kids' lunches when the unwelcome sounds of bickering and whining filled the air. I groaned internally. My daughters seem to be blessed with the ability to pick a fight with each other at the drop of a hat.
There are days when I feel remarkably enlightened (or over-caffeinated) and my kids' spats somehow don't get under my skin. Today was not one of them. Today, for whatever reason, I just did not want to freakin' deal with my kids' innate tendency to create conflict.
Over the din of two little voices shrieking various iterations of, "It's not fair!" and "Noooo!" a lightbulb suddenly went off in my brain. I remembered recently seeing a friend's Facebook post about making your own "Calm Down Jar."
"Girls," I practically yelled, trying to cover the frustration in my voice with what I hoped sounded like enthusiasm, "Let's make a chill out jar!"
They stopped arguing and looked at me. "Okay," they agreed.
I grabbed a mason jar and placed it on the floor. Then the girls took turns filling the jar with water, adding glitter and paint, and stirring the contents. When our creation was complete, I gave it a good spin and we all oohed and aahed as the water whirled and twirled like some mythical sea creature. Mission accomplished: their argument forgotten, the girls were entranced.
Looking at the jar made me think of the movie Horton Hears a Who! "What if each speck of glitter in this jar was really a whole other universe, like in the movie?" I asked the girls. For a moment, we sat quietly, imagining tiny, glittering worlds floating through liquid space. Surprisingly, the kids didn't fight about who got to keep the jar in her room first, agreeing to take turns.
I know that distracting ourselves from the issues at hand isn't a long-term solution for conflict. My daughters' fights remind me that there is plenty of work yet to be done in learning to live peaceably together, whether in our own kitchens or around the world. There are big feelings that need to come out, and tough discussions that need to happen. But sometimes, when emotions are at their most raw and fragile, there is beauty in just stopping for a moment, in pausing to let the quiet surround us, instead of adding to the noise.
We can't stay in the peaceful quiet forever. But once in a while, I will come and gaze at our Chill Out Jar, watching as it spins like a centrifuge, illuminating a different world.
~ ~ ~
One morning this fall, I decided to tackle an overdue item on my to-do list: "Clean the car."
The dark cherry-colored SUV—known as “the purple car” to my kids—joined our family six years ago. Since then, our car has logged many miles and facilitated plenty of milestones. It carried my children, then just an infant and toddler, safely when we moved from the East Coast to Wisconsin. It stuck to the road like glue when we drove through furious Midwest snowstorms and tumbling hail. It’s been our companion during summer road trips and family visits. It has witnessed countless temper tantrums and sibling squabbles, and pulsed with the happy energy of many (probably too many) One Direction songs.
Some days, especially this past summer, I practically lived in our car, shuttling kids to camps, play dates and swim lessons, throwing Goldfish crackers and sandwiches in the general direction of the backseat as I called out the day’s schedule like a tour guide. But this fall, once school started and my youngest child entered kindergarten, a big chunk of my driving time became eerily quiet. Suddenly, there were no girls giggling in the backseat, no one crunching loudly on snacks and spoiling her appetite before dinner, no shrieks of passengers arguing over crayons and stickers. Now the only sounds that filled the space were my own breathing, the rustle of the autumn wind against the windows, the thump-thump of tires on cement. I quickly learned to flip on the radio or my favorite tunes, before the silence could feel crushing.
Now, looking at the disheveled car, I didn’t know where to start. The trunk was full of sand-encrusted toys, the travel potty that I swear was one of the best purchases I’ve ever made as a parent, and random clothing I keep meaning to donate. The car seats were littered with crumbs and papers scrawled with children's artwork. The headrest of the passenger seat was beginning to fray, proof of the numerous kicks it has endured over the years from my oldest daughter. Overdue library books and Strawberry Shortcake DVDs that I could recite by heart were strewn across the floor. The cupholders bore the remains of the various caffeinated drinks that have fueled so many of my motherhood experiences.
Almost lovingly, I vacuumed the popcorn and cracker crumbs out of the crevices between the seats and scrubbed the crayon marks off the fabric as best I could. I wiped the windows clean of fingerprint smudges, thinking of how my kids had often pressed their hands against the glass, waving at friends or pointing at cute dogs walking by. There were deep creases in the backseat, under the two car seats that were still installed. Someday soon, my kids will no longer need their booster seats, but I know the creases will remain, a reminder that life existed and flourished within these fabric-covered walls.
Maybe it’s crazy to believe that inanimate objects can have a soul, yet I feel certain that this car does. I can’t help but think of it as an old friend, one that started out shiny and new and became wizened and weathered as our family grew and changed. It's proven itself to be a dependable vessel, having withstood the stickiness of spilled juice boxes, the ugly winter crusts of mud and road salt, and a few unfortunate incidents with garage doors. It might be showing its age, but I’ll drive it into the ground before I even think about replacing it.
When it comes down to it, I know the real reason I'm so attached to this car is that it almost feels like an extension of me. Looking back on my first few years as a mom, I remember how anxious and full of doubt I often felt. As I slowly grew into my role, our car was a space that kept my kids safe, kept them close, always within arm’s reach, until I was ready to let them go out into the world.
So, purple car, I just wanted to say "thank you" for being part of this journey with me. Here's to many more adventures!
~ ~ ~
I was running in my neighborhood one day when I heard a siren in the distance. It got louder and continued for a few minutes, shattering the quiet of the morning. My heart raced a little faster as a dozen what-ifs suddenly barreled through my brain. I was only a few blocks from my daughter’s school. Was the emergency there?
For a moment, I stood frozen in the road, wondering if I needed to do something. Run to the school perhaps? The logical part of my brain effectively nixed this idea, so I checked my cell phone instead. It is my lifeline, a way to connect with my kids—the pieces of my heart that now float untethered in the world for longer and longer stretches of time.
Before long, the siren's wails got quieter and faded away. I checked my phone again; no one had called me. I finally exhaled, but I couldn’t relax.
Admittedly, I tend to live on the over-anxious side of the personality curve. But it’s not surprising that becoming a parent bolsters our sense of vigilance in everyday situations. Wrapped up in the core of motherhood is a perpetual commitment to be “always on,” ready to protect and nurture our kids starting from the moment they are a tiny blip on a screen, for as long as we exist in this world. It is an awesome responsibility and a sacred commitment, the reason we often feel important and powerful yet terrified and full of doubt in the same breath.
I’ve noticed a particular amount of angst that arises with this role, a feeling we begin to carry with us once we learn we are mothers. I remember my first prenatal yoga class, how the instructor gently placed her hands on my shoulders and said, “You’re holding onto a lot of stuff here.” Growing up, I wondered why my own mother seemed stressed at times. “I’m not tense,” she’d say through gritted teeth, an almost comical denial.
Now I understand. The luxury of worrying only about myself is long gone. Driving my kids around, I sometimes become aware that my hands are clenching the steering wheel tightly; the knowledge that I have precious cargo in my backseat is always at the forefront of my mind. I’m late, always late, trying to get everyone where they need to go while staying one step ahead of sibling conflicts. Most mornings I feel like a referee in some bizarre game, calling out instructions, administering penalties. Where are your shoes? Go brush your teeth; the bus will be here in ten minutes. Stop taunting your sister, or you’ll lose another toy! And for Pete’s sake quit climbing the counter!
Only after becoming a mother did I truly understand what it meant to be tired. Not simply physically exhausted, but mentally drained. A mom's brain is always spinning. Turning, turning, turning, like a hamster on a wheel that never stops. Sleep is never quite as restful as it was before children. My kids could snooze through a fire alarm or a Guns N’ Roses concert in our hallway, but motherhood has blessed me with an apparently bionic ear. A soft whimper, a tiny creak of a bedroom door, and I sit up in bed, eyes searching the dark space to see who needs me.
Like so many high-pressure roles, motherhood has a natural cadence that’s not exactly conducive to relaxation. To be a mom is to travel steadily through an endless series of peaks and valleys, as we face challenges and then almost immediately prepare for the next ones. We survive pregnancy and the seemingly infinite stretch of sleepless nights with a newborn, only to move on to our children’s first day of kindergarten, their first painful breakup with a boyfriend or girlfriend, and the heart attack-inducing experience of watching them learn to drive. And sprinkled throughout our days are the random events that prompt us to worry about our children’s immediate safety and well-being: a cough that lingers just a bit too long, a phone call from school or the news of violence somewhere near or far. There is always something. There will always be something.
My kids are well past the baby and toddler stages now, and I’ve realized that I won’t ever be the type of mom who exudes serenity and calm. I think I’m finally okay with that. Someday, my kids will likely remember that I was tense sometimes. But I hope they’ll also remember how very much they were loved.
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I'm Gina, mom to two girls, writer, and seasoned coffee drinker.