Thursday, May 30, 2019

Bend Don't Break


Willow trees fascinate me.  Our privacy-seeking neighbor was wise enough to plant a wall of willows in his backyard.  They grow tall and fast with roots that are remarkable for their toughness, size, and tenacity to live even in the poorest soil conditions.

As I watch the willows behind our house flail wildly in the strong wind I am amazed by their ability to arc with the force and still return to upright as if nothing had happened.  They shed some leaves and small branches but post-storm they stand tall as ever, no worse for the wear.  Such resilience.  Such strength in their flexibility.  Willows know it is better to bend than break.  

They remind me of my daughter.  She demonstrates her flexibility in life and in her gymnastics. Unfazed by the winds that life sends her way.  She has strong roots in which she trusts that allow her to reach and grow. 

I watch her balance precariously on the beam attempting to perform a back walkover.  Concentration furrows her brow as she reaches high above her head, palms upward. She bends her limber body in half and makes contact, planting her hands securely on the beam.  I am in awe of the confidence and trust she must have in herself to do this thing.  To blindly reach back.

Later as we drive home, I ask her if she is afraid. She tells me the scariest part is supporting all of her weight on her hands with no one to catch her if she falls.  That surely is the scary part.  

She started gymnastics when she was just three in a preschool class and she loved it.  She was invited to join a developmental team when she was five-years old.  I remember at the time thinking it was too soon for her to specialize in one sport.  I wanted to keep things fun. 

Boy was I wrong.

She continued on sportsing - soccer, softball, gymnastics, cheer and dance.  She tried everything.  However, by the time she decided that she wanted to focus on gymnastics we were told it was too late, the ship had sailed.  She would NEVER be team material.

She was crushed.  I was furious.  She was nine years old...not 39.  How could it be too late???  This gymnastic czar was fierce and final.  My daughter was welcome to continue taking gymnastics classes but the "team" was out of her reach.
The next day I contacted another gym where the coach listened to my sad story.  It was not her first rodeo.  "Bring her in for a tryout.  I can't promise anything but we would love to see her."


Within weeks, my "washed-up" gymnast had earned herself a spot on the ICG Team.  Not a pathway to Olympic dreams but that was never the intention.  My girl just wanted to learn new skills and compete in her sport.

Over the past year she has improved as an athlete by literal leaps and bounds.  She has strengthened her body and her resilience.  When she fell recently on bars while competing at Regionals in Wildwood, New Jersey, she hopped back up and finished her routine. She continued on to her last event and while I would have been shaken to my very core, she was steady and determined.  She nailed her beam routine and earned a 4th place finish out of 20 competitors.   

Just like the willow, she returned to upright no worse for the wear, showing her true strength is her ability to bend not break. She amazes me every day.


Tuesday, March 12, 2019

The Sleeper

He's a sleeper.  He sets it up so you never see him coming.  No one expects his speed or his agility, his unrefined athleticism.  Competitors overlook him.  And that's exactly how he likes it.

Behind the curve is where he has spent most of his time in the past few years both academically and  athletically.  Not for lack of talent or ability, simply his choice to remain there.  Flying directly under the radar, peeking out to say hello and then without warning ducking away again.

Until this year when he turned the proverbial corner in all areas.

In school he went from a solid C student who dabbled in D's & F's to flirting with the Honor Roll.

This past fall he played  the center on his football team.  The success of the entire offense rested squarely on his boyish frame and he handled it like a Pro.  Quick enough to pull outside and strong enough to take on huge defenders, he used his lack of size to catch them off guard.  He was never taken very seriously until the ball was snapped. Like any solid center,  his critical role in the offensive scheme received little if any recognition but you felt it when he wasn't there.

He plays this center role in his real life as well.  He is largely unsung, un-celebrated but the center of our family both in birth order and in spirit.  When asked to describe him, funny always tops the list.  He is quick to hand out a hug and makes everyone who meets him feel like they really matter to him.

And you want to matter to him.  He has that thing.  That charisma, that "it" factor that draws people to him.  Even me.  I want to get inside his head and see what he is thinking but that is reserved space.  No one gets in.

There is something just behind his smile.  Maybe a hint of mischief, a glimmer of a secret.  Something only he knows and the rest of the world must figure out. He is good for a quick laugh but there is always something more behind it that you are hoping to catch a glimpse of.  I have spent many hours searching and come up still wanting. He'll reveal it when he is good and ready.

Things happen on his time.  Always have.  He was the last to talk and when he finally did, he spoke in complete sentences.  All my worries were for not, he knew how to speak all along...just didn't have anything to say.

I used to worry about Owen all the time.  Going into his first Junior High wrestling season I worried that he wouldn't earn a spot on Varsity, he did.  I worried he would get pinned every match, he didn't.

This past wrestling season he defeated many opponents who had already been granted their man muscles. In true Owen fashion he surprised them with a quick little dump and unexpected burst of power.  His opponents often looked past him, exactly as he planned it. 

Things happen on his time.  Everything except puberty.  That is happening on God's time.  And God is in no hurry.

He patiently waits for his armpit hairs to poke through the soft baby skin that keeps him a boy.  He patiently waits for his shoe size to change, it's been three years.  He patiently waits for vertical inches to add to his frame....to wake up one morning and have a jutting jawline complete with minuscule mustache like his brother did at that age.  But it is not in the cards for this kid...he still waits for his next chapter to start.  He's the sleeper.

He is is unsung in many ways... so let me celebrate where he is.  Let me praise where he has been.  Let me dream about where he will go.

The only thing certain about Owen's future is that he will do it in a style that is uniquely his own. 

Monday, March 4, 2019

Great Expectations


In sports as in life sometimes the value of the lessons learned in failure outweigh the importance of the success you thought you desired.

On paper, the facts of the brackets showed a clear road to a state title.  He had wrestled many and pinned most of the opponents he would stand to face on his way to the championship.  Unfortunately, for him, the facts of the bracket were wrong.

How can I say this plainly?  Well...he shit the bed.

From the first whistle, anyone could see there was a different kid wrestling.  Where there once stood a confident and fierce competitor was now a timid boy, wrestling scared.  

He had set the goal a year before.  He put in the hard work.  Two practices a day, summer workouts, tournaments against the toughest competition he could find both in and out of season until finally the weekend arrived.  

Everyone expected him to win and ultimately that was his undoing.  The Great Expectations. 

Turns out while he was building his endurance and strength on the mat, he had not focused on his mental toughness and crumbled under the pressure.  

Who is putting pressure on him you ask? His parents? His coaches? His community?

His answer..."myself."

Everyone had expectations for him this past weekend.  To wrestle like a stud.  To stand on top of the podium.  To be the champion. 

“What do you think they expect of you?” I ask. “To win everything.” He replies, “doesn’t that pretty much sum it up?”

What is the difference between goals and expectations? Goals are quiet and subdued.  Orderly and methodical, like accountants of the mind.  Expectations are noisy and demanding, a lot of sizzle, no substance.  

A kid who had quietly maintained a solitary pursuit toward his personal excellence suddenly found his carefully measured progress hijacked by a group of well-meaning supporters. Outside voices filled his head. His goals gave way to the expectations of others introducing the notion of letting people down.  His parents, his coaches, his community. 

It was too heavy a burden and he could not get out from under all the pressure.  

He hung his head in shame on the long drive home and we were left to pick up the pieces of our broken boy.  No words could make it better.  We assured him the heartbreak was not in vain. 

He will learn from this experience.  Learn about the high cost of buckling under the pressure.  He will learn how to keep the expectations at bay and keep focus on the central goal.  

Someday when life hands him a high-pressure situation he will have this to reflect on.  Someday when there is a lost job or a sick spouse. Someday when it really matters, he will be prepared to shut out the outside voices and fight.

There are two ways to lose in wrestling.  You can be beaten by a better opponent, which is a noble loss.  Then there is the other kind... where you beat yourself.

In loss, there is no one else to blame - no finger to point - just the man in the mirror.  Loss like that builds mental toughness.   Tough enough to beat back the Great Expectations and make silent delivery on goals achieved.

Monday, February 25, 2019

Melodramatic Monkey

It arrived without much fanfare - with a flip of her hair and a pop of her hip my Mini-Monkey turned into a Tween.  Musicallys, makeup and everything melodrama.

The first sign was the retreat to her room. Initially to avoid the male monkeys who torture her mercilessly- making fun of everything she dares to do but eventually we stopped seeing her altogether. She emerges only to inquire about food or present the latest video edits upon which she spends all of her time.

She casually requests expensive calligraphy pen purchases and expresses a desire to make "snow cream" with the last of the milk. Disgruntled about being denied she delivers an eye roll so hard my grandchildren will feel it. "Fine," she replies flatly, "I'll be on the trampoline." and she's gone again.

We drive to gymnastics and the silence in the car is deafening. She doesn’t even notice. She is seated inches from me but the space between feels immense. Face buried in her phone, lost in a world of Tik-Toks and texting - I stab at the buttons on the radio randomly to convey my displeasure at the lack of conversation. She is unfazed while I silently stew, anger boiling inside.

Our relationship is complicated. Always has been. Right from birth. She does things on her terms, on her time. She arrived a week early and still begrudges ever being late. I am mid-musing when suddenly she begins to speak.

She talks at great length about her disappointment in her teacher for her abject failure to discipline the rowdy students. She shares her disapproval of the chatty kids in the hallway that make her job as safety patrol So Much Harder. She relates to me on an adult level, teacher to teacher. "Kids these days..." 

My mind races for the right response.  What should I say and how should I say it?  I search for the right words when I realize  that I am simply along for the ride. 

Feedback is not required, not desired. She is not interested in my opinions, simply demands my audience and I oblige. I don't need to and will never really understand this new creature who has taken Mini-Monkey's place I just have to bridge the gap between and hope for the best.

All the while my father’s famous words echo in my head, “You’ll get yours kid, just you wait.”

Damn, did I ever.

Sunday, February 24, 2019

Semi-Charmed Kind of Life

It’s 3 am on a Friday morning do you know where your husband Is? I do- mine is on the side of route 83 in a precarious position while a tow truck hauls away the piece of shit that has left him stranded yet again. He dials and by some miracle I feel the silent vibrations and wake to answer his call.

My heart drops as it always does when I hear the phone in the middle of the night
"You gotta come pick me up - my truck died and the trailer (holding thousands of dollars of bread) is dropped and jutting out into the lane of 83 south." One of the most dangerous highways in PA, he begins firing off instructions like bullets from a gun..."you have to bring the red truck," "you will need the pliers to turn the lights on," "the gear shift indicator is broken so you have to count it down from park"...

Still stunned from the first sentence I struggle to fully understand—

And I thought shit in the basement was a big deal.

I am terrified to drive the truck but I sick up my guts and get it done.

The streets are dead quiet at this hour of night save for a random car and tractor trailer or two. Negative thoughts scroll through my brain like the ticker at the bottom of ESPN playing all the old favorites - what if the truck can’t be repaired...what if he gets hit by a tractor trailer on 83... what if....

But I stop myself - I remember my own words and I put anxiety on the bench.  

No better time than the present to start finding the blessings in the mess...

You see we have been blessed with an amazing neighbor who has allowed us to use his old pick up truck to haul the trailer while our truck was in the shop.  This act of kindness enabled my love to run his route and bring home the proverbial bacon. This saintly neighbor said, "keep the keys and use it whenever you need it."  Who does that? This guy. God bless him. God blessed us.

And further favors abound.  

The fact that the breakdown happened in the wee hours meant that my love was safe from the crazy morning rush hour traffic that could have caused a major accident. Blessing 1. 

The fact that the tow driver was kind enough to use his truck to block the lane to keep him safe from the tractor trailers that rounded the bend at 80 miles per hour.  Blessing 2.

The fact that the breakdown occurred 20 minutes from our house instead of an hour.  Blessing 3. 

The fact that I heard my phone in the first place. Blessing 4.

 I could go on and on...

We count these blessings as I drive him home. Trailer in tow. The clock reads 4:15 am He’ll drop me off to our cozy little house with our safely sleeping kids and with a quick kiss he’ll be gone again. Back to deliver the bread and bring home the bacon to our somewhat shitty, superbly blessed, semi-charmed kind of life.

Things could be better but they could surely be worse...

Friday, February 22, 2019

This Old House.

I wonder if I will ever be able to talk about the old house without the catch in my throat.  My feelings are still so raw.

I rarely speak about it for this reason.  I don't even make reference to it.  It's as if we just materialized here from thin air - no background...

But the kids tell their story.  Our old house was huge.  Our old house was awesome.  Our old house had everything.

Our house was amazing.  It was everything I never knew I wanted...I romanticize it now. But it was pretty spectacular.  Things we took for granted...double vanities - two walk in closets - high ceilings and wide doorways - 6 panel doors with knobs that don't stick and it never smelled like old musty nonsense.  The furnace was new and and our house was warm - the fireplace came on with the flip of a switch.  A large open kitchen that felt like home from the first day we walked in.

I can't help but feel like we let them down - like we traded it all away for a fresh start.  Could we have stayed?  Could we have remained buried with bills?  Could we have made it work?

But here we are.  Wedged in a tiny house, bursting at the seams.

I sound bitter.  I feel bitter.  I feel angry.

I used to feel so relieved and authentic but something changed.  Now I am envious of others.  I drive around and stare at giant houses and silently hate even those whom I know are suffering much greater pains than me.  I feel so sorry for myself and I hate myself for it.  I should have control over this but it consumes me.

I say the right things out loud more to convince myself than anyone else.  I talk about how blessed we are for our four healthy children.  And we are blessed.  So very blessed.  But also we are shit on...or shit out of luck...something involving shit - and not the kind where you step in it and come out smelling like a rose.  Just plain old stinky shit.

So at 11:30 PM last night when the sewer drain backed up and we were literally standing in shit I decided now would be a good time for a major attitude adjustment.  My love, unfazed by this latest development shrugged his shoulders and said, "It'll be fine.  It could be worse."

"How could it be worse?"I cried hysterically.   "I'm shop-vac-ing shitty toilet paper off the basement floor.  How could this possibly be worse?!?!"

But somehow he was right.  And there was nothing I that my panic was going to do to make it stop.  So I pulled up my big girl pants and cleaned the mess.  I popped two melatonins, hopped into bed and fell sound asleep.

My house might be shitty but my attitude doesn't have to be. 

Wednesday, February 20, 2019

Seven Times Four

This baby tooth did not make it under the pillow.  Such is the life of the fourth kid in our family. Too busy running to wrestling practice.  He is unfazed and a beautiful new "pernament" tooth will grow in its place and he'll be no worse for the wear.

"Can I have a Popsicle?" he asks to no one in particular.  And no one answers.  Too busy painting the front door.  So he helps himself.  A short time later he walks by with what is probably his 10th sugary snack.  "Who said you could have that?"  I inquire.  "I asked and nobody said I couldn't have one."  Simple and brilliant. Just like him.   

"Mommy, I know you will probably say no but can I please play X-box."  This is the way he asks all of his questions.  Crafted to prevent disappointment on his part.  Front loaded to maximize the chance I'll say yes out of guilt.

"Mommy, can I go outside and run around?"  The requests are rarely ridiculous.  Most often they involve simple things like appropriately timed meals and opportunities to freely play.  Too often nobody answers.

takka takka ratta-tat-tat takka pew pew pew - soft noises spew from his little bow shaped mouth as his finger guns pick off imaginary foes in the backyard.  He literally runs wind-sprints around the perimeter of the small fenced lot, deeply embedded in his pretend world of army guys and zombies.

His most often asked question lately is "Mommy, do we have wrestling practice?" He asks this with great trepidation and when the answer is yes his eyes fill with fear.  He hates wrestling.  He hates practice.  He is gentle and sweet.  He has no killer instinct on the mat.   No interest in anything more than his imaginary world.

I have made him soft.  My parenting has changed so much since the other Monkey's were seven.  My sharp edges and high expectations have eroded away like rocks pounded by waves.  With his siblings I was demanding in all areas, schools, sports, and acts of service.  For better or for worse.

To fully understand you would have to have known me then.

He goes to wrestling because that is what we do, but he is only expected to show up.  I spend my time there reminding him to breath and calmly talking him off of his anxious ledge.  I do not call out from the sidelines for him to be more offensive, more aggressive.  I simply let him be.

The other Monkey's are appalled.   They tell him stories of their crazy mother ranting on the way home from practices about lost opportunities to improve and the dangers of not giving 100% effort in all things.   He'll never know that woman. 

I look at him and my heart melts.  His giant blue eyes fringed with white blonde lashes stare up at me as he climbs into my lap to snuggle.  I feel how big he is getting, now more than half my length. My baby. 

I could never He goes with the flow better than anyone in our family.  In order to not be forgotten he takes residence in someone's pocket (mostly mine)

Just like this post...his life is segmented, disjointed and chaotic.