Grace Notes (aka The Great Pajama Debacle of 2015)

When we arrived at school yesterday, the crossing guard cheerfully asked if the girls were comfy – given that it was pajama day. Insert *mass hysteria* because they were not, at all, dressed in their pajamas. THE HORROR.

There was some blaming… on both parts (“Mom!! It was on that sheet that came home! HOW COULD YOU NOT REMEMBER!” “I never read any such thing!” “YES YOU DID! IT WAS ON THE SHEET!” “I believe that it is YOUR job to be in charge of things like pajama day, my dear…”). There were some angry, hissed words… on both parts. There was sulking… on both parts. There was full-on denial of any responsibility… on both parts.

As I came back home, I kept replaying it in my mind, how wrong my offspring had been for not taking responsibility for themselves, how they need to remember their own stuff, damn it! Then, after a bit of pondering, I realized that it was, indeed, a confluence of many errors – not just theirs. One daughter’s teacher did not mention pj day to the class at all (resulting in 3/4 of those classmates not wearing pajamas). One daughter did not remember that her teacher had mentioned it, and thus failed to don appropriate loungewear. And one mama (*cough*) only scanned the informational sheet that had come home rather than reading it thoroughly (although we did send in pennies on Monday and nickels yesterday for the All For Books collection, so this mama got something out of the handout…).
Still… no pajamas. My bad.

Once I realized that I’d had a part to play in The Great Pajama Debacle of 2015, I blamed myself. Harshly. I mean, if one of my kiddo’s teachers never even mentioned pj day, and it wasn’t announced over the loudspeaker, the only way she’d even know that such a thing existed was if her parents (or, in this case, me – ’cause Nick is out of town) had fully read the communication that came home and informed her of said pj day. Which I did not, and she got screwed.

So, basically a total parenting fail on my part. Which is ironic because, I mean, how many times have I berated students (and angrily chided fellow parents) for not following the directions or actually reading the emails I so dutifully type out?? HOW IS THIS SO HARD?

I felt awful. Chalk it up to another Bad Mom Moment. I DID IT AGAIN.
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This photo has nothing to do with anything other than that they’re cute.

But then, for reasons I can’t quite place, I sat back and realized that, yes, I did do it again. I made a mistake and my kiddos suffered the consequences of it. But the thing is, I’m going to keep on making mistakes because (and this sometimes shocks me) I AM HUMAN and that’s what we do. We make mistake after mistake; hopefully, we don’t do it on purpose. Hopefully, we learn from them. Hopefully, we apologize when an apology is warranted and we mean it. Hopefully, we try really freakin’ hard to do better in the future. But mistakes are natural and normal and, even when pajama day is not remembered (cue tiny violins), even when my kids stand out like sore thumbs in jeans instead of flannels, it will be okay.

Upon this realization, for one of the first times ever, I decided to give myself a little bit of a breather. I decided to let go of the guilt, of the should-haves, of the yuckiness gnawing away at me when I looked at the bar I’d set and saw I hadn’t come close to reaching it. I decided to give myself grace – not necessarily in the religious sense (I’m not quite that powerful; see above: forgotten pajama day), but in the I’m Doing The Best I Can And If I Make Mistakes It’s Okay So I’m Not Going To Beat Myself Up For It sense.

I’ve been reading a lot about the concept of grace, especially from Glennon Doyle Melton on her Facebook page and in her book. Glennon is really just the absolute shit – funny, poignant, thought-provoking, absurd, well-spoken – but it’s what she’s written about grace, about forgiving and embracing your whole scattered, imperfect, crazy self, that has really struck a chord with me.

But man, has it been difficult to put into practice.

I’m naturally hard on myself, asolutely my toughest critic. I’m not much for keeping up with the Joneses. I don’t feel outside pressure to look a certain way, parent a certain way, be female in a certain way. I don’t worry so much about appearances (see the previous post about my duct-taped car and stain-covered clothing). Some of this is just who I am, and some of this I attribute to my ADHD – so I choose to let it go. I mean, if there’s a great likelihood that it’ll take me 37 steps just to put away the laundry, it would be expecting a helluva lot of myself to have a perfectly organized house all the time.

That part is nice – the allowing myself to just be… me. To not hold myself to impossible visible standards. But the secret is that I hold myself to impossible invisible standards; the ones I’d never expect of anyone else, the ones that are ridiculous, the ones that no one else knows about but me. And when I don’t meet my own expectations – because they’re, you know, all but unattainable – I come down on myself. Hard.

If I’d tried more. Started earlier. Listened better. Said no. Said yes. Been more organized. Gone to bed earlier. Focused differently. Paid attention. Worked faster. Put in more detail. Worried less about the small stuff. Asked for help. Done it myself. Been open to change.

You name it, I’ve failed at it.

Honestly? All of this failure just plain sucks. It’s exhausting. It’s disappointing. It’s maddening. It’s stupid.

So, I’d like to be done with it. I don’t mean I’d like to stop screwing up (that would be awesome, but it’s not what I mean), but rather that I’d like to be done feeling like a failure because I don’t live up to my own unreachable standards. To allow myself to be human, to be me. To give myself grace.
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Attempting some Irish dancing after seeing it live on St. Patrick’s Day.
Again, this has nothing to do with anything. Carry on.

I decided to start yesterday. Yep – I didn’t read the memo thoroughly. Yep, I didn’t inform my kiddos that it was pajama day. Yep, they felt left out. And it sucked. But it’s okay. It was a mistake – a small one, at that. It’s okay. I’m okay. In fact, I’m pretty damned awesome.

When the girls came home, there was not one mention of pajama day. They did not come through the doors in tears claiming I’d ruined their lives (over pajama day; I’m sure they’ll be happy to come up with other ways I’m doing them in). Still, I wanted to at least acknowledge what had happened — after all, I’d completely denied that I had any responsibility in the forgetting; I needed to set the record straight. Before I left to teach piano, I leaned in and said, “Hey – I just wanted you to know that I double-checked the note from school. You’re right; pajama day was mentioned. I didn’t read it fully, so I didn’t know. That was my fault. I’m sorry.” Without missing a beat, they looked up and said, “It’s okay, mama. We didn’t remember on our own, either. It’s not your fault.”

Which, I guess, is what it all comes down to, right? This parenting thing? Growing and learning and admitting your errors and celebrating who you are and starting over again with love and a new perspective and probably a glass of wine?

They will find out whether it’s okay to be human from you. Insist to them that it’s more than okay by apologizing and then PUBLICLY and SHAMELESSLY AND BOLDLY forgiving yourself. And then Begin Again. And Again and Again and Again and Yet Again Forever and Ever Amen.

Don’t show those babies what perfection looks like- show them what GRACE looks like.
– Glennon Doyle Melton

I am shamelessly and boldly trying. It sucks, but I’m trying.

(Damn good thing, too, considering that this morning we all remembered that it was Crazy Hat day… but, in our rush to leave the house a little earlier than usual so that I could sub, some less-than-stellar moments were had, including the moment where I might have crouched down low right in my daughter’s face and growled the phrase, “If you ever say that again, you’ll be in for a world of hurt.”

So… yeah. A world of hurt. That’s neat.
I’m having a little trouble with the grace thing on that one, but you’d better believe I’m going to apologize. And begin again. And again. And again.)

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*Maybe* you can drive my car…

I am not so much what you would call “fancy.” Most of my clothes have been spilled on or contain dog fur. I use our iron approximately twice a year, usually to iron on Annie’s Girl Scout patches. My sunglasses are purchased either at a gas station or a grocery store (which is a good thing, since I lose them so frequently).

This lack of fancy-ness also extends to my gadgets and electronics. For more than a year after the screen on my laptop came unhinged, I continued to use it anyway, held together with binder clips. My current cell phone will – not infrequently – just power down, claiming no battery (even though it was last at 56%); my contract isn’t up until June, though, so I just make sure I bring a charger everywhere with me. One spring, for a good six weeks, we used a toaster – daily – whose “on” button had to be held in place by a butcher knife.
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I’m not saying this was safe or smart… I’m just saying that’s how it was.

It’s not that I’m cheap. It’s not even that I’m frugal. I’m more than happy to spend on things that I find important… like Starbucks and Amazon Prime and going out to eat and birthday presents and vacations and cheese and chocolate. It’s more that I’m lazy… And also just not that impressed by bells and whistles. If I can get by with what I have, I’m just fine, thanks.

But then there was the car. My car. The minivan that we’d purchased ten days before Annie was born (the one which, after retrieving it from the parking garage to pick Annie and me up at the hospital main entrance, Nick promptly backed into a concrete pylon). That car was our everything; we basically lived in it.

This was taken with some super-old phone way back in the day, which explains its general craptastic quality. Technology!

We drove that van from our home in Westchester County to our new home – and new life – in Rochester. That van took our girls to doctor’s appointments and preschool. It took us to Broadway shows in New York City, weddings in Boston and Maine, visiting family in Vermont, and on a ferry across Long Island Sound. We picked up our first CCI pup in that van and used it to return the others for Advanced Training.
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Car napping, 2009

We went through infant carriers, five-point harness carseats, full-backed boosters, regular boosters, and plain old seats. We’ve hauled around more children to more games and recitals and parties than I can count. We took our Christmas trees home every year atop that van and folded down its rear seats to make way for new furniture. That van had been puked on, peed on, pooped on (dog, not kid), and had enough pieces of God knows what strewn across its floor to be classified a scientific hazard.
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Rear view, 2011

We took sleeping children home in that car. We read books in that car. The girls did their homework in the backseat and changed clothes before dance class. We listened to the entire audio series of Percy Jackson in that car, drove to see the holiday lights each year, and seriously rocked out to our favorite songs. We laughed and cried – a lot – in that car. Essentially, that car was the chronicle of Annie’s life; it had been with us for all of her eight years. It had 105,000 miles; it had worked hard and well.
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Counting down to the New Year in… where else? The car!

As with anything that’s been well worn, the car had some… issues. The rear sun screen thingies had long since been broken by overenthusiastic children. The front charger ports (originally for cigarette lighters, now for phones and devices if you had the right adaptor) had stopped providing a charge more than two years ago (although if you strung an extra-long cord from the very rear of the car and snaked it through all three rows of seats, you were still in business). The battery – although recently replaced – was unreliable; I’d had to call neighbors for jumps at least three times in the past twelve months.

The side mirror was cracked (after smacking it on the garage doorframe); I reasoned that I could still see out of it, so there was no need to get another. The windshield had been replaced a few months back after having been hit by an rock; the replacement wasn’t fitted properly, however, so it whistled. The rear passenger door had become increasingly erratic – sometimes, it would slide open seamlessly. Others, it would open halfway and then close up again. Basically, every time we got in was an adventure.
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We’d driven over a particularly rough snowbank last year and part of the undercarriage had just ripped off; since it was plastic and didn’t seem to be doing much, I took it inside with me and drove on. When more of the undercarriage began to fall off and drag along the street, I just duct taped the rest in place and hoped for the best (this was not so noticeable at high speeds but was enormously loud when driving around the neighborhood; more than once, I had a neighbor flag me down to let me know that “something was happening” under the car).
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I was completely willing to live with all of these little deficiencies – they gave the car character. More to the point, I’d been saving up for years and years to purchase a new car, deciding I would do so around the time I turned 40… which is in November. (Not so much a 40th birthday present, because a new minivan for one’s own birthday seems both incredibly opulent and really lame, but rather it just seemed like a good goal.) I could scrape by (literally) for less than a year. It was all fine.

Then, without warning, the rear driver’s side door broke – when it closed, the system wouldn’t register it, so every time the car was in “drive” the vehicle emitted a non-stop, ear-piercingly loud, there’s-no-way-you-can-drive-like-this beeeeeep to let us know that THE DOOR ISN’T LATCHED STOP RIGHT NOW. Except that it was latched – the electronics had simply failed to acknowledge it. I found that I could disable the alarm by flipping the auto-door switch to manual, but that was unsatisfying and tedious (those doors are freakin’ heavy).

After doing some research, it appeared that a repair would cost, at minimum, a couple thousand dollars… Which, considering I’d been saving up money to purchase new car later this year anyway, seemed really stupid. And so, with both rear doors functioning poorly, I finally decided the time had come to admit defeat.

I didn’t want a nice new car; I simply wanted one that actually worked. When I told the dealer that I had no interest in taking the show model for a spin, he was visibly taken aback – but I knew there was no point. I liked my current van, Consumer Reports had rated the newer model highly, and I knew I wanted another. End of story.

Since I was trading in our 2008 towards our new car, the dealer – understandably – had to look ours over. The first thing he said upon completing his inspection: “Ummm… you do know that the underside is held together with duct tape…”

YEP. Got it. Totally aware. Thankfully, they took the trade anyway, and a few days later, I drove home in my new minivan.
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You guys, this car is… awesome. The dash is all electronic and touch-screen crazy. The backseat is configured differently so Ella and Annie don’t have to sit right next to each other, THANKS BE TO GOD. I splurged (see, do sometimes go for the gold) and got heated seats (cloth seats though, because leather and I are a bad combination). As with many newer cars, I have the super-fancy option of using my cell phone straight through the car, which is pretty cool. Most importantly, the windshield doesn’t whistle, the power adaptors work, the side mirror isn’t cracked, and all of the doors are fully functional. TALK ABOUT BELLS AND WHISTLES, Y’ALL.

Like most new-model cars, there are no keys; it’s all keyless starting – you just step on the brake, press a button, and the engine awakens. I’ve never really liked the whole keyless thing; it just doesn’t feel right to me, to not need to insert the key into the slot to get a car to go. And indeed, from the very first time I got into the car and wondered what was wrong with it (“Uhhh, Em… You’re pressing the stereo button, not the ignition button…”), I knew that the keyless entry system and I would not be buddies.
car photo4

Fast forward to last week, when I took Fenwick with me to run a few errands. I put the puppy in the car and had just begun to pull down the driveway when I realized that I’d left something inside. Rather than pulling all the way into the garage, I elected to leave the car where it was and just run back into the kitchen. As I did, the car emitted this faint “beep” to let me know that the “key” (which was in my pocket) was no longer as close to the engine as it should be. I had no idea what would happen if I got too far away — would the engine shut off? Would the car lock itself down? So, to play it safe, I took all of my keys out of my pocket and placed them on the hood, right by the windshield wipers – so they wouldn’t slide off, naturally – and promised myself that as soon as I came back out of the house, I’d grab the keys and be on my way.

Did I remember to grab the keys when I got back in the car? OF COURSE I DIDN’T. I am me, after all.

I didn’t realize my mistake until I’d arrived at the grocery store (Fenwick in tow) and powered down the car; the moment I moved to get the keys so I could lock the car via the key fob, I knew that I didn’t have them. How on earth the car had managed to continue driving – when the “key” was nowhere near the engine – without warning me in any way, I didn’t know; I also didn’t know where the keys were, given that I’d driven away with them sitting on my windshield wipers.

Thankfully, Nick was in town that day (as opposed to on a business trip), had the extra “key” with him at his office, and was able to meet me at the grocery store posthaste and hand me the replacement (I even managed to get my shopping done in the time it took him to arrive, so I didn’t waste a second – ADHD filling-every-spare-moment FTW!). When I returned home, my keychain was sitting patiently for me on the driveway – so, all in all, it ended just fine.

But still. I posted about my experience on Facebook and within minutes, several friends chimed in that they (or their family members) had gone through similar headaches with their keyless-entry vehicles — driving away from the keys, reaching the destination, and then effectively being stranded. Although, obviously, I’d been responsible for not bringing the keys back into the car with me when I headed to the store, there are soooo many completely innocuous ways that this scenario could occur…

You could jump into the car with your partner, start driving, mistakenly think you had your keys with you (when, in fact, they were at home or the office or wherever), and then only discover that it was your partner whose keys had started the engine after dropping him or her off. And then driving away. And then you’re stuck. Or, heck, the keys could fall out while you load groceries, or help your grandma in the car, or go around to buckle your kids in their carseats. AND YOU’D NEVER KNOW, BECAUSE ONCE THE ENGINE IS RUNNING, THE CAR JUST KEEPS DRIVING WITHOUT WARNING YOU THAT THE KEYS NOWHERE NEAR IT!!!

Car manufacturers! Listen up! This is a major design flaw. The instant a seatbelt is disengaged, a loud, audible alarm rings out inside the car – justifiably so. There is no reason for the same not to occur when a keyless vehicle gets x-distance away from the key fob. This is not rocket science, car folks!! Get with the program!

Getting stranded aside, I’m a big fan of my car. There have been a few other hiccups… Since I got it in the middle of a Rochester winter, I only worried for about 0.47 seconds about keeping it clean – because everything within a 500 mile radius of any road just winds up being covered in salt, anyway. Additionally, the car is about 2″ wider than my previous van – which was already tightly tucked into our garage – so I’ve managed to lightly bump both side mirrors on the garage posts. More than once. BUT THE MIRRORS ARE STILL FULLY INTACT.

Overall, my new car is fantastic. It is a little fancy for me – I’m still figuring out how to work all of its bells and whistles (and, woo boy, actually getting it to call someone using only voice recognition is an adventure unto itself; I’m still not sure why “Nick Work” and “Target” sound the same, but whatever) – but, with due time, I’m sure I’ll have everything straightened out.

At least I’m not trying to start it anymore by turning on the stereo. Progress, people. Progress! (Plus, um, I’m fortunate enough to have a new, safe car… which is pretty much winning in every single way, in my book, is it not?)

 

 

Can we fix it? No, we can’t.*

For the first time in my life as a parent, I was unable to fall asleep last night because I was worried about my children.

This is not – at all – to say it was the first time I’ve worried about them, nor that it was the first time I’ve struggled to get some shut-eye because my mind and heart are racing. But up till now, worry for my daughters hasn’t prevented me from sleeping.

It was not a welcome occurrence.

I suppose we’ve been tremendously blessed – lucky, fortunate, whatever works best for you – that Ella and Annie haven’t really given us much to worry about. For the most part, they’ve been healthy (knock wood). We can afford to clothe, feed, and house them. Academics come easily. They’re socially and emotionally well-adjusted. Sure, there have been nights when I’ve been concerned about the latest stomach bug, and the times when one of them appears at my bedside like Cousin Itt aren’t exactly the moments I count among those I want to “savor because it all goes so fast.” But overall? It’s been pretty smooth.

Even now, the stuff that I’m worrying about isn’t exactly of the life-or-death variety – more of the growing pains variety – but it’s taking up enough of our waking hours (and, apparently, my sleeping hours) that I’m having a hard time not thinking about it.  (I’ve carefully considered whether or not to describe these situations, even vaguely or as an anecdotal aggregate of many stories. There’s a part of me that wants to because I know we’re not alone and I think there’s tremendous benefit in forming connections with someone else who’s walking the same path, in feeling that someone out there understands. That benefit, however, does not outweigh the responsibility I have to my daughters to put their best interests first. Out of respect for them and their privacy, I’m choosing not to write about the specifics.)

But here’s the rub: I want to fix it. I want to step in and take the difficult stuff away. Not all of it, of course; I’m a firm believer that kids need to suffer disappointments and setbacks and struggles in order to grow and learn and become competent, capable human beings. But some of it – the nonsense, the stuff that, in the grand scheme of things, is just asinine and they’ll look at it in later years and say, “Gosh, that was a waste of time” – I want nothing more than to make disappear.

Or, at the very least, I want to magically be able to give them the tools and the moves to face their problems squarely, to stand tall and proud, to be utterly confident in themselves and their beliefs. “If you just use this wand and wear this cape and do this roundhouse kick and read from this book and say these words, you will be victorious every single time. You have GOT this. Ba-BAM!”

I’m learning the hard way that it isn’t that easy.
By God – and this is the hardest part of all – they have to learn to do it themselves.
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Me and my best big girl, Ella, age four.

I know that struggles are normal. I know that essentially no child makes it through to adulthood without some drama, without a time that was rough, without growing pains. My therapist reminded me that kids are supposed to bump into things and into one another; that’s how they feel their way, how they learn and mature; it’s normal. This reminder was simultaneously helpful and maddening.

Yesterday, we learned the wonderful news that an extended family member is expecting her first child. As I chatted with her on Facebook, she confessed that, in addition to feeling elated, she’s also worried “every second.” I so remember those feelings. For nine months, you don’t let down your guard. You check the toilet every time you pee (which is often). You wonder if the baby is moving too much, then grow alarmed when there’s not enough movement. You question each ache and pain – is that normal? Is he in the right place? Is she big enough? Am I giving her enough nutrients? What if I get gestational diabetes? Is he getting enough oxygen? What did that thing on the sonogram mean? You’re excited and anxious and basically don’t fully let out a breath until the baby takes his or her first one.

(Or, at least, that’s how I felt, especially with my first pregnancy. Maybe this is why I wanted to slap everyone who called pregnancy “magical” or touched my stomach, unsolicited.)

Then, the baby is here, in your arms – success! Pregnancy, check! The worrying is over!

Until you realize that you have no idea what to do when the baby won’t stop crying. And when was the last time he ate? Please wash your hands before you pick her up. Where did this rash come from? What do you mean she isn’t gaining weight like she should? You did put him down on his back, right? And the carseat is properly buckled? And he’s not wearing too many layers? And the music isn’t too loud?

When the danger of SIDS has passed, you tell yourself, that’s when you’ll relax. When you’re getting more sleep, you’ll be less concerned.

But then there is crawling. And baby-proofing the outlets. And making sure they don’t fall down the stairs. And cutting grapes into fourths. Toddlerhood is exhausting and all-consuming because you have to watch them or contain them every single minute. You worry that they’ll never drink from a sippy cup, potty train, sleep through the night, give up the pacifier. Surely, when they’re older – when they don’t physically need you as much, when you can go to the bathroom by yourself for the love of God – you won’t worry so much.

Those worries do fall by the wayside. I mean, I haven’t cut a grape for my kids in years – these days, they even cut their own steak. But the old concerns are replaced by new ones, and these problems are a lot more complicated.

More to the point, I can no longer fix them.
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Me and my best little girl, Annie, age three.

Immediately before I exchanged Facebook messages with my friend, I’d been collecting myself after tucking Ella and Annie into bed. I’d closed my eyes and sorted through what I wanted to tell Nick – who is out of town – about how worried I am about the things that are bugging them, how worried I am that I have no idea what the heck to do, how freakin’ hard this parenting stuff is. After reading my friend’s words, I wrote back to tell her that I understood… but that we never, ever stop worrying – about our kids, about ourselves as parents, about whether we’re doing it right or enough, about how much their future therapy will cost.

When do you step in? When do you let them figure it out on their own? When they’re bumping into things, do you redirect or do you just let it happen? What do you do when they ask for help? What do you do when they don’t ask for help? Why are little girls so darn hard on one another? Why is friendship so difficult to navigate? How do you not laugh when your child lists the things that are overwhelming her – including seemingly fun stuff like playdates and parties – and says she’s “just falling apart”? How does your heart not break a little, too?

I called my mom and told her that I don’t think I’m up for this. I feel completely unprepared and unskilled; I don’t know how to be the parent my children need me to be. I asked her all of my questions and, after allowing me to ramble and sniffle and sigh, she gave me a wholly unsatisfying answer: Just be there.

Just be there. Listen. Be their ally. Hug them. Offer ideas when asked. Ask questions that help them form their own conclusions. Support them. Love them to pieces. Be there, always.

But, beyond that, they need to figure all of this — life — out on their own.

Damn it. I think my mom is right. THIS PART OF PARENTING SUCKS, Y’ALL.

I think I’m a pretty damned good mother, but the truth is, I really don’t know how to do this. Thankfully, I’m learning – day by day – to listen to the people who do know: Annie and Ella. They know themselves. They know what they want and what they need. Yeah, they don’t always know how to express those needs and wants (hell, a lot of adults don’t know how to do that), but if I give them the chance, they can almost always figure it out – sometimes with my help, sometimes alone. But it happens… I just have to let it.

I have a strong feeling that I’ll never stop worrying (although I hope I don’t lose too much more sleep) – about them, about me, about us. I’ll make mistake after mistake and apologize over and over again and hope, with everything in me, that they accept my apologies and still trust me. Their path is theirs to walk – but you can bet your bottom dollar I’ll be here… cheering them on, biting my lip, banging my head, arms open wide.

I’m still shutting the bathroom door, though. That “me” time was hard won and I’m not giving it up anytime soon.
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Also, I’ll definitely be here when we get to try free soda. Ba-BAM!

* Yes, the title references “Bob The Builder” – a children’s television show I’ve never actually seen but whose theme song I somehow know. THIS IS WHY MY BRAIN CANNOT STORE IMPORTANT INFORMATION – it is full up, you guys.

 

 

 

Our Frozen Oasis

Here’s the thing about having a skating rink in your backyard: it’s not for the faint of heart.

It seems so sweet and idyllic, right? Your own private skating oasis; gleaming ice ready any time you want to use it; no one rushing you or bumping into you, no waiting for the Zamboni to finish, no new-fangled music that’s all the rage with kids these days; a cozy house to warm up inside; hot chocolate simmering on the stove.

In reality, you do have your own oasis – that much is true – but you have got to work for it, from the moment you lay down the framing and the tarp to the day you call it quits for the season. It’s a commitment, this rink thing – one that, in many ways, must be undertaken by the entire family. (I remember a neighbor, years ago, telling me that they too used to have a backyard rink but they’d finally scrapped it after she got tired of her husband calling when he was out of town and asking her to shovel it. I laughed at the time.

Ignorance is, indeed, bliss.)

We’ve had our rink for four or five years now, and each year we learn something new: how and when to flood it (a layer at a time or all at once? Before the first big freeze or not until you’ve got several sub-freezing days in a row?), how deep to fill it, where in the yard to put it, how often – and with what – to clear it off, how to smooth out the inevitable bumps, how to avoid chips and cracks, what kind of tarp to use, how to secure the tarp, how large the frame should be, and so on.

This year, we wound up having to flood the rink in a hurry to take advantage of some particularly frigid temperatures…
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… which would explain why Ella and Nick are doing this at night in a snowstorm…

But, in the end, the hard work paid off because two days later: strong, skate-ready ice.
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We were so excited to use it, we couldn’t wait until the following morning.
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Who needs sun when you have floodlights??

What followed have been – absolutely – many many idyllic afternoons, evenings, mornings, and weekends spent on that rink.

We’ve skated…
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We’ve tried our hands (and skates) at hockey…
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We’ve invited friends over to share in the fun…
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We’ve gone through gallons (literally) of hot cocoa, seemingly never-ending bowls of popcorn, numerous skate guards, at least one broken hockey stick, and dozens of pucks – long buried in the snow. In a lot of ways, it really has been sweet and idyllic.
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This is pretty much my dream winter set-up: perfect rink, fire in the fire pit, path for friends and neighbors to join us.

Much to my dismay, however, a smooth, skateable, nicely maintained ice rink does not just happen by magic (no matter how many Harry Potter spells I try). First, there is shoveling.
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When the snow is minimal, we use our indentured servants to help.

Next, there is more shoveling.
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What’s more fun that shoving ten inches of snow off the driveway? Shoveling ten inches of snow off the driveway and the ice rink!

As we’ve learned the hard way, you can’t just let the snow sit on the rink, no matter how much you’d rather relax on the couch. It creates this insulated cover and blah blah insert something science-y here and before you know it, the ice is all melty and bumpy and weird and then you have to not only shovel but also scrape the lumps off and fill in the holes.

Exhibit A: the rink after our one and only day of sleet this year.skating rink27
This was after I’d already shoveled. It was basically very cold sandpaper.

Exhibit B: the wonders of a scraper toolskating rink28
That one corner took 45 minutes. THIS IS A LABOR OF LOVE, PEOPLE. A very labor-ful labor of love.

Long story short, it really works best to shovel that puppy clean as soon as you can – which, in our case, means removing snow from an 816 square foot surface. On purpose. Voluntarily. We choose to shovel 816 square feet of snow in addition to our driveway and front walk basically every time it snows – whether it’s an inch or a foot, whether Nick is home or out of town, whether it’s below zero or above freezing – because we have a doggone ice rink in the back yard and we’ll be damned if we let it go to hell in a hand basket!

See what I mean about the whole commitment thing?
A (functional) backyard ice rink is a really bad idea if you’d rather hibernate in the winter.

Beyond needing to keep the rink clear of snow, you need to remove everything else from its surface, too, be it paw prints (the dogs do not respect the sanctity of the rink) or twigs or errant pucks. (One time, the dogs knocked a goal and some pucks onto the rink overnight and when I found them in the morning, they’d already created little ice molds for themselves.)
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I’m melllting! What a world!

In addition to shoveling and clearing, there is also the flooding of the rink – sometimes with the hose, sometimes with buckets of hot water; sometimes a thin layer over the entire surface, sometimes just a bit here and there. If you do it when it’s snowing, the snow can freeze into the ice layer and cause bumps. If you wait until it’s warmer, the ice won’t set properly. It’s a science, but a very inexact one; maybe this is what it’s like to be a meteorologist.

Oh! And there is also… shoveling.
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There’s a rink out there somewhere…
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First step: clear the edges and divide into fourths.skating rink19
Next: make sure someone has a bottle of Aleve waiting inside.skating rink20
Or a glass of wine.skating rink21
At least you won’t need to go to the gym today!
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Finally! If you’re not too sore, you can skate!

You might think, with all of the work – with the backaches and the frostbitten fingers, the late nights spent waiting for just the right time to lay down another coat of water – that it’s somehow not worth it.

But, oh. You’d be wrong.

It’s quiet in the backyard. You can barely see the cars in the cul-de-sac; for all you know, you’re the only people around. Your skates sound so crisp as they scrape along the ice, carving pathways and messages. No matter what else is going on – the vomiting dog, the broken car, the fighting children, the burned dinner, the crazy project, the looming deadline – everything seems to fade away the moment you step foot (skate?) on the ice.
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With a backyard ice rink, everything you need is right there. In an instant, you can go from stressed to calm, worried to serene, simply by venturing out over those boards. (Or you can get out your aggression by slapping some pucks around. Either way, it’s a win.)

You see beauty, too, in places you hadn’t before – the ice takes on different hues depending on the time of day, how sunny it is, how much snow is surrounding the rink. It’s like looking out onto an ever-changing portrait… except nothing has changed at all but your perspective.

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See what I mean? 8 a.m….

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… and 3 p.m.
(I could have Photoshopped out the dog pee but I decided to keep it real. #NOFILTER, baby.)

As I mentioned earlier, this winter started off relatively mildly; we didn’t have much snow (for Rochester) through January. As February wore on, we saw not only the coldest month in Rochester’s history but also an additional 50″ of snow. Although we normally see that much snow (twice it, actually) over the course of each winter, it typically falls in a steadier fashion rather than a lot at once. This was, therefore, the first year where we had significant snow build-up around the outside of the rink.

Personally, I think it added to the isolated, idyllic feel.

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Early January was pretty slow.
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By mid-January, the ground cover was solid.
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By early February, the rounded edges had begun to form.
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Then came… OMG SO MUCH SNOW.
(See: piles along our walkway as tall as the girls.)
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By the end of the month, the rink was completely encircled.

All of our previous rinks have been just fine, but there’s always been at least one problem with each of them. Some never properly froze over. Others were inadequately flooded, resulting in chipping ice and exposed tarp (we prefer more modest tarps over here). Still other years we didn’t get ourselves out to the ice quickly enough to clear away the snow; when you don’t commit, it isn’t pretty.

This year, the stars aligned. The cold February made for fantastic ice conditions. We finally understood how and when to fill the rink. We purchased portable floodlights so we could skate after dark. We learned from our past mistakes and were bound and determined to make sure that we took good care of the surface, to keep it clear and shoveled and smooth so that, any time – day or night – we can pop on our skates and go for a spin.

Quite frankly, we’ve all been loving it so much, it’s almost been easy. (In the emotional sense. Physically? NOT SO MUCH.) We’ve skated ourselves silly on that rink.

The frigid temperatures and unrelenting snow persisted well into March like a stubborn child’s tantrum – until, just like that, they’d exhausted themselves and were done. This week has brought forty degree temperature increases and days of glorious sunshine. Because the past month has been so brutal, the return of spring feels nothing short of miraculous.

But I am sad to say goodbye to our rink.

Yesterday morning, we awoke to temperatures in the 20s for the first time in five days – meaning that the ice, which had been evaporating and bump-filled all week, had somehow glazed over, leaving the surface just smooth enough to skate on. With the forecast calling for continued above-freezing days, I knew this was probably our last chance to go for a spin… and so, before school, the girls and I did just that.

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An hour later, I texted Nick to tell him that he’d left his lunch in the fridge – and that if he wanted to come back and get it, the ice was still good enough for him to take one last skate. It was an offer too good to pass up; for thirty minutes, he and I went around on the rink, savoring every moment.
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He came straight from work; note his dress shirt and bow tie. That’s how we (he) roll(s).

Soon enough, the remaining ice will turn to water. We’ll dismantle the boards and let it drain, carefully storing the pieces for the summer. I don’t know what next year’s winter holds; it’s certainly unlikely to be as record-settingly cold as this. No matter what happens, though, we’ll be ready to make backyard memories again – come hell or high water ice.
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The Big Four-Oh

If you’re a 39 year-old heterosexual American male considering how to ring in your 40th birthday, doing so aboard a Disney Cruise probably isn’t at the top of your list. But that’s exactly where Nick found himself after we booked our cruise and then realized that his big day fell smack dab in the middle of the trip.

Given that our choices were to embrace it or ignore it, we chose to go with the former – and by “embrace it” I mean that Nick worked on not being bummed that he would turn forty while trapped with surrounded by gazillions of screaming, hyped-up children and adults either taking advantage of the poolside bar by 10 a.m. or dressed in life-size princess and pirate costumes. Meanwhile, the girls and I worked on coming up with as many ways as possible to draw attention to Nick and let everyone within a five mile radius know that it was his birthday.

We’re sweet like that.
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Nick had refused to open any birthday-related paraphernalia prior to his actual birth date, citing bad luck (umm, okay?), so we knew we’d either have to wait until we returned to give him his “real” birthday presents or we’d have to bring them with us. Given that we were already lugging several suitcases, that we planned to purchase more than a few souvenirs and gifts for family and friends, and that our stateroom – while lovely – wasn’t exactly palatial, we decided to give him the bulk of his presents back home… but that just meant we could go overboard* with the “fun” (read: embarrassing) stuff on the cruise.

* see what I did there?

The preparations began weeks before our sail date. I thought it might be neat to surprise Nick with some snacks, beverages, etc., in our stateroom, but I didn’t want to haul all of that stuff with me. I’d read about an awesome company that crafts custom-made gift baskets for folks in the Port Canaveral area; it seemed perfect, but unfortunately, Disney no longer allows off-site companies to deliver directly to their ships. Long story short (you’re welcome), after several weeks of phone calls and emails between that company, our taxi company, and myself — all without Nick’s knowledge — the gift basket lady met us at the entrance to the cruise terminal parking lot, our driver slyly pulled over and took the “delivery” into the front seat, and the porters quietly loaded the basket in with all of our other luggage, to be hidden away until the next morning. THAT’S what I’m talking about!

Nick’s sister, Emi, and her husband, Matt, had also sent a surprise wine and cheese platter to our room – but because of the whole “bad luck” thing, I knew I’d need to keep the goods out of sight until the following day. It was easy enough for me to enter our stateroom before anyone else (Nick was busy waiting in the interminable line to get a ticket so that Annie could meet Anna and Elsa), and it was easy enough to stash the wine and wine glasses in a cupboard… But the cheese plate a) would not fit in our tiny fridge and b) was super fresh and would have been, um, poisonous inedible if I’d tucked it away in a drawer or something… So, after conferring with Annie and Ella, we all dug right into lovely cheese plate that had been given to us by Disney as a way of thanking us for being repeat cruisers. (This was slightly less far-fetched than it sounds because there actually was a thank-you-for-going-on-your-second-cruise tote bag from Disney awaiting us on the bed.) Nick was skeptical (“They do this for everyone? Fresh cheese? Isn’t that kind of expensive?”), but with no one to say any differently, he had no choice but to buy into it.

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Not a bad way to start the trip!

When Nick awoke the next morning (aka HIS BIRTHDAY), we presented him with our contraband gift basket, Emi and Matt’s bottle of wine, and the real story behind why “Disney” had given us a lovely cheese platter. The basket was a huge hit – Nick and the girls had Milano cookies right there at 7:30 a.m. – but we were just getting started.
disney51 Also inside: the beach toys Ella used during our “adventure” on Castaway Cay.

First, I presented Nick with… the shirts (found here; Etsy is a mystical place, you guys). There were four matching ones for Annie, Ella, GranMary, and me, but Nick had his own… special… version.
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In case you can’t see them, our shirts say “This Girl Loves The Disney Dream” and Nick’s says “This Guy Turns 40 Today!”. VERY CLASSY.
Also, I’m just noticing now that Annie’s blue ears look like… my boobs. Very, VERY classy.

After putting them on, we headed up to breakfast — but not before stopping to admire our stateroom door, which looked slightly different than it had when I’d snuck out the night before to decorate it. (The doors are metal, meaning you can stick magnets on them. Many cruisers go all out with door decorations; it’s like an informal competition or a strange, impromptu art show.) The custom magnet (found here) was awesome, but even more fun was the white board – because as the day went on, fellow passengers left Nick birthday messages.
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This is the “after” shot, taken upon returning to our room at bedtime…

As we arrived at breakfast, I pulled out our next birthday treat… our Mickey ears. Nick had known that I’d purchased ears while we were in Epcot — it had been his suggestion, actually, to get some embroidered so that GranMary could have her own, personalized pair — but he didn’t know that I’d snuck in a different order for his ears.
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GranMary… Emily… Annie… Ella… 40 and Awesome!

Our big plans for the day began shortly after breakfast: while researching things to do in Nassau, we had decided upon a “dolphin excursion,” something that’s been on Nick’s bucket list for as long as he could remember. We were excited, but didn’t really know what to expect; the thirty minute boat ride over to Blue Lagoon was beautiful, but the girls were growing restless and Nick and I shot one another This Had Better Be Worth It looks.
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Upon our arrival, we sat through a brief – and interesting – information session about dolphins, dolphin conservation, etc. Following the session, we were split into groups and sent out onto the docks to meet with our instructor/trainer and the dolphins. Our small group consisted of us and another family; they went first, allowing us to see just what we were getting into.

There was no doubt about it: this was going to be incredible.

When it was our turn, we could hardly wait to scramble down the ladder and onto the submerged platform where we’d hang out with the dolphins. The first group had warned us that the water was cold; still, we were unprepared for just how chilly it would be. There was no time to ease in, however, because “our” dolphin – Missy – was being instructed to pose for a photo with us… so we gathered our courage, bent our knees, held our breaths, and smiled.
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Notice how the girls’ shoulders are up to their ears because there was no way they were ready to get that wet yet…

Missy – short for Miss Merlin – was fifteen years old, a nursing mama, blind in one eye, and just the absolute coolest, most fascinating animal I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting. The trainer working with her was sarcastic and bold and more than willing to embarrass us in order to get a laugh; we liked her immediately.

I don’t quite know how to describe the excursion. I could tell you what it entailed: we – each of us, one at a time – got to hug Missy, dance with her (holding onto her front flippers and bobbing around together), run our hands along her back and head and belly (dolphins are unbelievably soft – there is little to compare her to that would make any sense because it’s a wholly unique feeling), kiss her (which may sound weird but which was SO VERY COOL), feed her (Nick was cajoled into feeding her by dangling a dead fish from his teeth – for real, yo), and sing with her (“Happy Birthday,” of course). We watched as she leapt into the air, doused us with water (at the trainer’s mischievous instruction), disappeared for a moment or two to check on her baby (who was hanging out in a separate, protected area so Missy could visit), scooted backward along the top of the water using only her flukes, blew bubbles under the surface, and made myriad crazy and amusing (to us humans) noises.
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What I can’t put into words is the sheer joy, awe, and delight that coursed through all of us during the 15 minutes we spent with Missy. It was something that transcended happy and blissful and slid into a kind of euphoria – but contained, special, magic. We felt it; it was almost an out of body experience, except we were so incredibly present.

Near the end of our visit, the trainer told us to wait a moment – and, at her hidden command, the dolphin swam out of sight. The trainer explained to Nick that Missy would be bringing him something to commemorate his big day, and when she returned he had to take it – but if it was alive (!!), he’d need to put it back. A moment later, Missy resurfaced and swam to Nick holding something in her teeth. Stunned, Nick giddily took it from her; it was a rock (which, thank God, is not alive), collected from the bottom of the lagoon.

To put it another way, a dolphin specifically selected a gift for Nick and then gave it to him. NICK GOT A 40th BIRTHDAY PRESENT FROM A DOLPHIN.
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When we returned home, he ordered a plastic box from Amazon in which to store/display his gift. I am not even kidding.

There was lots of other stuff to do at Blue Lagoon – sea lion greeting, dolphin watching, a gorgeous Bahamian beach with inflatables on the water – but, agreeing that our experience with Missy couldn’t possibly be topped, we chose to simply head back to the ship.

It felt as though we didn’t touch the ground for hours. We ate lunch and got ice cream; the girls swam and rode the water slide; Ella got her hair braided all fancy-like; Nick and I relaxed and enjoyed the Drink of the Day. He was on such a high, he even proudly posed with the girls’ and my last gift of the day: a towel that my aunt had embroidered for him, loudly declaring his age. (The rest of his presents awaited him at home.)
disney94This is maybe the softest towel in existence. I’ve totally stolen it for myself even though I AM NOWHERE NEAR 40, ahem.

I’d been informed that, at dinner, our waitstaff would present Nick with some kind of birthday treat; since he doesn’t really like dessert (or any sweets, for that matter; I KNOW), I decided not to order him a cake (see also: fridge too small to store leftover cake). It turned out perfectly.

Disney is nothing if not enthusiastic, especially when it comes to celebrations, and birthdays are certainly something to be celebrated. As such, when I stopped by the front desk the night before, the concierge eagerly forked over “I’m Celebrating” buttons for GranMary, the girls, and me as well as an “It’s My Birthday!” button for Nick. Those drew us some attention, but it was really the shirt that turned people’s heads. Nick insisted on wearing it all day (until dinner), explaining that it was the only day he could get away with it. I’d chuckled when I found it online, giggled when it arrived in the mail, laughed out loud when he actually put it on… but seeing other guests and cast members take notice of it, do a double take, and then stop to say, “Happy Birthday, man!” all day long was pretty much the most amusing best thing ever.

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Speaking of cool things…

After dinner, GranMary presented Nick with his final gift: a clever and funny reworking of The Beatles’ “Eleanor Rigby” (complete with mouse ears and dancing grandchildren); it was a delightful capper on a pretty damned terrific day. When we got back to the room, we discovered that our attendant had folded our bath towels in the shape of a birthday cake.
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Do you think they keep the ribbon on hand, just in case?

If you’d asked Nick what he envisioned doing on the day he turned 40, I doubt that he’d have described the day that he wound up having. Still, he was a tremendously good sport about everything – and, by the end, even he had to admit that as far as birthdays go, it wasn’t really so bad… In fact, it was pretty freakin’ great. We were in the Bahamas. It was a perfect, sunny day. He got some dorky fun swag, including a present from a dolphin.

He even got to check an item off his bucket list.
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This photo makes me ridiculously happy.

At the very least, I hope there’s no doubt in his mind that he is pretty freakin’ adored by the rest of us. (Adored… and seen as fodder for embarrassment.)

But hey – you only turn 40 once. Might as well kick back with a Yellow Bird, soak in the sun, kiss a dolphin, and look out onto the incredible horizon stretching before you – in every possible way.
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Awesome, indeed.

 

 

 

 

Bahama Drama

Remember when said that I’d tell the story of how I got hypothermia – in the Bahamas, of all places? Well, then I went and described visiting the homeless shelters, and after that there is really no appropriate segue into something as absurd – or unrelated – as Bahamian hypothermia, so I figure I’ll just go from the sublime to the ridiculous and run with it.

I do so like to keep people on their toes.

When we signed up for this cruise, one of the things we were most excited for was the day that the ship would be spending at Disney’s island, Castaway Cay (sounds like “key”). Hence, when Ella opened the curtain to our stateroom on the morning we landed and announced, “Wow – it’s really cloudy. Actually, it looks like it’s… raining…?”, it was not exactly welcome news. We slid open the door to the balcony just far enough to confirm two things: 1) it was most definitely raining and 2) it was most definitely not warm by Caribbean standards.

The forecast called for occasional showers, so we decided to take our chances (that we’d find some dry pockets in the afternoon) and head to the island after the original siege was over. As we’d hoped, the ship virtually emptied out as other sea-farers disembarked. Having the place to ourselves, we shuffleboarded… We explored… We watched Ella and Annie as they delighted in riding the water slide four times in a row with absolutely no line… We thanked our lucky stars that they were tall enough to ride without an adult because it was really freakin’ windy and there was no way we could brave the slides even once without being chilled to the bone.

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Note the rather ominous-looking clouds in the background…

Soon, the wind was accompanied by rain. When the thunder rumbled, the lifeguards hustled everyone out of the pools (to our relief; even fully clothed, we were cold); the folks at Castaway Cay had similarly been ushered out of the water and away from the shoreline. Knowing that we’d soon be joined by – literally – thousands of wet, grouchy beach-goers, we made a beeline for the buffet.

Nothing says “relaxed vacation” like stampeding for the all-you-can-eat shrimp!

By the time we’d finished eating, the rain had mostly stopped. Seeing that the beaches were virtually empty, and seeing as how we’d been looking so forward to our day on the island, Nick and I told the girls that we were going to brave the elements, take our chances, and see what adventure awaited us ashore; they – and GranMary – were welcome to join us. Annie, having become entranced with the ship’s virtual, interactive detective game, opted to stay behind and solve another mystery with GranMary while Ella chose to come with Nick and me.

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As we exited the gangplank (I have no idea if that’s actually what it’s called but it sounds way cooler like that), we passed wet towels that were piled at least six feet high on wheeled carts, cast off as people had boarded the boat and ditched their unnecessary gear. It became apparent the island was, indeed, all but empty the moment we boarded the tram and were the only passengers on it. Soon, we were standing on the beach, ready to do what we’d come here for: snorkeling.

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See? Empty. Emmmmp-teeee.

Or, at least, that’s what Nick – and, more importantly, Ella – had come here for. Nick has loved snorkeling since he was a kid. Ella took an immediate shine to it when she tried it last year and had been itching to go again ever since. I, on the other hand, distinctly dislike snorkeling… but I decided to be a good sport and join them, if only to say that I’d done it.

When Nick picked up the snorkeling gear, he requested some towels and was given… two. Thankfully, we’d thought to bring one with us, so we had three to go ’round. Although it was no longer raining, the wind was still racing; at maybe 65*, I was chilly before I’d even stepped foot in the water, but I hoped that the shallow reef would be warm enough to feel comfortable.
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Thumbs up! Let’s do this!

As I hesitantly waded in, the water felt… okay. Certainly warmer than the air, but hardly balmy. Nick and Ella swam farther out and it became difficult for me to locate their bobbing heads on the horizon, so I decided that if I actually wanted to catch up with them so we could say we’d officially snorkeled together, I’d better get going, no matter how chilly I felt.

You guys. I am just not meant for snorkeling. There’s not one specific thing that bothers me; it’s everything about it. I do get the “Oh, look – beautiful fish!” appeal, but really, I can do that at an aquarium. Or the fish tank in our living room.

Eventually, I made my way over to Nick and Ella, motioning to them so that they’d see it was me – Hey! We’re snorkeling together! Isn’t this great! MEMORIES! – but then quickly reversed course and slogged through the swelling currents back to shore. In order to try to ease the flipper-induced pain in my feet and ankles, I briefly kicked while floating on my back; it did hurt a little less, but it was also much colder than facing downward, so I turned facedown again after only a couple of minutes. Those minutes were enough to chill me from the inside out, however — by the time I (finally) schlepped ashore, I couldn’t stop shivering.

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We pretty much had the lagoon to ourselves…

Given that we possessed only one towel for each of us, I was hesitant to dry myself off just yet (I KNOW, I know). I had no idea how long Nick and Ella would be snorkeling, and if Ella wanted to do something else in the water afterward, I was determined to join her and not be a spoilsport, shivering or not; it seemed prudent, therefore, to keep my towel dry so I wouldn’t have to wrap myself in something soggy later on.

A mistake, in hindsight? Hell yes.
BUT I WAS TRYING TO BE A GOOD MOM, PEOPLE. Surely that earns me some points.

I did understand that I needed to get dry and that just standing around, freezing, was pretty stupid – plus, the shivering was becoming almost violent, not to mention a nuisance – so I hobbled off in search of more towels… only to be told by more than one cast member that there were no dry towels left. NOT ONE SINGLE DRY TOWEL ON THE ENTIRE ISLAND (hence the mountains of wet towels by the gangplank), unless we wanted to purchase one as a souvenir (which, given that I’d already brought an extra towel from home for Nick’s birthday, seemed dumb).

Another thing I don’t like about snorkeling is getting sand all up in my business, so I decided that, at the very least, I could take a warm shower and try to simultaneously clean out my business and raise my body temperature. Turns out the only shower available was outside, with no temperature gauge – so although I did rid my bathing suit of sand, and although the water was warmer than the air, I didn’t exactly get nice and toasty. And I was still soaking wet.

For the record: electric hand dryers do a piss poor job of drying off your entire body.

By the time I limped my way back to our lounge chairs (see: shivering), Nick and Ella were coming out of the water (THANK YOU SWEET BABY JESUS) but I could barely carry on a conversation with them – my jaw felt so heavy, almost numb from all of the chattering.

“Why on earth didn’t you dry off, babe??” Nick – understandably – wanted to know. When I explained that I had tried to warm up but that I was saving my towel in case Ella wanted to do anything more in the water, she piped up that, no, she was cold too, so no more water activities for her… or any of us. ENOUGH WITH THIS WET RIDICULOUSNESS. While changing into dry clothes, I was relieved to see that I was no longer shivering*, but I was growing annoyed at my increasing inability to speak clearly.

* Later, I learned that stopping shivering is actually a sign that your body is shutting down unnecessary motions in order to save energy. So efficient! Go, me!

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Since we’d brought sand toys with us, Ella’s one other request – aside from snorkeling -was to build a sandcastle. Wish granted!

Our favorite gift shop was on the way back to the tram, so we ducked inside for a few minutes to do some shopping. As we sorted through the I Love Castaway Cay! paraphernalia, the oddest thing happened: I began to lose feeling in my fingers. First, my pinkies went entirely numb; that numbness gradually crept into my ring fingers and then to the base of my middle fingers.

Now, I’ve gotten cold hands before. More accurately, I get cold hands all the freakin’ time; Annie and Ella laugh at how my hands are almost always like blocks of ice. Despite living in Snowland, USA, I have yet to find single pair of gloves or mittens that actually keeps me from losing feeling in my fingers, so I am more than familiar with the stinging, painful stages of early frostbite.

This numbness was entirely different; I’d never felt anything like it before, as though each finger could be pierced with something sharp and I wouldn’t even notice. I wiggled them around, clenched and unclenched my fists, but the bizarre numbness only continued to grow. When we’d finished shopping (side note: we bought a towel. I AM NOT KIDDING), I stopped Nick and slurred, “This is going to sound like I’m being overdramatic, but I’m losing feeling in my fingers and I can’t figure out why.”

He looked at me with a combination of WTF and That’s Not Good, suggesting I go to the restroom to try and warm them up under some hot water. I heeded his advice but it was no use – they remained feeling-less. As I told him about my lack of success, it became apparent that my mouth was becoming as numb as my fingers. My tongue felt heavy, my lips felt the way they do when I’m having an allergic reaction (thick and uncomfortable), and I was slurring my speech as though I’d downed several Mai Tais too many or just had a shot of novocaine (in other words: very sexy).

“This is just so weird,” I lamented. “It’s like I’m having an allergic reaction. I don’t think I ate anything unusual, though… Maybe I got stung by a rogue jellyfish?” Obviously, my head was working as slowly as my fingers.

Thankfully, Nick could still think clearly, so after a moment of consideration he postulated, “Um… actually, I think you’ve got the beginnings of hypothermia.”

This seemed preposterous, given that we were on a tropical island in the middle of the Caribbean, but Nick went on. “Somehow, snorkeling and the wind and then not getting warm afterward really messed up your core temperature, so now your body is removing heat from your extremities – like your fingers and your mouth – so it has enough to keep the rest of you going.”

The more I thought about it, about how different the numbness in my fingers felt than it ever had before, about the uncontrollable shivering, about my heavy jaw and sloppy speech, the more it appeared that Nick was probably right. Guess someone’s been paying attention to the Discovery Channel!

“Well, what the heck do I do about that??”

“I think we should get you back onto the ship as quickly as possible and then have you take a shower until you warm up.”

All in favor? AYE.

After running to catch the tram (have you ever tried to run while you’re tingly and numb? Very, very weird), we made a hasty return to our stateroom… But not before I whipped out my phone to take a group selfie, because there is always time for selfies.

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Now that I’m a bit more sane, I guess my lips do look kind of blue…

Once in the shower, it took a good ten minutes for my fingers and jaw to return to normal; it was actually kind of interesting, because I could feel the warmth spreading from the inside out, one little bit at a time, like lava. Not wanting to take any chances, I pulled on every layer I’d brought and hopped under the bed covers for the rest of the hour until dinner; Nick and Ella had ordered hot chocolate from the room service menu, which absolutely sped my recovery.

Upon returning home, I Googled hypothermia and found the following:

Mild hypothermia

Signs and symptoms of mild hypothermia include:
– Shivering
– Dizziness
– Hunger
– Nausea
– Faster breathing
– Trouble speaking
– Slight confusion
– Lack of coordination
– Fatigue
– Increased heart rate

Shivering? Check. Dizziness? Check. Trouble speaking? Slight confusion? Lack of coordination? Fatigue? Check check check check. 

No, I didn’t take my temperature, nor did I visit the ship’s doctor, so I can’t be 100% certain that it was hypothermia… But people? It was hypothermia.

So, it wasn’t quite the “adventure” on Castaway Cay that we’d envisioned, but that’s my story and I’m sticking to it – especially because it makes me ridiculously badass… or an incredible wuss. At the very least, it makes an excellent ice breaker or Two Truths And A Lie factoid. I GOT HYPOTHERMIA. IN THE FRICKIN’ BAHAMAS. Not everyone can say that.

————-

I do realize that writing this is a bit outlandish, considering my last post. I’m just going to get this out of the way, then. YES, it is CRAZY that we live in a world where some of us cannot afford rent or food while others have so much “extra” money, they have fabulous vacations on cruises and islands and seeing Big Ben and the Great Barrier Reef. AND THEN those of us who have vacationed come home and gripe about the parts of our vacations that were less than stellar. “What were you doing last week? Struggling to keep your home? That really, really sucks. Oh, us? We were at Disney’s private island. It was cold, though, so I can totally relate – I mean, sometimes life hands you lemons.”

CRAZINESS.

Does that mean that we should never take vacations if we can afford them? No, I don’t think so. Does it mean that we can never complain about disappointments that we encounter on said vacations? Nah, especially if you do it with humor and grace.

With that said, I do think that perspective and gratitude go a helluva long way. You can bemoan life’s little hiccups – even while sipping a daiquiri on a beach in Hawaii – while still being tremendously grateful that you’re on that beach, period.
Even if you get hypothermia while you’re there.

 

Changed (aka Perspective, Part Two)

Coming off of our visit to the homeless shelter right before February break, I felt like little could match that experience. That feeling lasted all of ten days because a week ago, Annie and I joined her Girl Scout troop to host a birthday party at another local homeless shelter – but, unlike last time, this shelter is specifically for families with children rather than just adults.

You read that correctly: children. Kids, like my own… Except without homes.
Homeless children and their families.
It doesn’t get much more gut-punchingly real than that, y’all.

We had known the following going in: there were four children at the shelter with February birthdays and we were in charge of the birthday party. Our job was to provide goodie bags and some kind of craft – not only for those four kiddos, but for the other 24 children residing at the shelter. In keeping with the celebratory spirit, we elected to bring cupcakes and juice boxes for everyone (including the 14 adults living with them). We also brought some paper goods and simple decorations. The shelter itself would provide gifts for the birthday children.

And so the girls decorated the goodie bags (“Happy Birthday!” “Smile, it’s your day!”) and got together on Monday afternoon to decorate dozens of boldly-colored cupcakes. Then, on Tuesday evening, we climbed into our minivans to carpool to the shelter (since it’s in a not-so-great neighborhood, we’d been told to bring as few vehicles as possible, to leave nothing of value in the cars, and to not use our cell phones where anyone could see us), all prepared to make a difference in these impoverished children’s lives! Go, us!

We laughed at ourselves as we hung the decorations; I kept draping the streamers way too low and the “Happy Birthday” sign had come undone, so until we taped it back together it read, “HAPPY BI”. It was embarrassing, really – here we were, trying to make the room a little more festive because this was the only celebration these children would have, and it looked like somebody’s parody Pinterest page. Craft supplies were scattered across tables and our girls posed for pre-good-deed photos.

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The wonderful woman in charge – S. –  gathered the troops (literally, ahem) to tell them a bit more about who would be attending the party. There were twelve rooms in the shelter; each family was allotted one room. The kids were all ages, from not-yet-one to teenagers. Some were with both parents; others were with only their mothers (some of whom were escaping domestic violence). Families stayed an average of five to six weeks and then moved on; there was a monthly celebration for each child whose birthday occurred during that month and everyone was invited to attend.

S. talked about why these families were here, about how difficult it can be to hold onto a home, to pay rent. Our little ones cocked their heads, confused. “What’s rent?” they wanted to know. It was simultaneously hilarious and mortifying, these second-graders with absolutely no concept of what it means to not be able to afford a place to live, or food, or clothes. “What are food stamps? Like the kind of stamp you get on your hand at the end of dance class?” 

Then, the residents were called in to join us… and our daughters, who moments ago had been yukking it up as they counted cupcakes, suddenly went silent. It all became very real: here were other kids their own age, kids they’d never met, kids who looked just like them… except they lived here, in this building in this dangerous neighborhood, because they didn’t have a home. There were infants toting bottles filled with juice; toddlers and pre-school-aged kids; quite a few children roughly our own girls’ ages; and several middle and high-schoolers. They were black, Latino, and white. I heard English, Spanish, and a language I didn’t recognize but that sounded maybe like it was from Eastern Europe. One girl wore a shirt that said, “Jesus Is The Way” while three other girls wore full, brilliantly-colored and bejeweled hijabs.

Seeing our daughters’ trepidation, we adults stepped in and began cajoling everyone – kids and parents alike – to the tables. “Want to make a craft? Come on over! There are really cool bookmarks! You can do one of these cute animals!” In no time, each table was filled with children and adults using glue and stickers to create their own masterpieces. There were smiles all around and lots of talking. “What’s your favorite color? How old are you? Isn’t it so cold out?” Our parental pride swelled as, gradually, our Scouts joined in, helping the littlest ones glue on googly eyes and chatting it up with the older kids.

In no time at all, our daughters had crossed the imaginary barrier separating us and them, quickly and cheerfully making casual friends the way that many children do so naturally. For me, however, it wasn’t quite that simple.

Breaking the ice was easy. “What’s your name? I’m Emily! What color bookmark would you like?” But as the conversations continued and I went from table to table, I discovered my own ignorance and awkwardness; I had no idea what to talk about. Obviously, asking where anyone lived or what they did for a living – two of my preferred get-to-know-you inquiries – were out of the question. (I later learned that many of the adults did have jobs; homeless and jobless are not synonymous by any means.) “What grade are you in?” seemed rude, because I didn’t know if the kiddos were currently attending school. I even felt uncomfortable with my “standby” small-talk topics, like favorite movies or books or restaurants, because it seemed wildly presumptuous of me to assume that anyone could easily afford to go to the movies – but, likewise, presumptuous to assume that they couldn’t afford to go to the movies simply because they were living in the shelter. I didn’t even know if asking about favorite sports teams or television shows was appropriate because I had no idea how often they could watch TV or keep up with their favorite players.

It was very strange, this no-man’s conversation land… Every topic that came into my head made me feel like I would either wind up sounding like a spoiled, clueless asshole – or like I felt sorry for or disapproved of them. Yes, they were homeless (something to which I cannot relate), but they were still so very human (something we, um, share in common)… and yet my liberal, socially progressive self didn’t know what to talk about.

As the crafting session came to an end, S. suggested that we play a game; after a vote, Bingo emerged the winner. You guys, this was no rinky-dink operation but a full-scale GAME — cards for everyone, colored markers, a spinny wire basket with Bingo balls and a large board on which to store them after they’d been chosen and called. It was on.

Our own girls didn’t get Bingo cards, instead helping the other children with their boards or simply cheering people on. It started off slowly, with a few disappointed groans as unpopular numbers were called (“Aw man, I don’t have B-13. I have B-14!”), but then it began to pick up speed. As one of our Scout’s fathers – the only dad in attendance – called out the numbers in his rich, booming baritone voice and each five-in-a-row was achieved with the jubilant “BINGO!” being declared, whoops and hollers erupted throughout the room as the victors thrust their fists triumphantly into the air. Every winner received a prize from the relatively sizable prize box, which our Scouts insisted on carrying/lugging themselves from table to table, commenting supportively on each selection (“That car is so cool!” “Ooh, crayons – I love to color, too!”).

It soon became apparent that we were going to continue playing until every child got at least one Bingo; we would not stop until everyone had won. As the games went on and the atmosphere became more electric, S. came over to me and whispered, “I know this is taking a long time, but over the four years that I’ve been running these parties, we’ve found that they really do make a difference.” 

I was about to comment that, of course, the parties made a difference when S. continued, “I mean the games themselves – they make a difference. Whenever our residents come back to visit us years later, we ask them how they’re doing, what they remember. And every single one of them says that they remember playing Bingo. Not just that it was so joyful while they played – it was, yes – but also that it was one of only a handful of truly happy memories from that time. When they looked back over their mental rolodex of good things – you know, like we all do, like how you and I recall a vacation or going to the beach as something positive when we’re going through a rough patch? Well, these folks don’t have vacations, but they do have Bingo. They tell us that the memory of Bingo games is what they call upon when they’re struggling… so we will keep playing this game until everybody has had a chance to win so that we can keep this magic alive for as long as we can.”

That was the first time I had to hold back tears.

When Bingo was over and the prize box had been thoroughly examined by every kiddo, it was time to eat. We made sure that each table was cleared and that each child kept his or her crafts. As I looked over the bookmarks clutched possessively in their little fists, it occurred to me that many of these children might not even have a book in which to place their bookmark… but I didn’t have much time to contemplate this sad reality because help was needed in handing out the cupcakes and juice.

The frosting we’d chosen was absolutely, fantastically neon-bright. The juice boxes were small, but still, they were juice – containing sugar and all of the other stuff that, you know, juice contains. We had more than enough for everyone to have at least two, which we happily doled out, but I couldn’t help but think, “Man, we’re giving these kids a lot of junk tonight. Artificial colors and sweeteners and HFCS and who knows what other crap. I wonder how their parents feel about…”

And then it dawned on me: these parents do not have a home right now. They can afford very, very little; many – most? – cannot afford to feed their children. So actually, I’d guess that they feel pretty damned excited and happy that their sons and daughters get to have not one but two cupcakes and juice boxes tonight, to be able to give their babies juice in their bottles… because it’s food. Food is important. Food is good.

Earlier in the day, a friend of mine had shared an article on Facebook about seemingly child-friendly foods that we should “never” feed our children. I’d read it and found myself shaking my head in disgust at the foods to which I’d been subjecting Ella and Annie, from Goldfish to GoGurt. I’d vowed to look even more closely at what I feed them; like many families I know, we’ve already all but eliminated HFCS and food dyes, we make sure they drink soda and juice very sparingly, and we buy products made with as few (easily pronounceable) ingredients as possible… but we can do better, damn it!

It had never before occurred to me what an incredible luxury it is to feed my children healthily. To be able to worry about how much juice they drink. To be concerned with how much sugar they consume rather than worry that they won’t get enough food to keep them from being hungry. To be able to afford something other than juice for my baby’s bottle. We are positively spoiled – and I hadn’t even realized it. (This doesn’t mean that we’re gonna go stock up on Cheetos and Fanta. Because I do have the luxury of worrying about what my girls eat, I’ll still continue feeding them as well as I can… but wow. Perspective really is something. And, hey, maybe the judgment I’ve passed over the years when I see people feeding their kids less-than-stellar meals could be adjusted. Just a smidge.)

While everyone was digging into the celebratory bounty, S. began handing out the actual birthday presents – gift bags filled to the brim with items for every birthday kid. One boy was turning seven. One girl had just turned fourteen. Another I mistook for an adult; I assumed that her child was the one celebrating a birthday. But no, I now realize that she, herself, was not yet eighteen… So, even though she was a mama already, she was being honored at the children’s party. She may not have felt much like a kid anymore, but she certainly deserved to be treated like she was important and cared for just like the rest, if only for a day. Or an hour.

And then there was the baby. She was turning one in three days. One.

I remembered my own girls’ first birthdays – just simple, family celebrations (no full-on parties like many of our friends had done; we didn’t know that many people locally!), but still… They were special. I giddily made chocolate cakes because, according to our pediatrician, they could eat chocolate starting at 12 months. We bought presents – loads of them. We sang. We took countless photos. I spent hours painstakingly making birthday videos – because one is important, you know? Your baby’s first birthday? A milestone.

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But here was this little girl celebrating in the shelter. Because she didn’t have a home. Turning one in the shelter.

And I felt my heart just kind of crumple into pieces. This time, I couldn’t hold back the tears.

I did turn around to compose myself, however, because it somehow felt very inappropriate to cry in front of everyone, because of everyone, as though I were looking at a motivational poster. “You! The underprivileged! Your plight has moved me! I see things differently now because I have witnessed your struggle! I am saddened by what you are going through! You have given me the gift of perspective! Thank you for sharing your challenges with me!” 

It also felt wrong to cry for them. “How difficult this must be! I don’t know how you’re able to do this! You must be so broken down! My heart aches for you!” Yes, the residents at that shelter needed help. They needed compassion. They needed someone to listen. But no one needed my tears at that birthday party. They needed smiles and Bingo and cupcakes and juice and more smiles. So I got myself together and turned back just in time to see S. hauling out a milk crate filled to the brim with books.

Books. For every single child.

AND OMG THE TEARS AGAIN STOP IT STOP IT STOP IT.

You guys, when these kids saw the books… They honestly didn’t quite know what to do. Some were thrilled, others seemed bewildered (“My own book? Seriously?”), but everyone had the opportunity to take a brand new tome – or several – with them. They had a place to put their bookmarks. Suddenly, the overflowing bookshelves in our own home – the ones whose disarray I’ve bemoaned, on whom dust has gathered – seemed practically indulgent.

While the parents and kiddos munched on their cupcakes and admired their new books and chatted with our daughters (there were more than enough cupcakes for our girls to have one, too; they were ecstatic – and I, for once, could not have cared less about the neon frosting), the other Girl Scout moms and I flitted from table to table, clearing trash, engaging in conversation, making sure everyone had had their fill. For much of the last hour, Annie and her friend, A, had been sitting on either side of one of the residents – a little girl who appeared to be roughly their age. They’d oohed and ahhhed over her crafts, cheered her on during Bingo, and had eaten their cupcakes together.

All of a sudden, Annie motioned for A to get up from their seats and have a whispered conversation behind the other little girl’s back. They conferenced vigorously, shaking their heads emphatically, and were just returning to their original places beside this girl as I began to make my way over to chide Annie for her lack of manners. (Telling secrets! Behind someone else! HAVE I TAUGHT YOU NOTHING!!) Before I could say anything, however, Annie and A looked at one another, shrugged as if to say, “If it’s okay with you, it’s okay with me,” and then asked in tandem, “So… do you want to be our friend?”

I’m pretty sure their new friend said yes but I can’t be certain BECAUSE OF THE TEARS THAT HAD AGAIN OVERTAKEN MY EYEBALLS.

I really felt like I could burst. Here were these kids, these strangers – some ridiculously privileged, others without a roof over their heads. They had just met an hour ago. And yet, there they were… friends. They were in second grade and they liked the color blue and they loved to laugh and do art and eat cupcakes and so, by God… friends. The rest – socioeconomic status, race, where they went to school, what clothing they wore, where they went on vacation or if they even could go on vacation or any of the other stuff that we (and by “we” I mean my own friends and myself) get so caught up in – meant absolutely nothing. Or at least not nearly enough to not be friends. It was really something.

When I turned around again, Annie and A and their new buddy were nowhere to be seen; they – and the other Girl Scouts – had absconded into the hallway and were showing off their cartwheels. And giggling. And running and hollering and having the grandest time of all. Part of me wanted to tell them to calm down, to lower their voices, not to disturb anyone… But I caught myself before I interceded because this was a celebration, damn it, and joy is not something you should contain; it’s something you should share.

While they played, I tidied – and tried (in vain) to take in all that I’d seen. It was more than I could consider, though, and I kept coming back to the people themselves. To the parents of the baby who was turning one and their outright astonishment when they opened her birthday gift bag and saw half a dozen brand new outfits for their little girl. To the other one year-old at their table, the little girl with the swollen eye who’d just returned from the ER where she’d spent the last three days, having bitten into a Tide pod (you know, the kind that you put in the washing machine) that, she decided, looked like a toy.

I thought of her parents, how exhausted and relieved they seemed after having been in and out of the hospital, blaming themselves for their daughter’s injury (despite the fact that, I was told, the ER sees 1-2 cases each week of children who have monkeyed with laundry and dishwasher detergent packets that then exploded in their faces. When you think about it, those little pods do look like toys. I know my own girls have touched them; how easily it could have been us…). The husband recounted how frantic he’d been when he received the call at work (yes, again, homeless people can have jobs); the wife told me she was so grateful to “make a memory” with her daughter doing these crafts and eating the cupcakes.

I thought of the three little girls in their gloriously-colored hijabs and how they were so genuinely thrilled for one another when one of them got a Bingo. I thought of the boy who was turning seven and how his mom told him to thank all of us for giving him a birthday celebration – and how he chose to thank us by doling out hugs. I thought of his sister, whose face I recognized the moment she sat down but who I couldn’t quite place. It stumped me; I wasn’t just familiar with her – I knew her. I’d spent time with her.

But… when? How could it even be possible that I knew this girl? Where on earth would I have come across her?

At last, I remembered: school. Teaching. My long-term sub job last year. This beautiful, cheerful girl with the mega-watt smile had been one of my 7th grade music students. She had come and gone with her classmates, completed all of her assignments on time (and well), participated openly in class, and had just been – you know – one of the gang. The idea that she had no home was more than I could wrap my head around.

The questions wouldn’t stop… how? When? What happened? I noticed nothing last year that would have told me her family was struggling. Were they, then, and I just never knew? Did something change? I  mean, I teach in middle-class schools where students sport gleaming backpacks and new clothes and shiny lunch boxes. How is it even possible that some of those kids are homeless?

We talked; she said she knew me from somewhere but couldn’t recall where. When I reminded her that I’d been her music teacher, she gasped with recognition. “Oh yeah! I totally remember that now!”

It was her smile that gave her away; ear-to-ear, real, gorgeous. Whether they’d arrived at the shelter that week or last month or whether they’d been bouncing from place to place since last year, I don’t know. Whether they’ve struggled financially for a long time or whether an emergency situation took them from their home, I have no idea. I do know that, regardless of whatever else was going on, whatever led her family to the shelter, she kept on smiling – not on the surface, but way deep down. I obviously have a lot to learn from her.

All too soon, it was time for us to pack up and head out. As we gathered the leftover streamers and cupcakes, Annie and A’s new friend came over and gave me a full-body hug. “Thank you for the party!” While we all shouted our good-byes and nice-to-meet-yous, she came up again, saying, “I can’t remember – did I already give you a hug?” I told her that she had, but that if she wanted to, I’d love another. Her face lit up. “I love hugs!” Her arms only reached around my waist, but it was definitely my heart that felt the squeeze.

S. walked us to our cars, thanking us for coming out and providing all of the supplies. As we attempted to protest, she held up her hand. “I know – you want to thank me. I tell people this is always what happens; you think that you’re coming here to give back, but when all is said and done, you feel like you’re the ones who received the gifts. That’s why this place has birthday parties booked out for more than a year from now! Everyone wants to feel as incredible as you all do right now!”

Incredible is one word for it.
The others… Well, I don’t even know.

How do you find the words to describe an experience that made you reevaluate your life? How do you sum up what it meant to see everything you have, who you are, what you’re doing on this planet, from a completely different perspective? How do you attempt to gather your thoughts about something that has humbled you, made you cry, and prompted you to see your fellow human beings in a new light?

I guess you don’t.
Instead, you – I – vow that, from now on, I will appreciate more. I will let more roll off my back. I will be kind, be kind, be kind – because, seriously, you never know what someone is going through. I will view the other people with whom I share this planet – this town, this school – as humans, not statistics, not problems waiting to be fixed. Just humans, like us all, who sometimes – hell, a lot of times – need a little help.

(Also, I will write a ridiculously long blog post about it – but, really, how else was I to share this with you?)

And to think that this night never would have happened if our glorious group of Girl Scout slacker moms hadn’t decided that it might be good for our daughters to help out; to see what it’s like – just for an evening – to live a life that’s completely unlike their own, where rent and food stamps are a regular part of the vocabulary; to get outside of themselves for just a moment and maybe make a change…

I never imagined it would be I who would come away from that evening feeling so changed. Maybe we’re not such slackers* after all.

* we totally still are.
Even slackers can make things happen when we work together and have our hearts in the right place. That shelter is some place, y’all. Wow.