new york city kid in arkansas
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Christmas Break is like first falling in love.  You can’t possibly sustain all the wonderful feelings in everyday normal life, but it sure is fun for a time.  We have been overeating, overdrinking, oversleeping, overhiking, overtalking and overlaughing for over a week now.  I think I’m developing bed sores from sleeping in every morning and pruney skin syndrome from too many bubble baths. There’s a Danish word for cozy called “hygge” (pronounced hue-guh) that perfectly describes the essence of what I aspire to be at all times, and I think we’ve even outhygged ourselves. We’ve sung carols, lit our Advent wreathe, opened presents, looked at lights, watched movies, rented a cabin, sat by fires, mourned celebrities, read books, climbed a mountain, made cookies, ate cookies, opened cards, enjoyed St. Louis visitors and played with our new toys. Sunny received two large bones in her stocking and has spent the week burying them, digging them up, and burying them again, over and over, delaying her gratification for another time unlike the rest of us. If I never eat another chocolate morsel, salted carmel or toffee treat I will be happy.

Easy & uneventful January, like a wonderful old marriage, we are almost ready for you.

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Home for Christmas has a new meaning for us, now that we have our very own home on Anne Street, and if you’re picturing us in patterned sweaters all warm and cozy in front of the fireplace where the stockings are hung by the chimney with care, you are exactly right (though we don’t always stay in that pose). The days leading up to Christmas have found Troy warming cinnamon on the stovetop, watching the birds flock to our feeder out the dining room window, and sweetly delivering our cookies (covered in Huck’s homemade frosting) and cards to new neighbors. Huck, now a vegetarian, apologized to Troy for messing up the turkey Christmas dinner plans and Troy answered, “Huck, if you really stick to being a vegetarian like your mom, you’re going to spend your life apologizing to people.  You will never have to apologize to us.” Me, I keep wrapping presents and running errands and typing the words of prisoners and convincing Huck to watch another episode of “Lost” (we’re up to 3!), so thankful for great big breaks with our son who is just as sweet as his dad.

Merry Christmas, wherever you are!

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Last week Huck began to crack, showing signs of middle school anxiety by occasionally dropping things and shouting, “I’m just too stressed out!” His brief tantrums are like tiny versions of mine, as if he’s a crank-pot in training without coming close to the master’s skills. I always get a secret kick out of his stress attacks because they’re so short-lived.  I’m positive as soon as he walks out the door he’s forgotten the upcoming piano recital, the Math Olympiad national test and the school spelling bee.  To be a true ball of stress, one needs to keep these problems in one’s heart at every moment. He’s not like that.

Thursday evening Huck and I sat down to study his words for the next day’s spelling bee.  The lights were low, as they usually are in our cozy living room, and because the font is small and because I’m 46, I could not exactly see the words, nor did I know how to pronounce most of them.  In order to read the words on the paper I had to take off my glasses, but to type the word into for the pronunciation I had to put my glasses back on.  This went on for a while with my blood pressure rapidly increasing. The word “prestidigitation” finally was the last straw for me, and practically throwing the paper across the dark room I shouted: “Turn on the lights!  This list is ridiculous!  Why would you kids need to spell these words?  Half of them are French!  I can’t even see in here!” It felt a little like George Bailey’s Christmas Eve tirade.

While I respect the idea behind spelling bees and the kind of children it attracts (wonderfully brainy, nerdy types that are my favorite), I have to wonder who invented such a tortuous idea.  Standing on a stage at a microphone spelling words out loud?  Why?  Why do we do this?  Why do we do this to our mothers who have to sit in the audience with no control, watching their babies under such unnatural pressure?  Why must we watch other mother’s babies fail and walk off the stage with their heads held low?  It’s my least favorite part of motherhood, but somehow I am always the parent who has to attend. Luckily I have my friend Padma always sitting next to me, sometimes squeezing my hand, always with the same nauseous feeling, because our sons are always among the last ones standing. In fact, her son Ravi got that awful word and spelled it with ease.

In the end Huck won the spelling bee with his best friend Ravi right behind him. As I let out a very long sigh of relief that it was over, that my stomach could return to its regular state, that my heart could stop pounding through my sweater, Huck ran up to me, plopped his big body onto my lap and handed me the gigantic packet of study words for the county bee in January.

Oh, God.

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There’s a nightmare scene in “It’s a Wonderful Life” when George Bailey, a man who always put his desires behind the greater good of his neighbors and fellow citizens, discovers that his humble town of Bedford Falls has been transformed into a loud, violent city called Pottersville, under the leadership of a selfish and rich buffoon who “hates everybody that has anything that he can’t have.” For those of us who have memorized every line of that Christmas classic, it’s an almost unbearable scene. We know goodness will prevail, love will win in the end, but that 20 minutes of George Bailey getting to see the world without him feels like four years.

Every December I pull up my address labels in preparation for Troy’s Christmas card, and every year there are always a few names to delete because of death and divorce and a few names to add because of birth, marriage and new friends. It always pulls at my heartstrings, the way things can change in a year.  Troy is most sentimental about our 25 years worth of ornaments, keeping track of our collection on an old piece of paper in a red hard cover Santa book, reading the list of every single ornament as Huck and I begin hanging them on the tree. He even keeps a ziplock baggie of pine needles from our past trees, sprinkling them onto the new one, hoping to blend in the past with the present. Over Thanksgiving we found a five-year diary that belonged to Troy’s grandma, who began recording little moments of her life in 1942, the year she became pregnant with Troy’s mom.  Each date had space for five years of entries, but the book is sadly empty as she stopped writing sometime in 1943, probably because of the demands of motherhood. “Gene Twyford” was one of the names deleted from my address labels last week, but she also added two antique ornaments to our collection, blending her past with our present.  Troy wrote in the Santa Book: “2016 – Pine cone ornaments – one with cardinals, one with rabbits.  G-ma Gene.”

After watching “It’s a Wonderful Life” last night, some New York friends made the startling realization that 62 million Americans just voted for Mr. Potter, unimaginably choosing Pottersville over Bedford Falls. Back in mid-July I posted Hilary Clinton’s campaign slogan as my Facebook profile pic, and there it still sits as a reminder, a remnant from the past that will take me into the future.  I’ll put up our ornaments, I’ll sign our cards, and just like last month and many before that, I’ll remember that I’m still with her, I’m still with Standing Rock, I’m still with the immigrant, the poor, the prisoner, the non-straight, the non-white, the non-Christian and everyone else who isn’t like me. Because this white, middle-aged, middle-class, lefty Episcopalian from Arkansas by way of New York City thinks that’s actually what the little event in Bethlehem was all about.

Merry Christmas, Bedford Falls.

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As I begin the process of putting the words of women prisoners into a Google Doc for our February reading, I came across this a couple days after Thanksgiving …

I fear the abnormalness of my family,
I fear the ordinariness of my family,
although I’ve learned normal is an illusion.
What’s normal for the spider is chaos for the fly.
When life was what seemed upside down and twisted around
was when I found the most love and comfort in a rainbow or sunset
as if God was showing me what to focus on.

We were in Kansas when I typed those words, happily sitting alone at my sister inlaw’s dining room table while the rest of the family watched a holiday movie. I could hear their laughter from downstairs, making me pause at the juxtaposition of it all. I had my own rainbow and sunset moments during our time away, trying to focus less on the upside-down twisted-around world that has made me feel more sad than thankful these last few weeks. My sunsets were sipping wine with my dad around the firepit, taking a brisk fall walk on a trail I didn’t know existed in my hometown with my husband, son & dog, watching a Hallmark Christmas movie with my mom on her birthday, snuggling with my niece and nephew, going through Troy’s grandma’s treasures, a Saturday afternoon nature walk with my inlaws, and taking in the beauty of Christmas lights with family from both sides all mixed together. There was much laughter, love and absolute avoidance of the political reality that must have been on all of our hearts and minds.

For this, I am oh so thankful.

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This has been a painful season of president-electing for us. Never have I wished I could un-hear such hateful words and mean ideas as I have over the past few months. For parents attempting to raise children in a world that rejects bullying, sexism and racism in favor of love and compassion, it has been impossible to explain how someone like Donald Trump could get this far.  Last night felt tragic, this morning like a nightmare.

But then Huck, who has become passionately political during this election, received an email from his friend’s dad, and since it finally released all the terrified, angry and heartbreaking tears I’ve been on the brink of shedding since June, I thought it belonged here. This afternoon I am thankful for friends most of all.

To Huck, Esmé & Maren:

I wanted to share this with you today. You three, plus your group of friends, are extraordinary and I love you guys.  I don’t want to see you discouraged and I don’t want you to feel defeated. Last night was tough. We’re sad. It was truly unthinkable that Trump could win. But he did, of course. Now what do we do? That’s the question I’ve been asking.

I spoke to my friend, Ted last night. We went to architecture school together. He lives in Virginia.  Sometimes we don’t talk to each other for a whole year or more, but he’s my good friend anyway.  We both felt confident and happy that Hillary would win. We wished each other luck and promised to see each other soon. This morning, he sent me the following text:

“Let this inspire us to seek the best in ourselves and to do our best work.”

That was a good thing for me to consider on this scary and discouraging morning. I wanted to share it with you along with a few of my thoughts on what that might mean.

I suggest we have more of these things. I hope you’ll join me:

1. More time with friends, sleepovers, and spontaneous opportunities to hang out, movies, plays, meet-ups, roller skating, you name it. Let’s have some fun!

2. More independence – you guys are getting old enough to begin doing more things together on your own. Let’s explore some possibilities.

3. More time in nature.  Let’s get outside. Let’s go camping or take a hike. It’s a beautiful world. Sometimes I get too focused on the problems. It’s always good for the heart to get out and breathe.

4. More of your best work – I am in awe of the creative force that you and your group of friends possess.  You guys are like wizards in training or something! I’m not joking!  I see the ways you interact and it inspires me every day! So work and play. Do your boring, tedious homework, do it quickly, do it well, and get it out of the way so you can get to the real high-value work of drawing, writing, acting, performing, singing, exploring, making.  You do that so naturally and those are the most important things! When you nurture expression, you nurture yourself.

5. More compassion – support each other and your friends.  Be kind and look for people that may feel excluded.  There’s a lot of talk right now about ‘them and they.’  ‘They’ are dangerous.  ‘They’ come across the border and take our jobs.‘They’ are not like us.  We should be afraid of ‘them.’  Nope. We are all human and we are all unique. Don’t allow anyone to be excluded because of who they are. We’re better than that. The only distinction I observe among us is that there are those of us who live in fear and those who choose love.  Love is the root of courage and compassion.

6. Talk to your parents or Stacey or me any time. I can only speak for myself. I’m an old dude. I may be the only one that gets my jokes. But I’m here and I’ve seen a lot and I think a lot. If you’re feeling unsure about anything and would like to ask me what I think, I’d be honored to share my perspective with you. Also, I’m sure your parents would offer the same to any of you.

I also recommend less of a few things too:

1. Don’t focus on news media – especially network and cable news.  Understand that by holding your attention, they can sell advertising to corporations.  And they use fear (see item 5 above) to hold your attention. It is a distraction from your most important work (see item 4! – see how this is working?). When I want to watch things, it’s YouTube Maker videos for me, baby! Jimmy DiResta, Laura Kampf.  I can’t get enough!

2. Don’t focus on what Trump’s doing (or anyone else for that matter).  Rather, focus on what you’re going to do (See item 4 again!). Maybe think of it in terms of what you’re doing in contrast to what the world is focusing on. While all of that fear and angst is channeled on things that are unproductive, you can make the world more beautiful and compassionate.

3. Don’t be afraid. This world is beautiful and you’re living at the best time in its history. Just before Maren was born, which, obviously was around the same time you all came into this world, I was very discouraged and afraid.  I told a friend that I didn’t know what kind of world my little girl would arrive to find.  My friend got very serious with me and told me something that I try to remember always.  She said, “Look around you, look at the people around you, look at the places around you. Everywhere you see beauty and love.  We are safe and warm at night. We have the incredible privilege to do our best work and care for each other in our families and community. Don’t let anyone distract you from that. Your daughter will arrive in a beautiful time and place.”  It’s really true in so many ways.

You’re fantastic! I’m lucky to know you! If anybody moves to Canada, be prepared for me to visit.  I’d like one of those big furry hats and an impossibly large-pattern red and black plaid woolen shirt – maybe some of those knee-high moccasins too (with my woolen pants tucked-in).  I’ll grow out my beard like the ZZ Top guys.  You’ll feel proud walking down the street with me.  Think about that.

Now, let’s do cool stuff!

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The night before Halloween Huck and I were reminiscing about something from pre-K and so began the search through my photo album collection (which grew exponentially right around 2005) to find the pictures from the memory, which is so much better than going through a computer.  Huck got sidetracked looking through one of the many, many books, and after discovering how cute he and his friends used to be he sweetly sighed, “Ohhh, Mom, thank you for doing all these.” On behalf of moms everywhere, in my heart I secretly fainted with my tongue hanging out of my mouth and my arms splayed out on the floor for a few seconds before regaining my composure and saying, “You’re welcome.”

Here are some October pictures for the next album, to be appreciated in about seven years.

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The leaves are falling, falling as if from far up,
as if orchards were dying high in space.
Each leaf falls as if it were motioning “no.”

And tonight the heavy earth is falling
away from all other stars in the loneliness.

We’re all falling. This hand here is falling.
And look at the other one. It’s in them all.

And yet there is someone, whose hands
infinitely calm, holding up all this falling.

-Rainer Maria Wilke  (translation by Robert Bly)

This most glorious time of the year has found the three of us planting tulips, a dogwood tree and brand new grass in our backyard as we delay our gratification for springtime beauty. I’m all about the passing of time and the changing of seasons, and so for me to cover those bulbs with dirt, knowing that deep inside lurks my very favorite flower, was as magical as the blooming of our Autumn Joy succulent that we brought from my parents’ Kansas yard back in May. As far as instant gratifcation goes, there have been many morning and evening fires, progress on Huck’s costume, pumpkin picking, and even glow-in-the-dark bocce ball & checkers around a fire pit. And like most of you, we’ve tried to reject the political hatred that our country is spewing in favor of loving kindness, walking the dog, avoiding Facebook rants, volunteering, planting things, practicing the piano, doing sun salutations and saying some prayers. I wonder what God does with all the opposing desires being begged of him these days? Huck says maybe it’s like a vote, that the prayer themes of the majority are the ones that are heard. Hurry, everyone.  Pray for more autumn joy and tulips to fill this heavy earth!

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Huck and I had this last week off together, he because of his school’s unusual schedule and me because sometimes it feels like we have about 20 more minutes left of his childhood. These days have to be cherished, even during the mundane, like reorganizing his tiny bedroom so that he has more space for his math notebooks, compasses, pencils, Sharpies, protractors and other accessories. In the process we came across many remnants from the past, including page after page of “Mommy’s Top Notch Mazes for Huck,” which were in fact very low-grade, and homemade secret codes in awkward 5 year old handwriting that when solved all say a variation of the “I love you Mommy and Daddy” theme. I find it easier to move forward when I take an afternoon to remember days gone by.

Inspired by my sister and niece’s October tradition, we made our own Fall Bucket List on a chalkboard that used to be attached to Huck’s little kid easel.  We hung this nerd-out sign in our garage and finally began to cross items off during our lazy days together this week.  I’m bracing myself for this to be the last Halloween fully celebrated with a child in our midst, but then again we may drag this out for another decade.  Though Huck’s math and logic brain is several years more advanced than my own, his sentimental heart is always a few years behind most kids, which evens us out to be roughly the same age. Mostly this week we stayed in our pajamas hours longer than usual, but we also enjoyed dinner with friends, movies, debate bingo for social studies extra credit, St. Paul’s youth group for the first time, scooter riding, a literary magazine launch party, a spontaneous mid-week slumber party, hours of practicing a Beethoven sonatina, building an FM Radio using Snap Circuits® so we could listen to NPR the old fashioned way, Power Math at the library, a campfire with s’mores, and a never-ending nine acre top notch corn maze by the light of the moon & iPhones.

I took Huck and one of his many only-child friends to see the delightful movie “Storks” one sunny afternoon, and I felt kind of funny sitting next to the two of them as the story unfolded of a lonely only child ordering a little brother so he’d have a playmate.  I mentioned this to Huck later and he said, “Yeah, but that kid has two parents who work constantly and never spend time with him.” I gave a little sigh of relief that at least this week that cannot be said of us.

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For a while now I’ve found myself running late, frazzled, hair a mess, forgetting things and apologizing while implying that we’re not usually like this. After many recurring incidents, I’ve come to the disappointing conclusion that we are, in fact, usually like this.  This is the new me, the new us. We are working parents of a tween and no longer civilized.  One of our favorite family stories comes from a couple summers ago when Troy was having a bad day and a little girl sadly said to him, “Sometimes Mr. Troy just isn’t Mr. Troy.”  I like to say that about all three of us sometimes.

For instance, didn’t I use to write blog entries every few days or weeks?  Since last I wrote, Troy ran and closed a wonderful show at TheatreSquared called “All the Way” about LBJ and the passing of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 which has disturbing relevance today. It isn’t easy watching Troy play a racist senator from Mississippi (James Eastland) or the man basically responsible for the Vietnam War (Robert McNamara), but luckily he’s usually Mr. Troy when he’s home. Huck suddenly decided he had to see Troy’s closing performance, making the surprisingly selfless decision to forego bowling with a friend in favor of sitting through a three hour political drama. While he was a relatively good audience member, he did occasionally whisper questions to me like, “I’m just curious, what time does intermission happen?”

Over the past month we lost Internet and our ice maker for five days each and woke up one morning to a flood in our kitchen caused by a leak from the outdoor faucet.  You know Mercury is in retrograde for three weeks when you slowly slop through water and start the coffee with nary a confused facial expression, because by now you’re so accustomed to nothing working the way it’s supposed to.  ”Honey?” I said shaking Troy awake while drying my wet feet as the coffee began brewing. “Our kitchen floor is flooded.”

Next on our agenda is a staged reading of my favorite playwright John Walch’s play “Craving Gravy” by my favorite director Shana Gold at hotel/art museum 21C in Bentonville next weekend, followed by Troy’s reading of stories written by and performed for death row inmates at a prison in Varner, Arkansas.  In a few days Huck will perform five songs from “Music Man” at school, delighting us with his angelic voice and sudden love for musical theatre. Sunny continues to do nothing with her life, and we three are very jealous of her lazy days.

Usually we’re pretty full of gratitude for it all.