Sunday, December 28, 2014

Did you get my Christmas letter?

" For, lo, the days are hastening on, by prophet bards foretold, when with the ever-circling years, comes round the age of gold...":

"Come on, donkey, you can come in. Hi, King, you have a big vase.."

"...three types of muscle cells are smooth, Connecticut, and apple cereal..."

"...reunification of upper and lower Egypt by feral mayonnaise..."

Back in the day, back in my "before" time, I did a Christmas letter every year.  I really enjoyed the process of crafting a series of word-pictures of life around here: a reflection on some obscure verse of a Christmas carol, some funny things the kids said, a line or two about my latest misadventures and a determinedly cheerful report about Andre's activities.  There was a year when my description of the kids' latest homeschooling recitation included the term "feral mayonnaise" (um... Pharoah Menes, anyone?) --homeschooled kids say the darndest things, don't they?  And there was always a photo --often just the kids, but sometimes all six of us, in the Andre days.

And then everything changed in July, 2012, and I gave myself permission to pretty much skip anything Christmasy that felt like too much: hence, no letter, only the decorations that the kids wanted put up, including a real tree for the first time in many years, only the things that could be accomplished in short spurts of energy as I found it.  It was a decidedly odd Christmas, full of strange, poignant moments, but also some moments of genuine light.  I was still, in some ways, mostly numb, mostly still in shock.  But there weren't many demands placed on me that year.  We had tons of support -- one dear couple played Secret Santa to my kids and granted them wonderful wishes, our adopted clan of friends made sure we had someplace to be for Christmas day dinner.  We got through Christmas and bounced into the New Year with help from more of our adopted family, and I congratulated myself that we'd done it.  We'd survived our first Christmas post-loss and it would all get easier from here.

Christmas of 2013 had its moments of "this is just too much" as well as moments of genuine joy.  I'd been in school for more than 6 months, the kids appeared to be doing ok, as far as I could tell.  (It turns out I was missing a few clues, and things weren't quite so rosy.) I managed at one point in December to get all the kids into a photograph, print out those photo cards at Costco, and begin writing a Christmas letter... but I never got it done.  I promised myself, "next year, for sure".

And here we are at Christmas 2014, three Christmases after Andre's death, and I still haven't found the energy to come up with a Christmas letter.  It feels a little like the first two Christmases were perhaps a bit anesthetized by the lingering shock, and then this year, I got hit with the "blah', as in "shock and blah" (apologies to those Bush-era survivors who know what phrase I'm butchering).  I made a sincere effort this year -- I bought a tree on the weekend after Thanksgiving, the same weekend on which I made a visit to a dying friend, to be part of what was her very last party here on earth  (I'm sure she's now hosting some sparkling gatherings in Heaven, though.) And once I got the tree home that first Sunday in Advent, I asked the now-6-feet-tall teenager to hang the outdoor Christmas lights on the front of the house.  The tree eventually made it inside the house a few days later, and decorations happened, in bits and pieces over the next few days: ornaments, manger scenes, Santa Claus figures, a wreath on the door.  I made up a couple batches of my mom's Hermit recipe, and some Spritz cookies... and none of it felt in the slightest bit meaningful or real, but I did it and hoped that I would eventually warm to the season that I've always loved.  As in the past, there were moments of joy and light --mostly in the music that I sing with my beloved choir folks, but also in re-introducing my youngest child to "Mr. Willowby's Christmas Tree"--my childhood favorite book.  But still no "magic" for me... just a quiet acknowledgment that there is good to be found, and sometimes it's just "good", but not wonderful.  Maybe my super-enthusiastic self is growing up a bit. 

Somehow, we got to Christmas Day, and it was truly much, much lovelier than I could have hoped for, with a few simple gifts, kids who woke up in much better moods than the ones they'd shown the night before, and capped off by an evening Christmas dinner with the gathering of friends who have adopted us as family for the past few years.  My kids and I are truly blessed.  I have nothing to complain about.  We celebrated Christmas surrounded by good people who have become our family.  We made it through another Christmas with some help and the tincture of time. 

And then yesterday, December 27th, well before the unofficial "end" of the Christmas season--New Year's Day, I was suddenly just DONE with the tree, the clutter, and the feeling that I should be doing more to make it festive around here.  So, after checking-in with two of the four kids and getting their permission, I gave up waiting for the magical feelings to arrive.   I took the tree down and began putting away the holiday clutter, including the various shapes and sizes of nativity scenes that I have collected over the years.  I just longed to be able to re-arrange the furniture, to clean up the pine needles, to put away the kitschy stuff and think about how I'd like to enter 2015.  

Just before I cleaned up my favorite manger scene, it looked roughly like this:
 As I picked up the kings and the shepherds and began wrapping them in their tissue-paper padding,  I began to think about the words of a poem by Howard Thurman, that I sang with my choir folks this season: 

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flock,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among brothers,
To make music in the heart

-The Work of Christmas, by Howard Thurman

So, as my shepherds and kings, sheep, camels, Mary, Joseph, Baby Jesus and all the others go back into their tissue-filled home boxes for another 11 months, maybe it's time for me to quit wishing I'd feel the magic of Christmas, and to start thinking about the ways I could be doing The Work of Christmas.  

All packed up and ready to go in the plastic tote for another year. Let the work of Christmas begin ! 
I've always been way better with an assignment that is practical and concrete, anyway.  

 Merry Christmas, dear ones who read this.  And all my best wishes for a 2015 that is filled with love, with life and with the ability to appreciate what is all around us in each shining moment we have.

And please forgive me that, once again, there's no Christmas letter from me in your mailboxes.  Maybe next year. 

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Roses DO come back after pruning (or "3 Weddings and No Funerals yet")

I was out in the garden late one afternoon recently, taking a break from my usual flurry of "drive the minivan, drive the minivan, drive the minivan... study... go to the minivan"... because I needed to prune the roses yet again.  I gave those bushes a really serious cut-down in late August, when everything looked shriveled, and then another cut-down in early October, and yet, their optimistic beauty keeps coming back.  They bloom, they shrivel, they get cut back. And then, while I'm busy going about the rest of life... they come back.

 It got me thinking about some really drought-resistant, late-blooming people in my life lately. 

It was an interesting summer in terms of the social scene. I've been to THREE weddings, and I've got in-hand an invitation to a bridal shower for a bride who will tie the knot in December.

Most of the people in my friend-set had their kids in their late 20's and into their 30's, and so our kids are not yet at the getting married stage.  And you wouldn't expect there to be many weddings of people my age. But still, there is it is -- three weddings this summer.

The folks in my age group have all been married for decades...

Except for the ones who aren't.

At that includes several people who had thought they'd never be married, for various reasons,

one who had no idea she'd find love in her 70's,

and two more who'd thought they'd never marry again.

With each wedding announcement, there's been laughter and broad smiles, and a different kind of delight from the the kind that accompanies those breathless 20-somethings, with their blissful ignorance of what lies ahead.  The feeling I've had as I've gotten the wedding invitations this summer has been a mixture of joy and admiration: joy that at last, these relationships have come to the place of celebrating their love publicly, and an admiration for the way these remarkable people have lived life to this point. 

One of these couples consists of two 50-ish women who, in their 20's probably never dreamed that they'd one day stand in the living room of a lovely wine-country house and make their vows to each other, in the company of family and friends.

Another couple consisted of a man and a woman who'd each been in two previous marriages, and had endured painful, life-altering divorces, and had spent a number of years together quietly "testing" to see if what they had would last.  It has.

The story of She and He is even more surprising.  She is a brilliant scientist and educator. She's got a Ph.D. and blonde, blue-eyed, California-girl good looks.  When her biological clock was ticking really loudly, and Mr.Right just hadn't appeared yet, she decided to pursue her dream of being a parent, even though it meant single parenthood.  Some people around her warned her that adopting kids meant that she was cutting down on her chances to find that special man.  But she felt God prompting her to make a home for two terrific boys who needed a Mom. She and those boys found each other, bonded, and marched ahead through life as a family of three who faced the challenges of special health needs, life in a single parent home, and thrived.  And then one day, She reconnected via Facebook with He, a quick-witted, kind, handy guy she'd known decades before as a marching-band friend in college... throw in lots of late-night online chatting, several very inconveniently situated dates involving road trips between Northern and Southern California, a Valentine's Day proposal on the Golden Gate Bridge and...

Fast forward to August of 2014:
Yup.  They are now Mr. and Mrs. Hyphenated Last Names, with two boys to raise and the rest of their lives to revel in how God's timing is not constrained by conventional wisdom.

So, these days as I watch Winter move closer, the daylight getting shorter, the rain (halleluja!!) finally start, and the last of my 1964 cohort reach the half-century club with me, I am holding onto the idea that the prunings of the past couple years will lead to some blossoming in my own life.  I just have to let go of the idea that I have any control over that timing.  

And in the meantime, it's time to fire-up the Mom-taxi, right after I chuck a load of laundry in the machine, turn the soup down to "simmer", and finish a couple of response papers for class... 


Sunday, August 17, 2014

Do you want to build a sandcastle?

The other question that I've often answered the wrong way is, "Are you coming in with us, Mom?"

 My usual answer is, "No thanks.  Not today.  You guys go ahead, though.  I'll be right here."

 And you can see why, right?  I've got the chair (slightly in the shade, as my Irish-pale skin just doesn't do full sun very well), plus the picnic cooler, the extra sunscreen, the towels, the big blanket for all the drippy, sand-caked, shell-sorting, seaweed-fighting post-swim creatures to sprawl on, once it's lunchtime: the perfect place to hold down the fort.

 And then there's my thighs, and other things that jiggle...  and what my hair will look like once it's wet, and the part about getting all sandy all over after swimming...

Yup.  I have all the right reasons for opting out, right? I mean, I even brought a book.  And there's always my phone to check, and knitting and... well, you get the idea.

But the other day, listening to someone talk about their childhood,  I heard this, as tears ran down the person's face,

"I never built a sandcastle with my mom. And she never came in swimming with us.  She pretty much missed my whole childhood."  

Yes, it's a leap from "no sandcastles" and "no swimming" to "she missed my whole childhood", but to that person, at that moment, that's how it FELT.  Someone's mom just couldn't or wouldn't allow herself to get all covered in mud and sand, to march that imperfect figure right down to the water's edge and plunge in, turning her 'do into a wet mop. 

And I totally get it.  How many times since I entered motherhood have I sat by the side of the pool, or in the beach chair, never once getting in the water?   I mean, it's cold, and it's gritty, and it gets everywhere, and everybody can see me... and what if I got all ugly, and then we had to go somewhere on the way home, like the grocery store?

When my kids were tiny, I somehow managed to get wet and sandy even on days when we *weren't* at the beach... But then the kids all got potty trained, and learned to walk steadily, and talk, and swim, and dig holes in the sand, and they seemed really ok with just my supervision from a short distance away.  And it was so nice to just sit there and watch, or knit, or gab on the phone.  It's nice.  It's relaxing, like a vacation.

But I almost missed someone's whole childhood.  Maybe.  So, today, on the 8th birthday of my youngest child, I arrived at the beach with my kids;  me wearing my comfy swimsuit (yes, I have a comfy swimsuit... they exist--that's a whole 'nother blog post)  slathered with sunscreen, equipped with a rash-guard shirt that would keep my chest, arms, and shoulders from getting all lobster-y.  And I got in that chilly water, dodged the bits of seaweed, laughed at the kids' homemade floating toy: a t-shirt wrapped around a beachball and dubbed, "Bob" (middle school humor), and I acted like a watery goofball until I got cold enough to need a dry-land break.

What a great day.  What was I afraid of?  I got all ugly and sticky and sandy, and there was no place to shower, blow-dry and re-coif... but who cares?  On the way home, in total disregard of my unsuitable appearance, we even stopped off to visit some elder friends of ours who live not far from the beach. These wonderful, wise folks are facing a pile of serious challenges right now.  The one tiny thing we could do for them was to walk their dog, as neither of them currently has the energy to do it.   My perspective got yet another dose of "get real, please".  When I am that age, and facing the kinds of things they're facing, I hope I won't also be regretting that I missed some of life's delights, like playing in my kids' world, for fear of getting messy and looking ugly.

Oh, and today, after my first swim of the day, and then lunch, and before my last swim of the day, my youngest kiddo and I did some great sand-digging, and built "Castle R" entirely of Silly Sand.
( I wonder if Silly Sand Construction Techniques could be worked into the Common Core for the elementary school years... This kid had never heard of it before. )
We model for our kids what happy adults look like.  It's clearly time I got more interested in being that kind of "model", rather than beating myself over the head that I'll never be the *other* kind of model, the one that involves airbrushed, suntanned, lipo-suctioned perfection in public places.  My kids don't give a flip about my fat rolls and squirrel's nest hair, but they sure get enthusiastic about my getting down in the sand and the surf, getting messy, and sharing in their fun.

Should there maybe be a chapter in "What to Expect... " entitled, "Get Dirty, Get Wet; Wash, Rinse, Repeat UNTIL THE CHILD LEAVES HOME"  ?

Life's messy... Last one in the water's a rotten egg.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

A journey of 32 years, and 12 days

It's been a number of months since I last posted anything here, and I'm doing some looking back as well as some looking around at the present.

London, July 2014 - getting ready to time-travel

The grey mid-day light of the Gare du Nord wasn't anything unusual.  Sunday, July 13, 2014 was a bit of a grey day when we left St.Pancras / King's Cross earlier that day, and there had been summer drizzle as we'd crossed the French countryside after emerging from the Chunnel.  I was a little sleepy from our very early departure, and a bit queasy from motion sickness and coffee on a nearly-empty tummy.  And in the midst of the thoroughly routine and explicable, I was puzzled by my sudden rainstorm of tears as I stepped off the TGV Eurostar and began dragging my new rolling luggage down the platform to begin an adventure in Paris.

I was back.  How was this possible? 

And I was overwhelmed.  Why did this feel so hugely significant?

Thirty-two years before, my 18-year-old self  had entered the Gare du Nord with my ticket and luggage, and stepped onto the TGV (Train Grande Vitesse--the first French high-speed train at the time); at the beginning of a life-changing first trip to France right after high school graduation.

All these years, and all these life-changes later, I was back, on the 2-year-anniversary of a day that had changed my life forever. 

I guess it makes sense that the eclipsing light and dark in my heart at that moment would overheat my emotional circuitry and result in a tearful overflow.

How was it possible that it had only been two years ago that my life looked like an unsalvageable mess; facing the prospect of what I thought would be years of empty loneliness and abandoned dreams?  How was it possible that I was here in Paris, travelling for free as a working chaperone, in the company of 19 terrific teenagers, two new adult friends, and a man who makes me laugh and learn every time I'm with him?

As it turned out, it was not my first moment of gratitude that went beyond words and into joyful tears, and it would not be my last on this 12-day trip. 

July, 1982 - happily bringing back les baguettes

In mid-July of 1982, I was an optimistic high school graduate who had studied French since junior high school and had fallen in love with all things French, spending a summer with a warm and gracious French family on a farm property outside Lyon.  I was eagerly soaking up all they had to teach me about life in this lovely country: the language, the food, the people-first pace of life that was full of long, leisurely visits with family and neighbors, sitting at tables under the courtyard trees, sharing jokes, stories, and amazing food, and imagining what life held for me in my truly bright future. 

In mid-July of 1992, I was a 28 year old single woman, working as an ESL teacher in Nashville, TN, and wondering what had become of my original plan to travel the world while teaching, wondering if I'd ever find my soulmate, wondering if I'd already asked too much of life, hoping that the best was yet to come, while worrying that perhaps I'd already missed it.

In mid-July of 2002, I was a sleep-deprived, homeschooling, California housewife, in late pregnancy with my third child, having witnessed my husband survive his first suicide gesture, and wondering what kind of family this yet unborn child would be grow-up in, as his father struggled with his inner demons while trying to survive the Silicon Valley ethos of throwaway humanity and 22-hour workdays. I had no more dreams or plans for the future, other than getting through the next day, keeping all my babies safe and healthy, and maybe catching 40 winks from time to time.

Somewhere in early July of 2012, I came to a moment when I could finally accept the truth:  I could no longer let my four children live under the reign of terror of an increasingly paranoid and abusive man who was my husband and their father.  And on the night of July 13, I made a stupidly risky last-chance move and broke the news of my decision to Andre: that he needed to get help, immediately, or I would have to take the children and leave. Several hours of arguing and thirty minutes of silence led to the awful moment when what was left of Andre Hedrick left us, with a .22-caliber semi-automatic rifle in his hand, a rifle that held, that night, 20 rounds in the clip that he'd loaded, secretly, in the garage earlier that afternoon.  My mis-assessment of the risk I took by telling him of my decision almost cost us all our lives.  Some guardian angels somewhere were working the late shift, I guess.

Thirty years.  Plus two. 

And in those past two years, I have seen my four children emerge from trauma and loss and start rebuilding their lives, complete with successes and failures, false starts and unexpected opportunities.  I am in my second year of a two-year graduate program in counseling psychology, a field that has interested me since my high school days.  I'm working as a trainee two days a week in a community counseling center and looking forward to a second field placement as a school counselor in the Fall. Since last November, I've been spending time with a fascinating, hilarious, multi-talented, man with an insatiable curiosity, a big heart and a great big, hearty laugh. 

And it's because of that life-enhancing friendship with that wonderful man, that I found myself on the train platform in the Gare du Nord, keeping that 32-year-old promise to myself, to return to this lovely city and REALLY see it and experience it. 

If time allows in the next couple weeks, I might even get back to writing a bit of a travelogue, coming full circle to the place where this blog began a few years ago:  a chronicle of travel and what I learn along the way.  I certainly have the photos to share.   

July, 1982 - on my one-day whirlwind tour of Paris, I promised myself I would return.

July 14, 2014 - I promise myself that the next time I'm photographed in Paris, I will take off my glasses, check my hair and use good posture (!)

Sunday, January 5, 2014


Isaiah 45:7a - I create the light and make the darkness 

(I'm beginning to think that I should warn new friends that there's a risk in teaching me something or sharing something profound:  it might show up in my blog.  So, you know who you are-- keep being brilliant in my presence, ok?  )

"Chiaroscuro - Contrasting effects of light and shade in a work of art. Leonardo da Vinci brought the technique to its full potential, but it is usually associated with such 17th-century artists as Caravaggio and Rembrandt, who used it to outstanding effect."  

I've been thinking about the chiaroscuro nature of my days lately.  As Christmas approached and the lights went up in the neighborhoods, in the shopping malls, in my friends' photos on social media, they looked more beautiful this year than I can remember them being for several years. It's not that the lights actually were brighter, but it seems that light, when contrasted with the darkness I've lived in recent years,  is somehow more beautiful and more significant.  Just as Caravaggio's smiling young lady in blue, or DaVinci's angel would be less striking without the darkness in the paintings, it seems that the darkness that accumulates as I age only serves to make the bright moments in life that much more beautiful.

These days, I'm watching my two older kids grow through those teeth-clenching teenage years, and sometimes the shadows feel suffocating.  But then I catch a glimpse of that fusion of the sweet children that they once were and the admirable adults that they're growing into. In that moment, that vision is all the more beautiful because of the deep shading of these seasons full of ill-tempered, refrigerator-emptying, sibling-bashing, kitchen-trashing aliens in my home.

My trip through the middle-aged adult dating scene this past year has had its burnt siena shadings of frustration and hurt feelings, but where I stand now, a year later--still single, still wondering how life will turn out--feels bright with possibility.  I've met some wonderful men, added some of them to my life as friends, and I've begun to wake from my Rip Van Winkle social life to discover a whole world of people, music, activities, restaurants and movies that I'd somehow missed in my years as Andre's wife.  My life is rich now because I'm aware of how emotionally impoverished it was before.  I'm beginning to see that the shadow of loneliness is not one I have to run from. I can simply keep moving in the direction of living life as fully as I can, and enjoying the light of companionship when it appears. When it does, I'm finding that it's that much more soul-feeding because I know how precious it is.

The quote from Isaiah is a gift from a new friend in my life, a friend who has seen more than his share of darkness in recent years.  This scripture seemed to be telling him that both the light and the darkness are part of God's plan.  Carrying that reminder in his heart, he has begun to see more and more light. His sharing of that fragment of scripture with me was another way of multiplying that light and I'm grateful

Tonight, over a friendly home-cooked meal, I was catching up with a creative/inventor friend of mine, who showed me a piece of electronic art he's been designing/ playing with.  He calls it a "Starling", and it contains some beautifully color-changing lights and one dark spot. It turns out that the dark spot is simply where the battery is, but in discussing his creation, it seemed to me that the dark spot in his twinkling creation is perhaps another use of chiaroscuro: what is bright and lovely is made more so by the presence of some shadow.

As we move through this season just past the Winter Solstice, the days are getting brighter and longer; the darkest day of the year is past, and from here, the light grows until we reach the Autumnal Equinox, when the darkness will begin to move in again. Somehow, acknowledging the presence of both the light and the dark, the seasons of shading and the highlighting, makes the light that I see in this new year ahead seem brighter and more beautiful. In 2014, I wish you light, and the ability to see that the shadows don't steal the light--they enhance it.

"The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."  John 1:4-6