The kind of JOY that needs more GRATITUDE

Here we are. At the end of summer once again. The boys left this morning in the barely-there light with fresh planners and lunches made by a mom who isn’t tired of packing lunches yet…in the air was that familiar energy that is part excitement, part nervousness and a smidge of resolve necessary because no one really wanted to be awake yet.

Just one short week ago we were closing out the vacation with a last breath of carefreeness – our traditional end-of-summer camp out. It was still fairly hot, of course…no rain meant crunchy grass…and the breeze didn’t come up until almost midnight.

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But the deer still hung out with us – curious about the tent and watchful of the dog.

End of summer camp out

We swam and built a fire…roasted hot dogs and s’mores…watched for shooting stars and told stories until we fell asleep, laughing, with the dog piled among us. That night – the whole summer, really – was full of moments, whole days even, that my husband and I refer to as “foreboding joy.” You know the ones: if you were watching a movie, it’s the picture-perfect moment when you think, “Oh, wait, the aliens must be about to land and turn everyone to ash” or “Yep, someone is definitely about to die.” In real life, it’s those moments when your heart just might burst because of so many wonderful, too-good-to-be-true things. It’s joy, but there’s an edge to it.

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Our summer was full of bliss and blessings and dear friends and family and fantastic trips…plenty to be content and ecstatic about. But, for me, the summer also had too many dark days and tears and anxiety and insecurity and flat-out melancholy. It seemed quite confusing. How is that so? How do those opposing forces live so snugly side-by-side?

Because: Joy is such a scary thing.

One of my favorite authors, Brené Brown, tells us over and over in her work that joy is terrifying because we believe if we lean in to it too much, it will be that much more painful when it goes away.

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Dress-rehearsing tragedy, she says, as a way to protect ourselves. But then we don’t fully experience the good parts either.

This morning, in a quiet house, the breakfast dishes and mess put away, the dog sulking at the front window – there is no tent in the yard, the pool toys are put away and the routines are back in place – I was thinking about the summer and my perplexing moods and what else to do about them. I was feeling relieved about how September always seems like another January to me: a fresh start, a clean slate, new teachers and a year of possibility outstretched in front of us… I was working to convince myself that certainly this shift of routine would finally help escort the melancholy along and out of my life for now.  And then I thought of Brené because of her new book and how often my husband and I talked about foreboding joy in the past few months – and it occurred to me that more routine was probably not all that I needed, but perhaps also more gratitude – more active, mindful gratitude.

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It’s possible that my summer doldrums were partly my way of balancing out so much goodness, so much love and so much happiness…not intentionally, of course, but our physiology has its sneaky ways, you know. Sounds a little crazy, maybe… but as long as I’m also flirting with depression, then when the joy gets annihilated, it’s not quite such a shock, right? A way to feel just a little less vulnerable when there is so much to lose. As I sat watching some birds playing in the bird bath outside the front window, I thought, “Well, here it is, yet another layer of the grief journey. With every loss and heartache and tragedy that is experienced, the more challenging it is to hold on to the idea that joy can exist and truly sustain…because we know too much. We know how quickly it can vanish.”

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Gratitude is such hard work sometimes. Not the nicey-words-kind-of-gratitude. Not the make-a-list-of-things-kind-of-gratitude. No, I mean the take-a-deep-breath-and-don’t-let-your-brain-go-to-the-scary-place-kind-of gratitude. The stay-right-in-this-very-moment-and-lean-in-as-far-as-you-can kind of gratitude. I mean the kind of gratitude that is terrifying if you let yourself think about it for too long, but you go ahead and breathe it in anyway and soak it up and dunk yourself in the joy over and over again. That kind of gratitude takes practice. Probably lots of it. I’m pretty sure I need to work on exactly what that looks like.

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So, I am going to embrace the renewed routine of the school year and I hope it helps. And Dr. Brown’s new book – I’ll be reading that as soon as I can get my hands on it.

But I’m also going to focus more energy on a deeper quality of gratitude; a more active, mindful and sustainable kind.

Basically, I am going to work harder to be more like my dog – because, clearly, he has already figured this out.

:)

As a mom, I’m 11.

I’m going to officially declare February as the most complicated month of my life. Is that a thing? The most complicated month?

Remember this February in 2011? Whew.

But even when they are “regular” they are full of love and sad and brimming tears and bittersweetness. And this year, well, it was no different.

I spent the first half of the month in London. (Poor me, I know!) It was a fantastic trip – a touch of work, but mostly play – and I felt incredibly grateful for such a luxurious experience. But, as any mom knows, over 10 days away from home and away from your kids has its consequences and requires serious catch-up…even if they were under the super-awesome care of one of the world’s greatest grandmothers. (Thanks Mom!) So, five days after returning from Europe, we had a brand new 9-year-old in the house…cue hosting family parties and birthday breakfasts and herding a gang of kids all over a bowling alley for an afternoon.

Then, with less than a week to go before this year’s WWS RAOK Day, I got the flu. Again. (I suppose Type A had so much fun, Type B wanted to have a go… argh.) I tell you about all of this chaos because this year was a great reminder for me that, while parenting my oldest has never looked exactly like parenting my other two children, I’m most definitely still his mom.

Because, really, what else besides motherhood would make a woman with stubborn jet-lag, post-birthday-party exhaustion, certain-death-by-cough and a low-grade fever** even get out of bed, much less run around town inflicting kindness on people??!! And that, my dear friends, is how Year Eleven would begin…

Here they are, all in one place… Eleven for WWS RAOK Day:

First, my sweet, talented, awesome-teacher, sister-in-law had her whole wonderful class make these adorable little compliment cards…and almost everywhere I went all day I left them on windshields and public bathroom mirrors and stuck them in little hidden spots for just the right person to find. (And if you want some, but don’t want to be crafty, I got the idea from Erin Condren and hers are also gorgeous.)

 **Relax! I’m kidding about the fever part…it had been gone for a whole 12 hours before I exposed myself to the public…
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It was a grey, dreary day and I couldn’t resist these stunning flowers which I promptly delivered to my sons’ teachers, just because.

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I also stopped in at the library near our house and anonymously paid off some people’s library fines… I was so grateful that the sweet woman at the counter had particular people in mind who really needed the boost. I love it when that happens!

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Some more compliments along the way…

The next two RAOKs were in support of two great causes – Kiva, which does microloans across the globe and Free The Girls.org which provides jobs to sex industry survivors in developing countries. I’ve done two other loans through Kiva and it is so powerful to see the incredible progress made possible by such relatively small amounts of money!! Check it out.

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And if you have any drawers that are full of these (not cats!) you might consider sending off the ones you don’t ever wear to support Free The Girls. Because, seriously, slavery? How is this still a thing?? We should all be doing whatever we can to bring an end to such tragic nonsense.

For Number Six, it was more flowers to combat the dreary day. I placed fresh flowers on my grandparents’ graves and also about a dozen of their neighbors… including the graves of a 3, 4 and 6-year old. (heavy sigh) I have a thing for cemeteries, always have. Does anyone else share that odd attraction? They are so peaceful and full of interesting tales…

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Number Seven was four free rounds of bowling for the next crew of people to head into the Bowlero… free bowling – on a rainy Friday – who wouldn’t love that?

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Some more love for the parking lot….

Number Eight happened as I was leaving the parking lot of the bowling alley. It was raining and super, duper cold and, as a general rule, we Texans are fairly unprepared for both cold and wet. I saw this woman standing at the bus stop with the tiniest, brokenest umbrella ever to exist…and she was holding it sideways to try to make the wind blow it back down into position so she was totally getting wet anyway. I slammed on my brakes and jumped out and handed her the Green Giant which has lived all alone in my car for forever. I’m sure the Green Giant was happy to finally be of use!!

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Then we took the boys to get haircuts and we pre-paid for the next family who was coming in for haircuts, too. It turned out to be the next morning and I got the sweetest email from the mom of the little boy who was treated to the free trim. I love thinking about the ripple effect that happens when others let the gratitude and goodness flow out of them into the world around them – it’s one of my favorite parts of the day!

Well, also this munchkin with his newly trimmed hair! Those faint little freckles slay me.

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While we were getting haircuts, Ron was out buying a bunch of coats. (I’m serious, it’s cold here y’all!!) We headed down to the Salvation Army shelter and asked the volunteers to please give them to the people who need them most. (Even the really nice jacket that Ron tried to keep!) ;-)

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And our final RAOK for the day (by this time I was nearly feeling human again!) was for our very kind waiter at dinner…for his special attention and patience with our two little tortilla faces, we left a 100+% tip. And that’s all eleven, folks!!

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At the end of it all, I’ll be honest, I felt pretty lucky to have pulled it off at all. Exhausted. Overwhelmed. Grateful. Full. Loved. Supported. Ready to collapse. Bittersweet. You know, like a mom. This year had a different flavor to it, for sure, but I think it’s all part of this journey – continually figuring out how to evolve within the on-going transformation that grief brings. There is no end, no closure…there’s just trying to keep up with how it changes you and how those changes keep showing up.

I will never really be able to explain to you how much it means to have all of you – friends, family and even strangers – joining in the day with us. So many here and on Facebook wrote to me about their anticipation of the day, their own acts of kindness in Wheeler’s name, and their joy at watching the day unfold… it is beyond description, really, what this day has become for me. But I’m so grateful to have so many who share in it with me and the day is filled with many happy tears.

WWSAnd now, to my sweet Wheeler, happy birthday again!

It seems that each year this experience with you changes and grows and, in that small way, it is so much like raising your brothers – they won’t stop changing or growing either. You know, eleven years ago I wrote a letter to you for the memorial service and even in the fog of my shock and grief, it turns out I was able to articulate some things that have held up pretty well. Remember this?

“…you are teaching us so much without even being here – I’m humbled to think of how much we would have gained if only you could have hung around for a while – I know you would have shown us what life is really all about. I’m so sad that we are missing that.

I’m claiming this prayer for all of us – from Isaiah 61:

God will proclaim this to be the year of His favor over you…to comfort all who mourn and provide for those who grieve…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes, the oil of gladness instead of mourning and a garment of praise instead of a spirit of despair…they shall be called oaks of righteousness, a planting of the Lord for the display of His splendor.

Thank you for being part of God’s plan for our lives – for making us stronger, like the “oaks of righteousness,” and helping to mold us into the people God hopes for us to become. You will always mark a huge turning point in our lives – one that I hope I can look back on someday with appreciation and understanding – someday when I’m not quite so sad anymore.

Please know how much you are loved and missed by all of us. I think of you constantly and expect that I always will. Your father and I can’t wait to see you again someday and when we do, I hope you will be proud of us.

Until then, all my love –

Your Mom”

How about that? I can definitely testify to the beauty and gladness and praise that have grown out of our mourning and despair. These birthdays with you are so much about the display of His splendor in our lives…and I had no idea what that would really mean when I wrote that over a decade ago. Thank you for continuing to teach me and for continuing to let me see your legacy at work in the world. I can’t imagine being any prouder of you and your sweet little life than I am today. But, hey, I know it’s motherhood, so it’s gonna keep changin’, right?

All my love for all time –

Mom

Advent Calendar Make-Over

A few years ago I distinctly remember feeling DONE with the advent calendar. I was at a loss for what to put in the little boxes – seriously, there’s enough candy everywhere already – and how many teeny, tiny gifts even exist that won’t just wind up in the trash? The boys were only so excited about endless stickers and temporary tattoos. Not to mention that I forgot about it as many nights as I remembered…and there’s nothing quite like scampering about at 6:21am when you hear the kids stirring awake and remember that the little box is empty – again. I vowed to free myself from the advent calendar ridiculousness.

Advent Calendar

Also, the older I get, the more allergic I feel to anything that even smells like entitlement or sheer, unadulterated consumerism… so that certainly helped progress the transformation. Over the past few years we’ve transitioned to a month of family activities, gift giving and acts of kindness in place of the candy and toys… disclaimer: I’m not a total Scrooge, so there are some Skittles and Starbursts thrown in the mix!  ;-)

The boys and I posted (almost) daily on FBTwitter and IG (#adventwiththesooses) but, I had several requests for the whole list in one place, so this is for YOU!

1. Gather up all the Christmas books for a month of nightly holiday stories.

2. Make and send Christmas cards for service men and women deployed away from home.

3. Send stuffed animals and blankets to the boys’ school for their student council drive “Barrett’s Bears.” (They collected over 700 items to give to the Children’s Hospital!!)

4. Do something nice for someone at your school today. (And I made cookies for them when they got home and we talked about who and what and how it went.)

5. First round of holiday goodies going to school for principal and nurse and counselor.

6. A New Year’s package for our sponsored child.

7. Go through clothes and donate to the Children’s Shelter and Goodwill.

8. Second round of holiday goodies to the school for the front office staff.

9. Write love letters to selected family members.

10. Leave a gift for the mail carrier.

11. Do something nice for your brother. (Yes, they hated this one!!) :-)

12. Take a gift for the bus driver.

13. Love notes and goodies for the nanny.

14. Go through toys and donate to the Children’s Shelter and Goodwill. (Also filed under: must.make.room.for.grandparent.gift.overload.)  :)

15. Goodies for the garbage men and recycling guys.

16. More love notes to other family members.

17. Third round of gifts to the boys’ school for specials teachers.

18. Go see Christmas lights with grandparents…have hot cocoa and s’mores!

19. Take gifts to your teachers.

20. Build a fire tonight to go with your Christmas stories.

21. Donate to Wheatens In Need…or current favorite charity.

22. Candy cane bomb a parking lot.

23. Leave popcorn at a RedBox for renters.

24. Put out treats for the birds. (no photos after this because the flu came to visit our house just in time for Christmas!!) :(

25. Huge chocolate candy coins to have with Christmas breakfast.

And that’s how I finally survived an advent calendar!

For other ideas and inspiration for your own advent makeovers, you can look here and here and here. There was also lots of talk this year about transforming the infamous Elf on the Shelf into a Kindness Elf… same concept and Pinterest is full, full, full of more ideas including these cute printables.

I hope this post finds you healthy and grateful and looking forward to a brand new year! Merry Christmas!

Fuss-free Halloween Treats

DSC_0002Because the bags and bags of candy lying around the week of Halloween aren’t enough… I thought, “Hey, let’s make that bark stuff where we pile it all together and coat it in chocolate!”

So easy – and it does kind of look like a party on a plate.

I modified the recipe here because I couldn’t find the Halloween Oreos, so I used brownie crisps, instead. The boys had fun stealing candy while I tried to make it before all the ingredients were gone.

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Oh! And I almost forgot! The other day I made these silly mummy dogs to help us get into the Halloween spirit…also super easy and a big hit.

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Yes, they are exactly what they look like. Hot dogs (organic, non-cured, non-nitrate of course ;-)) wrapped in crescent rolls and baked…with mustard dots for eyes. The boys had a good laugh at breakfast and started asking when they could wear their costumes.

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Well, they aren’t THAT scary. :)

Happy Halloween Week!!

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My love-hate relationship with Summer

Seems like I was just posting about our summer bucket list and bam! school starts tomorrow. Lucky for me, I did not blink…so I did not miss it in spite of the break-neck speed.

Summer is always such a paradox for me. (As are a lot of things…which is why I’m such a Whitman fan, I think, because his quote comes up in my head a lot and gets truer and truer every year: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”)

I LOVE the Summer. I love the freedom and the sleeping in and not making lunches and not seeing a backpack or a stack of papers for months. I love being in and out of the pool all day and watching sun-kissed boys lounge in their nearly-dry bathing suits while they insist that popcorn is acceptable for lunch – and I agree.

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I love that mealtimes sort of go away and we gather and eat when and if we feel like it. I love deciding, at the crack of 10am, that today we’ll go binge on video games and bad pizza and then we just go do that…because there is no schedule to consult or adjust.

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I love that my parents take the boys every Friday and do the coolest stuff: bat caves and zip lining and ropes courses and paddle boarding and movies and ice skating and roller skating and bouncy house fun.

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I love the lake trips and day drives and bowling/swimming playdates and mid-week sleepovers and pottery class and ALL.OF.IT.

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Every day with the boys I was aware how quickly this time will pass and that someday summers won’t look anything like this…and I’ll miss them terribly, I know. I felt so grateful to be able to be home with them so much and such a big part of their lazy Summer days. 

And honestly, just reading that last paragraph I can feel the other side of the paradox fake barfing just like my boys do over such sappy sentiments. Because, also, I DO NOT love the Summer. I crave a routine and without one I can get listless and unproductive. The empty calendar pages loom for weeks and I feel the pressure to fill them, make them useful, don’t just sit around for 2.5 months, go, do, learn, inspire, engage, entertain…and then I feel exhausted and overwhelmed. DSC_0136I really, really miss school-night bedtime…when the boys are staying up late every day feels endless and like I don’t get any of my necessary “me” time. Going to work feels like a chore because I have to leave all the fun and schedule all the nannies and I get lazy about my own career – which is something I adore. And then I feel bad about not being a good grown-up. DSC_0021They watch too much TV and play too many videogames and at some point I just say “OK” because we’ve already done everything on the list for that day…so, why not? And the “nutrition” that comes with the summer – ha, who am I kidding? So then mom-guilt sets in. Also, I adore back-to-school shopping – really – and that only happens when Summer ends. And then there’s the fighting… don’t even get me started on the bickering and poking and picking and taunting and antagonizing that has been perfected this Summer. IMG_0963They worked at it as if their very lives depended on it, like an artist works his craft, like an athlete trains for his biggest feat… they honed their rivalry skills and nearly drove me nutty in the process. I planned days based on the sole purpose of separating them. I planned activities in which they wouldn’t see each other for hours. I sent them to their rooms and forbid them to look at one another. So there are just as many reasons that I do NOT love the Summer.

And because of all of that, I am full with contradictory melancholy and glee that today is the last day of the Summer.

DSC_0005We had our ritual end-of-summer camp night this weekend and I was a mess of emotions over it. First, we moved into a new neighborhood at the start of this Summer, so the new house is still showing us what treasures it holds…like being able to camp out, under dreamy stars amid a glorious, somehow-cool breeze at the end of August in Texas surrounded by deer without a single mosquito in sight…seriously, who knew that was even possible? We had a late, late swim and then dried off by the campfire and fell straight into the tent where Whitman laughed us to sleep with his “guess which animal I’m thinking of” game. (Which I would love to tell you about, but I don’t really understand it. He loves it and it makes us all crack up – that will have to do.) How could I want for anything like that to ever end? I felt sad and sentimental and incredibly blessed. DSC_0043

And in the morning, I was delighted at the thought, “OK, that’s the end of that…back to the real world we go. Thank goodness for regular bedtimes which will soon be back!” And I made breakfast and organized something and put things on a calendar and filled out first-day-of-school paperwork… so relieved to think this Summer craziness would all be over soon. Whew.

Then the boys began begging me to get in the pool for a morning swim… “Dad’s here, come on, it’s so nice and cool…come on mom, why won’t you??!! Huh? Why not? Come have fun with us!” And so, just to shut them up, and maybe also to prove that on rare occasions I can actually be as much fun as their father, I walked straight across the deck, still in pajamas mind you, and jumped right in. Their squeals of delight made me instantly miss the Summer again. DSC_0011

So, dear Summer, so long for now… I have loved and hated every minute of you. I will mourn your end at the crack of dawn while I’m making breakfast, buttoning buttons, packing fresh new backpacks, combing hair and supervising teeth brushing. I will mourn you when the boys sigh at my refusal to let them swim at 8:00pm because there’s still too much to do and it’s bedtime. I will mourn you when it’s my day off and I can’t steal away my children for an unscheduled day doing who-knows-what.

I will also delight in your passing at 8:17am when I’m alone in a silent house with no mouths to feed and no bickering to referee.  I’ll probably also do that again around noon, just because I can. Try not to take it personally.

Thank you, Summer – you’ve been the very best!

Summer Bucket List

Do you guys do this?

For the past couple of years I’ve asked the boys to compile their summer wish list at the end of the school year… partly because I’m curious about what they are interested in and partly because I worry that if I don’t put it on a list and then on the calendar, we’ll get to the end of August and I’ll feel awful that “we didn’t DO anything this summer!!”  

I made the mistake of Googling “summer plans” and “summer routines” the other day.

I was instantly overwhelmed with posts by a ridiculous number of über-super moms who basically run summer camps for their kids for nearly three months…I was exhausted just reading about it. So I stopped. (After I had gleaned a couple of little gems that I might be motivated enough to try.)

Anyway, several of the moms talked about the “Summer Bucket List” which we kind of already do… so I got curious about my real-life super mom friends and their kids’ summer plans.  Wanna share lists??

Lincoln’s (work-in-progress) List:

Go fishing

Visit Schlitterbahn water park

Build a tree house

See the bat cave with Pop

Fourth of July trip to Lake Livingston

hand-feed the deer (in our yard)

Ropes course and zip line at Natural Bridge Caverns

make pottery

Playdates with his friend E.

 

Whitman’s (work-in-progress) List:

Birthday party in July!

swimming lessons

go to the beach

trips to the movie theater

a visit to Chuck E Cheese

gymnastics lessons (?!)

Parkour lessions (yes, these exist.)

 

I’d love to see some other ideas… here’s to summer fun!!

Ten Years: Update

I just got a phone call from Ian’s mom… she is at the bakery right now picking up his cake that was our RAOK #2 this week.

I just had to update because I was so certain that my time at the bakery would be so much better than theirs – that whole giving is better than receiving thing, right? She insisted that the bakery owner call me so she could thank me… the minute she heard my voice I could tell she had those “brimming tears” (and me, too, of course.) She was gracious and lovely and I wished her a very, very happy birthday party weekend.

And y’all, I just know that when she hung up the phone she got one of those awesome hugs!! So yay for us – her time at the bakery WAS almost as good as mine!

Happy Birthday Ian!!
Happy Birthday Ian!!