CLICK Here for the link to my new nj.com piece on blame, grief, and compassion.
CLICK Here for the link to my new nj.com piece on blame, grief, and compassion.
A fews days ago I heard the unfortunate news that someone from town had passed away. Moments after hearing the shocking news, I picked up my phone to call my mom.
As quickly as I picked up the phone, I put it down. I sat there even a bit surprised at myself.
I can’t call my mom. She died in December. I am surprised that sometimes I still forget.
After months of her valiantly suffering, a long hospital stint, a wake, a funeral, sorting through her things, discussing her estate, and talking with my widowed dad every single day, I still sometimes forget.
Maybe it is because she was my Go-To Person. When I have an incredibly good day at work, when I have some exciting news about my writing, or when I have something funny to share about my daughters, I still pick up the phone.
Perhaps it is because we often think of loss as a date on a calendar. We think of death and the loss we experience as a moment in time on a certain day at a specific hour at a precise minute when a loved one left this world.
Loss really isn’t a thumbtack pricked through a calendar date. Loss is more of a thread that is stitched through our lives, sharply shredding through the fabric of our lives at a certain point in our existence then slipping below the surface and re-entering again.
The truth is that we don’t lose our loved ones on a set date. We lose them again each time we awake from a dream. We lose them every time we celebrate a birthday, an anniversary, or a milestone that we had believed they would be a physical presence at. We lose them while strolling down the sidewalk at 3pm on that random weekday afternoon when a sudden bittersweet memory rushes to mind. We lose them each time we begin to place a call that cannot be answered in the way we had become accustomed to.
Maybe the realignment is much needed. Perhaps we need to pause and look at the still shot of life and ask what is part of the real picture and what is the negative.
The opportunity to look at what is real and what is an illusion is valuable. The chance to question what matters and what is backdrop is there for our taking. I suspect the things we often prize as priorities matter less, and as Antoine de Saint-Exupéry suggested, “It is only with the heart that one can see rightly; what is essential is invisible to the eye.”
Perhaps each death is actually a beam of light. Perhaps death and the sobering moments it carries with it are actually beams of light cracking through a stormy, charcoal clouded sky to let us know there really is a blue sky above. We just cannot see it.
It is peculiar how words and messages can work like beams too. They seem to have an energy. They have a idiosyncratic force behind them. They have a way of finding us through the thick storm clouds.
In the midst of my own storm this past week, I found myself sorting through a box full of mementos. I found a card that my mom had sent me several years ago. She had mailed it to me right after my first miscarriage after the birth of my second daughter. My mom was no stranger to miscarriage as well. We spoke little about it but I knew that she understood.
At the time, I don’t remember thinking much about the card. Perhaps I was too sorrowful. Perhaps life with two toddlers, three dogs, and work was just too busy.
Years later, like a thread stitching its way across the years, this note has re-entered the fabric of my life at the most peculiar of times. Its message resonates deeper now. It speaks on a unique level to her mortal life and my loss.
It gracefully answers the questions that I have thrown up to the heavens in the darkness of the night. It quells insecure thoughts. It softly hushes doubt. It brings with it a peace that inspires and persists.
Here is the card and her message below. May it speak to you too.
Front of card: “When you come to the edge of all the light you have known & are about to step into the darkness, Faith is knowing one of two things will happen…there will be something to stand on, or you will be taught how to fly.”
Inside card, ” Dear Ann Marie, Been there, done that…and I can guarantee what this is saying on this card is true. God’s plan for us somehow eventually reveals itself. What would we do without faith? My heart, love and prayers are with you. As ever, Mom”
I love you Mom. I miss your voice even though you continue to speak to me, as ever.
Patricia Ann Jones O’Rourke
In the wee hours of a cold, winter night well over a decade ago, in an encroached, wood-paneled living room in a Bayonne, New Jersey apartment, a wager was made.
After several bottles of wine, bits of laughter, the sparring of intellect, and a fiercely competitive round of Trivial Pursuit, two couples decided that the winning team would plan a trip where they all must travel to.
Following a fortunate guess about an American president, victory was ours. Tickets and lodging from New York to Shannon, Ireland were secured at dubiously low prices for the second week in February.
At the time, I was living alone in a humble apartment in Bayonne, New Jersey on the salary of a social worker employed by the county. Those modestly priced tickets nearly broke the bank. Somehow on a meager diet of Ramen noodles and tap water among a few other sacrifices, I made it happen.
For some curious reason, I recently have been thinking of that trip. Perhaps because they were some of the sweetest days.
I find myself returning to the same question: Why were they some of the best days?
While we planned our trip, the universe planned an epic snowstorm. We spent the first thirty-eight hours of our vacation sleeping atop of our luggage under the departure boards at John F. Kennedy International airport. After some pleading, conjuring, and self-determined ruckus at the counter combined with a miracle of sorts, we boarded the next plane over to Ireland.
We could have let the storm break our spirits but it didn’t. We were simply grateful to board the plane.
We landed in Dublin. Arriving in the city of our planned departure, our painstakingly planned itinerary was null. We decided to wing it. We secured two of the smallest rental cars in history. Long before international cellphones, we communicated via walkie-talkies as we drove on the wrong side of the road up and down the countryside stopping in villages and at Bed & Breakfasts.
It is true that many of the B&Bs had lumpy beds and showers with the water pressure of a leaky garden hose. It is also fair to say that what many of the pubs were lacking in cuisine, they made up for four-fold in live music, whiskey, beer, and authentic congeniality of a kind and strong people.
It is perhaps most essential to note that some of the most breathtaking hillsides, enchanted forests, ruins of castles, and herds of painted sheep were just there in the vast, open, blessed world waiting to be seen.
We stumbled upon remote shore villages, roadside farm stands and family-owned shops. We visited pubs full of genial, local gentlemen with a knack for the age-old art of storytelling, and stopped at centuries-old cemeteries that told different stories with their silence and peace.
But first, I’d like to return to the issue of the shower.
I imagine what it might be like now in my life if the water pressure was poor while on holiday. There would be phone calls downstairs to correct the problem, the scolding of staff, and discussions about “what we paid for” and “what was expected” not to mention what was “unacceptable”. There would be adamant requests to change rooms and then we would probably spend the next hour and a half at dinner discussing the poor water pressure and how it was adversely affecting our trip.
It is probably safe to say that I would have even missed those breathtaking hillsides and brilliant moments while complaining. Perhaps I wouldn’t enjoy the local fiddler at the pub because of my fixation on the bothersome shower trickle. He might just be background noise to a sob story of my own conception. I suspect those enchanted forests would have seemed a bit less extraordinary because of my dim perspective. I may have wholly missed the forest for the trees in my ranting.
In recent years, I have undoubtedly been on many more fanciful trips with five star accommodations and four diamond dining than my jaunt across the Emerald Isle. I’ve dined at establishments with fine, plush stools to place your purse atop of and ordered entrees with ingredients I couldn’t identify (and sometimes shamefully could not pronounce). There have been en-suite bathrooms I could have parked the entire contents of my Bayonne apartment in, with soaking tub jets that had the water pressure of a NYC fire hydrant.
My experience of Ireland had no fancy bathrooms, no purse stools, no tongue-twisting appetizers, and no attentive wait staff at my beck and call. Our concierge was often a widowed B&B keeper with the grit, wit and wisdom of a convivial, world-traveled sailor. Our accommodations were simply the authentic, unfettered results of a brave woman’s entrepreneurship in an uncertain global economy.
I realize why it was a great trip. It was a grand adventure simply because the water pressure did not matter. Life was not about what I expected and when I graciously accepted that, I was able to appreciate that life was even better.
Somewhere at some point since my Ireland trip, I lost sight of the most essential amenity of all: a liberating perspective.
It is peculiar how the modes of comfort we surround ourselves with – the amenities, the plans, and the fancy technology we possess, were intended to make life simpler yet often make it more complicated and bothersome. The more things we acquire to make our lives simpler and freer, the more they can begin to burden us. We build our own house of cards. The piles and piles of stuff we own starts to own us. The heaping bits of expectations that we build up begin to weigh us down.
The solution is simple yet so drastic it seems radical. I knew I needed to cut the ties of expectation and entitlement. Life doesn’t promise us fair weather, comfy accommodations, and steady water pressure. It is almost a guaranteed certainty that we all will have our share of trickles and amendments to the plan. It is a given.
Maybe life isn’t about the best laid plans but about letting go. I had to let go and let grace in.
I found that the moment I accepted the truth that I’m not owed anything by anyone in this life, things transformed. For me, this spiritual, swift kick in the ass, had had a sobering and instantly enlivening effect.
A return to a grateful and humble perspective transformed the world around me into a brighter place full of hope. Life certainly did not become perfect but who would really want it to be. It became wildly astonishing in the most humbling of ways.
In God’s unpretentious, dark sense of humor, we are repeatedly reminded that the spark of liveliness in spontaneity outshines our doleful, scheduled plans. In the universe’s thundering ironic undertone, we receive the same frequent lesson, that there are far better plans in store for us than those we could dream up. All we must do is resign ourselves to possibility.
A life resigned to possibility may look a bit scattered or messy from the outside but those inside that life know a secret: there is space and calm for the unscheduled and spontaneous to occur. There is room for mystery, magic, and evolving faith. The unplanned occurs whether we like it or not, friends get sick, new opportunities arise, loved ones pass on, and life constantly changes outside our control. The more we make peace with it, the more contentment we can find.
On that fateful trip overseas, my best friend and her boyfriend became engaged. Three days after the trip ended so did my relationship with the guy I had been dating. Not much of a loss, it was the worst type of relationship – those born out of convenience. Nonetheless, my best friend and I promised, no matter what or who may come and go, that this would be the first of many similar trips.
As tends to happen, something happened to our promise. A dozen years later, two husbands, five children, and three dogs between us, the trip never occurred. There have been many adventures yet no trip. Perhaps it was the demands of life, evolving careers, different social circles, raising children, or mere geography. Perhaps these are excuses on both our parts. Perhaps all of the above is true.
Although I am wise enough to know that these moments cannot be recreated, I know that so much of what we experience is within our control. We can tell a story of sub-par accommodations or we can tell a story of a stunning countryside with congenial, unforgettable people.
I also am certain that there are new moments waiting to be seen, heard, tasted, and felt. Life is springing with new, blessed possibilities all around us, underneath us, and beside us, if we are just willing to look past the water pressure.
And with all of this in mind, I plan to be more unplanned in 2015. May your New Year surpass your own expectations.
After dropping off our two oldest daughters at camp, my husband and I packed up our cooler and our two-year-old daughter and walked past the dunes out to the beach. That is what people do on vacation. They make an effort to relax.
Eight-hundred miles from home on a vast, vacant shore, we scooped up shells, built lopsided sandcastles, returned living sand dollars back into the sea, and swam with our daughter.
We floated in the calm seas under the balmy sun taking in the wild air. We were in paradise.
We were in paradise yet I was somewhere else. To the untrained observer, I was a mom peacefully floating along the Atlantic Ocean at low tide. Inside of myself though, there was a looming tempest swirling about.
I wasn’t floating in the calm, warm sea. I was re-living a week ago in my mind.
My husband and I recently had the experience of being deceived by someone we trusted – a person we trusted with our household, our rescue dogs, and our children. The feeling was awful.
I was angry. I do anger well. The letting go of anger part – not so well.
I was angry at being lied to. I was angry at being played for a fool. I was angry at myself for not trusting my gut and not confronting the lies earlier out of convenience or comfort. My head was bursting with shoulda-coulda-woulda’s. I replayed conversations in my mind and second-guessed events in my head. I was torturing myself.
Once the deceit was revealed, I had tried to take the high road. I just didn’t expect the high road to feel so low. I just couldn’t seem to let go of the anger and the hurt.
I then realized this: It is not about my response or the expected emotional outcomes of high and low roads. It is about forgiveness.
The thing about forgiveness is that it is noble in theory yet difficult in practice. In conceptualizing forgiveness and truly grasping what forgiveness is, it is perhaps best to acknowledge what forgiveness is not.
Forgiveness is not a free-pass. It does not mean we return to the same circumstances. Forgiveness does not mean we will trust that person again. We can learn from a moment and not return to it. We can forgive but not forget and that is acceptable. Forgiveness must not always accompany forgetfulness. Forgiveness, however, most always tends to precede forgetfulness. The memory, nonetheless, does not dissipate. We just must not wear our hurt around our necks, on our sleeves, and on our skin. We must acknowledge it and then tuck it away.
Forgiveness is not an eraser. It doesn’t wipe away the hurt. The practice of forgiveness doesn’t minimize what has happened.
Forgiveness is not a do-over. It doesn’t change the facts or alter the past but it does change every moment forward. It alters our future.
Forgiveness even alters our present. Forgiveness forces us to be present in the moment. Forgiveness releases us from reliving the past. It removes us from the future and our forethought into getting even or setting the matter straight. It returns us to the present which is the greatest and the only gift we have.
Forgiveness is not a one-time action. It is an attitude, a continual practice. Forgiveness is a state-of-mind. When you truly contemplate it, most all of our journeys in this life are adventures in forgiveness.
Forgiveness isn’t exclusively offered for those who are sorry. We must forgive others even when they aren’t remorseful – especially when they are not remorseful. Forgiveness isn’t about the other person’s acknowledgement of guilt or wrongdoing but about our ability to accept apologies we will never get and to move forward. In the words of Oprah Winfrey, “True forgiveness is when you can say, “Thank you for that experience.”
Perhaps experience is at the root of forgiveness, especially self-forgiveness. Forgiving oneself may be the hardest type. Although guilt is one of the most purposeless emotions, it remains one of the most paralyzing. Yet in the midst of our own tempest of regret, we must look to the anchor of experience. Experience sheds meaning. Although we are powerless over the past, we are not powerless over our perspective.
Failures can be our greatest teachers. Our missteps can be some of the most important steps on our life journey. If we allow the anger of others to teach us forgiveness, the apathy of others to spark compassion, the cruelty of others to give way to kindness, the deception of others to ignite flames of truth, and the violence of others to birth peace, a greater transformation has occurred only on the other side of a struggle whose summit was marked by unbridled forgiveness.
Forgiveness is not for the weak-minded. It is so easy for most anyone to uphold a grudge and to hold on to anger. Anger ulcerates the soul. Holding onto anger is corrosive. Holding onto the hurt is paralyzing.
Anger is a sneaky thief – robbing us of present joy and stealing our precious time. Anger slams the door to hope. Anger constricts the senses cutting off our ability to perceive, to connect, and ultimately, to thrive.
Forgiveness is indeed an attribute of the brave. It is releasing yourself from the chains of hurt and allowing all that the universe has to offer you at the present in.
Forgiveness is abandonment of a past that could not be any different. It is the act of ceasing to re-read a chapter that will not read any differently no matter how hard we try. Forgiveness is about moving onto the next, new, unwritten chapter illuminated by hope, by potential, and by an unburdened perspective to allow the opportunities of the present into your soul.
In the calm seas of that August morning, I floated along with my arms outstretched and earnestly prayed to a forgiving God and an all-knowing universe to release the burden of failing to forgive and witness me in offering up my forgiveness fully.
In that moment of transformation, there was no parting of the sea, no tidal wave, no dark storm clouds, no lightening bolt from the sky, or burning bush in the dunes but I had magnanimously returned to the humble sea. No longer was I living in the past but I was right there in the water. I could taste the salt air. I could see the pelican overhead flying underneath a brilliant, open sky. I could feel the coarse sand of the ocean floor beneath my feet. I could hear the laughter of my husband and daughter’s chuckles flutter through the air. I could see paradise for what it was – not necessarily an external place but a state of peace within.
There is something about the air at 30,000 feet that makes at least half a dozen items in Sky Mall seem like a necessity. Just when I’m all about the priority, rush shipping and really into my Sky Mall order, we land and the excitement is over. At sea level, my sanity always seems to return. My impulsivity to purchase fades. The Sky Mall magazine returns to the seat pocket next to the vomit bag.
Along those same jet-fuel lined lines of thought, I do believe that shopping at Hammacher Schlemmer is the universe’s way of telling you that you have too much money. It is Robin Hood: The Retail Store. If you are spending $8999 on a reclining, vibrating chair or $180 on a self-heating, magnetized earthenware mug, this is all a part of the grand scheme of things to redistribute the wealth back into the world.
With that in mind, a few days remain until Valentine’s Day, a time to still shower the one you love with unwanted and unnecessary material items. If you don’t feel like the cellophane wrapped box of assorted chocolates or ‘Made in China’ drugstore- teddy bear will do the trick, here are some more unique, heinous options that will sure stop your soulmate in their tracks.
1) Although it is never a clever idea to gift the lady you love with cooking or cleaning items, you may wonder what could be worse than a vacuum? This:
If vacuuming alone didn’t strain her back, this here is guaranteed to do the trick. Now she can clean the house and wear the weight of all the garbage, germs, and debris she picks up right on your back.
It has that futuristic-astronaut look while simultaneously taking women back a good twenty-years on the ladder of domesticated oppression. Break the bank and her back and buy one before they’re gone.
2) If you were thinking of buying your man some different underwear, here is an option:
This guy really needs it. Look how flabby and out of shape he looks. He would really look like crap without his man girdle. It is like a tank-top Spanx for men. It’s a little Mrs. Doubtfire-ish too.
Nothing affirms masculinity like a man worried about toning his torso. They come in an array of color choices including beige.
3) Or Maybe he just wants a robe:
There’s nothing like this Chewbacca robe to remind him of his Star Wars obsession and why he never got laid throughout high school or until after college. It even has a hood ….just add the unintelligible, beastly roar.
Or you could just marry a hairy Italian or Greek guy, skip the robe and clothes at bedtime and achieve the same effect.
4) Maybe she just needs to relax:
Maybe if I had one of these I could relax. Nothing says being comfortable and cozy like having my neck and jaw held firmly in place. I could also wear it to court if I ever was in a rear-end collision.
5) Maybe he needs to relax too:
This guy gets through TSA and my lipgloss gets confiscated by airport security. It is not fair but he sure looks comfy in his flannel, deep-sea diving nap suit.
6) And once I finally get through airport security and on the plane, I know I will get sat next to this guy:
There is just so much room for personal space on planes these days that this large, aqua velour pillow seems practical. When the beverage and snack cart comes around, you can ask the stranger sitting next to you to hold it.
7) Expand his wardrobe:
It seems that when a shirt has to assert something about your masculinity or femininity (‘Sexy Mama’ or ‘Smokin Hot Grandma’), you’re falling short. The best cues in this department probably remain visual and non-verbal. In all likelihood, Dan’s not really the man but it’s okay. It is the thought that counts.
8) Kill two birds with one stone:
Okay, don’t kill any helpless creatures of flight but check out this poncho map. Now you don’t have to read a map in the rain when you can just read what you wear. Where am I going? Oh look here under my left breast. It’s just 20 miles east.
It is ‘fashion-meets-global-positioning’ and its waterproof. Who needs MapQuest? Conservation of expended energy at its best.
9) Maybe man’s best friend deserves a gift for than anyone:
Now you can really wreak havoc on your dog’s fragile digestive system by throwing a curve ball into his or her regular nutritional routine. Add many of these sugary treats on a tray, as pictured, and your dog will keep eating. This present is probably best paired with this item, also from the catalog of Hammacher Schlemmer:
* guaranteed to remove almost any pet odor or stain from most any surface, rug, or material
10) And who could forget the kids?
Stop spending 50 cents every time you take your child to the mall or fair. Those silly rides only last half a minute. Now you can have the carousel brought right into your home. After 18,755 rides, you have recouped your initial outlay. The rest is money saved.
Plus, as an added bonus, this ride is sure to attract all the neighborhood kids who’s parents didn’t want to stay and play in their own homes to come to your home, and never leave.
One of the best gifts I received lately was a journal from my cousin, Maura. It is entitled My Quotable Kid. The inside pages are blank and there is room to jot down the memorable things your children say. I have always been meaning to do this. Life is so hectic and it is easy to forget these gems of honest truth and observation. They are some of the most remarkable mementos of their youth and worth a revisit in the future.
With this in mind, I thought I would share:
Children often think of their family first.
Haircuts have been a big thing in our home. Thanks to Disney’s Tangled, no one wants to trim their hair. Sonoma finally decided she wanted to cut her hair and donate it to little girls that need wigs. Before her haircut, she seemed upset. I asked her if she had changed her mind. She said, “No, Mom. I’m just not sure if I should give my hair to those kids that need wigs or maybe Daddy and Pop Pop Joe can split it.”
Sonoma: “Does my shirt say I am the big sister?”
Me: “No, it says ‘I love Santa.'”
Sonoma: “I do love Santa. Do you love Santa too, Nennie?”
Nennie (Sienna): “No, I don’t love Santa. I don’t even know him well.”
They show keen, sensory observation.
Sonoma was running. My dad worried. He told her to slow down. His warning remained unheeded. He then yelled to her, “Sonoma, walk like Pop!” She started walking slowly with a slight limp (the way my father, with a bad foot, does.)
They use their keen, sensory observation to warn.
“Mom should I call the firetrucks? = Never something you want to hear while your cooking (Sonoma’s response to the garlic I had singed).
They are compact, human litmus tests of truth.
Our 12 year-old dog had digestive issues and had defected all over the living room floor. Before I called the professional carpet cleaners, I spent a good hour shampooing the rug, applying chemical solutions made specifically for pets, opening windows, and deodorizing the house with the hopes of solving the problem. I asked Sonoma, “Don’t you think its better now?” Sonoma: “Oh Mommy. The poop is so strong. I can taste it in my mouth.”
Sienna’s hand was dirty: “Wait mom! Help! My hand. I have stink on it!”
They are enterprising.
At school, they asked Sonoma if she could give Santa one present what it would be. She replied, “wrapping paper to wrap more gifts!”
They are worldy.
Sonoma asked me what our dinner was called. “cavatelli with broccoli”, I replied. She asked, “Is that Spanish or English?…because that’s all I speak.”
They offer unsollicted advice.
I took all three daughters to the grocery store and we learned about the foods and what they are used for. My two oldest girls asked me many great questions. I was feeling proud. We arrived at the cashier. He had a long, Mumford & Sons style beard. Sonoma said, “Excuse me, can I ask you a question?” In my mind, I thought what intelligent, nutritional question is she going to pose now?
Sonoma replied, “Don’t you think its time to shave?”
They ponder the beginnings of life.
Sonoma: “Mom, Scarlett came out of your tummy and that’s why it is so big.”
Sienna: “Mom, did I come out of your butt and that’s why it is so big?”
Sonoma: “Mom, I know God made us. right?”
Me: “Yes, that is correct.”
Sonoma: “But who made God?”
They ponder the end of life.
On New Year’s Eve:
Me: “Listen up everyone. I want to tell you something exciting. Do you know what happens tonight at midnight?”
Sonoma: “I know! Are we all are going to die together?”
(I know…a bit morbid! In my defense they don’t watch sci-fi and we’re not dooms-dayers.)
They ponder the capabilities of the elderly.
My 4 year-old daughter Sonoma asked me this past December if this was going to be the “last Christmas”. I asked her why she would ask that. She said, “Because Santa is getting very old and I’m afraid he will be too old to do it next year.”
And then there was this:
Meet our Buddha statue, a left-over remnant from my apartment when I was single and my life was Zen-like, and there was time to worry about Feng Shui.
It sits by our fireplace.
Sonoma used it as a cup rest.
Sienna would often pat its head and call it ‘Baby”.
Scarlett kisses its head and calls it ‘Pop Pop Tom’.
And then there was that:
This is a picture of the three and a half -foot tall, wooden butler that stands in our office and holds business cards. When Sonoma was two, she insisted this was a statute of her Pop Pop Joe. She’d walk around waving it at it and sitting by it.
She told her sister Sienna and now she too believes the painted carving is an ode to her paternal grandfather. She asked why he only has one leg.
Just like us, they fear germs.
Our entire household was sick with the flu. The kids recovered and I was finally on the mend. Sienna climbed in bed with me in my room and snuggled up to me.
Sienna: “Mom are you still sick?”
Sienna: “Okay, then I need you to find somewhere else to go and lay because I don’t want to get sick again.”
They fear zombies, too.
On Halloween while Trick-or-Treating, an elderly woman approached our path. Probably for the sake of balance, she was walking with her arms outstretched. My 3 year-old started yelling, “Look it Mom! It is a real Zombie!”
I was tired and had been up with our eighteen month-old daughter, Scarlett, because she was sick. Half-awake, I burned the eggs for breakfast. My 4 year-old,Sonoma, asked me to re-make them. Her 3 year-old sister, Sienna, agreed they were not edible. I took out the eggs again and was standing over the stove in a daze. Sonoma said, “What’s wrong Mom? Are you afraid you’re gonna cook bad again? It’s okay….just give it a try.”
They sometimes doubt us.
Sienna came into my room with her dress on backwards. I told her. She returned to her room. I heard her whispering with her sister, “Mommy said this is on backwards. I didn’t want to hurt her feelings. You think she’s right?”
They favor their fathers.
Sienna: “My Daddy works so hard for him family at work. I not sure what my Mommy does.”
They set boundaries.
We spoke about a friend who lives with their grandparents.
Me: “When I get older and you have a family, can I come live with you?”
Sonoma: “Um, I am not sure that is a good idea but I can build you a house and make you a good dinner.”
Sienna, “Mom, I don’t want Santa and Jesus watching me everywhere I go. I need privacy.”
They often have an alibi.
When the toys were strewn all over the room, I asked who did it. Sonoma, age two at the time, replied “Caillou” (the fictitious cartoon of a precocious 4 year-old).
When I asked who drew in crayon on the wall, Sienna replied “Sweetie.” (our precocious Beagle-Basset Hound, who last time I checked, does not have opposable thumbs).
We had relatives visiting our newborn baby. By nature, I have always been a ‘people pleaser’. I see some of those traits in my eldest, Sonoma, while my middle-daughter, Sienna, seems to hold steady to her own convictions. Although I try not to assign any personality traits to them, with my clinical background, I find the observation interesting.
The relatives had been over quite some time and announced they were leaving. They walked to the door. Sonoma responded, “I wish you wouldn’t go. I love when you visit.” They continued to chat for another good 4-5 minutes at the door. Sienna then piped in, “It is time to go. Can’t you see Mommy is tired and baby needs to sleep?”
Out of embarrassment, I tried to quiet Sienna by correcting her manners but it just made it worse. “It’s not bad manners for me, Mom. It is bad manners for them.”
They have their own convictions.
On Thanksgiving, Sienna passed by the oven while they were checking the turkey. The oven was eye-level and I saw her reaction. I could see the fret and confusion. She turned to me and said, “They cooked a turkey, Mama?” Lost for words, I responded ‘yes’. She replied, “well I will never eat it.”
She didn’t eat it. Future PETA activist.
They keep us conscientious of our hygiene and appearance.
Sienna (to me): “Mom, do you forget to comb your hair for everyday?”
Sienna, who has an incredibly keen sense of smell, to a smoker: “Did you forget to brush your teeth for forever?” (We followed that comment with a lesson in hurting people’s feeling)
Sonoma to me a few weeks later. (After crawling in my bed when I woke up.): “Mom, I love you but can I ask you something? Did you eat a dumpling because it smells not so good?
Sometimes they butter us up.
Sonoma: “Mom, you’re the best cooker, and a princess and I love you. Can you take us to the movies?”
They spill our secrets.
Two relatives were visiting and became involved in a heated discussion. The one adult told the other adult to “Shut up!” Sienna heard this. She put her hand on her hip and finger in the air.
Sienna: “Now wait everybody! We don’t say ‘Shut-Up’ in this house. It is a bad word and only my dad and mommy sometimes can say bad words. I don’t know why.”
They rat us out.
Grandma: “This garage needs to be cleaned out and organized.” (commenting on our garage)
Sonoma: “Yes but Mommy said it’s like that because you stored some of your stuff in there when you moved.”
And just when you are about to get mad at them, they mishear things in the most adorable ways.
Sonoma: “What are you doing in here?”
Sienna: “I’m playing with the tomato….Mr. Tomato-Head.
They make simple yet profound observations.
At the marina at dusk:
Sonoma: “Mom, stop what you’re doing and come here. You have to see this now.”
Me (walking over to her): “What is it?”
Sonoma: “Look at the sky and this sunset. It is too beautiful!”
They see life brighter. Colors are bolder. The air is crisper and the world has more sparkle.
After collecting shells and sand dollars on the beach all day, Sonoma came up to me and hugged me. She said, “Thanks Mom. Today was the very best day of my life!”
Sonoma: “Name of the Father,
and the Holy Spirit,
(rather than Amen)
One day Sienna will outgrow the way she pronounces “sang-wich” or “Bubba Guppies” (for the show Bubble Guppies). One day she will stop pluralizing Coco- Puffses. One day their blunt observation will be masked in what is socially appropriate. One day I won’t be the first person they come to with each and every observation they make and thought that they think. For now, it is a privilege. I will miss these days.
An old farmer was working in his field with his only horse. Somehow, the horse broke free and ran away from the farm. The farmer could not find the horse anywhere.
In hearing of what happened, neighbors from the village visited, offering their condolences and said, “What a shame. Now your only horse is gone. What bad luck. How will you live, work, and prosper?” The farmer replied: “Who knows? We shall see”.
Less than a week later, the farmer’s horse returned. He returned to the farm with a pack of eight other wild horses. The farmer and his son corralled the horses.
The news traveled throughout the village. The neighbors came to visit the farmer. “You are fortunate!” they proclaimed. “What good luck.” Again, the farmer softly said, “Who knows? We shall see.”
The next morning the farmer’s only son set awoke to train the new wild horses, but the farmer’s son was thrown to the ground and broke his leg. He quickly became sick with fever and pains. One by one villagers arrived to visit the sick son. “Oh, what a tragedy. What bad luck. You must be very sad”. they said. The farmer calmly answered, “Who knows? We shall see”
Across the country, a war began. The Emperor’s men arrived in the village demanding that young men come with them to be conscripted into the Emperor’s army. As it happened the farmer’s son was deemed unfit because of his broken leg and poor health. “What very good fortune you have!” the villagers exclaimed as their own young sons were marched away. “You have good luck.” “Who knows? We shall see!”, replied the old farmer as he headed off to work his field alone.
As time went on the broken leg healed but the son was left with a slight limp. Again the neighbors came to pay their condolences. “Oh what bad luck. Too bad for you”! But the old farmer simply replied; “Who knows? We shall see.”
The war ended but the other young village boys had died in battle. The old farmer’s son was the only young man to have lived. The neighbors said: “Oh how fortunate we are, you must be very happy”, to which the old farmer replied, “Who knows? We shall see!”
In my own life, there are those days where everything seems to fall apart. Although I am aware that I leave little marginal room for error or adjustment in a tightly-packed schedule fully, the slightest shift in planning can ripple throughout the day.
Yesterday, I had a huge deadline and a few hours to accomplish my goal. I arrived at work with three hours to accomplish that work, about five hours of work ahead of me, and anxiety in the pit of my stomach. About forty-five minutes into my work, I get a text and a phone call. My sitter is sick. I have to return home to the kids.
Driving home I felt this sense of defeat. My defeat and negativism was wrapped firmly in a sense that I knew best. My day was crap. I hadn’t accomplished anything and I was feeling sorry for myself.
I arrived home. The sitter left. I began to wash dishes and reason inside my head that these things happen. About twenty minutes into my time at home, there was a horrendous noise. It sounded like twenty-toilets running at once coupled with a train approaching our house. A pipe had burst and began leaking down through three floors of our home. Water poured from the recessed light fixtures, out the air-conditioing vent, and down the brick fireplace.
I was able to shut off the water in our basement in less than ninety seconds from when the leak started. There was damage but not the catastrophic kind. It could have been worse, much worse. I had this overwhelming feeling of thankfulness that I was home. Had no one been home, the damage to our home and danger to our three dogs could have been significant. Had our sitter been home, she wouldn’t have known where the main water valve was and how to turn it off.
I shouldn’t have been home and yet I was. I couldn’t help but feel that someone or something was looking out for me. What I had foolishly thought was a curse (in having to return home early) was a blessing.
This blessing in disguise was a much needed kick in the pants to my ego. In this fast-paced, technology savvy world where we believe so much of life is within our control, this is not always the case. And perhaps this is a good thing. The day was a reminder of faith.
Although we can’t foresee what God or the universe has in store for our days ahead, it isn’t our job to be all knowing. In my life, concentrating on what will happen and what it all means robs me of joy in the presence. Having faith allows me to do my best in that moment.
What may seem like a curse may be our greatest blessings. And the inverse is sometimes true. Sometimes the universe saves us from ourselves and our own choices. Sometimes we walk down the wrong path of romantic partners, career choices, life choices, and the powers that be redeem us. We are spared from short-changing ourselves.
For me, not getting caught in the trap of interpretting that moment-to-moment significance in my own life is about relinquishing control. It is about falling back away into the safety net of faith.
Within that safety net, there is a plan. It would be maddening to attempt to try and figure out that plan. It would be impossible to understand all of its detailed connections and meanings but having faith that there is purpose in each event, seemingly bad or seemingly good, is key.Faith doesn’t mean we will be spared from suffering. It simply means that suffering is for a purpose and that purpose may be something we do not fully understand.
Life speaks to us in our blessings. Life shouts to us in our setbacks and tragedies. Sometimes things in our life are multi-faceted. They are both good and bad intertwined and infinitely joined but fully coated in purpose.
I recently listened to Amiira Ruotula-Behrendt speak about faith and the universe. She suggested what if the universe had three answers in store? And those answers to any of our prayers or questions were: 1) yes, 2) yes but not yet and 3) I have something better in mind for you.
In the year ahead may your sorrows be short lived and your joys be infinite and may you always have a sense of purpose to hold strong to and enjoy the present.
I have always loved Halloween. It is the holiday with an edge to it. October carries with it that kind of crisp coldness where you start to see your own breath in front of your face. You are reminded of your own electric humanity. You’re alive. Trees shed their leaves. Nature is unveiled and yet there is a looming sense of mystery. We know we cannot see all that is or all that is about to be.
Halloween is about making statements with confidence, with exaggeration. and with art. Statements are not made with words but with fabric, with expression, with attitude, and concealment.
My love of Halloween could be because I love candy too. Ah, the rush of sugar. There is something to be said for the rush of a good scare too. I don’t mean the tragic type but rather that adrenaline boost that surges after you exit the roller coaster ramp frazzled and shaking and wanting to do it all over again. These are the things I miss.
This Halloween I will try to remember the value behind trying the things that scare me. Perhaps the days of roller coasters and zip-lining are behind me but there is something to be said for stepping outside of our comfort zone. Maybe Ralph Waldo Emerson said it best, “He who is not everyday conquering some fear has not learned the secret of life.”
When I left my work as a clinical social worker to help my husband build his company, I came to his business with what I believed to be a varied skill set. Undoubtedly, that was true yet in so many areas I found myself knee-deep in uncharted territory. As a life-long, gold star people pleaser, I have always dreaded confrontation. I dreaded it even when I knew I was right. For most of my childhood and well into my thirties, I had gone to great lengths to avoid confrontation even when I had a valid point to make. ‘Flight over fight’ made sense to the peacekeeper in me.
In my new work, I found myself in daily confrontation. It was an integral part of my job description. Building a business is about building bridges and relationships but it is just as much about the fight. There is a struggle to build something. It is not easy. Perhaps that it why it so challenging and rewarding. I found myself having to stand my ground and push forth with vendors and professionals, the general public, the media, and unprofessional professionals of the most unscrupulous, calculated sort.
I found that the daily struggle was a boot camp for my sensitivity. These tiring confrontations and uncomfortable arguments often fought with a trembling voice proved to be so valuable. At the days end, I felt spent. My soul would even sometimes feel bruised but over time I became stronger. I became smarter and more accurate. There was something new and brilliant in my wheelhouse. I knew myself better in a new way. I learned how much I didn’t know about myself when I thought I knew almost everything there was to know about me.
I learned that I was often hiding behind the guise of peacekeeping because the fight for what was right seemed too steep and scary to climb. The truth was that I was too scared too act. I was scared of weakness and terrified of failure.
I also learned that I am a better person for pushing myself. I am a better business owner. I am a better boss to those we employ and whose families depend upon our success. I am a better life partner. I am a better mama bear to my children, and I am without question a stronger soul. I am a contender and I am formidable.
Taking risks is about unwrapping all of those God-given presents that you didn’t even know were given to you. For some, they may be about unwrapping the ability to own their own thoughts and words and about gifts of confidence. Other may be discovering the gifts of forgiveness, humility, humor, or kindness. For all of us, there are so many different gifts to be revealed and developed. There are limits to be overcome. There are always walls to be pushed out, and ceiling to be broken through. As MLK suggested, sometimes we just need to see the first stair of the grand staircase to take the initial step. We get one life to do it right for ourselves, to honor the memory of those who have gone before us, and for our children who will go beyond us.
In recent years, the trembling voice has faded but I find there is always a new risk to be taken and uncharted territory to be covered in most all directions. And there ALWAYS will be.
Happy Halloween, Happy All Saints Day, and Happy All Souls Day!
When I started to think of Mother’s Day this year, I immediately though of my dog trainer. It may seem like a strange correlation at first. I can explain. Half a decade ago, Jamie Casale came recommended to us to train our second dog. I was told that she is called the ‘Dog Whisperer of Basking Ridge’, a name she has earned, as she works miracles with dogs that have been abused, and dogs that have been deemed impossible to train.
Over the years, Jamie worked with our 3 shelter dogs. She was there on the very days that I brought each of my three daughters home from the hospital. She helped introduce our dogs to our newborns. She helped with setting boundaries, consistency in setting limits, and developing behavioral strategies. Her techniques were as applicable to pet owners as they were to parents. Over time, I discovered she was not only a gifted trainer but an amazing mom and an incredible soul.
One day while we were at the park, she shared the following story with me to illustrate a lesson. Over the years, I have often thought back to the story and the lessons within it. I asked Jamie to recount the story to me once again (at my request, she typed it and emailed it to me), and I am sharing it with you below. I left it in her words; the way I heard it a few years back.
I believe there is not a more fitting tribute as Mother’s Day approaches than to honor mothers who embody what great parenting is. Jamie is one of these moms. Here is her story of her son and her fax machine:
When my son was five or six, he and I were living together in a house I had rented after my separation from his dad. Financially, things were very tough, and there had been times when I had to choose between paying the phone bill or the electric bill, knowing that whichever I didn’t pay that day would likely be shut off before my next paycheck. Through all the difficulties, Dan and I knew that we would get through it all, and that we would be just fine as long as we were together.
During that time, I needed to buy a fax machine to have at home for my job. Although I couldn’t really afford it, I had to have it, so Dan and I went off to the electronics store. I looked at all the machines they had, and chose the least expensive one. Back then, even a cheap fax machine was around $400. I didn’t have the cash, of course, so I put it on my already strained credit card.
When we got home, I hooked up the fax and discovered that it didn’t work. So I packed it up and off we went back to the store. I brought the fax machine back to the customer service counter, where they refunded the money to my credit card. I picked out a slightly more expensive machine and took it to the register to pay for it. I handed the clerk all my paperwork from the return, along with my credit card. After she finished ringing everything up, she said, “Your total is $11.45. Sign here.” I looked at the receipt and saw that she had given me credit for the return that had already been refunded to my credit card and had charged me only for the difference in price. I was, in effect, getting the new fax machine for free.
I paused for a minute, thinking about how much I could use that $400 to pay a daycare or electric bill. Then I looked down at my son, and said to him, “Danny, pay attention to what I’m about to do. I want you to remember this.” I then told the young woman that she had made an error and had given me the second refund. She thanked me profusely and re-rang my purchase, and I signed for the $400+ total on my credit card. I took my package and took my son by the hand and walked outside. I knelt down in front of him. “Did you see what just happened, Danny?” I asked. “Sort of,” he said.
“I’ll tell you what happened. When I gave back the broken fax machine, the man gave me back my money on my credit card. But when we went to pay for the new machine, the girl got confused and didn’t know that I already got my money back, so she gave me my money back a second time by mistake. I could have just not said anything about it, and I would have gotten the fax machine for free. That sounds pretty good, right? A free fax machine?”
“You got it for free?” he asked.
“No,” I said. “If I didn’t say anything and took the fax machine, it would have been stealing, even though the girl made a mistake. It would be the same as reaching into the cash register and taking money out because she accidentally left the drawer open. If you take something you should pay for, without paying for it, it’s stealing, no matter how it happens. And know what, Danny? We don’t steal. Not ever. Because it’s wrong, even when no one knows about it and we’d never get caught. ”
I tapped him on his chest over his heart. “You know right here inside whether it’s right or wrong, because I’ve always taught you to know. Just always do what you know is right, even when it’s hard to do the right thing and easy to do the wrong thing. That’s when you really know you’re a good person. And I know you’re a GREAT person.”
We started walking to the car, and as my son took my hand, he looked up at me and said, “You’re a great person, too, Mom. That’s why I’m like you.”
In the course of the 20 years since that day I have seen countless examples of my son making choices to do what’s right – from chasing after a woman to hand her money that she had dropped on the ground to becoming a volunteer EMT at the age of 17 and a volunteer firefighter at the age of 18. He has developed into a fine young adult who is dedicated to public service, graduating Summa Cum Laude with a BS degree in Fire Science for a career as a professional firefighter. He is working as a professional EMT as he works toward a firefighter position, and he continues to serve as a volunteer EMT/Firefighter in our community.
There have been many times over the 25 years we have lived in this community when I have encountered someone who knows my son but has never met me. Invariably, the conversation goes something like this…
”You’re Dan’s mom?”
“Yes, I am.”
“Oh my God, we just LOVE Dan! He is such a great guy. You did a great job raising him – he helps us so much with…. (fill in the blank).”
“Thank you. I kind of love him a lot, too.” I could not be prouder of the man he has become.
Jamie Casale resides in Basking Ridge and continues to train pups of all ages. She can be contacted at 908-672-0473.
Life is too short to hold a grudge, also too long. ~Robert Brault
They say you should never go to bed angry. I am not exactly sure of who the “they” are but its apparently ancient wisdom from generations of Zen grandmothers or from other civilizations that predicted calamity and walked amongst alien visitors. I even saw this saying spelled out on an Etsy macramé wall hanging a few weeks back. I agree. You should always stay up and plot your revenge. At least that’s what my stubborn German-side tells me. Okay, not really. I wholeheartedly believe in letting go of your anger yet from time to time I am guilty of disobeying this. Monday night was one of those disobedient exceptions.
I aim for calm and collected but every so often I miss and land somewhere between sarcasm and the valley of the bitches. Fueled by lack of sleep and the demands of tending to our bus company and writing and raising children, I find that my husband and I can argue over the strangest things. A small quarrel about how to handle an issue at work metamorphosed into an argument about what the talking plastic lizard that sits atop our infant daughter’s bouncy seat was singing. I was certain it was repeatedly saying “red, yellow, and blue”. My husband, Joe, asserted with certainty that it was singing “red, yellow, I’m blue.” Maybe he thought the lizard was depressed. He said it was because parts of his Fisher Price plastic lizard-self are blue.
It was insane talk between adults at 11:05 at night. He retreated to bed. I stayed downstairs and started to wipe down the counters and put toys and other junk away. I then thought just leave it. I can clean it in the morning. Who will see my kitchen before sunrise anyway? Little did I know I would have detectives and police at my kitchen countertop in the next few hours.
I went upstairs. I began to fall asleep. It was the earliest I had been to bed in months. Fast-forward twenty-five minutes. We awoke to a noise outside our window. One of our dogs was growling at the window. We own a transportation company and it’s not unusual for drivers to be picking cars up at our home. It is unusual though when all assigned cars have already been picked up to hear someone in your driveway. My husband started down the stairs. I had the most suddenly horrid feeling deep in my stomach. I called to him to wait. We heard the screech of tires as our Escalade furiously sped away. He turned to me and said what we both already knew. Our truck was stolen.
We contacted the police. They found our other Escalade ransacked in the driveway. We soon learned that they had taken financial items and car keys. We wondered if they’d return. After dusting for fingerprints and collecting evidence and even tracking the car into Newark, we got an answer to our question. They did return.
Ever since this has happened I have been processing it. There’s a lot to take away. I’m not the overly optimistic type but I do acknowledge that within this chaotic tempest, there were some silver linings. There was the silver lining of kindness and accountability. There were people doing their jobs and doing them well. The West Caldwell Police Department went above and beyond to protect our family and stationed police in our driveway. Mayor Cory Booker reached out to us personally and interceded in getting our vehicle returned to us.
Most importantly, there was that thought of going to bed at night. I keep thinking back to when I went to wipe down the counter and that strong, clear thought that no one would see the kitchen before 6 am. I made a similar assumption in holding onto my anger at my husband as I went to bed. I assumed he’d be there in the morning to be angry at.
The truth is that we never know what can happen in the night or from one hour to the next. At that very moment that I pleaded with my husband not to go outside into our driveway, I thought of our fight from less than an hour ago. My anger seemed trivial and meaningless, and it was.
Sometimes seemingly bad things happen because there is peril in this world. Sometimes seemingly bad things happen and they put the good and important things in perspective. Cars and trucks are all replaceable but our spouses and are family are not. Anger and so many of our emotions and what we become fixated on is unimportant and so temporary. We know this and yet it’s so easy to lose this truth in our hurried lives.
So many of life’s answers remain within us but remain as disorganized as my kitchen at eleven o’clock at night and they become buried under the mundane and complexities of everyday life. Life has a curious way of re-organizing these truths and putting them back where you can find them.
Don’t go to bed angry. They say anger is one letter short of danger. There is truth in this. Anger is fear topped with madness. It remains corrosive to our souls. The small, miniscule things are the very things we need to take the time to repair keeping in mind that the smallest of leaks have sunk the greatest of ships.