Chaos, forgiveness and a new year.

15965463_10210997109299645_6020199336901915323_nOur home is chaos. Happy chaos. Most of the time.

Three little girls seven and under battle for the bathroom sink and mirror. Our four-month old infant nurses at night for forty minute clips. Our self-owned business is all-consuming at times.

Our youngest dog is blind in one eye from gunshot wounds he suffered before he came to us. Our oldest dog is fifteen and our middle dog recently braved major surgery and bone cancer and copes with three legs. Of course, there are those arguments and complications of every day life whose specifics you spare from media posts, blogs, and public consumption.

There are mornings where I oversleep. There are moments at breakfast where I scold my children to eat the charred toast I just burnt. There are nights I forget to pack lunches for tomorrow.

13669619_10209272042374050_281653640009791331_nOn the days where I feel like I’m running a nursing home for dogs and the nights where I am wiping ink off the closet door, I remind myself that this is holy chaos. I blinked and my dogs are in the sunset of their lives. In what feels like a single heartbeat, I will be turning around and handing my car keys off to my kids.

I recall a post-surgery medical prognosis fifteen years ago where the odds of ever having babies were bleak at best. I remember to myself that I prayed for this mess and I hold onto that memory of a prayer in the swirling chaos. These paper doll scraps that fill our floors, these cursed Shopkins creatures that I blindly step on, and these plastic, sticky remnants of doggy tea parties are sacred. They are a sacred mess. They are holy scatterings of blessings granted.

In the midst of everything, messy and holy, our second grader has a reading log to complete every single week.

In theory, the concept of the reading log is to read for at least twenty minutes a day. Every day. There are weeks that begin with me carefully selecting what books would be interesting to read. And there are nights where I wonder if I turned directly from page 2 to 10 if my daughter would notice. There are moments where I want to pull the book from her and read it out loud because its late and I am tired and she is reading aloud so very methodically slow.

In theory, we select books to read together. In practicality, she often grabs a book and reads. When I was preoccupied last week, she found a self-help book and began to read.

She was about twenty-two pages into this grown-up book before I realized what my child was reading.

“What are you reading? “, I questioned with the guilt of inattentiveness.

My daughter explained, “Mom I found this great book.”

“Maybe it’s too old for you?” I quipped.

“Mom it is about forgiveness. We all need that.” She explained, “Mom, we forgive for ourselves not just the other person. If not, it will weigh you down. You must forgive things that aren’t perfect. Things will never be perfect mom.” And with that my second grader walked off.

I had read that same book a few months ago and I did not receive that message so clearly.

Things will never be perfect. Perfection is not the goal. It is the sin. It is the thief that sneaks in and steals the present away. It steals the imperfect authenticity of the present moment away while we busy ourselves with trying to make it neat and shiny and look the way others tell you it should be.

15697645_10211764868463696_9045984699384931298_nI would not trade my rescue dogs for the pick of the litter. I would not trade my mess. I would only slow time.

My intention for this year is to make no resolutions. No resolutions here – just affirmations.

I will simply do my best to be present. I will be present in the mess and in those rare moments that work out better than expected. I will certainly fail at times. Many times. I will then try again and again.

Forgiveness is hard. Forgiving ourselves can be even more difficult.It is impossible to be present for others when we fail to forgive ourselves for being human.

There is a realm of possibility that lies just beyond our judgements of others and ourselves. I will forgive starting with myself. I will show up for myself, for my loved ones, and for those who are difficult to love.

Life is hard. It is messy and it is beautiful. It is all of the above. There is no trite answer just a million smaller ones. I strongly believe the best things in life lie outside of our comfort zones and right beyond the lines we draw around our expectations. To begin living continuously outside the lines is not just acceptable. It is brave and it is the goal.It is the hallway to transformation.

What are your intentions in this new year?

 

Uncertainty: A Formidable and Powerful Teacher

mysteryOne of the few things that I find myself certain of is my inability to tolerate uncertainty. I know, in essence, that life is always uncertain. Uncertainty contains the sweetness of risk and the power of potential. As I grow older, I recognize that patience with the unknown is a cornerstone of maturity. I fully realize that we aren’t granted tomorrow and we must live in the present to really grasp what life has to offer. In theory, I understand it. In practice though, I am still practicing.

Lately, it feels like I’ve entered a boot-camp for my discomfort with uncertainty. In all aspects of my life, I am deluged with change; flooded with so many unknowns and so few answers.  All the while as I analyze and think, this voice within has been whispering that this may feel like the real struggle but is all preparation for things ahead. All of this exercise in discomfort is just practice for what is coming.

As often is the case, that little voice within was correct.

Two weeks ago Friday, I returned home with my three daughters from a week-long Boston trip. After driving five hours through Storm Andrea, that stormy Friday afternoon was all about mounds of piled mail, even bigger mounds of piled work, and the biggest mounds of piled laundry.

When putting my oldest daughter, Sonoma, to bed that night, I noticed a small cut on her wrist. It was about 1/10 of a inch. It was barely a scratch but I recall thinking I should put some more peroxide on it before she went to sleep. I left the room to grab the peroxide and a Band-Aid. As sometimes happens, something else caught my attention. I forgot. I had three dogs to tend to, clothes to move from the washer to the dryer, emails to send out with a deadline of midnight, and an infant to nurse.

That momentary forgetfulness would later haunt me.

In the morning, two of my three daughters awoke as they always do at 6:30am. 7:30 passed and Sonoma still slept. 8:30 passed, 9:00 passed – no Sonoma. Around 9:30am, Sonoma came downstairs and quietly said that she didn’t feel well. “Look Mom, my arm looks like a tennis ball.” It was yellowish, green and swollen. By 9:48am, I had all three of my daughters in the hospital emergency waiting room. They treated her and discharged her with some antibiotics. we were back home a little after 11:00am.

The day went on. Sonoma was in good spirits. During church services that night, Sonoma began to burn up with fever. She became listless and lethargic. We headed to the emergency room right after Mass. On the way to the hospital, she developed redness running up the center of her arm. At the hospital, they diagnosed it as cellulitis, a bacterial infection. The doctors told my husband, Joe, and I that it was serious.

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Sonoma and Friends

The following hours were extremely difficult. She had a temperature of 104. They were able to reduce the fever with medication. I left the hospital at midnight to bring my infant daughter home and visit our two year old, Sienna, who was with Joe’s cousin. It took everything in me to leave her for the next few hours but I knew she was content with her dad sleeping in the chair next to her bedside.

When I texted Joe around 4:00 am to see how she was, I was told she had taken a turn for the worse. Her fever was back up to 104, her arm was red and swollen, and they were concerned. There were high fevers, periods of incessant vomiting, and uncertainty as to the trajectory of her illness. As someone who worked in a hospital for several years, I knew all the possibilities and I was terrified. I sat up in my bed sickened by the unknown. I was shaking. I had the chills. The clock read 4:03am. I called the doctor at the nurse’s station. I called her pediatrician. I asked questions trolling for certainty that i knew they couldn’t give me. I paced around the room. I threw up.  The clock read 4:21am. Time was virtually standing still.

When I returned to the hospital in the morning, her condition improved. Hours later it became slightly worse. Slowly and steadily though, Sonoma became better each day. My husband slept in the chair next to her bed every night. In the day, I sat with her. We drew pictures, painted, and spent time with family.

Three days later, Sonoma was discharged. She remained in good spirits and has made a wonderful recovery.

This could easilyimage3 be a cautionary story about the dangers of an infected cut. In all honesty, with three children ages four and under, my children get scratches and scrapes every single day. I do clean their cuts but not every single one. I grew up in a pre-bike helmet, pre-car seat, pre-antibacterial soap era and always silently reasoned that I survived. I now see the danger in what occurred and how serious something became so quickly. All I can say is to err on the side of caution and trust your parental gut.

This could be a story about the need to slow down. I was so busy tending to the little things that I forgot to tend to another little thing that was  important. Responding to an email requesting a recipe or a Facebook comment can wait. So can that 3rd load of laundry. There will always be laundry and inbox messages. At the end of the day, children are just more important.image1

This could be a story about the power of prayer and positive energy. Immediately, friends and family asked what they could do. They offered to watch our daughters, watch our dogs, come to the hospital, or come to our home. There is power in love and in kindness. There is power in showing up for others in their time of need.

This could be a story about bravery. Our daughter was such a sweet, brave spirit. With every blood test and IV and medicine administered, she didn’t fuss but showed remarkable resilience and even smiled. Her ability to endure everything with grace was astounding. Sometimes we discount the ability of our children to understand what is going on. I was astounded at my daughter’s ability to process everything and handle it with such dignity.

This story could be about so many different things but this is a story about gratefulness. It is not just gratefulness for the fact that she is recovering and there is a happy ending to this story. It is a more enduring grimage2atefulness based on perspective and the bigger picture.

Sonoma was on the Pediatric Unit of the hospital. It was a unit with children of various ages and illnesses. Often children were walking the halls with their parents and there was an art room for children that were healthy enough to meander over. During Sonoma’s hospitalization, we would see children who had received chemo and children who didn’t have the liberty to leave the hospital in 3 days, as we did.

When I think of that feeling of being despondent that night, that seemingly unbearable feeling was just for one night. There are parents who have to live with similar feelings of uncertainty about their child’s health for months and even years. These same parents who had been there with their child for many months were the same parents who held the door open for us. They smiled in the hallway at us and even offered to share their art supplies with us. That is true courage, kindness, and bravery.

Now that our somewhat hectic life has resumed, I was standing on line at Starbuck’s yesterday and the man in front of me online lambasted the Barista for getting his coffee order wrong. I found myself instantly thinking of  that mom walking the hallway with her small sick, bald  daughter and their IV on wheels and her smiling into Sonoma’s room when they passed by. With all that mother was dealing with, that mom took the time to show us a gesture of kindness.

Although we can’t control what we are dealt in life, we can control our reactions. In this sense, we hold the potential for growth, change, and healing within our own grasp.

The next time, I’m in the car flashing my lights for someone to speed up or honking to tell someone to slow down, maybe that person is on their way to the hospital or somewhere else just as  important. Perhaps they’re not, and just an inconsiderate driver. Nonetheless, it is about being mindful. So many of us are fighting important, secret battles. It is essential to be kind.

Perspective. Making sure the things in our lives aren’t more important than the people in our lives. Making certain that we don’t allow the petty matters of daily life overshadow great and simple opportunities to express our love for others.

Perhaps the only certainties in life are those that we make certain to embrace and express, such as love and kindness. And perhaps certainty and resolution are highly overrated. Pema Chodron addresses this idea in her book, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times:

“As human beings, not only do we seek resolution, but we also feel that we deserve resolution. However, not only do we not deserve resolution, we suffer from resolution. We don’t deserve resolution; we deserve something better than that. We deserve our birthright, which is the middle way, an open state of mind that can relax with paradox and ambiguity.”

The Dog Trainer & The Fax Machine: Teaching Our Children What is Right

ImageWhen 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.

ImageI 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.

Easter Gratitude: Putting My Blessings In One Basket

eggsAs a young girl, every Easter I was sick. I would eat too much chocolate or catch the flu or suffer from a combination of both ailments. Easter was more about pastel marshmallow treats and my love-hate relationship with them. As I grew older, Easter presented an opportunity to visit with my West-Coast cousins in Seattle. I traveled cross-country on a plane with my maternal grandparents to celebrate family tradition, to embrace the true sense of holiness, and to celebrate our blessings. I soon learned that a rainy Easter spent with family out West was better than most anything. I learned to make sticky-buns and even more importantly, we made memories that will shine in my heart forever.

As I now prepare for this season of rebirth, I think about sacrifice and I think about my many blessings. It’s a powerful and important thing to reflect upon after a week full of such ups and downs.

As I feel the impulse to complain about what is trivial, I more fervently feel compelled to be thankful. I am blessed that my husband’s business is busy enough that he works from 7 am until 8 or 9pm each night. I am blessed that I have three daughters who turn my house upside down in a matter of moments. I am glad that have each other to be in cahoots with, and I’m grateful that we have a home. I try to earnestly appreciate the sour with the sweet, to find the lesson in what is difficult, and to take each obstacle as a lesson for what lies ahead. Sometimes it is easier said than done. Sometimes I am able to focus on the journey better than the destination.

I am thankful for family, even when we are fighting and when we agree to disagree. I am thankful that they are there and for their love that remains unconditional.

I am thankful for the half-dozen pills that we have to give to our twelve-year old dog, Sweetie. I am glad that she made it through a medical scare this week. In Easter irony, she ate a rabbit (not a chocolate one, rather a furry one) and didn’t fare well after the fact. My heart is full of gratitude that she is there to squeeze between my husband and I in our bed tonight, and evil-eye us when we invade her space. We have been granted the gift of time with her for now. Dogs have a way of reminding us of all that is good and wonderful in this world without saying a word. Just their presence can sum up joy, lightheartedness, and loyalty all at once. Sweetie and our two other rescue pups suffered abuse before they came into our lives. Sweetie, Finn, and Jake, continue to teach us so much about life through their daily example of simplicity. Their ability to forgive, reconcile, trust, and care for one another and us is amazing in itself.

I am thankful for my husband and the many differences we have between us. They are reminders of why we got together to begin with, of why we get along, of what we have to offer each other, and of how far we have come. There are truths in our disagreements, these small little bits of honesty filled with light, that seem to rise up to the surface. Sometimes things need to be said in order to move forward.

I am thankful for humor. It is a saving grace and God-sent. When I stand in our kitchen and watch our eight-month-old daughter laugh hysterically at the funny sounds and faces her two sisters make at her, I am instantly reminded that God is present in her laughter. It serves as such a poignant reminder of the importance of keeping a sense of humor and perspective in this whirlwind life. My children remind both my husband and I of how necessary it is to take life seriously and not to take life too seriously all at the same time.

I am thankful for friends. People travel in and out of your existence. Life always seems to surprise me though. It is such a beautiful, startling shock to have someone in your life gift you with the most generous gift of time, the most enthusiastic present of their presence in your life, and the reward of their honest feedback. These are the sweetest gifts and I am thankful for true friends. You are the many reflections of the face of God in my life.

I feel those who are no longer with us, who have departed this earth still walking beside us. I feel them with us on the other side, guiding us and rooting us on. Every now and then they whisper into our hearts. I miss them and hope as this new spiritual year commences to make them proud.

Blessings to you and your loved ones this Easter!

The Internet and Children: Keeping Our Kids Safe

When my first child was born, friends and family would visit. They would stand over the crib and stare at my doe-eyed daughter and say, “Wait, before you know it, she will be getting her license.”  I must have heard that cautionary point at least half a dozen times with each of my three children. I get it. Life passes quickly. One day, your daughter is in fuzzy pink overalls sitting behind a tray in her high chair. Blink, and she is sitting in a miniskirt behind a steering-wheel. Or so I hear, as my children have yet to reach that point but I, nonetheless, understand their point. The right to drive was once a first rite of passage from youth into young adulthood; a literal portal to the big, vast world.

The privilege of operating a motor vehicle has always presented vast responsibility and immense convenience. It also presents the possibility of sheer independence, the necessity of good judgment, and the presence of danger all at once. With all of that in mind, I am not rushing that moment when my eldest daughter asks my husband and me for the keys to the car and backs out of our driveway alone.

The world continues to evolve and now there is a tool of equal weight and consequence that our youth operate even sooner than the automobile. The Internet. When used responsibly, this tool can be a great source of convenience, knowledge, education, and communication. This same invention also puts children in direct interaction with the big, vast world out there without leaving the comfort and assumed safety of their parent’s home. Among great possibility also lurks the opportunity for those seeking anonymity and those with less than honorable intentions. There is a world of promise coupled with danger right within your own home. The issue then becomes, How do we offer our children independence and respect and protection simultaneously?

My friend, Jamie Tripp Utitus, Parental Guidance blogger for nj.com recently wrote a story, Facebook, Should We Get Access If Our Child Dies? Jamie focuses on the Nash family, a family who lost their fifteen year old son to suicide. Now that grieving family has been battling Facebook to have the right to access their deceased 15 year-old son’s inbox with the hope of finding a clue about why he took his own precious life.

It also presents the larger issinternetchildue of whether a parent should have legal access to a child’s social networking account or if it should be kept private. As an individual with a therapeutic background in the medical field, I spent many years working with families and contending with privacy laws. Even in those circumstances, the parents of a minor may access their child’s records. It, therefore, seems foolish that parents can access the most intimate of psychiatric and medical records but are then denied the right to their child’s inbox messages.

How do you protect your child from cyber bullying, access to inappropriate content, exposure to predators, and from revealing too much personal information? As portable devices become ever popular and the Internet can now be accessed from smart phones and iPads in school hallways, coffee shops, on school buses, and in bathrooms, the task of monitoring becomes ever complex.

This isn’t about reading a locked diary hidden under your child’s bed or protecting your child’s reputation online. This is about navigating an entirely new dimension in the lives of our youth. It seems that protecting your child from the world online is as essential a task as it is to protect your child from the real world.

No plan is perfect and as technology becomes more high-tech, monitoring strategies must become more sophisticated. Here are some suggestions:

  • Start the conversation with your kids about online safety. Educate your children on the perils that are out there. Ignorance is not bliss. Revisit the issue often.
  • Place limitations on when and where children can access certain websites.
  • Put rules in place for when and what a webcam can be used for. Discuss texting and what it should be used for and how often it can be used. Establish reasonable boundaries and honor them.
  • Set up the home computer in a highly trafficked area of the home.
  • Monitor cell phones, laptops, and devices used for gaming. Check browsing histories.
  • Take time to let your children show you what they like to do online. See what sites they visit, become familiar with what they like to do and who they are communicating with.
  • Notice any change in your child’s behavior. Look for changes in sleep patterns, eating habits, mood, unwillingness to attend school, withdrawal from social activities, and other changes. Take these changes seriously. Talk to their teachers. Don’t just be your child’s friend but remember you are their greatest advocate. Get your child help if he or she needs it.

Mr. Nash had a good rule for his children. Although he assured them he respected their privacy, he had the password of each child’s account. Days before their son, Eric, ended his life, he changed his own password.

What safety measures have you put in place? I am a firm believer that there is no substitute for good supervision. I am interested to know how thousands upon thousands of other parents are handling the issue. Where do you draw the line between respecting your child’s privacy and safely monitoring their activities?