Category Archives: Parents

A Halloween tale with a happy ending: An Orphan Blossoms in America

A few years ago, KitKat shared a scary Halloween tale of lost socks and lost patience. This year, I have a scary story of my own. A poor rural Chinese family gives birth to a baby boy. This would usually be cause for rejoicing, but this family already has two children—a school-age daughter and a three-year-old girl. Given the political and economic circumstances in China, they aren’t allowed to have three children, so one of them must go. The older daughter is in school and contributes to the household. Due to a centuries-old tradition, the baby boy will be responsible for supporting the parents in their old age. Therefore, the “logical choice” is the precocious preschooler—the girl with the smile like sunshine whose antics make her parents laugh and delight in her warm, open personality. They’re poor and not able to support all of their children. The girl is malnourished despite being well-loved.

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The ceiling of the Tianjin train station has a mural of a guardian angel, protecting those on their journey

The parents are too heartbroken to part with their darling daughter, so her grandparents volunteer to take care of things. They bring her to the train station. With so many people coming and going, nobody will notice a small child left behind. At least, not right away. Eventually a train station official notices the small girl crying on the platform. She’s looking for Lao-ye and Ye-ye and wondering where they are. The station official gives the frightened child a piece of candy and takes her to his office while he calls the local police. He’s hoping it’s a case of a lost child and not an abandoned one, but his heart tells him otherwise. Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, children are going from house to house saying “Trick or treat!” The whole evening is devoted to frightful pranks that aren’t really scary, because they’re only make-believe. However, for the girl back in China, the scenario that’s unfolding is truly frightening.

The girl is taken to the police station where they keep her for three days. They are waiting to see if she is in fact a lost child and merely separated from her family or one of the many unfortunate girls whose family cannot afford to keep her, due to a social system that places responsibility for aging parents on the sons.

After three days in police custody, the officials face the sad fact that nobody is searching for the child. They bring her to the local orphanage where she is given a new identity and a chance for a better life.

KitKat and I are both parents of adopted daughters and the story I just told is my imagined “horror story” of my daughter’s early childhood. Blossom was abandoned on Halloween, so witches and ghost decorations in the stores always make me reflect on this. My daughter turned 21 last November. This is a milestone for any young person, because they are finally recognized as an adult in all respects. But for Blossom, birthdays have always carried a little twist: You see, her birthday was “assigned” to her the day she came to the orphanage.

When we first discovered that, I was a little dismayed. “You mean, we won’t know how old she really is?” I thought. Then, upon reflection I realized this was a pretty trivial matter. After all, she came to the orphanage when she was around three. The orphanage director was a doctor and assessed her as being three years old. In thinking about my (many) nieces and nephews, I realized that the margin of error on predicting a three-year-old child’s age is only +/- six months at best (in other words, you’re unlikely to mistake a six year old for being three) so I figured this was close enough to not worry about it. Her assigned birthday meant she would always be one of the older kids in her class, so that seemed to add a layer of security, ensuring she would be sufficiently mature for the various rites of passage.

Traditionally in China, all children were considered “one year old” at birth and then would age by one year at the lunar new year and on each lunar new year thereafter. So the fact that Blossom’s true age was a little “off” from her celebrated birthday actually seemed to pay homage to her Chinese heritage.

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Gong, Hua (soon-to-be Blossom, in the Green School Hyogo t-shirt, front row) with her classmates at the Tianjin Children’s Welfare Institute

When the orphanage officials brought Blossom in to meet us, her Mama and Baba, for the first time, my immediate reaction was “Oh my God, she’s only two!” Our information had told us she was four-and-a-half, but she was a little peanut and didn’t look older than two. I panicked a bit, because as parents of two other children, we weren’t really expecting to go all the way back to the toddler stage. However, soon after interacting with her, we could see that she was no toddler. For example, she could tie her shoes—and we could tell that she was quite clever in making little remarks (even though they were in Chinese and we couldn’t understand anything she was saying). We asked the orphanage director how confident he was in the age he had assigned to her and he responded, “She’s four alright—four going on eight!” (referring to her precociousness).

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Blossom being carried off the plane by baba to start her new life in America

So we had no medical reason to change her birthdate—and I had another more important reason to keep it. With an older “waiting child,” the rules are different than for adopting a typical international baby, thus I had been inquiring into Blossom’s adoption availability, only to be told another family was working on adopting her. For whatever reason, they decided not to proceed and the day the orphanage called to tell me that she was available to us was the same date as her assigned birthday. So, you see, on that day she was “born” into our family as our next daughter, so in my heart her birthday has always seemed appropriate.

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Always challenging herself

Unlike a lot of adopted children, Blossom has never drilled us for details around her adoption. One of the blessings of adopting a child of another race is it’s a pretty in-your-face move. When you see our family, four Scandinavian Minnesotans with a short Asian girl, it’s clear she’s adopted. Which in many regards, has simplified things. And truthfully, although we’re all well aware that Blossom has a different genetic and cultural background. (When her parents are acting too weird, she likes to lord over her img_3303siblings the fact that she’s actually NOT genetically predisposed to the weirdness, although they are.) But, we don’t really give it a second thought in our day-to-day lives. I knew I would adopt before I ever had biological children, so she was always part of “the plan,” and we’re very much a regular family with all of the idiosyncrasies that brings. I wish I could tell her birth mom that our shared daughter is living a life filled with opportunity that she never could have imagined on that sad Halloween in China. And Blossom acknowledges the uniqueness of her circumstances by wanting to contribute to the betterment of the world in some way. And I know she will. She already is.

Stormy & KitKat for office? That’s just the ticket!

Someone recently posted on my Facebook page, “Stormy for President! I’d vote for you…” This made me laugh because I view politics as a necessary evil and generally identify as an Independent. I usually have very little to say on the topic and have only been opinionated this year because a madman is in the race. However, the post got me to thinking: “If I were running for president, what would my platform be? What are my beliefs and how do they define me?”

True to my apolitical roots, I’m going to stay away from foreign policy, gun control, and economics (although I have opinions on all of the above) and, as I’m running an honest, transparent campaign, I’m going to tell you what I really believe.*

It’s never too late – Maybe I’ve watched Scrooge too many times, but I honestly believe that everyone has the capacity to change—and at any time—so long as they want to. I keep hoping that will be the case with my 89-year-old mother, but I’m trying to balance that by having no expectations that she actually will change. That’s a tricky balance.

Find a penny, pick it up. All day long you’ll have good luck – I never walk past a penny on the ground without stopping to pick it up. It’s not that Stormy is cheap, but she is thrifty. At one time lack of finances was a very real issue for me, so I like to remind myself how far I’ve come and remember that it still is an issue for many others. Even if I’m blessed with a comfortable lifestyle, I never want to discount money’s worth—even if it’s a lowly penny—out of respect for those who must save every cent.

He who hesitates…is going to have to wait for me – I adhere to the rules of the road (in most cases) but if we come to a stop sign and you don’t go when it’s your turn, I’m not going to sit around waiting for you. I’m going.

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This jacket actually has Stormy looking forward to cooler weather…

Smart people buy used – There are people out there who think buying used is for “poor people” and won’t purchase anything that’s not in the original packaging. Poppycock. You get way more for your money buying certain items used (cars, clothes, everyday dishes and glasses). I’ve admitted to being a bit of a clotheshorse, but people don’t realize how much I purchase secondhand: Like my cashmere sweaterdress from Neiman Marcus, the Missoni dress I wore to my niece’s wedding reception or my new favorite: The black leather moto jacket I bought from ThredUp. The best thing about buying consignment clothes is you get a preview into how well they will hold up and can get high-quality threads for knock-off prices.

If you’re having a terrible day, end it – No, I’m not advocating suicide…just an earlier bedtime. Occasionally, despite our best efforts, some days just suck more than others…but getting a good night’s sleep can improve your whole perspective.

If you’re having lots of terrible days, do something about it – If your circumstances are making you miserable, change them. Oftentimes, the biggest hurdle standing between you and a positive change is your own attitude. Maybe you can’t make a wholesale life change (like quitting your job) immediately, but you can take steps toward change (like updating your resume or brushing up on a skill that will make you more marketable). If you absolutely cannot deal with your circumstances OR if your life is good but you’re still miserable for some unidentifiable reason, PLEASE SEEK PROFESSIONAL HELP.

All things in moderation – Fanatics (of any type) scare the shit out of me, so I stay away from environments that encourage fanaticism (sports play-offs, political rallies). I also try to understand both sides of an issue, because there are very few situations that are as black and white as they first appear. But I’ve found that this moderate approach works for other things as well. Dieting? If you deny yourself your favorite foods, it’s probably just a matter of time before you fall off the wagon. If you satisfy those cravings with a moderate amount of chips (or whatever) on occasion, it may take a little longer to lose the weight, but you’ll be more likely to stick with your overall eating plan.

Big changes start with small steps – There’s power in motion and sometimes great achievements are made through lots of little mundane steps. When I was working toward my bachelor’s degree, I was married and raising small children, while also working part-time. Progress was slow, but 11 years later, I had a degree. That success also led me to earning an MBA a decade later…(Thankfully, it didn’t take a decade to earn that one!) The habits-quotespoint is, those achievements were the accumulation of MANY mundane steps, but by sticking with them and keeping my eye on the finish line, I got there. This same principle can be applied to so many things. As Woody Allen said, “80% of success is showing up.”

How about you, KitKat? What does your “platform” look like? (And no, I’m not talking about shoes…)

KitKat Weighs in…

It’s KitKat, remember me? I have been a bit quiet as I adjust to a new job while balancing my normal chaotic family schedule. But, there is nothing like a political debate to pull me out of the shadows. Having divorced parents on two opposite sides of the spectrum, I have grown up listening to opinions shared with extreme passion. I learned that it is ok to express your beliefs, and a good family debate is sometimes a great way to firm up your own convictions and even counts as quality family time.

Though I found Stormy’s expressed beliefs undebatable (including the madman), I thought I better add mine to the ballot. Who knows, she may ask me to be her running mate!

Share the real things – I love seeing everyone’s photos documenting all the bests, but don’t forget to share the other real things too. Friends, acquaintances and even random bloggers, who have opened up or provided self-deprecating humor about struggles with kids, marriage, or other life issues have helped me in ways they will never know. Hey, it is nice to learn you’re not a freak with weird thoughts and emotions that no one else could imagine. It’s not about a bitch sessions. It’s just about being real. Otherwise, we all would just see the snippets from Facebook and wonder why our lives aren’t always made up of countless shiny moments like everyone else.

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KitKat shakes things up by taking her fear of flying on a seaplane in Seattle

Shake things up Try new things, learn new skills, meet new people and make different mistakes. Sometimes my risks are bigger like quitting a safe corporate job to join a start up and sometimes it is as simple as changing my hair color. Shaking things up keeps me awake. “To dare is to lose one’s footing momentarily. To not dare is to lose oneself.” – Soren Kierkegaard

Keep moving – Sometimes you just can’t fix a rough day or bad situation, but just physically moving will help get you out of the wallow of self-pity. Twisting your body into different yoga poses. Taking a walk outside. Or my personal favorite: turning on music and dancing. No, it may not fix anything,  but it provides a momentary escape from a really crappy day.

(This may sound like a contradiction to Stormy’s “end it” advice but think of it as an alternative to those of us who don’t have the luxury to go to bed early. Stormy and I support all lifestyles.)

Your life isn’t all your own – There are many great readings on how to be happy and do what is right for you. I devour these when I see the posts. Who doesn’t want to grow old knowing they were fulfilled in every way? But the real truth is life isn’t all about you. There are friends, family, kids and even strangers who also count. Sometimes you have to make sacrifices or do things for others that may mean giving up some more selfish choices. Your life is part of a community. People who are there to share in the highs, and pick you up from the lows. Your peeps, those you know or will know, are part of your life and decisions. And that is ok—you need them!

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You never know what kind of a fairy you may encounter!

Let children believe – Soon enough we learn fairy tales don’t always have happy endings. But let them discover that themselves. So at my house Santa and the Easter Bunny are real, or at least nothing any of us question aloud, so they will keep visiting. And of course I was a fairy in my 20s with all kinds of mystical stories to share with my daughter whose deepest wish is to also become one. And, I am going to let my son think he has a solid career plan, being that if he doesn’t get recruited by the NHL or MBL, he came up with the fallback job of  being a pro-sports lawyer. No reason to crush his dreams with realistic expectations at 13. Plus, it is fun to hear all the things he is going to buy me when he is rich and famous. Let children believe in the whatever after. I find that going along with their imaginations lets me believe a bit in magic and wish bigger too.

Words count – Words hurt, much more than sticks and stones. The things we are told stick with us. Some of the comments told to us out of anger or disappointment, haunt us later. You may be surprised how much someone held on to words you forgot you spoke. It is ok to be honest and tell people the truth. I advocate for not being passive-aggressive and as I mentioned above, being real. The hard part is to remember to also go back and share when you don’t feel that way anymore or when they have made amends. Words also have power to heal. (This is something I am trying to remember in dealing with my own kids—especially navigating around a temperamental pre-teen.)

Arguing is ok – Simply put, if I am not willing to argue with you, that’s when you know something is wrong. There is passion in caring.

Embrace everything that has shaped youEveryone has made some choices that they may go about differently given the chance. But it’s not just “right” choices that form the better you. Sometimes it’s the other paths where you learn the most. I may not want my children making some of the choices I did, but I hope they safely make it through some unchartered journeys. Instead of living in a cloud of regret, remember the things gained or experiences had. The skeletons in your closet are also your treasure chest of memories and learnings. For example, the R-rated job I took up in college; sorry Mom and Dad but I am still glad I was dumb enough to make that bad choice. Love all of your story—it is what makes you interesting.

Some things are best left alone – As much as I stand for trying new things and always improving, sometimes we need to realize when we already have something good and just leave it alone. For example, take Swedish Fish Oreos. How could someone take one of the best candies, which I will eat until my teeth actually hurt, and combine it with a favorite classic childhood cookie. You took two greats and transformed it into an awful. Another example is taking a yummy piece of bread and then dipping it in a bowl of creamy tomato bisque. Now you just created wet, and pinkish, bread—gag! (I loved those hot lunch trays in elementary school that kept my foods separate.) Basically, don’t ruin a good thing when you have it.

What do you say, Stormy? Should we throw our hats in the ring? The way most Americans feel about their choices this year, we may actually stand a chance. 🙂

*This list was inspired by another blogger whose work Stormy admires. See the original post here.

Living fearless

Sometime in my early 30s, I had an epiphany about fear. I had wanted to adopt an orphaned child (not an infant) ever since I was a kid myself, but when I finally got to the stage in my life where I could afford the process, I had doubts. I already had two wonderful biological children and a happy marriage. What if I adopted a kid who was deeply troubled and screwed all of that up? This fear was holding me back.

Meanwhile, a guest speaker at church told us about a mission trip she had taken to work with Mother Teresa in India. I won’t describe the story that changed my perspective (I’m sure it would lose something in my retelling) but the upshot of it was I realized I needed to have faith in a good outcome and plunge ahead despite my fear.quote-inaction-breeds-doubt-and-fear-action-breeds-confidence-and-courage-if-you-want-to-conquer-fear-dale-carnegie-32059

Those of you who have met my daughter Blossom know that I was immeasurably blessed by my leap of faith.

A conscious choice to “Be not afraid”

Fast forward a few years to when my husband was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. A highly individualized illness, some people end up in a wheelchair in five years. Others still work for 15 or 20 years. About a quarter of those diagnosed end up with dementia. There was plenty to fear, but we made a conscious decision to not immerse ourselves too deeply in what “could be” and just focus on what he still could do in the here and now. So far, that decision has served us well, and we’ve been pleasantly surprised by the relatively slow progression of his disease.

I recently was alluding to some challenging family issues, mainly concentrated around my elderly parents, and I’ve determined that the source of these difficulties comes back to this same issue: Fear. My mother is living in fear more and more as she gets older. It’s causing her world to contract and leaving her confused and angry. It’s challenging for her adult children because the fear colors her perception—and our concern about her well-being is interpreted as attempts to take away her freedom.

We have nothing to fear but fear itself… and daycare costs

There are many times our lives require us to overcome our fear in order to move to the next phase: Going away to college, moving out on your own, interviewing for a job, asking someone on a date, proposing marriage, deciding to bring a child into the world, letting your children strike off on their own, learning to trust your adult children, learning to trust that things will work out, and finally trusting that, even when death is inevitable, God is by your side.

baby_moneyHaving a baby is a common example. Many young couples fear the responsibility of parenting. With news articles estimating that it will cost  a quarter of a million dollars to raise a newborn to age 18, it’s no wonder. Yet most of us plow ahead anyway—adjusting our lifestyles along the way—and consider ourselves the richer for it (even while our bank account takes a nosedive). Which brings me to my next point:

Bad things still will happen on occasion…but you’ll be okay

Living a fearless life doesn’t mean that you’ll experience smooth sailing from that point on. Some of the things you fear may actually come to fruition. But there is power in forging ahead anyway and usually you’ll find that 1) Most of the time the thing you feared doesn’t actually happen, or 2) On the rare occasion the bad outcome occurs, you’ll cope with it the best you can, learn something in the process and feel even stronger when you emerge on the other side. And because you’re now living a fearless life, you’ll view these episodes as infrequent storm clouds in your otherwise sunny life.

quote-you-can-sway-a-thousand-men-by-appealing-to-their-prejudices-quicker-than-you-can-convince-robert-a-heinlein-41-65-49Recent terrorist activity seems to have activated our society’s collective fear response and the result is ugly. The birth of this country was not a fear-based decision. Our forefathers (and mothers) had good reason to fear the quest for independence—after all, one man’s revolution is another man’s treason—but the shimmering ideal of a free nation was too enticing not to move forward despite their fears. Most of us lucky enough to be born in this country are here because we have ancestors that didn’t let fear stop them from leaving their homes behind in pursuit of a better life. As we watch our neighbors react to terrorist attacks by proposing fear-based restrictions on innocent people in the name of “protecting ’Merica” let’s remember that nothing could be LESS American.

 

 

A Charity Case or a Case for Charity?

It’s a bad sign when KitKat asks me, “…any blog ideas?” which happened just this morning. If you look back at our postings, you can see that the longer gaps between posts are when we’re waiting on KitKat. Of course, this is justifiable because she has school-age kids and other obligations that keep her very busy. I have way more time to write. Usually, KitKat’s thrilled to have the blog-ball in my court because it gives her more time to work on her next post. But even she can tell I’m in a serious drought—and when she starts gently prodding me, I know it’s time to settle on a topic and get to work.

It’s not that life has been boring. On the contrary, there have been a lot of serious issues consuming my thoughts lately. However, both KitKat and I have noticed that the more something is on our mind, the harder it is to organize our thoughts on the topic and write about it. Consequently, you’re not going to hear about my challenges with my parents (although I’m sure that will be a future topic), or my thoughts on the recent terrorist activity in Paris (my brain will never be able to organize such a cowardly, inhumane act into a coherent post).

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There’s plenty of fodder for a blog post in this situation, but I can’t eloquently articulate this level of evil… I don’t think anyone can.

I’ve mentioned before that I’m an introvert and the worst part about that is it it’s easy for negativity to get stuck inside my head. That’s what’s been happening lately, and I know what I need to do in order to counter that: Turn negative inward thoughts into positive outward actions.

For the last couple of years, ever since my youngest flew the nest, I’ve been aware of a lack of purpose in my life. Raising three kids has been my primary activity for the last 26 years and now that they are largely independent, I’ve felt a void. I’ve been seeking out a volunteer opportunity where I could feel like I was doing something worthwhile and after a couple of false starts, joined a program that provides mentors to unemployed/underemployed women.

My first mentee match was unusual, to say the least. I looked up my match on LinkedIn before meeting her—a native of Zimbabwe, spoke multiple languages, won several scholarships, was working on an advanced degree, had previously been Miss Africa, and had started a couple of businesses and non-profits. I met her and we had a great conversation; however, I wasn’t sure how much I could help her. She was a force to be reckoned with and it was clear she would go far in life. In fact, she made me feel a bit inadequate about my own achievements: I had done far less with far more. We tried to coordinate our mentoring sessions but she had too much going on in her life to meet with me. (She was interested in public policy and had been chosen for an internship with the United Nations—seriously!) So while I was happy to have met such an ambitious young woman, I didn’t get much personal satisfaction from “helping” her.

Enter Ellen, my second match via the mentoring program. As with my previous match, I tried looking her up on LinkedIn beforehand, but there was no profile to be found. We met at a coffee shop. I was surprised to see that she was older than me. And then she told me her story. Her first son had died quickly of a brain tumor at the age of four and that sent her into an emotional tailspin (which anyone who’s a mother can understand). She became divorced and later became pregnant and had another son. She never married the boy’s father but supported him by cleaning houses. (After losing her first child, she wanted to make sure her schedule allowed her to be there for her son, as caring for him was her top priority.) Now her son had graduated from high school and she wanted to find a better paying job with benefits so she could start saving money for retirement.

floppy-disk-iconNow here was someone I could help. We talked about how to translate the skills gained from her house-cleaning business into marketable experience—managing a staff, scheduling, selling her own cleaning products. We talked about online applicant tracking systems and how to best present your information to potential employers. (When I suggested that in addition to completing the online application, she also should attach a PDF of a nicely formatted version of her resume, she asked, “You mean put it on a floppy disk?” That’s when I knew I had my work cut out for me.)

volunteerAt our next meeting, she excitedly told me about a job interview she had the next day. I told her what I knew about the company and helped her research the position online. I gave her tips on what to do/not do during the interview and stressed the importance of sending a thank you note afterward. Driving home, I thought about how the mentor/mentee relationship was benefitting both of us. Although I have been frustrated with my job of late, from Ellen’s perspective I was living the glamorous life—a well-paying job, an experienced team, global responsibility, fulfilling work—and I was reminded how fortunate I am to have all those things.

Meanwhile, I realized that the value I was bringing to Ellen wasn’t in the employment-seeking pearls of wisdom I was bestowing on her (those could be found in any job-hunting book), but in the faith and encouragement I was bringing her: From my vantage point, she was a strong woman who had overcome a lot of challenges and was willing to work hard. I believed in her success, but she needed encouragement.

At one point she said to me, “There’s no dignity in being a housecleaner” and I immediately disagreed: “You provided for you and your son by doing honest, hard work—there’s plenty of dignity in that!” And hearing it from me, she started to believe it as well.cleaning supplies

I’m happy to report that Ellen got the job for which she was interviewing. While it’s starting at the bottom of the company and her shift begins at 3 a.m., she was thrilled to have benefits and hopes to work her way up to a customer service job with regular hours. With some help and support, I have no doubt she’ll get there.

And I gained something from the mentorship as well. I learned that getting out of my own head for a while is as restorative as any vacation—not to mention cheaper—and what I take for granted can make a difference for someone else.

Stormy finds her “happy pill”

A couple months ago, KitKat posted a blog whose title caught my eye: Looking for a happy pill. This phrase jumped out at me because I’d been doing the same. But unlike KitKat’s metaphorical search, mine was literal. This wasn’t an overnight decision. As I mentioned in an early post, I was raised by WWII-era parents. One of the legacies of my upbringing is a strong sense of personal responsibility. In other words, if something was bothering me, I should just “quit whining and figure it out.” Therefore, my view of mental illness in general and depression in particular was that the only time medication was warranted was if the individual couldn’t manage to pull things together on his/her own.

dancing_drugsFast-forward to this past year. As readers of this blog, you know I haven’t hidden my struggle with the changing dynamics in my life—my husband’s illness, my kids leaving home, a frequently stressful job, aging parents, etc. But throughout it all I kept trying to will myself to keep a proper perspective (I’m still more fortunate than most of the world’s population, after all) and not dwell on things I can’t change. Despite this, I found myself sinking further into… persistent… unhappiness. It wasn’t full-out “depression” the way I had always thought of it (not being able to get out of bed, suicidal thoughts, etc.) but I found that things I could formerly let roll off my back were bothering me—a lot. Whereas I would normally be driven to tears once or twice a year, I was finding myself crying weekly. And I found myself raging against loved ones at little provocation. Basically, I felt like I was losing it, and I worried that if I couldn’t get a grip, I’d risk my job, my sanity, my friends and my family.

We're all madI explained it to my therapist this way, “I’ve lost my resiliency.” I asked for his opinion on whether he thought anti-depressants would help and when he said yes, I responded that maybe I’d wait until the fall to consider a prescription (thinking I’d really need it when the weather turned cold). He challenged me on that—why would you wait when something could potentially make your life better? We talked through my bias against medication and my general control-freak nature, but at the end of it all, his case was compelling and I made a consultation with someone who could prescribe the required meds. After talking with her and explaining how I reacted to various “triggers,” she commented, “You have a lot of stressors in your life—actually, I’m amazed you made it this long without needing something.” This made me feel better about embracing better living through chemistry. She made a recommendation that she thought would best address the combination depression/anxiety I was experiencing and gave me a low-dose prescription.

At home that night, I read up on the medication and my concerns came creeping back. The drug required a slow ramp up and had a long list of potential side effects. Yet, at that point, the potential gains still outweighed the drawbacks, so I swallowed the pill—both figuratively and literally.

My experience with mind-altering substances is limited to alcohol and caffeine, so I didn’t know what to expect. When you take something that is supposed to affect your brain, it’s natural to analyze every feeling and thought—is this me or is this the medication?—I asked myself a dozen times a day. I felt a bit “spacey,” but knew it may have been my imagination since I was told it would take at least three weeks for the medication to take effect.

Eventually, I determined that I had noticed a subtle improvement in my outlook. It was by no means a “magic pill,” and my biggest concern—that the drugs would alter my core personality—was unfounded. I was the same person and the same things made me upset, only I had my resiliency back. Minor setbacks didn’t drive me to tears. I was able to put things in the proper perspective and deal with things without falling apart.

I wished I had sought treatment months before, instead of buying into the notion that medication would be taking the easy way out. However, I ultimately decided I’d rather seek help and be happy than be self-sustaining and miserable. After all, when I think about my mother (who has been moody and challenging for as long as I can recall) I wonder if maybe she doesn’t have a serotonin imbalance?

Funny-crazy-peopleYet, even after gaining a clear benefit from the drugs, it wasn’t something I wanted to broadcast (after all, it’s one thing to have people think you’re a little crazy and it’s another to give them proof). 😉

Then what has changed? Obviously, if I’m making this a blog topic my perspective has shifted and I can tell you when that happened. In mid-August, I was mourning the death of Robin Williams—along with the millions of other people whose lives he’d touched with his exceptional warmth and humor—when I learned that he had recently been diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease. A disease my husband has had for more than a decade. I think our thoughts about this news were the same: This disease we live with every day was the thing that tipped his depression over the edge. That was an incredibly sobering thought. It made me realize that it’s impossible to know what other people are dealing with, so I thought if I could admit to a little bit of craziness myself, maybe it would make it easier for someone else to seek treatment if they need it. So there you go. I’m a little bit crazy. Crazy like a fox.

“He who owns little is little owned” (Learning to let go…)

I came across this quote by Henry David Thoreau when I was going through a simplification phase in the mid-90s. It struck a chord because I was at a point in my life where I realized that acquiring “stuff” was not the key to happiness.

Let’s back up a bit. Remember that I’m one of nine children and even though my parents did fine by us financially (we had all the basics covered and enjoyed some modest luxuries as well), I frequently heard, “We can’t afford that” as the response to whatever I was asking for. (Looking back, I think it was just my parents’ go-to excuse—not necessarily rooted in lack of finances, but invoked whenever they didn’t want to do or buy something.)

Regardless, my reaction to this childhood “deprivation” was the desire to buy whatever “stuff” I wanted once I had the money and independence to do so. And for a few years, that’s what I did. I’m no candidate for an episode of “Hoarders,” but I have accumulated enough stuff to overwhelm my fairly small home.

kids08-mary_033

For Sale: 24 years’ worth of memories

I fell in love with my little Cape Cod when I was 25. When we moved in—Mom, Dad and new baby boy—everyone exclaimed, “What a cute little starter house!” They were expecting us to stay in it for a few years and then “trade up.” But I knew we’d be in this house longer than anyone suspected—it looked like where “Happily Ever After” should take place. Although not large by modern US standards, it’s a near duplicate of the house in which 11 of us lived until I was seven, so surely there would be sufficient room for my small family to grow. And there was. That’s not to say that it didn’t become crowded at times, especially during the teenage years, but I believed in what a member of my congregation once observed, “The closest families I know all come from small houses,” and we never traded up to a larger house.

I don’t consider myself terribly materialistic, but over the last two decades, this smallish house has become filled with “stuff.” Stuff that holds memories, stuff that I think my grown kids might need some day, stuff that I feel guilty adding to a landfill, stuff that reminds me that some phases of my life are over.

And it turns out that our cozy house isn’t adequate for the unwelcome guest that arrived 11 years ago and shows no sign of leaving. So, I’ve reluctantly concluded that, as my husband’s Parkinson’s continues to progress, we should find a home that’s more conducive to his lifestyle, with an attached garage, smaller yard, fewer stairs and other features that can make his life easier and more enjoyable. At the same time, if I’m going to leave this home I love, I want to gain some benefits from moving as well—things like a master bathroom and walk-in closet.

Although I’m trying to be optimistic about our next home, the thought of moving is overwhelmingly stressful. Over the last 24 years, we’ve made a lot of home improvements, but there are also a lot of little things we’ve let slide. Dozens of small repairs that need to be made and other tasks that will either fall to me or have to be contracted out.

Love me, love my floor (but don't cry over spilled milk!)

Love me, love my floor (but don’t cry over spilled milk!)

Then there’s the issue of my rather eclectic taste. My home is uniquely me. My husband retains veto power, but gives me a pretty free rein. Consequently, I’ve never really considered other people’s opinions in my decorating choices. But I know that to put my house on the market, I need to tone down certain aspects of my style. For example, I accept that my living room and dining room need to be transformed from a sociable, lively pink (which I spent hours rag-rolling to achieve a very subtle textured effect) to a more crowd-pleasing neutral tone. I also have a lot to do in “de-personalizing” my home, as it’s filled with photos and mementos. However, the new buyers will need to love the gold metallic cove around my ceilings, as well as my checkerboard kitchen tiles as there are some things I refuse to change. After all, I need to ensure my beloved house ends up in worthy hands.

IMG_0413I’ve set a deadline of next spring to put the house on the market, since my little house is most alluring when you can see my great backyard with multiple gardens, two patios and a fire pit. It’s a backyard just made for entertaining and we’ve had some wonderful parties there in the past. I know I’ll miss that yard, but this year as I was pulling weeds in the various gardens I thought, “I’m not really going to miss this part.” So I’m thinking maybe I’ve turned the corner and can now dive into the rest of the process with less sentimentality.

Another important step for me has been renting a storage locker for our excess belongings. I know that to show our house, we’ll need to stage it properly and that requires some extensive decluttering. I don’t want to fall into the same trap my parents did when selling their last home: My mother refused to do any staging and left all of her clutter and outdated décor intact. My parents ended up paying double mortgages for months when the house wouldn’t sell. And a lot of those same musty, dusty items are sitting in my parents’ current basement—waiting to be dealt with all over again. I like to think I can learn from others’ mistakes.

Even so, it’s been difficult for me to part with some of my own stuff, even when I know I’m unlikely to need it again. But when I’m considering what to put into storage, I’ve found it’s much easier to ask myself, “Will I need this in the next year?” than to ask, “Will I want this again at some point in the future?” It seems like about half is going to the trash or charity and the other half is going into storage. And hopefully, when we’re settled in our new place and moving stuff out of storage, the answer of whether to keep X or Y will be much clearer and even less “stuff” will find it’s way to our new home.

It’s a little exciting (and a lot scary) to think that a year from now I’ll likely be living somewhere else. I want our next home to reflect a positive change and a new chapter in our lives, rather than feel like a concession to my husband’s disability. But I know it’s up to me to make that happen. I have to clear out the past to make room for the future. Wish me luck!

 

Running away from home… Cali style

As I mentioned in my last post, KitKat’s tale of Vegas fun inspired me to schedule a trip with my two best girls—my darling daughters. The impetus for the trip was to use an airfare credit my youngest had, and the premise was visiting a high school friend who had moved to LA a few years earlier. However, as I mentioned in my last post, the real motivation was trying to regain my sanity by getting out of my frenetic rut and spending some quality time with my girls.

First of all, I was just pleased that my daughters wanted to travel with me. It’s true I was paying for everything except the one plane ticket, but even so, I can’t imagine myself at that age wanting to take a trip with my mother to visit one of her friends—or at any age, for that matter. Our tastes are just too different.

I’d never taken a trip with just my girls before, but from our family excursions I knew that traveling with Lucky (22) and Blossom (19) would be akin to vacationing with The Odd Couple. Indeed. To illustrate my point, we were leaving on an early Thursday a.m. flight, so I asked my girls to drive home from their respective cities Wednesday afternoon with everything packed. Blossom arrived two days early to babysit for KitKat (whose regular summer sitter was unavailable) and had her suitcase ready and waiting in the living room the day before. Felix Unger all the way.

Lucky started the long drive home on Wednesday afternoon, forgot her contact lenses, realized it an hour into the drive, returned to her apartment to get them, and finally made it down to our house at about 9 p.m. on Wednesday night—a bit bedraggled and with a suitcase full of dirty laundry that still needed to be washed. Clearly our Oscar Madison.

Both girls were ready by the appointed time on Thursday morning, though. So after a quick trip through the security lines, we were sitting on the tarmac, waiting for stormy weather to pass. We touched down a bit late at LAX and got our rental car. Blossom (our Felix) was my human GPS. She pulled up all of our destinations on her smartphone and gave me real-time directions out of the rental car area and smoothly onto one of LA’s infamous multi-lane freeways toward my friend’s house. (Her quick-draw-with-an-app skills also came in handy later, when we were looking for a pharmacy and grocery store.)

I already knew my girls would click with my high school friend. Dot is just one of those people who can make friends with anyone—because she is interested in everyone and everything. In fact, her pseudonym comes from her role in a high school performance where she played an Uber-Geek with complete and utter commitment (something the self-conscious Stormy wouldn’t have been able to accomplish at 16). As Lucky said after meeting her, “I love her. She just radiates positive energy.” Not a bad sort to hang out with 😉 which is good, because that was our plan: An unstructured vacay comprised of some cheesy Hollywood/LA type of activities and lots of hanging out.

That first afternoon we hung out at Dot’s pool and plotted the rest of our visit. We decided to tackle Universal Studios the next day. Since Lucky graduated with a film degree and Blossom was deprived of the Disney Experience bestowed upon her older siblings, it seemed like a clever way to kill two birds with one stone. Or in my case, entertain two diverse daughters with several hundred dollars in admission and overpriced burgers.

Universal Studios was a blast. It had been a long time since I had been to an amusement park, and I was amazed by what can be done with computer generated special effects. Likewise, the studio tour was fun—spotting familiar scenes like the town square from Back to the Future (a favorite movie for our family of Michael J. Fox fans). Throughout the day, I was acutely aware that it would have been a very different experience with my husband. The crowds, long lines and sprawling theme park would have been challenging for him to navigate. It was fun to have the freedom to explore all parts of the park and not be worried about wearing out my spouse.

That evening, we went to the Hollywood Fringe Festival to see one of Dot’s friends perform. It was a sweet, engrossing play and our front-row seats put us nearly on stage in the tiny theater. After spending all day at the theme park, we were a bit tired. But since we were trying to pack as much as we could into a short vacation, we were glad we were able to catch this unique performance during our trip.

Lucky was inexplicably delighted to discover Nicholas Cage's handprints. Yes, Nick Cage.

Lucky was inexplicably delighted to discover Nicholas Cage’s handprints. Yes, Nick Cage.

The next day was our “tourist” day. We went into Hollywood to see the famous sign (from a distance), tour the Walk of Fame and people watch. Afterward, we drove to Santa Monica and had a late lunch on the pier. Lucky was excited to play in the ocean—she couldn’t recall the earlier Disney trip to Florida that Blossom missed and had no real memory of swimming in the ocean as a child. After a long day, we got home early in the evening, but Lucky wasn’t ready to call it a night just yet. She said, “You know, if I was on vacation with my friends, we’d probably go to a club or something.” I said, “You know, if I was traveling with my friends, we’d probably do the same thing.” So Lucky determined we should go back to Universal and explore the “City Walk” portion of the park—which is basically shops and restaurants and rather reminiscent of our own third-floor Mall of America. And Blossom, being Blossom, was happy to go with the flow.

hiking_LASunday was our last full day, and after the previous two jam-packed days, we decided to dial it down a bit. We texted Dot in the a.m. to see if she wanted to go hiking, and she led us on a beautiful trail up in the hills. Afterward, we hung out in her pool again, where Blossom (my usually practical child) learned you shouldn’t try to scoop a bee out of a swimming pool with your bare hand.

Dot is married to an actor. He’s not Brad-Pitt-with-paparazzi-hiding-in-the-bushes famous, but he’s recognizable, respected and steadily working…while still able to live a pretty normal life. (Which, when you think about it, is probably the level of success one should strive for, if one goes into that business.) He joined us at the pool where the girls got a big kick out of talking with him and realizing that—even though they’ve seen him in multiple TV roles—he’s a pretty normal guy, all in all.

Later that afternoon, we drove through Topanga Canyon and up the coast to Malibu to meet my husband’s sister and her husband for a seaside dinner on the deck at Duke’s. Lucky ordered King Crab legs and kept her eye out for dolphins and whales (no luck spotting them, though). I had fish tacos and the house specialty—a Mai Tai. It was fun catching up with my sibs-in-law, and I was envious that what was a vacation outing for us was just another Sunday night for them. Our Minnesota summer has been turbulent from the start, so the consistently 80-and-Sunny LA weather was mighty attractive.

Oh those vacation romances! Meet Blossom's new boyfriend...

Oh those vacation romances! Meet Blossom’s new boyfriend…

On our last day, our agenda centered around going home: Get up, shower, pack, hang out by the pool for an hour, have lunch, return the rental car and check in at the airport. (Can you see my control-freak side rearing its head?) I had timed out how long we had for each activity, but Lucky (Oscar) wasn’t operating on my timetable. We got into a bit of a tiff about it…the result of too much togetherness, I think. The fact is, I could travel with Blossom for a year and experience nary a kerfluffle—we’re just that compatible, and she’s a great traveling companion. On the other hand, Lucky and I are not much alike in terms of our hobbies, but we’re emotional twins. I’ve just been on the planet longer that she has, so I’ve learned how to fake my confidence. It frustrates me to see her wrestle with the same insecurities I had at her age when I know—KNOW!—that she has such strength and competence and intelligence inside of her. But I also realize she has to figure that out for herself, so I apologized to her once we were both in a better mood.

We arrived home tired and slightly crabby, but with some fun memories to carry us through the next long winter. All in all, the trip was a success. Not only for me getting a rare chance to spend time with my darling girls, but for being able to take a “vacation” from Parkinson’s—something, sadly, my husband can’t do. I think there are more such forays in my future (as long as I’m paying). After all, there’s some truth to this adage:

If momma ain't happy

Because I know that when I’m happy, everyone around me is happier, too. I just hope Lucky learns this lesson sooner than I did. And, more importantly, realizes that her happiness is in her hands.