Priorities: Summer Edition

Today is the societal end of summer. The gray haze of Canadian wildfires hang over our town, and the pools are all officially closed. In past years, I have made lists of things to get done during the summer. You know: plant certain flowers, clean out the garage, organize the closets. I didn’t do that this year, and so because I am prone to thinking and reflecting, I sit here wondering how we spent our summer. What did we do with our extra daylight, with the arguably slower pace, with vacation time?

A beautiful early summer day on Macbride Lake brought us out to the water about three months ago. As youngest son and I paddled, we noted the large homes on the water – docks, pontoon boats, motor boats, paddle boards – were all going unused. There was no excuse for the waste of the day; we posited that everyone who owned lakefront property should be making the most of the day: they should be on the water, on their decks, with their friends and family.

Many of us are terrible at using our time well. Not only are we not as productive as we could be, we also waste time in a way that we don’t even enjoy. We get stuck in routines that don’t bring us joy; we spend time with people we complain about; we engage in hobbies that are more chore than cheer. Perhaps some of that was true of your summer; perhaps you are feeling such pressures as the academic year looms.

I dubbed the past three months the summer of friends. Our summer started off with middle son being home, and we had a weekend at my aunt’s and uncle’s house with extended family and pets. We even took a dip in their pool; a chilly proposition in early June in the Midwest. Later that month, my dear friend and her daughters included our house on a road trip they were taking, and we got to show off our corner of the world and reminisce. Youngest son and I spent a beautiful day with another wonderful person one early July, a friend who is from Iowa but whom we met in Georgia and was back home for several weeks, and we spent the day talking, laughing, eating, and surveying her place near Pella.

Later that month, I traveled to Seattle for work and in doing so, not only had the opportunity to learn with several excellent colleagues, I also got to visit with a writer-friend, a professor-friend, and a former student-friend. While I was there, youngest son got to spend time with his grandma and grandpa. As soon as I got back from Seattle, one of my cousins and his family came over and spent the weekend, treating us to a Jim Gaffigan show. We also enjoyed a whiskey/wine/beer tour of our area. Right after that, youngest son and I were off to the lake with college friends and their sons; then, as soon as we got back from there, two dear friends were coming through town, and we were lucky enough to be able to dine with them before they continued on their trip. We snuck over to Des Moines to see my dad and mom in August.  I haven’t even mentioned our local outings to Pride events, concerts, and restaurants with friends in the area. Those were sprinkled into every summer week. Summer wrapped up with middle son home again for a month before going off to London.

And, now the summer is, for all intents and purposes, over. My summer flowers are fading; my garage is not cleaned out; carpets have gone unwashed, and the cobwebs around the doorframe might just stay until Halloween. And, no, I still don’t have a kayak, much less a lake home.

What we do have are memories with so many beautiful and wonderful people. So now, as we head into what society would have us believe are the hectic days of fall which will be followed up by the madness of the holidays, I find myself wanting more summer. That is, more time with friends, family, more time with the people that matter. And, if I can create that, then I will be making the most of the days in any season – no list needed.


I’m Afraid. Not.

Scene 1:

“You don’t want to move out west. There’s going to be a giant earthquake, and the elderly will be the first to die.”

What? That was the sum up of a friend’s assessment of my plan to get a PhD to eventually teach writing or direct a fountain-pen-on-papercommunity writing program in Oregon or Washington.

In two sentences he told me that I should be afraid, my dreams were foolish, and that I was old. My response was, “Well, I can’t live like that. We had an earthquake in Georgia a few years ago. There are accidents every day. I didn’t stop driving simply because my sister had a car wreck. Life goes on.”


Scene 2:

Earlier this summer, there was a tragic attack in an Israeli market. Middle son was in Israel at the time; he had been in that market earlier the same day of the shooting. I had friends texting me frantically, asking if my son was okay. I had friends telling me I should insist he come home immediately.

That’s not a thing. I lived in the USSR in 1990-1991. Demonstrations, food lines, a metro stabbing were just a few of the things I was privy to. No. I texted my son. He was fine. I was fine. I wasn’t upset at all.

Sure, there are countries where danger is higher; wisdom is checking the warnings, being a smart traveler, and knowing how to be a citizen of the world. Middle son is fine and continued his travels to Rwanda and is presently in Uganda. Am I worried? Nope. He is living.


Scene 3:

Back in May, youngest son texted me from school: “We are having a fire drill.”

Me: “Ok.”

Son: “I guess it was a bomb threat. We are at the park.”

Me: “Are teachers with you?’

Son: “Yes.”

Me: “Are you ok?”

Son: “Yes.”

Me: “Okay, see you after school.”

Youngest son was indignant; he felt I should have been worried. Outraged. Scared. I wasn’t. Maybe it was the 20+ years of teaching; maybe it was that I went to my classroom the day after Columbine and talked to kids about it; maybe (as he thought) I was too damn nonchalant. He has to learn how to navigate and live.


2928da50e17ef551652939ba0f0f90dcYou see, I don’t believe that living in fear is any way to live. I don’t want my sons to think that traveling the world is a ticket to death. I don’t want live safely, thinking that I can’t move somewhere because there might be a geological event some time in the distant future. I don’t want to have dusty lists of regrets and shouldofs as company; I want friends, family, bright colors, open windows, and revolving doors.

Years ago I was conflicted about taking a high pressure job or staying in the classroom. My sister said to me, “Don’t be one of those wimpy people who never try.” (I took the job.) To me, staying home because something bad might happen is a guarantee of depression and hopelessness.

I want my days to be varied. I want my sons to see the world and try to new stuff. Risk is inherent in life. But, so many people act and live out of fear, that I, well, I fear for them. I know that many people are happily ensconced in their communities, friends, and jobs. That is their adventure; I am as supportive of them as I am of the traveler who wants to collect passport stamps. The only problem arises when living becomes so narrow because we are scared. And that – as my dad says – is no way to live.


March Madness

The cool thing about living is: there’s plenty of it for everyone. Enough to go around. Something for everyone. And, despite everyone’s varying needs and desires – or perhaps because of them – we can find what a little something to please everyone.

I was reminded of this when reading the New York Times Travel Section today. One article outlined a giant cruise experience; contrasted with that was a small Alaskan cruise. We have different needs and preferences when we travel – when we live.  Our world, wonderfully, offers more variety than any of us will ever be actually able to experience in a lifetime.

I never went on a drunken-Florida-show-us-your-tits-spring-break trip when I was in college.  Aside from one year when my dad and mom took us on a cruise, I didn’t do anything over spring break. Well, maybe I worked. Then and now, people like to fill their spring breaks with entertainment, discovery, travel, drinks, and rest. Now, I know not everyone gets a “spring break,” but I also know that even those who work where such breaks are not given seem to carve out spring getaways.

This year I worked a little, but I found my house and life filled up with children and pets; and, without straying too far from home, we have had some adventure right here.

Entertainment: The activity youngest son put on the calendar this year was going to a drag show to see a few of RuPaul’s drag raceRuPaul competitors. Did you know that drag shows start late at night and never on time? Now you do. Also, so you know: it’s almost as interesting watching the people who go to drag shows as watching the shows themselves. And, you can mark this in your “good things to know chart”: chatting with the guys that tend bar is entertaining enough that you really don’t have to drink much to have a good time.

Discovery: With eldest son home from abroad and looking for jobs and apartments in the area, there has been some discovery. We have a lot of jobs in our area. There’s a good variety of housing in this area. Both apartments and jobs are easier to coordinate if one has a car. Still, with persistence and planning wonderful discoveries are out there to be made and planned for.

wineTravel and Drinks: I lived in Moscow almost a year. I didn’t visit the Kremlin until three days before I went home. Many of us – indeed, I would posit all of us – live in or near interesting places. And, often, we are blind to them. There are interesting things to do in and around our own towns. We might need to look outside of the traditional boxes, but our communities all have something to offer. Get the newspaper; look online; talk to your neighbors. We went to three live music shows (two of which were totally free), all of which were held in cool local places with food and drink available.

Four of the five of us here this week also took kickboxing classes (for a minimal charge – you know, if you talk to people, they will often cut you a deal). And, I was able to engage several times with the wonderful community of writers and poets that we have in our area.spring flowers

With five people and two animals in a condo, it has been a pretty mad March so far, and with any luck, we will continue finding the right activities in the right places for the right people – and, enjoying ourselves along the way.

Join me.



On Being The Tree

Runaway Bunny


There was never any plan – not a scripted one – not the way some parents claim, “Oh, I always knew he would grow up to be a ___.” Fill in that blank with whatever college mascot or professional endeavor one’s social circle deems the best.

No, I had no visions of who or what my children would be; I still don’t. I really do want all three of them to pursue endeavors that will lead them to be able to create the kind of life they want to live. When youngest son says that he wants to be a drag queen, and then, “when my looks start to go, I’ll teach middle school,” I smile and think, “That’s not a bad plan.” In fact, I privately think of this as the mullet plan: business in the front, party in the back.

But last Tuesday I got a series of text messages from eldest son announcing that he is moving to Peru. Today. This day. February 16, 2016. He plans to hike and survive in Peru and perhaps beyond for as long as he wants to – on his own. Alone.

My imagination is one quarter made-for-TV movie, one quarter horrific documentary, and two quarters overthinking. I suppose all parents believe that they support what their children want to do; the thing about that is: sometimes our children want to do stuff we never thought of and we wish they hadn’t. So, I’m worried and scared and a little sad.

The last time he traveled internationally he was three and slept with his brother in the bulkhead of an SAS jet, cuddling a new teddy bear from Copenhagen. Hiking and camping in South America will be different than that. Of course, he has email; he says he’ll be in semi-regular touch.

There are all kinds of quotes that extol the importance and requirement of letting children go, allowing them seek their own paths, not trying to control, and allowing for followed passions. Yeah, yeah, yeah, I believe all of that shit, but when it means your son is moving far away to be in semi-regular contact – well, that’s the test, isn’t it? One thing to say you believe something, and it’s quite another to be forced to live that out.

Perhaps you are better at this than I am. You have always said what you believed, believed what you said, and lived it out. If so,  I have certainly tried to follow your example, but this one’s a little harder for me. Still, I have to believe he can do this and love it and learn from it. Right? It’s not about me; it’s about his finding his way to that life that he wants. Right? If we don’t have faith in our kids, then something’s gone wrong. Right?

So, join me.

No, seriously – join me. Come over, bring some wine and kleenex, and hold my hand. This one might take me a minute.




Time to Lose Some Weight

“I know why men in their forties buy motorcycles and impractical cars,” I mumbled to myself on the eve of my birthday, as I slogged through my first Midwestern winter in a decade and a half. Seasonal Affective Disorder? Clinical Depression? Midlife crisis?  This winter was dark. Cold. Sad. Disheartening. We all face such times regardless of geography. This was not the winter that I wanted.

Soon enough spring began to flirt with me, and I was re-enlivened; I needed to think of the upcoming year: would I buy the house I’m renting? Would I buy a different house? Would I live in a cardboard box? I did not know. I looked at houses with my realtor. The budget looked grim – unless I was to magically gain handyman skills and find the money tree, I was going to be chained to a hovel for the next thirty years at 4.2% interest.

I felt old. I looked forward and I felt older. I looked back and I regretted things that are not regrettable. I looked in the mirror and saw a sad woman.

I heard someone say recently that midlife is hard because it is too easy to look backwards in nostalgia rather than forward in planning. Truth. Children have grown and gone. Marriages have grown. Or gone. Or staled. Still, if I have 48 years more to live (thanks for good genetics, Grandpa Johnson and Grandma Rob!), then the hovel wasn’t looking too good.

We all reach impasses with ourselves, and we must reach inside and decide what we want to do with them. I was Eeyore – ask my sister. I was annoying – ask my friends. I ate and drank too much – ask HyVee. Perhaps the solution lay in buying that hovel and digging in my heels. Resignation was the featured dish this past winter, and I ate it lukewarm with a chipped spoon.

No, the solution was not to go backwards. What did I need with an old house, a yard, a leaky basement, and crippling mortgage? I needed a new condo with nice rooms, good paint, and space enough to live, sleep, and eat. And a budget to allow travel and well, a renaissance. Sounds better than midlife crisis, right? Renaissance.

Nineteen years ago I had a jolting rebirth. I left my then husband on the mission field and returned home with one suitcase and two small children. I had nothing. Thanks to the support of my family and my own strength of will, I reorganized and went forward. Since then, I have unwittingly embraced the idea that having the stuff of a household is security. And, although not a hoarder by any means, I have too much stuff. Too many belongings. This spring, it’s time to lose some weight.

I am losing the weight of old expectations to create intriguing adventures.  I am losing the weight of unneeded stuff via Craigslist; I’ve sold an item a day. (People will buy anything!) I am losing the weight of the expectations of others; I will do what I want to do.  It is time to challenge myself in new ways with interesting expeditions that I am creating.  I don’t want to sit in my hovel and say, “It sure would be cool to…” yet never do that ellipsis thing. I’m not content to be an old woman staring sadly in the mirror.

What are you wanting to do? Now is the time. Get the house. Buy a goldfish. Sell your furniture. Have a child. Whatever is your thing now – do it.  It may cliche to note that Thoreau wrote, ““The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation. What is called resignation is confirmed desperation.”  Well, not me. I’m about to lose the weight of insecurity and the extra furniture that goes with it to pursue my renaissance.

Every day begins a new year.

Join me.