Hamster Wheel

Hamster Wheel

From late August through mid-June, when the school year is in full swing, I generally feel like I am running on a hamster wheel. I run nonstop, fearful that if I stop, or even attempt to slow down, I will fly off haphazardly, crashing and leaving everything around me in disarray – and we all know who would have to clean up that mess. So I just keep running. To insert obstacles into the race, I add more and more to my agenda as I run because (A.) I don’t like to say no and (B.) I can always make time for one more good idea. I will just run a little bit faster. I run and run and run, from meeting to class to soccer practice to church to basketball games to volunteer commitments to the next project that I have created for myself to another meeting, and sometimes I wonder what it is like to *Just. Sit. Still.*

And this is where I am a little bit lucky. As a teacher, I am fortunate to enjoy a summer break with my children, and, to be honest, given the current climate of education in America, it is one of the bright spots in a gloomy, depressing mess. But every year I fall prey to the same evil trap; it snags me in the dark winter months of hibernation and tightens its grip as the icy thaw reveals the promises of spring. It seems harmless at first, really. I begin to say things like, “It can wait; I will work on it this summer.” Or, “I don’t have time to worry about that right now, but I will have time to care about it in the summer.” Or, “I am really busy right now, but let’s get together this summer!” I will do it in the summer. I will fix it in the summer. I will check on it in the summer.

On my desk, there are post-it notes with lists of books to read this summer. I joined a book club in the spring – something that I have wanted to do for years – because summer vowed to bestow endless days of freedom that I could not possibly fill on my own. My kids created lists of activities that they intend to check off before the first day of school. And I said, “No problem! It’s summer!” My spring cleaning was never finished, and a general inventory of our house is in order. “No worries! We have all summer!” And the garage needs cleaned out. And I really want to learn to knit while I have time. And I have a chair that I want to refinish. And I have been waiting for the time to look for some new decorating ideas. And my photo albums are so far behind that I’m not sure what I was even trying to commemorate anymore. Just uploading and organizing and ordering all of those pictures will be a HUGE job . . . definitely a task to save for summer.

And we need to catch up on some doctor appointments this summer.

And I can’t wait to invest time in my blog every day!

And I am TOTALLY going to redeem myself as a mother by forcing encouraging my kids to keep up with their summer homework assignments this year.

And I told loved ones that we would spend time together, you know, in summer. The boys and I would have lunch with old friends. We would take road trips to visit those at a distance. We would meet neighbors at the park every week. We would have SO MUCH TIME!

So the fourth of July hit me with a bang last week, and not just because of the fireworks. It was a reminder that summer is slipping away, that the promises she made me remain unfulfilled. There really aren’t more hours in a summer day. More sunshine, yes. More hours, no. Life is still busy. With kids home from school, there are more messes to clean up, more snacks to prepare, more arguments to officiate, more activities to coordinate. Time does not decelerate in summer, just as it doesn’t slow down on the weekends or during a coveted week of vacation.

I have not read one book from my post-it notes. My blog has been quiet and lonely. My kids are dreadfully behind on their summer homework. My projects aren’t finished. (Or started.)

And I still don’t know how to knit.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m exceedingly grateful for the time that I can devote to my family when I am not working in the summer. I don’t take it for granted. But all of the lists, all of the unfinished projects, all of the tasks that remain incomplete and dreams that remain unfulfilled – well, they can drag a girl down. And, no, we have not been moping around the house, avoiding all of the fun. We have been having fun, and maybe that’s part of the problem. Or maybe it’s not. This whole balancing act is exhausting, and the truth is that after eleven years of parenting I’m still not exactly sure how this is all supposed to work.

Maybe I am lamenting how quickly time passes. The empty grid, those clean white boxes on the calendar that seem swollen with potential at the start of each year, fills in a flash with the exciting and, more often, the mundane demands of life. The days bend and flip and slide from your hands like a fish escaping back to the water. You try to hold on, but time is elusive, gone so quickly, and what is left behind? Maybe a picture . . . that might, eventually, find its way to a photo album . . . maybe.

Or maybe I am frustrated that I have not planned better, that I put so much off until summer in the first place. Maybe I am just venting my aggravation with myself – that I am not rising before dawn, that I have not maintained a structured plan for every hour like I do when the hamster wheel is in motion. I’m sure that I could have accomplished more by now if I had been more diligent. Then I would not be tormented by reminders of my lackadaisical attitude, like the remnants of fifth grade that my son unloaded several weeks ago, still neatly stacked in a corner. That’s what I should be doing right now – sorting piles instead of writing about them. No wonder I am a hot mess. And I’m pretty sure that I could have knit a sweater by now if I had my stuff together. 

Or maybe my go-go-go personality is just trying to process the potential of life outside the wheel. Although it fills me with anxiety, maybe there is joy in NOT living from a to-do list for a few days or, if you are fortunate, a few weeks. Maybe there is peace in NOT waking up to an alarm every single day. Satisfaction in NOT prioritizing the unimportant just to cross it off a list. Fulfillment in NOT planning the most efficient way to dissect the day but in allowing the day to unfold organically. Happiness in NOT accomplishing something but in enjoying something, instead.

As with so much of my life, I am still figuring it out, seeking balance, sorting through the different perspectives and emotions. Maybe your legs are aching, growing weary on the hamster wheel, as well. Maybe you can relate.

If you don’t have time to ponder it today, don’t worry. You will have more time this weekend.

That’s what she promises, anyway. But I wouldn’t trust her.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/28638538@N00/4182287774″>Hamster in a wheel</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a&gt; <a href=”https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/”>(license)</a&gt;

When the French Fries Start Talking

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No, I wasn’t hallucinating. The French fries just wouldn’t shut up . . .

Last week was a stressful week for me.

I know, I know; my life leaves little room for complaining. No one in my family needed a heart transplant. The bank didn’t call to say my identity had been stolen. I didn’t have to buy a pregnancy test and then peel my husband off the floor. There were no fires, no flooded bathrooms, no broken bones.

But my dog DID chew through an important cable cord. And laundry WAS piled to the ceiling. And I HAD promised my son that I would go on a field trip to discover that my work schedule did not want to cooperate. And my job HAD been a little crazy. And we DID have a very busy weekend ahead that included soccer games (Mom, my uniform is dirty!) and a wedding (Ack! I forgot to pick up the gift!) and a road trip (Are we taking the dogs? Will everything fit in the car? Did everyone pack enough clean underwear?).

It was an ordinary I-have-entirely-too-much-to-do-and-I’m-not-doing-a-good-job-at-any-of-it kind of stress. The kind of stress that tightens every muscle in your body except the ones that make a smile. The kind of stress that releases “scary mommy” from her cage way too soon. The kind of stress that I continued to press down and compact, like the garbage under the kitchen sink that might wait one more day if I can smash it just enough.

So back to the French fries.

It was a stressful week, and by Friday night, the boys and I had no choice but to run some errands, a task that ranks somewhere between scooping dog poop and eating asparagus on their list of things to avoid. Fast food offered a viable solution to a couple of problems; we needed to eat, I had no time to cook, and the prospect of a burger and fries made running errands more palatable for my kids (don’t EVEN judge me). We slid into the booth, and all was well.

Until the French fries started talking.

Eating out AGAIN this week? REALLY? Are you going for a record here?
This wouldn’t have happened if you had thought ahead.
You know you could have planned better.
You like your kids, right? Do you see any vegetables on this table?
And I think you exercised once this week. Yep. Just once. Failed again! Ha!
And you knew this weekend would be busy. Why didn’t you do more to prepare?
And why can’t you be more organized?
And why can’t you keep up with everything?
What’s wrong with you, anyway?
How do the OTHER MOMS handle all of this so much more efficiently than YOU?

I swear the French fries started it, but then I jumped in with the ole’ one-two punch. Beating myself up is a skill I have honed with years of extensive practice. So there I sat, with a self-inflicted black eye, staring at a heap of French fries, each one representing another flaw, another failure. My stress had overflowed into a cardboard container full of mistakes.

“Mom, can you help me open this ketchup?”  The request snapped me out of my greasy haze.

Why SHOULD I waste a rare sliver of uninterrupted time with my boys reveling in my own self-destruction, not enjoying the moment, completely oblivious to their presence?  In reality, after a stressful week, this date with them was exactly what I needed, even if it did include a grossly unhealthy meal.  And it hit me:

Some weeks you deserve a gold star JUST for surviving.

No matter how many French fries you fed your children. No matter how much you wish you had handled things differently. No matter how many promises you made to do better next week.

You survived that week? Well done, my friend. Well done.

Fist bump with fireworks.

Those fries were actually quite delicious, maybe because each bite was tinged with sweet revenge. The boys and I enjoyed some funny conversations about our week, and I gave myself permission to soak up the joys of the chaotic weekend ahead . . . to savor every bite of wedding cake without remorse . . . to relish my favorite hometown pizza . . . to accept that sometimes exercise doesn’t fit into my agenda, and that’s okay . . . to laugh and relax with family and friends despite the list of things I needed to do at home and at work.

No, responsible people can’t write off bad choices EVERY week, but life is stressful, and sometimes survival is an accomplishment in itself.

Sometimes it’s okay to break the rules.

Sometimes it is necessary to give yourself a break.

Sometimes it’s enough to feed your family by running through the drive-thru.

Just remember to eat the French fries first – before they have a chance to start talking.

photo credit: French Fries Burger King Food Macro February 12, 20111 via photopin (license)

To My Dear Sweet Mother

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To My Dear Sweet Mother:

Years ago, on a fresh spring day now tucked into the dusty attic of my memory, I debated about the perfect gift to buy for you. Would you like flowers? Dinner? Jewelry? It needed to be just right, of course, because the best gifts are meaningful ones, and it was Mother’s Day, after all, and so, in desperation, I asked you, “Mom, what gift would you enjoy the most?”

You said, without hesitation, “Just write me a letter.”

And I, well, I didn’t do it.

I thought about it, Mom, I really did. But I was busy, very busy. Busy with things that were so important that I don’t even remember them now.

I’m sure I bought you SOMETHING that Mother’s Day, something that I carefully selected just for you, something very special. Something that was so special that I don’t even remember it now. I am sure that you graciously accepted it, just as you doted on the lopsided clay pots that I shaped for you with little hands when I was a child. As I recall, every gift I ever gave you was the best gift you had ever received.

I told myself that my neglect of your request was no big deal because it was just a letter, anyway, and it was probably a trick because “I-don’t-need-anything-please-don’t-spend-money-on-your-dad-and-me” and you never mentioned it again, so why keep worrying about it? But I should have written it because I knew you wanted it, because you asked me to, so here it is, so many years late.

It strikes me that a letter written then would have been quite different, Mom, because then there was so much about your life that I didn’t know. I didn’t know the emotion of embracing a new baby, a precious, tiny likeness of yourself, and understanding that your priorities will never EVER be the same. I didn’t know the intense, undefiled joy of motherhood, or the constant worry, the nagging fears, the poignant hope. I didn’t know the weight of the responsibility that smacked you in the face the instant I arrived, screaming, seeking your comfort already, selfishly, before you even had a chance to catch your breath.

But now I know.

Now I know the emotional journey that I, as your daughter, subjected you to, and I stand in awe of your resilience. I am sorry, and I am inspired, and I am forever grateful for the excellent mentor you have been. You taught me how to be a wife, a friend, a sister, and a mother, more lessons than one letter will allow. But there is one lesson that I appreciate the most, one lesson that informs my parenting every day, one lesson that you never spoke but that I learned by watching you, oh-so-closely, for oh-so-many years: You teach your children the most when you don’t realize you are teaching them at all.

When you struggled with guilt and doubt but sacrificed the rewards of a career anyway to raise your son and daughter, you taught me to prioritize our family and our faith.

When you read me the same books over and over and over again and volunteered at school and befriended my teachers, you taught me the immeasurable value of my education.

When you were diligently calculating as groceries filled the cart, when you refused to buy strawberries in January or Cookie Crisp, well, EVER, you taught me to make wise choices and to live within my means.


When you embraced change as my baby face thinned and my vocabulary grew, you taught me to write new chapters in the book of life, to adapt despite the sense of loss.

When you helped me scrub (and scrub and scrub) my first car, the one that we actually bought at the junkyard, you taught me to take pride in what I have, no matter how it compares.

When you were the “meanest mom” and expected me to help around the house and work part-time and maintain high grades, you taught me to be industrious.

When you were exhausted but would not rest because the family needed clean underwear and there was soccer practice at five, you taught me to persevere and to embrace that this, too, shall pass.

When you baked bread for the neighbor even though your plate was already too full, you taught me to serve, to make time, to find a need and fill it.

When you fluffed my pillows and told me to follow my dreams on my first day at college, knowing that you would secretly sob all the way home, you taught me to be brave.

When I grew up and asked for your advice, and, with great restraint, you encouraged me to make my own decisions, you taught me to trust myself.

Sometimes, as I glance in the mirror, Mom, I catch a glimpse of you. Yes, I resemble you, but that’s not what I see. It’s your heart I see reflected, your values, your traditions. It’s all the things I learned from you when you didn’t know that I was watching.

Someday, when my boys are older and ask what I would like to have for Mother’s Day, I will say, “Just write me a letter.” It’s a great idea, but not original. It’s just another thing my mother taught me when she didn’t realize she was teaching anything at all.

With love,

Your Daughter

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