Wednesday, January 29, 2014

Friendsday #10

My kids are eight and five.  Our days are generally filled with video games, laugh track TV shows, and chapter books.  We’re all routine-y, so the dynamic of mom and kid interaction is pretty predictable and lovely.  We have what I like to call the occasional full moon fall out when one of them loses his mind over something completely inane (or more often I reach some sort of mental limit and have to apologize later), but really, truly, honestly most of our days are awesome.  Breakfast, lunch, school, after school activities, dinner, bedtime.  With so very little drama that I feel like I’m cheating at parenting somehow.

A good number of my friends are still in the under five stage of motherhood, and it seems strange to say, but that stage of motherhood feels like a lifetime ago.  I am so far removed from nursing, sleep schedules, napping, potty training, and sleep deprivation that sometimes my mind plays tricks on me.  I think to myself—was it really as bad as *these people* make it out to be?  “These people” are all of my friends who post things on Facebook on the regular like “Bedtime has been moved to 6:00 this evening so no one dies” or “I haven’t slept longer than one hour straight in four nights…teething is from the devil!”

I read those words, and I’m tempted to do what older women did to me when I was bemoaning the fact that my husband was gone AGAIN during an emergency room visit or that someone had just peed all over the shower curtain.  I’m tempted to give advice or say something like “Cherish your littles because they grow so fast!”  But I don’t.  1) Because I would never actually say something that cheesy, and 2) because I remember wanting to punch people in the face when they said those sorts of things to me.  (If someone ASKS for my advice, I’ll give it, but I’ve made a general rule to let other people parent their children because they’re not mine to parent.)

The reality is that those early years were challenging.  Will didn’t sleep through the night and rarely napped longer than 23 minutes (seriously, you could have used him as a cookie timer) until he was 2 1/2.  You read that right.  TWO YEARS AND SIX MONTHS of waking up multiple times a night.  I didn’t give him away because he was freakishly happy during the day even with no sleep.  Ben, on the other hand, slept like he wrote the book on sleeping but screamed like someone was giving him a lobotomy for the first nine months of his life every time we got in the car.  Will had a four-month period during his third year where he would screamcry until he threw up if I told him to take a nap.  Of course, this was right around the time that Ben began to HATE clothes—all clothes, including his diaper.  So, sometimes they would scream in tandem, chasing me around the house like two little naked, sleepy banshees.

The reality of what those days were actually like lies somewhere between my nostalgia of a quiet nursing baby and the disaster I described above.  In fact, it’s all of that, nostalgia and disaster rolled into a moment of motherhood that shaped me in ways that no other relationship with human beings has.

That might be the longest introduction I’ve ever written for a Friendsday post, but I say all of that to say this: the reason we all made it through that stage in tact had a lot to do with my friend, Jenna.  

Jenna, I chose this picture because 1) I love your hair like this,
and 2) almost all of the pictures of just you are of a pregnant you.  Ha!
Jenna’s husband and my husband were both pilots at Charleston AFB when we met, and I’d known of Jenna through friends for a long time before I ever met her.  Our friendship started at Rolly Pollies, one of those places with lots of wide open squishy space for your children to bounce around and run.  Our oldest kids, Will and Samantha, were enrolled in the Beetles class, where they were learning basic gymnastics and other energy-using skills.  For us, two women with three-year-olds and newborns, it was forty-five minutes of someone else engaging with our children a couple of times a week.  Jenna and I would sit on the benches watching Will and Sam balance on the beam or flip on the trampoline while we nursed our babies and talked about The Bachelor.  The conversation was not deep, but it was also not about Little Bill or goldfish crackers.

Eventually, the conversation shifted to sharing our mothering experiences, our faith, and our life as military spouses.  We started attending “open gym” sessions together, when we could let our growing babies crawl around on the giant blocks while the bigs jumped in the foam pit.  Quickly, we added a new dimension to our routine—grabbing dinner at an Asian fusion place in the same area as Rolly Pollies.  We’d bundle everyone into the car and drive over to Red Leaf, where the waitresses (thankfully) fell in love with our brood.

Will and Sam would play “school” under the table (which I realize seems wildly inappropriate in most eating establishments), each of them taking turns “teaching” each other how to spell new words.  We’d drink tea and eat pad thai and gyoza, checking on our table trolls occasionally and nursing the littles.
Jenna and her super duper family
Before Jenna and her family moved, we had added one more dynamic to our ritual that sometimes included our in town husbands.  After our earlyish dinner, our counterparts would be getting off work, so they’d join us and our worn out babes at Rita’s, an Italian ice place that served snocones and custard.  On several occasions, our kids, now all old enough to at least toddle around a bit, would run the length of the building in the drainage ditch that separated parking lots, while our husbands timed them to see how fast they were.  And we would sit on the red benches, spooning the last our our snocones into our mouths as the sun set.

I think part of the reason I have a hard time remembering how difficult that stage of life was is because most of my memories are like this—laughing and eating and watching my kids make friends.  When our family took a road trip to CA two summers ago, Jenna packed up her three kids (she’d added one since we’d seen them last) and drove to Downtown Disney from a couple of hours away to have dinner with us.  We stay connected through social media—with conversations about homeschool and The Bachelor (some things don’t change), and I’m continually entertained and encouraged by the way she opens herself up to the people around her through her “Friday confessions,” in which she relays some story about something stupid she’s done in her life.  

One of my friends, who is in the thick of this stage of motherhood right now posted on Facebook, “If it takes a village, where’s mine?”  And I responded, “Ha!  You have to build it!”  I know why she posted that exasperated status—she’s got a three-year-old who wants to do everything by himself and a five-month-old who can’t do anything for herself, and that can feel really isolating—especially in this life where our husbands are gone so much and our families don’t live near.  

Jenna was a huge part of my village in a time when I often felt like the idiot.  Village-building can be challenging and exhausting (and not natural for those of us who would rather hide away in our Hobbit holes), but it is also life-affirming and life-saving at times.

Thank you, Jenna, for being a person who showed me the value of raising the roof of friendship over pillars of shared laughter and tears and on a foundation of vulnerability and love.  Keep up the good work—you are one of the best village people I know.

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Friendsday #9

In 2003, I spent a semester at sea, working with Mercy Ships.  I’d dreamed of going to Africa for years, and volunteering in the hospitality department on the M/V Anastasis, a traveling hospital ship off the coast of West Africa, was my ticket.  I had just graduated from college and was engaged to be married, and I was every bit idealistic and passionate and ambitious as anyone should be at twenty-two.

In the five-month period that would become the basis for the story of my masters thesis in grad school, I met three girls—Sarah, Jessica, and Maro—who became my family away from family as we navigated the cathartic joy and bumbling pain of international travel.  
I know a picture exists of all four of us leaning over the reception desk on the ship,
but this is the only picture I could find that I had saved digitally--
Sarah and I at a dance party/lunch in Sierra Leone.
One of the best days of my entire life.
In the past eleven years, we’ve seen each other in spurts.  This one was able to go to that one’s wedding.  These three gathered because the timing was right.  When our family found out we’d be stationed in WA, we were overjoyed because it would mean being within an hour and a half of both Jessica’s and Sarah’s families.  Maro was still waaaaaaay over in FL (which was nice when we lived in Charleston, SC), but the other three of us could gather semi-regularly.

Sarah and her husband, Kris, took assignments doing international relief work in Kenya and then South Sudan for a good portion of our time in WA, but we saw them on their trips home and happily stored all their belongings in our garage.  Last month, when Kris and Sarah were officially home for good, we got a message from Maro's husband, Rich, that their family was thinking about trekking out west for a vacation.

Within two days, Jessica, and her husband, Andrew, had organized a long weekend in Leavenworth, WA—a Bavarian “Christmastown” known for its charming downtown and snow-related activities.  The plan was to pitch in food and go where the wind took us.

And we’d all be together.  For the first time in eleven years.

Maybe you’ve got friends like these—you first met at camp and saw each other every summer for seven summers and then not again for ten years, when you ended up living in the same city.  Or maybe you were roommates during the one year of college you spent away from home, and you meet up every time she’s in town for business.  Maybe you shared a short assignment to a remote Air Force base with very little to do for entertainment and haven't lived in the same place since.

These kinds of friendships are different than the ones you create with your mom’s best friend’s daughter, who was your best friend before you were born or the girl who sat next to you in first grade who still calls you once a week.  Those friendships have had time to simmer slowly and are obviously delicious.  But these other kinds of friends—the kind of people who have lived through intense moments of life together—they make for instantly deep friendships with a level of love and commitment that defies reason.

As I packed our bags for Leavenworth, I thought about the fact that I didn’t really know what to expect from the weekend.  If I travel with the people I hang out with on a regular basis, I know what to expect—who likes to stay up late or be the first one up, who’s messy and who cleans up after everyone.  But this group of people—we don’t share life daily together.  In fact, the last time we did, none of us was even married.  Now, we’d be heading to a house in the mountains with eight adults and eight (and a half) children.  And you know what? I wasn’t worried one bit about any of it.

I know this to be true about humans: good people are good people.  When you’re “picking up where you left off” after eleven years with good people, it just works.
The four of us squished on a love seat
Throughout the weekend, I watched as one mom fixed a plate for all the kids, not just her own, while a dad wiped the face of a kid who didn’t belong to him.  We shared food and mittens, played games and went sledding, stoked the fire and shuffled around a giant house in slippers.  And it felt like we’d been doing it forever.

The night before we all headed back to real life, the kids (who had been getting along freakishly well all weekend) were tucked into bed, and the adults were snacking on all the things we’d hidden from the kids during the day.  We asked questions of each other about all the things that needed “catching up”—how is your brother?  How has your pregnancy been?  What’s this new business venture?  What’s the next step in your career?  How’s the adoption process going?  Big questions with big answers that kept us talking late into the night.
The Fruits of our Labor
And one with Sarah's growing Fruit included
The weekend was peppered with reminiscing about moments on the Mercy Ship—that time when we were young and goofy and just stepping into the skin of adulthood, when we were thrown together for a few months on the other side of the globe.  As I watched each of us handing off an upset child to her spouse or nursing a baby or baking good morning rolls or organizing the mountain of snow boots and coats, I couldn’t help but be supremely happyThere is no greater joy in this kind of friendship than realizing that reality is infinitely more beautiful than the picture you had created through nostalgia.

Jessica still has perfect timing with her smart, quiet jokes, and Sarah’s and Maro’s laughter is still the perfect response.  I like to think we are more comfortable in our adult skin now, but if you peel back the layers of years of living on opposite coasts and navigating marriage and family life without daily interaction, we are still very much the four girls who met on a ship off the coast of Sierra Leone.  We planted the seeds of friendship in the soil of intense adventure and watered each other with our love for justice and mercy and laughter and grace in such a way that our roots have inextricably intertwined.  Our family tree is broad and beautiful and still growing.

Thanks to all three of you for this weekend.  And for everything.
Sixteen and a half people all looking at the camera
at the same time while the camera is on automatic.
Nothing short of miraculous.

Wednesday, January 8, 2014

Friendsday #8

When I was born, I had 72 living grandparents.  Okay, maybe that’s an exaggeration, but thanks to short generation gaps and good genes, I have vivid memories of time spent with grands and greats.  Grandpa Joe pickled his own cucumbers in gallon jars. Grandma Bea gave me pennies in recycled jelly jars.  Grandpa Claude walked around with a pipe in his mouth that he never smoked.  Grandma Marge (whom I called “Grandma March” because I thought that was her actual name for far too long) kept a step stool conveniently perched next to the cookie jar.  
Grandma March and Grandpa Claude at their 50th wedding anniversary party
Some of my earliest memories are of visits to older members of our church’s congregation with my mom.  We’d drop by, sometimes unannounced, and I’d sit on floral-printed couches while my mom spoke in hushed tones to ladies who seemed older than the Earth to me.  They’d talk about their grandchildren, their children, their husbands who had passed--sometimes decades before, or about their Bible study group or recent trip to the grocery store.  Most often, my mom would not need to ask more than three questions to fill the hour with listening opportunity, and almost always, I would fall asleep in her lap to the squeak of a rocking chair.

When we moved to Olympia, WA, we attended a hip-ish church for a few months and never felt “at home” for lots of reasons.  When we signed Ben up for preschool at a Lutheran church, we decided to attend a service.  Our second Sunday, Scott was gone, so I attended a Sunday school class by myself, and I was the youngest person in the class by thirty years.  Most of the members of the class had me by forty, fifty, even sixty years.

One lady came up to me after class and bear-hugged me.  When she let go, she grabbed my wrists and squeezed, not letting me go.  She introduced herself as “Lucille” and quickly told me that her husband had been in the military--I knew she was my people when she ribbed me a little about the difference between Army wives and Air Force wives.  Before we left, she took down my name and phone number and stuck it in her purse before shuffling off toward the sanctuary.

Over the next few weeks, our church attendance was a little spotty because of summer activities, and I got a note in the mail from Lucille saying how nice it was to meet me and my little family.  One day, I got a call from a number I didn’t recognize.  When I said hello, she launched into a conversation. 

“Leia?  This is Lucille from church.  We met at Sunday school.”
“Yes, I--”
“I was wondering how you are.  I haven’t seen you the last few weeks.”
“Yes, we’ve been really busy--out of town a couple of weekends--”
“Well, I hope you’ll come back.  I want to see you.”
“I’m definitely planning on it!”
“Okay, see you.  Bye.”

You are right to assume I was right back in Sunday school the next Sunday.  Over the last couple of years, Lucille has remained a ray of sunshine in the Washington rain.  I see her occasionally in the middle of the week at church because my women’s Bible study meets at the same time as her senior exercise group.  Twice, I’ve run into her around town running errands, and she pays no attention to the people waiting behind her in line when she stops to tell me glad she is to see me and to ask how things are going, always brightly dressed and smiling.

Today, Will and I ran to our favorite farm stand to grab some produce before we had to pick up Ben from school.  I saw Lucille standing by the potatoes and onions.  I scooted past her buggy and hugged her.  Immediately, she started talking about how much she loves me.  Right there in the store.  She grabbed my arms, my face, my hands, and said, “I’m just so happy to see you.  I love you so much!”

When I said, “I know!  I love you, too!” she stopped me, grabbed my hands again and said very seriously, “Those are important words--I love you.”
Will was standing behind me, playing his 3DS, which has a camera.  He said, “Mom, let me take a picture of you guys!”  We posed with a random guy who was looking at potatoes.  The two of them started chatting about how kids are so smart about technology.  Lucille said to this stranger, “Do you know that I’m going to be 95 this year?”  And his response struck me.  “Well, good on you!  I’m almost 70, and anyone who would get out in this weather is either healthy or stupid.”  They laughed and laughed, and I said a tiny prayer of thanks, like I do, for this little miracle of a moment in my day.

Then I grabbed my phone and taught Lucille about selfies.

Much is said about how older generations get frustrated with “kids these days” and younger generations complain about how out of touch their parents and grandparents are.  Maybe it’s because I’ve been old since I was born, but I have always had a healthy appreciation of the people who made me, the people who have lived more life than I have.  More often than not, I prefer to learn from other people’s experiences when possible--good and bad.  When it comes to all the things that really matter--the way I explore my faith, the way I love my husband, the way I mother my children, or the way I cultivate friendships, I take cues from people who have lived well.

When Lucille was leaving, she walked up to Will and cupped his face in her hands in a moment that was too beautiful to interrupt with a picture.  She said, “I need you to come to my house and teach me about my iPad!”

I love Lucille.  I love her for the number of years she’s lived--almost three times mine.  I love her for her cold hands and bright yellow rain jacket.  I love that she’s 94 and still gets out to buy onions.  I love her because she’s who I want to be when I grow up--someone who writes notes and makes phone calls, someone who recognizes the importance of finding common bonds with people who seem very different by appearances, someone who knows the value of saying I love you.

Today is for Lucille.  We’ll be paying her a visit next week to make sure she knows how to read this on her iPad.