much mulch

After nearly fifteen years as Californian transplant to New England, I still find myself caught off guard when the seasons change. In September, I forget that bare toes are no longer practical. In May, I have boots, coats, and gloves languishing near the door waiting for their yearly rest. The first snow fall and the first blooms in the yard–the in-your-face neon pink ones–startle me into reality.

As I have been reminded, it is spring. It’s the time to smell the flowers while heavily medicated for seasonal allergies. And it’s time for enthusiastic yard work. Yes like good homeowners, we bought and hauled twenty bags of mulch.

This mulching business is relatively new to me. I grew up in the California chaparral where plants had to be cultivated. If you didn’t work to get a plant to grow, you’d end up with a lot of dirt. Not so around these parts. If you leave the dirt alone, you’ll find a five foot tall tree and knee-high growth all around. Mulch is the secret to keeping this restless growth at bay. The other fact that I learned was that mulching is most effective if you get rid of the growth first. The yard looks so tidy when you throw down that mysterious colored bark mixture. If we neglected to prepare the soil, we’d have a jungle in a matter of weeks.

So this week, I found myself with this horror story collection of tools and a dead shrub. How hard could removing the dead wood be? Landscapers do this all the time. This is routine yard work. Sure. I started with my bare hands. The branches are dried and rotted, no problem. Until it was a problem and the hedge clippers came out. I lopped off branches. Then the thicker stems resisted the clippers. Oh yeah, we have a saw in the garage. More wood was hacked away. But the biggest ones still remained. So I sawed notches and brought out the sledge hammer. Finally it was “just” the stump. The dead yet resistant stump needed attacking on two fronts: above and below ground. And the shovel joined the gang.

Piece by piece the yard waste barrel filled up. The immovable wood came away not with one great tug but by methodical weakening: branch by branch, root by root. There’s an analogy in there about small accomplishments leading to widespread change.

Looking at my yard today, I’m quite satisfied. My stubborn will persisted against many decades of branches and roots. But really, all there is to show is an absence and a thick layer of mulch.

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this time with margins

You’d never know it but I think of this space every few weeks. A place to archive events and activities–maybe. A place to process thoughts and memories–more likely.

I’m reluctant to admit that I’m an avid blog reader. Reluctant because being a “fan girl” is the last label I would ever want for myself. In my online wanderings, I’ve noticed a few common reasons for lapses in blog writing. Most commonly, in-person life is busy. Why would you nurture the virtual one if you barely have a handle on the one playing out in front of you? Another situation I’ve noticed is that writers are in the midst of an internal crisis/evaluation. These times are best hashed out where there is less permanence, more freedom to flex and move. Words written out even in a changeable electronic form seems too public, too tangible.

Me? I’m in both camps. My family unit keeps piling on practices, projects, meetings, events despite our best efforts to guard our margins. Without our margins, writing here is among the many activities that don’t make it on to the page. And because the page is so filled with the text of life, we’ve got a reckoning coming. We’re cramming in all we can, filling the margins and the spaces between words. Soon the ink will over take the paper.

In working to balance ink and paper, we need a bit of a pause. I’m looking forward to it–a time to cut, remove, and delegate. I welcome this not because the process is painless but because it is a time to dream. It is a time to gather bits of ourselves we are discovering and to produce a new page for our family, with margins.

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a supermarket story

I began my grocery shopping career in college. Having moved out of the dorms and into an apartment, my roommate and I began to cook for ourselves. Cooking seemed feasible but the trip to the supermarket proved to be more challenging than I thought. How much food should I buy for the week? What price should I pay for it all? How do you know you’re picking food that actually tastes good? We muddled through those early years developing a routine: check the sales flyers, cut out coupons, make a list, shop and make your socially responsible roommate return the shopping cart.

Not long after, I was married and the routine was adjusted: check the sales, bring coupons, shop while roaming the aisles with the husband and declare it the cheapest date around. We moved across the country. Being happily unemployed and unexpectedly pregnant, I continued on while prominently wearing my rings to show fellow shoppers that I was not a pregnant teenager.

Then the little guy came bringing chaos to the routine. Each trip was carefully considered. Shopping lists included a strategy for the best time of day to venture out for the quickest errand possible. Groceries shared space with the infant carrier. The supermarket became an arena for a race against feeding and nap times.

And the little guy’s brothers came along. Shopping with one baby sounded like a breeze. I draped the three of them strategically on and around the cart. Lists were still important but now included the occasional impulse buy selected by small hands.

One by one those pairs of small hands were made their way to school. My supermarket routine was reclaimed. Walking the aisles felt so indulgently leisurely. No one needed the bathroom RIGHT NOW. No one was knocking over cereal displays. I had peace just until the frantic dash to pick up everyone on time.

Today, the carefully considered lists are gone. I stop by any market on the way home from work and stand in the produce section wondering about the contents of my fridge. I decide on some veggies, the kind everyone is willing to eat, and grab the rest in a quick lap around the market.

Occasionally, I’ll drag the three boys to the supermarket after playing chauffeur for most of the day. A different type of chaos ensues. Overcoming paralysis, we must stand in front of the jello selection to consider all the colors and flavors available. A case is made for why we should buy a pack of licorice. The hand-held scanner freezes because someone wanted to know what happens when you press all the buttons at the same time. They join forces and bag all the groceries. Everyone carries groceries to the car. And being socially responsible, I still return the cart.

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Laughing at myself

I make myself laugh sometimes. It is not because I can tell a good joke. I’m horrible at that. I can help if you ever are in need of a sarcastic comment but not if you need me to tell you a joke or story in any logical order.

What I chuckle at is my ability to set ambitious goals and then feel disappointed that I failed to meet my probably-too-high expectations. I expect to keep a tidy, joy-sparking house in spite of the fact that five busy humans and two rowdy chinchillas live here. I expect to avoid eating out because I should be preparing our meals. I expect to be a never-let-you-down employee despite the fact that I am a part-time employee with full-time responsibilities. Can you be your own “tiger mom?”

Occasionally, I’ll shine the light of reality into my life. What am I striving for? Who am I hoping to please? I really don’t know sometimes. I’ve piled up the duties without remembering the purpose. My lips remind me that I don’t need to do it all but my heart is skeptical. I’ve put my trust in my ability to accomplish tasks rather than resting in grace.

I try to release my expectations but then realize that in itself is a task to accomplish. Have I allowed myself to be messy today? Check. Did we scrounge up something for dinner? Check. Did I say “no” to attending an additional meeting or taking on a project at work? Check. Have I shown love to my family? Check.

It’s no surprise that I bump up against the same disappointment. I need a radical change–not in my actions but in my heart. My heart needs to know the One who holds all things together. The One in whom I can never comprehend but knows me completely.

When my heart knows the One in whom I can rest, there is a lightness. Burdens are lifted. Sure the tasks remain but they no longer hold me hostage. The laughter of chagrin is replaced with peace.

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an “A” for learning

I wonder, is it taboo to talk about learning while enjoying the first days of summer vacation? Despite the urge to power down the brain for the summer, I can’t help but think about learning. I am not an expert in teaching or the methods of acquiring knowledge but I have discovered the what I’ve started to consider the “A” of learning.

Based on the circles I run in, I have to disclaim that the “A” of learning is not a grade. Sure, as a student, I wanted that kind of “A.” And do I expect that of my kids? Sorta but that is a long discussion for another time.

Maybe you are more hip to the process of discovery in learning, the “aha moment.” I’m talking about the instant the clouds part and sunbeams illuminate the solution to the problem or the clarification of a concept. All the while, heavenly creatures are singing the “Hallelujah Chorus.” Go ahead, do a few fist pumps while you’re at it.

Sorry, that’s not the “A” I’m talking about either. When I learn, inevitably have the “AARGH!” That is the point in time when I pull my hair, throttle the project or very maturely have a tantrum. I declare defeat or utter hatred. I rationalize that quitting is the only viable option.

Just when I’m ready to leave it all behind, I do one of two things (1) call it a day or (2) talk to my husband. These options are fatal for the “AARGH!” I take a breath and step back. I put it on the back burner. A new day brings freshness and perspective. Time, sleep and distance: they work wonders.

Sometimes the “AARGH!” is persistent. A good night’s sleep has not shaken the feeling of failure. The circumstances are still daunting. In this case, option two is activated: I process it with my highly logical and rational husband. We assess reality, instead of my conveniently edited version. Emotions are acknowledged but not given the driver seat. I can consider my next steps and, more often than not, I see how to persevere.

I dislike the “AARGH!” but realize I can’t truly learn without it. That is, I can’t learn hard lessons and reap the rewards. I’ve always preferred to be the type of person that was instantly good at whatever I tried. In a few cases that is possibly true. If I were to be honest with myself I’d admit that my path has been littered with “AARGH!” I don’t wish it on others but see those moments first hand with my family. I know it is good for my kids and I fight every urge to wash away the “AARGH!” For in due time, they will also reap the reward.

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as night turns to day

In an unexpected turn of events, I have become a morning person. I’m as surprised as anyone. I’ve always thought of myself as a “mid-day person.” I’m usually very groggy in the mornings, functional but prone to sending the kids off to school with the wrong lunch. And I’m not great at night either. After about 10pm the mental fog begins to set in. I tend to have late night conversations with my eyes closed.

Thanks to daylight savings and our spot on the globe, I am an early riser. I’m up as the first rays of sunlight hit my window. I’m up when the birds begin to sing. I’m up when the dew is forming. I’m up while the household slumbers. As night turns to day, I’m wide awake.

The Proverbs 31 woman rises while it is still night to feed the household. While I’m working on emulating her character, I seem to do ok at rising early. Does the Proverbs 31 get to take an afternoon nap? I’d like to know because after getting up at 5am, I’m going to need one.

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off the floor

It started with a simple goal: get those clothes off the floor already! An not-to-be named pre-teen had the kind of room that makes mothers cry. A narrow path of carpet ran from doorway to bed to dresser. To be fair, it was winter’s fault. Winter brought snow which piled up on our roof and caused a leak in the closet which caused the clothing evacuation. An evacuation to refugee camps made of piles on the floor.

Spring brought optimism and determination: this is a problem and we will fix it. Of course the solution had a name and that name is IKEA. Well, a trip to IKEA is like going to a theme park. Who knows when we’ll be here next? We’d better do it all. No visit is complete without the impulse purchases. And the impromptu meatballs to keep our energy up.

You’ll be glad to know that a flat-packed dresser and coordinating night stand has given the refugees new homes. I still trip on the model of an Assyrian siege tower but like everything else about the house, it is a work in progress. As we slowly move from space to space organizing and purging, I know there is another room that is hoarding and falling into disorder.

I am completely stumped at people whose homes show up in design blogs or interior decorating shows. Are they obsessively neat or are we ridiculously sloppy? I have come to the conclusion that our family life can’t easily include a highly organized home. I would love it though–tidy shelves keeping only the essential. Our lives are too organic with open-ended projects and books laid open for the next reading session. I will have to settle for keeping clothes off the floor.

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At least twice a year I am caught by surprise. Sometimes pleasantly surprised, sometimes a little miffed, but mostly I am amused. Seasons! What a novel concept. And they change–every year! As a 13 year veteran of New England weather, you’d think I would finally catch on. But no, this So. Cal girl cannot overcome the expectations of childhood. Seasons don’t really change, just put on that sweatshirt sometime in December. And maybe pull out the umbrella on occasion.

I’ve noticed despair when slogging through the coldest, slushiest, or snowiest of winters. Will it ever end? How is it possible that summer is 90 degrees warmer? Were we really sweating it out in August? Then the smallest of changes begins. The snow banks recede. Stealthy buds open. Birds are chirping. I am shocked, spring is here.

There’s also despair on sweltering nights when we must break our resolve to conserve electricity. Crank up the A/C already! August is here and the indoor temperature is 92. How could we have burrowed under two down comforters just a few months ago? In a matter of days and weeks, the humidity clears. We inhale the crispness of apple cider and confusingly named lattes.

I realize that the changing of seasons happens in other ways too. That pre-dawn feeding when the newness of motherhood hit at full force. This child is mine. Mine for the next 18 years. I will never sleep again. But that season also passed. Spit up and diapers are no longer a part of my reality. I gingerly step into the next decade: mothering in the adolescent years. The mood swings. The power struggles. Was it that long ago that we drove home from the hospital, wondering how to care for that little guy without round-the-clock nurses? It was. I’m not too surprised.

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What’s for dinner?

I can’t count the number of hours I spend thinking about food. I enjoy cooking and the “mmmm” of a good meal but that’s not why I spend so much time thinking about food. My top reason: I must feed my family.

Growing up, I didn’t eat out much. We certainly had our share of fast food but more often than not, Mom would cook for us. I think my family has a genetic aversion to spending money. Eating out as a family of five was too costly. Mom would cook for us with the produce Dad grew and we would save money.

As e would spend time with me and my family, he would notice something. Right after planning, cooking, eating and cleaning up a meal, my parents would start the process all over again for the next meal. Once the lunch was complete, my dad’s next words were, “What’s for dinner?” (With his accent it sounded more like, “Whas fo dee-nah?”) We were not hungry, mind you. We must feed the family.

Healthy or not, a lot of that has carried into how I feed my own husband and kids. I complain about the work and lack of inspiration. (Does anyone else out feel uninspired just before meal time?) But I can’t help but want to cook meals for my family. Yes, it does save us money but I’d rather cook than struggle with the decision of picking a restaurant or place for take out. And will we have enough veggies? Will it be too salty? Can we count on the food arriving at the table in time to fend off low blood sugar crankiness? What if the delivery guy gets lost and our food gets cold?

Mom will cook for us. And after lunch we will say, “What’s for dinner?”

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speaking to an empty room

Today I decided to do a little stealth blogging. Stealth only because next to no one will read this post–and I’m fine with it. Kinda glad, actually. It takes the pressure off a little. I’m delivering my speech to an empty room. You can’t hear my “ums” or awkward silences or see my weird facial expressions.

If there isn’t an audience, why bother to write in the first place? Is it that unshakable immigrant value of not wasting money spent? Maybe. (We paid for this space after all.) I can’t confirm it yet, but it may simply be a matter of stewardship. Not stewardship of finances but of talents.

I rarely venture to write for an audience larger than two. Even mass email messages give me pause. And I’m generally a private person with lots of thoughts swirling in my mind. Often I’m thinking about a handful of topics all while putting the wrong lunch in my kids’ backpacks or standing in a room with no idea how I got there or what I wanted in the first place. Perhaps women are great at multi-tasking but I don’t multi-task while multi-thinking well.

Despite the small number of “readers” I have, I’ve been told that I write well. If I was still in my twenties, I would have dismissed the compliment thinking that person must not really know what they are talking about–not really know me. I have had to learn humility in order to accept the compliment. Maybe there is some truth to the fact that I can write.

If I can write, should I not use my abilities? God has given me the elements of who I am. Should I use them all? And simultaneously? In the same season of life? I don’t have an answer for that yet. But I’m willing to give writing a try. After all, there’s not much risk in delivering a speech to an empty room.

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