Long Days and Short Years

just trying to pay attention so I don't miss my life


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Saying I Love You in Late February is Not Easy

First, some background:

Once upon a time, in the woods of Western Pennsylvania and Eastern North Carolina, I worked as a camp counselor at two Lutheran summer camps.  These four summers were the hardest and most magical times I have known.  I remember laughing until I cried during the nightly skits, and I remember crying until I fell asleep when it was week 4 (out of 9) and I just wanted to go home.

It was camp.  It was life to the full, and then fuller.

Every week had a routine, a rhythm of ice-breakers and opening worship and the first night (with accompanying tears from the camper who would also cry when it was time to go home at the end of the week).  There was activity time, creek-walking and canoeing, ropes course and the zip-line.  And then, as the week began to spill toward its inevitable end, we counselors began to prepare for our most sacred task of the week.  Affirmations.

Affirmations took place during the final worship service.  During an extended time of quiet singing, each counselor would take each camper, one by one, to a spot on the dirt floor of our outdoor chapel.  There each counselor would begin, “Here are some incredible things I noticed about you this week…”, “You are so good at…”, “I really appreciated this about you…”  We were only supposed to talk for about 3 minutes, but mostly it went longer.  It was an inspired time, quite literally, and while I hope that our campers were changed in receiving the affirmations, I know that the counselors were changed by giving them.

The change began sometime on Wednesday when we realized that affirmations were coming.  Suddenly, it wasn’t enough to see one kid as ‘trouble’ or another as ‘a leader’, a time was coming (and coming soon) when we needed to say more.  We dug for adjectives and examples, we watched them interact with one another, we looked for signs of wisdom, compassion or creativity.  We prayed and watched, prayed and watched, because the time was coming when we had to speak.  Sometimes we were so exhausted that it all just seemed annoying, one more thing to do, and what-in-the-world-am-I-going-to-say-about-her; but we also knew it was a holy task.

And if there was any doubt, the actual giving of affirmations put that to rest.  It was a weekly miracle.  Sure, we stumbled, and there were seeming ‘duds’ now and then (darnit, I should have watched that kid more closely), but words would also come rushing, kids’ faces would light up, and oh so often, the one who drove you crazy all week would leave you in tears.

Its been twenty years, and I still remember.

****

Now.  Back to life, back to re-a-li-ty:

I originally planned to finish and publish this post on Valentine’s Day.  My take-away was simple: a challenge to watch our loved ones closely, and then the discipline to tell them beautiful and true things about themselves.  Affirmation, in real life.  Ready, set, go.

But then one child got an ear infection– a bad ear infection that eventually burst her eardrum.  On the same day that the car tire burst.  A week after the rotor and brake pads had to be replaced.  At the same time that the ice on the back porch roof started melting into the kitchen.   Just a few days before I got strep throat… really really bad strep throat, like screaming every single time you swallow strep throat.  And it was all a prelude for the four-day school break followed by yet another snow cancellation.

Ugh.

Heart-warming, thoughtful affirmations for all my loved ones?  How about I hold back a tirade when you spill your milk for the third time today?  How about I don’t throw my checkbook at the mechanic just to see his reaction?  Happy Valentine’s Day everyone.

Here’s the reality friends:  February is hard.  This whole being-a-grown-up-thing can be brutal.  And I refuse to give you one more thing to do.  Instead, I want you to sit down with me for a moment on this patch of warm earth.  Can you hear the crickets and the guitars?  Good.  Now let me tell you something:

You are doing a great job.  Really.  You, the exhausted one.  You do so much in one day, so many small, mundane acts of love, you don’t even realize the self-sacrifice that it part of your regular routine.  You fall down and keep trying.  You make mistakes and apologize.  Your love runs deep, and that’s part of what makes all of this so hard, because you actually long to do right by the people you love.  And you’ve come so far already.  It hasn’t been easy.  Today won’t be easy.  But you’re doing it, friend.  You’re doing it.

You are amazing.  Even in February.  And if you can be like this at the end of a long winter, well…  just wait until spring.

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Bringing the Helicopter Mom in for a Landing

From the beginning, I just wanted to do everything right.  Is that too much to ask?

It’s been six years since I hit the ground running.  Two babies in two years, and oh so many things to try and do right.  Natural childbirth.  Organic homemade baby food.  Attachment parenting.  Cloth diapers.   I read books, skimmed websites and listened to family and friends.  Tummy time.  Self-soothing.  Sleep training.  I filtered it all through my own intuition, consulted with my husband, and kept on parenting, one day after the next.

One stage after the next.  Just keep running.

Soon we were out of diapers and into new waters.  Preschool and other childcare options.  Time outs.  How to encourage independence for a child who still might run out into the street at any moment.  How to teach a child to say sorry without that parroting tone.  Playing together and playing alone.  More sleep issues (do they ever end?).  Age-appropriate chores and toys.  Kindergarten.

Just typing this list makes me tired.

Don’t get the wrong idea–I am not a perfectionist.  If you need proof, just look in my car.  But I have labored at parenting.  I have agonized over many small and big decisions.  I have run hard.  And six years into it all, I have one thing to report:

I have often had this gut-level sense that I am blowing it.  Blowing it big time.

Now, most of you are very kind people, and right now you are thinking, “Oh, I’m sure that she’s a very good mother.  She’s probably just being too hard on herself.”  You’re right of course, but this isn’t really the point.  The point is that I’ve got these unspoken standards of ‘doing it right’ that I can’t live up to.  And sometimes they eat away at me.

Wonder if I’m the only one.

****

I am able to write this post because my children are at summer camp.  They are at summer camp from 9-4, for five days a week, for four weeks.  We have never done anything like this before.

It began on a bit of a whim.  Wide-open summers can be daunting when you have small children, and I had been trying to find more time to write.  When I saw “9-4” on the brochure, I may have drooled a bit.  Then I signed up on the spot.  Four weeks!  Four glorious weeks to write and work and learn and run and read and draw and… “Honey?”  My husband interrupted my reverie.  “What’s the camp like?  What will the girls do there?  How is it organized?”  He must have been shocked at my uncharacteristic response:

“Oh, I don’t know.  I’m sure it will be fine.”

As camp drew nearer, my confidence wavered.  What had I done?  I had no idea what the student to teacher ratio was, no sense of their daily schedule, and no clue if this just wasn’t the biggest mistake of our parenting lives.  On the first day I still wasn’t sure what to think.  It seemed organized, but there were kids everywhere and my goodness it was loud.  The counselors seemed eager, but oh my were they young.  “Welcome to CAMP!” one of them screamed as we arrived.

What could I do?  I dropped off my kids and walked away.

Just.  Walked.  Away.

Seven hours later I grilled them in the car.  What was it like?  What did you do?  Tell me everything.

“Well, Mama.  Once I got lost, but then a tonsilor found me,” my oldest began, not realizing that they are called ‘counselors’ or that her mother had stopped breathing.  “We were going to the girl’s room and I had my eyes closed cause I was making up a dinosaur story in my head and when I opened them my group was gone!”  I sucked in air.  “Oh… really… honey… and what happened then?”  “Oh, a tonsilor found me and walked me upstairs, oh and guess what Mama, we had brownies for snack!”

Brownies are not a very nutritious snack.

****

There in the car, when I began breathing normally again, I noticed something.  My daughters were buoyant.  Beaming.  Gushing even.    The tale of the missing tonsilors wasn’t the forlorn story of an abandoned child, or even a frightening memory;  it was an adventure tale.  It was as exciting to my daughter as a dinosaur story, and oh-guess-what-Mama, there were even brownies for snack.

The two little girls in my car had had a fabulous day.

With this revelation came, oddly, a sense of freedom.  For the mother who just wanted to do everything right, this day had been a disaster.  I had left them for seven hours with screaming counselors who had lost one of my children and then fed them sugar for snack.  All this, and not only had my precious, fragile children survived–they were thriving.

I had blown it, blown it big time (or so I thought), and my children were thriving.  Amazing.

And surprisingly… freeing.

It’s been two weeks now since that afternoon in the car, and with the benefit of hindsight I can see that things were not nearly as out of control as I supposed.  It seems that my daughter was separated from her group for approximately 2.3 seconds on that first day, and nothing like it has happened since.  The girls love their caring, energetic ‘tonsilors’ and the ‘welcome to CAMP!’ young man is a particular favorite.  There are healthy snacks too, the directors maintain an incredible 8:10 ratio (that’s 8 adults for every 10 kids) in the pool, and the consistent routine has stabilized our summer.

It’s been two weeks, and it hasn’t been perfect, but it has been good.  Good for the girls.  Good for their Mama.

I didn’t expect this, but the best part of camp for me hasn’t been the extra time.  The best part of camp has been a new stage of letting go, a new realization that Just Walking Away is sometimes the best thing you can do.

I’m not talking about apathy here.  We still have our daily grilling in the car, and I still talk with the counselors when I have a concern.  I still prefer smaller groups and more experienced teachers (say, for kindergarten), but this is camp and they are having fun.  They are having so very much fun.

After all, the opposite of apathy isn’t caring for your kids.  The opposite of apathy is agonizing.  And this is where my tendency lies.

Camp, with its accompanying brownies, has been an important corrective.