Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Explaining the World to Our Kids

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It's after ten o'clock on a Tuesday evening. This is the time of night I'm usually under my covers with a book or Netflix, or worst case scenario still scrubbing tomato sauce off the kitchen counters. But not tonight. Tonight Jeremy is in California and I'm flying solo. Tonight my eleven year old daughter finally showed me a sexually explicit Instagram post that has been distressing her these past few days. She was relieved to talk about it, to get it out there and to hear that she is going to be just fine. But even so she put her head in my lap and sobbed while I ran my fingers through her hair and tried to explain the world to her. 

Sometimes on Tuesday nights we unexpectedly have to explain the world to our kids. At first I was furious with the whole situation, that the Instagram post came from "Disney Top Secrets" and that I was giving up a perfectly quiet Tuesday night to such unnecessary trash. But of course mostly I was furious with myself for not checking her Instagram friends recently. Our family rule is "only close friends and family" but that's the thing with kids. They get excited in their cyber treasure hunting, they become distracted. They forget. And it had "Disney" in the title. What's safer than Disney? 

This isn't one of those posts where I'm going to soapbox about the evils of the internet, or try to rally support for parents to join forces and Care Bear Stare against evil. It's late. I'm thrashed. I ran kids all over town to piano and basketball practice. I was defeated in an impromptu "Connect Four" championship before dinner. We read picture books, scriptures and then knelt in family prayer while James tried to turn somersaults on the carpet and kicked Elisabeth in the face. When it came time to actually deposit the chicks in bed one of my middle child informed me that it must be my number one wish to make her suffer. There is still tomato sauce crusted all over the kitchen counters, but I haven't done anything about it because I've been too busy listening to my oldest daughter quietly sing Primary songs to herself in an effort to get the bad images from Instagram out of her head.

I just sat on the edge of my bed listening to her sing. It was like a solitary bag pipe at a funeral and it turned all of my righteous anger into something sad, sad, sad. Something did die tonight. It was palpable. She knows about the birds and bees, but not like that. Not in the violent, frightening way it was presented to her. The world became a little bigger, a little darker, a little more jeering. We knew this was going to happen. We've been telling her that since she started using the internet socially. We've warned her again and again that eventually she'd stumble onto something that didn't look appropriate or didn't feel right. No one is surprised that this happened and many would say that we're lucky she made it to eleven. 

But I think it's okay to feel sad and frayed at the edges when we have to walk through that door with our kids. You know the door I'm talking about. The one where you have to explain the world and then try to smooth it over and make it safe and sunny once again. This is parenting. It's going to happen again and again, and sometimes it will be taken in stride, other times it will come unexpectedly and feel more jarring. It will happen to children who are six, sixteen and eleven, when a piece of their innocence sloughs off, breaks off or is torn off simply because they live in this world. They are part of it and we can't stop the process, we can only build high fences and teach them, teach them, teach them. And of course point them back toward the sunshine.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Living Large: In Memory of Kent Haruf

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This morning my sister called me on her way to work to let me know that the novelist Kent Haruf had passed away, and our conversation has left a watermark on my feelings all day. It might be the first time I've felt true grief for a perfect stranger, but I suppose anyone who has read Plainsong might feel the same way. Kent Haruf had something and he gave it to us and it mattered, and now that it's over and done and we're left to say, That's it?  But we wanted more.

In an autobiographical essay published back in 2011 Haruf wrote, By [the time my first novel was published] I was forty-one years old and had been writing as hard as I could for almost twenty years. If I had learned anything over those years of work and persistence, it was that you had to believe in yourself even when no one else did. And later I often said something like that to my graduate students. You have to believe in yourself despite the evidence. I felt as though I had a little flame of talent, not a big talent, but a little pilot-light-sized flame of talent, and I had to tend to it regularly, religiously, with care and discipline, like a kind of monk or acolyte, and not to ever let the little flame go out.

In closing Haruf observed, Over the years I have tried not to write too small, and I want to believe I have tried not to live too small, either.

Now doesn't that just make you want to climb back on whatever horse has bucked you off and hold on a little tighter? I like to write about writers and artists because it amazes me again and again and again how humans can create something to fill up the nothing. And even though Haruf is gone, he filled his space, filled it right up.

So, now that I've read the online tributes to Haruf and spent some time this afternoon thinking and writing about his autobiographical essay, it's time to return. James is crying in his crib and the yellow school bus just passed by, which means kids will burst through the door in a moment. We're going to work on math facts and practice instruments, and then we're going to California Pizza Kitchen for dinner since my dad's in town. All over my house small fires burn, bills to pay, Christmas gifts to mail, ornaments that have been removed from the tree by prying little hands and left on the floor to be stepped on. But I feel open to it and ready. To everyone else it all might feel small, but this afternoon, to me, it feels large.  

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Showing Up

Where does the time go? This is where we started two years ago. I love the fur on his shoulders. All of my babies arrived a month early, born before they lost their fur. 

Now we're here. Escaping down the street on his big sister's pink scooter. He has found several ways to get out of the house and at least once a week now I look up and realize he's gone and race to haul him back inside. I'm making it sound like he's a house prisoner, but I promise I "walk the dog" everyday. I have to. Otherwise he won't sleep long enough.

Most days I rush through the "getting ready for his nap" routine. Change the diaper. Fly through whichever "truck" book is the daily pick. Sing a song at a fast forward speed while I'm throwing him in bed, and then I'm outta there. I have two hours to make something happen. Thank you to those who have emailed and face booked me over the past few months to let me know you miss my blog posts. You'll never know how much your faith in me matters. It's always that way isn't it, you just never know what words can become. I suppose that's why I've chosen this line of work. I may not be blogging regularly, but I'm investing my words in other projects. I work every afternoon, and little by little it's moving forward, both inside me and on the page. I'm trying to keep the long view.

This afternoon I relaxed into my rocking chair and held my little boy. We sang songs together; he can hardly contain himself when he hears anyone singing. He loves to sing. So we rocked and sang, and he snuggled into me in a way that made me realize that soon enough he will be too big for my lap. "Mama sad?" he asked, poking an index finger into my eye ball to touch my tears. 

Every hour of every day we get to choose where and for how long we're going to show up. Sometimes dividing up the hours is excruciating, as though there's never enough to fill all the hungry bellies. Last night Jeremy got home from a business trip late at night and said to me, "I'm trying so hard to make it happen at work, with you and the kids, with my church calling. But there are so many nights when I'm sitting at my computer and my eyelids involuntarily begin to close and I have to go to bed hoping it was enough." What a thing to hear from your spouse. I didn't know what to say, except that I see all that he is doing and whatever it is from day to day, it's enough. It has to be, and that is true for all of us. The best we can do is to show up and trust that in the long run we were exactly where we needed to be.  

Saturday, June 21, 2014

Out of Illinois

For the past couple of weeks I've been thinking about the beautiful introduction to Karen Blixen's story Out of Africa

"I had a farm in Africa, at the foot of the Ngong Hills," she wrote. Since I love the movie so much it's always Meryl Streep's voice when I replay this sentence in my head, and her emphasis is on the word had. She had a farm in Africa. For a brief, wondrous time in her life she had a farm in Africa, and then it was over.

That's exactly how I feel about the past ten months of my life, only I wasn't in Africa, I was in Chicago and I didn't have a farm, I had a sister who lived down the street from me. For a brief, wondrous time I had a sister who lived down the street from me. Now she lives in Utah.

circa 1983

I've been privileged to live near several of my sisters over the years, and last summer I left two beloved sisters behind in Colorado. But the past ten months have taught me that there's a huge difference between living near a sister and living down the street from a sister. The following list is not exhaustive, but hopefully demonstrates a few of the perks of living down the street from your older sister:
  • She not only takes a turn entertaining your toddler during church, she packs snacks and toys in her purse with that purpose in mind
  • She can be prevailed on to deliver emergency milk, eggs or Dairy Queen on her way home from work because she drives right past your house
  • Or if she isn't available to pick up your forgotten grocery items, you can always grocery shop in her fridge
  • While you're in her fridge grocery shopping, she doesn't mind if you see something delicious and say to yourself, "Don't mind if I do" and grab a fork
  • When you receive a text message at ten o'clock at night communicating that your child unwittingly left the hamster cage door ajar over at your sister's house earlier that day, you can have your husband over there in thirty seconds to be the silent ninja who tracks the hamster in the dark. (They found the hamster, long sigh of relief).
  • When you hear the phrase, "I'm bored" from your children you can follow it up by saying saying, "Why don't you play with your cousins." 
  • With your sister you don't have to comb your hair or pick up your house. She can stop by anytime, no strings attached. She already knows your best and your worst.
  • She will walk into your house unannounced to drop something off, take stock of the flustered mom and the fussy baby. She will then pick up said fussy baby and disappear for a little while. For the past ten months she was his other mama.
  • She always knows exactly what restaurant will fit your mood on girl's night. And you can order whatever you want, salad and water or fried calamari and an ice cream sundae. She doesn't care.
  • You have a reliable "play date." Someone to help you pick out shoes, someone to organize Sunday afternoon kickball at the park, someone who knows your routine and the interior of your life almost as well as you do.
After reading over this list the one thing I want to add in tribute to my sister is that she has a way of making me feel like I matter. It feels good to be me when I am with her. We are so different, sometimes we are nearly polar opposites, but we tried really hard to affirm these differences, to keep our pettiness at bay, and through our actions to say, I know who you are, I know who you're trying to become, and you're doing great.

Looking back I feel like it was a magical year. For ten months I had front row seats to watch my sister evolve from a discouraged, overworked and lonely single mom to a happily remarried college graduate. Dr. Seuss wrote, "Don't cry because it's over, smile because it happened." I'm trying really hard to smile even though this is a hard one for me. Living down the street from my sister defined my entire year. I had a farm in Africa...

So, Utah, I hope you appreciate that you got the good end of this deal. You got my sister. You're welcome.

Friday, January 10, 2014

5 Ways to Kick That Holiday Hangover

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I love this photo. I don't even drink, but this is exactly how I've felt every morning for the past week. We have never had such a lovely Christmas season as we did this year. Our friends from England came for two and a half weeks, and the day they flew out we packed up and drove to Virginia to ring in the New Year with Jeremy's family. We came home a week ago expecting to jump back into Real Life, and then arctic weather fronts shut down the city for several days, followed by a recurrence of the stomach flu at our house. And so we're a third of the way through the month and still recovering. Here are a few tips that have helped:  

  1. Take Down Your Christmas Decorations. Take em' all down. And don't leave them in a heap by your basement stairs either. Get it into boxes and into storage, including the Christmas cds that are still in your car. It's January 10th. If I hear pleas from the backseat to listen to "Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer" one more time I'm throwing kids out of the car.
  2. Which is a nice segue into my next suggestion, which is to Spend Less Time With Your Kids. Okay, I don't mean to actually spend less time with them, but perhaps January isn't the best month to plan Saturday day-trips to museums or the mountains, or really anywhere that involves herding cats in public or spending a lot of time cooped up in the car together. 
  3. Address the Vidiot Syndrome: My sister uses the term Video Game Idiots, or Vidiots, when her kids have spent too much time camped in front of screens and begin acting like electronically entitled monsters. We've had a little of the vidiot syndrome going on at our house since Christmas too. So, earlier this week I confiscated all electronics and told my girls to go play, or else I would sell their Christmas toys on Craig's List. After a few dramatic, tearful break downs, they retreated upstairs and played together. All day. And everyone was happy by dinner time. 
  4. Get the Junk Out of Your House. Our friends brought a small suitcase of European chocolate to our house for Christmas. This, more than anything, is contributing to my holiday hangover. Now, there are several courses one might take in this situation. You can get rid of it. But I'm not putting European chocolate in the trash folks, so I took some of it to Virginia to set out for Jeremy's family, I stuck some of it in the freezer, and I ate the rest of it. As my sister in law said, It's way better to feel bad for only one day, than to spread it out over an entire month. It was amazing. No regrets. And I'm finally feeling ready to get back to other food groups.
  5. Get it Over With. I think part of what makes it hard to leave the holidays behind is habit, you get used to eating Cadbury caramels for breakfast and going to bed at one in the morning. But the other element is that often we get thrown back into real life feeling as though we left some unfinished business back in December. For example, a stubborn determination seized me back in November that at some point during the holidays I would get caught up on Downton Abbey. I hadn't watched past season 2 and had some serious work to do, but with our hectic holiday schedule it didn't happen. And so I have spent every night this week watching Downton Abbey, and now that I'm done I feel much more prepared to get on with life. 
January always feels like a tug-o-war between what I ought to be doing (keeping a schedule, eating carrot sticks and exercising, tackling my New Year's goals, etc.) and what I feel like doing, which is eating the rest of the fudge and staying in my pajamas until three in the afternoon. I guess I'm doing a little of both, but the main thing is that this list is helping me to avoid the post holiday blues and transition into the New Year in my own way. I hope it inspires you to do it your way!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Merry Christmas from the Gillespie Family

Dear Santa,         

As you may know, Jeremy took a job in downtown Chicago and in July we moved to Naperville, Illinois. Some of the little people at our house are concerned you won’t be able to find us this year, so I promised them I’d forward our Christmas Wish List on to you with our return address on the envelope. These are the things we’re really hoping for:

James (15 months)-  Santa, this year I need you to bring me some sort of weapon to defend myself. I spend half of my day toddling away from Elisabeth who likes to pick me up under my arm pits and drag me around the house with no apparent destination in mind. Since we don’t have much in the way of weapons around here, I’ve taken to brandishing a fairy wand, holding it backwards and pointing it at anything that moves. Oh, and if it’s not too much I’d also like some socks. I already have socks, of course, but I prefer other people’s dirty socks. No matter where we are, at our house or someone else’s, I’m the basset hound of dirty socks and will sniff around until I find some. And once I have them in my grip, I’ve learned to be firm. My thought is that people can have their socks back if they can pry them from my cold, dead fingers.

Elisabeth (4)- Santa, what I’d really like this year is a new dad for James because I’m not kidding when I say he keeps trying to take mine. Don’t get me wrong, I’m vigilant. There is never a time when my dad tries to pick up James that I don’t charge them with my horns blazing and insist on being picked up too. It would just make things easier for everyone if we could get a different dad for James. If that’s not possible, keep in mind that I’m also open to the idea of giving James to a new family for Christmas this year.

Kate (8)- I don’t really need to tell you what I want this year, Santa, you can just check my cousins’ lists who live down the street from us. Whatever they ask for, that’s what I want too! And it’s not that I want to be a boy, since there are plenty of girl things I like, it’s just that my boy cousins are so awesome with their skate boards, air guns and Halo Legos. I recently cut my hair in a short bob, and I wear tennis shoes and a hoodie to school every single day, but having some boy toys of my own might help. In the meantime, if you’re looking for me, Santa, I’m that colorful streak that races through the house from morning until bedtime because like Forrest Gump, wherever I’m going I am RUNNING!

Madeleine (10)- Seriously Santa, if you could change my mom’s taste in music, that’d be a good start. She listens to piano music (thumbs down) while she cooks so the other day I tried to send a message by marching into the kitchen and saying, Awesome music mom. My new favorite! What she doesn’t get is that anything worth listening to is on the radio. KSFM. I remind her every time we get in the car, before we even back out of the garage, to turn on KSFM. I know all the lyrics to every song too. My mom isn’t impressed with this accomplishment, but I suspect that’s because she’s getting old and can no longer recognize the artistic genius that is Taylor Swift.

Lauren (old)- This year I’d like to order a sleep induced coma that lasts at least one week. Between teething (James), waking up scared in our new house at night (Elisabeth), and flu season (all the kids), I’ve barely slept through the night since we moved last summer. But if the coma isn’t an option, Santa, I’d also love a swig or two of that liquid from the Hunger Games that allows you to vomit after you eat… so you can keep on eating. I realize around some parts that magic potion is called ipecac, but man does it look delicious. And for those who may be concerned upon reading this, please rest assured I do not support eating disorders. I support eating. I joined a local gym this fall and although the spin and zumba classes are fun, it gets us out of the house during the winter months, and of course exercise is good for you, blah, blah, it doesn’t resolve the fundamental problem that there are so many new restaurants and great food in Chicago and there’s never enough room to try them all.

Jeremy (older)- Santa, like you my job allows me to spend a little time each day hanging around in sub-zero temperatures. Who would have thought the North Pole and Chicago share such a similar climate? And as much as I enjoy waiting outside for busses and trains during my daily commute downtown, this year I wouldn’t mind receiving a Star Trek Beam Me Up Scotty transporter to speed up the process. Then I might have more time to devote to my play book since I was recently asked to coach the teenage boys’ basketball team at church. My wife suggested that perhaps I was asked to coach because my sense of humor is compatible with that of fourteen year old boys, but my guess is that it’s my athleticism, my cat like speed and reflexes. They saw what I could do at the church turkey bowl football game this year and now it’s out. I may be thirty-five, but old man, I’ve still got it. Zooey Mama!

In conclusion, Santa, we’ve all tried to be good although admittedly some more than others. But we’ve come a long way from last year, 999 miles to be exact, and we’re looking forward to a new year, in a new city, with a new job, and hopefully less miles on our car.

With Love, 

The Gillespie Family

Thursday, November 28, 2013

Over and Done

Last night I went with two of my sisters to Target for the specific purpose of buying matching Thanksgiving pajamas. I love this picture. We debated for fifteen minutes in the pajama section over which style and pattern we should buy. Carolyn insisted that RiLee choose since yesterday happened to be her birthday, and after some coaxing I grudgingly conceded. It was fabulous. I could have spent six hours at Target with these ladies. I love that every time I wear the crazy striped pajamas that RiLee picked out I will think of them and the time we spent together over Thanksgiving break.

Today in the midst of the cooking/Wii games/board games madness going on in my house I slipped upstairs by myself to tidy up and work on laundry for a little while. I wanted some quiet. Maybe folding laundry and straightening beds doesn't feel like a very "Thanksgiving" thing to do, but in the moment it felt like it. There is a window in my laundry room that overlooks the park and I watched the sun set behind the trees as I folded. I could hear the happy voices of my sisters talking, talking, talking down in the kitchen, the kids squealing and arguing over their games. And the entire time I felt grateful.

Twenty years ago these two sisters of mine were sworn enemies. At one point they had a hand-to-hand fist fight over who knows what. They were rolling on the ground and our parents weren't home, so we had to call a neighbor to come over and separate them. Now that is one of our favorite stories, but it wasn't always funny. We weren't a happy family for so many years. In those days there were endless divisions and hard feelings over broken and blended families. RiLee, the middle sister in the above picture, is my step-sister, although we never allow for the "step" part. I love her as my own. It is one of my core beliefs that there are sisters you are born to, and sisters that life gives to you. On days like today I'm choked up with gratitude that we matured away from our adolescent rifts long enough to realize how badly we need each other. These days I cling to my sisters!

I think for most of us happiness feels like tenuous ground that might shift at any moment. But this week I'm treading softly, trying to stretch it and make it last.The past couple of days with these sisters of mine have felt idyllic. I love being with family. I love the homemade fudge, the glowing fireplace, and spending two hours doing Just Dance with my kids. I love stealing RiLee's cell phone and responding to her text messages. She is possibly the only person on Earth who I would do this to, but somehow this is our relationship. This morning I responded to a "Happy Thanksgiving" message someone sent her by texting back, "I'm trying to teach a cat how to do back flips. Orange Kool-Aid is yummy." Afterward we laughed until my stomach hurt. I love sifting through recipes and arguing over whether or not we will make lemon pie or lemon bars. This morning one of my sisters looked at the mounds of ingredients strewn around my kitchen and said, We have a lot of cooking to get done.

But getting it over and done with isn't the point. Cooking together, being together, the fact we love each other and the hard times are over and done with is, in fact, the point. Which is exactly what I told her.

Happy Thanksgiving to all our other sisters who are far away. We love and miss you!

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