Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Commanders-in-Chief – A Reading Project

When I first read Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell, I marveled at her extensive research and her hilarious side stories about the things she did and saw as she obtained her often obscure tidbits of presidential assassination history. Recently, I listened to the audio version of this book and it dawned on me: this book and the writer's amazing knack for conveying history planted the seed for my current reading project. I am reading one biography of each U.S. President in chronological order. I want to be a better informed American and if in the process I can also better determine where I fall on the political spectrum, all the better.

This is what my inner nerd considers FUN. And yes, I'm serious.

This is not a scholarly pursuit, just one working mom's quest for life-long learning. To see the American story through the lens of the men (and hopefully one day women) who have led this country. It's also free of the hassle and cost of graduate school.

I have been reading -intermittently- for two years, and I just finished President #6 John Quincy Adams. I've got to pick up the pace or I'll still be reading when I'm 50 (I turn 40 in six weeks.) Serendipity is accompanying me on this journey. I AM judging books by their covers, choosing my selections based on what the book jacket says, and hoping for the best. I also have two presidential consultants, Brad and Marvin, who I look to for help in choosing which volume to read next.

Reading about the presidents is a little bit like buying a new car. Before you buy it, you never see the make and model, but after the car is yours, you see it everywhere you turn. I'm amazed how often I find myself stumbling across something presidential. Just last weekend as I was being seated at a Cracker Barrel, the restaurant chain abundant with antique d├ęcor, I found a tin with the likeness of George Washington (G Dub, the first). The presidents are everywhere when you start looking for them.

I subscribe to an online magazine called Literary Mama. One of its issues included this quote: “My mother was the most beautiful woman I ever saw. All I am I owe to my mother. I attribute all my success in life to the moral, intellectual and physical education I received from her.” - George Washington. I do not believe this quote is attributed to the correct person. (not the magazine's fault) After reading his biography, I know that his mother was a very difficult woman, and duty was the only thing that kept him connected to her. I simply cannot believe that he truly felt this way about her. It was an exciting little nugget though, because without having read his biography, I would never have questioned the quote.

I am not trying to pick a favorite president, but I am trying to find something redeeming about each of them. So far with the founding fathers, that has not been difficult. Washington was absolutely the right man for the job at the time. Gosh, he had amazing obstacles to overcome as he led the colonists through the Revolutionary War. He was not a particularly warm man, but he carried out his duties like a champion. Read about his poor oral hygiene, and you wouldn't feel very warm and friendly towards others either.

I didn't expect to like John Adams from reading Washington's perspective, but David McCollough completely changed my mind. John Adams was a good man and a very good friend. The relationship he had with his wife, Abigail, was fascinating to read about. They were completely devoted to each other, and Abigail, was one strong woman particularly for her time. I couldn't understand why Adams was so loathed by his peers...for awhile I thought Adams had made me a monarchist, but I kept an open mind and kept reading.

You will not find a Thomas Jefferson (TJ) fan in this reader. He's definitely overrated. He was an eccentric man with a lot of different interests and pursuits, which is interesting to read, but that wasn't enough for me. There is a scene in the biography by Jon Meacham that describes how differently Jefferson treated his white children versus his biracial children. Marvin encouraged me to remember the time TJ was living in, and judge it by those terms, but nope, I just can't.

When I told my friend Brad about this project, he warned me, “You know, you are going to come across some boring reading along the way.” I actually welcomed the boring reading thinking that meant that I'd be learning brand new information. That was until I began reading James Madison, who I've nicknamed, J Mad. Whew! I stalled out 200 pages into the first book, and decided to take a break, find another book, and start again. J Mad was unremarkable as a founding father, but I finally understood why Adams upset so many of his contemporaries and why I am NOT a monarchist. Richard Brookhiser in James Madison explained the second president this way: “Adams was indulging in gloomy thoughts, a favorite pastime of his. But praising hereditary succession was a dangerous thought for an American to express; doubly dangerous coming from an elected officeholder; triply so from an officeholder who lobbied for Washington to have a title.” They didn't want another king. Just a capable man who would lead the country for a period of time and then elect another leader.

Poor James Monroe (J Mon) has been cast into the shadows of American history. He was a fantastic president. He ushered in a time of peace and prosperity for the young country. He modeled his presidency after Washington's and was a unifier. I'd love to have an opportunity to vote in a modern Monroe. My favorite story about Monroe describes how his military instincts kicked in as the British were about to attack during the War of 1812. He told President Madison that the British would be coming to Washington City as it was known then. Madison instead listened to his War Secretary who dismissed Monroe and said the British were aiming their aggression at Baltimore. Madison listened to the wrong counsel and Washington City burned. Monroe stepped in to take back the city and to get it back up and running. The residents were ticked and poor Madison was ill-equipped to deal with the mess. Monroe, as Secretary of State, became the de facto Commander-in-Chief and War Secretary. He took care of business!

A Secret Santa at church gave me the biography of John Quincy Adams by Harlow Giles Unger. I've anxiously awaited reading this book. I wondered if I'd like John Q A as much as I liked his father. The answer is yes. He was brilliant. He spoke at least three languages. His service to his country began as a teenager when he became a secretary for an American diplomat in St. Petersburg, Russia. He won over the Czar. He was a scholar, and pushed very hard by John and Abigail to serve his country, which he did for his entire life as a diplomat, an attorney, Secretary of State, President, and at the end of his life as a Congressman. The man's presidency was the low light of his illustrious career of service to his country.

Are you still reading? This is a long blog post, but I had a lot to catch up on to bring you up to speed. From here on out, I'll blog as I go. You can count on photos, quotes from my second grader who is currently reading a Magic Tree House book about the Revolutionary War, and told me to mention it on my blog.

Next up: President #7 Andrew Jackson. Let's see if I still think he's a barbarian (as John Q A referred to him) when I finish his bio.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Julie's 40/40 Bucket List

To celebrate my 40th birthday and a brand-new decade, I commit to checking each of these activities off my list between January 3, 2015 and January 3, 2016. My list 1-40 (in no particular order):

1. Kayak at Creve Coeur Lake (or other location) Read here.
2. Make Bread Pudding Read here.
3. Make pie crust from scratch Read here.
4. Improve my forward bend. Read here
5. Take a trapeze class. Read here.
6. Make a calendar of before and after yin yoga poses.
Replaced with: 6. Go to a Festival I've never been to. Read here.
7. Do four sun salutations each day. Read here.
8. Visit four new labyrinths. Read here, here, and here.
9. Buy a bike rack for my Nissan Pathfinder. Read here.
10. Reread all six books of the Anne of Green Gables series. Read here and here.
11. Read four more Presidential biographies. Read here.
12. Run a 5k with my brother-in-law, Rich. Read here.
13. Get a pedicure with Bright Red Polish. Read here.
14. Sing a Sara Bareilles song at Karaoke with friends. Read here.
15. Take Tennis lessons through St. Charles Parks and Recreation. Read here, here, here, here, and here.
16. Go to a concert at Riverport (Can't remember its sell-out name.) Read here.
17. Wake up early and watch the sunrise. Read here.
18. Go on a yoga retreat or take a special yoga workshop. Read here.
19. Go rock climbing at IBEX Gym in Kansas City. Read here.
20. Rent a mini-cooper. Read here.
21. Participate in in October 2015. Read here.
22. Read a book off a high school reading list. Read here.
23. Take a figure skating class. Read here and here.
24. Write four letters to state and federal legislators. Read here and here.
25. Zipline with Misti (and anyone who wants to join us!) Read here.
26. Go to Meramec Caverns. Read here.
27. Make a LookBook of Cadence's fashions for me and her. Read here.
28. Create a list of 40 books/series that have meant the most to me in my life, thus far. Read here, here, here, and here.
29. Learn to fishtail braid Cadence's hair. Read here.
30. Take a Dierberg's cooking class. Read here.
31. Take a train trip – destination to be determined. Read here.
32. Donate a Heifer to Heifer International. Read here.
33. Attend a school board meeting. Read here.
34. Take Cadence to the St. Louis Symphony. Read here.
35. Eat lunch at Ibby's on Washington University campus. Read here.
36. Go ice skating at Steinberg Rink in Forest Park. Read here.
37. Eat at the Boathouse in Forest Park. Read here.
38. Take a Home Depot workshop. Read here.
39. Stay in a swank hotel solo to read and write. Read here.
40. Blog about activities 1-39. Read here and here.

I welcome you to review the list and if you are interested in joining me for one or more of these activities, let me know in the comment section below. As far as I'm concerned, the more the merrier! Just know that when you join in, you are likely to make an appearance in the post about that particular activity. Thank you for helping me to usher in what I anticipate will be my best decade yet!

Friday, October 3, 2014

Welcome to the Weekend

To echo my seven-year-old, “This has been a long week.” Whew, girl, has it!

Somehow when I've had a tiring, productive day at work, I come home revved up to be productive on the home front. Tonight is one such night. The air outside is crisp, and I'm reminded that tomorrow we are headed to a corn maze with Cadence's brownie troop. Her laundry basket is full to overflowing, and the mother of the house had a minor tantrum this morning when it was determined that the wrong clothes were available for Cardinals' wear day at school. It's time to do some laundry.

But then I get sidetracked by dropping a light bulb I am trying to replace in the bathroom. Right about now I think I'm living the adult version of If You Give A Mouse a Cookie... If you give this Mom some space and time she will jump from household task to household task, and actually call this fun.

The bathroom rug which caught some of the shrapnel cut in line before Cadence's clothes, and the sink and bathroom floor got cleaned. So there ARE silver linings.

I've cleared a path in front of my counter-top desk in my office, and this is where this post is being written. I look around and see at least seventeen other tasks that are calling to me: brownie patches to be sewn on a brownie vest, letters to be written, bills to be paid, clothes to be bagged for the donation bin, a sad movie to be watched, glasses to be carried down to the kitchen sink. Okay, that's only six tasks, but I am certain I can find a full seventeen.

The roar of the baseball crowd floats up the stairs from the TV in the living room. My daughter is at her friend G's house playing away this week's stress of tricky second-grade spelling words and the life cycle of a caterpillar.

This is the first weekend in four that I am not going to go into the office to get just a few more things done in peace and quiet before another long week. It feels a bit like a luxury, this not going to the office.

Give away some outgrown shoes of Cadences, organize school papers, pull out the winter clothes, get caught up on this week's episode of The Voice, update my daughter's journal...the tasks keep mounting and now I'm six tasks away from the estimated.

The second-grader is home from her playdate without any arm-twisting. She can't sit idle, so she's convinced her dad that a trip to Target should be next on the agenda for this expansive, happy Friday night. I decline the invitation to tag along. Time alone for a mama is about the very best thing ever. On this Friday night, contentment is mine.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

When folding laundry becomes a walk down memory lane

I've just folded my daughter's laundry. It's one of the more contemplation-inducing housekeeping tasks. At the cusp of a new season, nostalgia washes over me as I weed out what she's outgrown. I marvel at how different she is in a few months' time—a cycle that repeats itself like our laundry piles. I set aside a few things to serve as a yardstick for next summer. How much more will she have grown over the coming two seasons?

I fold the sweatshirt from our trip to Brugge, Belgium. The muscles in my chest tighten. I bought the sweatshirt oversized so that it would last longer than a season, and it has. Cadence's frame has filled out and stretched longer since she took her maiden voyage abroad. Eighteen months since the trip, it is a bittersweet fact that the sweatshirt is on borrowed time.

I am still thrilled by this purchase. It satisfied my goal for practical souvenirs in multiple ways: I remember clearly the shop we bought it in; it has kept my hot-blooded girl warm when the temps required a jacket; and the “I heart Brugge The Most” graphic has served as a terrific conversation starter for Cadence to share her experiences.

My reaction to my daughter outgrowing this item of clothing is a placeholder for the sorrow of motherhood—that push and pull we mothers navigate every day. We want (sometimes demand) our children to grow up and out of one stage of childhood only to be grief-stricken when it actually happens!

There's a rubbermaid container in my basement that I've been meaning to go through. It is a museum of Cadence's earlier stages. I don't plan on purging the entire collection, but after seven years I'm curious to see what items' strong tugs on my heart strings may have faded with time. I hope a few things can be passed on, so I can make room for the Brugges sweatshirt when the time comes. This alternating holding tight and letting go marks motherhood at every stage whether we like it or not.

Thursday, September 4, 2014


I am not a nail polish-wearing-kind of girl. I've bitten my nails since I was two-and-a-half. Nail polish on chewed nails just accentuates the bad habit. But lately, my nails have begun growing healthy, and I've started polishing them. Yoga is the reason for both the healthy nails and the polish.

My eyes are closed. I lay flat on my back on a raspberry yoga mat in the first row of a class. My mat is situated between a very fit yoga man and an adventurous 70-something yogi grandmother. The teacher guides us to bend our knees toward our chest. We inhale, and then move our knees to the right towards the floor on an exhale. We pause here. Our breath initiates each movement. Another inhale and our knees move back to the center above our torsos. More breathing and then with an exhale we move our knees toward the floor on our left. The teacher releases us to do these moves with our own breath at our own pace. With my eyes closed, I can feel that my knees aren't lined up like they should be, and my shoulder blade lifts off the mat when it shouldn't.

My movements feel clunky. They don't feel smooth like I imagine they should. “This doesn't feel like the practice of a polished, accomplished yogi,” I hear myself say silently. This disruptive thought breaks my rhythmic breathing. The moving meditation has been thwarted by an unsettling thought: I have coped with life's stresses, confusions, heartaches, and uncertainties by being polished and composed. It's the mask I wear to hide the clunky, awkward pieces of me. It feels like a huge risk to embrace the unfamiliar and unpolished moments. Is there something to be gained by removing this mask? Authenticity? Vulnerability? Growth? I'm not sure I know how to do this. How to let myself let go of this composed facade.

I return to my breath. I continue the moving meditation. I play with the idea of being unpolished—it's a starting point. A measurable place to mark my progress—there's one benefit of allowing myself the freedom to just be wherever I am.

Yoga promotes a mind, body, spirit connection that at first doesn't seem possible. It teaches a non-judgmental exploration of how one's body feels in a given moment and what thoughts are attached to those physical sensations. For me, I have constant tightness in my hamstrings. Yoga teaches me to simply be aware of the tightness. To not feel frustrated, aggravated, or impatient. To breathe into that space and wait.

Yoga also promotes acceptance of the state of my hamstrings in any given moment. Some days they may make it possible for my fingertips to touch the floor. Other days reaching my ankles may be as far as I can go. I breathe and hesitatingly allow gentle compassion to wash over me. My teachers remind us with encouragement that practice and attention will eventually yield the improvements we want to come.

I'm still on my back and the thought crosses my breath-filled silences, “Why exactly do I HAVE to be polished?” This isn't what yoga—and life—are about. I feel a mental elbowing of empowerment in this thought. We move to our next pose and I feel liberated to let my body move as it is able today. No judgment, no unnecessary expectations.

The worry about being polished first met me when I was workshopping an essay in the Summer Writers Institute. My teacher pointed out that I have a very academic voice—one that uses semicolons—a lot. This habit is another way of keeping control of things that often feel out of control. Situations, personalities, dynamics. Keeping my voice composed and polished keeps my readers from knowing what I really think and feel. There's a lot of passion under the cool, composed exterior. Until my writing course, I didn't know it was there or what to do with it.

In yoga there is a lot of time spent looking at one's outstretched hands. Fingers are spread wide to form a firm foundation for downward dogs, side planks, and handstands. Yoga has planted me firmly in my body in a way that no other activity in my life has accomplished. I am a bookworm, a dreamer. I spend most of my time in my head and my heart. My poor body gets shut out most of the time. But not on my mat.

Yoga has seeped into how I think about my body: it is strong, it is capable, it is worthy of my time spent in healthy movement. Yoga has also shown me how to have fun again. That's where the nail polish comes in. I paint my nails because they are fun to look at in aqua, aubergine, and metallic hues. I've begun to break the nail-biting habit that has overtaken my childhood and adulthood with yoga's awareness of my behavior—of my fingers near my mouth. That's step one. Then I ask myself why I'm doing it, and if I can choose not to chew them just this time—that moves me closer to accepting this frustrating, unattractive habit.

Sometimes I chew my nails. Some days I can resist the temptation. The urge to chew is connected to things like stress, writer's block, anxiety. On the days where I peel away a layer of healthy nail, I have begun to practice patience and gentleness. I remind myself that with more awareness and more acceptance, I won't feel the need to chew them so often. That forms encouraging space for me. With these slight adjustments and greater awareness, my nails have grown healthy and longer. Wearing nail polish whether my nails are long or healthy enough is an act of acceptance of where I am right now. And a reminder that I am okay just as I am.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

Le Souvenir - 2013 Summer Writers Institute - FINAL

Last summer I enrolled in the Washington University Summer Writers Institute. It changed my life. It was the moment when I finally took a stand for finding my voice in print and for carving out a writing life. My final project was a very personal story that had taken up residence in my mind for years, and was able to find its way to the page after the two-week intensive class. I worked excruciatingly hard to shape this piece into something I am very proud of, and I am now ready to share it here at 300 rejections.

Now a college senior with my passport in hand, I was heading to France—finally. I had been a Francophile since elementary school. I wanted so much to speak the language fluently. I had peppered sentences with all the French words I knew around the house: “Bonjour ma famille!” I would exclaim. “Hey, Sis, you wanna catch a movie avec moi?

I’d once daydreamed about foreign travel with a particular companion, but now I was in the airport terminal with a group of fellow college acquaintances. It wasn’t quite the same, but I was going to France!

My enormous, hard-shelled Samsonite was loaded down with a surplus of shoes and sweaters. I also had packed my enthusiastic, though limited, amount of conversational French. In the days leading up to our departure, I had decided that a watch was the souvenir I wanted to search for—it was both practical and memory-inducing. I thought the idea of buying a lasting item like a watch in France seemed cool. I didn’t care what it looked like. I would know it when I saw it.

We spent the first few days of our trip in Paris. Then we escaped the numbing cold of the City of Lights for warmer, quaint Avignon in the Sud de France. A Janvier grey with pockets of sunshine cloaked the little city-village. Leafless sycamore trees lined the boulevards as far as the eye could see. It didn’t hurt to walk around outside like it had in Paris, but faire du shopping still helped to warm us up. We headed into Galleries Lafayette—the Dillard’s of France.

One of my travel companions was more fluent than I, but less inclined to speak up. We made a great team: she told me what to say, and I was happy to feel the French form awkwardly in my mouth and leap off my tongue for native speakers to try to decipher.

In my wallet was a 10% discount card for the department store courtesy of the travel company that had booked our trip. With two of my travel companions, I took off my mittens and began to explore the selection of French merchandise. We made our way to the jewelry department. Scanning the watches on display, I quickly found the watch I wanted. It was silver banded with gold connectors. The face was an eye-catching blue not quite as royal as the blue of the French flag but beautiful nonetheless. A small window displayed the date at three o'clock.

I pointed to the timekeeper in the display case, and Madame, the older woman behind the counter, retrieved it for me. I placed it around my wrist and stretched out my arm to see how it looked from various angles. It was just what I had imagined, and it suited my thin, pale arm.

In broken French, I mustered up the courage to present the discount card and asked hesitatingly, "Acceptez-vous?" I hoped that the clerk and I would be able to understand each other. My pulse quickened. The clerk shook her head no, and I asked, "Pourquoi?" Why? I didn't want her to think I was a pushy American. I simply had no other words to make the request. Madame paused, pointed to somewhere beyond the counter and indicated that she was going to inquire about the discount. For a few moments she was out of sight. When she returned she had a new answer.

Oui, I can give you the discount.” I smiled, nodded my head, and gave her my credit card. The watch was mine! I felt a surge of pride having used the little bit of French I knew to make this purchase on my own—without the help of a more fluent traveler.

I can’t remember if I was still in the store or if it was back at l’hotel when I noticed the watch’s brand name etched above the intersection of the minute and second hands, in gold letters: JUNGHANS. I sighed. Try as I might, I cannot escape him. Two years before, I’d fallen in love with a Young Hans.

Hans had asked a girl in my dorm about me early in the fall semester of my freshman year. He’d told her that I had caught his attention. I was skeptical. From a distance, Hans took my breath away, but I couldn't imagine that a gorgeous guy like him could possibly be interested in plain, skinny me. The semester unfolded without a call from him. I convinced myself that he and I were in different leagues and he'd come to his senses.

Hans was American, but his parents lived in England. They had money. He wore khaki cargo pants, plaid shirts tied around his waist, and Timberland boots. He clomped around campus—aloof and superior. He made loud noises that echoed through the high ceilings of the dining hall. Students seated at other tables would look up, furrow their brows in his direction, and then resume their meals.

Hans had been like the watch in Galleries Lafayette—within moments of meeting him, I knew he was the one I wanted to spend every waking moment with. In the remaining three weeks of the semester, we finally met and started dating immediately. Some of my friends cautioned me about getting involved with him. I was determined to get to know him personally rather than to judge him merely on what I had observed on campus. Much to my surprise, I felt completely at ease in his presence. He was smart, funny. He felt like home. We talked for hours the first afternoon we met. We became inseparable, making up for lost time. I loved Hans deeply and immediately.

His love and attention transformed me. Everything looked and sounded new. Our conversations were expansive. He was well read. He’d seen and lived so much more than I had. I was attracted to the idea of seeing the world through the lens of his experience and walking through life with him by my side. Hans would make a great tour guide. There wasn’t time to know everything about each other yet, but one thing was certain: we were indescribably drawn to one another.

The semester ended. We packed up our dorm rooms. We stood in the parking lot outside the guys' dorms clinging to each other. I remember how tightly we held each other, willing the minutes to slow so that we could be together longer. As we embraced, Hans whispered in my ear, “We're done dating, you know. We've found each other. Our search is over, and we'll begin to build a life together when we return in the fall. We can do this. It's just a few months.” I nodded, sobbing into his shoulder assuring him that I'd heard his words. We summoned the courage to finally go our separate ways. He had a flight to catch back to England. I would make a stop in Omaha with a friend before taking the train home to Michigan.

May, June, and July were filled with our longing and long-distance phone calls as Hans traveled to various locations abroad: a kibbutz in Israel, Sweden, and back to England. The first part of his summer was spent miserably in Israel. He was lonely, and he felt our separation keenly since he didn't know anyone on the kibbutz. My heart broke when I heard how sad and lonely he was. My mood revolved around whether I was home to answer his phone call. Some days I was at work when he would call, and I would mope the rest of the day.

Young Hans’ letters articulated love and affection and outlined a future together. When he talked about our lives, I filled in the details: we'd own a Land Rover, travel to exotic places, and someday have children. I applied for a passport. I wanted to be ready for when we planned a trip to visit his parents in London.

Time passed excruciatingly slow. The end of the summer promised his return with a visit to meet my family and our drive back to school. The countdown gave us something to focus on and made our separation almost bearable. I couldn’t wait to pick up where we’d left off and for our romance to blossom further.

I ran ahead of my family to watch him exit the terminal. I breathed a sigh of relief. We embraced, and held onto each other like we had in the parking lot three months before. I can't remember what we said to each other. I recall he was so anxious to get the “meet the parents” scene behind him that we moved quickly back to where my family was waiting.

We spent the week hanging out, spending time with my sister and her boyfriend. It was easy to imagine future visits with my family. We laughed, watched television, and hung around the house. We were acclimating to being in each others' presence again. Overall the week together was wonderful, but I began to catch glimpses of his mood swings and sharp tongue.

Once we returned to campus, my boyfriend was a stranger. He ignored me much of the time. At one mixer, I saw him talking with his friends, and he never came over to talk to me. I could have approached him, but something had shifted. This wasn’t the future he’d described, promised. When we were together, something was definitely off. I couldn’t put my finger on it. I clung desperately to the conversations we’d had over the summer.

One sunny afternoon my worst fear came true sitting on a bench in the middle of campus. Hans announced that he didn’t want to date anyone. He broke up with me with little explanation. He stood up and walked away. In that moment, I lost my love and my future.

I was devastated and disoriented by the sudden change. I was convinced that the break-up was temporary. I didn’t cause a scene. I didn’t cry or scream at him. I didn’t call his dorm room over and over asking for a better explanation or beg him to change his mind. I knew now that those actions would definitely turn him further away. But I did cry my eyes dry when I was alone. I hoped he would come to his senses, and tiptoed bravely through the semester praying that we would reconcile.

The semester moved forward. Over the summer, our parents had bought airline tickets for us to fly to Michigan together for Thanksgiving. With our break-up, those plans hung heavy in the air. We eventually broke our silence and talked about the tickets. Hans decided to fly to Michigan. He would stay with friends who lived in Detroit.

It was awkward to be with this man I loved so much, but was no longer my beloved. Our seat assignments had been made when we were a couple, so we awkwardly sat shoulder to shoulder. This was my first flight, and Hans knew I was nervous to take off. He held out his hand to offer some comfort at take-off, and I absolutely took it. I spent the holiday with my family, and tried to ignore the dull ache of our changed circumstances.

We flew back to school together and finished another semester. Then Hans left college to become a Marine. His physical presence no longer loomed large on campus. It was both a relief and added heartbreak to not see him every day. He gave me the address for where he was stationed, and I wrote him letters. He wrote back a few times, and in each letter he gave me the impression that a future was still a possibility, so I believed him and waited for that day to come.

But Hans was like the arcade game “Whack-a-mole.” Months would pass with no contact. I would feel my equilibrium returning slowly but surely, and then out of nowhere he would pop up with a phone call, and I’d be jolted once again out of the calm—equal parts heartbroken and hopeful. Another period would pass without a word from him. It seemed this back and forth was my new normal.

All of this history with Young Hans flashed before me as I admired my new watch. It seemed to be taunting me: How are you doing, really? Well, admittedly life feels awkward and unsteady like the French I'm speaking on this trip. Can you cope with wearing me on your wrist while being reminded that Hans isn’t with you? I can and will wear you every day. Can you enjoy this life, you know, the one without him by your side? Life is different than I imagined. I wish he didn't cross my mind, but I am moving on. I'm in France, after all.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

Quiet that Doesn't Mean Disaster

I poured the milk into the blender. A dollop of vanilla yogurt followed. I dropped some fresh strawberries in next. As I thought about the other ingredients that I'd add to this morning's smoothie, I realized I was making it solo.

There are those quiet moments in parenthood that are never peaceful or calm. Every mother has said to herself, “It's too quiet. What's my toddler up to?” These days I'm not worried about finding the contents of the pantry poured across the kitchen floor trailing into the living room or my daughter fearlessly climbing an unstable piece of furniture. At seven, her quiet mischief usually stems from make-up application minutes before we're set to head out the door. She's loathe to draw attention to this banned form of artistry for public display.

I break a banana into chunks and drop them into the blender. I heard her walk out the front door a few minutes earlier. She hasn't come back in yet. Now I'm a mixture of curious and concerned. How is she filling this quiet time outside?

As I approach the front window something tells me to simply observe her before breaking the silence. I look out the window down the sidewalk to the left. She's not there. I turn my head to the right. There she is on our sloped driveway. Dressed in a beloved tee-shirt too small to be worn as anything other than pajamas and a pair of hand-me-down warm-up pants four inches too long. Barefoot, she's holding a bubble wand.

I know immediately I am witnessing a holy moment. I remain still and quiet and simply watch. My companionable daughter, so fond of being by my side most hours of our waking day, has found a way to entertain herself. She blows on the drenched wand and bubbles float away from her. Ever on the move and a song on her tongue, I watch her do a little dance and sing the chorus of a popular song.

Her relentless needs sometimes rub against my own demands for space and time alone. But as I watch her with the bubbles, this tension blows away—at least temporarily. I breathe a little easier. I recognize that my fear that she'll never be independent is a characteristic of every parent's experience. “This too shall pass” never seems like it will when framing an early morning feeding or a tantrum in the grocery store aisle. In this moment my daughter is proving that her independence is indeed budding.

Knowing she's safe, I return to the kitchen. I resume my smoothie making. On her own, my daughter comes through the door. “Mom, the door handle may be a little sticky. I've been blowing bubbles.” I smile. I don't want to give away that I checked on her. She walks to the sink. She washes her hands. As she dries them near the blender on the counter, she strikes up a conversation about my opinion of our new blender and what other fruits should be added. Together, we blend. She's at my side again—where she belongs.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Mama Meditation: Running on Emotional Empty

When the advice "Sleep when your baby sleeps," was passed on to me as a new mama, I could not imagine that same wisdom would still apply when my daughter was seven. Those days were overflowing with physical exhaustion. Middle of the night feedings; early mornings getting two people ready for the day; the awkward carrying and lifting of a car seat into the ill-fitting back seat. There were never enough naps for me to catch up on the sleep I lost.

My baby buckles her own seat belt now. My body isn't taxed the same way--except perhaps on the three-mile hilly bicycle rides I take with this baby-turned-almost-second-grader. My brain is what needs the breaks these days. I'm getting a taste of what my chatter-box tendencies were like for my parents. Ugh. Incessant questions, directions on what we're going to pretend and what part Mom is to play. Tonight I asked that we all not speak for five minutes. I just couldn't take any more input and remain kind and patient.

My energizer bunny has conked out on the "couch bed" in my room. I love watching her sleep now as much as I did when she was an infant. There is a peace in her gentle audible exhalations. There is peace in the quiet. There is peace in uninterrupted moments. It's like a treat found at the bottom of a cereal box when I am awake after my daughter has fallen asleep.

There is a strong temptation to jam in a ton of house work now that I have this free time. There is never an end to the work I could be, dare I say, should be accomplishing. But tonight, I'm updating the adage to better fit the stage I'm in. "Keep your activity level low and restful when your grade schooler collapses at the end of the day, ahead of when you expected." The dishes can wait. So can the laundry. The house work looms large when I'm running on empty.

The same chores are a moving meditation when my tank is full. I'm filling up on writing, listening to music and reading a great book. These activities ease the tension between working and resting. How do you fill your tank?

Rest easy, mamas. Sleep tight, too.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Rejection #2

I meant it when I said it: submitting this brief reflection to Literary Mama Magazine online was a win-win proposition. I'd either be selected and would be able to add Literary Mama to my writer's bio, or I'd have something to blog about here.

Essay specs:
Write about your resistance to and need for rest as a mama writer
800-1200 words
Due February 3, 2014

A brief bio was also requested, so this is what I proffered:

Julie Mahoney is a Midwestern mama who carves out writing time in the midst of full-time work, motherhood, and restful episodes by writing at her blog and filling her 18th journal.

I'm pleased to now present, Rejection #2:

The house I grew up in could have been featured in a magazine. My mother lovingly decorated with wallpaper and hardwood trim, and she made an art of keeping it organized and orderly. This home, the place she worked each day, helped to define her. Keeping it clean and ordered was her occupation. She was the queen of efficiency and multi-tasking. The bathroom counters were spotless. The kitchen sink was always empty. The beds were made daily. I cannot remember my mom doing the work. My own occupation was to play “school” and “grocery store” in the unfinished basement, so I had little appreciation for the hard work that it took to maintain the sparkle and order. What I remember is her always being busy. When her favorite soap opera was on television, she folded laundry as she watched. Her only down time came in the evenings. Snuggled under a blanket, drowsy as we watched Matlock and asleep by the mystery's conclusion.

I am a different mother. My work days are spent outside the home seated at a desk and writing words on behalf of a medical executive. My housekeeping is accomplished as my mood and energy levels allow. When an energetic spurt strikes, I knock out half a day's worth of house work in 90 minutes. I set the timer, and race against the clock. Or I catch up on DVR'd television, and make commercial breaks productive. But when another mood strikes, I sit and read and let the dishes wait until my mood shifts again. My daughter, Cadence, and I play “hotel” when the sheets need to be changed. We play “cooking show” when it's time to cook and clean the kitchen. Just the other day, she started playing “store” as she folded the family's laundry and sold the clothes to her customers. She bolted up the stairs weighed down with freshly folded towels, “Mama, my arms are full! Please open the closet door for me!” I met her at the door and helped her place her work on the shelves. The towels' corners didn't match, but I appreciated her efforts and put the towels in the closet just as they were. With more play and practice, her corners will come together one day.

The time I spend at home not making my house sparkle is dusted with guilt. If there is housework to be done, it must come before fun or rest. This is one of the unspoken messages I took with me into adulthood. But as a Gen X mother, I have also been introduced to the ideas of living in the moment, being present for my daughter, and balancing the needs of my child, my employer, and my washing machine. These messages resonate with me better than they likely do for my mother. This is why I seem to be a lazy undisciplined housekeeper. I convinced myself that good moms get their work done first. But then, when is a mom's work done? Unlike my mother, I am so easily overwhelmed by the fact that there's really never an end to the housework. The mental fatigue of a long day in the office coupled with the mess of daily life at home can render me paralyzed with exhaustion. And yet, the guilt doesn't keep me from doing the things I love: reading, journaling, and playing with my daughter. But it absolutely robs me of feeling relaxed as I do these leisurely activities. The voice quietly reprimands. “You know you should do the house work before you do anything else.” “Reading should come after the dishes, not before.” “What kind of example are you setting for your daughter?”

What I hope I am teaching my daughter is that living in a messy house is not ideal, but neither is all work and no play or no rest. I hope I'm teaching her that keeping house is important, but isn't the only thing. I hope she catches on that tidying up our living space can be a meditation, even a joy. I also want her to grasp that it takes energy to keep a house neat and tidy. I want the unspoken message she takes with her into her own adulthood to be that I trust her to do what she wants and needs on her own time line. I'm working really hard at showing her an example of a woman who spends her energy wisely and understands that burning a wick at both ends serves no one.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Let Go of Outcome

My vision board leans against the wall just past my open laptop like a window. As I contemplate what to write, I look at the images I rubber-cemented to the board more than a year ago.

Reach for more




creative mind

so many ways to play

strike a balance

"when you're open to receiving them, the possibilities just keep on coming."

A little change is all it takes to make a big difference.

Since I metabolize the world through words, these are the ones that resonated with me as I crafted my visions for guiding me to my future pursuits. Intermingled with the words, phrases, and sentences listed are images of yoga poses I want to grow into, a map to signify my soul's need to travel, and a stack of books that right now represent the journals I have filled (17 to date), the constant pile of books "to be read," and the publications I aspire to accomplish in the future.

I just finished reading a book by mama-writer, Kate Hopper, called Use Your Words: A writing guide for mothers. I must say I feel incredibly energized by the notion of carving out a writer's life as I work full time and mother full time. Hopper writes beautifully and specifically about how she has incorporated writing into motherhood and her teaching career. While her approach and mine will be different, I am bolstered by her suggestions, descriptions, and encouragement to find my own way.

It is a marvel to me that my vision board and its words and images still feel nourishing; relevant after these long months. That says to me that I'm on my right track for my personal pursuits. I haven't blogged since before the holidays and I miss it. I miss the sense of having this blog serve as my accountability for actually doing the writing that I too often only talk about.

As I begin spending more time in my office without TV, reading more books, and contemplating what I want to say in cyber-print, I feel myself gaining the courage necessary to move forward. The other phrase that is helping me is "Let Go of Outcome". It's what I'm calling my 2014 Phrase of the Year. I am using it like a mantra to pursue scary, hard things. It really helps me take the pressure off and will come in really handy as I gather my rejections from submitted work. Here's to writing words in the New Year, submitting them, and getting rejected!