New Year, New You?

Photo by Tara Glaser on Unsplash

On January 1, I received following message:

“Happy New Year! I’ve decided I can’t manage much but my two goals are family exercise and music practice.”

So she bought a YMCA gym membership for her family to help them survive the Minnesota winter. Each year, she faces the same uphill, snow-filled battle, active kids in need of stimulation in a house in which they don’t quite fit.

The day after New Year’s, she wrote me again,

“We went to the gym. It feels so good to have a place to go. I feel like I’m getting to know again the person I was pre-kids.”

“You still are that person,” I wrote, “you just haven’t been accessing it.”

And she agreed.

The power to change is in you.

Or so I hear. It seems awfully simple, doesn’t it?

We have our will. We have our emotions as a guide. They act as indicator lights that something needs our intention; they motivate us; they are an important part of the process of overcoming obstacles. We have our intelligence to help us to reason and problem-solve those goals we want to put in place.

So as with every New Year’s column, let’s look at what’s missing.

What do you want?

And

What is preventing you from getting it?

“I always wanted to take cello lessons. Maybe when there is more time,” a woman told me. Then she shrugged her shoulders and acknowledged, “There’s never more time.”

Photo by V T on Unsplash

It helps to talk it through.

What are our excuses?

Some obstacles come from within. It may be a scheduling issue. It may be an issue of prioritizing ourselves over others. It may be a matter of letting the urgent demands or interruptions dictate our days rather than the important and less urgent ones.

Most enriching things will not be urgent, but they are important.

Changes to aid our health are not urgent, until they suddenly become so. But even then, after a time, the desire to eat this or drink that is stronger than the doctor’s orders.

We must make time for the things that are not urgent but are important.

The will to change may not be enough. We are nested in relationships, in an environment that may need some adjusting to help us reach our goals.

Talk it through again, only this time with those you live with, and problem-solve a way to make space for what you want to do.

I have been making the mistake of buying duplicate books at used book sales or antique shops. I don’t need three copies of “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn.”

So I spoke to my spouse about a strange goal for Christmas break. My office is built into a detached garage, just across the porch, 21 feet away. But getting there and staying there uninterrupted without the children falling down a well is the challenge. To my husband, I shared my desire. I want to catalog my books. He shared his support.

Over break, each day when we had no plans, I let him know I was going and spent my hours in nerdful bliss, realizing the professional benefit this strange task would give me the next time I write a book or essay in need of formal citations. That added thought made the goal suddenly more important, to me, at least. “You’re a writer, after all,” my husband said.

  • Goals related to health
  • Goals related to enrichment
  • Goals related to organization

These may be the pivotal categories to consider this time of year. Do not fall for trends.

Look within you to listen to your desire for what is missing.

The longing is in us because there are things we are meant for. All work and no play, etc., etc. 

My next goal is, when I have the impulse to share something deep or poetic, to take to my notebook rather than my phone, to record the thought for me rather than send it out into the text messaging bliss. Who knows, there may be something at the end worth saving, editing and sharing.

What are your goals for 2023?

And how are you going to make them happen?

Photo by Isaac Smith on Unsplash
Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

What is Auld Lang Syne all about?

Happy New Year!

I am, not surprisingly, sentimental about the old traditional song, “Auld Lang Syne” that we bring out and dust off this time of year. For decades it was sung to bid farewell to the old year or at farewells and endings of other occasions. The chorus says “For auld lang syne, my dear, for auld lang syne, we’ll tak’ a cup o’ kindness yet, for auld lang syne.”

Auld lang syne translates to standard English as “old long since” but means, less literally, “old times” or “days gone by.”

Let’s plug the standard English in to see what it means. “Should old acquaintances be forgotten, for old times, let’s drink a cup.”

Translate it further, “Just in case I should forget you, let’s celebrate this moment together.”

And why?

This moment is not forever, and our relationships will likely change, so while we are here now, let us celebrate and savor the moment.

Three years ago my husband and I hosted our first “fancy night” on New Year’s Eve, inviting another cocktail-loving couple. She wore a fur stole. The men wore suits. I put on a long dress and opera-length gloves. My husband stocked the bar and offered a menu list. We attempted to sing, but there were no requirements, we were simply together.

Fancy night

That same friend and I dried oranges the following year. We crafted, we antiqued. And in the spring she was gone. Their family, as part of the Californian exodus, moved to Indiana.

There are friendships and times together we are not likely to forget, but not knowing when we will have this moment together, let us toast to it, savor it, and bring it into our hearts as a lasting memory.

Take a mental picture.

Take note of the sights, smells, sounds, and feelings.

And now another goodbye

Now I say a strange farewell to another friend, because I do not know when I shall see her again. Social media and text messaging connect us, but nothing can be the same. We are not likely to ever experience Suzy Cakes, Baker Beach, Stuff, or the pirate shop together again. The time was too short and yet I hold the memories in mind and turn them over, knowing their shape and color, so I will not forget them.

Before she leaves I want to build a little time capsule in my heart.

Flowers for my friend

Friendship comes in seasons and cycles.

I learned this when our life changed so radically. Those were the friendships of my youth and life called for something different. We grew apart, we fell apart, we simply lost touch. A new season began.

And something new is happening again. My life is one of homeschooling and newspaper work, so much less the medical world I became accustomed to. I rarely see people I know in the UCSF clinic building where once I was sure to run into people. Staff retire, nurses move on, life changes.

What are the constants?

I suppose it’s hard to say early in life. Only with time does it reveal itself. In that, we see those who have aged with wisdom understand what matters most in this life, and prioritize it.

For now, I know this:

“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.”

Philippians 4:8

Perhaps this was the reason that when I met painter Jonathan Troxler and later learned he painted the old church of St. Stanislaus in Modesto, where my husband met and dated all those years ago, I knew that painting was meant for our home. And as it hangs on the wall, I point here and there and tell my children the stories. It brings the memories to life. We’re in a good place now, and we were in a good place there. I want to hold both in my life – in memory and in our day-to-day.

So with that, the end of another year, I’m holding onto what is good and looking back with a better effort to remember and tell the stories to my children. It has been another year of raising children and teaching them, of writing and working in the news, of publishing books and promoting them, of trying to make the little world of our home a more beautiful place.

Whatever you think of resolutions and thoughts about all the things we probably can’t control in 2023, stop and look at 2022, gather up the mental snapshots, review them, savor them, share them and add them to the collection of good memories in your heart, auld lang syne.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

No Holiday without Ghosts

In San Francisco

I park by valet now. It took a while to get used to it, but since they built the Chase Center across the street from the hospital, valet became the only option for parking during our routine UCSF appointments. That means, a drive around the hospital and clinic building to get to the correct entrance to drop off our car and, yesterday, that meant seeing the enormous Chase Center Christmas tree through the back window.

“Do you want to see it?” I asked him. Eagerly, he said, “yes.”

The air was crisp and cool.

We walked along the pavement darkened by morning rain and felt the breeze cut through our inadequate clothing. After half a block I asserted my motherly authority and made him put his coat over his thin cotton sleeves.

As we walked up to the corner, his brisk steps quickened. “There it is!” I pointed, smiling with delight as he jumped up and down.

I walked faster to keep up with him as we crossed the street. He grinned and squealed as only six -almost- seven-year-old boys can. “It’s so big!” he gushed.

After a look and a couple of photos, he was ready to escape the cold and we walked back. Waiting on the street corner to cross, my mind flashed back to the many times I stood on that corner alone, walking from Family House each morning to see my son at the hospital.

It was cold in those days, too.

Each time this year, vivid memories return of the days of December passing, counting down, wondering how long we would stay, seeing the floors empty out as staff began their holiday vacations. I bought a small Christmas tree and a set of ornaments for the hospital room; I wove finger garland to decorate his crib. My parents purchased battery-operated lights. His room was decorated, in case we stayed two days longer.

Those memories don’t leave me.

The sadness, grief and fear all associated with the past and the reality of the present do not leave me. This season of Advent, I am reading “Seeking God’s Face,” a collection of homilies from Pope Benedict XVI for the year, and “Healing Through Dark Emotions” by Miriam Greenspan, a book recommended me to by a counselor I met through palliative care, six, almost, seven years ago.

Both invite the reader to turn towards the difficulty of sadness or grief, the silence of Advent, the forced stop of illness. Both say, there is something here to be discovered. Within these weeks leading us to Christmas, lighting one candle at a time, dispelling darkness gradually as the nights themselves grow darker and colder, I recall the last line of Dana Gioia’s poem, “Tinsel, Frankincense and Myrrh.”

“No holiday is holy without ghosts.”

Dana Gioia from “Tinsel, Frankincense and Myrrh”

My counselor taught me we only can keep going in life when we make space for both the dark and light emotions, or as Greenspan says when we invite grief to pull up a chair.

When we crossed the street, the breeze whipping our cheeks to a healthy pink, I felt not only the moment before me but the depth within me of how far back that moment reaches to those lonely mornings, those mornings with a sort of agonizing hope that we would soon go home and be reunited. It reaches all the way back into my broken heart and comes out again in the immensity of that Christmas tree and utter delight at my child jumping around it, who once lay listless on a hospital bed.

This is the holiday season for those who have known sadness and come out on the other side able to share its story.

We may not frolic on own, we may grow quiet in reflection, we may step away for a moment to cry. The joy is there, it just looks different, but we feel it, deeper than we could imagine as it comes to us wrapped in the trimmings of gratitude and a prayer that the good times may continue, tied with an understanding that they may not.

Be merciful to those who suffer this holiday season.

Pull up a chair for the ghosts they carry with them. Sit with them and hear their stories. I thank you for listening to mine.

A Tour of Jessica’s House

Children’s Grief Awareness Day

As I write this, it is Children’s Grief Awareness Day. Our family has had our share of grief, as many families have, some monumentally more than others. 

Grief never really goes away. Like a companion, we learn to live with it. Just as your love for your child never really goes away. It only changes. 

In an interview between Anderson Cooper and Stephen Colbert on the podcast “All There Is” Cooper plays a clip from “The Late Show with Stephen Colbert” with Andrew Garfield. On it, Garfield discussed his grief, “So if I cry, it’s only a beautiful thing. I hope this grief stays with me because it’s all the unexpressed love that I didn’t get to tell her.”

A teen room at Jessica's House

Grief is unexpressed love. 

The new companion does not come into our lives easily. But if we are willing to make a space, and allow it to pull up a chair at the table, grief becomes the mode through which we stay close to those who have died, through which we feel the nearness of those lost.

Often children grieve when their caregivers are also grieving. I first toured Jessica’s House in 2018, when the grief around my heart was still raw. The mission of Jessica’s House is to provide “support in a safe place for children, teens, young adults, and their families, at no cost, because no child should ever grieve alone.”

The volcano room at at Jessica's House

No child should ever grieve alone. 

In that same interview, Colbert referenced this act of “going down with that person into their grief.” 

Cooper said, “the loneliness of grief is extraordinary. And just someone acknowledging that you’re going through it is a consolation.”

Jessica’s House began in 2012 to bring grief support to the community through peer support groups for children grieving a loss.

In 2021, Jessica’s House opened its new permanent home in Turlock in 2021. Jessica’s House currently supports more than 800 individuals from 38 surrounding cities through nine specialized peer support groups as well as a school group program at various school sites in Stanislaus and Merced counties, including in Hughson Unified School District.

Grief Support Groups include parent loss, sibling loss, hope after suicide, hope after homicide, hope after accidental overdose, COVID-19 loss, grandparent loss, HeartStrings (pregnancy loss, infant loss and stillbirth), and groups offered in Spanish. 

A sensory room at Jessica's House

A tour of Jessica’s House

Approaching Jessica’s House, one walks up to an expansive wraparound porch, a welcome open door and seasonal decor. Inside the door, a wall of hearts dresses the wall. On the other side of that wall stands the circular talking room, the heart of Jessica’s House where groups open and close their evenings, inviting attendees into a vulnerable safe place where they can share without judgment or stigma about the loved one who has died. 

I took a tour with Natalie and Colleen. At the mention of a loss, they pause, make space, and ask the name of the person to whom I referred. The tone is loving, respectful and makes room for conversation to go where it will, but still with a gentle plan in mind and guidance in place.

The tour began with that Circular Talking Room, where the roundedness of the space creates an architectural challenge and wonder in how it affects those sitting in the room. It feels safe, somehow, where even I on duty felt free to participate honestly in the check-in they modeled for me. 

After the Circular Talking room, which feels a bit like a hug, they showed me the many play spaces, art spaces, dramatic spaces, outdoor spaces, music spaces and so much more. Each room is designed intentionally from its colors to the objects that inhabit it and how they are stored to create stability, beauty and predictability for children whose home life may be caught up in the chaos of grief. 

Groups begin with checking in.

But beyond the spaces is the philosophy that acts as the structure of this house. Jessica’s House approaches grief with a companioning model. “It’s an invitation for them to share about their person and for them to honor their person and keep their memory alive by being here and having that safe place to share about,” Colleen said. As peers facilitators and staff reflect back the words said by children and parents during group sessions and activities. “There’s a lot of healing power and having a witness,” Natalie explained. 

We grieve in community

I can do hard things poster at Jessica's House

We grieve community, they explained, and so many activities are designed to act as a metaphor that help teach these lessons, in a place where the children and families know someone will hear them and walk with them.

To learn more about these resources, contact us at (209) 250-5395 or info@jessicashouse.org.

The Art of Memoir: Write Your Memories

The monthly meetings of the Hughson Historical Society are regularly marked on my calendar. The first time I attended, local author Sandy Stark-McGinnis presented her middle-grade novel, Extraordinary Birds, set in a place inspired by Hughson’s small-town atmosphere. Now, with the recent release of my memoir, Historical Society President Janet Camagna asked me to speak at their August meeting.

But how to tie a memoir about medical motherhood, hospital life, and coping with grief to a historical society charged with preserving Hughson’s past for future generations?

I thought of the nature of the story I wrote, a memoir. I said, “An autobiography, shares that person’s entire life, but a memoir shares just a snapshot. I’m obviously very young to have written a book about my life. They’re so much of it left.” Thus What God Had Emptied shares about those two years from my son’s diagnosis, until a few months after my daughter birth.

Cover of What God Had Emptied, a mother's memoir

Our earlier examples of autobiography come from St. Augustine of Hippo, St. Patrick, Bishop of Ireland. They both titled theirs “Confessions.”

“And in that in looking at the different pieces, both of those men sought for a way to find to understand where was the meaning? Where was that string going all throughout the narrative, that connects it all together and that is again the power of memoir the power of autobiography,” I explained.

Looking back, as our season of life changed from those two years in the memoir, “I was then in a position to be able to look back and be able to see what all happened. And I began to put together those pieces of our stories that I had written that I published on my blog, that I written personally, through emails, with friends and piece it together. And found that there are so many things I learned through that experience of being able to embrace the moment that’s in front of us, at being able to look for meaning,” I shared.

I told the audience about Viktor Frankl, a psychiatrist survived a concentration camp and emerged with the theory that we are not driven by power, as Nietzsche said, or sex, as Freud said, but by meaning. “When we can feel that there’s some meaning to what we’re doing that, there’s some purpose to what we’re doing. We can get through incredibly difficult times and memoir in taking this snapshot of a person’s life,” I said.

I started to write again

That was why I wrote. “I had to find a way forward, and as I was in and out of the hospital with Peter in the silence of that hospital room, I started to write again. I was writing out my reflections and I was writing about what I did that day, and I was sharing it with the world because that’s what you do when you’re my age. You blog. I was sharing all that information but I was also wrestling with how do I face this situation?”

We ended with a discussion of the importance and value of committing our memories to paper and leaving them for another person to treasure, “Even if you only have a the briefest part of that moment or that person’s life. That one snapshot with words is so powerful because it helps connect us to the history and to those people, even long after they’re gone.”

“Once we get some distance, we think, ‘Oh wow. They did that, they were involved in that?’ We can begin to think that what we have been through is somewhat less momentous. But, you know, when I heard here about the shoe store [in Hughson] letting people who worked in the fields buy shoes on credit, with the hope that they could pay it back but if they couldn’t, it was fine, as long as they had good shoes to wear. That was profound.”

The stories that make us

Those are the stories that make us, that form the culture of our families for generations to come. I extend my encouragement to you. Write your memories. It does not need to be perfect. It does not need to polished. It can be written as straight as a police report or as flowery as a Medieval abbesses’ reflection. When you write it in your own way, you leave a piece of yourself with it. In this way those who may never have met you in person, know you. The encounter the stories you valued, the thoughts and loves that lived inside you. The written word never dies. It can only be hidden for a little while.

So with that, I say, write!

Photo by Jan Kahánek on Unsplash

Get to Know Your Neighbors

Meet my neighbors

As I prepared to go to work, my husband announced he threw out his back. He hobbled to the couch. After learning my mother would not be available for another hour, I ran down Tully Road to ask my neighbor if she could stay with the kids during the hour. She came.

When a verbal altercation with a friend left me in tears, I sat in the garage crying my eyes out while the kids went indoors. After texting a neighbor in a different direction, I took the kids down the street and unloaded my heart while our children played together. She listened.

In the evenings, the kids played in the front yard and welcomed home our next-door neighbors with stories of the day and facts about whales. The neighbors prepared bags of Halloween treats each year. They knew my children’s names.

When we moved

I asked the librarian to talk to her church. No less than 30 Mormon missionaries and volunteers helped us unload the moving truck. They back for additional trips, and set up our bed so we would have a place to sleep that night. We neighbors that day. They showed up.

Our neighbor drove across the busy Whitmore Ave with his children to feed our sheep and chickens, collect eggs, and water gardens. All so we could have a family vacation for the first time in ages. They helped.

On our part

We hosted parties, opening our doors and fences to invite others in, making music, playing games, and bonding with other families. They weren’t from our neighborhood, but they needed people. They accepted our invitation.

The next-door neighbor of our new home calls me to say he has not seen the kids out lately and offered us a harvest of watermelon. My children dashed over to visit the man who is another grandfather to them.

Across another street lives a busy family with school activities, work commitments and family commitments. They called and apologized for not coming to see us sooner. They brought brownies. A year can pass between visits, but we know them. And they know us.

I call to say “someone is stealing your cherries.” He calls to say “they’ll be sweeping almonds” so I might not want to line-dry my laundry that day.

Good fences make good neighbors, so the saying goes.

That is to say, good boundaries help when you live near one another. It’s ever so easy to take it too far, to come and go from our homes, to base our lives on outside activities, and when we are home, to take our leisure in our more private, more secluded spots. It is easy to live in this world without knowing our neighbors. Maybe you have friends. Maybe you have a family. Maybe you have a lawn service and really do not need any additional help.

But they might.

I interviewed Noelia Martinez while she hosted a block party for National Night Out. “You have to go up and above when it comes to elders. I love my elders,” she said with a laugh, “because one day I’m going to be there and I want people to do the same for me.”

In graduate school at an evening lecture on friendship, Dr. Michael Pakaluk rambled on, “You scratch my back and I scratch your back and everybody’s back gets scratched.”

Then you know, the other saying, “Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.”

We are born with an instinct to preserve our lives, to love ourselves, so to speak. From there we can learn by asking ourselves what it would be like for us in that situation. Would we want someone to reach out? Would we rather be alone?

Martinez said, “Maybe they are shy or scared to get involved or scared to be the one the neighbor calls on.”

Maybe.

Maybe we feel like it is not our business. That to inquire into someone’s well-being or why the homicide unit was at their house in the middle of the night will feel like prying.

Your neighbors know you are there. When you reach out, you communicate with your actions that not only are you there, but you are there for them.

And that feels good all around.

Try it out. Get to know your neighbors.

Heart drawn on a neighbor's fence
Photo by Jamez Picard on Unsplash

Make Space for Unscheduled Activities

Activities.

Everything seems activities based. It feels as though everything exists as a class or a workshop. Free time has become a precious commodity. Physical activity is now scheduled through organized sports or gym memberships. Music classes begin for toddlers as Mommy-and-me style events. Art class workshops fill the void for those less athletically inclined. I’ve taken them myself and loved them.

We’ve gone from a generational or neighborhood way of learning these things to something wholly organized, packaged up, purchased, paid for and delivered. The home arts are now a consumer item for consumption. We attend paint nights because painting socially is fun; we’re pleased with what we produce; and we could not otherwise have produced it.

Or perhaps because we otherwise would not have tried.

These continuing education opportunities may also give us a chance to try something we never would have otherwise encountered.

The growth in organized and paid activities for children has many causes, but I suspect one cause probably comes from the realization that this model works for us adults to get them there. More and more we must schedule it and pay for it to make sure it happens. Otherwise, we may neglect it. Something more important or more profitable will come up to fill in the free time that belongs to the adult. We spend our leisure time shopping and enjoying the goods we purchased. These days, we have more time than ever, just like advertisers said we would if we bought this or that gadget. So we filled in the void with more running around. We rarely know how to just be, even after two years of semi-lockdown.

So then, since the culture measures worth by how much money it brings me or how much money I put into it, if I require myself to learn this skill or attend this paint session because I paid for it, I’m more likely to do it.

Ballet for children, a common activity
Photo by Kazuo ota on Unsplash

Children are so different.

They would do it on their own without us. They would kick the can, run the relay, shoot hoops without adults telling them the proper technique. They would do it for the sake of the thing if they could be left long enough to be bored.

It is a matter of intrinsic value verses extrinsic value.

When we find something intrinsically valuable, we do it for the sake of the thing. When it is extrinsically valuable, we do it for the sake of some external reward. A child naturally draws because it delights him. We push the time card for the paycheck.

We live in a society that undervalues things that are intrinsically valuable. This is because the external reward, money, becomes the center of how we decide what is worth doing. If it cost this much, I will apply myself. If I earn this much, I will apply myself. We seem to need the structure to help us do it, the commitment of some financial resources. And it helps us ensure it for our kids, too.

I know these are blanket statements and not always the case, but allow me to explore this thought a little more.

Time commitments are taxing, running from one thing to another, having to be on time, prepped with a full water bottle and the correct shoes.

I have to think there is a tax we pay to do it like this.

How strange and different for us adults to stop and simply, draw a picture because you feel like it, and, only after, go wash the dishes. Or to play a sport in the wrong kind of attire.

It’s easy for it all to become so rigid and compartmentalized that we lose some of the beauty of spontaneity.

Isn’t that what makes vacations and holidays so delicious? I read about these sudden games of basketball, going out to fish, or play cards, or pick a random restaurant to eat at. It sounds so free and creative, curious and willing to explore and try new things. How wonderful.

The people are coming back from vacation. They are coming back and returning to their potentially overscheduled days.

Is there a way to bring the good of both lives together just a little bit more?

Do we even need to?

Of course it’s case by case, family by family, season by season. But as we enter into the new season, the change of schedule is an opportunity to assess. Will we protect the down time, leisure time, unstructured time to allow for the possibility of spontaneous creativity or conversation? Will we make space in our lives and our children’s lives for the intrinsically rewarding things?

Do we think it matters?

child painting
Photo by Senjuti Kundu on Unsplash

A County Fair Recipe for Summer Nostalgia

The five senses are sight, touch, taste, hearing, and smell.

Where are those senses activated more fully than at the Stanislaus County Fair?

My husband opened a bag of cotton candy I purchased for the kids. We cannot afford to feed them all $7 corn dogs. After taking the school tour during the antemeridian hours, we stopped by Target, purchased a pack of brat wursts. My husband breaded them with cornmeal, skewered them, and deep-friend them along with waffle-cut French fries and string cheese. After indulging in this fare, he opened the bag of cotton candy. “It smells like the fair,” he said.

 When the clock hit noon, outside the 4-H Barnyard, he declared, “It’s noon! Time to start the deep fryers. I can smell that Fair smell.”

As we walked back to the car, he pointed to a grassy patch where vendors parked their goods. “That was where I was supposed to go if I got lost,” he indicated. It was once the “Lost Tot” zone now found on the other side of the fairgrounds.

After the Rodeo, I took my eldest child through the Shopping Pavilion. We walked right and then left when I said, “it was pretty much this boring when I was a kid, too.”

Coming to the end, we happened upon the red and white checkered table clothes set on an even number of folding tables in front of a counter. “But the pie!” I remembered the delight, as a child and young adult, having gotten through the demonstrations of the pavilion, to beholding that beautiful sight of where pie we could afford was sold.

Memories here and there, alert our senses.

As my daughter and I finished touring the garden installations of the floriculture center, I heard a sound that took me back 23 years. Sugar Ray sang “Fly” on the Coors Light Variety Free Stage. The year was 1999. I was 14 and spent my afternoon hours “emoting” along to the tunes of B93.1. Sugar Ray was part of that light, don’t-take-yourself-too-seriously, Summer-fun style songs, when you told parents it’s “Alternative Music” they said, “alternative to what?”

Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray at the Stanislaus County Fair
Mark McGrath of Sugar Ray at the Stanislaus County Fair, 2022

Attending the County Fair was not an annual event in my childhood.

I did not participate in FFA or 4-H. My parents did not know you could enter an exhibit in the competition and get free admittance. They disliked the crowds, the noise, and the deep-fried foods. But my father took me to the Rodeo on my birthday when I was horse crazy and so this year, I took my horse-crazy daughter.

Bull riding at the Stanislaus County Fair, PCRA Rodeo
PCRA Rodeo at the Stanislaus County Fair, 2022

My father bought me a piece of pie. Years later, friends and I parked ridiculously far away to avoid parking fees. We wandered the lanes of the fair, enjoying ourselves in the free spirit of adolescence when this is the thing you do.

The memories are all wrapped up in my mind with a feeling of nostalgia. Sense memories trigger the brain’s limbic system running all along the sections that activate those five senses. It’s a good feeling even if it might not reflect how everything happened in those days or how happy we actually were.

I like the experience of nostalgia.

To me, it’s delightful to get that whiff of memories running through my heart. I treasure the moment to save something more lasting, something that speaks to the spirit of the thing. It’s the thing I hold onto. My children listen to with rapt attention as their parents tell stories of when they were young. They sit, marveling at how young their parents look in the telling, as if the parent has been transported back somehow to the magic of youth.

The parent’s eye sparkles, inspiring the child to love the thing too. It’s that nostalgic sigh that inspires a child to make memories too. We connect to the past and the present, sitting in both through the memory, in a way we will be able to do so for generations to come if only we tell our stories.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

Summer Living

Can it really only be the beginning of July?

It is remarkable when I consider an entire month remains plus two weeks for our summer vacation.

Our summer break began early in May. As a homeschooling family, we can end as soon as the syllabi are completed. Their education is not confined to set hours of the day or a set building but I utilize the experiences of life to augment what they learn at their desks. As summer begins extracurriculars fill the calendar.

Baking class

That they may all have a level of comfort in the kitchen. Teaching them a recipe at this stage will not mean they know that recipe five years from now, or a year from now, but they will know they can look at a recipe card, follow it, and see something turn out.

Sewing class

That they may all feel it is possible to sew, create, and mend. Many of these home arts are lost on my generation because we feel we lack the competence. It is the work of professionals. We will screw it up. And it hurts us when our daily duties call on us to master these arts.

Soccer class

For those not in organized sports, that they may learn how to pick up a game with friends whenever the opportunity arises. I’m thinking of adding a class, aka playdate, of old-time games: kick-the-can, red light-green light, red rover, and so on. It’s amazing what a generation can take for granted when they grow up in a neighborhood of kids and then when those kids take those games into their careers as teachers.

Horseback riding

For physical education that involves navigating the personality of an animal and teaching multiple skills in one lesson.

Art class

Like the home arts, that they may know these are skills that are within their reach. Beyond the organized craft project, we bring in an artist to walk them through. My favorite approach is to have the students bring an object or pick a flower and paint from life, learning the skills of observation. Science and art in one.

Then, there are the outings.

The Hughson Arboretum, extended visits to the library, the local historical museums, and blueberry picking.

Less locally, finally, a trip to the coast. We spent two hours on the beach, then two hours in the redwoods then two hours with family, who also live in the redwoods. To see the children’s pure joy among the waves, all bickering and squabbles left behind, nothing but excitement remained. In the redwoods, the marvel of their height, the joy at seeing a deer, approaching a squirrel, identifying birds. A half-day trail ride in the Sierra Nevada came next at Kennedy Meadows.

Next, we go to Southern California to reconnect with a family of friends, stay with a cousin and wonder how different are the worlds between southern and northern California.

I took a writer’s retreat and came back with a contract for a third book. My husband will attend a conference on sacred liturgy next week. And that’s only June.

Now comes July with more classes, more outings, and more adventures.

We’ll switch from Westerns to Adventure films like “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea,” “Up,” and “Jason and the Argonauts,” only more and more it seems we have little time to watch them. There’s a camp for the girls, our wedding anniversary, birthdays, and the Stanislaus County Fair.

We’re making memories with events capsulated in a season.

Summer Vacation

The school year was hard, but vacation is sweet, like life. My work punctuates all these events with set hours Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday for the newspaper but publicity and bookwork pour into the cracks of a brimming-over day-to-day. It’s wonderful. It’s joyful and free and, surprisingly, still structured with chores and the things we must do to maintain a home and little farm.

We have all we need in the beauty and joy and tiredness of summer.

Sacrifices are made to make this possible. We cannot live a high life. We cannot travel abroad. We cannot buy prepackaged snacks. We gratefully glean from neighbors’ crops with permission to supply our children with produce. But those sacrifices which make life simpler so that we are essentially a single-income household, enable us to make life fuller, according to our preferences, values, and our family’s needs.

It is a good life and I am grateful to live it.

Previously published in the weekly column, “Here’s to the Good Life!” in the Hughson Chronicle & Denair Dispatch.

The First Small Steps to Make a Difference

A young woman approached me as I fiddled with stacks of books at my vendor table before the Magnify Women’s Conference at St. Mary’s Catholic Church in Oakdale. Her hair was a deep shade of pink, curled and full of personality. As she approached me there was that look of familiarity in her eyes. We knew each other, but I did not know from where or when.

She asked if I used to volunteer with the high school youth group at St. Stanislaus in Modesto. I did.

“I’m Genesis,” she said. And I knew her immediately. I remembered her when so many, many memories or names or faces from those days almost twenty years ago have begun to blur together and fade. I remembered her.

She was the type of sixteen-year-old with an old soul, a penchant for deep thoughts, the kind who sees beyond the present circumstances and wonders about the big things of life. She was a poet. Whether or not she wrote any of the words down, I recognized in her that we were kindred spirits, only one doesn’t say that in small talk.

She told me what my presence and our conversations meant to her in those days, that it made a difference.

It made a difference.

Yesterday I listened as a priest described my work as a mother as a bridge. The work of motherhood is to make our children, not the persons we want them to be, but the persons they are meant to become. We are the bridge to help them get there.

Build a bridge. Make a difference.
Photo by Andre Amaral Xavier on Unsplash

A group of mothers sat around with stacks of books beside us for an informal gathering of book club members to share what we were reading. The conversation veered, as it naturally does with women, with decades-old friendships and no formal program. We talked about age differences in friendships now that we are old, how little recognizable those differences are outside of youth and how valuable they are.

  • One friend brings meals whenever a new baby comes along or has an illness or a period of grief.
  • Friends of different life stages can be there for each other in ways not otherwise possible.
  • The woman whose children are grown knows how to cook for a crowd, but does not have a crowd to cook for, so she delivers a party-size lasagna to the new mom.
  • The woman with a large brood hardly notices one more child added to the mix, but for the only child, the playdates are everything.
  • The single, unmarried woman steps in, refreshed from sleeping uninterrupted, to give an extra dose of attention to the children who may not have aunties nearby.
  • Children learn to lead from the old children in the group. Younger children attach to that ten-year-old with a mysterious love for toddlers and babies.
  • Pre-teen girls learn the art of babysitting when the parents want to chat, training them for the day when they earn their bread with an hourly wage.

Mentors, teachers, and parents come in all ages, all occasions, all types of communities.

But they only come when we approach our days with that good advice I heard as a child, “try to learn at least one thing from every person you meet” and then find ways to generously and prudently share the lessons we ourselves learned.

How do we know when to share and when to keep it to ourselves?

First, by being who are you in all your authenticity.

It doesn’t mean presenting an autobiography to every person you meet, but perhaps, sharing a little more in a unique way. If someone asks about your weekend plans, include the specific hobby or the garden weeding or the trip you’re taking plus one or two details. This little bit of openness invites more questions if the other person has them.

Second, by asking others those small talk questions and really listening to the answer.

“How are you?”

“Any weekend plans?”

“What have you been up to?”

Then, and this is the trick, as a follow-up question.

“Where do you usually go fishing?”

“What type of plants do you grow?”

“Have you read any other books by that author?”

Taking the time to learn from others and open ourselves up to being asked a few questions is how we begin to build that bridge. The person with whom we are speaking may have always dreamed of that profession or that hobby but never known anyone who actually did it. You clear the way with your openness.

You make a difference.