American Girl

I’ve seen them pop up on Facebook. Maybe you have too? 

Sort of tacky, sort of cute, mermaid blankets made of everything from alpaca fleece to woven polyester. So when my sister suggested that my niece Rayme might like one, I enthusiastically began the search. The procurement of girly things fills this mom of boys with instant holiday cheer. 
After consulting several websites, I found one on Etsy in my niece’s favorite color: teal. Two shades of teal, in fact. Oh! What shopping delight! Until I clicked Add to My Cart and this is what appeared:

“Don’t forget your American Girl Doll! Bet she’d like one too!”

“No, no she would not!” I screamed at the computer.

I have for some time possessed an illogical disdain for American Girl Dolls. I have absolutely no right to feel the way I do. I don’t have girls and I am too old to have partaken in the craze. I’m from the Cabbage Patch era. We knew they were ugly and we loved them anyway.

I do, at some level, realize that American Girl Dolls are harmless…maybe even slightly inspirational? But they cost SO much money and are trying SO hard to be every girl in a ridiculous stereotypical way that renders them Barbie without the boobs (in my ever humble opinion.)

However, I do know someone who has an American Girl doll…one that she loves VERY much. My niece, Rayme. 

I was introduced to her doll last summer while enjoying a beautiful sunny day.

Watching Rayme cradle her beloved in a towel, I asked, “What’s your doll’s name?”

“Isabelle.”

“Tell me about Isabelle. She’s kinda quiet.”

“She likes to dance and sew.”

(Insert dramatic throat clear here. The one that sends my sons running.)

“Dancing and sewing?” I repeat.

“Yeah. She’s a really good dancer.”

“That’s cool. Someday she may like other things too. In addition to dancing and sewing.”

“I don’t think so.”

Persistence is deeply embedded in our family tree.

“Isabelle might be a surgeon, or a scientist who cures cancer, or the first American Girl Doll President! You never know. She should keep an open mind. That’s all I’m saying.”

“Isabelle likes dancing and sewing. Just like me.”

Like mother, like daughter. Who could argue with that? Not even me.

“She’s lucky,” I said. “Cause you’re pretty amazing.”

Rayme smiled, knowingly. “Can you watch her while I go swimming?”

“Of course,” I said. 

Isabelle and I spent some quality time sunning ourselves. She told me about her dreams to be the first Broadway dancer to sew her own costume. I made her promise that she would always eat three square meals and not give in to the worldly view of what a dancer should look like. 

It was a good, casual chat.

I clicked: Add to My Cart again and bought Isabelle a mermaid blanket too. One just like her mother. 

That is what Christmas is all about, right? Showing those you love how much you love them, just as they are, just as you are—which in my case means flawed and perpetually pushy.

Besides, this Christmas while we’re roasting chestnuts around an open fire, sipping hot cocoa, I’ll hopefully get some more time with Isabelle. Further opportunity to pummel her with possibility, future President and all of that. 

And, I’ll need Isabelle to stay warm. Because this may take a while.

Postscript: 

Isabelle now plans to dual major in Dance and Neuroscience. 

And, she LOVED the blanket.





Focus


Two Thursdays ago, 7:30 pm.

I was:
In my car, waiting for my son to wrap up his robotics meeting;
Eating a leftover sandwich (dinner);
Texting my sister;
Adding “Order Balloons” to a to-do list;
Obsessing about something I’d just said in a meeting;
Pondering the future of my publishing career;
And listening to “This Is Where We Live” on the radio.

The topic was “How to Be More Creative” and the guest was the “Director of Mindfulness” at local insurance giant, Aetna.

(I’m paraphrasing here:)
“We think having multiple e-mails open at a time while listening in on a conference call is multi-tasking. But, what we’re really doing is skimming the surface. And, that’s not conducive to creative thinking,” Mr. Director of Mindfulness said.

Uh-yup.

I put my phone away and turned up the radio. For the next 29 minutes I listened to words and concepts that I already know but continually need to be reminded of.

As the show’s jingle signaled the end of the program and 8 pm, I took my phone back out and texted my son: Done? Time to go home!

Five minutes later, with no response, I got out of my car and went inside to the “engineering paradise” that is my son’s robotics coach’s basement. Coach was wrapping up their meeting, giving them their homework assignment, reminding her team of the upcoming meet and all of the work still yet to be done.

The doorbell rang. She continued. The doorbell rang again. Her son asked, “Should I get it?”

“The person will figure out to come in,” she instructed. “That’s what keeps us from getting stuff done. Distractions. Focus, it’s important.”

Sigh. Clearly the universe was not giving up on its tutorial. 
Multi-tasking makes daily life go ‘round, obviously. There’s not a human among us, man or woman, that can run a household, raise kids, have a career, or care for an aging parent without mastering the art of doing this on the way to that. 

But when it comes to creating (writing a novel, forging a political movement, finding a cure, programing a robot) doing multiple things at once usually accomplishes one thing: Nothing.
Focusing isn’t easy. The rewards often aren't immediate. Other endeavors may suffer and it can feel like (gulp) wasting time.

My entire adult life has been one big trust fall exercise with time. (And, I’ve spent more time on the ground than in its loving embrace.)

Last spring I had the honor of being a Writer-in-Residence at the Noepe Center for Literary Arts on Martha’s Vineyard. My assignment: finish the second (or was it third?) draft of my young-adult novel.

I love goals. Goals are teddy bears for the achieving soul, soft spots on which to rest an inexhaustible quest for accomplishment. Proof of time well spent.

Up at six, I’d re-read what I had written the day before and tackle one new chapter, reward myself with coffee, two more hours, shower, more writing, maybe lunch or a snack, and more writing. Then (because there were some really amazing writers sharing the space) I’d attempt to casually make dinner plans, not giving away any hint of how desperately I needed to speak to a human. 
I had warned everyone back home that I’d have limited access to the internet and e-mail. It was just me and the page, and…

On day five, I physically could not write anymore. Worse, I didn’t want to write anymore. And that was scary, because my love affair with words is one of the great loves of my life. 
I called my husband. “I’m thinking of coming home.” 

“Yes! You really should come home.” That’s what I wanted him to say. But, he didn’t. Because he knows me. 

“Go for a walk. Go to the beach. Go out to lunch. Step away from the desk.”

The next morning I slept in and then took a drive. I stopped at a local library and signed up for a drop-in young-adult book discussion. I tried again. 

Still, something wasn’t right.
I changed the point of view of the chapter I was working on;
I wrote really bad poetry;
I stared off into space;
I read the first few chapters of the already published young-adult novel in my bag, and then…

Admitted to myself that one of my main characters was in need of a major overhaul. I’d strung traits together that were too much like real people I knew, making my character wishy washy and boring.

And, so I began—playing. Mind-mapping. Writing new passages. This exercise set me back, moved me temporarily further away from my goal. But I did it anyway, because I had the time.

The residency taught me that more time doesn’t always produce more. But, it can produce better. It also taught me that being present to a task is different than setting a goal. 

Goals are dictated by time. Focus demands a faith that what we’re doing, with our time, has value.

And that, in a nutshell, has always been the issue for me. Giving myself permission to value what’s important, to me, with no guarantee of success or worldly approval.

Which leads me back to my son’s robotics team. They’re developing a prototype for a hybernaculum to save the bat population from White Nose Syndrome. Turns out that the number of bats in the world has dramatically decreased due to this syndrome and therefore bugs carrying devastatingly dangerous diseases like Malaria and Zika have flourished.

This team of kids, in addition to programming robots, gathers multiple times a week to tackle issues beyond the scope of quick understanding. Make no mistake about it—they’re trying to win a competition. But they’re also learning skills that will serve them well into their adult years.

How to focus. 
How to tackle a complex problem, together.
How to trust that their ideas have value.

Whether or not they ultimately win the prize.





Golden





"If tomatoes were
Wishes, mine would be golden,
Delicious and rare."

This was not the year of the perfect garden. (Far from it, actually.)

The carrots were a bust, the eggplants are still TBD. The zucchinis and summer squash showed up, preferring the climate of the weedy way back. We harvested one (that’s right one) juicy red pepper.

But, there was a crop that far exceeded expectation. The yellow tomato.

It was by chance really, that we planted golden tomatoes at all. Traveling back roads on the way to practice last spring, Will and I were, for once, early. So, we killed a little time by checking out a new nursery. The heirloom tomato section caught our eye. Three plants, that’s all we bought.

But, those three plants flourished and produced early, far ahead of their crimson ancestors. They multiplied with ease and continue on today.

Even the predators seemed to know how special these golden gems were. The low hanging beefsteak tomatoes fell prey to a roving possum who dined early morning (according to my neighbor). A skunk set up camp many summer evenings (this we learned from our dog Daisy). But both left the yellow tomatoes alone.

I felt lucky, like I’d been kissed by the heirloom gods. Until it came time. To make the ceremonial sauce:


What does one do with…yellow tomatoes? (Besides make endless tomato, cucumber and watermelon salad!)

Turns out Golden Sauce is delicious. Who knew? 

And, here’s the kicker, the process that I’ve labored over perfecting all these years, is actually easier with yellow tomatoes because they have less seeds, are sweeter and have a higher concentration of water! 

I made three separate batches, before settling on my favorite recipe: 6 yellow tomatoes, 2 red tomatoes, onion, basil, teaspoon of sugar, salt, pepper, and a half a can of tomato paste. Simmer then mash and Voila! (mostly) golden sauce for four. The whole cooking process took less than an hour.

Of course, next year if I set out to repeat my yellow tomato fortune, it will surely be a bust. Each year is different. The sun and rain in precarious combination set the pace. That’s just how it goes. In the garden. 

But, for now, there's still a little time left. Sure the mums are long out and the kids back to school, but even mother nature is hanging on. Giving thanks.


For the year of the golden tomato.





















The Middle



The title of this blog was supposed to be:
What a Difference a Little Hay Makes


A pithy entry about how my usual weedy mess of a garden had been transformed into an efficient vegetable machine.

“An inch, that’ll keep the weeds away!” That’s what the friendly guy at the farm supply store told me as he helped carry two large bags of heat cured hay. “Guaranteed to keep weeds away!”

I laid down two inches and here’s what I got:

Yup. Here I am, again. In the middle—of summer, of my garden, of a weedy mess.

“One hour,” I say, to the weeds, as though they are listening. 

I enter, donning my high rubber boots and immediately notice that someone else has been here.  Could it be…

Rob? No. The garden is not his domain. 

Our new neighbors in the back offended by the weedy view from their kitchen window? Nah. That would be weird and they’re too nice.

That leaves one, more likely source. My superstar neighbor—the one who tills our large adjoining plot in the spring and thoughtfully leaves his leftover plants on my side. The one who mows his yard every five days, then carefully tucks leftover grass clippings between his budding plants. The one who did not waste thirty dollars on designer hay. The one whose garden has NO weeds. 

Thankfully the path he’s forged is just enough. To see my way in. 
I start with the earthy, sweet tomatoes. (Someone really should bottle that scent.) Then on to the eternally upbeat squash. Their bright yellow flowers smile encouragingly, seeming to say, “See! We’re okay!” 

Next, the small patch of carrots—secondary characters in this cast of produce personalities—they're thriving despite the forest of tangles all around them. I do my best to guide their path before moving on to the defiant gang of pesky peppers, steadfast in their unwillingness to grow.

At the end of the hour, I stand back to admire my work and the MANY weeds still standing.

Yes, despite best intentions, this year’s garden is another Work-in-Progress.

A beautiful green and yellow, soon-to-be-red reminder that things are messiest, in the middle. That, with a little faith (and sun and rain and the kindness of neighbors)—the harvest is surely on its way.

In The Garden


Aaahhh…The beginning. When what could be is far enough off, from what will be, to warrant grand expectations. In the garden.

This week on the edge of a misty humid rain, my favorite “farmer” and I planted carrots, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, zucchini, summer squash, spaghetti squash and our maiden crop—sunflowers.

This is our ninth year. In the garden.

Then
When we began, John would stand off to the side, handing me plants as I explained—digging, measuring, reading the labels, analyzing placement, proximity to sun and shade. On and on the tutorial went, as though I knew what I was doing.

This year, he sowed the back and I the front, while we listened to his favorite podcast.

John is a measurer well versed in the perils of planting squash too close. I eyeball while obsessing about straight rows. His work is efficient, mine visual. We make a good team.

The process of planting our rather large garden used to require staggered water and snack breaks. Now, planting is shoved between practices and studying and evening meetings and…is over in less than an hour.

I resist the urge to ponder:
Where does time go?
Does he even need my help?

Because I already know the answers.

Time goes too quickly.
No, he really doesn’t. 
(I’m just hoping he hasn’t quite figured that out yet?) 

For now, it’s still early summer. The blight may not spot the tomatoes, the peppers could finally flourish, and the sunflowers will surely soar to the sky. 

The beginning, when anything is possible. In the garden.

Now


Good News!



While waiting for the talent show at my son’s elementary school to begin, I was computing a basic Common Core math problem:

If the show starts at 6:30 pm and Will and twenty or so of his classmates perform for a minimum of two minutes and a maximum of four (which may actually be more like six), what time will Will’s mother likely be home, on the couch, enjoying her glass of wine? 

But before I could “show my work,” the entertainment began.

Here is a sampling of what followed:
An original composition about Friendship;
A patriotic student dressed in red, white and blue reciting our nation’s Presidents in order;
A comedy set complete with ba-dum-tshh! after each joke;
A rollerblading routine;
A musical comedy featuring string instruments;
Interpretive gymnastics;
Singing (lots of soul-filled singing!);
A violinist who played the Star Wars theme song while circling the stage on his Ripstick;
And, a blindfolded pianist performing The Entertainer (he was mine).

The evening was AMAZING. 

The best part? Talent is not what made the show a smashing success (or this mom forget the date with her couch.)

To be clear, there was no shortage of budding greatness. 

But, in a world where there’s a— lesson, private coach, training regimen, elite team and camp for every interest or inclination, Talent with a capital T is everywhere. We spend countless hours and dollars helping our children develop their talents. Leaving us with not enough time and too much talent to encourage what used to be as commonplace as playing stickball in the street: TRYING SOMETHING. Just because. 

Trying something new or different, with a group or by ourselves, requires two qualities that we all need to succeed in whatever life we choose: CURIOSITY and COURAGE.

Luckily, kids come with an ample supply of both. Add supportive educators who whisper, "Why not?" and a room full of encouragers clapping loudly enough to drown out any hint of self-doubt—and something more profound than talent presents itself: POSSIBILITY

And, if Buttonball’s Got Talent is any indication of the future, I have GOOD NEWS:




Being Irish




A bhfad รณ shin (a long time ago), new to town and our neighborhood, we received an invitation to a St. Patrick’s Day Brunch. Something about the invite: “Stop by for green pancakes!” intrigued us. And so, we went.

“Welcome!" Our host greeted us. "You’re just in time to find the gold coins!” Off the boys went with a swarm of other kids in search of a pot of gold.


That morning we met many new neighbors and future friends, all in the name of celebrating something that is important to someone who is important to me. 

Being Irish.

I am a cultural mutt. A smidgen of this and a smattering of that. Being married to an Irishman, it took me a while to get that while most of us wear green and indulge in corn beef and Guiness to celebrate the one day each year that everyone is Irish—to people of actual Irish descent, (yes I am about to generalize an entire population) St. Patrick’s Day is much more. 
The daythe season is a public celebration of a deep down pride most often held in. A commemoration of loved ones long gone and the luck they’ve left behind. 

The annual neighborhood brunch quickly became a meaningful placeholder in our year. So much so that when we eventually moved (again) we decided to keep the tradition going.

Now each year on the Sunday before St. Patrick’s Day we deck our home in glittery green and invite neighbors to “Stop by for green bagels!” (our twist).

Our way to give thanks for—being Irish—and a potluck of friends we've found along the way.



Big On Inspiration


“Alice says hi! Remember, Alice?!” asks my dangly earring wearing, future rockstar friend.

“How could we forget Alice? Hi, Alice. Welcome back,” I say.

Alice replies in frog (which is not easy to understand). Alice is a plastic frog and the unofficial mascot of the BBL Elementary School Creative Writing Club.

Hands shoot up—others want a turn to share their Item of Inspiration. Teddy bears, pencils, poetry. It’s how we begin, every Friday morning. Before the actual writing.

The members of this club are big on inspiration. And, they come in all creative shapes and sizes.

The serious sort, craving instruction.

The prolific powerhouse who I am careful not to praise too much for fear that others (me) will shutdown in her presence.

The future accountant (or maybe software engineer) who balks at the mere whiff of hyperbole.

The silent observer who studies her colleagues before choosing her own way.

The always on time conscientious scribe who brings extra pencils (just in case).

And of course, Alice-the-Frog’s owner who radiates creativity like a July heatwave. She is every quirky, brilliant character ever written. But, way more interesting.

I may be charged with leading them but these inspired fourth and fifth graders are my muse.

Each week I start with a plan. A writing exercise, discussion topic, and a list of things that need to be accomplished for the impending publication deadline.

We, the creative writing club, are after all responsible for the BBL Courant Literary Page (which we promptly renamed Fun Fiction after a member of the club pointed out that literary sounded too much like the word literal. Who needs that?)

Our time is short—45 minutes before school, which is really more like 30 once we get through sharing and questions and the late arrivals and…

Some mornings are without a doubt more productive than others.

Case in point, Halloween fell on a Friday this year. On the one day a year when mere mortals transform themselves into goblins and ghosts and fairies to collect pillowcases full of candy—“Why bother?” was what I was thinking.

I embraced the challenge, best I knew how, with a single sentence.

“Halloween is cancelled!” said Mrs. Huppelpup. “Put your costumes away and resume normal activity immediately!” 

“Is Halloween canceled?” asked my serious friend.

“Look at the name, it’s a character,” whispered the conscientious one.

Alice-the-Frog hadn’t yet taken notice of the prompt. Her owner was too busy adjusting the large spider attached to her head.

Minutes later my petite scribes were deep into compelling plots unearthing why Halloween was canceled and what would happen to the evil Mrs. Huppelpup (one young schemer took the liberty of renaming her Mrs. Howley). We barely made it to the to-do list that day but the activity was a Halloween home-run.

Of course, one month later when their actual stories and poems were due, we could have used that time back. Such is the creative dilemma…

I hope our time together sparks something that will linger in them, as it already has in me.

A reminder that:

People (young and old) do their best “work” at play. 

But, ultimately we all need a deadline to get the piece on the page.  

And, while it’s great to be inspired, it’s even more satisfying to be inspiring.

(Oh, and plastic frogs are super cool!)