Seasons Change



Cold is coming. That’s what the meteorologists say. Never mind that it's only the second week in September and that most everyone in the Upper Midwest is near panicked about summer's end. Nope. Weather don't care. A Canadian cold front is coming in with a left hook. Highs in the 50s with a cold rain, they predict. Gray. Maybe even frost in the outer suburbs.

Teach us to number our days of sun, Lord, that we may gain a heart of wisdom.

The dire forecast certainly sent a tingle of terror down my spine. But more than that, it gave me permission to wallow in the last few days, which were perfect to the point of myth. Blue skies, crisp breeze, bright sun that caressed my skin with warmth. “There, there, baby. I’m not gone yet.” The purple and orange coneflowers hosted a honey bee frat party, and the pool was filled, one last time, with laughing, splashing children.

It was glorious. And I relished it more because I knew it was about to change.

This is the lesson of the seasons: change is constant. So you best keep your eyes wide open for the gift of today.

My kids started school last week. There was the normal adjustment: Teyla started first grade - she's gone all day now, riding the big yellow bus to and from school with her older brother - and Kieran is in preschool three mornings a week. But for the most part, this is a well-worn groove. We know this dance. We all get up between 7:00 and 7:30, we leave the house at the same time each morning. I know every possible route to Natalie's private school, I can guess what each child wants for lunch. Everyone gets home around 4:00. It's safe. Predictable.

But I see signs of change ahead.

Next fall, Natalie starts high school, and a public high school at that. Connor will transition to middle school. And Kieran, my baby, will start all-day, everyday kindergarten.

Whew. Left hook to a momma's heart. That's a lot of transition coming for me in 2015. Good stuff, even great stuff. But all of it involves heaping piles of change.

Which is why I'm savoring this year, The Year Before. I'm 42 now. I have experience with seasons. I have learned to step back and use all my senses to treasure today. Natalie, tall and tanned, embracing her new role as oldest on campus. Basking in her last year with her friends before the high school diaspora. Connor, relaxing in to his second year at his new school. Deepening friendships, growing comfortable with routines and expectations. Teyla, delighting in first grade and the new friends and the new teacher. For her, it's all discovery and giggles. Even Kieran, dipping his toes in the educational pool and then happily joining me back at home, where he can snuggle and play guys and do karate without a single distraction or care.

I've said before, these are the good days. I know it.

And this year, I'm savoring it. Open wide my eyes. Listen. Laugh. Drink it all in, every last bit.

Because I love every season. But the one I'm in is always my favorite.

A Lament for Summer

Subtitled: The First Person to Rejoice Over the Return Of All Things Pumpkin Gets Slugged



Take back thy fall leaves on the ground
Take back thy colors all around

Take back thy pumpkin spice latte
Take back thy apple scented days

Take back thy scarves, thy boots and coats
Take back thy caps (you know, eh, toques)

Take back thy cool nights bright with moon
You come too quick, you come too soon

Take back thy school bus rumbling through
Take back thy chill morns wet with dew

Take back thy pumpkins, gourds and wheat
Take back thy cheers and football cleats

Take back this season, though but fair,
’Tis not the time for autumn’s prayer

I need more heat and pool and sun
More golden days beg to be spun

Give me sloth and hair that's wet
I'm not done with summer yet

But in four weeks, come back, thou fall
Your glory, then, I welcome, all

Just kindly sibling winter ditch
That season really is a ...
That season really makes me twitch

My sincere apologies to dear friends who are real poets, but that picture at the top is one I took on Labor Day - the sumac are already turning crimson. Thus, passion was unleashed, and this ditty was born.

The Golden Days


The wind blew crazy Sunday morning. The treetops pirouetted against the sapphire sky and the leaves skittered along the pavement and the dragonflies stayed low to the grass and tried in vain to make headway.

I went outside in my pajamas just to feel its wildness on my skin. It lashed my eyes and twisted my hair and snuck down into my soul, where it tugged like a hurricane. Faster, faster, it whispered. I bring change on my wings. You cannot stop me. 

And I whispered right back, I know, alright? I know. But I have two days left.

Simmer down, wind. Simmer down.

----------

Summer has been golden this year - piled high with laughter and sunshine and laziness like a triple-scoop ice cream. I've fairly rolled around in it like pig in slop. We didn't go on any big trips, choosing instead to stay close to home and do ... well, a whole lot of nothing. We swam every chance we got, we spontaneously met friends at the park which turned into pizza dinners at someone's house which turned into sleepovers "please mom please mom please." The big kids spent days watching YouTube videos of other people playing and narrating Minecraft, sort of a Mystery Science Theater 3000 for the next generation. The little kids went camping in their bedrooms, which essentially meant cramming backpacks with two of every toy in the house (tiny little Noahs) and then leaving them for me to discover under beds, in closets, in bathtubs. Teyla spent hours crouched low in the yard, one finger out, patiently willing dragonflies to land on her. Kieran taught himself to swim in our pool, going from life-jacket-only in June to jumping off the diving board by himself in August, part ninja, part fish, bobbing up from sparkling water with a smile and a yell.

It was the best stuff of life.

These are the sweet days, I know it. Natalie turned 13 in July. She's almost as tall as me and her thick mane of chestnut hair stretches long down her back. She takes selfies like its her natural language (which it is, I suppose) and she texts with friends from school and when I hug her good night, I close my eyes and hug tight because just a few days ago, she was my baby, and now she's emerging woman. Connor is as wirey and bronzed as some mythical snake. He does perfect dives into the pool and when he laughs, he wrinkles his nose and throws his hair back and his sun-streaked blond hair shimmers.

This summer shone brighter than the sun.

I've told many friends that I'm in a near panic about going back to school this year. I'm not ready to return to early to bed and early to rise, I'm not ready to pack lunches every day, I'm not ready to return to schedules and traffic and deadlines. I've grown quite accustomed to waking up whenever I want and doling out breakfast between 10:00 and noon and serving chips and homemade salsa for lunch and eating dinner only when everyone is hungry. Bedtime lately has been well after dark, almost always after 10:00, if I'm honest and feeling brave enough to admit that on the Internet. I'm not ready to give up days where getting dressed means putting on a dry swim suit and we can fall asleep on chair cushions watching the clouds meander across the sky.

Mostly, I'm not ready to give up my kids. I will miss each one of them when they go back to school on Tuesday. I will miss the time we've spent together this summer, just being. I will miss them as they are in this season, this moment - tanned, laughing, bored, relaxed. I will miss them so much my soul will ache.

So simmer down wind. I know I can't control you, and I know you are a harbinger of change. But I've got two more days. Still time for one more swim and one more snuggle.

I don't intend to waste a moment of this golden summer.

Here, Taste This : Thai Quinoa Salad with Peanut Lime Dressing

If I had to give this summer a theme, it would be - Just Go With It.

If not observing strict bedtimes makes your evenings stress-free, just go with it.

If watching "Days of our Lives" every night while you clean the kitchen brings you an odd sort of comforting joy, just go with it. (EJ DiMera is in prison, Sami is on a rampage, John Black is in a coma, Hope's eyebrows still shoot sky-high at the end of every scene she's in. All is as it should be in Salem. It makes me strangely happy.)

If staying off social media is a breath of fresh air, just go with it.

And if you discover a salad you like so much, you make it every week, just go with it. Variety is over-rated anyway, right?

We first met, the salad and I, at a friend's house back in March. I was smitten with the first bite: nutty quinoa, crunchy cabbage and peppers, bits of carrots and red onion and cilantro and peanuts - held together with a Thai-inspired dressing that is the perfect blend of natural peanut butter, ginger, honey, soy sauce and lime juice. It bursts with color, texture and oh-my-word-you-have-to-smell-this aroma. It's the kind of salad that pairs perfectly with grilled chicken or, my favorite, spicy shrimp. Or you can just eat it for lunch every day for the entire summer. Like you do.

Just go with it.


Thai Quinoa Salad with Peanut Lime Dressing

3/4 cup uncooked quinoa
2 cups chopped red cabbage
1 red bell pepper, diced
1/4 red onion, diced
1 cup shredded carrots
1/2 cup peanuts
1/2 cup chopped cilantro
1/4 cup diced chives

Dressing:
1/4 cup natural peanut butter
2 tsp fresh grated ginger
3 tbsp soy sauce
1 tbsp honey
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
1 tsp sesame oil
1 tsp olive oil
juice of 1 lime

Directions:
1. Rinse quinoa with cold water in a mesh strainer until water runs clear. This removes the bitterness sometimes associated with quinoa. In a medium saucepan, boil 1-1/2 cups water. Add in quinoa and return mixture to a boil. Cover, reduce heat to low and let it simmer for 15 minutes or so, until quinoa has absorbed all the water. Remove from heat and fluff with a fork. Place in a large bowl and set aside to cool. (Note: This should result in about 2 cups of quinoa.)
2. Make the dressing. Mix peanut butter and honey in a microwave safe-bowl and heat in microwave for 30 seconds, so they will be easier to combine. Add in ginger, soy sauce, vinegar, the oils and the lime juice. Stir until mixture is smooth and creamy.
3. Add dressing to quinoa. Stir to combine.
4. Fold in the cabbage, red pepper, onion, carrots, peanuts, cilantro and chives. Garnish with extra peanuts, chives and lime slices, if desired. Serve chilled or at room temperature.

Tips:
1. Hello Salad Adaptable. Do you have cashews in your cupboard instead of peanuts? Sub 'em in. Want to try honey-roasted peanuts in place of the naked version? Do it. Want to skip the cilantro because it makes you gag? Sigh. If you have to.
2. Go make this. Right now. That is my biggest tip.

The Parenting Fog


I call it The Parenting Fog.

It's easy to slip into, especially in the summer. We get home from a camping trip, we finish up a week of VBS, the relatives leave after a fun visit - and everyone collapses. Fun plus exhaustion plus emotional hyperactivity minus sleep minus vegetables equals a deflated balloon of a person. So everyone retreats to their own corners.

In my house, that means the big kids ingest hefty doses of screens. Connor plays Minecraft eight hours a day, Natalie watches equal amounts of "Good Luck Charlie." The little kids split their time between Netflix and playing "school" which involves getting out every type of toy we own and putting one of each kind into a backpack to shlep around their bedrooms. And me? I stare at Facebook and various news websites for hours on end.

In the back of our little brains, the whole engine is going "chug, chug, chug, put this memory over there, chug, chug, file this big thought, chug, chug, do that better next time, chug, chug."

I maintain it's a necessary and even healthy stage of summer survival.

The only problem is: like a bad houseguest, it tends to overstay its visit.

I know this, because last Wednesday - after two weeks of family visiting us plus Fourth of July celebrations plus a week of VBS plus Corey leaving for North Korea the same day the last family members flew home - I entered that stage. I descended blissfully, I'll have you know. "Have at the screens, kids," I mumbled before sitting at my desk with Facebook open. The fog enveloped me like a blanket, and I sighed with pleasure at the nothingness.

But by Saturday, the sun was breaking through. The fog started to dissolve a little. I could make out shapes. What is that - a child? He's hungry? Bizarre. Do I have children? What day is it?

And slowly, ever so slowly, I felt strength and determination return.

That is the moment I decided - hey, this mothering gig. I'm not doing a great job at it - unless you count throwing cheese sticks and granola bars at the fog shapes and calling it a day. Maybe I could get off my arse, put limits on screen time and actually BE with my children.

Novel, no?

So Monday, I started over. I parented with intentionality again. I made breakfast for my kids and listened to their stories, instead of retreating with my coffee to my desk. ("I wonder if anyone on Facebook has posted something in the last five minutes?") I made plans to get out of the house. We spent an afternoon at the park on the beach. We dug holes in the sand and ate chips under the trees and marveled at the fall-like temperatures. We took Teyla to gymnastics lessons and instead of pulling out the phone, Kieran and I played tag and catch and let's see who can hit the wall harder. We went to the final baseball games of the season and cheered Connor and his team and basked in the just-warm-enough sunshine and gaped at the best summer sunsets.

It only took a few days for me to remember - oh yeah, I actually like this parenting gig. It's hard and at times it's tedious and at times it's maddening. But it's summer and I don't want to waste one glorious golden moment with the people I love.

Bring on the second half of the best season, I say. Here comes the sun. And it always brings grace with it.

On Being Creative


It was one of those gorgeous summer evenings, when the concept of time relaxes into a hammock with a lemonade. The sun slanted through the leaves, the tree frogs started singing, the breeze blew just strong enough to dry the sweat on my neck and keep the mosquitos at bay. It made weeding the planting beds almost a joy.

But my four children weren't as lulled. When I finally walked inside the house at 7:30, they were famished. "What's for dinner, Mom?" they asked with varying degrees of desperation.

I opened the fridge and surveyed the leftovers. Half a cup of mac-and-cheese. Some chicken fajita slices. The pasta and ham dish I had made the night before to a lack of fanfare. Not enough for a meal.

Then it's breakfast for diner, I thought to myself, and I reached for my recipe box to sniff out some ideas. Initially I was drawn to the waffles. Peanut butter waffles are good with bananas and offer some protein. Oatmeal cinnamon waffles with yogurt and strawberries are always a hit.

But then I saw Ina Garten's Omelet for Two, and I instantly knew: this is it. I pulled out the thick-cut, applewood bacon and set it to sizzling on the stovetop. I chopped potatoes, onions and jalapeño and heard the Barefoot Contessa music in my head. It felt good to cook, even after a long day bent in half, even though my fingernails still bore the tell-tale signs of tiny black crescent moons. I tasted a bacon crackling as I spooned them out of the pan, and I heard Ina say, "How good is that?" The potatoes sizzled in the bacon grease and I whipped together a batch of biscuits to satisfy the kids.

By the time we sat down to eat, I was renewed. The act of cooking - the weight of the knife, the crisp of the vegetables, the smells of the jalapeño and the onion cooking in the pan - it had reinvigorated me.

Creativity is life-giving.

Recharge


Yesterday was a gloriously odd Monday - I had nothing to do. Two of my children were at school, but the one who requires me driving her back and forth had the day off. Bible study was cancelled because of Easter. It was a perfectly beautiful, completely empty-of-duties type of day.

My first thought was - I should write. Words are stirring again in my soul. Lately, it's the lack of time more than a lack of desire that keeps me absent from the page. But when I sat down in front of the computer, the muse hid her face. Nothing grabbed me. I spent two hours halfheartedly rearranging paragraphs and tinkering with words (and checking Facebook and reading blogs and my favorite news sites) before I gave up.

I decided to give my brain a break and work with my hands.

This is a lesson I've learned slowly, but it has become solid truth for me. Those of us who play with words, who talk, write and read for a living, sometimes the best thing we can do is walk away from the letters and create with a different medium.

Gretchen Rubin, in her inspiring and fascinating book, The Happiness Project, writes:
Long ago, I read the writer Dorothea Brande’s warning that writers are too inclined to spend their time on wordy occupations like reading, talking and watching TV, movies and plays. Instead, she suggested, writers should recharge themselves with language-free occupations like listening to music, visiting museums, playing solitaire or taking long walks alone.
So yesterday, I did just that. I turned off my computer, which is more serious than simply walking way, and I stepped outside into the gorgeous sunshine. I grabbed my garden shears and my green gloves with the hole in the finger and I set to work cutting back the dead plants in the garden. I snapped off tall hydrangea limbs, brown and brittle, topped with delicate chestnut mop heads. I cut down spires of autumn joy sedum and discovered tightly coiled green shoots right below them, ready to burst forth. I clipped the grasses that stand as tall as a sentry mid-summer, but which now bend crooked and worn after a winter of too much snow. I stopped to rub my back now and again, because I'm 42, and when Kieran said, "Mom, there's a worm!" I walked over to find a baby garter snake on the cover of our pool, desperately trying to make the climb to the surface but unable to scale the near-vertical wall. (We got him out and deposited all five inches of him down near the creek. I only shuddered once.) (Hashtag Minnesota mom.)

At lunch, I came in and decided - nope, still too many words. So I did some laundry and I washed and stored the kids' winter gear - which means, yes, I've cursed the entire Midwest to a freak late-season blizzard. I'm sorry. It was me. I laid Kieran down for a nap and I slept a bit myself. I went back outside and just sat in the sun and listened to the birds sing, carefree in the care of God. I flipped through a magazine and admired the pretty pictures, sort of a nondigital Pinterest.

By day's end, my body was spent - but my soul was oddly filled.

It was a good day for a writer, even though I hadn't written a word.