Look for Something Good

Today I started feeling like everyone’s life is a mess. Do you ever do that? Just start thinking about people you know and realize that just about everyone’s got something big they’re facing. And by “big” I mean potentially life-altering: relationship problems that just don’t end, debilitating depression, gender identity issues. This afternoon I started thinking about these things and about how life is more often than not pretty complicated and messy, and I told my friend, “I just want to go back to the time when everybody’s lives were happy and OK.” I can’t do that because, of course, that time doesn’t really exist. We just think it does when we’re young and we haven’t lived long enough to have enough people open up and share their secrets with us, when we don’t realize that everybody’s struggling in some way with something.

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One of the fond memories: vacation with the family in the mountains.

I was thinking about that this evening when I saw a Facebook post asking people to share their fondest memories. I shut my eyes and started thinking what I’d write if I were going to share. I have to admit, it took a while to get past the obligatory days: my-kids-were-born and wedding day, but as I pondered it I realized I have an awful lot of fond memories.

  • sliding (on purpose) on a patch of ice on the sidewalk in Kharkov, Ukraine only to run into Andrew at the end and knock him down
  • walking everywhere around Simferopol and Kharkov with Andrew while we were dating, not feeling tired because I was just so happy to be with him
  • cleaning my first apartment on a sunny Saturday afternoon in Kherson while listening to 80’s music on a little red tape player
  • walking Betsy, the best dog in the world, in the cold every morning and snuggling under the covers with her at night
  • sitting at the island in our kitchen as a child and talking to my mom as she cooked dinner
  • lying in bed as a little girl, watching the “digital” clock dial turn every minute
  • reading for hours every day during Christmas break when I was in junior high
  • fighting with my sister over which direction the fan would point in high school
  • making a video with my Ukrainian friends to give to the missionaries before they moved back to the US
  • teaching my dad to use his iPad and staying up late making funny videos on it
  • spending time with my great-grandma, my grandma, and her sisters, and listening to them as they sat outside, breaking beans and laughing together and thinking about how much alike they looked and sounded
  • eating rice pudding in NYC with my friend and just being happy to be together
  • Andrew making a surprise visit to see me in Simferopol, a 12-hour train ride from his home in Kharkov, while we were dating
  • playing Michael Jackson music and dancing with Andrew and the kids after supper every night when the children were little
  • making Christmas cookies with my grandparents and my cousins and standing still while my grandpa vacuumed the flour off our clothes
  • watching Oprah and praying for her with my friends in Bible college
  • putting up a tiny Christmas tree in my first apartment and accidentally getting myself twisted up in the lights
  • the best vacation ever in Wisconsin Dells when I was about nine and my parents saying yes to everything we wanted to do
  • teaching my kids to crochet
  • some really fun parties with missionaries in Simferopol
  • walking part of the Oregon Trail with my kids and Andrew
  • meeting some writing goals I thought I wouldn’t meet
  • going to work and seeing a surprise gift waiting at my door
  • meeting my best friend (I’ll let you all think it was you–but I actually remember the moment I met a lot of you, and all of those moments were pretty great)
  • my mom teaching me to write and later to type
  • riding the scariest amusement park ride I’ve ever ridden with my ten-year-old and being more scared that my phone was going to fall out of my pocket than I was that I’d die in the ride
  • lunch dates with my American friend in Simferopol–especially the one where she slipped on a mossy sidewalk and fell in a puddle, getting green moss all over herself
  • meeting a friend to talk about writing and not talking much about writing but a lot about everything else
  • eating chips and drinking Coke and talking about life with a friend on the balcony of an apartment in Kharkov
  • laughing with my roommate about the stray horse in the courtyard of our apartment building in Kherson
  • making the kids laugh a lot by making up lyrics to a song on the radio and mimicking the person singing it
  • going to dinner with a friend and staying until they closed and then talking in the parking lot
  • lying in bed, cuddled with Emma and Andrew, warm and soft and sleepy
  • working half the night to do inventory with my boss and coworkers and laughing at everything
  • waking up with baby Emma on one side, Andrew and Hannah on the other, and Alex on my feet and not daring to move for fear of waking them up
  • lying on the picnic table at night in our back yard in Indiana when I was little, thinking about what I’d do when I grew up

Just typing all that out, just the fifteen minutes it took me to think those up, turned around how I felt. Life stinks in a lot of ways, but, man, there are some good things about it. The next time I lament giving up my alone time to be with someone else, I hope I remember how all of those things in my fondest memories list were done with other people (well, one was a dog, but maybe that sorta still counts). My friends and family make my life worth sorting out the rough parts!

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How an Introvert Survives a Party

My name is Laura, and I’m an introvert.

You may think because I talk a lot that I’m an extrovert, but that just means I’m an introvert in recovery. Or something. I admit that despite my introvert qualities I like being with people. I search them out and tell them stories, and some people might just run the other way when they see me coming, especially after I drink a cup of coffee because caffeine makes me extra talkative.

I think, though, that I like being with people on my own terms. I like them in small groups. I like them when I approach them. I like them when I’m ready for them. I like them when I know them. I like them when they like me.

This weekend, I found myself in a situation that put me waaay outside of my introvert bubble. My youngest daughter, probably not an introvert herself and probably the only extrovert in our family, got invited to a Christmas open house at her friend’s grandma’s house. I remembered that this friend of hers invited her last year, too, and she could not go for some forgotten reason. This time I told her she could go before I actually inspected the invitation closely. Her friend is moving far away soon, and she is pretty sad about that, so how could I tell her no?

After I read the invite Saturday afternoon, I remembered why I told her she couldn’t go last year. It said “All children under the age of 15 must be accompanied by an adult who stays with them.”  What?! When I saw that, I knew it must be me who went. While I am an introvert on the introvert/extrovert chart, I’m also much closer to extroversion than my husband, who falls solidly in the very introverted category. In our family, that means that if there’s a social gathering that requires only one of us to go, I’m probably the one, and I’m OK with that most of the time.

This time I headed to the house with not a little bit of trepidation. Apparently this family holds a huge Christmas party every year, and all of the family members invite friends. That includes Grandma and Grandpa, who actually organize the thing, Mom and Dad, and all four kids, so there are a lot of people there. We arrived at the house. I walked in, and my daughter disappeared upstairs with her friend. I looked around. I knew no one. I mean not one person looked even remotely familiar. An older and very friendly lady hugged me and said how happy she was that I could come, and I had no idea who she was or who she thought I was for that matter!

I went straight to the bathroom and stayed there while I adjusted to the idea that I was about to be surrounded by strangers and expected to party without knowing anyone, but a person can only stay in the bathroom for so long when the house is chock full of people. I left the bathroom and tried to look nonchalant while furtively scanning the rooms for someone who looked familiar and might be the boy’s mom, whom I’d only met once or so. I feared that when I saw her she would remember me and I wouldn’t remember her, and how embarrassing would that be?

In the process, I ended up finding another woman with a face that registered the full range of confusion, alarm and false cheer that mine probably did. I made my way toward her, and, careful not to scare her off, I introduced myself. We chatted for a moment, and I could tell she was holding onto me as much as I was holding onto her, so we had each other. After a while of hiding in a corner, talking to her, and observing the party together with her, I noticed that, while some of the men did have on suits, my jeans fit in with many of the other people. I noticed that the woman/lifesaver I was talking to and I weren’t the only ones who did not know anyone. I also noticed that quite a few people had gravitated toward the front room, were singing 60’s and 70’s songs and appeared to be antique hippies, and for some reason that disarmed me a little. I guess I figured if the hippies were having fun, I could too. In addition to that, I noticed that there was one group who felt much more intimidated by the crowd and even found their lives in danger in such a house full of people. The homeowners had these tiny chihuahuas who scurried around, nervously shivering in their little Christmas coats, dodging people’s feet. I tell you, if all of them are still alive today, I’m surprised, since I was sure all evening that they would either be smashed by the crowd, fallen on by an unsteady toddler, or just die of sheer terror.

Since I know a lot of introverts, I bet a bunch of the people reading this understand completely where I’m coming from. Here are some tips for introverts who want to enjoy the party scene:

  1. Take something to distract yourself. If you’re messing with your phone, you’ve got a reason to be solitary. If you’re trapped by someone you prefer not to be trapped by, you’ve got an out. You can make the excuse that someone is texting/calling you, and you don’t even have to worry that the other person will notice that the phone didn’t ring or vibrate since it’s so ridiculously loud in that room.
  2. Take a baby or a toddler with you. I can’t believe that I’m saying this after my angst at having had to leave many a social gathering because one or more of my children had a meltdown or a nap or a blowout, but if you really don’t want to be there or don’t want to socialize, a tiny human will give you a reason not to interact with adults. Plus they will inevitably cry, and you will leave. For probably the first time ever, I envied the woman chasing a toddler around the house at that party.
  3. Find someone else uncomfortable and team up. Misery loves company, and finding someone who doesn’t know anyone or feels left out can help.
  4. Eat. Or drink. Find the food and eat it. This one is self-explanatory.
  5. Help the hostess. Hey, I wish I had thought of this Saturday! If you’re helping, you forget that you’re a dork without a friend in the world and stop feeling like you’re just bouncing around helplessly.
  6. Play with (or in this case protect) the dog. This will bring you around other people who also like dogs and then you’ll have allies.
  7. Watch tv. I was about to get into football big time because there was a tv playing some game. I mean, I think it was football. There were guys and a ball on a field.
  8. Snoop around. Hey, why not? They’re all partying in the kitchen and dining room. It’s the perfect time to look around the rest of their house. (I promise I did not do this–except the bathroom. Remember, I spent quite a bit of time in there at first. Interestingly enough, there was a vacuum cleaner in the bathtub!)
  9. Just stand there. How bad can it be just to stand there and watch everyone? If you smile a little, you look pleasant enough. I bet you can find out lots of stuff just by watching and listening to the people around you.
  10. Make it a game to talk to as many people as possible. Wait. Games are supposed to be fun, and that doesn’t sound fun whatsoever. Forget that one!

I survived Saturday night and the work party on the previous night and the work friend’s open house on the next night, and guess what! I actually enjoyed all of the parties. I am also happy that I got most of the Christmas partying done in just one weekend. If you’re an introvert faced with a slew of Christmas parties, buckle on your elf shoes and dive in. But remember my ten suggestions in case you feel overwhelmed at the open house!

What If People Talked About Soft Drinks the Way They Talk About Coffee

I’m visiting my sister in Hawaii this week. Yes, I know. It’s a hard job, but someone has to do it. You know, beaches, beautiful sunsets, warm weather. We ate dinner outside last night, and no mosquitoes attacked us, no prairie wind blew our dinner off the table, and we did not even have on jackets.

How interesting that the beautiful lamp silhouette appears just in front of the sun...

How interesting that the beautiful lamp silhouette appears just in front of the sun.

But I hate to unload my troubles on you.

Besides the heavenly surroundings, I get to be with my sister. Until this trip, I hadn’t seen her since she and her husband moved away from the midwest about three or four years ago. It seems like a lot longer than that, since my kids were just little things when they left and now they’re getting ready for being teenagers, but I guess it was just a few years ago.

At the beach, in case you didn't notice.

At the beach, in case you didn’t notice.

I’m blessed with a good relationship with my sister, which is interesting to me because I can’t say I’ve had the very best relationship with the rest of my family all of these years. My sister and I never really argue about stuff. We did some when we were little, and I remember an epic battle when we were teenagers. It had to do with a fan that she kept pointing at me, even though I said I didn’t want it pointing at me and moved it away every time she moved it toward me. (I only fight over really important stuff like that.) Full of rage, I saw her impossibly large, 80’s-teased-out, curly hair and impulsively grabbed a handful of it and pulled. She rose from the couch in painful indignation and ripped out half my bangs. I mean, I heard those babies screaming as their follicles left my head.

At that moment, I knew that I had made a terrible mistake. Although she is younger than I am, my sister has always been a force to be reckoned with physically. I have always been able to reason my way to winning just about every argument, but if it ever comes to a knock-down-drag-out with her, I am destined to lose, lose, lose. And in a way that I will probably never forget. Like the time she punched me in the stomach and knocked the breath out of me or the time she grabbed both of my arms and wrestled me to the ground. Yep, I think twice before I tangle with her physically, especially now that she’s a personal trainer and I’m an overweight, middle-aged mom who would rather sit at her computer than run a mile.

That last big fight over the fan ended with her chasing me to my parents’ room and me waking them up to beg for protection, which is what I usually did, being the tattletale oldest who could probably make anything look like the other’s fault (sorry, Emily!).

So we get along pretty well and have come to the comfortable place where we don’t really bring up things that I can verbally bash her in or things that she can send me to the ER about. Instead, we like to make fun of things. That was one of the things we were both looking forward to doing when I came here, and I yesterday we started the fun.

It was morning, and I saw their coffeemaker and told her how I have thought about getting a Keurig machine. I don’t really drink enough coffee to make a full pot of it, so it seems like a waste of time to get out all of the stuff to make coffee. Seems like it would be easier just to pop one of those little thingies into the machine and make one cup. She said she didn’t drink coffee, and I said I don’t like coffee, but I drink it because if I don’t drink it I’m going to want to drink Mt. Dew.

There, I said it. In the morning, first thing, I will pour a cup of super-healthy Mt. Dew if I can. Before I even think about it, I will grab that 2 liter and swallow down enough calories for a meal. Now that I’m on a health kick and at least trying not to consume a week’s worth of calories in one cup, I’ve cut back on Mt. Dew and all soft drinks. Instead I drink a little bit of coffee in the morning, just so I can have something different and not boring, like water.

The bad thing is that at work people make coffee because they like the caffeine, and I really do not want the caffeine. I would rather have decaf, and I would love it if I could find caffeine-free Mt. Dew in the stores. Unfortunately, it is as rare as a snowball on the Hawaiin beach.

This led to our discussion: what if people talked about soft drinks the way they talk about coffee. Every morning, I read my newsfeed and find all kinds of memes about coffee and how people can’t live without it. When you put it in a different context, you can see how strange it is. What if the newsfeed were clogged with memes about drinking soft drinks early in the morning?

coke baby

mt dew demon

cat

batman

 

Mt Dew sad

Mr Pibb raccoon

It seems odd to me that so many places offer free coffee now. Churches hand it out, my daughter’s orthodontist supplies it, our bank gives it to customers. Why is coffee such an acceptable thing to hand to people, but nobody offers a free Coke to every person who enters. Now that the Keurig machine has made it easier to make a single cup, it seems even more places offer it, but don’t tell me it’s because it’s cheaper than a soft drink. Those little Keurig things cost money, too.

Well, anyway, we had a good laugh over it, and now I’m wondering what more we can laugh about while I’m here. Maybe the teenagers posing like porn stars in their bikinis on the beach?

Like Riding a Bike

Today I did something I haven’t done in a long time. I rode a bike.

I did not ride this kind, and I did not end up on my face. So all in all, a good experience.

I did not ride this kind, and I did not end up on my face. So all in all, a good experience.

My bike sat discarded in the garage through the births of three kids and a lot of sleepless nights that produced days when bike riding was the last thing on my mind. I taught my own children to ride, but I have never been much of a rider myself, so I never rode it. In fact, I think the last time I rode a bike was the summer after my oldest was born. I can’t remember any bike riding after that.

Once in a while the kids ask me to ride with them, and I say something like “I don’t really like to ride. I’ll walk, and I’ll meet you at the park (or wherever).” They’re old enough to do that now. Before I could let them go ahead, I sat outside with a book or the phone and watched them ride up and down the street in front of our house. Today I decided to join them.

I don’t know what got into me. Why did I decide this was a good day for me to break my 12-year bike-riding moratorium? Whatever the reason, I found myself pumping up the tires on my husband’s bike (mine has squeaky brakes, and, believe me, I don’t want to draw any more attention to the middle-aged me wobbling down the street than necessary). I got on confidently. I mean, why not? I don’t have any skinned-up-my-whole-body stories to tell. I took off down the driveway. It went faster than I expected. A lot faster. I tried to put on the brakes, but I realized I reverted back to the bike riding I learned as a five-year-old…when there were brakes on the pedals. I felt a moment of panic as a tree approached and I veered around it while frantically groping for the brakes. Somehow I managed to stop slowly enough that I didn’t hurtle forward over the handlebars.

What my girls saw when I got on the bike today.

What my girls thought of me when I got on the bike today.

As my heartbeat returned to normal, I heard the girls behind me. They weren’t laughing, thank goodness. Instead they were worrying. “Do you think we should do this? Maybe she’s not ready,” one of them said. “It’s been a long time. I’m not sure she really knows how to ride one,” the other one answered.

“We’re not going until you ride down the hill and back up,” my oldest called out to me from the driveway.

“What do you mean? I’m fine. Shut the door and let’s go!” I answered.

“Uumm…I’m not so sure. The ride up the hill is pretty hard.” Now keep in mind this hill is barely visible. I’m not kidding. We live in Nebraska, people. It’s not the Rocky Mountains. I rode back up to them, convincing them I was ready.

Here’s some of what I heard on the way:

“She’s still back there, Hannah. She’s ok!” (after turning to check on me).

“What would happen if Mom fell and skinned her knee really bad? Would she cry?” LIKE I WASN’T EVEN THERE!!!

“She’d probably get mad and make us leave her alone!” What am I, a mother bear?! ROAR! Sadly, they’re probably right.

So what did I learn from the bike riding experience? For one, the old saying is true. You don’t forget how to ride a bike! I was a little nervous riding with children around me. Children who tend to cut in front of me and make me think I was going to hit them and maybe do something like run over them. But I’m pretty glad I did it.

Second, I probably should do more things that I’ve written off in the last decade. My kids have been my excuse for not bike riding, not travelling, not working out, not doing more stuff like that. For a long time, they really were too young to do much with, and for a long time I mourned losing those things that I would have done if there were no kids. Then somewhere along the way I started kinda liking not doing a lot of different stuff and fell into a habit of doing the same things all of the time. They’re older now. Maybe it’s time to branch out.

Hopefully, it won't come to this.

Hopefully, it won’t come to this.

Third, they’re going to take really great care of me when I get old. I always wondered if they’d just let me wander off down the interstate in my nightgown in February, but apparently they are pretty good mother hens. Maybe we’ve done something right. Whew! It’s about time we saw some fruit of all these years of labor!

I’ve been sitting in the library writing this. I just heard the librarian say that the library closes in fifteen minutes.

Does this mean I have to ride home?!

 

Why You Can Go Home Again

This one really isn't packed. I've seen them with people hanging out the doors. Saw a babushka beat a man with an umbrella to force her way on one once.

This one really isn’t packed. I’ve seen them with people hanging out the doors. Saw a babushka beat a man with an umbrella to force her way on once.

A few weekends ago, I went to Cincinnati to pick up my children after their visit with friends. I experienced something I hadn’t experienced since I lived in Ukraine and traveled back and forth every summer. No, it wasn’t a good bowl of borscht (although I kinda wish it were) or a packed trolleybus in 90 degree heat (very glad it wasn’t that). What I experienced was that feeling of going home again.

I drove into town from the south and caught sight of the skyline across the Ohio River. I have never been a big fan of cityscapes, but seeing it reminded me of how my husband always pointed it how beautiful it looked when we drove into Cincinnati from that direction. I drove across the Ohio River and remembered that claustrophobic feeling of being caught in the very narrow space between the wall of the bridge and a semi truck in the lane next to me. That bridge was the one that gave me an unreasonable fear of accidentally driving over the edge and plummeting into the water below, not knowing which child to save if they were all buckled into their car seats. I’m glad I rarely cross any bridges these days! Even more glad my kids can swim!

This is the view of Cincinnati I saw, but I did not take this picture. I was busy driving.

This is the view of Cincinnati I saw, but I did not take this picture. I was busy driving.

Seeing the place we used to live and our friends who still live there reminded me of a few things.

1. Living in a new place and navigating around it for the last year, I forgot the feeling of knowing where I was going and understanding where places are without having to plot out my driving plan ahead of time or plug addresses into Mapquest. Being back in the place we called home for 13 years made me miss living somewhere that I felt connected to in a deeper way than just knowing the path to the grocery store and back. Not only did I remember where things were, but I remembered that sense of really being a part of life in a particular location. It takes a while to feel completely integrated into the new place, and being back home reminded me that we aren’t really at that stage here yet.

On a positive note, though, moving somewhere new shows us all that we really can learn a new place, find friends, and fit in. We may feel a sense of “otherness” at times, but we still feel like part of what’s going on in our new place. I think that has built confidence in our children, and I’ve seen them become more outgoing and mature since we moved.

Our first selfie together. Wait! Is it still considered a selfie for me if I'm not the one holding the camera?

Our first selfie together. Wait! Is it still considered a selfie for me if I’m not the one holding the camera?

2. Not only did I see places I remember, I saw people I hadn’t seen in a year. In my experience, when I see the people I know and love after an absence, I often feel like we are just picking up where we left off. Maybe I have these grand ideas about emotional and exciting reunions, hugging and crying, but in reality those things don’t usually happen to me. When I arrived at my friend’s house to pick up the kids, one of her children greeted me nonchalantly, and then my friend walked in the room. We both said, “Hey!” like we’d just seen one another last week. I love that. I wouldn’t trade that easy familiarity for all of the hugging, crying, made-for-tv-moments in the world!

The kids and I went to dinner with other friends on the spur of the moment. I called them up, and before I knew it we were all sitting in Skyline laughing and eating and having fun. More fun than I remember having had together when we actually lived within five hundred miles of one another. When you live close, you just think you’ve got all the time in the world to get together…but then you don’t.

Feeling good and hungry? Skyline time!

Feeling good and hungry? Skyline time!

On the way back to Nebraska, we talked about how weird it was to see everyone and how Nebraska seemed almost like a dream. The children wistfully said they felt like they’d never left Cincinnati in the first place. I reminded them how nice it is that we have people we love in both places, how if we’d never moved we would never know that out here on the prairie live a whole bunch of great people! My children are learning early in life a lesson I didn’t realize until my adult years. A seasoned missionary once told me, when talking about how hard it was to leave people you love, “When you’re a missionary, no matter where you go, you’re leaving people you love, but you’re also going to other people you love.” That concept has stuck proven true time and time again in my life.

Gratuitous picture of our trip to Graeter's. Because what trip to Cincinnati is complete without a trip to the world's best ice cream place?!

Gratuitous picture of our trip to Graeter’s. Because what trip to Cincinnati is complete without a trip to the world’s best ice cream place?! Alex looks a little less-than-ecstatic about it, though. Can you tell who the introvert is after a lot of social interaction?

3. Some things are more important than sleep. I hadn’t willingly pulled an all-nighter for years. Having babies cured me of the desire to stay up past about 1 am. However, I stayed up late both nights I was there. One friend and I stayed up until 4 am! Does that time even exist anymore? After hours of sitting on the couch talking about everything in the world, she asked me, “What time is it?” I looked at my nearly useless watch that has not one real number on it, and my exhausted eyes crossed. I said, “I think it’s 4:00. Is that what this says?” The next night I went to Applebee’s and then cruised around Colerain Township with my former coworkers until way late. Who needs sleep when you have such a limited time together?!

My two beautiful former coworkers. Look at those faces! See how much fun we had at work?

My two beautiful former coworkers. Look at those faces! See how much fun we had at work?

I think that the longer I live, the more I realize that it’s not true that you can’t go home again. Home just changes definition, becomes more fluid, and grows to include a new place after you leave the old one!

 

We Crashed a Family Reunion

This is how I sometimes feel when visiting relatives.

This is how I sometimes feel on vacation. I know I’m not alone in this growly, too-much-fun-is-just-too-much feeling.

I am smack dab in the middle of a week of visiting relatives. And by relatives, I mean step relatives. My youngest daughter, surrounded by my stepfather’s family at a reunion, looked at me with a look of shock and awe and said, “Are all these people my relatives?!” She’s grown up with my stepdad as one of her Papas. He’s treated her like a regular granddaughter. So how to answer that question? Do I say “No, these are just some strangers who have taken us in and treat us nicely”?

I thought for a moment, then said, “Yes, they are your family.” She’s heard all about divorce and remarriage. She knows that Papa isn’t my dad, but I think she needed to fit the new people into her life in some manner, and this was a good way. After all, you can never have too many people to love your children, right?

And maybe I sometimes also feel like this on vacation.

And maybe I sometimes also feel like this on vacation.

Besides, these relatives are actually really great. My mom and stepdad, Tim, have been married for twenty-some years, so even though much of his family lives in Colorado and I live in Nebraska I’ve met many of my stepdad’s relatives before. I went to their family reunion about 18 years ago, when my parents’ divorce and remarriages felt somewhat fresh to me still, and I was unsure how to answer that question of who they were to me myself. I felt strange as an outsider coming into their homes and meeting all of them. Would they even want me there? But they accepted me as one of them from the beginning. Treated me like one of the family when I probably did not, in fact, seem like one of the family to them. Even so, I felt accepted by them.

Last weekend we packed up our car and my parents’ SUV and headed west to Colorado. The vacation promised greatness from the beginning because the children rode in the car with my mom and Tim, and Andrew and I got to spend the entire eight hour trip alone in our car! We all checked into a hotel in Denver, and each night one child slept with my mother, giving us the luxury of only two children, one per parent, and a much easier bedtime routine.

We did some typical touristy things.

We went to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. You can see Denver in the background.

We went to the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. You can see Denver in the background.

Lookout Mountain in Denver. Not pictured: Buffalo Bill's grave...or maybe not. There's controversy over whether he's actually buried there or not.

Lookout Mountain in Denver. Notice that there is at least one stuffed animal in every photo. This is true of just about every picture ever taken of my girls.

Crossed the Continental Divide...

Crossed the Continental Divide and had our picture taken…along with a stranger’s fingertip. So glad we have that little bit to remember him by!

In the evenings, we had dinner with Tim’s family. The children were shockingly polite. My son even impressed his elders by removing his hat during introductions and inside the house. Nobody argued. Nobody spilled anything or had any wild bodily fluid episodes… not even the children!

The very best part of the whole trip so far, though, happened after a discussion of an injury of my mom’s and how she still is taking medication for it. This came on the heels of a conversation about how Colorado has legalized marijuana, so naturally someone commented about how Mom should self-medicate her injury while at the same time enjoy the state’s newest legalized drug. Of course, my mother would never, ever do such a thing, and that made the joke even more funny.

Andrew and I were talking to Tim’s sister-in-law, who was hosting us at this reunion, and told her about the joke. We said she should have made brownies and sprinkled them with some parsley to offer my mom. She laughed and said, “Well, actually, we have brownies for dessert!” We laughed at the irony and thought no more of it…until she came out carrying a tray of brownies and sporting a twinkle in her eye. She held them out and offered them to us. “I made these special brownies for our guests from out of state. Because you can’t come to Colorado without sampling some!”

Brownie, anyone? Come on, you know you want one!

Brownie, anyone? Come on, you know you want one!

This was possibly the funniest thing I’ve seen in a long time. This woman, a sweet and beautiful great-grandmother with wonderful artistic ability and a soft-spoken demeanor, offered my mother a plate of pot brownies! I still laugh just thinking about it.

Maybe it’s because this other family hasn’t been intimately present in every minute of my business or because I have only a few pleasant memories of them at two short family reunions. Maybe it’s because I’ve always been an adult in their eyes and have been treated like one from the first day, or because I don’t hold them to the high standards with unreachable expectations like I do my own family at times, but sometimes other people’s relatives who have become your own can be a whole lot of fun! And maybe answering my child’s question the way I did showed me that it’s ok to love stepparents and that loving one group doesn’t mean I don’t love the other.

Why Big Sky Country Isn’t Just Montana

OK, this wasn't exactly during the rainstorm but right before it. My husband took it on his way to pick me up.

OK, this wasn’t exactly during the rainstorm but right before it. My husband took it on his way to pick me up.

Thursday the rain pelted us pretty hard. I left work and had to run across what appeared to be a newly made and unauthorized mini-canal in the parking lot. The water rolled over my shoes. We have days like that in the early summer. Clear, then suddenly the sky grows dark and the clouds empty several inches of rain in a short time. I guess we’re not unique in that. All of the places I’ve lived have had that same type of weather during the spring and early summer.

What is unique to me here is the sky. It’s huge. I mean, I know that Montana is nicknamed “Big Sky Country,” but Nebraska could also be called that. I noticed it during my first visit with my family when I was a teenager, and I notice it quite often now that I live here. On days like yesterday, I step outside at work, where there are really no significant trees for miles, and I can feel the sky looming above me. The sky just feels bigger here than it did in the other places I’ve lived, and I just feel smaller. I can almost imagine being above myself and seeing people scurrying around doing their thing below, oblivious to the fact that the whole of creation sweeps above and around them.

Did I mention that the sunsets are gorgeous, too?

Did I mention that the sunsets are gorgeous, too?

I can’t really figure out why the sky seems bigger here. Is it because there are fewer trees and buildings and steep hills (although there are plenty of dune-shaped hills) where I notice it? I don’t feel it as much in my neighborhood, where mature trees line the streets, but get a few blocks away, where fields surround the highways, and there it is: Big Sky. Or maybe it’s because the clouds pass overhead at a higher altitude, giving the sense of space above. Or maybe the air is clearer or there’s less low, dense cloud cover. Maybe a combination of those things. Who knows?

It must be raining out there, on the horizon somewhere.

It must be raining out there, on the horizon somewhere.

After I got home from work yesterday, the rain stopped. My kids and I took advantage of the break in the rain and drove to the store. On the way, I noticed wildly interesting clouds forming above us. Huge clouds. Mountainous clouds, some heavy and ominous, and some swirling in formations like I’d never seen before. Of course, I had to stop and take some pictures of them. And mind you, I was not alone. One other car had pulled over to photograph the natural wonder taking place above us. Maybe the passengers in that car are newish here, too.

Look at those clouds!

Look at those clouds! All this and not even a thunderstorm warning.

Almost looks like a blanket being pulled up over the town.

Almost looks like a blanket being pulled up over the town.

I noticed a few things about what was going on around us. Besides that other driver and me, nobody seemed to notice the show happening above us. The clouds changed minute by minute, and everyone just drove around, going to the store, taking the kids to softball practice, driving home from work. Nobody seemed impressed. I also do that plenty of times, and, realistically speaking, I can’t stop every time something interesting goes on around me or I’d never get anywhere. But what happened to the sense of connectedness to nature and feeling of awe I had when I was younger? When did I stop noticing things like a giant cloud formation sailing above me?

photo 1-9

I also realized that artists have attempted to paint, describe, and compose replications of such natural phenomenon for centuries and that, in reality, I’ve probably spent more time looking at the human attempts to replicate that sky than the sky itself. Mostly nature doesn’t catch my eye unless it results in something super-impressive, like a storm rolling in.

One of my favorite musicians ever has to be Rich Mullins. Even if I didn’t know he spent a lot of time in the Great Plains area, I’d be able to tell it from his songs. They highlight how the beauty in nature bears the distinct fingerprint of God, how it points us back to Him. The prairie and the Big Sky always especially remind me of the words from one of my favorite Rich Mullins songs, Calling Out Your Name:

“I feel the thunder in the sky.

I see the sky about to rain,

And with the prairies I am calling out your name.”

A double rainbow! The perfect ending to the rainstorm.

A double rainbow! The perfect ending to the rainstorm.

Winter is Coming

Just a little chilly. Maybe put on a jacket.

Just a little chilly. Maybe put on a light jacket.

Before we moved to Nebraska, people said things like, “You’re gonna freeze out there. It’s practically the tundra.” I read books like My Antonia where the endless Nebraska winters produced suicidal tendencies in settlers living in dugouts. Even cashiers in grocery stores and people in our new neighborhood, upon finding out that we had arrived in June, said things like, “Oooh! You haven’t lived through a winter here yet.” I began to wonder if we had moved ourselves to Siberia on accident.

Prettymuch what we expected before we moved here.

Prettymuch what we expected before we moved here. It turned out to be more like what Cincinnati got after we left!

Then the winter hit, and it was cold. Temperatures reached down into the -20’s with wind chill factors in the -30’s. But guess what? Back in Cincinnati, our friends had the same kind of cold with one additional fun thing: lots and lots of snow. Like, many-snow-days-of-cancelled-school snow. Our kids pouted as they trudged to school day after day with only one cancellation the entire winter. We had very little snow here. I couldn’t help but smile when remembering the warnings about moving somewhere so violently freezing.

Around the end of April something interesting happened. It got warm. Really nice and really sunny and really warm, and the grass actually started getting green. Spring! By now, it’s summer, and we are experiencing the beginning of hot weather. Last summer it got up to around 105 or so, and I expect the same this year.

Summer view of the area around the college where I work.

Summer view of the area around the college where I work.

A couple of days ago, I stood in my office and looked out the window. I saw green fields and a few trees, their branches swaying in the wind. I saw beautiful blue skies with puffy white clouds. I stood there thinking about how beautiful it was outside, and I realized something. I realized I could not remember what that view looked like just a few months ago when the cold wind ravaged that prairie. I mean, intellectually I remember that it happened. I know in my mind that I used to dread Tuesdays and Thursdays because I had to walk from the building where my office is located to the building where chapel was held and the cold wind forced me to lean into it and stuff my already-gloved hands deeper into my pockets. While I do remember that, I don’t feel it. I don’t feel connected to it. I caught myself thinking, “Eh, it wasn’t all that bad.”

Winter view of almost the same spot as the above picture.

Winter view of almost the same spot. Note the side mirror in the picture…no way I was leaving the car for this one!

Maybe this is a Midwest thing. Maybe we’re so used to the extremes in weather that we just accept them. We complain about them, but we accept them. Then when they leave, we enjoy the new season. I know that some people love living in places where it’s warm all of the time, and I can definitely understand that. However, a big part of me thinks that the change of seasons is a gift. Right about the time I’m sick to death of hot weather and think I won’t be able to stand walking from a nice, air-conditioned house into the near-jungle humidity that is the Midwest summer, fall hits and cooler temperatures bring a sweet relief. When winter drags on and the darkness feels oppressive and the gray colors drab and I think I’ll be able to double-wrap my house in all of the crocheted items I’ve been creating all season to medicate my winter brain, spring comes, and I forget about winter.

One of those crocheted items I created to keep my fingers from freezing in the winter weather.

One of those crocheted items I created to keep my fingers from freezing in the winter weather. Yes, I may be showing off just a little.

Two weeks after I graduated from college, I moved to Ukraine. I spent the next five years there. The first winter dragged on for me. Weather that winter was colder and icier than any of the subsequent four I spent there. I lived alone, and, even though I had a job and spent most of the day doing it, I had lots of long, dark, quiet evenings full of reading and watching ten-year-old reruns of Santa Barbara. When spring hit, I learned two things:

1.  If you are the first to stop bundling up and start wearing regular clothes in public, everyone thinks you lost weight over the winter.

2.  When you survive something that was difficult and long, you remember it, but you also sorta forget it.

That spring, my friend and I were talking about whether we’d ever get married and lamenting the singleness that was our life at the time. I remember saying, “It’ll happen someday if it’s supposed to, and when it does the single times will be like last winter. We’ll remember them, but when the spring comes, they’ll seem like the distant past!” That goes for more than just singleness (and, let’s face it, some seasons of married life make the winter of my singleness look pretty good!). I’ve found that to be true for the Winter of My Children’s Babyhoods, and the Winter of Difficult Job Situations, and the Winter of Stressful Family Times. When those times subside and the spring hits, the intense emotions of the winter fade. Just as the pain of childbirth seems less after the baby is born (well, so we mothers claim!), the cold of winter and the pain of difficult times lessen when spring or resolution hit.

The gravel road leading to the college did get a little snowy. At least it kept the dust in place!

The gravel road leading to the college did get a little snowy. At least it kept the dust in place!

Don’t get me wrong here. I’m not saying that surviving hard times doesn’t require work. Sometimes getting through the winter requires resourcefulness, ingenuity, and downright toil! When the bulk of the work is done, though, and the light of spring starts to show through the cloudy, gray winter, and when the moment comes when I can stop and look out the window and finally take a deep breath, I realize I don’t remember winter the way I thought I would.

Ahhh! Spring has arrived!

Ahhh! Spring has arrived!

I write this because I need a reminder to enjoy today while I have it and not to stress out over the difficult things. I write this as a reminder to myself that if I focus on what’s good today, someday the bad things will seem like one of those distant winter memories. “Eh, it’s not so bad after all.” I write this so that this summer, when it’s 110 degrees and spending even three minutes outside threatens to turn me into a burnt ember, I will remember that soon all of the heat will be a memory, and the cool temperatures will rescue me!