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Kids

Little JoJo in the jungle: a tale of survival

December 8, 2017

My oldest daughter – my JoJo – is the second coming of both my face and my fits. And she is struggling to find her place among the elementary elite.

It started when … well it started getting really bad with the arrival of a solution to an 8-year-old dilemma, the Nipit. The Nipit is a genius product my mom discovered through the power of Amazon that’s worn on the elbow and prevents a child from bending their arm enough to get their respective digits to their mouth to suck. While it lacks in discretion – it’s bright, primary colors with loud velcro straps – holy heck it works. I’ve seen my girl with her fingers in her mouth once in the last three months. For a girl who was getting her suck on in the womb, that is nothing short of miraculous.

But, as is the case with most red and blue arm braces, it didn’t take long for the kids at school to take note. It’s different, which means she’s different, which means she’s “weird”, which means she has a giant red target right in the center of her tiny little back. Thus, the bullying began.

I’ve thought about this a lot in the last few weeks, and I’ve come to some clarity. I think the issue is, when we look into our child’s eyes, we see someone different. We see an unborn baby that got hiccups every night during our 9 o’clock show. We see the little human who turned everything upside down in the best, scariest way possible, and made us a mother or a father. We see a toddler whose hair grew in from the back forward and stuck straight up while she watched cartoons on lazy weekend mornings. We see her first birthday and her tricycle. We hear the crinkle of her diaper between thick, wobbly legs coming down the hall and her first words … “dada” of course.

When I look at my daughter, I feel her letting go of my hand on the first day of preschool and her pleading eyes when big change came. I feel cuddles from the best spooner on the planet and hear her telling me, at 4, that she was heading off to college just like Steve from Blue’s Clues. I hear her laugh. I see her crooked, gappy smile and pure, well-intentioned heart. I see a thousand tiny little pieces of myself, with her daddy’s build, walking out the door every single morning.

But that’s what I see. And I am her mother.

What kids see is another little second grader in a sea of 7, 8, 9 year olds, crowding the playground and trying not to do anything odd enough to get noticed. They don’t find her to be special in any of the ways that really count. They aren’t looking for that. They’re looking for different. They’re looking for a crack, an opening. They’re waiting for her to get comfortable enough that she shows something they view as a weakness or an eccentricity. If it lends itself to a nickname or a chant, all the better.

When the tiny opening presents itself, they put their toe in first, maybe a snide comment or whisper to a friend. Then they put in their leg, then torso, and eventually their whole body busts down that door, lashing out with hateful, belittling words that feel so good to them, so empowering. Because kids know no consequence. They know instant gratification and survival of the shittiest. It’s jungle rules out there and everyone is potential prey.

In his book, “Born to Run: A Hidden Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Ever Seen”, Christopher McDougall wrote: “Every morning in Africa, a gazelle wakes up, it knows it must outrun the fastest lion or it will be killed. Every morning in Africa, a lion wakes up. It knows it must run faster than the slowest gazelle, or it will starve. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the lion or a gazelle. When the sun comes up, you’d better be running.”

I send my little girl out the door every morning as this special ball of memories and potential, and the second she steps off the porch she’s reduced to bait. And do I blame the kids being unkind? Hell no! They’re just relieved they aren’t the girl with the brace on her elbow. And I totally get it.

Because no one wants to be that girl. Growing up, I had spacey, jagged teeth and a swoopy, horrible set of bangs for a good few years. I had girls pass notes to my BFFs saying they shouldn’t play with me anymore. I had days where I curled up in my mom’s arms, as she rubbed my back in her mustard yellow fabric covered rocking chair with the melodic squeak. Ask any adult and they can name their bully. If they can’t, they were the bully. It’s a rite of passage in some ways. Unfortunately. Stupidly.

It all came to a head recently, as one particular girl turned up the torment on my babe. We’ll call her Delores for the sake of anonymity and movie trivia. Delores has a girl gang. They think JoJo’s a big baby for sucking her fingers (predictable, easy), and they make sure she knows it on a daily basis. We’d been doing the usual coaching behind the scenes … Don’t fight hate with hate … The meaner they are, the kinder you should be … If you feel sad, tell a teacher … Just ignore her … Maybe she was having a bad day or she’s sad about something. Nevertheless, it persisted.

It persisted until earlier this week when JoJo decided to express herself about it. In a drawing. On the back of her homework. Where she’s throwing a bat at Delores’ head. And it’s labeled “JoJo’ and “Delores”. Needless to say, her teacher wasn’t thrilled.

Spike was waiting by the door for me that evening. “Mom, I’m not going to tell you what’s going on, but I will tell you that JoJo got in trouble and she has to go see the counselor tomorrow and if the counselor wants to, she can send JoJo to the principal’s office.” I walked into the living room to find my little criminal, sitting on the couch, red streaks from old tears subtle on her pale cheeks.

“You’ve taken a situation where someone was bullying you,” I explained, “and turned it around so that you are now the one doing the bullying. Do you see why this is wrong?” She nodded, her bottom lip curving down like a fat, grumpy fist in an animated feature. JoJo is certainly my creative chick, and this devilish doodle was, I’m certain, just a way for her to express her frustration, but regardless, it’s not how we roll.

Her teacher referred her to the school counselor, which, to be honest, I was a little relieved about. Finally! A professional can step in here! Somebody equipped with a degree and Inside Out dolls.

The day she was scheduled to meet with the counselor, JoJo was pacing the kitchen, whining. “I don’t want to go to the counselor’s office, Mama. I’m scared. What if I get in trouble?” I challenged her to be brave, and to be honest. I challenged her to step up to all the feelings of anger and sadness and loneliness she’s been feeling and share them with a grownup who could help. (And who she’d listen to more than her own mother.)

And then, I watched her step off the porch and go back out into that dark, vast jungle. Exposed and vulnerable and wearing her Nipit like a juicy, raw steak around her neck on the grasslands. A giant piece of my heart went right onto the bus with her and drove away.

I thought about her all day. I waited for the phone to ring. Maybe the principal would call and say she was suspended for the drawing. A black blemish on her spotless record. Maybe the counselor would call and tell me what a bad mother I was for waiting so long to alert them to the situation. Maybe her emotions would swallow her whole and I’d have to come get her.

But the phone never rang, and soon it was 5 o’clock.

I can always read the general temperature of our household within seconds. When something is wrong with one of the kiddos, it’s like walking into a room carrying balloons and a birthday cake after everyone else was just told someone died. So on this day, I was very tentative coming in from the garage.

“Hi, Mama!” JoJo greeted me. My whole body unclenched.
“Hi, JoJo!”
“Mom, I met with the counselor today and it was great. I didn’t get in trouble for the drawing and she told me I should tell Delores that what she’s doing is hurting my feelings.”
“Right. That’s great, JoJo!”
“Yeah, I feel so much better! Can I call Dad and tell him?”
“Of course.”

And just like that, progress. A touch of healing for a wounded little soul. She would live to roam the prairie another day.

I, of course, immediately sat down to type a teary note of appreciation to the school counselor, positive she had no clue how thankful I was for her 5-minute pep talk with my daughter. Positive I was being a little over emotional and positive I didn’t care a lick.

And the rest of this week has been better, though I know it’s not the last we’ll hear of Delores and her girl gang. The oldest child is such an experiment. They bring this stuff home to you, and you never know whether they’re being transparent or dramatic. You don’t know what’s normal and what’s a five-alarm fire. All you have to go on is your instinct and your own experiences as a child. (I mean, aren’t we all just projecting our childhood onto our own kids anyway?)

You just want to scream from the top of the school gymnasium, [in the voice of an Indian chief] “This is my daughter, JoJo! She is strong and funny and would be a really great friend! I am proud of her! And if you screw with her, I will squash your milk carton in your tiny horrible face.” But that’s not considered acceptable grownup behavior.

It will always be hard to hear. I’m the one who carries her stories, and because of that, I know what a treasure she is. I have the backstory. I’m invested, mostly because I grew her.

I’m the one who knows she called penguins “herbies” for years, even though everyone thought she was saying “herpes”. I’m the one who put her hair in long, flowing pigtails and cut the feet out of her penguin jammies so she could wear them a few months longer. I am in this thing for the long haul.

And I could sell her good points like popsicles on the Fourth of July. She likes to climb really tricky trees and eat Nutella straight from the jar and she can sing every word to every song from Descendents 2. She dabs like a boss. She’s a talented artist and can turn any strawberry into a rose too beautiful to eat. She always wears two layers of clothing, even in the summer, and changes into her pajamas within an hour of getting home from school. She did hygge before hygge was a thing. I mean, who wouldn’t want to be friends with that girl?

There aren’t a lot of choices here. She has to keep going to school and I have to keep watching her step off our porch, bait though she may be. I can’t change the dichotomy of children, the hunters and the hunted. I can’t make my daughter’s skin thicker, no matter what I feed her at home. The only thing I can do is rock her when she wants me to and keep track of her stories, so she always has someone to remind her just how special she is. Someone who’s invested. Someone who isn’t going anywhere. Someone who, after all the deep lessons have been offered and her worries put to rest, will turn away from tiny ears and say the thing that everyone really wants to say.

“Ah, screw Delores!”

JoJo Just Said, So Says Sloppy Joan, Spike Speak

Sisters say what? (Vol. 6)

November 15, 2017

These sister sayings have been piling up in the notes app on my phone and it was time for a massive dump. In recent months, Sloppy Joan has started calling babies “hunnies” (which is super cute when we see baby bunnies) and Spike has become obsessed with all things private parts and Mother Nature. From our house, to yours … Enjoy!

He’s Indian. No, like his DNA is Indian. – JoJo

I’m gonna volcano in your tub! – Sloppy Joan
You’re gonna what?
Volcano, mama! In there!
You mean cannonball?
Yeah!

Shakin sisters from Courtney Leach on Vimeo.

I jugged that whole water so hard. – Spike

You know when I was little, I thought a plank was like a diving board, but now I know it’s like a pirate thing. – Spike

It said “B-I-T-C-H, please” in that wooden ship on the playground. So, “bitch, please”. – Spike

[Doing Zumba]
“Whoa, what does sexy mean , anyway?” – JoJo
“Um …”
“Is it a kind of dancing or exercise?”
“No! Don’t go to school and tell you friends we did sexy last night.”

“I’m going to miss being 5, but I think I can get through it.” – Spike

I like the pink shorties [underwear] but not the kitty shorties, because the kitty shorties are flaking and get into my butt. – Spike

What are those things called … chicas? – Spike
They’re called boobs. – her cousin

She probably didn’t recognize you because you have glasses now. – Hank
Yeah, maybe. But I have the same face and skin. – Spike

I know what that thing is – Spike
What thing? – Hank
That thing that you and Ryan have.
Oh?
It’s called a penis.
Really?
Yes, boys have a penis and girls have a private.
Actually, do you know what a woman’s private is called?
What?
It’s called a vagina.
Ew.

I don’t like jeans. – Spike
No? Why? – Hank
You know how sometimes your butt has like a crack in it? Like there’s a bump and then a crack?
Uh. Huh.
Well, the jeans get into that crack. That’s why I don’t like jeans.

Dad, I pooped in my underwear upstairs. Why don’t you check it out. – Sloppy Joan

G’night Sugar Lips! – Sloppy Joan

Diarrhea from Courtney Leach on Vimeo.

“What are those bras called?” – Spike
“What honey?” – Hank
“You know, the bras.”
“Um, there-a, well,”
“The hairs that hang in your face.”
“Oh, bangs! Bangs! You mean bangs.”

It’s a dob bobblin … I mean a sob dobblin … I mean a nob shobblin – Spike
It was a hob gobblin – Hank

You know how you get a tickle in your throat? Well, I do not like to be tickled in my mouth. – Spike

Jack, you’re going to love the lake. They make the best watermelon there. – Spike

I saw firebees! – Sloppy Joan, chasing lightning bugs

Do you pick one out or you just have one come out? – Spike asking about babies

Oh, her name is Mary Berry? I thought it was madame Blueberry – JoJo

I was drawing on the sidechalk – Sloppy Joan

Owls are nocturtle – Spike

What do you want to eat? – Me
I want something that’s like too bad for night and too good for the day. Like not too treaty but not too dinnery. – Spike

Hey! Sloppy Joan has something to say! All you hunnies get off my mom! – Sloppy Joan

Do we have bath-is tonight, or no or yes? – Sloppy Joan, every night at dinner

Oop! I’m sorry – Spike
For what? – Me
I’m sorry I … kicked you, you know … in the penis.
Honey, I don’t have a penis.

They’re building it with an instruction truck. – Spike

Mom, you know the best part about dying? You turn into angel after you dust. – Spike

Mama, is it fun to be enormous? – Sloppy Joan

Don’t you dare look back from Courtney Leach on Vimeo.

I decided I like being more brown because Pocahontas was pretty brown. – Spike

When I like to learn about nature is when it’s beautiful. When it’s not pretty, I don’t really care to learn about it. – Spike

She leaned back and kissed the bologna star, I mean the Blarney stone. And then the leprechauns came and they started making messes. – Spike

Jimmy said I don’t matter and I said you don’t care about God’s creation. – Spike

I have a friend and their grandma is 100! Yeah, I think she knew Jesus. – Spike

I stronging! – Sloppy Joan, lifting weights

Damn it, I left my coat at the farm! – JoJo, makin’ mama proud

Oh. My. Gosh. from Courtney Leach on Vimeo.

See: Sisters say what? (Vol. 5) and Sisters say what? (Vol. 4)

Wellness

Livin la Vida Vegan Day 13 (cheese heaven and carbonara crap)

September 29, 2017

Despite our temporary vegan insanity, somehow, miraculously, the world in our house keeps turning. For instance, all the chicks have a cough, Spike lost her second tooth yesterday and, perhaps most notable, the pen pal saga continues. I thought we were past it, but then I got this in my notebook from JoJo this morning:

Dear Mom,
I Don’t know why But I still Don’t want you and Spikey to Be Pen pals. I mean Spike still eats her snot And sneaks food and never is around to Play. She even punched you once and she fuses a lot!!!!!!!

Secret: I can Do a Back Pull over!!!! What do you think? Hey mayBe we should start sending secrets right?

Love,
JoJo

How to heal this wound? How … how … how? These are the special things you run into as a mother and just smile up at the heavens for placing such adorable dilemmas in your lap.

Then you have Spike, whose note simply read:

Dear mom,
Do you know that ALL are LOVE is Like Coming in My Haret more LOVE and More LOVE Thank you for ALL the ClEning Up DOn AFter the [SOMETHING]. Thank you for you anD DAD

That girl has a very special soul. They all do. I cherish the gift of peering into their little hearts. And then you have Sloppy Joan, who stood in nothing but her Pull Up at 6:30 this morning screaming at Spike, who was perched on the pot, “I–have–to–POOP!!!!!” She, too, is a delicate flower. Perhaps the most delicate of the whole bouquet.

7:30 a.m.
Don’t fall over, but I managed to leave the crack creamer out of my coffee this morning, saving myself 6g of sug. I added only a splash of cashew milk. I felt very grownup about the whole thing. Again, working to get my sugar (satan’s juice) stats down, I left the banana out of my smoothie this morning as well, opting simply for: 1.5 teaspoons spirulina, a handful of spinach, turmeric, 1 scoop chocolate protein powder, 1 teaspoon hemp seeds, cinnamon, 1 tablespoon plain coconut yogurt and cashew milk. It was tasty. Turquoise and tasty.

I’m trying to pound the water today in preparation for the race Saturday. It’s go-time for hydration. Do you guys follow Heidi Powell at all? She’s Chris Powell’s wife (Extreme Transformation), and she offers up some really helpful fitness and nutrition tips here and there. Anyway, I read this post on her blog … or maybe it was a caption on Instagram … that suggested taking 10 gulps of water every time you bring it to your lips. It helps you hit your fluid goals a little easier. I even say, “chug, chug, chug,” to myself in my head while I do it, so I feel like a girl of 19 again.

Noon
Ohhhhhhhh, you guys. I did something really bad that was so, so good at lunch today. I couldn’t do a salad today. I just couldn’t. It’s a little cool here and I found myself craving a grilled cheese sandwich. Now, I’ve had several of you mention that you aren’t necessarily interested in a vegan lifestyle, but you are going dairy free. Well, you are going to be happy you opened this post today.

I have found THE CHEESE. It’s the Chao Original Creamy dairy free cheese and it is freaking outstanding. True to its name, it’s so creamy and indulgent, making it both a miracle and the birth of a very dangerous union.

For today’s episode of “I shouldn’t have, but I did” I took two pieces of sugar-free whole wheat bread, put vegan shortening on one side and kite hill cream cheese on the other side of just one of the slices. I then added a slice of heaven (the Chao) and a generous handful of spinach. I was drunk on sodium and thoughts of the dairy of yesteryear and it was all just too perfect. I nearly ate the whole damn thing before I snapped a picture. My hand was in serious danger here.

Sensing my mistake (that I’ll never apologize for), I panicked and threw some things in a blender a la Rich Roll to try and right the wrong. I grabbed a cup of kale, a small cooked beet (mistake), ¼ cup blueberries, one chuck frozen mango, 2 tablespoons coconut yogurt (plain), ½ cup coconut water, and 1 tablespoon chia and flax mix with cocoa and coconut. It was … earthy, which is a common term around here these days. It was like licking an entire garden.

The whole thing tallied up to 755 calories, so dinner will be lettuce wraps, with lettuce filling and water sauce. I make the BEST water sauce.

5:30 p.m.
Opened these. Had a mouthgasm.

6:30 p.m.
Vegan Tempeh Carbonara. What we have here, folks, is a common case of something looking, smelling and operating under the facade of something delicious, when in fact, it is not quite … good. I should preface this by saying that I don’t like pasta IRL. I am not the person who goes face first into a giant plate of spaghetti or has a sauce recipe to hand down to my children.

Nope, I like my mom’s lasagna, my friend Nissa’s manicotti and other than that, I’m good without the stuff. So, vegan pasta didn’t really stand much of a chance.

I used edamame pasta from Costco, which might be good with stir fried veggies or something, and my new best enemy flax tempeh, and followed the recipe other than that. The first bite was promising, but much like last night, it got worse as it sat. The cashew cheese sauce had a nice flavor but the consistency totally grossed me out once I took it off the stove. I’m beginning to think that the vegan community paid the Pinterest and cookbook communities a ton of cash for some false advertising and I’m buying it up like a housewife at Tuesday Morning. I feel duped.

I did have some killer white nectarines for dessert. Thank you, fruit, for always being true to your breed. Apples taste like apples, peaches like peaches, watermelon like watermelon, berries like berries … At least a gal stumbling through a vegan no man’s land can count on something.

P.s. Hank just told me there’s Parmesan in pesto, and I put that on our sandwiches this weekend, so this whole thing just became a giant lie and I feel the need to confess to you, 300 people who are invested, because I am just as big of a fraud as those bait-and-switch images on Pinterest.

7:30 p.m.
This also happened today. I’m thinkin’ I’m into it.

Just one day to go! Viva la Vida Vegan, baby!

Wellness

Livin la Vida Vegan Day 11 (pissy pants and sizzling seitan)

September 27, 2017

I need to take a pause from the vegan diet updates for just a sec to talk about something very troubling. It’s pee. Piss. Urine. Golden streams. Or yellow puddles. In my regular routine, I come into contact with pee – not my own – no less than three times a week. Whether it’s my kid, or another kid, or a dog or a frog, there is a No. 1 situation flowing right through my day, at some point in my day, every day.

It’s like running a kennel for special puppies with small bladders. Yesterday, when I got home from work, JoJo’s sheets were in the laundry room. One of the kiddos who comes to our house during the day had an accident during nap. It happens. I’ve resigned myself to the fact that we basically live in a giant urinal. Well, my eldest was having nothing to do with it. She funneled her fury – which was only further fueled by her discovery that Spike and I might also start a pen pal exchange, similar to the one JoJo and I have – into a very strongly worded letter.

It read as follows:

Dear Mom,
Tomorrow I’m giving MeeMee (the sitter) a piece of my mind about my bed!!! I’m ganna say that no more kids in my room and no kids sleeping in there! And you and Spikey canot be pen pals! Focus on you and my Because I’d crie to my death.

[Illustration of JoJo with a happy heart (“Mom and JoJo pen pals”) and then a messy stick figure with the caption “me cring. heart Broken.” just below that.]

Love, JoJo

But oh how the mighty do fall. At 4 o’clock this morning, I woke to the gentle whispers of our oldest daughter, confessing that she herself had an accident on our floor. Why she was on our floor, right next to the hairy, nasty dog bed, and not in her sister’s cozy queen size bed? I don’t know. I never know. This is an every night thing in our house. Does anyone else know?

Hank threw a towel over it, cleaned her up and moved both her and Spike (who was spooned up next to her on the ground) back down the hall so we could go “back to sleep”. Of course, we’re never really back to sleep, are we? Parents. Anything past the REM cycle is considered a luxury at this point in life. Right up there with solo time on the toilet and sitting. I guess that’s just what this chapter looks like … tired souls with urine on their hands.

7:30 a.m.
I put a full teaspoon of spirulina into my smoothie today, and backed down a bit on the powdered peanut butter, which has more sugar than I’d like. The algae flavor was slightly more noticeable, but not enough to tickle the ole gag reflex, so on we go. I’m thinking phase 2 is cutting the creamer from my coffee. It’s a liquid sugar bomb, and it’s got too tight of a hold on my heart.

I had a text from my bud Ryan:

I mean it’s not hard, because that’s really what this is. It’s totally doable, but also an insane life choice that’s making everything ten thousand times harder. It’s natural and against my human nature. It feels healing and like all my weaknesses are exposed. It’s funny because it’s really just food, but the change is making me a bit of a kook. And kooky people are freaking hilarious.

Noon
Earth Fare run for seitan and tempeh at lunch. There’s a sentence I never thought I’d type.

I came home to throw together a taco salad with my leftovers, but something was wrong. Terribly wrong. There, on the counter in the kitchen, sat a box with a dozen cookies from my favorite local bakery. Come inside my sick mind for a sec, k …

“What … the truck … is that? Why are those there? Who put those there? Is someone messing with me. Someone’s messing with me. Is there a camera in here? Who would do this? What kind of sick, twisted person would do this?! [Find card.] The car dealership?! Why in the hell is the car dealership sending us cookies?! It was a gosh dang trade in for crying out loud! Those bastards. Those car-selling bastards, with their sweet treats and good customer service. OK, I’m just going to lift the lid. [Lift lid, stick nose into sugar cloud. Close eyes.] Oh, shit. Alright, what’s my end game here? Should I throw them away? Just throw them away. My God, you can’t throw these away! You’ll be arrested. I’m a grownup, just set them out for the kids. But they won’t appreciate them the way I would. Maybe we can freeze them. Yeah, I’ll freeze them. We’ll just pull out our favorites and freeze those, give the rest to the kids. But I love them all. I’m going to put them down in this cabinet until Hank gets home. He’ll know what to do.”

And then I put the box of cookies down low, behind my slow cooker, and walked away; unable to discard them and unable to give them up. This, brothers and sisters, is how you know you are ill.

I assembled my salad: leftover taco “meat”, guacamole, crushed up tortilla chips, a dollop of coconut yogurt and salsa. It was bomb. I stood, leaning against the cabinet door where my cookies were sleeping and enjoyed every single bite.

“Goodnight, sweet cookies. I’ll see you again soon.” I whispered.

3 p.m.
What I really want is chocolate and popcorn, so what I’m having is the rest of my suja organic ginger kombucha. Really hoping that quenches the craving.

6 p.m.
Made it! Tonight, we’re cookin’ up some Crispy Orange Seitan from the Vegan for Everybody cookbook. Oh my gosh … you don’t know what seitan is? How do you not know what seitan is, you silly, carnivorous fool. Psych! I don’t know what the hell it is, either. And I looked at the ingredients, so that makes it extra scary. From what I gathered, it’s like globs of gluten or something? They call it “wheat meat”. So there ya go.

The toughest thing about these recipes is making sure you have all of the ingredients on hand. “It looks like you emptied out your cabinets,” our sitter said, as she watched me assemble the handfuls of sauce components. But once I had it all in there, this one came together pretty fast. The nice thing about cooking with these fake meats – tempeh, tofu, seitan, veggie crumbles – is they cook up fast as Rizzo. It’s a big time saver.

I used bagged cauli rice from Costco for a side, along with some peanut butter + celery courtesy of my sous chefs and chopped up plum, mango and blueberries for dessert. (I’d like for it to be known that I did NOT have a cookie tonight.)

This was pretty darn good, I gotta say. The cauliflower needed a little more flavoring, but the seitan was a pleasant surprise, as seitans go. Hank dubbed it “fine” which, if you speak Hank, you know translates to, “not exceptional, but good”. I would make it again.

This is my 6-year-old on seitan:

7:30 p.m.
I knocked out my last training run before the race Saturday; A snail-like 3 miles with lots of sweat. I notice on this diet, I don’t cramp as much and I can steady my breath a little easier during the run. Could be the training or it could be some vegan magic. Either way, by the time I was done, I knew my body needed something. I slammed a handful of walnuts, dried blueberries and pumpkin seeds.

JoJo was waiting for me at the top of the stairs. She found the notebook I gave Spike so we, too, could be pen pals. She told me I broke her heart. That she wanted to be special. That Spikey could never write messages as special as hers would be. It felt like the emotional climax of a Nicholas Sparks novel. I think I got her down off the ledge enough to sleep tonight, but we’ll see. There could be tears. Or pee. Maybe pee.

Kids

My village people

May 25, 2017

Spike was mumbling the words to “You’re Welcome,” which we were listening to for the second time that morning, staring at the car’s shadow on the road below and running her tiny pointer finger over her thin top lip. She always stops trying when Maui raps. I turned down the radio for my usual morning hype sesh.

“Oh man, babe … How ya feelin’ about the field trip today? The zoo is the best. You’re going to have so much fun!”

She whipped her head in my direction and said, “Yeah, did you know that of all the kids in the class there are only two moms who aren’t going?” (I knew one of them was me.)

She wasn’t being deliberately hostile. She wasn’t. She was just using her little innocent mouth to lay out the facts for me on a shitty mom platter. This would be breakfast today.

“Gosh, hon. I didn’t know that.”

“Yeah, you and Jack’s mom.” (Who is a friend of mine.)

“Oh.”

“Yeah, Ms. Kylene’s going to let us be her partner since you won’t be there.”

“Well, that’s special!”

“Yeah, it is.”

Her eyes went back to the shadow. There would be no more talk of this topic for now.

It was that she said it, don’t get me wrong. But more than that, it was the way it lingered … like a pregnancy fart in a sauna. The way the “only” just hung out there so harshly, so ruthlessly, and then it latched on mercilessly to the “mom” and the two words gripped and clawed at each other in the front of my brain.

A played out Chainsmokers song picked up where the Moana soundtrack left off. My heart was drowning in my brutal interpretation of the situation …

You are the only mom not going. The only one who sucks … In a class of 12 kids, there are 10 good moms, one other mom, and you … If good moms and bad moms played Red Rover, you’d be the only one they could send over … Other moms make animal faces on their kids’ sandwiches using grapes and basil leaves. And then there’s you … You let me down.

I couldn’t adjust my schedule and make it happen. It was one of many, many times my cape was at the cleaners and I just couldn’t pull it off. And I hate that. Don’t you hate that? I would be missing – a noticeable gaping hole – in the standard group shot in front of the ZOO sign. I wouldn’t be on the log ride or there to help little people poke the straw through their juice boxes.

And the more I thought about the juice boxes and the group shot and the stupid log ride, the more I really started to go there. You know where … That dark place where jealousy infects your character with toxic judgements and ridicule. I thought of all the mothers in their perfect boyfriend jeans and trendy sweaters pointing out the orangutan baby to my child. I thought about all the embarrassing stories she would tell, and how I wouldn’t be there to laugh awkwardly and explain them. And I thought about how there would be this depressing white space in her preschool scrapbook where her own mother’s face should be. And down and down and down I went.

We pulled in and I held her hand to cross the parking lot. I love holding her hand. Her sweet, phenomenal teacher took the torch from my weakened grip and started hyping Spikey up for the big day. I needed to tap out anyway, obviously.

“Are you excited?” she asked. Spike nodded, shyly. “I can’t wait to be your partner,” her teacher added.

I smiled, squeezed my little bug, wished her the very best of special days, and walked out, feeling heavy as hell.

Every mother who has ever written on or for any platform or publication has covered this topic to an exhausting degree. In fact, you probably aren’t even reading this because you didn’t make it this far in. Same shit, different laxative, right? But people talk about it so much because it’s such a chronic pain. We work so that we can afford to pay a babysitter so that we can go to work. It’s a gross, sad ferris wheel, where all the riders are screaming and crying their heads off on the inside, but they can’t get off. Because if you get off, they might not let you back on when it’s more convenient for you to ride.

That said, I love my job. I’m not even lying. I do. I love it. I’m one of the fortunate people who only cries and screams on the inside on occasion, and usually Mondays. I get to write about topics that typically interest me and often help people and interview amazing people and I’m hyper cognizant of the fact that I’m lucky to get paid to do that. But with that comes the restrictive straight jacket known as the 8-to-5. (Remember the good ole’ days when it was 9-to-5?) It breeds anxiety for mothers and sets the stage for disappointment at almost every turn. Most days I’ve failed before my feet hit the floor.

Now, I know it might look like it, but this is not an argument about whether SAHMs or MOPS or working moms (who have no acronym) have it worse. I’m not dumb enough to take on that debate because there is no winner. In fact, when we argue about such extraneous crap, we all lose. It doesn’t need to be said here, but I’ll put it down just so we’re all 1000% on the same page: Being a mom from any location, in any conditions or in conjunction with any occupational obligations is a bitch. A beautiful, messy bitch that we’re all thankful for every day. Not like every minute of every day, but every day.

So, it wasn’t a shiny moment for me that morning in the car (in my head). And I said to myself, “No, Courtney. No. You will stop drinking the Hate-orade and quit being a chump right this second.” And I did. But it wasn’t until later, after Spikey shared how special her day was and how special everyone made her feel, that the real deep stuff set in. That I was able to sift through the litter box and find the golden turds of wisdom in the situation.

My family is my tribe. But the mass of other people – this vibrant collage of compassionate souls and patient beings – is my village. And I couldn’t mother without the village. Sometimes it’s hard for me to ask for help. And sometimes I resent needing that help, but I do. And sometimes help just shows up, in my friends and my family, and sometimes in people I don’t know that well. And that’s kind of really beautiful actually.

The people in my village pick up where I hit my limitations, where I run out of time, and where I fall short. They hide in the houses and schools and stores I pass through like a wild tornado every day, jumping in when I have to step out. I couldn’t possibly name them all or acknowledge them all, but when I really stop and think about it, they are everywhere in force. My village is big, and it’s kind.

My village has Kay, who potty trained and taught the girls to go down stairs when they were 1 and instilled faith. It has Aimee, who teaches them to read and be modest, and Ms. Kylene who calls them “love bugs” and makes them feel special on the days they otherwise wouldn’t, and Mrs Hurley who shares her own stories of finger sucking so my daughter doesn’t feel like a freak, and Coach Kasey who made Spikey take that unforgettable shot. My neighbors in my village are these gentle souls who let my kids talk their ears off while they wash their cars and who bring over cookies and don’t say a word about the fact our smoke alarm is going off. My village is centered around courageous, selfless women – my mom, my mother-in-law, my sisters, my girlfriends – with a few fellas peppered in.

But it’s even bigger than that. There are strangers in my village who stop by but don’t stay. They pass out smiles and warm gestures that restore my hope when I fear for the state of humanity. They bend down and say sweet things to my girls in the store. They listen to my first grader read and they put the straw in my daughter’s juice box when her mommy has to work.

Listen, sometimes it gets hairy, this mothering thing. There are meetings that can’t be moved and rain dates that crap on good intentions and, to be honest, sometimes there are just days when the best thing you can do for your kids is be away from them. But don’t let all this bologna send you to that dark place. Don’t do it. Look to your village, instead. Leverage your village. Love your village. Express gratitude for your village.

Your tribe will be the better for it.

Some Kinda Superwoman

Some kinda Superwoman: Kirsten

March 31, 2017

Almost 15 years have passed, but I can still call back the moment I held my first niece, all big-eyed and unassuming. It was the first time I felt comfortable holding a baby. Like, my brain and my body just knew she belonged to me in some small but important way. I remember thinking our family would never be the same, which turned out to be true. Our dynamic shifted on that day. My parents became grandparents, I became an aunt, my brother an uncle and so on. But moreso, the light that had, to that point, shined down on me and my siblings dimmed on our faces on that rainy August day and illuminated this fresh little soul, instead. We had a new axis. And I didn’t care one bit, which is rare for a baby-of-the-family type like myself. I was happy to step aside and let this tiny love nugget soak up all the attention that she so deserved and earned by being offensively adorable and blowing the most endearing spit bubbles.

A few years later, my sister told me she was pregnant again, and just after Christmas, she gave me my second niece. Then a few years later, my third niece. Then we were pregnant together and neither of us found out what we were having, and wouldn’t you know, spring brought a pair of chicks; one for each of us. Then, she got pregnant about four years after that and it was, you guessed it, another girl. At this point, it’s starting to get crazy, right? Well, unbeknownst to any of us, including my sister, she wasn’t quite done. In a surprise turn of events, this past fall Kirsten welcomed her sixth little bambina.

They’re beautiful, each of them. My sister’s husband is Mexican and Kirsten is tall, pale and blonde, so it’s a fun little genetics recipe to play with. Some are blessed with the beautiful olive tone and big brown eyes that will just straight up level you, Disney princess style, and others get to be curly towheads with our family’s signature blinding white complexion. The teams currently stand at Brownies: 2, Blondies: 3, TBD/Mashup: 1.

Sometimes I forget just how sensational my sister’s harem is. And then I have a moment of drowning in my own personal kiddie pool (by comparison) of estrogen. Three girls is a lot of emotion, I tell people. We’re never short on tears, drama or clogged toilets. And then I think about doubling down. I think about that feeling when you finish a half marathon and no way, ever, would you consider turning around and doing it again. But that’s my sister’s life. When I tap out and take my melatonin at 9, whipped and tattered from 13.1 miles complete, my sister is a short highway drive away, winding down from a full 26.2. She is a hardcore, badass marathon mama.

It earns her a bit of grace, I’d say. But she’s built for it. She’s my opposite in most every way. She knows when to just roll around in the sea of torn wrapping paper rather than frantically scoop it up and risk missing the moment. And that, I’d say, makes all the difference. Dancing rather than disinfecting. Laughing rather than laundry. It can all wait, and it will. I mean, the mess is multiplying by six at her house as we speak. But she is the perfect woman, partnered with the perfect man, for bringing a big ole gaggle of gals up right.

The stories that come out of her house are gold, as you might imagine. Someone’s always drawing on someone else’s face with permanent marker or painting themselves from head to toe in Desitin cream. Once a mouse got in the toilet. Her oldest, Olivia, who was much younger at the time, unknowingly sat down to go potty and, upon discovering the rodent clawing and frantically swimming beneath her bottom, screamed, “I pooped a mouse! I pooped a mouse! Mommy, Daddy, I pooped a mouse!” She wouldn’t sit on the can for weeks after that. There are self-administered haircuts that will live on in infamy and scars from sister-on-sister war crimes. But all in all, it’s pretty organized chaos.

People always ask me how she does it, and the truth is, I honestly don’t really know. But like any good journalist, I’m always willing to go straight to the source for you guys. So, settle in for this lovely little testimony from one of my favorite tired, brutiful mothers, who happens to be my big sister.

SOME KINDA SUPERWOMAN: KIRSTEN
– Written by the woman herself

December 26, 2015. I’m brushing my teeth and watching the screen of a digital pregnancy test. I say I’ll never forget it, but does anyone ever really forget those moments? The screen showed a clock flashing, then suddenly a “YES +”. I froze. My heart began to race and I felt hot from the inside out. This was not part of the plan. This was not on the family calendar. I’m ashamed to admit it now, but the reality is that in that moment that was not what I wanted. Two thoughts ran through my mind: First, “What will people think?” and then, “What does this mean for my plans and my dreams?” I had no idea how this surprise would fit into our already crazy family.

But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Let me introduce myself.

I’m the manager of this circus. I’m the one who attempts to hold this show together while delivering an appearance that resembles anything even near the neighborhood of normal. My fearless husband is our ring leader, and, doing various acts and flips and stunts in rings on either side of us, you will find six beautiful, intelligent, strong-willed, persistent, messy, hilarious, challenging little girls. Yes, I know, I know … SIX GIRLS! No, we were not trying for a boy. No, we aren’t Catholic. Each one of these little tyrants can take us from gut-wrenching laughter to the edge of a cliff in a matter of seconds, and to say it’s like a rollercoaster ride would be a laughable understatement.

On any given day, there will be at least one room (usually more) that I walk into and then immediately turn around, walk out, and shut the door. Today that would be Sloan’s (our fifth) and Izzy’s (our third). I truly believe that I would have better luck trying to teach those pigs to fly than I would have keeping this place clean. If you come over, you’re going to stick to my counters. You’re going to find more apple cores around my house than in the pages of a Berenstain Bears book. There’s no guarantee that a little surprise won’t still be lurking in the toilet when you go into our bathrooms. (WHY WON’T THEY FLUSH?!) I’ve also seriously considered just giving up and telling people we run a fruit fly breeding program. I mean we’ve got reproduction down in this neck of the woods. In other words, if you stop by unannounced and miss the very tiny window where I have tidied enough to present my pretend house to planned company, please bring a hazmat suit.

The truth is, whenever anyone asks me how we do it all, my answer is easy … we don’t! Hang around for 20 minutes and you’ll see for yourself.

I am not supermom. Mass chaos is considered the routine. I forget things all the time. I can’t tell you how many rolls of toilet paper we go through because, honestly, it’s too frightening to keep track. I yell. A lot. I go to the grocery store more than the bathroom. And you should see us all in the car. It’s like a clown car, only instead of men-children with their faces painted in freaky patterns, it’s grumpy, needy little gremlins fighting the entire trip over who looked at who first. (Did I mention they all suffer from extreme motion sickness? That’s right. Envy me, people.) Someone always feels left out or let down. Someone is always hungry. Someone always has to pee at the worst possible time. I’d love to tell you I’m Carol Brady reincarnate. I’d love to say that I’m patiently and calmly helping them learn to solve their problems and hug it out, but I’m not. I’m human. I’m reactive. I’m selfish.

This brings me back to the little surprise I mentioned earlier.

Two days after finding out I was pregnant I started bleeding. I wholeheartedly thought I was having a miscarriage. That was such a strange moment. Strange because I was terrified, and strange because just hours before, I’d felt so much uncertainty about what this baby even meant. This was one of those moments when I had to stop and get my poop together. (Yes, I said poop. I’ve adapted to censorship.) I had to start reevaluating what family means. I had to realize what I would be losing in this new adventure (plans, so-called dreams, schedules and calendars) didn’t amount to a hill of beans, as my dad would say, compared to this new little life.

Having a large family is extremely uncomfortable. That’s the honest-to-God truth. Nothing is easy. Nothing ever goes as planned. As I’m writing this, my husband is picking blue slime out of our three-year-old’s hair. We weren’t put on this earth to be comfortable, though. I truly believe we were put here to be challenged. That’s how we change and grow. I know it’s cheesy, but I often think about diamonds and how much pressure it takes to transform them from a nasty lump of coal into something beautiful. Challenges do that. They teach us. They mold us. I pray that when this journey of motherhood slows down, and my little gremlins are grown, I will see that I have helped mold my kids into loving, God-fearing women. I hope to accomplish that for them, but I know they are doing that for me.

We always talk about our responsibilities as parents and how difficult they can be. God help us all, it really is difficult. But what we don’t discuss enough is what we get out of it. Each and every one of my babies has a totally different personality, and each one of them teaches me something different about myself. It’s like being in a fun house and having six images, all different, but all reflecting me. They are my mirrors, pointing out everything beautiful in my life, but also every flaw. Sometimes what I see is hard to swallow, and even harder to accept, but without them I’d never unlock that piece of myself. I wouldn’t challenge myself to keep growing, and keep going.

Everyone tells you that your kids grow up fast. I have a 14-year-old! Trust me, it does go fast. Every day with them is a gift. I won’t pretend for one second that I appreciate this gift the way I should on a daily basis. I won’t pretend that there aren’t times I think, Man, two kids would have been so much easier. What I will say, though, is that I will be eternally grateful for the moments I laid in bed feeling like the biggest failure in the world (and there are a lot of them), because those are the moments that humbled me. The ones that built and are building me. Those are the moments I had to pray for strength and step outside my comfort zone. I can’t quit this gig. I can’t give up. I have to become more. I have to keep pushing myself. The stakes are too high. I have to keep running, knowing each day I’m a little more equipped for the marathon. Eventually, I will get to a finish line and all the inconveniences and all the mistakes made and lessons learned will amount to something so much bigger than me.

When our little surprise baby was three weeks old, she gave her mama another big scare. She came down with a pretty serious infection. What followed were months of uncertainty. Months of stress. Out little seven-pound gift from God once again brought me a reminder: Life is so precious and makes you no promises. When I look at her, the reflection is one of gratitude and appreciation for what God has entrusted to me.

I used to worry about what everyone thought of me. I used to strive for the façade of perfection, or even normalcy. My large family may look like an inconvenient mess to many, but I just don’t care anymore. God knew it would take six girls to get through my thick skull that His purpose is so much bigger than anyone’s opinion. Love is not some beautiful fairytale. Love is hard. Its fabric is flaws and mistakes, discipline and tears. It’s laying in bed at night feeling like you can’t do this anymore only to get up the next day and try again. That’s the gift my large, insane, beautiful family brought me. The gift of love.

Thoughts

Calling a Code Brown

March 23, 2017

Last week, I ran into my sweet new friend in the parking lot at preschool.

“Hey! Did you get a new car?” I asked her.
“No, I got in an accident.”
“Oh my gosh! Why didn’t you say anything?”
“Because I’m not that person. I don’t like to be Debbie Downer.”
“But, I don’t care if you’re Debbie Downer. You got in an accident?”
“I’m just not having a good week. I screamed at the kids yesterday for no reason, and I’m cranky, and …”

I was watching a very familiar ball of yarn – one I personally keep in my nightstand, next to the melatonin and emergency candy bars – unravel.

She’d taken a mental health day from work, she went on to say, because things were just piling up. Between yelling at her boys and being annoyed with her husband and questioning all of those pesky major life questions, she was mentally depleted and in need of a mindless, indulgent Netflix binge. As I stood there, an unforgiving morning wind intruding in our conversation, I listened as this strong woman, who I deeply care for, talked herself down into a hole. It was a ritual I’d practiced myself and with almost all of my girlfriends, my sister, and my own mother. I waited for an opening.

“Listen, I know exactly how you feel. All moms feel that way. We all have those lows and days where we feel totally defeated, and it’s OK! I promise. I was standing with my toes to the edge last week. And now you’re up. We all just take turns.”

I think we can all agree it’s time to call it good on the charade. Being a mom in any capacity on any day that ends in “y” is a crazy occupation. Crazy! Anyone ambitious enough to think they’re going to climb that ladder has another thing comin’. Between the demand and the clients and the hours, mere survival is considered an above par performance on the job. There are two kinds of days: The days you have enough milk for their cereal, and the days you have to go out into the garage and grab a new gallon. The days you catch the bus, and the days you chase it down and get reprimanded by the driver. The days you make it to work without incident and the days you hit the bump and spill coffee down your white button-down blouse sleeve.

I can tell you, within 10 minutes of my children waking, what kind of day lies ahead of me. I can feel it. Like the air before a tornado – Mother Nature’s hot breath. But we don’t show the sweat on our faces, no. We smile and we press on and we push all the shit way down deep because we think it makes us less of a mom or less of a wife or less of a woman if we aren’t acing all the things, all the time. Well, guess what … that’s bullshit.

I always say, God makes ‘em cute so you don’t kill ‘em. In my case, he doubled up just to be sure and made them funny, too.

On one particularly trying morning, I slipped and let the truth serum seep in. When Cheri in my office asked how my morning was, I said, “Oh, I’m fine, thanks, other than the fact that I want to go on strike against my entire family for a few days.” A spark flickered in her eyes. “You know,” she said, like a kid at confession, “once when the kids were little, I told my husband he had to take them and I checked myself into a hotel for the weekend. I just watched TV, did a little shopping, ate.” We laughed like idiots, and I thought about how many other times I should have put out the invitation for other mothers to share their tales from the trenches.

In the parking lot that morning, if I squinted really hard, I could see the little armies waging battle inside my girlfriend. One side was fighting in the name of vulnerability and transparency and saying all of the depressing shit she was really feeling, while the opposition was willing to die on that hill for the sake of smoothing it all over with a laugh and a shrug. I’m familiar with that war, that struggle. How much to share, when to share it, how to sugarcoat it, which parts of the day’s failures I should censor for fear of how it will poison the perception of my otherwise “tidy” life.

We women, we are an efficient bunch. We are anticipatory. We are prepared and organized and concerned. We shoot ourselves in both feet day after day after day by getting everyone up and dressed and fed and out the door. We sign permission slips and send notes about doctor’s appointments and talk to the sitter at length about the quality and quantity of the baby’s bowel movements. We do it because somebody has to do it. But sometimes, being the somebody who does it just chews you up and spits you out.

In holistic nursing, there’s something called a Code Lavender. When the code is called for a caregiver, he or she is given a purple bracelet to wear, signifying they are in emotional distress. People might be a little kinder, a little more understanding, a little quicker to forgive minor oversights. Well, I’d say it’s time for moms to get a code of their own. Code Yellow, maybe? Code Brown? (Signifying we’re in deep shit.) That way, we can offer hugs, or cocktails, or comforting cuss words to our fellow comrades who are momentarily flailing.

If you have a perfect household with a perfect spouse and perfect children and everything is all Marie Kondo perfect everywhere, that is incredible. But, for the rest of us, it’s really easy to feel lonely sometimes. We think we’re alone in thinking our kids are assholes on occasion. We think we’re the only one who wants to stop for a drink after work on Thursdays instead of sitting in the carpool pickup line. We think there’s a conspiracy that our neighbor’s house is always suspiciously clean while ours is reproducing dust at a mind-boggling rate. We hide our secret Lucky Charms addiction and exchange kale salad recipes.

But the Code Brown could revolutionize our sorority.

For example – and this is entirely hypothetical – if I saw you pulling into the local watering hole on a Monday afternoon and we locked eyes, and you just happened to flash your poo-colored wristband, I might offer to pick up your kids and keep them busy for an hour, no questions asked. And you would return the favor two days later, when it was me sporting the bracelet. If you saw me carrying a snot-covered, entirely hysterical child out of the grocery store and glanced down to find a doo-doo-hued decoration south of my fingers, you would know to say a silent prayer for my sanity (and my child). And I would do the same for you that Friday when you replicated the scene in the McDonald’s playdome. It’s an emotional exchange program, rooted in support and understanding.

So, who’s in? Who’s comin’ with me here?

Let’s remove the stigma staining our struggles and choose, instead, to help a sister out. Friends, I do not mind having your children over to play for a bit, no strings or expectations attached. It does not inconvenience me to listen to your recount of just how irrational your daughter got over al dente noodles last night. No one can hear a mother’s cries and gripes like another mother. I say it can’t count as a true failure if you speak it aloud and set it free.

I’m here. And I know you are, too.

Mindfulness

Working on my core

February 28, 2017

Let’s start with a game.

I’m going to ask you to pick three words. The first three words that pop into your mind, OK? The prompt is: What drives your day?

Three words … and … go.

Got em? OK, what were they?

Full disclosure, so it’s all out in the open, my three words were: work, schedule and kids

Don’t forget your words.

So, I wanna talk about this book I read. Because we NEED to talk about this book I read. Oh my gosh, oh my gosh, the dope pages of “Present Over Perfect.”

Present. Over. Perfect.

This audiobook came in for me at the library on the same day the Lauren Graham book, “Talking As Fast As I Can” came in. I was getting ready to leave for my Florida trip, I wanted something light, and so I opted for Lauren first. Now I’m watching Gilmore Girls because, let me just save you the suspense, the book is likely one trillion times better if you are watching or have watched the series. Which I hadn’t. So now I am.

Anyway, her mouth was really moving because it went super quick. Having wrapped the Gilmore diaries, I looked down the Tuesday after my quick Tampa weekend and saw the other audiobook, “Present Over Perfect” sitting on my passenger seat. I’d almost forgotten about it. I put in the first CD and a sweet voice filled the cabin of my SUV. Minutes later I was crying, clutching my chest and holding my breath. I think I was nodding, too.

Um, wait, did I write this? No, I didn’t write this. I’m not that good. This was instead a classic case of my very favorite thing; when it feels like the author, in this instance Shauna Niequist, chose her words specifically for me, her attentive audience of one. Shauna is, naturally, part of the poignant sorority that boasts the likes of Brene Brown and Glennon Doyle Melton and Jen Hatmaker that I so wholeheartedly worship. These truthtellers have got it goin’ on, you guys, I’m tellin ya.

Sobbing like the latest Bachelor cast-off after just 5 pages is a promising sign. And it proved a match. Completing this book in its entirety was like having a conversation with myself after we hadn’t spoken in years. It drudged up a lot of honest crap I’d been denying or shrugging off for years. It was a mirror I’d tucked in the back of my closet and now I was staring right at all the blemishes and cracks and imperfections.

Let’s dive right in.

“Present is living with your feet firmly grounded in reality, pale and uncertain as it may seem. Present is choosing to believe that your own life is worth investing deeply in, instead of waiting for some rare miracle or fairytale. Present means we understand that the here and now is sacred, sacramental, threaded through with divinity even in its plainness. Especially in its plainness.”

Let it soak in. Let it marinate and send sweet reflections through your scattered mind. But don’t linger too long. This is good. Really good. But Shauna was just getting started here. She was toying with me; Dangling her heart-squeezing verbiage in front of me like a gorgeous orange carrot to a tired, famished bunny, so I’d wrap my front paws around them and she could just then … at the perfect moment … yank me into her web of truth.

“Many of us, myself, included, considered our souls necessary collateral damage to get done the things we felt we simply had to get done – because of other people’s expectations, because we want to be known as highly capable, because we’re trying to outrun an inner emptiness. And for a while we don’t even realize the compromise we’ve made. We’re on autopilot, chugging through the day on fear and caffeine, checking things off the list, falling into bed without even a real thought or feeling or connection all day long, just a sense of having made it through. … I don’t want to get to the end of my life and look back and realize that the best thing about me was I was organized.”

Or capable, or a great multitasker, or punctual or anal. Remember your words?

“But what I eventually realized is that the return on investment was not what I’d imagined, and that the expectations were only greater and greater. When you devote yourself to being known as the most responsible person anyone knows, more and more people call on you to be that highly responsible person. That’s how it works. So the armload of things I was carrying became higher and higher, heavier and heavier, more and more precarious.”

My current currency is completion. A demand comes in, I respond and then I’m paid in checkmarks. I can take something off the list. I can crawl into bed knowing I’m rich in lines drawn through the middle of pressing matters like ordering new checks, refilling the dog’s prescription and sending peanut-free, gluten-free, sugar-free cookies in for the school fundraiser. I’m walking through my life collecting chores and calls and duties and no one is keeping track of the gold stars I get in return, how many pieces of flair I have on my lapel. Except me.

My collateral damage can be tallied in many forms, but perhaps saddest of all is my connection with my husband. This is not to say that we aren’t in a good place or we’re having problems, but the life and the routine I’ve built for our tribe certainly has the potential to break what has always been so good about us. The rich stuff. The stay-up-late-talking-and-laughing-over-gin-and-tonics stuff. My hand to God, he sent me a calendar invite to “hang out” this past Sunday. A calendar invite! I accepted and then immediately felt the asshole aspect of the situation rain down upon me.

The other day in meditation, I silently asked myself if I was giving enough to my marriage. On the drive to work that morning, I saw a “Henry’s Plumbing” van. I’ve never seen a “Henry’s Plumbing” van in this town, or in my life and now a toilet tender’s business bearing my husband’s name was turning in front of me. Just 24 hours later, a sign we kept in our bathroom that said, “I love you because _____” fell down. You know, the kind you write on with a dry erase marker? We’d had it for years. We’d leave silly and sweet little notes on it from time to time. Well, it fell off the wall. Gabrielle Bernstein talked a lot in her book, “The Universe Has Your Back” about signs. Ask for them. Look for them. Be open to them. Well, I got three of them in as many days.

I made the comment to Hank that I often feel like we’re business partners, particularly during the week. We are tending to our tasks and checking in on the progress of various projects. “How’s that poop test result coming, Jones?” “Doctor said to have Sloppy Joan lay off the corn kernels, Banks.” And so on. I can’t pinpoint when I committed to full-on ruining all of the things that made us fun and all give-a-damn about everything. I just know that it happened in spite of our best efforts to stay cool.

“It seems to me that one of the great hazards is quick love, which is actually charm. We get used to smiling, hugging, bantering, practicing good eye contact. And it’s easier than true, slow, awkward and painful connection with someone who sees all the worst parts of you. Your act is easy. Being with you, deeply with, is difficult.”

“It is better to be loved than admired. It is better to be truly known and seen and taken care of by a small tribe than adored by strangers who think they know you in a meaningful way.”

“What kills a soul? Exhaustion, secret keeping, image management.
And what brings a soul back from the dead? Honesty, connection, grace”

“The world will tell you how to live, if you let it. Don’t let it. Take up your space. Raise your voice. Sing your song. This is your chance to make or remake a life that thrills you.”

I know, brothers and sisters. I know.

This particular thread running throughout the pages was the big one for me; The slap that jolted the reality to the surface for me. If you think of your social connections like an onion, the center is likely comprised of your husband, kids, immediate family and ride or dies. Next, would be good friends and extended family. Then we’re looking at friends. Then acquaintances and gym buddies, and so on. As you work your way out through the layers, the connections get softer and softer. But what happens, and what has been happening with me for years, is we spend so much time committing, saying yes, donating our time and our talents to the people in the outer layers that we exhaust all our good stuff.

By the time I leave work, take care of any outlying obligations, make dinner and get through the kids’ checklist of “necessities” for the next day, I certainly don’t have the mental lightness to roll around and play tickle torture. I am depleted and primed to fail.

And while this all seems to be the norm these days, and I know that my priorities, in all their backwards glory, are not uncommon for mothers, the whole thing really is super freaking messed up, right? Because I volunteer to help causes that are important but not that close to me personally, I miss hearing JoJo’s recount of her bee experiment that day. And we all know those stories are always best the first time around. Because I said I could step up my freelance game for extra sitter money, I rush through the bedtime ritual and feel annoyed that my five year old dare ask for “one more butterfly kiss.”

It’s a mess.

My flow is all fucked up.

It’s clogged with boulders of bullshit excuses and obligations made to third- and fourth-layer acquaintances. I have to learn to choose no when yes means less of the good stuff. Less cuddles, less sanity, less conversation, less eye contact. I have to learn to say no even though the yes is wearing pretty clothes. Even if it means more money or smart connections. I have to learn that if yes doesn’t feel good in the moment, it’s not going to feel good on a Thursday night at 9:30 when the laundry needs folded and Sloppy Joan has gotten out of bed for the 14th time.

“I almost left her behind. I almost lost her when I started to believe that constant motion would save me. That outrunning everything would keep me safe. You cannot be a mystic when you’re hustling all the time. you cannot be a poet when you start to speak in certainties. You can’t stay tender and connected when you hurl yourself thru life like being shot out of a canon, your speed a weapon you wield to keep yourself safe. The natural world is so breathtakingly beautiful, people are so weird and awesome and loving and life-giving. Why then did I try to hard for so long to get away without feeling or living deeply?”

Go back to your words. Think about what they mean to you and what you wish they were instead. Because, why not wish for what you want?

I want to move work to love, and schedule to passion, and kids to … well, the kids can stay. But I want to stop letting responsibility be my defining asset. So I can get it all done? What’s the good in any of that if I’m miserable? Who’s keeping score anyway?

It’s time to shake things up and slow things down and really, truly, deeply focus on the middle of my onion. People are always saying they need to work on their core, strengthen their core, build from their core. Well … there ya go. This is the kind of core work I need. Screw abs, I want to be present for Spike’s story hour and the chicks’ gymnastics show in the front room, with Sloppy Joan wearing her “bathing soup” as a leotard.

These are the people I so desperately want to hold close to me. Because at the end of the day, I’d rather be focused than frenzied. I’d rather be late to a meeting than missing as a mother. I’d rather be known for my mess than tidy and tired.

I’d rather be present than perfect.

Kids

The push and the pull … and the push

January 19, 2017

When we pack up our sweet little popup and head out to commune with Mother Nature, it is 100 percent guaranteed that my children will sniff out and frequent two places: The playground, crawling with feral wilderness kids, and the camp store. And these chicks are con artists, I tell ya. They can hit up their PaPa for a 5 dollar bill like a Las Vegas hustler and have a Rocket Pop in hand before we’re backed in and level.

On our last trip for the season, the third visit to this particular park that year, the older girls started wearing a path in the pavement. They’d go around the same loop on their scooters, always stopping at the camp store for a minute before hopping on their Razors and racing back to the site. They’d done it so many times, I’d eased up on my strict surveillance of the situation. And anyway, I was doing laps myself, mom strutting behind Sloppy Joan as she strolled about on her tiny legs under a bright yellow canopy of leaves, pointing at every dog, fire and bug. It was what I imagine sloth poetry is made of.

After a 30-minute .5 mile, we came up to the camp store and my mother sitting perched just outside with her tiny white rat dog on her lap.

“Ummmmm …” she said.
“What?”
“I thought you were in the camp store.”
“No, I’m walking with Sloppy Joan. Should I be in the camp store?”
“Well, the girls went in there. I think they were going to buy something. I thought you were already in there.”
“Well, I’m not.”
“Right.”
“Right.”
“So …”
“So, I guess take Sloppy Joan and I’ll go check it out.”

I walked in and followed the intentional maze of tall wire shelves – past fridge magnets and Wiffle Ball sets and boxes of instant potatoes – until I reached the line. At the front of that line stood two little girls, their chins barely reaching the counter. The oldest, with her disheveled ponytail and Chick’s Rule sweatshirt, stood confidently as the middle one offered shaky support from just behind her, biting her top lip for comfort.

[Mom enters the scene.]

“Hey guys.” I said.
“Hi Mom,” JoJo sighed, knowing this put a damper on their hustle.
“So, whatcha got here?”

They had a lot of stuff, you guys.

Two candy bars, two packages of glow sticks, one notebook, one box of crayons and two, rather sizeable, stuffed animals. Dogs, if I remember correctly. I have no idea how long they’d been at the counter.

“It’s $33.50,” the irritated 17 year old with no children said to them (but looking directly at me).
“And how much money do you have, girls?” I asked.
“I have $5,” JoJo offered.
“So, if you have $5 to spend and $33.50 worth of toys and candy, what do you think you need to do?”
“Get more money?” JoJo proposed.
“Or, maybe, I was thinking … put some things back.”

Groans and those dreadful whines that announce the impending arrival of an actual, super-annoying cry started spilling out of child No. 1. My face was filling with the incinerating heat of extreme mortification. I turned to the gentleman behind us and, out of obligation and respect for the assault on his leisurely stroll to the friendly camping store to get coffee filters, mouthed a sincere, “I’m sorry.”

“It’s fine!” he said too kindly. “I love watching other people parent, and it’s a good lesson for them.” (I feel it’s vital to the story that I mention the dude looked like Jim Gaffigan.)

Two minutes later, we left the store with one candy bar, one package of glow sticks and one sour little camper. (Spike was fine. She, I deduced, was merely along for the ride.)

“What happened?” Mom pounced as we walked out.
“Oh, I’ll tell ya what happened. My children were trying to buy Christmas with a $5 bill and no parents. That’s what happened.”

She. Fell. Out.

I finally laughed, too.

Later, when I pulled JoJo aside to talk to her about the responsibility of carrying money and making smart purchases and always, always letting someone know where you’re going and what you’re doing, I realized that her frustration wasn’t just about the fact that I’d cockblocked the purchase of the one stuffed animal that brought her to an even 500. It was more about the embarrassment. She felt a false sense of confidence because she’d been to the store with me and now she just wanted to prove that she could be grown up, too. She could make a transaction. She knew what was going down.

Only, little bird, you don’t.

And thus the internal battle begins. I can appreciate the fact that she had the self confidence to walk into a store and do something “adult”. It’s amazing actually when you think about the fact that they had been casing the joint the whole time. And the last thing I want ever is to squelch my daughter’s spirit. But obviously certain things require supervision and guidance. She’s just in such a dang hurry to grow up, that one, always offering to cook dinner and watch the other kids. “You’re 7!” I want to scream. “Be my baby forever!”

It’s a tricky thing, instilling self-assurance in our kids. We want them to be carefree, but cautious. Capable but reliant. Brave but tentative. We tell them they can do anything in this world, as long as they let us hold their hands and take them there to do it. It’s a balance, I suppose, like everything. And it’s often necessary. I mean, my 7 and 5 year old clearly can’t be trusted to go off on their own with a sweaty handful of bills and a thirst for entertainment.

But even though I know it was the right one, my reaction on that day and in other situations, both before and after their Treat Yo Self 2016 binge, have me pondering some of the big motherhood questions. Am I standing back enough? Am I promoting independence and a sense of wonder? Am I flapping their hesitant wings with heavy hands, or am I teaching them to fly?

Seeking answers from within your social circle won’t help. Getting together with girlfriends is really just an exercise in self deprecation and unconditional acceptance. We shower our fellow soldiers in the comfort that they are doing the absolute best they can, and then solidify the support by immediately countering with a one-upper of a personal parental failure.

“You guys, I haven’t cooked a meal from scratch in 6 days.”
“That’s OK, I caught Susie eating a used Q-Tip out of the trash Tuesday night.”
“Oh, man … well, at least she’s eating. Henry only eats AirHeads and olive loaf.”
“I say give it to him. At least you’re feeding him. I forgot to make breakfast twice last week. Just plain spaced it.”
“It’s all good! I got mad at the boys for insulting my banana bread with a smiley face made out of chocolate chips in it, so I picked up the whole loaf, took it to my room, locked the door and ate the entire thing while I watched Breaking Bad and pretended to cry.”
“Awwww, you put a smiley face in it? You are such a good mom. I aspire to be the mom who makes food into faces. I was out of stationery this morning, so I wrote Desiree’s teacher a note about her eye drops on the back of a past due notice from the cable company.”
“But you’re communicating. Unlike my husband!”
And so on …
We can stop there.

If we’re really honest, none of us know what the hell we’re doing. And even if we did, sometimes it doesn’t matter anyway because the little shits have these minds of their own. The nerve. We spend all of our time with our kids pushing them and pulling them, and then second-guessing ourselves so we push them again. And then we leave them and spend the whole time dissecting what we did while we were with them. The bottom line is we just care too damn much.

Last weekend, Hank’s mom brought over some old photo albums. I flipped through as she squinted down at the snapshots and recounted old neighborhood buddies, the days they had no money, and injuries. Sooo many injuries. Stitches and staples and gashes galore. “I don’t know,” she said. “I guess because they were boys and because I never went anywhere, and because I left home and got married right away, I was just always like, ‘Go! Try it!’ and they got hurt sometimes. But it all worked out.”

After she left, I thought about how strictly I police the girls sometimes. (Not always. Because sometimes I watch Mad Men and “fold laundry”.) I can hover like a rescue copter with the best of them, just waiting for the signal to drop my ladder. And I love to call out up-to-the-second instructions: “Don’t do that!” “Get down from there!” “You’re going to fall!” “Wait for a grownup!” “Look both ways!” Necessary? Often, yes. Beneficial? Probably not always, no. A little psycho? Perhaps.

But nobody tells you when you’re supposed to cut strings and nudge them out of nests and let go of their hands. I mean, I feel like, unless somebody instructs me or they demand it, my timeline for those initiatives is … never.

I do want to put them out there. I want them to feel like they can own their feelings because they were born from their own decisions. I want them to be bold when something stirs in them. I want them to explore. I want them to take risks. (The push.) But I want them to be safe. I want them to be aware of the possible outcomes. I want to protect their little bodies with traffic guard arms and their hearts with the wisest words. (The pull.)

My conflicting feelings on this matter have never been as palpable as they were this past Saturday morning as JoJo and Spike took to the basketball court. See, Hank thought, in the interest of saving some of our Saturdays, it would be best if we just put both of the girls on the team for first and second graders, even though Spike is in preschool (she is old for her class). The second the game started, my rescue chopper instinct kicked in. My curly haired babe was flailing. She was smaller, weaker and slower. The argument could definitely be made that this was not our finest parenting decision.

But the buzzer rang out at the end of their little game and she was still standing. Crying, because she got hit in the cheek, but still standing. Through with basketball because the kids were running over her too much, but still standing. Disenchanted because it wasn’t like playing P-I-G on the tiny hoop in the basement, but still standing. She was still standing, and she was fine. So why shouldn’t I be? Everyone needs that one story, “Well, my parents didn’t even believe in age groups! They just threw me in with the 10 year olds and left for an hour!” This, I suppose, will be hers.

Had I not walked into that camping store that morning, JoJo would have learned a tough lesson about finances. It just wouldn’t have been from me. But she would have gotten the lesson anyway. (Still, the thought of that is horrifying. “Where are their parents?” asked everyone anywhere watching that situation play out.) They’re going to fall off the bed whether I tell them to stop jumping or not. They’re going to run into each other, and get knocked down and slip off monkey bars. I guess it’s just the deciphering between “that’s where you come in” and “that’s part of life” where it gets muddy for me.

Maybe the balance rests in the letting go. Or maybe, like in Mean Girls, the balance does not exist. Maybe we never really let go because that means our job isn’t as important as we think it is. And I know parenting is important as hell. So, maybe instead, I’ll just concede a few things …

Spelling quizzes and checking their homework folder will be mine.
Tests and final school projects will be theirs.

Pep talks, protection and well-meaning warnings will be mine.
Perseverance and victories will be theirs.

Boo boo kissing, cuddles and words of advice will be mine.
The lessons will be theirs.

(Negotiations are ongoing.)

Kids

The woman who cares for my children

December 30, 2016

We sat outside on a sticky August evening – four tired mothers, spent from trying to keep all the plates spinning on our fingertips and tiptoes and the one woman who made it even close to possible, Kay. We raised salt-rimmed margaritas in celebration of our dear friend’s 59th birthday and looked lovingly upon her.

To know Kay is to know belief. She is proof that God walks among us; That He does some of His best work through others’ hands. She infuses everyone she meets with honesty and love and conviction. She has a peace that only comes with unwavering faith and firm truth and the understanding that you have found your calling. And the best part about all this? For five beautiful years, my girls have rubbed up against these rare qualities in Kay’s home, which is really their second home.

“You really need to do something nice and celebrate.” I said
“Well yeah, you know me.” Kay responded sarcastically.
“No, seriously … you do so much for everyone else.”
“Yeah, well, I have been thinking a lot about my kids and things I need to do and things I’d like to do and, well …” [pregnant pause] “… I do have a date.” [bigger pregnant pause] “I’ve decided to stop watching children around Christmas next year.”

Tears. So many tears.

And then congratulations.

And then more tears. This time with snot.

I knew this day was coming. I mean I practically promised to sell my kidneys to get JoJo in with Kay when we moved back from Indianapolis. I knew she was wonderful and I knew my children needed to be in her home and I was willing to stalk her, beg her and just start dropping my little girl and money off until she settled into the idea. But I didn’t have to do all that. After a good referral from a friend and a pleasant chat, Kay decided to take our then 2 year old. We, I was told, would be the last family she would care for before retiring.

When we had Spike she mentioned that when we were done having kids, she would soon be done as well. She told me the same after we had Sloppy Joan. She planted subtle reminders of her impending retirement along the way – pebbles for us to pick up and remember that her home, sweet as it was, would not be open to us forever.

But still on this suddenly unforgiving summer evening, with the bitter taste of the salt biting my tongue, I felt shocked. My heartbeats were thunderous in my eardrums and my eyes were drowning in hot tears. What would we do without Kay? What would any of us do?

I don’t call Kay a babysitter, a fact that has been pointed out to me by several different people on several different occasions. I’ll say, “Kay, who watches the girls,” or “Our friend, Kay” or “You know, Kay, the baby whisperer,” but never “babysitter”. It just feels so inadequate. A babysitter is a 15 year old who sneaks her boyfriend in the back door and gets gum stuck in her braces. Kay is a miracle worker. Kay speaks child. Kay is the captain and the wind and the vessel itself.

There have been so many times she’s told me something about one of the girls that should have been so obvious, but it took having her gently point it out for me to see it. She’s taught them all how to go up and down stairs. How to pray before meals. How to bump a volleyball and swing a bat. How to roll up their sleeves and get dirty and scoop up crayfish in the creek. She treats each one equally but sees the intricate nooks and folds of their little personalities perfectly.

In 27 years the woman has never taken a sick day. I’m not kidding. She doesn’t take vacations, she doesn’t get the stomach flu, she doesn’t get strep. She’s a machine. And it’s not like she just got good at connecting with kids in her veteran years, either. I rode up to Kay’s daughter’s lakehouse (because they actually want to spend time with all of us outside of the weekdays, proving she is, in fact, a saint) with two freshman in high school who grew up at Kay’s. Their stories were the best. Kay sent a snake home with them and it had 200 babies. Kay let them build a tepee in the ravine next to her house. Kay got them to do things their parents would only dream of. She was a main character in the beginning chapters of their lives, and they would never ever forget her.

And let’s talk about the food at Kay’s.

Kay shops at the exact same grocery store where we shop. Exact same. But for whatever reason (magic pixie dust one can assume) everything is tastier at her table. One of the teenagers I was with confirmed the hypothesis I’d had for years.

“So, you’re saying if I buy a gallon of Hawaiian Punch, and Kay buys the exact same gallon of juice, it will taste better at Kay’s house?”
“Yes.”
“But …”
“I know! I can’t explain it! It’s just better. The fruit snacks are chewier, too.”

Her cheese sandwich is one slice of white bread with a Kraft single on top microwaved for 22 seconds and folded over. The kids go nuts for it. I make it, and nothin’. No love. But the gleaming cherry on top of the sundae that is Kay’s, is the crumbs. Imagine if you will, the broken shards of fried potato that reside in the bottom of a grease-soaked bag of plain potato chips. You’d toss them away, right? Consider that a crime at Kay’s. At Kay’s, everyone has an assigned crumb day. When the bag gets down to potato pieces, she spoons one tablespoon of chip dip (a special Kay kind of chip dip that I have purchased but did not taste like Kay’s special chip dip) into the bottom half of the potato chip bag, which she has cut in half for convenience. She then uses her hands to push and massage and squeeze the dip/chip components together to form the ideal consistency. She hands the crumb day child the dip spoon and gives them the green light to shovel their prize into their watering mouth as the other children at the table look on in complete and utter jealousy. That, my friends, is the crumbs. And it is the holy grail of Kay’s.

Seasons passed. That summer gave way to this past summer and before we knew it, it was fall.

Every year over Fall Break Kay has a wienie roast and bonfire for the kiddos. They push leaves into giant piles and roll down her perfectly sloped hill and laugh and play and torch marshmallows. When I came to pick up the chicks on this special day, Kay called me over to show me pictures on her phone. The kids had found an owl sitting in a tree down in the ravine. How fitting, I thought. An owl, a universal symbol of learning, would preside over this, their final autumn gathering. The lessons learned in this yard, in this home, around that kitchen table, from this woman, are lifelong. She has been their greatest teacher in the years when the rules really matter and the instructions aren’t always clear for tired mothers and well-meaning fathers.

When you make the decision (or the decision makes itself) to be a working mom, you accept the sacrifices but they still keep you up at night. Agony is wrestling with all of the things you’re missing and the precious time you’re losing. Your greatest wish is that you can find a place to take your child where they will be safe and loved and understood. I know people who search and search and search for that kind of environment. We were lucky enough to have it for this short time and our girls will be better people because of it. Kay’s house is an extension of our home. It is warm and welcoming and her entire family has carried our children in their hearts.

Another season passed. And now, here we are at “Christmas time next year”.

It’s time for me to be an adult. (Let me go on record as saying I despise such occasions.) I’m so thrilled for this beautiful woman who’s dedicated so much of herself to other families. She deserves – more than anyone I know – a day off, a vacation, an impulsive decision. She deserves to sit with her grandbabies for hours and share her gifts with other people and to let others stand in her light. I tell the girls why it’s so important we support Kay and celebrate this time for her. Then I turn away from them and cry like the giant woman-baby I am.

I cry every time I think about Sloppy Joan missing those summers down in the ravine, when I pull up to find them sitting on the driveway barefoot with vanilla ice cream running down their sun-kissed arms to their elbows. Or the girls begging to go to “Kay-Kay’s” in footie pajamas with their blankies under their arms. Or Kay giving them kisses on their cheeks and telling them she loves them after they had a tough day. Or all of the 8 million things that only the families who went to Kay’s can appreciate, that won’t be part of our routine anymore. Our days will be a little less full without her.

A few weeks ago she had all of our families over for a Christmas dinner. Kay gathered the children around her dining room table, where they’d sat for so many meals, and she invited them to pray, just as she had so many times. As they folded their precious hands and followed her in making the sign of the cross, I felt those steamy tears I’d felt a year and a half ago rolling down my cheeks. No one could love our little tribe of misfits the way she had. What will we do without Kay? What will any of us do without Kay?

The night Kay told us she would be moving on, I went home and wrote this:

The woman who cares for my children is not a babysitter.
The woman who cares for my children is a maker of memories.
The woman who cares for my children is a friend to me and a light to all.
The woman who cares for my children is the wisdom through trivial tears.
The woman who cares for my children is a compass at the crossroads.
The woman who cares for my children carries them in her heart just as their mother does.
She is a light and a guiding force and a selfless soul whose role in this village will never be forgotten.

I feel it more today, on your last day with our babies, than I did on that August night.

We thank you Kay.
We love you Kay.