He Shows Us How to Be Brave

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The day before his birthday, I asked Dairy Man what he wanted to do to celebrate. He thought about it for a beat and then said, “Let’s just hop in the car and drive.” My planner brain instantly had questions: “Where are we driving exactly? How long will it take? Should we pack a lunch? What about naps? Does the car have gas?” But I (mostly) quieted my thoughts and said, “Ok.”

Our kids are not going to learn spontaneity from me. How to make comprehensive packing lists? Yes. How to organize Legos by color and type? Sure. How to make a detailed itinerary to maximize every moment of their European vacation? Definitely.

But he will teach them how to be adventurers.

I tend to play it safe. Kyle tends to take (calculated) risks. His fearlessness—going all the way back to his days as a high school BMXer—has allowed him to take chances in life, trust his instincts, and adapt to changing circumstances. He welcomes failure because he knows there is no better way to learn. He doesn’t get mired in “what ifs,” but instead asks, “Why not?”

In a lot of ways, I want to be more like him.

Yesterday morning as I flew around the house gathering snacks, sunscreen, and extra underwear for the kids (because you never know) for our ambiguous adventure, my pragmatic calculations told me it wasn’t worth the stress. But as we drove away from the farm—Kyle singing along with the radio and corn fields flying past the windows—I felt my muscles loosen and my fingers unclench. As they always do.

We ended up at a small beach that Kyle remembered from his childhood. The sand was warm under our feet as we kicked off our shoes and tramped eagerly over the dunes, fingertips grazing the tall grass. Anders and Ellis squealed as they followed Kyle through small pools of water and over makeshift bridges of driftwood. Their hesitancy at the water’s edge was forgotten when he took their hands. It was clear that our meandering drive had brought us exactly where we needed to be.

Happy 35th, my love. Thank you for pushing us. Thank you for often knowing what we really need.

Thank you for showing us how to be brave.

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How to Work from Home with Kids During Quarantine

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This week Wednesday marked day 100 (ONE HUNDRED, people) of my working from home with three kids underfoot. Quarantine has been a swirling whirlpool of joy, rage, anxiety, and peace–often all within the same five minutes. If you want to read more about that, check out this post on my Instagram.

I’ve learned that gratitude and sorrow live together. In that spirit, after you read my more introspective thoughts about life lately, I suggest you come back here for this highly useful and not at all hyperbolic list.

How to Work from Home with Three Kids During Quarantine

Maintain regular hours
Even though time has felt like a meaningless quagmire since March, try to keep a consistent schedule. Tell your coworkers you are most available at 5:30 a.m., from 9:15-10:23 a.m., 1:00-3:03 a.m., and after 7:30 p.m. when you have successfully cajoled, coerced, and threatened three children into their beds. Realistically, you are trying to get a week’s worth of work done in 15 minute increments between peeling stickers off the television and arguing about the fluidity of time (no, it is not snacktime again).

Keep a dedicated office space
A clean desk is a sign of a clean mind. If that’s true, try not to think about the state of your mind while working amidst mashed crayons, a child’s left shoe, three crumpled tissues, and a pile of kinetic sand. Ideally, your workspace should have good lighting, labeled file folders, and an organic soy candle that smells like seawater. If you find yourself hiding from the kids–who think your laptop is a video portal to Grandma–under the dining room table to send an email, you are doing something wrong.

Get dressed
It’s important to dress for the job you want. I know it’s been 100+ days of quarantine and you are low-level dead inside, but no one will take you seriously in your high school show choir t-shirt and faded black joggers. Wear something clean and professional for your Zoom call, for goodness sake. Your coworkers don’t want to play “guess the stain” with whatever that is on your shoulder. (Sweet Jehoshaphat, please let it be applesauce.)

Create an optimal environment for meetings
Talk to your spouse and other cohabitants about your work hours and expectations. It’s important they know when you cannot be disturbed. During video calls with work, make sure the little people are subdued with hours of Shaun the Sheep, bowls of dry cereal, and proper instructions: Do not fight, do not yell. Do not use the couch as a trampoline. Do not call for me unless someone is actively bleeding. Provide the baby with ample toys to be entertained at your feet for two hours. Do not despair if, instead, he chooses to eat dog hair or clings to your leg wailing like a deranged pterodactyl. That’s why you have a mute button.

Get enough sleep
Sleep is vital to your survival. Get at least eight hours in a dark room that smells like lavender and is kept at precisely 65 degrees. Pay no attention to the child on the baby monitor singing “I Just Can’t Wait To Be King” at dawn or your 3 a.m. insomnia spurred by rising infection rates, systemic racism, the patriarchy, or the work project you’ve been ignoring for three months. Dreams about the futility of the human condition also have no place here.

Practice self care
Working from home is stressful. Being in a worldwide pandemic is stressful. Take time to recharge your batteries and hide in the kitchen eating spoonfuls of ice cream from the freezer while the kids watch just one more episode. Sure, your childless coworker Karen is managing to log nine hours a day on Microsoft Teams while also taking up needlepoint, meditating for two hours before bed, and writing a screenplay, but on Tuesday you went to the bathroom alone without anyone barging in and that should be celebrated too.

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Shards of Light: A Family in Quarantine

Shards of Light: A Family in Quarantine

In the midst of monotony
There are splashes of color
In peals of laughter that echo
Across the wood floor

In the midst of anxiety
There is hope to be found in the trees
In barren branches laboring to bud
Against a perennial winter

In the midst of isolation
There are bonds being forged
In small bodies nestled together
Under warm blankets

Even in darkness
Beauty flickers on every surface
Like shards of light
Through a broken window

I only need to notice

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This post was written as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “Go Where the Light Is.”

AprilBlogHop2020
Phoenix Feathers Calligraphy for C+C, 2020

Happy Sixth, Anders

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When Anders woke up on Sunday, he asked, “Can I get up early because it’s my birthday? I just want a little extra time.” I smiled as I clutched my still-hot cup of coffee, ready to give him what he needed.

He always wants more. More time outside. More time playing with his dad. More time to work on his Legos. More time snuggled into my side reading another chapter of the Boxcar Children.

Even under normal circumstances, I often feel like I’m not giving him enough.

The night before he turned six, Anders and I both had trouble falling asleep. He vibrated with excitement thinking about presents and a party. I ached deeply because I worried a birthday in quarantine would fall short. Would he notice all the empty seats around the table? How could I make a day special when they all feel the same?

These worries hung over my head all day. Through the farm party at our table with feathered rooster cups and a towering cake. Through the sun-filled hours he and Ellis spent in the red and yellow bouncy house I bought on Amazon. Through a gift exchange in the driveway with his grandparents standing six feet away. Through it all, I watched him out of the corner of my eye, wondering if he felt a lack.

Instead, I saw joy. I watched him laugh and cry and fight with his siblings and it all felt mercifully… normal. Even our half-hearted attempt at dinner after an afternoon spent outside—an eclectic charcuterie platter of everything from Triscuts to frozen peas—made his pale blue eyes light up with excitement.

When I asked him if he had a good birthday as he gathered up his new Legos before bed, his voice was annoyed. “Moooom. Yes. Why do you keep asking me that?” I laughed and pulled him to my side, noticing how his tousled blonde hair nearly came up to the top of my rib cage.

I hope that when he looks back on his sixth birthday, he simply remembers being together.

That would be enough.

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Candles, Icebergs, and Fear

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It’s still dark outside. I pull the curtains tightly together in the kitchen before settling into my perch on a stool. My computer is open on the counter, a blank white document with a blinking cursor beckoning me.

I have so much I want to say about life right now, and yet I don’t know where to start. I feel so uncertain, insecure. I type a few words before standing up to get a cup of coffee. Maybe this will help, I think as I pour the hot liquid into the pink flowered mug with a “J” on it. When I add the milk to my cup, I watch how the white liquid slowly blooms and mixes with the brown before overtaking it.

I’m tired. My back aches. I slept fitfully again last night, dreaming of infection rates and to-do lists and an economic crash. I don’t think I’ve slept well since life turned upside down two weeks ago. Schools, churches, and businesses are all closed. I’m working remotely with three little people underfoot. After a couple of days of sleeping in, I realized that I needed to get up before the kids. My alarm going off at 5:30 felt normal, and I needed normal.

The candle next to the baby monitor flickers. Henning moans and turns over but is still asleep. Thank goodness. I’m not ready yet. The wax on the candle is getting low from spending so many pre-dawn mornings with me. I vaguely wonder if I’ll be able to get another one. Are there shortages of candles? Are there so many people trying to be soothed and find zen that there are empty shelves where all the candles used to be?

I push several crayons away from my elbow and smile–our house has never been this “lived in.” I’m grateful that the days are starting to feel a tiny bit easier, just by nature of exposure and practice. There was a time I couldn’t fathom having my kids home with me for a week. Now, this is our reality. There are no other options. There is no end in sight. And we are surviving.

But I shift uncomfortably on my stool as I wonder how many times I’ll yell today. How many times my patience will snap like a twig. I’ve been so angry lately. Short fused. Easily indignant. I blaze over the most mundane offenses and raise my voice more times per day than I care to count.

Will my kids remember how angry I was during this time?

Or will they realize that I was just afraid?

I read once that anger is a secondary emotion. It usually masks something else, something more raw, hidden, and vulnerable. Anger is just a tip of the iceberg. On the surface, my anger these days is a blazing fire. When I am angry, I feel powerful and wild, like I control the flames. It is intoxicating and it is false. Underneath the fire is a tender underbelly of my deep fear and grief. Sometimes the fear feels like smoke in my lungs, filling me up until I can’t breathe. I grieve for the way our life has changed. I grieve for the families and lives torn apart. I grieve for what’s lost.

I exhale fury. I inhale my shame.

***

Earlier this week the big kids and I made birthday cards to mail to my mom. Our dining room table–or what used to be a dining room table–is Art Central these days: covered in kraft paper, crayons, and sheets of stickers. Anders and Ellis worked intently on their projects while Henning rifled through a basket of board books on the floor. I smiled at the momentary calm, but the expression didn’t reach my eyes.

Anders reached for a red marker. “Do you hope we can stay home forever, Ellis?” He added curly hair to the figure he was drawing.

“Yes,” she nodded seriously before sticking another dinosaur sticker on her card.

“I just love it here,” Anders murmured, more to himself than anyone else.

My head jerked up. I wanted to say, “You do!?” but instead, I closed my eyes and let the shiver of gratitude roll up my back. He will be ok. They will be ok. I lifted my afternoon cup of coffee to my lips. The liquid had lost its heat, but I opened my throat and chugged every fortifying dreg. 

We will be ok.

On Repeat: A Photo Essay

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It was sitting on my pillow when I crawled into bed—a small green piece of paper folded in half. I picked it up, smiling, and admired the black block letters spelling “MOM.” The handwriting was still shaky, but there was no mistaking the words. He’s come so far, I thought. It wasn’t that long ago that Anders couldn’t even identify his letters, much less make place cards for a family dinner. I held the green paper and briefly considered the trashcan across the room but instead opened the book on my nightstand and slid it between the pages. The voice in my head—usually urging ruthless clutter elimination—gently murmured: don’t forget this.

Too often I allow myself to be numbed by the sheer monotony in our life. The tasks “on repeat” in our life can feel futile. But when I shake my head, clear my eyes, I start to see the vibrations of wonder everywhere.

There is wonder in adorably mispronounced words at breakfast, labeled water bottles on the counter, the smell of rosemary shampoo, a bubbling pot of macaroni, Legos on the floor, the fuzz on a baby’s head, childish laughter long after the lights go out at night, and my husband’s hand on my hip. I can’t save every scrap of paper my kids write on, but I can save moments, tucking the loose-leaf pieces close to my heart. Familiarity can be the enemy of inspiration (or appreciation, frankly), but often life’s most profound moments are found in the shabby and ordinary places.

You just have to look.

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This post was created as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “On Repeat.”

@pheonixfeatherscalligraphy for C+C, 2020

How Will I Remember?

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“Mommy! Take my picture!” Anders straightens his cape—blue with a red lightning bolt—as he leaps from the top of a stack of cushions to the ground in front of my chair. I look up seconds after he lands.

“Nice jump!” I say.

“Did you get it?” He scrambles to his feet and reaches for my phone.

“Get what?”

“A picture of my super huge jump.”

“Sorry bud,” I say, “I missed it.”

“But Moooooom, how will I ever remember?” His face, barely visible behind the red superhero mask, crumples.

I smile and ruffle his hair. “You will.”

This doesn’t satisfy him. I dutifully raise my phone for multiple subsequent jumps, and we finally manage to get one on film. The moment is preserved. But later that night, as I fold laundry by the light of the Christmas tree, his question sticks with me.

How will I remember?

It seems innately human: this desire to record the moments of our lives. I make yearly family photo yearbooks. I write down funny things my kids say in an Evernote document. I make notes on my Google calendar when milestones are reached—first words, first steps, first time they slept through the night. I track sickness and sentences and clothing sizes. I try to capture moments and memories in my words on social media. My phone currently holds 21,397 photos and 2,685 videos, and the numbers keep growing.

But my recordkeeping doesn’t stop there.

I’m also obsessed with the Timehop app on my phone. This magical little bit of technology shows me photos I took or posted on this day going back one, two, or even 15 years (thanks to being in the very first wave of Facebook users in 2004). Each picture represents a memory, a literal snapshot in time. The photos from college are cringe-worthy: questionable hairstyles, long-forgotten frenemies, and way too much white girl duck face. The photos and videos of my kids cut right through my heart.

The app helps me remember trips, milestones, and even the mundane aspects of our life. All of the puzzle pieces come together to tell the story of our family. The passage of time can be baffling. A child who’s speaking in full sentences today was just starting to babble last year. Last year’s amorphous newborn is this year’s opinionated toddler. A kid who once couldn’t put on his own shoes is now picking out his outfits. These seismic changes give me the distinct impression that time is slipping away.

Even on our most exhausting days, I pull out my phone when I crawl into bed and scroll through dozens of photos and videos. “You were just with them!” Kyle laughs.

“I know. But I miss them already,” I say.

I often can’t wait until my kids are in bed. Yet, faced with fond nostalgia, my heart aches at their absence.

***

When it comes to documenting our life, I feel like I’m trying to hold water in my hands. I clutch the wispy memories tightly, terrified they will fade, rip at the edges, or pour right through my fingers. I overcompensate and over-correct in the panicked hope that I won’t forget.

As I reflect on 2019, I feel the exquisite weight of this life. Last year we were barely out of the newborn fog. This year we have three kids who feed themselves, sleep consistently through the night, and are capable (though not always willing) of playing on their own. We’ve come so far. It’s only by stepping back that I truly appreciate this.

My Instagram grid from the past twelve months shows trips to the beach, family walks on the dairy, kids hugging in matching pajamas, and smiling faces. Life here, at least, looks rosy. But that’s not the whole story. These photos don’t show the bitter fights that were waged out of sheer exhaustion. They don’t show the countless nights I went to bed alone. They don’t show the unyielding stress Kyle felt every day he wasn’t able to plant or chop corn. They don’t show crippling anxiety or the times I yelled, lost my patience, or failed to show grace to my kids.

I don’t want to remember life through a quixotic haze, but I am grateful for how memories soften and intertwine as we gain more perspective. A life is the sum of many parts.

In 2020, I want to balance nostalgia and being present. I don’t want to stop taking pictures, making notes, or basking in memories. But I also don’t want to forget to be in the moments as I’m actually living them. I want to feel it all—the splashy colors, messy emotions, and fleeting moments—deep in the marrow of my bones.

***

At the end of the year (and my life, actually), I want there to be one predominant thought: “We were together. I forget the rest.” This quote from Walt Whitman has always been one of my favorites. It’s not about taking thousands of photos or remembering every single moment.

It’s about the people living and breathing alongside me. It’s about the way I want my family to feel when they look back on our life.

Even if the iCloud crashes and my Google Drive implodes, we were here. We laughed and loved and walked side-by-side.

We were together. I forget the rest.

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@phoenixfeatherscalligraphy for C+C, 2019

This post was created as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “2019.”

Dear Ellis: welcome to three

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Dear Ellis,

We met you three years ago today. You blew into our lives like a hurricane: breakneck and wild. I was only in labor for 2.5 hours and you were almost born on the gray rug on our bathroom floor. You were delivered 10 minutes after I told the ER receptionist, “I’m having a baby right now!” Later as the nurse checked me in, you already lay heavy on my chest, wet and warm.

From the beginning, my girl, you were untamed.

The first few months of your life were a blur of tears, witching hour meltdowns, and 40 minute (never more) naps. Unlike your brother, you did not eventually bend to my BabyWise will. You had your own agenda and kept your own schedule. When I dropped you off at daycare that first morning, I felt a guilty sense of relief as I told them, “Maybe you can get her to sleep.”

As the months went on, you leveled out (as most babies do) and transformed into a bubbly ball of delight. Complete strangers would comment, “She’s such a happy baby!” And you were—in your own time. That’s how you have to do most things.

Today, you’re three.

It’s hard for me to remember you’re only three. You already speak like a five-year-old, which isn’t surprising since you try to keep up with your brother in every other way. Last week you told me, “Mommy, I do not have the appetite for this dinner,” and I was so impressed by the phrase I wasn’t even annoyed that you refused to eat anything other than shredded cheese and fed your sweet potato to the dog.

You are a fighter. Your body is a map of bumps and bruises from foolish feats of bravery and stubborn acts of defiance. Your eyes flash with mischief when you’re about to disobey. When I try to shield you from bodily harm (also known as “Anders”), you push my hands away and dive back into the fray.

You are also loving and empathetic. When something bad happens to a character in one of our books, your brow will furrow with concern: “He’s sad, Mommy,” You thrive on physical touch—putting your feet on my knees at dinner, pressing against my side when we read. You are rendered fully immobile by a good back scratch. Sometimes you cup my face in your hands and press your nose against mine. Your unblinking blue eyes hold a magnetic pull, as if to say I am yours and you are mine.

You are noise. Our car rides to daycare are punctuated by gibberish songs sung at ear-splitting volume. At night I hear your voice through the monitor after the lights are turned off, singing and swapping stories with your stuffed animals. I say “Please don’t yell,” and “Use your inside voice!” on repeat, but deep down I hope you never let anyone silence you. Your voice matters. You matter. I will go to battle with anyone who says otherwise.

Can I tell you a secret? I felt a mixture of joy and fear when your brother pulled that pink piece of paper out of the envelope three years ago. Deep in my heart, I was terrified to have a girl. The responsibility to raise strong, self-assured little women can feel heavy. But as the news sunk it, I realized I had never wanted anything more.

If anyone can rise, it’s you.

I admire your bravery, your tenacity, and your strong will—even though these things drive me crazy sometimes. You will rule the world.

After 30+ days of you waking up saying, “Is it my bur-day!?” I am happy to finally say YES. Happy third, my sweet girl.

Everyday Magic

“Children have neither past nor future; they enjoy the present, which very few of us do.”
– Jean de la Bruyere

Today I am thankful for warm October sunshine, wondrous caterpillars (RIP Catty–you lived a full life), and small, magic moments with my four.

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This post was created as part of a blog hop with Exhale—an online community of women pursuing creativity alongside motherhood, led by the writing team behind Coffee + Crumbs. Click here to read the next post in this series “Everyday Magic.”

Image via Kristine Farnum

Some things are worth saving

I’m not a very sentimental person. At least that’s what Dairy Man tells me.

I hate clutter. I want everything to be organized. I spend my evenings rearranging drawers and closets. I get far too excited about bins and chalkboard labels.

I don’t save birthday cards. Almost all of the kids’ art projects from daycare go straight in the trash after bedtime. I ruthlessly purge my clothes at least twice a year (those old t-shirts from high school musicals are long gone). I will ALWAYS say no to free furniture or old china. Anything that isn’t nailed down in our house can end up in the “donate” pile.

My mom is the same way. It’s not that we’re cold or heartless, we just don’t need to be surrounded by a lot of unnecessary STUFF to hold on to our memories. When I was a college junior (living in a rental house with four other girls), my mom showed up one day with boxes of my old stuffed animals, Barbies, and even prom dresses and said, “I need to clean out my storage room. These are yours now.” Not having an abundance of space to hoard nostalgia, I kept a few of the toys and donated everything else. Circle of life.

Dairy Man, on the other hand, has what I affectionately refer to as a “farmer mentality.” He’s inclined to hang on to everything (old tractor wheels, extra bike parts, broken shoes) on the off chance it can be used, fixed, or jerry-rigged with duct tape and a prayer someday.

But I DO get sentimental about family. That’s why we made an exception to my “no old stuff” policy for The Camp.

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My grandpa built this little hut 40 years ago for my uncle.

Almost 28 years later, it traveled from Jenison to Holland and found a new home in my parents’ backyard. My dad added windows, a door, bunk beds, and a deck. My siblings and I spent years making memories within its four walls.

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Last weekend, the camp made yet another journey. It was loaded onto a giant hay trailer (because farmers have access to the best toys) and found its way to our backyard.

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It’s been at least a decade since anyone has played inside. It needs paint, shingles, a new door, and a whole lot of love. I have dreams of white walls and a wraparound deck and a yellow slide. I’ve lost at least a week of my life to “playhouse ideas” on Pinterest and Dairy Man started glazing over when I mentioned a chalkboard wall, string lights, and kid-sized ghost chairs.

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We could have just built a modern new playhouse, but there’s something beautiful about this. A family legacy on four stilts. A chance to take something that’s a little worn, a little decrepit, and make it new again.

Because some things are worth saving.

Not a bad reminder for a ruthless minimalist like me.