The Grand Canyon and Sedona

Last week was spring break.  I’ve written before about how important it is to both Matt and me that Grace and Whit see the world. That impulse has driven us to Jerusalem, to Washington DC, to the Galapagos, and to Paris.  Last week it took us to the Grand Canyon and to Sedona, Arizona.

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In the Grand Canyon we stayed at El Tovar, a historic hotel right on the canyon’s south rim.  It was old and beautiful.  The first day after a long drive (pro tip: meclizine for motion sickness) we walked around the rim and ogled the outrageously beautiful canyon. It really is hard to fathom, in its enormity and its glory.

We had a drink and dinner in the El Tovar bar and dining room, overlooking the canyon as night fell.  The next morning we woke up early to go on a mule ride along the rim.  Our guide, Josiah, was absolutely phenomenal: full of both information and good humor, entertaining, energetic, competent. It was beautiful to see the canyon on mules, and we definitely got views that we would not have had otherwise.  Whit’s mule was called Seymour, because he liked to get you nice and close the rim.  So you can see more, of course.

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Then it was off to Sedona.  Several people told me that I would love Sedona, and they were right.  There is a tangible peace and holiness to the place.  I kept thinking of Barbara Brown Taylor’s line from An Altar in the World that “earth is so thick with divine possibility that it is a wonder we can walk anywhere without cracking our shins on altars.”  We stayed at the Enchantment, and the views from the pool, our room, and the restaurant were all equally astonishing.

IMG_0106The red rocks, yes.  But also the blue sky!  Perfect, unbelievable blue, like I’ve never seen before.  We hiked, we hung out, we read books, we felt the energy vortex on the property.  At least Whit and I did.  I swear we did.  We did a few things we did that I’d really recommend.  The first and best known is a Pink Jeep Tour.  The driver (of an, indeed, pink jeep) took us way off-road into the national forest.  This afforded both some very exciting and bumpy riding and some breathtaking vistas.

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I am pretty sure that Grace will be taller than I am in 2016.  We also went out for an adventure with Catherine and Jef from Center Focus Adventures.  They were great.  We rock climbed and we white water kayaked.  Highly recommend.  Both Whit and Grace are incredibly inspired by rock climbing, and Matt and I loved watching them.

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Finally, we went for a Cowboy Cookout at M Diamond Ranch.  This was a solid hour outside of Sedona, and I think because of that, it felt like we were the only people in the world.  We went for a ride (we were part of a group of 10) and then were driven to a beautiful spot at the top of a hill to watch sunset and enjoy steaks cooked on the grill while an older man sang country music.

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When we got home (on the redeye – everyone was a little bit luggage) I asked Matt, Grace, and Whit what their favorite part of our week was.  Everybody had a different answer.  That’s the mark of a good vacation in my opinion.  This is a huge and gorgeous country we live in, and I am glad to be showing Grace and Whit corners of it that are far away from where we live.

Note: this is not a sponsored post and these are not affiliate links.  I was not compensated in any way for these links.  I just loved our trip and several people have asked for our itinerary, so I wanted to share it.  If anyone wants more information, please email me or leave a comment and I’ll get in touch with you.

10 Things I Want my 10 Year Old Son to Know

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It feels like just moments ago that I reflected on the things I wanted Grace to know, deep in her marrow, before she turned ten.  But now it’s Whit who’s staring double digits in the face.  In less than two months he’ll be ten, and there won’t be anyone with a single-digit age in our house anymore.  Just as with Grace, I keep thinking about the values and truths I want Whit to know, the things I wish I could make him as certain of as he is of his own heartbeat.

Even as I think about and write these things down, I know that I can only do so much to impart them to him.  I know that what I do is more important than what I say.  I know that I had better have been modeling these themes already, since with 10 years under his belt he’s already picked up and internalized a lot of values from me.

With a desperate hope that I’ve done an okay job helping to exemplify and teach these messages, here are ten things I want my son to know before he turns ten.

1. Treat other people with respect.  Women and men both.  The headmistress of your school and the homeless man outside the subway station are both equally deserving of your kindness.  You do this already, instinctively, but please, never stop.

2. Rowdiness and physical activity are both normal and fun.  Rough-housing is okay.  I know I sometimes shush you more than I should, because my personal preference is for quiet, but I’m working on that, because being physically active and even rambunctious is totally fine.  There is a line, however, because violence is not okay.  Learning where this line is is crucial.

3. No means no.  Period.  No matter who says it and in what context.

4. Don’t hide your sensitivity.  You feel everything tremendously deeply: time’s passage, memory, wistfulness, love and loss.  Don’t let the world convince you to stuff this down.  You can be strong and feel a lot at the same time.  In fact, feeling a lot makes you stronger.  That’s true regardless of whether you’re a boy or a girl.

5. You can’t make another person happy, not me, not Dad, not Grace.  Nobody.  Furthermore that’s not your job.  I know this, we all do, and I hope you always remember it.  You are responsible for your own self and for the way you treat others, which can surely impact their moods.  But nobody should ever make you feel responsible for their happiness.  What makes me happy is knowing that you are thriving, challenged, enthusiastic, joyful, aware.

6. Pay attention to your life.  There is so much to notice in the most every day moments.  The other day you told me, before bed, that “the things you hate are the things you wish you had back.”  I asked what you meant and you said, “well, like in Beginners, we had nap, and I didn’t like it, and now I would love to have rest time every day at school!”  But then, after a few moments, you added, “well, at least I feel like I noticed it.  That’s good, I guess.”  And it is.  I haven’t figured out how to stop time, but I do know that paying close attention to your experience rewards us with full days and rich memories.

7. Find your passion.  It doesn’t matter what it is, but “I’m bored” isn’t something I want to hear.  Ever.  You are surrounded by interesting things to explore, learn about, and experience. I’ll support you in whatever you want to pursue, if it is hockey or coding or violin – or all three! – but you do need to find something that you want to throw yourself into.

8. Entitlement is the absolute worst.  I am a strict mother and often feel badly about discipline or sharp language, but one thing I’ll always react to (and I’ll never regret doing so) is if you display even a whiff of entitlement or brattiness.  You don’t do it often, and I don’t think it’s your natural orientation towards the world, but please always remember how immensely fortunate we are.  It is an enormous privilege to live as we do every single day.  Through small things like Sunday Night compliments, occasional volunteering, our Christmas Homeless Veteran relationship, and thank you notes I have tried to instill our family life with awareness of our great good fortune.  That is, I believe, the best bulwark against entitlement there is.

9. Even if you don’t start something, you can be wrong.  I think always of MLK’s line about how the silence of our friends hurts far more than the words of our enemies.  The ringleader is at fault but so are those who go along with him.  Please have the courage to stand up to the popular kids when circumstances arise when they’re doing the wrong thing.  They haven’t yet, but I know they will.

10. I love you, no matter what.  Messing up is a part of life.  The point is learning to let go and start over.  This I know I’ve modeled, probably too well: you are being raised by a mother who’s not afraid to show you her flaws and demonstrate failing, apologizing, and beginning again.  I will always love you, even when you behave in ways I don’t love.  But I also expect you to keep showing me that you know the point is to learn from our mistakes, recognize and acknowledge when we’re wrong, and begin again.

Not that kind of mother

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I grew up in a decidedly “the more the merrier” environment.  For starters, at the very heart, my family of four was sort of a family of sixteen.  The other three families were a part of our daily life in the loose, everyday way that I understand now reflects true intimacy.  Each of those six other children is stitched through my childhood memories so tightly as to be a part of the very fabric.  Each of them remains a part of my life today.

Moving outward in concentric circles from this center, there were always lots and lots of people around.  Hilary and I used to joke that it wasn’t Thanksgiving without a foreign student or two whom we’d never met around the table.  My memory of my family (and my continuing experience of it, actually) is of a roving, magnanimous extroversion that manifests itself in a million friends, a phone that’s always ringing, a lot of plans, dinner parties, coffees, and people stopping by just because.  One of my mother’s many gifts is her immediate and expansive warmth, the genuine way she welcomes everyone into her life.  She has always attracted people to her, and, like a sun, is surrounded by more orbiting planets than I can count.

I am not that kind of mother.  It’s no secret that I am an introvert.  I am also very sensitive and also shy (two traits that Susan Cain’s marvelous Quiet helped me understand are separate from, though highly correlated with, introversion)  Perhaps because of this trifecta of qualities, I am much more closed-off with our family time.  I treasure and guard fiercely our time the four of us (or the three of us, as in the case of Legoland or Storyland).  I worry often about what impact this will have on Grace and Whit.  It is vitally important to me that they grow up firm in their knowledge that I view our foursome, our nuclear family, as holy.  I am fairly sure they get this message.

What I can’t stop thinking about lately is the shadow of my instinct, the dark side of this particular aspect of my nature.  What do they lose without the extended net of people coming and going, without the example of constantly welcoming friends new and old? Will they grow up to be exclusive, or clannish, or closed-minded?

We do have “family friends,” about whom I’ve written a lot, and other friends too.  Certainly.  It would be inaccurate to paint a picture of the four of us alone in a dark room, never going out.  But when I took Grace and Whit on an outing to celebrate the end of school, we bumped into legions of their classmates, all there together, herded around by a few parents who had clearly organized this outing.  I had not heard anything about it.  And when there’s a random day off of school, or an open weekend date, I admit that my immediate and powerful instinct is that we do something as a family.  It’s not: hey, let’s bring some friends along.  These are just examples, but that day after school did make me fret.

Am I protecting something that I cherish – time as a nuclear family – to a point that harms Grace and Whit?  I don’t know.  There are so very many ways I wish I was more like my own mother, and this is surely one of them.  I think I was on to something when I noted earlier this year that the fact that most my closest friends are strong, sparkly extroverts must reflect a deep-seated desire to surround myself with models of my mother.  I wish I could take on some of that confidence, that inclusion, that warmth.

What they’ve taught me

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How is it possible that this picture was taken five years ago?  August, 2008.  My teachers in swimwear.

It’s not a secret that I used to scoff when I read or heard people proclaim that their children were their “greatest teachers!”  Whatever, I used to whisper under my breath.  How is that possible?  But as has been the case with most of my firmly-held beliefs, the universe has proceeded to show me that my certainty is both wrong and a little bit arrogant.

By some combination of years and the maturation of both my children and me, or probably mostly through the alchemy between those things, I’m now glad to say that I have learned an enormous amount from my children.  There’s no question, in fact, that they’ve taught me and changed me more than any other human – any other factor, actually – in this life.

First and foremost, they have entirely reconstituted the way I relate to the world.  I used to be in a rush for the next brass ring, certain that wherever I was headed at high speed would hold the answers to all of my overwhelming questions.  That approach collapsed in somewhat grandiose fashion in my early 30s and now I view the “prize” as existing right here, under my feet.  Furthermore, I know that the questions are permanent and the answers evanescent.  Paradoxically, children are the most stubbornly here-now creatures in the world and simultaneously the most unavoidable reminders of how fast life passes.

A few years into parenting, realizing I was watching my children grow before my eyes, I was struck dumb by how bittersweet being a mother was.  I had not anticipated the heartbreak it entailed.  The passage of time took a seat at the table of my soul and refused to get up.  As Grace’s pants grew too short and Whit’s shoes seemed too tight overnight, I was unable to ignore the incessant turning forward of my days.  I took pictures constantly.  I wrote letters to each child on their birthdays.  I started blogging to record the little moments of everyday life that I knew I’d forget.  Were all of these attempts to memorialize my days, like insects frozen forever in amber?  Or were these actually efforts to better inhabit these days, because I realized quickly the details only really revealed themselves when I was paying attention?

I’ve decided it was the latter.  Being Grace and Whit’s mother has taught me how I want to live in this world.  It is nothing less than that.  I have learned to look at the light of this hour, and now that I can see it, I refuse to look away.

But I have learned other things, too.  Grace has taught me about the power that passion has to light up a life.  Watching her fierce attachment to and fascination with animals has made me realize viscerally something I’ve always known intellectually, which is I didn’t have that kind of animating interest in my childhood.  I still don’t.  And I wish I did.  The arrival of a dog causes genuine delight for her, she devours books on all kinds of animals, and farm camp’s barnyard chores were one of her favorite things this summer.  She has shown me something else I’ve sensed but never been able to articulate, which is that deep sensitivity can be both blessing and burden.  When I watch her ascertain the mood of a room without any formal input I can see her empathy rise to the surface.  Like a heat-seeking missile she often goes right to the person who needs her the most.  I’ve also seen the ways this sensitivity can gouge her when it’s turned inward, when she takes things to heart that don’t deserve that or allows people without kind intentions close to her.

From Whit I have learned a great deal about how the world responds to warm and outgoing people.  He is often my front man.  He is not shy in the least.  And through watching how people interact with him I’ve learned how the opposite approach (which is my default) can seem cold and aloof, distant and unfriendly.  Now and then I take a deep breath and try to plunge into a conversation with a smile, and I swear that I always think: “what would Whit do here?”  He has taught me about the ways that humor can soothe and distract, and that it is often the very best way to change the energy in a room.  He too has shown me the way true passion can manifest: the boy is a natural-born engineer, and is constantly fiddling with Legos.  He’s now brought them into the bathtub.  I’m certain he dreams in Legos.  It’s just one way that his 3D orientation to the world shows up.

I’ve learned the hand gestures to a song about llamas, who Geronimo Stilton is, and the importance of having putty to play with while you work at school.  I’ve discovered that I love Bugles, ridden a roller coaster for the first time, and learned the profound peace that can come with curling up with a child in a twin bed at bedtime, simply to be together for a few minutes.  I’ve learned the lyrics to more Taylor Swift and Katy Perry songs than I can count, what purpose all those hockey pads serve, and that there are three sizes of soccer ball.

There is so much more I could say, but even writing this has made me think about how perhaps this realization comes equally from an orientation towards gratitude as it does from one towards noticing.  And that simply takes me back to where I began this post, to the most essential thing I have learned from Grace and Whit: being aware of and thankful for all the details of this ordinary life of mine.

This is thirty eight

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I loved our This is Childhood series this winter.  I loved writing This Is Ten about my first child, my pioneer, my grace, my Grace.

I keep thinking of things that describe my now, and thought I would write my own grown-up version.

So: this is thirty eight.

Thirty eight is solidly in the middle of my life.  Thirty eight is realizing that there are likely as many years behind me as there are ahead.  It is acknowledging that life is no longer a green field, that certain doors are closed, that some choices are irrevocable, and that many of the big what-ifs that haunted my childhood have been answered.  Thirty eight is also realizing that despite these answers, there are far, far more new questions.

Thirty eight is new lines at the sides of my eyes and mouth.  From smiling, maybe, but still.

Thirty eight is wearing my wedding ring all the time though my engagement ring rarely.  Thirty eight is not knowing which band was my wedding band and which my husband gave me on the day our daughter was born, because they are identical.  I don’t think it matters.  Thirty eight is wearing my mother’s wedding ring for a time, when she was unable to.  Thirty eight is knowing that one of my favorite pictures from our long-ago wedding shows that I wore my grandmother’s ring on my right hand when I walked down the aisle.

Thirty eight is realizing that certain shorts and skirts are now just too short.  Thirty eight is wondering if this is the summer to put away the bikinis.

Thirty eight is thirteen years of marriage.  It is knowing all the ways that marriage is both less and more than I thought it was, when I walked into a church wearing white and hearing thunder.  Less score-keeping, less candlelight, less drama.  More small acts of kindness, more forgiveness, more abiding.  Fewer flowers, but more cups of coffee made exactly how I like them, without being asked, brought to me in bed in the morning.

Thirty eight is realizing that my lifetime passion for peonies probably has something to do with their life span, which is as short as it is spectacular.  It can’t be an accident that I love best of all the flowers that blaze more brightly and most briefly.

Thirty eight is not having any more grandparents.  It is hearing about the illness and death of my friends’ parents.  It is going to funerals, and also christenings, more often than weddings.  Thirty eight was leaving my injured mother’s side before surgery a couple of years ago to run home to my daughter, who was crying that I wasn’t spending enough time with her.  Thirty eight is the middle place.

Thirty eight is knowing who your friends are, for real, for certain.  It is understanding that though there will be a small handful of true native speakers, it is okay for many friends to access only certain parts of you.  These friendships, while different, can offer great joy, deep laughter, and tremendous companionship.  Thirty eight is still learning that not everybody will like you, no matter what you do.

Thirty eight is drinking homemade green juice and Diet Coke most days.  It is developing a taste for kombucha, and drinking coffee with coconut milk and xylitol.  It is drinking wine still, but not as much, because I’d rather sleep and I’ve realized that alcohol interferes with that.

Thirty eight is finding that each year she grows more sensitive, more aware of life’s beauty and pain, more attuned to the world around her.  Thirty eight cries every single day, and laughs that much too (see: lines on my face).

Thirty eight is in the heart of the grand love affair that is motherhood, both smitten by and exasperated by her daughter and son. Thirty eight is watching, awestruck, as these children develop into people in whom bloom traits uncomfortably familiar and absolutely foreign in equal measure.  Thirty eight reads Harry Potter aloud, packs lunches, drives to and from soccer and hockey and baseball practices and games (see photo), plans surprise adventure outings, and can still make a bruised knee feel better with a kiss.

Thirty eight is its own kind of phosphorescence.  Different than ten’s ephemeral incandescence, but no less dazzling and no less fleeting.  Just like ten, just like life itself, thirty eight is bewilderingly beautiful, maddeningly confusing, achingly bittersweet, and vanishingly transient.