Howard’s Story

We had Howard before our girls, our house, our marriage. On June 9, 2009, we adopted him from a rescue 364 days before we officially adopted one another. He was a bundle of golden fur, a former stray from Espanola, New Mexico. Just one week separated from his siblings due to kennel cough, he sat cuddled in the back corner of his crate. Once I saw him, I didn’t leave his side; when Ben came around from looking at other puppies, he smiled immediately sensing I was already attached. We asked to play fetch and while we kneeled, gently throwing the ball, we chuckled as he dutifully brought it back. We knew he would be the one. Once we paid the fee, signed the papers, snapped the photo, we climbed in our car, eager to bring our guy home.

I held him close in the front seat, wrapped snugly in a blanket, as he shook with nervousness. He sort of tumbled out of our blue honda civic once we arrived to our apartment complex and sweetly struggled up the stairs. We gave him a bath and he ran from us once out of the tub, eventually jumping onto the low shelf of a plant stand willing us to come closer. I remember feeling so happy in that moment – chasing our fluffy puppy, laughing at him and ourselves, so much time before us. 

The end of that month, we moved into our first house – a cozy, 1939 stucco surrounded by wonderful neighbors we had yet to know. That home was Howard’s favorite by far. He staked claim on the front ottoman in front of our picture window and there he stayed until we moved five years later. He would see us pull into the driveway, jump up, and run through the dog door to our backyard waiting for us to walk out of the garage. We came to expect his greeting: a dog so happy he couldn’t stand still, jumping as high as our heads, rushing back in to beat us inside. He approached everything with this same gusto – the potential for a walk, shoveling snow, chasing squirrels. We loved Howard through muddy paw prints on hardwood floors, five pairs of leather shoes, endless destroyed Christmas presents, and a neighbor’s phone call informing us he was galavanting through our hood midday with a neighbor dog as his partner in crime.

And when our life brought us changes – beautiful baby girls, a bittersweet move, sudden job transitions – Howard was always there, by our sides, greeting us with glee.

We didn’t take too much notice of the warning signs – perhaps didn’t want to see them for what they were – the loss of appetite, sudden weight loss, lethargy. We chalked them all up to him being older. His beloved day companion, Mary, Ben’s aunt, first noticed the blood in the snow. Same thing happened six months prior, which the vet diagnosed as a urinary tract infection. I met Ben at the vet that morning, a Tuesday in mid-October. We thought – hoped – it would be the same diagnosis. I remember looking at an older dog in a crate thinking how terribly sad it was that he was locked in there, all alone, grateful I would be taking our dog home with me.

The next morning, October 17, the veterinarian walked into our small room, took one look at Howard, then us and said, “the blood work is bad”, the shock spilling over us like a cold shower. We pored over the results, made what meaning we could from the heartache. The focus was on the fluid therapy for two days, hoping it would flush out whatever it needed to from his kidneys. The blood work on Friday was worse in some areas than it was on Wednesday, even after the therapy. His appetite was dwindling, but he still seemed mostly o.k. The vet prescribed him a steroid and other medications to help him be comfortable; he warned us we likely didn’t have much time. We made heartbreaking phone calls – arranging what we could for a comfortable end of life.

That weekend, we stayed home. Ben missed the state championship game of his school’s softball team without an ounce of regret. We lay in the green grass of our front lawn by Howard, the girls hugged him, snuggled him, talked with him. Anything he had an appetite for, we gave to him, nutrition be damned. He walked slowly around the property – looking at the girls, us, the yard that was his home.

He did so well, we were fooled into thinking we might have more time with him than we originally thought. On Tuesday night though, reality set in, and he woke us up with his pacing, not able to get comfortable. When he wanted to go outside at one in the morning, I went with him, and we stayed for nearly an hour. He stood in one spot for at least 15 minutes, simply staring out in the yard. I took a piece of chalk from the girls’ bin and – for whatever reason – marked the outline of his paws. He looked up at me and just stared, he round black eyes, looking sad and tired. And in that moment, I could feel his goodbye.

Howard died the next day at about 9:45 in the morning, on our back stone patio, as the leaves fell and birds flew above. Ben and I were there with him, giving him what comfort we could.

Linnea planned a memorial service and seemingly handled this first encounter with grief with grace and understanding. If you ask Willa about Howard, she will say, “boo, boo”, “night, night” or “bye, bye”.

Back in September when life was still chugging along, I marked the full moon on my calendar – October 24. Since our time in Denver, I would try to sit outside for at least a little bit to see it, and my trusted companion came every time without fail. If it had to be his time, perhaps it is fitting Howard died on the day of the full moon. And on November 23, I will think of him once again.

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The Making of a Sister

Linnea responded to the news of the seven week old baby in my belly with indifference to the doll handed to her. She then unabashedly declared, “I wanted a goat, not a sibling.”

We laughed, of course. We also were worried. Worried that perhaps she would take longer than expected to come around to the idea. And yet, we were surprised too. Heck – we thought – she was the one who got us talking about the idea of another babe in the first place.

Back in the doldrums of winter that year, she sat in a bar stool coloring. When she looked up for a moment, she nonchalantly said, “Mom, if you have another baby, I can read a book while you feed her. I will help take care of the baby too.” And so the conversation began. As two educators who tend to kids all day, we didn’t necessary feel a strong pull for a second, at least not right away. With Linnea’s sweet words, the conversation shifted.

When I was about three months pregnant, Linnea leaned over after our bedtime story and asked if we could not talk about the baby until December. Another time, she caught me rubbing my belly and gently moved my hand away. And yet. She would find my copy of “What to Expect When You are Expecting” on our bedroom bookshelf and spend many long minutes flipping through, once even post-it-noting the pages. After the first ultrasound, she asked for the pictures and looked at them for the entirety of our 11 minute drive home. And when she felt the baby kick for the first time, her eyes widened with joy, her expression full of awe.

Linnea didn’t miss a doctor’s appointment. While my parents were visiting, my mom asked her if she was excited to go to the doctor because we had an appointment later that day. Without even looking up, Linnea did her version of a five-year-old eye roll and said she had already heard the heartbeat “like a million times”.

She was convinced the baby was a boy, but at breakfast the morning of our 20 week old ultrasound in September, she said she would be mad if that were true and excited if the baby were a girl. Mother Nature granted her this wish, and I continuously explained we would love the baby no matter what. Linnea did not always look convinced.

In January, Linnea rubbed “Stay in Lotion” on my belly. She began to complain of back aches ironically the same times I would. And on the morning of January 25, when I explained to her I was having a contraction while I stood at the kitchen counter, she next to me, she bolted to the baby nursery, retrieved my yoga ball, all the while shouting, “on it!”

After Ben cooked a pancake breakfast while I showered, we both took her to school that morning. Her preschool teachers rubbed my belly for the last time, and she watched us walk the length of the sidewalk. We looked back one last time to her up in the playhouse, watching us, smiling with a small wave, the feeling of change upon us.

Willa was born at 4:01 that afternoon. Linnea was the first besides me and Ben to hold her just two and a half hours later and read her first book, “Dear Zoo”. She came bearing a gift for her sister and did not want to leave. After school the next day, she came to visit and wanted to stay until nearly her bedtime (and we thought she would be bored). Once home, she read story upon story to her and asked often to hold her. Linnea would come barreling down the hallway after school, rush into the nursery to find us in the rocking chair and pour kisses upon her little face. Instead of apathy or jealousy, we faced a love so strong it seemed to teeter on obsession. Space, Linnea. Please do not lie on her arm. No, I don’t think you are quite ready to carry her while walking yet. She is lucky to have you for a big sis – you love her so much.

Just tonight, right before bed, Linnea was letting Willa “kiss” her (big open mouth upon her cheeks). I placed sisters tummy and tummy and warned Linnea that Willa might drool a little to which she replied, “Oh that doesn’t bother me. She’s my favorite.”

Because of Linnea’s impending graduation from her Montessori school tomorrow, we have been perhaps extra reflective and sentimental. Ben asked her, do you remember when you said you wanted a goat more than you wanted a sister?

To which she replied, “Oh my sister is WAY better than a goat.”


Chunking Adulthood

I felt the lure of impending independence as a teenager: the steering wheel, the passport, the journal of thoughts known only to me. I was seduced by the taste of bitter coffee in a corner European cafe, the freedom of an open gravel road, the pure darkness of the nightime sky, planning a world of my own, a life of my own, a me imagined.

I sat on a boat moving slowly on the Mosel River, the July sun shining down on me, surrounded by friends who represented the stretches of the Earth–Japan, Montana, Latvia, Germany, Denmark, even Syria. We toasted to my 21st birthday with sweet Riesling, the drink of the region, the drink of the last five months. We felt the time fleeting, breathing fully in the moments of train travel, college lectures in a foreign tongue, Sunday afternoon fussball matches, community kitchens, the absence of commitments.

Ben said his vows from a napkin, written the night before. Tears welled as I said my own. I held my grandmother’s bible, the rosary beads of Ben’s late grandma Mildred, and his hand as I spoke of vows carefully considered for months. We stood, barefoot, six people surrounding us in a semi-circle, the sky gray from a fresh rain. Grounded and content, I longed to let the festitivities finally settle and for us to do the same.

I am cooking dinner–pasta with a spinach salad–in our kitchen, one daughter wrapping gifts by the tree, the other sleeping soundly in my growing belly. And for a moment, it is quiet until it is not. The little one can’t find the scotch tape, the pasta is boiling over, and my husband poses a question from the den. Silent or not, I sense contentment embedded in the thick of adulthood, the connection between the romantic and the real.





Inspiration from Elizabeth Gilbert

I love Elizabeth Gilbert. She’s the author of “Eat, Pray, Love” (I first read that on a road trip with my parents from Nebraska to Seattle…and loved how approachable her writing was) I have found folks familiar with her work often have very mixed reactions. Not me. Her books and talks are some of the few that I like to be sure to slow down and savor because otherwise I am just so disappointed when they end.

Big Magic“, is her latest and I am just about finished with it. I find myself highlighting and taking notes and rereading parts. Here’s a sampling of quotations:

Q: What is creativity? A: The relationship between a human being and the mysteries of inspiration.

The universe buries strange jewels deep within us all, and then stands back to see if we can find them.

I believe that inspiration will always try its best to work with you–but if you are not ready or available, it may indeed choose to leave you and to search for a different human collaborator.

Work with all your heart, because–I promise–if you show up for your work day after day after day after day, you just might get lucky enough some random morning to burst right into bloom.

I think society did a great disservice to artists when we started saying that certain people were geniuses, instead of saying they had geniuses.

…art is absolutely meaningless. It is, however, also deeply meaningful.






A first draft of an untitled start to a story

I am working writing more because, well, it’s fun for me to write, and I miss it when I don’t. In an effort to do so, I will publish (most of) those pieces here, even in very early drafts, even if I am unsure about them, even if they end up being more about the process than the product…because why not? (Oh and did I mention I have never really written fiction before besides an awful attempt known as “Fresh Bread”? Ha! Here we go!)

She curled into the slim arm chair, facing the window that looked east and faced the streets of her new neighborhood. The mug warm in her hand, the house quiet, the weekend before her. She relished this time of day even when she was still in the city, the calm before the monsoon of the day. It seemed her days were filled with the unending curl of meetings, chain-smoked until 6 p.m. Her sleek apartment, view of the city, even salary were not enough to make her want to stay any longer.

A trip to Colorado was all she needed to feel grounded again. She came for a long weekend, took one look at the mountains, and felt at home. The snow-capped, rocky mounds were enough to make her feel as if her heels were dug deep into the earth, where they belonged all along. Unshakeable, strong, and steady, all goals she had for herself. The surrounding farms reminded her of childhood and the cities had enough culture to quench a thirst. The motivation to get here, live here, raise her child here engulfed her entire being until she sat in that very chair soaking it all in: After months of headache to make it happen, they were finally in this place. Life could begin anew.

Sophia bounded down the steps, jumping head first into her mother’s lap.

“Read to me, Mama,” she said. She pulled a Richard Scarry book off her shelf, next to the chair. Sophia leaned into her mama, Sarah, and they both fell further into the chair as if hugging the day before them.

Sarah began part-time work at a local non-profit that Monday morning. She had no idea what to wear. She stared at a closet of black, designer outfits and could not choose a damn thing. Too fancy. Too urban. Time for a new wardrobe. Chalk it up to another item on the to-do list, after the preschool search, and the unpacking of boxes.

Sophia held tightly to Sarah’s neck as she said good bye that morning. The sitter was delightful, young, full of energy. There would be no lingering sadness, but the initial good bye was hard in a new house, new neighborhood. Sarah kissed Sophia’s hand and pressed it against her check. She promised homemade mac and cheese for dinner and her favorite game–hide-and-go-seek–when she got home.

The days churned as if making fine butter. Sarah enjoyed her work, Sophia loved her days playing, excited to start school. They were creating a lovely little existence together. An existence Sarah had secretly envisioned once the divorce settled two years prior. Mike was a nice guy, sure, but not a loyal husband. He broke her heart with that revelation. He did, however, remain in contact and loving to sweet Sophia. In fact, he was visiting that next weekend from D.C.

In an effort to appear united, Sarah agreed to meet him for breakfast. He was planning to take Sophia on an adventure: art museum, the zoo, and swimming at his hotel. His buddy was there whom Sarah had never met. She had heard often of Dylan, but he was an allusive figure all the years of their marriage.

After pleasantries, small talk, and brief laughter over Sophia’s stories about animals that could talk and songs she made up, Sarah kissed her daughter and said good bye to her ex-husband and his friend. They agreed to meet again on Sunday afternoon.

The weekend began with good intentions: renew an exercise pledge, read a book, sleep in, even catch up with friends. But, she really just missed Sophia and found herself slipping into a deep sadness. She was glad to be here in her new life, but didn’t like it as much without her daughter’s presence. As difficult as it was to admit, there was nothing to distract her from the reality of her new world. Change had set in, change she had desired and she was happy.

Wasn’t she?

A Duck in a Princess World

Note: This was written at the beginning of November as a potential editorial. 

My daughter chose a duck costume for Halloween, a decision that took all of 30 seconds. When it arrived, she immediately strutted her fluffiness around the living room, beak proudly perched on head, confidence evident in every waddle. “I love baby animals,” she proclaimed to her daddy, dog, and herself.

Because of this excitement, my husband and I took her to community events where she could wear it. It was at one such event that she seemingly took notice of the other girls her age: shiny wigs, sparkly costumes, uncomfortable looking shoes clicking on the tile. “I hate my duck costume,” she said. I was struck by the emotion, watched her excitement wilt before me, and asked what it was she wanted to be. The response? A princess.

I felt, for the first time, the pendulum of influence tipping in the direction of her peers, the culture, even Disney. All it took was for one hug from a friend dressed up as Ariel and the realization that she was the only girl in what could be perceived as a gender-neutral costume.

Princess costume or not, I simply want her to be her own person: Independent. Free thinking. Confident in her choices. If she is going to dress up as a female movie character, let it be of her own accord.

Although this was our first experience with peer pressure taking hold, it most certainly won’t be our last. Lisa M. Dinella, an associate professor of psychology at Monmouth University, found through her research that halloween costumes actually become more gender-typed the older children become.

As a child, I watched Disney movies, played both Barbies and G.I. Joes, and grew up to be a believer in equality on all gender fronts. It is not the princess culture that has me worried, it is the thought my impressionable child can be so swayed so soon by her peers.

There is much talk about raising our children to be independent in their actions, but how do we encourage independence in their thinking despite any other influences? Or is that a naive notion even to spend time considering?

As a society, we do not encourage independence in our children when we expect all kids of one age group or gender to be interested in the same fill-in-the-blank. Pompoms to the girl, football to the boy; the same items on most children’s food menus; school projects allowing little to no room for choice; gender-marketed food and toys; or even the expectation that all kids have seen a particular movie or show.

We recently waited in the doctor’s office for a check-up. Because pretenses do not exist among children, two girls eagerly brought their mother’s phone to the same table where my daughter was sitting. The popular song, “Let It Go” from the movie “Frozen” belted from its speakers as the twins sang along, my girl sitting in silence. The fact that she had not seen the movie nor knew the song by heart was cause for surprise of those nearby and comments were made. The implication was that every four year old should love that film.

A wise colleague once told me it is the stories we tell ourselves and create in our minds which make up our realities. I wonder then how we shift our stories so that more independent thinking can be modeled, encouraged, and valued.

As educators, are we lifelong learners modeling the pursuits of an academic or creative passion? As parents, do we stand firm in the wake of decisions, unswayed by comparison? And as a society, do we eliminate stereotypes and biases in our messages to and conversations with the youngest among us?

In an ideal world, children can dress unique to their taste, spend free time as they choose, and explore the depths of their own imagination.

Diversity should be celebrated, independent thinking insisted upon, and costumes made as unique as the children wearing them.

A Link: Less Censorship, More Reading

My fourth article was published in The Denver Post yesterday. Here is an link if you are curious/interested/free to read a random article.

My BFF from childhood, Carin, might remember the brief story at the beginning. I didn’t mention that by “muddied”, I really meant covered from head to toe in cow poop, and the smell is still seared in my memory. Playing on her family’s farm was one of my favorite things about being a kid.

P.S. Anyone else doing NaNoWrNo ? My writing buddy/12 year old mentee whom I meet here twice a month wanted to participate, so I am going to give it a shot too. I am under the mindset that the more writing the better, even if it produces a really crappy first draft. Will see!

Four-fifths of a marriage

When my husband and I arrived to the hospital on this day four years ago, a midwife gave us advice when she sent us back home, the baby not yet ready. She encouraged us to savor the last bits of time alone, just us, explaining how much further in the future it would be before we experienced that again.

So, we went home. We–Ben, Howard (our dog), my big belly, and me–went on four walks that day mostly to encourage labor (being three days past my due date), but also to do just what that midwife encouraged: Savor.

I still show my daughter the stairs I walked up and down, and at one point ran, much to Ben’s chagrin. The stairs are on a college campus in the neighborhood we once lived in and loved. We tell her about the neighbors we ran into that day–many in mid contraction, the day of many walks. I remember our dog’s constant silly grin, the wobbling, the steady hand of my husband’s on my lower back as he guided me down the streets we knew by heart.

About 24 hours after our last walk, we held our baby with chubby cheeks and pouty lips close to our chests. And when he got into my hospital bed that night to lie next to me and our new little girl, I could think of no better definition of happiness. We were sifting the waters of sleep deprivation and parental worry for the first time, yet it didn’t feel so scary because we were diving in together.

Naturally, as I watched my almost-four-year-old celebrate her soon-to-be birthday today (her actual birthday is Oct. 12), I thought a lot about her through the years, but I also thought a lot about my husband, about us, about our marriage.

Four-fifths of our marriage has been wrapped up in the loving care of this co-created human being, who talks with a bit of a sass and says ‘what’ with a sharp t. Her age reflects most of our marriage, but not all of it. That first year, we traveled, but also just enjoyed the comfort of being at home together. I remember feeling grounded in a way I had never experienced, and I still will myself to not take that for granted.

I like to think our marriage started much sooner than June 8, 2010, edging itself into our lives just as dusk eventually turns into night. Eight years of dating can fool you into thinking there can be no more surprises. Yet, in now five years of marriage, I did not expect many things: that he would be so handy on our home, so loud in his snoring, and so adoring in his love for our daughter.

Tonight, we lie on the bottom bunk of an almost-four-year-old’s bed. Ben, closest to the wall, Linnea’s right in the middle, and me, next to the railing, peering through the darkness to the closed eyelids, thinking once again, this might be my closest definition of happiness.


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On being busy

Although this piece may seem slightly less meaty than the first two on education, I felt a need to jump into the topic of addiction to busyness. To me, it is just as important of an issue because it seems to seep into just about everything. My friend, Alli, was my editor on this and I so appreciated her perspective.

So, here is a link to my two cents

Thanks for reading and happy Sunday!