It’s Okay

img_8386I read because I love stories.  I love being transported into another person’s world and perspective.  Occasionally, reading helps me understand life.  Last week I was finding respite from the chaos of real life, reading Sarah Gailey’s new book When We Were Magic, when I came upon this gem:

Paulie pats my thigh.  “It’s okay,” she says, “It’s okay to be upset at upsetting things.”  I’m struck by the sentiment.  “It’s okay to be upset at upsetting things,” I repeat, and Paulie taps her fingers on my knee in a pattern I don’t follow.

Anyone else had a rough couple of weeks?  Two weeks ago I was diagnosed with arthritis in my left knee.  The constant ache and sharp pain waking me up in the middle of the night had a name.  My daughter didn’t make her middle school soccer team.  Last year when I asked her why she played soccer she told me, “Because I want to play in middle school.”  One dream crushed, she rebounded to play brilliantly in a club tournament , but lost in the finals.  This all happened before I knew it was okay to be upset at upsetting things.

Last week was finals week.  This was the first quarter in my almost three years of graduate school that I took two classes.  For ten weeks I’ve been a demon.  The pull of work, parenting, sports, pets, life, plus two graduate school classes – Geodatabases and Advanced Geospatial Statistics – was a grind.  I was awful to my friends.  I was negligent to my family.  I was a drag on my projects at work.  Everyone had been warned that this was going to be unpleasant, and it was on everyone.

If I finished successfully, I was going to celebrate.  With those two classes finished I would only have two more classes left before my degree was complete.  I was going to go have a drink with friends.  I was going to apologize to my family, maybe go get ice cream.  There were going to be donuts at work.  Pizza too.

I finished Saturday, March 14th.  No one went to the office on the 16th.  There was no one to celebrate with.  Getting ice cream with my family seemed irresponsible.  COVID-19 hit and social distancing had started and my ten horrible weeks was transitioning into a different unknown horrible with an unknown timeline, but by then I’d finished Gailey’s book.  I was angry and annoyed and frustrated, but I knew it’s okay to be upset at upsetting things.

Now, I sit in the same horrible chair I sat in for 10 weeks doing homework and I wish things were different.  I wish my knee didn’t hurt.  I wish my daughter had known the joy of making the team or winning the tournament – especially now when soccer looks unlikely until fall.  (Please, let there be soccer in the fall.)  I don’t wish I would have been kinder during my 10 weeks of school, because I just don’t work that way, but I do wish I could have had a moment of joy.  Sharing with others the accomplishment that I’d done something really hard really well:  99.4% average between both classes – a not humble brag.

I wish my kid could see her friends.  I wish I could see my friends.  I wish my dad took the health risk of this disease more seriously.  I hate that I have to keep sitting day in and day out in my homework chair, but now it’s my office chair, my school chair, my writing chair.  It’s the only chair my butt is going to reside in for weeks? Months?  But I am so grateful for the escape of books.  That I can go to world where life is different.  Where I can find wisdom from a bunch of magical teenagers:

“It’s okay,” she says, “It’s okay to be upset at upsetting things.”

Parental Elastic

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Fifth grade.  It’s impossible to watch my daughter grow and not remember myself at her age.  Fifth grade was a turning point.  Fourth grade was rotten.  Third grade was unremarkable.  Second grade was amazing, but little kid amazing.  I remember finally feeling like I was growing into myself in fifth grade.  Watching my daughter start to navigate this school year I am struck that there is something more than a new year and a new teacher going on.  For the first time, I can really see her starting to become the adult she will be someday – not in flashes, but in persistent displays of adult. Grown up.  Not little kid.

The first day of fifth grade, my husband and I walked her up to school, like we had every single day of daycare, preschool, and elementary school.  Then the ultimatum: we could walk her to the gate, but no farther.  Most of the other kids’ parents didn’t drop them off at school, even in third or fourth grade, she explained, so it was time for us to stop too.

Last year this announcement might have stung.  Two years ago, my feelings would have been hurt.  Three years ago, I would have talked her out of her decision.  Now?  It was okay.  I had been feeling the awkwardness myself.  Watched the dwindling parents. Noticed the kids didn’t come and say “Hi Coach Johanna” anymore.  Heck, I wasn’t even sure they remembered I was their second-grade soccer coach.  In some ways it was a relief.  Dropping her off a block from school gave me a chance to get to work on time and avoid the yoga-mom chit-chat after the bell rang.

Two weeks in, a new development.  Her friend approached her about biking to school together.  So, our routine shifted.  My husband or I ride her to her friend’s house, then ride home while Afthead Junior and her buddy head to school.  Now I’m out the door to work before school even starts, with a little bit of exercise under my belt, and the girls ride their bikes home alone every day.

I remember the freedom of walking home from school.  I remember the fear when a new route creeped me out for some reason, and the joy of taking my time during a nice day or when there was a friend to walk with.  I remember watching for mean dogs, like the one in the Ramona Quimby book.  When my daughter comes home five minutes later than normal with a big grin on her face I’m happy for her freedom, for her exploration, for her independence.  Sometimes she tells me why she’s late, and sometimes she doesn’t.  It’s a step toward a more grown up relationship where she shares what she wants, not just because I’m her mom and she’s supposed to.

Heading out for our annual Labor Day camping trip I grabbed my favorite “won’t wash my hair for three days” headband.  I pulled it on and heard the little elastic strings woven into the headband fabric snap.  The band fell down.  In the past year, while I wasn’t paying attention, the elastic had passed on into the land of non-stretchiness.

With my hair askew and my useless headband around my neck it hit me.  There are no apron strings between parent and child.  At least not in my situation.  There is an elastic band holding us together.  In the beginning it was tight tight tight.  It held her inside me as she grew into a baby.  It held her to me when she was an infant and couldn’t walk.  The first snappings happened as she toddled away screaming “I can do it.”  She needed more space.  The band got less and less restrictive as she went off to preschool, kindergarten, elementary school.  It was strong enough so that when her friends were mean, her coach yelled, or she failed at school the energy in the elastic always pulled her to me: back to safety and momma.

But now I can feel the elastic slipping.  There are less stretchy bits left than non-stretchy bits.  What will happen when all the elastic is gone?  Will we toss it like a cheap pair of underwear?  Like a swimsuit gone see-through and obscene?  Will I store it away in some box where it will sit next to baby teeth going to dust, pulling it out occasionally to caress the rotting fabric and reminisce of days when our relationship was simultaneously simpler and more complicated.  When I always stood between her and the dangers of the world.  Will I brandish it at her when she doesn’t call or doesn’t come home for the holidays demanding she remember what I did for her?  Or, will we keep it and use it when we need it?  When her boyfriend (or girlfriend) dumps her, will she pull it out and wrap it around us?  When her own baby is born will she stretch it around me and her own new elastic band providing an extra layer of support to a new precious life?  When I’m infirm and heading to the rat-infested nursing home will she give it to me, so I can clutch desperately to the fragile ties between us?  Whatever happens, these long-term connections are a choice, not a given as they were when she was tiny and wee.

Apron strings can be knotted, ripped open, re-typed, or left dangling at will.  Our bond has more of an air of inevitability about it.  Someday it will not be needed, but I hope it will be wanted.  I hope there will always be days when she chooses to ask my advice, spend time with me, or just snuggle up next to me because she finds me a comfort.  And I hope I’m brave enough and wise enough to give her the space she needs, letting the elastic continue to stretch to fit our ever-changing relationship.

Last week an early morning rush to band left her frazzled.  The week of soccer, running, homework, early mornings, and late nights caught up with her.  We’d barely seen each other between our non-coincident commitments.  She gathered her trumpet and her backpack and then asked, just outside of school in view of any other early arrival, “Mom, can I have a hug?”  I got out and held her while she cried.  Then I opened the car door and told her, “Get in.  You can practice trumpet at home.”  We sat together in the basement, annoying her sleeping dad, while she played for me and pretended to be her band teacher: giving herself corrections and praise.  An hour later I dropped her off at school and she ran in with her normal quick hug and “Love you mom.”  I watched her turn the corner then drove off to start my own day.

Aspirations

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Photo by Pete Johnson on Pexels.com

Someday….

Someday I will be a morning person.  I will jump out of bed before the sun even rises, lace up my running shoes, greet the day with the chirpy birds, and let the pink glow of the sun warm my soul as it lights the sky.  Upon arriving home, I will feed the chickens and barn cat — respectively thanking them for my eggs and for killing the rats.  Then I will feed the house cats and take a moment to appreciate the happiness they bring to my life.  Exercise, gratitude, and chores complete, I will shower, shave, and be ready to greet my waking family with well-groomed joy knowing my day has begun with no sleeping-in or running-late guilt.

Someday my body will be a temple.  I will feed it nothing but wholesome food.  All the fruits and veggies it can take.  Eggs from my beloved chickens.  Cheese from cows lovingly hand milked in pastures where they eat nothing but all organic free range vegetation.  I will cook my own meals, and when I can’t, I will only eat at restaurants that also consider my body a temple worthy of local low-carbon-emission produce.  Occasionally I will allow myself a treat of a single square of bitter dark chocolate, so I can savor both the sweet of the dessert and the bitterness off mistreating my temple.  The only beverage I will ever drink is pure clean water from glass containers.  I will exercise everyday, but vary my routine from running to yoga to Pilates to ensure my cardiovascular health, flexibility, and strength.

Someday I will be on time to everything.  After my blissful morning and my temple-worthy breakfast I will drop my child off at school exactly seven minutes early.  Time for her to play a bit, and visit with her friends.  Then when the bell rings I will walk my perfectly dressed self — in a size six, a slim nonjudgmental size — to my car and drive to work, arriving exactly at 8:30.  People will depend on me, knowing if they schedule an 8:30 meeting I will be there nonplussed and ready to face whatever challenge they need faced.  After working an 8 hour day — not including the 0.5 hours spent enjoying the wholesome lunch I packed, then walking around the park to clear my mind — I will be waiting for my daughter at 3:00, just as the bell rings, to walk her home from school.  Hand in hand, we’ll talk about her day and my day as we much on fresh vegetables from our garden.  She will have friends, I will be successful at work, she will be successful at school, and we will be so proud of each other.  Then I’ll drive her, and all her friends, in my electric vehicle — powered by solar panels installed on our home’s roof — to whatever practice she has that day:  carpooling to ensure our position in the social hierarchy while minimizing our carbon footprint.

Someday I will make good use of all the time available to me.  While my daughter practices I’ll be using that time to write my novel, do grad school homework, catch up with beloved friends and family, or knit scarves for the poor.  However, I will willingly pause to talk with other sports parents where I will be modest about my child and supportive of their children and their worries about traffic.  I won’t squander time dinking on my phone, talking to parents who make me want to stab my eyes out, or half-listen to eye-stabby parents while dinking on my phone.  I will be present and understanding.

Someday my evenings will run like clockwork.  After practice, I’ll enjoy a wholesome meal with my family.  We will all eat exactly the same thing, correctly proportioned to our body mass index.  Dishes will be cleared, washed, and the kitchen will be cleaned in harmony, then everyone will sit down to homework.  (Well, everyone but my husband who will enjoy a well deserved hour of rest watching some sporting event, but he will not be too loud or too emotionally attached to the event.)  Homework done, my daughter will bathe, and I will read aloud to her for 20 minutes.  Then she will make her lunch, brush her teeth, brush her hair, put on pajamas, and deposit her dirty clothes into her hamper.  She will go to sleep by herself in her own room in her own bed after reading to herself for exactly 10 minutes.

Someday my late nights will be all my own time.  Having accomplished everything I needed to do while in the office, I will spend 45 minutes catching up with my husband.  2.5 times per week we will have age-appropriate sex.  Sated or not, I will then spend a few hours editing my novel, writing a blog post, or drafting a new short story.  Sometimes, I will work a bit on a knitted gift for a friend, or hand-write a few thank you notes.  Occasionally I will document my day’s accomplishments in a perfect Instagram shot or Tweet.  Before bed, I will do a quick clean up of the house – filling the dishwasher, folding laundry, picking up clutter, sweeping, and wiping down counters and other surfaces – before reading for 30 minutes and then drifting off for an uninterrupted eight hours of sleep.

Someday….

My favorite flower

I’d like to introduce you to my favorite flower.  Don’t misunderstand.  Tulips are not my favorite type of flower: that’s an iris.  This specific tulip is my favorite flower.   My husband and I have owned our house for almost 18 years.  I believe this flower came with the house, or at least I don’t remember planting it, and I don’t remember a spring when it didn’t bloom.  It’s a big tulip, the flower probably four inches tall, and it can’t decide if it wants to be pink, orange, salmon or all of them at once.  In a garden filled with blossoms it commands attention.

The spring before my daughter was born I remember checking on my favorite flower each morning wondering if my baby or flower would arrive first.  The flower bloomed a month before my due date, and my visions of enjoying it’s beauty with my baby evaporated when it’s petals fell and I was still pregnant.  Seasons, flowers and babies have their own timelines.

Now every spring I remember the anticipation, anxiety, and excitement of those last weeks of pregnancy.  With my favorite flower’s arrival comes reflection on my decade of motherhood.  I tell the story of the flower to my daughter, and we remember our springs together.  My favorite flower makes me pause to remember and appreciate the wonder filled life I’ve been given.

“Check it out”

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The perfect family stood in line waiting to select their bagels.  Two parents — the expected mom and dad — and three adult children out for Sunday breakfast.  The attractive eldest stretched to at least 6’4″ if you measured to the tip of his glossy black hairstyle:  spiked enough to be stylish, but not so much as to be inappropriate for one closer to 30 than 20.  The daughter’s lithe body, draped in a dark red lace shawl, clicked past me on sensible-heeled above-the-knee boots on her way to the restroom.  Her face was beautifully sculpted, framed by the sleek black hair, but she kept her eyes lowered as she excused herself  while slipping past me.

“Check this out,” the oldest held out a smart phone and bent over his smaller brother.  Glasses slightly askew the third child moved with less grace than his siblings, or others in line.  His face, his glasses, and his demeanor conveyed an extra chromosome or perhaps an abnormality in one.  The third child belatedly smiled at the phone and the mother beamed as her eldest protected her most vulnerable.

The father, had he been straight, would have neared the height of his son.  Stooped as he was, the top of his head reached the same height as the mother.  Trying to make sure her family didn’t cause an inconvenience, the mother directed her sons to the menu ensuring their orders would be ready the moment they reached the front of the line.  She was a strong looking woman, not lithe like her daughter, but fit and powerful: the backbone of her perfect family.

“Let’s check it out,” the older brother motioned to the menu and his brother’s gaze slowly followed.

The daughter breezed back from urinating, or fixing her hair, or her pre-breakfast bulimic purge.  Upon arriving back she closely conferred with her mother, who left for her own bathroom ritual.  Catching me watching her family she smiled an eye crinkling smile at me, which I returned.  Her joy at having her family together was genuine.

His wife gone, the father took on the shepherding of his family.  They stood closer together than a normal family of adults might, always keeping the third child toward the center as if protecting him from outsiders.  The daughter’s shawl provided a physical barrier to her brother as she placed her hand on his rounded shoulders.  The moment it was time to order they efficiently stepped up one by one and succinctly selected their bagels.  Returning, the mother walked directly to the cashier confident her order would be accurately conveyed by her daughter.  While waiting to pay, the mother surveyed the tables for one that would seat her family of five.

The only mishap was when the youngest son and father approached the drink cooler.  Apparently drinks had not been accounted for during their in-line planning, so they had to backtrack.  I stepped back to give them access to the cooler.  The son reached for a bottle of orange juice and mistakenly grabbed orange mango instead.  “That’s orange mango,” the father corrected, “or do you want to try something new?”

“I’ll check it out,” replied the third child echoing the sentiments of his majestic older brother.  His speech was deliberate.

The father paused reaching toward the traditional orange juice, but changed his mind at the last minute veering toward orange mango.  “I’ll check it out too.”  He nodded my direction in acknowledgement of the minor inconvenience he and his son had caused during their drink selection.

My order placed, paid for, and received, I walked to the soda dispenser.  The family had settled at a high top table with four seats nearby, father opting to stand rather than take a seat from another table.  They were not a family to take more than the appropriate allotment of chairs.  As I turned to go, I heard one of the family’s men utter, “…check it out,” and I wondered at what point did that repetitive phrase break the sister’s or mother’s perfect facade.  I knew I would break, but their life was not mine.  Perhaps the phrase was their own security blanket.  One that conveyed their belief in open-mindedness, curiosity, and willingness to make the best of what life had to offer.


Photo by The Creative Exchange on Unsplash

RIP Zombie Hamster

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It wouldn’t be the holidays around the Afthead house without a pet dying. Yesterday, when my husband was looking for things to do I suggested he check on Lula, the zombie hamster.  He disappeared into the basement and shortly returned shaking his head.

“She’s really dead this time?” I asked.

“Had been for awhile from the looks of her.”

And like the dope I am I burst out crying. She wasn’t my favorite pet, but death is sad.  We had a quick burial beside the dead-bunny-bush where Lula joined the baby bunny who died in our window well several years ago.  No words were said, because it was 20 degrees out, but her tiny body curled neatly into the hole I managed to spade out of the frozen ground.  She looked very Lula-esque as I sprinkled dirt on top of her.

The last time I knew she was alive was December 14th, because she tried to run around on her wheel while I was working at home:  the tumor on her hindquarters made movement difficult.  I gave her a slice of apple which she nuzzled on for a bit before drinking and heading back to her purple cave.  It was a nice final hamster human interaction.  (Yes, she could have been dead for two weeks in there, but I was dealing with a cancer scare at Christmas and couldn’t bring myself to check on her.)  The last time my daughter saw her was at our Christmas craft party where one of Afthead Junior’s friends suggested feeding Lula to her pet snake.  I can’t say that would have been a worse ending for Lula, but my daughter balked at a Lula death by snake swallowing.

This morning, I did a little research.  Lula’s life expectancy was 1.5 – 2 years.  By my calculations we had her almost 3.5 years.  So she lived an entire lifetime as a hamster, then another as a zombie hamster before the zombie-hamster-tumor took her agility, then her sight, and finally her life.

My last hope for Lula is that she and the bunny don’t start some mini Pet Sematary in my back yard.  I really hope she rests in peace back there.

Embarrassingly Excessive Advent

I have a confession to make.  I have an obsession that has gone into the realm of embarrassing.  Do you have one of those?  Maybe a penchant for shoes or purses or coats beyond what is reasonable for your budget or your closet size?  Maybe this desire even contradicts your core beliefs?

My addiction is advent calendars.  Not those paper ones where you open for a new picture every day.  Not the felt ones where you stick a new ornament twenty-four times.  Not one where you get a festively shaped piece of chocolate every day.  Not even the cute ones with little drawers that can hold a Hershey Kiss.  Folks, all those enabling Advent calendars have been part of my life, but I’ve moved beyond those.  My problem is much worse.

Behold!  My daughter’s advent calendar!  Purchased from The Land of Nod several years ago it has been the instrument of my decline.  Note that every day in December, up to and including Christmas – totally Advent inappropriate, having a pocket for the 25th – my daughter gets a gift.   I’d like to say that they are just little trinkets, and there are some.  However, there are Lego sets in there, my friends.  Small Lego sets, but Legos nonetheless.  There are objects too big for the calendar, thus the “box” cards, which direct my little girl to an extra box of wrapped gifts.  For example, today she got a book, which is too big for day 1 pocket.  I confess that there are even articles of clothing in some of those numbered pockets.

If I step away from this monstrosity and look at it objectively I’d tell you that I live in a tiny house that doesn’t need more stuff.  We are a family that values experience over things.  My daughter will get tons of Christmas from our extended family, if I didn’t get her anything she’d have more gifts than the average kid.  I’m sure, in confidence, my mom would tell you that I’ve made her feel bad about buying things for her granddaughter because I’m so anti-stuff.  In fact, the commercialism of Christmas is just obscene and my favorite part of the season is our celebration of Hanukkah, where we light the candles together as a family and quietly say a prayer as the lights burn down.   I love that moment of togetherness and quiet.

(But I also REALLY love the Advent calendar.)  I love that there is a day where the cookie cutters I bought her in Minnesota will remind her of our family vacation.  I love that there are Nutcracker leggings for the day she’s going to the Nutcracker, and brass instrument leggings for the day we are going to go see a brass holiday concert.  I adore how she springs out of bed every day in December to see what I got her.  Her joy and gratitude are an amazing way to start the day.  I love the planning involved:  making sure her crafting gifts are delivered just before our annual crafting party.  It is excessive and ridiculous and I can’t stop.

I CAN’T STOP!  Last year the Advent Calendar issue took a terrible turn, because my favorite online knitting shop, Jimmy Beans Wool, started offering a knitting Craftvent calendar.  I couldn’t resist and I loved getting a knitting surprise every day last year.  So I bought it again.  Gak!  There’s not even any thoughtfulness in this one.  It’s pure unadulterated Christmas commercialism and I love it so much that the guilt just slips away.

I refuse to calculate it, but I may spend more on my daughter’s Advent calendar than on her Christmas presents.  My husband is a stabilizing force with the actual holiday gifts.  I know I spend more on my Craftvent calendar than he spends on my gift.  It’s this weird annual sickness I have: excessive advent celebration.

I cannot wait to see what we get tomorrow!  And the next day!  And….

Tales of the Fourth Grade Crypt

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I have vivid memories of fourth grade.  Not long drawn out memories, but vignettes that have retained clarity over thirty-four years.  First was sitting down in the front row of class and realizing that I was out of rows.  My inching forward year after year had led me to a front row seat and a still blurry chalkboard.  I could see nothing.  Finally admitting my handicap to my perfect-vision parents meant starting the year in the front of the room with my chubby face famed by brand-new large plastic framed glasses.

I don’t remember when in the year the spitballs began.  Mrs. Busick – a teacher name worthy of a Stephen King novel if there ever was one – would turn to the board and about the time the chalk dust scent reached me I’d hear the fwwt as tiny wads of spitty paper balls were blown through the barrels of Bic pens at the ceiling above my head.  As Mrs. Busick scratched her lessons some of the spitwads would miss their mark and go careening around the room.  Others wouldn’t be sticky enough and rain from the ceiling-tiles marked with holes like giant incomprehensible braille messages.  However, when the projectiles hit their mark the bulbous white insect larvae would dangle above my head waiting to drop and infest my hair and clothing with their sticky bodies.  Throughout the day I could hear them plop down around me, and each morning my desk and chair were littered with the dried husks that fell overnight.

My best friend’s younger brother was in my class, and I remember his guilty confession one night at her house, “I’m sorry about the spitwads, but everyone else is doing it, so…you know.”  I did know.  He felt bad doing it, but not so bad that he wanted to risk being the next target or not join in on the fun.

At some point the year got better.  Maybe Mrs. Busick finally put an end to the shenanigans, or maybe the boys moved onto someone or something else.  While the spitballs are one of my sharpest memories of fourth grade they weren’t life altering.  I haven’t spent hours at the therapist talking about those mean kids.  In fact, it’s only been the past few years that I’ve given the episode more than a casual thought, normally brought on by ceiling tiles in antiquated bureaucratic buildings.

The memory is important now, because tomorrow my daughter starts fourth grade.  I know we are different people.  She has perfect 20/15 vision – I never say “no” when our pediatrician asks if we’d like her vision tested even though she’s always had perfect sight.  (This 20/400 vision mom has the opposite bias of her own parents.)  I also know my daughter’s school would never allow systematic bullying of one girl… well… not for long anyway.  The memory matters because this is the year I expect kids to get mean.  I expect them to flex their intimidation muscles and try inflicting some pain.  This is the end of the nice years and the beginning of real life, and I want to prepare her but not scare her. How do I give her the resiliency my parents gave me, so that if she is the target she will be bothered, but not damaged?   What if she decides to be on the other end of those hollow pen barrels?  How do I teach her crappy she’ll make other people feel before she inflicts that pain?

Ah parenting.  What a journey this little person has brought me on, and how unexpectedly she’s forced me to relive my own past.  Fourth grade here we come.


Photo by JJ Thompson on Unsplash

When I am an old woman

Tuesday, I was a chaperone for a group of third graders at the zoo, and as we were leaving I met the woman I want to be when I am very old.  Racing to the rendezvous point by our deadline I encouraged the kids, “We’ve made it this far and no one has lost a leg.  Keep going…”  Well the hurrying stopped and the kids proceeded to pretend body parts were falling off.  They limped, dragged and moaned themselves to the exit of the zoo.  Thankfully we had three minutes and I could see the teachers, so I just laughed and kept encouraging them to move forward while the zombie leprosy overtook them.

Of course, while my kids were emulating disastrous disabilities we lurched past a group of really old people in wheelchairs.  Some had oxygen.  All had a helper pushing them.  One was staring at me and my kids.  Her red lipstick both matched the smart red jacket she was wearing and framed the beautiful smile on her face.  She clapped her hands in delight and then held her clasped hands to her chest watching the loud silly kids parade past her.  I don’t think one of them noticed her, but she noticed them, and we noticed each other.  As I walked past she smiled at me and gave me a little wave while she kept laughing.

The kids weren’t being insensitive to people who couldn’t walk, or who were missing body parts.  They were just playing and having fun.  The old lady could have been grouchy.  She could have wished that those loud kids would quiet down so she could enjoy the zoo sounds.  Other old ladies might have shook their heads at me for not making my group of six urchins behave.  But she didn’t.   She recognized the joy of the moment.  The fun that comes after six kids and one grown up have spent the day watching peacocks dance their mating dance, learning about assassin bugs, and picking which fish resembles their daddy.  The excitement of getting to ride back on the bus.  The pride of finishing their whole packet of zoo worksheets before lunch.  It was a great day for us and it was like that old lady had a crystal ball and could see the entire joy of the trip in that last single moment our group had together.

While we were doing our last count of the kids before boarding the bus, the old woman was wheeled past our giant group of 82 kids and chaperones, and still she was smiling.  Even as the kids did obnoxious kid things like play with toys they weren’t going to buy from the gift shop and try to trip each other.  Then she saw me and reached out, so I stepped forward and held her hand, just for a moment, and smiled at her.  As her dry paper skinned hand pulled out of mine I thought, I want to be like her when I grow up.

Earth Day in my Gardens

It’s Earth Day!  What better way to celebrate than to show you my gardens?  This post was written last year when Amanda Soule of Soulemama asked her readers to submit a piece about their garden.  Each month she selected one to share with her readers.  Well, my gardens never made her blog, but they can sure make mine!  Shall we go for a stroll?


Gardener: Johanna Levene

Garden Location and Zone: Denver, Colorado – Zone 5

Vegetable Garden Size: Home (300 sq feet) School (500 sq feet)

Image 1 - windows into the gardenSpring in the Garden 

How long have you been gardening?

I don’t ever remember not gardening.  My spring and summer childhood memories revolve around Mother’s Day flower shopping, mixing bright blue Miracle Grow water for tomato planting, and sitting very quietly with my mom listening for tomato hornworms as they chewed their way through our plants. When we found one we’d fling it into the street, except the one time we put it in a terrarium and watched it grow into a spectacularly terrifying moth.

Image 2 - Johanna in the gardenMe and Raggedy Ann in my grandma’s garden 40 years ago

I taught my husband to garden when we bought our house and he has taken over most of the maintenance while I still focus on the new plantings and the vegetable garden.  We’ve moved away from the chemical fertilizer of my childhood to organic gardening, but he brings a new kind of technology to our efforts.  As a mechanical engineer he can be found weekend mornings walking around our yard with his AutoCAD drawings of our garden recording the growth, blooms and colors of the plants.  He maintains both an electronic and hard copy of these maps:  he is a modern garden dork.

 Why do you garden?

Gardening is one pastime that brings our family of diverse interests together.  In our life we have two working parents and an only child and it’s easy to get swept away in all the things we “should” be doing.  Gardening makes us slow down and spend time together because we all enjoy being outside together playing in the dirt.

Where do you go for gardening inspiration?

My garden inspiration is largely found in walks through the neighborhood, visits to my parent’s house, and trips to my local nursery.  I have been known to steal seeds from a neighbor’s unique flower or bring a trowel when visiting a friend who has a particularly pretty iris.  

What’s your biggest gardening challenge?

In Denver late freezes, summer hail, and early freezes are the destroyers of gardens.  Last year we planted two Sundays before Memorial Day and our garden was demolished by hail two days later.  The year before we had Japanese Beetles for the first time.  We tried to control their population by borrowing a friend’s chickens for a weekend.  We believed in that solution so much that we got our own chickens last year in order to avoid loading chickens into the back of my Subaru.  Also chickens turn bugs into eggs, which is awesome.

Image 3 - Hail DamageLate May hail damage and our white picket fence.  Poor plants.

 What’s your biggest garden accomplishment?

For the past couple of years we have included our daughter’s friends in the planting and harvesting of our garden, and we’ve loved introducing new kids to our garden.  Last year our family expanded our influence to include seventy-five third graders at our public elementary school.  The parent who had been in charge of our school garden was graduating her oldest child, so when the school asked for volunteers we jumped at the chance.  We plant with the kiddos in late May and harvest in September.  We love every minute of it.  My favorite moment last year was at the plant sale when this tough eighth grade boy came loping down the stairs and said, “Do I smell tomato plants?  I love that smell.” Even the big kids get excited about the garden.  The school garden gives kids a focal point that they look forward to in the younger grades, own in third and fourth grade, and then remember in the later grades.

What do you most love to grow?

We grow flowers and vegetables.  In the veggie garden tomatoes and Anaheim peppers are our standby favorites, but the past few years we’ve grown potatoes, and they are magical.  The plant grows, the plant dies and you don’t know what the harvest looks like until you dig around.  We never fail to miss a spud or two so the potatoes just keep perpetuating.  Oh, and don’t get me started on pumpkins.  One day you have no pumpkins and the next day one has grown so big you can’t get it out of the tomato cage.

Image 6 - pumpkin in a cagePumpkin in a cage

In the flower beds we have tons of spring bulbs: tulips, miniature iris, hyacinths, crocus, and daffodils.  My heart thaws every February when the first crocus appears.  We’ve got color all year, but the flower gardens reach their peak in spring and early summer.  In Colorado, July and August are a bit hot and dry for many blooms.

If you have children, what role do they play in your gardening?

We include our daughter as much as she wants to be included.  From year to year her interest and commitment change, but we try not to force her into gardening because we think nothing ruins a kid’s love of “yard work” like being told they must participate.  Last year my husband and I did most of the planting – both times, stupid hail – by ourselves.  The spring vegetables are her favorite and she’ll head out to the garden before school to snack on lettuce and snap peas.  In the fall she’ll help us harvest the veggies and process them for storage.  Our daughter is also enjoying our new role as garden parents at school and is looking forward to her turn planting the school garden this year.

Image 7 - baby in the gardenGardening before she could walk eight years ago

 Can you share one or two of your favorite gardening tips?

We’ve lucked into a couple of natural pest solutions that make gardening easier:  plant cilantro right next to your tomatoes to keep the hornworms away, and a huge lemon verbena plant in the middle of everything keeps a variety of pests away and smells great when you *accidentally* crush it when weeding.

 Is there anything else you’d like to tell us about your garden?

We have an urban garden at our house, and it supplements our meals, but does not come close to providing all the food our family eats.  Our school garden provides an opportunity for kids to learn where food comes from and harvest a feast for the fourth graders in the fall.  Our gardens are as much about growing our family and community as they are about growing food.

 Can you tell us about yourself?

By day, Johanna Levene is a manager of a team of ten web developers, database administrators, analysts and projects managers that build web tools about renewable energy and alternative fuels.  In the evenings she transitions to a mom of a third grader which can include the roles of a soccer coach, gardener, meal maker, and pet caretaker of two cats, one hamster, three chickens, and a few snails.  Once the kiddo goes to bed, Johanna’s evening persona morphs into a crafter with a primary focus on knitting, and an aspiring novelist.  When she’s not busy with the rest of that stuff she manages to be a wife too.