For the boy who made me a mother

You know those journals that ask you questions or give you writing prompts to tell your life story? I love them.

I got my mom one over twenty years ago and I think she filled out some of it. Then almost 13 years ago, I got a book that we were both supposed to fill out - it was a mother-daughter combo. It wasn't overly long, but it was a Christmas present for her in 2004 when she had just finished over 6 months of copious time spent in the hospital. After I gave it to her, she told me to take it back home and fill out my part first. So, I did. 

That trip was the last time I ever saw her. She died a year and a half later and the still-blank pages of that book make me sad.

Lately, Brandon has been asking me lots of questions about my childhood, so this Mother's Day, I thought I'd answer these as a gift to him. That, and I'll keep working through this book so he doesn't have to stare at blank pages when he's older.

What are your favorite memories of times you spent with your grandparents?

I never knew my grandfather on my dad's side; he died when I was only 8 months old.  And though I was 10 when my grandfather on my mom's side died, I really didn't know him well. He was a very nice man, but for various reasons, I hadn't spent a lot of time with him. However, I spent lots of time with both my grandmothers - they both even lived with my family (at different times). 

My grandmother on my mom's side is responsible for introducing me to Anne of Green Gables. She shared the movies with me and, when I saw they were based on books, I found and devoured them. That series is one of my all-time I-can-read-them-a-thousand-times-and-never-get-bored favorites. And, given that L.M. Montgomery is such a beloved Canadian author, it's interesting that I latched onto her books long before I ever even had a reason to think about moving to Canada.

My grandmother on my dad's side was a storyteller. My younger brother and I used to beg her to tell one particular story about her childhood over and over because it was so funny. And, since you are loving Captain Underpants so much these days, Brandon, you'll like this story, too.

My great-grandfather (my grandma's father) owned a drugstore in south Florida. One day when my grandma was about three or four, my great-grandmother (my grandma's mother) made Grandma a new pair of underwear and she loved them. She was so proud of them, in fact, that she went to her father's drugstore to tell him about it. When she got there, her father was in a meeting with a group of businessmen. But that didn't stop her. She yelled out to her father, "Daddy, daddy! Look at my new panties!" And she lifted up her dress to show him. In front of everyone.

What was your grade school like? What do you remember about your favorite teacher?

My memories of grade school are fading fast these days, but I would say that grade school was mostly uneventful. I attended two different elementary schools because we moved from a small town in central Florida to Tallahassee when I was eight, just before I started third grade. Up until that time, I attended the school where my mom was the special education teacher. Being in the same school as my mom was fine. I was a bit of a goody-two-shoes so the threat of teachers talking to my mom wasn't a big deal since I didn't get in trouble anyway. 

When we moved to Tallahassee, someone decided I should be tested for the gifted program and my mom agreed. I got tested and was put in the program, which meant going to "special" classes that most of my classmates didn't attend. This kept up until I graduated high school.

I have mixed feelings about being in the gifted program. I got a lot out of it, but it had some downsides too. That's a story for another day, though.

Who was your best friend? And what did the two of you like to do?

When I lived in central Florida, I had a best friend, but we lost touch when I moved. From 8 to 13 I didn't really have a best friend. Then Angie moved to town and started attending my school. We became friendly in 8th grade and got really close in ninth grade. We were tight all through high school and a bit of college - distance was hard to overcome back then. We go years now without talking, but she's one of a handful of people that time spent apart doesn't impact our ability to pick right up where we left off.

Angie and I liked to watch sappy movies and write sappy stories. There may be notebooks still in existence that we'd never give up because the memories are important. But we wouldn't want anyone else's eyes on those things.

Angie also happens to be one of the kindest, most amazing women I've ever known. I hope you choose your friends wisely and find good people who try to be as kind as you are, Brandon.

What did you do as a kid that got you into trouble at home or school?

When I was in third grade, I experimented with swearing for the first time. My first big, bad words were "shut up." Those two words seem pretty tame, but we didn't use them in my family. They were as forbidden as any curse word you could name. But one day at daycare, a little boy just would not leave me alone. I was really upset by whatever he was doing.

I remember shaking which means there were probably tears. I finally screamed at him to shut up. And he actually did. But I was terrified. I was sure the teacher was going to tell my mom what I'd said. She didn't, but I did. After hearing what happened, my mom wasn't even mad. She just talked to me about how I could handle the situation a bit differently if it happened again.

Sometime after that - the same year - a girl in my class did something (I don't remember what) that I felt warranted a scathing note from me. In this note, I decided to use every single real curse word I'd learned. Anyone reading that note could see it was my first time using them.

I don't remember what I wrote, but I remember my teacher talking to me about it and she knew I hadn't ever cussed before. I didn't get into major trouble because (once again) there was understanding that I had been provoked. 

However, I did learn very early that writing things down isn't a good idea. I don't know if the teacher told my parents about this, but now my dad will definitely know about it along with a couple of other people who still read my blog.

Growing up, what did you want to be?

For a really brief time, Christa McAuliffe inspired me to want to be an astronaut. And Whitney Houston made me want to be a singer. In truth, I didn't really have a clear idea of what I wanted to do until I was in high school. Up until then, I didn't really think about long-term plans. In high school, I thought I wanted to be a lawyer. Fortunately, I figured out before I went down that path that it wasn't the right career for me.

Outside of the family, what was the very first job you had that you got paid for?

Because I wanted to be a lawyer, my dad helped me get an unpaid internship at a law office as part of a program I was in at school. When school ended, the firm hired me part-time for the summer.

How did you meet Dad? How did he ask you to marry him?

I met your dad online and I've written about it before. As for the proposal, that's kind of a funny story. I was living in Florida until the week of Thanksgiving in 2000. I received my permanent resident visa from the Canadian consulate about three weeks before and I immediately gave notice at work.

Matt and I had planned for him to drive down in a minivan, we'd pack all my stuff into it, and head back to Ottawa. I still had to work two more days at the beginning of that week and I was filling all my free time with saying goodbye to family and friends - and packing, since I didn't get that finished before Matt arrived. 

On my last day at my job, Matt spent the morning running around to every building on the campus to grab empty boxes from the kitchens where the photocopiers were. After he'd collected as many boxes as he could, he came back to my desk to see if I would just leave already.

Of course, I hate leaving anything undone, so I said I couldn't and kept pushing through. Matt was frustrated - rightfully so - that he couldn't seem to get me alone and I was 100% oblivious to his frustration. At one point while I was working, he got down on one knee and asked right there in my cubicle. As he was about to ask, one of my co-workers was walking by and stopped to talk to me, but she saw what was going on and quickly detoured.

After that, Matt finally got my full attention. He asked. I said yes. Then I went around the office showing my ring to all my friends.

I think about that proposal and it's kinda perfect. It was such a stress-filled time and I love that Matt decided not to wait a second longer. He just pushed forward and did it. Because there's no perfect time and place, nor does there need to be.

What is the hardest thing that you ever had to do in your life?

Definitely moving to Canada. I knew I was leaving behind my family and my mom was living with chronic illness. I was going where I would be way too far away to ever help. I was going way too far away for us to be part of each other's day-to-day lives. I don't regret coming to Canada and my mom and family 100% supported my move, but that didn't make it any less difficult.

What is the greatest compliment that you have ever received?

When I auditioned to attend Florida State University's School of Music, I did so with four hurried weeks of vocal coaching on the two songs that I was singing in my audition. I had sung in choir at church all my life, but I'd never been in choir at school or had any real vocal training. My 18-year-old self had the audacity to believe that I was good enough without training. When I got in, no one was more surprised than I was. After my audition was over, it finally hit me that it was an extremely long shot. But I got in. Then I got an A from the faculty in my first jury. That was an amazing moment.

What is one thing you still want to do that you've never done?

Ever since I learned about Holland from my neighbor when I was a kid (he was from Holland), I've always wanted to go and see all the things in person that he shared with me in pictures and stories. When I finally get around to making that trip, I'm sure you and your dad will be with me. :)

Brandon, I hope you've enjoyed reading a little more about me this Mother's Day. You're the best kid a mom could ask for and I love you so much.


This list of questions came from here and I have to give a hat tip and thanks to my bloggy friend/fellow Spin Sucks Crazies buddy, Paula, for sharing it with me.

The futility and stress of anger

I have a tendency to react before I think through events that have happened. My mom used to say I was "cutting off my nose to spite my face," and I pretty much ignored what that meant until I was well into the process of adulting my way through life.

I'm trying to remember at least one situation that I made a choice in the heat of the moment that I later regretted. I know it happened - more often than I'd like to admit back in my teens - but I can't seem to dredge up any examples from the depths of my brain. After all, this year, my teens are officially over 20 years ago. (Whoa.)

The thing is, I learned this response from both my parents. My mom and dad both had strong views and reacted with equal strength at times. They weren't hotheads, getting angry at the least little thing. There was usually a good reason, but their reactions weren't as measured as I believe either of them would have preferred to be. It didn't help that my mother had to take steroids as part of her treatment for neurosarcoidosis. I'm pretty sure we're kinda wired to have strong feelings, too. That doesn't mean it has to be the default reaction, though.

Mom eventually mellowed, partly due to a therapist that helped her figure out how to look at things differently so that anger and irritation weren't the default response. (Frankly, when you're chronically ill, is it all that shocking when there are bursts of anger from time to time? Because that's a sucky way to live.) My dad has mellowed, too. I think living just gives you a different perspective in these situations if you're open to it.

Being with Matt for the past 19+ years, I've mellowed too. Matt is ridiculously slow to anger - in fact, I've only seen him get truly angry a couple times and it comes nowhere close to what most people think of as an anger response. It's been humbling to watch how he reacts and compare myself to him. I never went to therapy but watching others in potentially charged situations has helped me learn the value of taking a step back to breathe and think.

My son has been the best possible teacher in this. He does such frustrating things. Try to imagine someone who's more stubborn than my son and you probably won't succeed. (Well, unless you know someone who thinks very literally, black-and-white, wrong-and-right about the world.) Communicating with him about various issues and events can feel like you're driving in circles and can't find a single exit that goes to your destination - or even close to it. 

I've had to remind myself that there's a reason for his response to every situation. When I remember to stop and talk to him about it, I get to understand him better so I can help him navigate similar circumstances when he experiences them in the future. And I've reinforced those ideas for myself in the process. 

One thing I've started to do is go to trusted friends for a gut check. That one step of describing a situation and asking for their input has made an enormous difference. Especially when I'm advocating for my child. 

Report cards came home recently and I have yet to sign and send his back because of one teacher's grades and comments. They're infuriating, particularly since I had no warning, despite meeting with her just a few weeks prior. I've done several gut checks. Described the situation to friends who are removed from it. I've talked to a friend who has two children in classes with this teacher - one is Brandon's best friend. 

My view has been validated, but I haven't gotten to the point where I don't want to swear when I talk about it, so I'm waiting a bit longer to address it. Because I've learned how much anger stresses me out and that it won't help me to get what B needs from school. Instead, I want to use it to drive the right actions to make things better for him. 

Anger's not a bad thing. But I think we have to be careful how we express it and when. You never want anger to undermine your ability to get the right response and you certainly don't want to regret decisions, actions, or words you make, take, or say in anger.

Overcoming creative paralysis

When I started the year, I had every intention of spending a lot of time writing. And I have, but pretty much only for work. Not that I don't love writing for work because I do. It helps that I'm still somewhat ridiculously happy to have the title "writer" in an official capacity instead of being an assumed role. It's not like this is the first time I've ever been paid to write, so it's a little silly that I'm so happy about it. But I am and I'll enjoy it until the shine wears off.

The thing is, I feel so weird about the world right now. My anxiety spikes when I look at the news for very long. So I avoid it. Then I feel guilty for being uninformed. So I go back to looking at the news and I feel scared, sad, disappointed, scared, and anxious. 

Even engaging in conversations with friends about current events feels like a minefield I don't want to go near. Emotions are high. Opinions are strong. People are hurt and scared and so very divided, even where intentions are good.

I have so many thoughts that I'm uncomfortable sharing because of the charged atmosphere we live in today. It took me a while to be okay with that. I think it's important to speak up but if it's going to create even more anxiety than reading the news because of the divisive nature of these discussions then I can't be the one to speak up. And I can live with that. 

Now that I've gotten past the constant tug of war in my head, I feel like I can finally write again. I can't use most of the ideas I've had over the past two months but more will come. Besides, I've had some ideas for bigger projects that I'm excited about in the long-term. The kind of projects that end with many words on many pages surrounded by a cover and secured with binding. 

I need to find and focus on the positive. If I don't, I get blocked and anxious. I love that so many people are speaking up about the wrongs being done, though. We need them. And I appreciate them more than I can say. 

I just can't do what they do.

Three words to define my 2017

I'm pretty sure this is the first time I've ever picked three words for the year for myself. Yay me! For the uninitiated, here's what the whole picking three words concept is all about.

To be honest, I didn't think that hard about the words for this year. They came to me pretty easily. Then I started second guessing them, so I waited to write about my choices until I was sure they were the right fit. These three words are all about me taking action but in very different ways. The meanings (for me) are also multi-faceted, but you'll see what I mean.

Write.

So, I'm a writer - just in case you weren't aware. That's my actual job title and I was (and still am) pretty excited (read: stupidly giddy) to be able to say that, even if I've been calling myself a writer for years now.

Choosing this word felt like cheating at first - of COURSE, I'm going to write this year and likely every year for the rest of my days on this twirling rock. And, as mentioned above, it's my job. However, in my eagerness to get up to speed at my new job and improve my health, I've let my personal writing projects fall by the wayside. I don't regret this; it was a conscious decision and it was the right decision but only for the short term. The short term is officially over, but I always planned for it to be over with the holidays anyway. I'm right on schedule. :) 

Journaling has been an important part of my life for nearly 30 years. (Oy, 30 years!!! I guess you get to say that phrase more and more often when you hit the year of the big 4-0!) A friend of mine inspired me to get back to the habit of daily journaling over the holidays - or, uh, last week. I had a run of committed daily journaling for several weeks a few months ago, but as I ramped up my self-care, I found it difficult to make time to keep up the amount of journaling I was doing. So, as my coach urged me to do, I'm being kinder to myself by loosening my standards about when and how much I do. I'd rather keep the habit that I find so valuable and do less of it daily than drop it entirely and lose the benefit. 

My fingers have been so restless to fly over my keyboard and get words out on a blank page on the screen. It's the strangest, but most wonderful feeling to have ideas and words piling up in your head so much that your hands practically vibrate with the need to release them. That's a good sign to me that it's time to blog more and spend time writing the books that are in my head. 

Create.

This is closely related to "write" in some ways, but there's a difference. I've got several book ideas that I've been working on at varying stages. There's a lot of creating that needs to happen. The worlds. The characters. But that can only happen as I excavate the story. I need to make time to create these things. It's invigorating. It's not unusual for me to lose massive amounts of sleep when I get deep into the creating process. It's not unlike reading a really good book. 

The other part of this word is an idea that has been germinating for about six months. I don't know if I'm going to take the steps to pursue this idea yet. I only know I have to start taking steps to decide if it addresses a need and if it's the right time to pursue it. I think it could, but I need to know for sure before it starts to move past the idea stage.

Advocate.

The second part of "create"? That idea has a bit to do with this intention. It's going to be up in the air until spring no matter what. 

Generally, advocacy is always going to be important to me. It is for any parent of a child with special needs. But it isn't solely about supporting my son or the charities that support kids with autism. It's also about advocating for myself and my family. It means saying no to the requests that don't move me in the right direction. It means saying yes to those that do when I can make the time. It means considering the whole picture - my family, my work, me, my goals, our goals.

I'm a strong supporter of Ottawa businesswomen in addition to the occasional work I do for autism charities. I love these things and I want to always contribute to them, but my level of commitment will vary over time as my focus changes. This is part of advocating for me and my family and maintaining balance in the work I do for the causes I'm passionate about.

Choosing these words got me excited about 2017 and the possibilities that exist. One of my favorite quotes for the New Year is this from Brad Paisley:

We're down to 361 pages now, but it's never too late to jump in. 

Ch-ch-ch-changes ... good ones, too

Back in June of this year, I was working at home one day. Sitting here at my desk and listening to music while doing a task by rote. I didn't need to concentrate on what I was doing, so I started singing away to whatever I was listening to. It was one of those moments when I felt both productive and free.

Then I sort of woke up from my haze of bliss to realize a few things:

  1. I was very out of practice singing. Not surprising since I quit the choir I used to sing in over 13 years ago when I took a course that conflicted with rehearsals. But I've been missing it for a while and getting back into singing has been on my mind a lot.
  2. Being out of practice, I didn't have much stamina for holding out long notes. This fact hurts my technical perfectionist heart. It's embarrassing, even when I'm the only witness.
  3. Also, being out of shape, I wasn't going to get far in building up stamina without making some changes.

And something clicked for me. Something I've wanted to click into place for pretty much my entire life.

This minor life-shifting event happened right around lunch time and my stomach was starting to protest its empty state. So, I went in the kitchen, knowing as I did that I would prepare something that would truly nourish me. I also knew I was going to be more careful from that point on. 

The click had happened. I finally flipped the switch I'd been trying to reach for decades. 

I started to care about what I was doing to my body day in and day out because I could no longer do something that was once second nature and easy. I could no longer do something to the level of quality that I achieved when I was younger. I could no longer do something well that I really, truly love to do.

I made big changes right away. I dusted off my Fitbit Force and started wearing it every day. I struggled to get 4,000 steps in every day. Then I worked myself up to 5,000. Eventually, I got to 8,000 a day. Then I hit 10,000 and I was thrilled, but I knew I wanted to do more. I pushed harder and started hitting 12K every day for a week before a friend invited me to join a challenge in the Fitbit app. I left my goal at 12K, but it was pretty clear that this group had some high step achievers in it, which motivated me to push even harder. I get in 15K steps most days now, but I've gone as high as 30K, too, and I'm feeling amazing. 

I know myself and getting my workout completed in the morning is the best possible scenario for getting it done at all - I actually wake up at 4:00am (!!) most days to make it happen. Evenings are far too full of getting dinner, homework, play time, reading, and all the other end-of-day minutiae completed. So, I get 10-12K steps in before I even set foot out of the house. I am careful to eat well but not deprive myself so I never feel like I'm missing out. 

The result is that I've lost 30 pounds ... so far. I'm also stronger, have more energy, am happier in general and I've got a sizable pile of clothes to donate to someone that needs them. (I recommend Suits Me if you're in Ottawa and looking for a good place to donate work clothes.)

The benefit is that I can hold those long notes again. My voice is stronger and I love singing more than I have in a really long time. I even sang a bit of an Italian aria to some WBN Executive members when we were meeting in a restaurant a few weeks ago. (True story - it's a song that I sang for my music school audition 20 years ago!!! I still remember some of it.) I have never broken out in song in the middle of a public place before in my life. It was exhilarating and kind of terrifying but in a good way.

If I had to report on how I'm doing with my promise to myself to really live in this fortieth year of mine, I'd say I'm thrilled with how it's going. There's more to it than getting healthy (my new normal), but I'll save the rest for future blog fodder. 

Life is good - and I'm gonna keep living it to the fullest and healthiest possible.