Saturday, May 13, 2017

The Box: A Story About The Stories We Tell Ourselves

This is a story about a box. A small box, roughly six inches high and six inches wide. It's a story about the power objects have over us, and their ability to make us feel boxed in.

This is also a story about the stories we tell ourselves. The boxes we put ourselves into. 

But let me back up a bit...all the way to my 30th birthday, which requires throwing the car into reverse for quite a few miles.

My husband and I got married 3 days before I turned 30, so I passed that major mile marker on the road to adulthood in a bit of a blur. In fact, it didn't really hit me until the dust had settled on the wedding festivities. All of a sudden I had a new name, a new title, a new home, and a new number in front of my age. I was someone's wife. I was Mrs. Shand. I was a homeowner. And I was 30.

To give you an idea of how the transition went, shortly after we returned from our honeymoon, I sat in a doctor's waiting room reading my magazine as the nurse repeatedly called "Mrs. Shand? Mrs. Shand? Shand!" I just sat there, thinking to myself what a coincidence it was that someone there had the same exact name as my my husband's mom.

And the new house? Though it was just a few miles from where I had been living, and I had moved many, many times before, across the country and even around the world, something about this move was different. The neighborhood was lovely, but the neat rows of bungalow houses all looked exactly the same to me, with nearly identical streets forming a nondescript grid. The first time I went out for a run, intending to go about 3 miles, I got so lost I ended up running 9.

This was a house my husband had been living in for years. He had remodeled it from top to bottom with his own two hands. He knew every inch of that house from the inside out, every creaky floorboard, what every switch on the wall did. I didn't even know where to put my socks.

But even more disorienting was the idea that I was supposed to be an adult. I had a job, a roof over my head, and cupboards stacked with linens, cups, and dishes. But let's face it: I didn't have a clue. I felt like I was playing house. Pretending to be a grownup.

Mostly, I felt lost. Confused. Out of sorts. Who was I?

A few weeks later I came back from a run- just 3 miles this time- and found a package on the porch, marked "fragile" and covered in postmarks and stamps. Since this was back in the Stone Age of online shopping, a dark period in our history I refer to as Before Amazon Prime, this was still a bit of a rarity.

I took it inside, unwrapped it and pulled out the most beautiful, intricately decorated ceramic box. It was off-white, but painted in brilliant hues of green, orange, burgundy, and teal, with a tribal, almost aboriginal pattern of swirls and dots. I had never seen anything like it. I traced the ins and outs of pattern with my fingers, feeling the bumps and grooves of the artist's work. It was stunning, but it was just the beginning. The box had a hinged lid, and I lifted it and reached inside to reveal a gorgeous pair of dangly, beautifully beaded earrings. I held them up to my face in the mirror, their delicate sparkle ridiculously incongruous against the backdrop of my sweat-stained face and, messy, post-run ponytail.

I dug around in the package and pulled out a small, handwritten note. "Dear Mona," it read. "I was in Bangkok last week, saw these, and thought of you. Happy belated 30th birthday, sweet friend. Hugs and kisses, X" Of course, her name really isn't X, but we'll call her that to protect the innocent. X was a British woman I had met at a youth hostel in Australia years prior. At the time, I was a recent college grad with not much of a plan beyond that trip. She was successful documentary filmmaker "on holiday" as the Brits say. Together, we backpacked through the land down under- at one point we even took a temporary job picking grapes at a vineyard, and probably drank more wine than we helped produce. Then, we went our separate ways- me, back to the United States, on to grad school, and eventually to my married life. She relocated to San Francisco, where she continued her documentary work with a human rights organization, and never married. We kept in only sporadic  touch, but she always remembered my birthday- even before Facebook notifications.

As this gift perfectly illustrated, she was in so many ways the kind of person I wanted to be. The kind with a rewarding career that was making a difference in the world. The kind who picked up exotic souvenirs just because she was thinking of her friends...and then proceeded to actually send them!

I carried the box and the earrings up to my bedroom, wondering all the way what my friend's home looked like. I imagined it was a funky city loft full of tribal artwork and exotic pieces she'd collected in her travels, each one telling the story of some oppressed group and their struggle for basic freedoms. I wondered about the box. Did it, too come from Bangkok? Or perhaps another faraway land? Maybe the African savanna. Or a jungle in Central America. Who were the artisans who toiled over it? What story did that beautiful pattern tell? What secrets did it hold?

I put the earrings away and wondered where I could find a dress to match them. And a life to match the dress. I hoped they would do OK in metro Detroit, in my life, where I was in the midst of a career change and quite possibly the oldest unpaid intern to ever make coffee in a television newsroom.

The box I carefully carried to my bedside, and over to my nightstand. It looked like hopelessly out of place next to the Pottery Barn catalogue, but I figured we'd adapt. Or maybe what I really hoped was that it would rub off on me. That somehow if I kept the box and kept it close, I would have magically have all it seemed to represent- the international career, the beautifully decorated home, the global stories.

You can imagine how well that worked out.

Years went by, and the box stayed in that same spot next to my bed. When my good friend insomnia came for its nightly visit, I'd lie in bed and trace the patterns with my finger. I was pregnant with our first child and wondering how in the world I was supposed to take care of another human being when I still hadn't figured out this whole grownup thing for myself. I wondered what we had thrown ourselves into. I wondered if I should get throw pillows to match that box. I wondered if we had any matches so I could light some candles. I wondered what my future kids would think of a parent that didn't even have their act together enough to light candles or have throw pillows. I looked to the box for answers- it had none.

Mostly, I felt lost. Confused. Out of sorts. Who was I?

Along with the new baby, the next few years brought a new house in a new city. Another new baby. And then another one. The box, of course, came with us and still sat in its mismatched place of honor next to my bed. Of course, there were many, many more sleepless nights. More staring at that box at 3am, wondering why my life's twists and turns weren't as beautiful as its swirls. Why my life didn't seem as vibrant as its rich hues. Why my relationships weren't as harmonious as its patterns. I'd trace the path of each curlycue, praying that I had taken the right one in my own life. While nursing my babies in the middle of the night, I would reach over and slowly open and shut its lid, over and over- trying to find my own rhythm in its gentle snap. It was a habit I'd developed as a child, with another box- a pale blue Holly Hobbie lunchbox, as I sat, more often than not, alone in the school cafeteria. I'd focus on opening and closing its metal clasp, hearing that satisfying snap so I wouldn't have to hear the silence all around me.

Back then as a child, and once again a grownup, I felt lost. Confused. Out of sorts. Who was I?

A few years later I remembered hearing that if you couldn't sleep, you should try writing down all the things that are bothering you in an attempt to clear your head before bed. Between the kids, my work, my parents' failing health, my own health challenges, and my guilt and personal neuroses about pretty much everything, I had enough to fill a novel, but instead, I decided to fill that box. Armed with a pack of post-its and a pen, every night I tried to take the weight of the world off my shoulders and quite literally box it up.

I started with the easy stuff- the things that danced around the edges of my mind during the busy daytime hours, but really came out to party at 3am like: Research summer camps. Dig out bins of summer clothes. Organize bins of clothes. Be more organized. Try not to yell so much. Teach her to stand up to mean girls. Figure out why girls are so mean. Figure out why grown women are so mean.  Did I hug my kids enough today? Did I hug my husband at all? Do they all know how much I love them? I shoved all of that in the box...but still found myself wide awake, staring at it every night. Sometimes it even seemed to taunt me, its curves and twists making me think of the ones I had taken...and the ones I had left behind.

So I dug deeper. I'd write down things in my life that I really hated and stuff them in the box. Parkinson's Disease. Septic shock. Aphasia. Femoral acetabular impingement syndrome. Religious persecution. Sectarian violence. The children of Syria. Oh, magic box, why can't you take these struggles away? Take them to your far away home on a remote tropical island, or a desolate hillside, or the rainforest, or wherever it is you came from. Just take them away from me. The box betrayed me yet again.

A few months later my own health issues came to a head and I found myself more lost, confused, out of sorts, and unsure of who I was than ever. I was a writer with nothing to say. A runner who could no longer run. A mother who could barely take care of her kids. One night I hobbled up to my bedroom on crutches, trying so hard to hold it all together. As I eased myself down onto the bed my crutch went flying, I reached out to grab it, only to be hit with a dagger of pain to the surgical site. In the process, the box was knocked to the floor where it spilled open, scattering all the pieces of paper around the room. Tears poured out as I looked down at the mess.

I HATE THIS STUPID, STUPID BOX! I yelled, slinking painfully to the floor. Seeing it there, it all became clear- on the outside, that box was everything I wanted to be but wasn't. And on the inside, everything I was, but didn't want to be. I wanted to smash it to bits, but that would just be one more mess in my life I couldn't clean up. So I glared at it, and for the first time noticed something on the bottom. I used a crutch to reel it in, hoping it was the artists' name or initials so I could at least curse him or her more personally. But what I saw when I pulled it closer was strangely familiar. A little too familiar.

It said, Kirkland Signature.

That's right. My box...the one that had tortured me for artsy fartsy, indiginous, free range, free trade, artisanal box...was from COSTCO.

It didn't come from a tribe deep in the Amazon, or a war-torn East African jungle. It wasn't carved with the tears of ten thousand weeping widows or coated with the ground up dust of unicorn hooves.

No, it came from Costco, somewhere between five dollar rotisserie chicken and the 50 pound bag of cat litter, with the melodic sound of the seafood roadshow in the background.

Let's be clear- this has nothing to do with my lovely friend X who sent me the box. She did nothing but offer a gesture of kindness. I was the one who covered it in magical, mystical, powers and measured myself against it for years. And as it turned out, it was just an ordinary box. A box that probably came in a 6-pack of other boxes. I cleaned up the papers the best I could, picked up the box, and stuffed it in the bottom of my closet.

Not long after, my daughter was wrapping up work on a big 2nd grade project. Together, the class builds a community, with each child completing a building for the town guessed it, a box. She had worked diligently on it for weeks, and brought it over to show me when she was done.

"You did a beautiful job," I congratulated her. "It's perfect."

"Mom, it's not perfect," she corrected me with me, her tiny hands on her hips. "But it's my box, and I love it."

That night I once again found myself awake, my heart racing as I stared at the ceiling since the box was no longer by my bedside. I got up, pausing to watch my loving husband snore...I mean sleep. I went from room to room, peeking in on each of our slumbering children, watching their chests move slowly up and down until my own breathing slowed to matched theirs. I ran my hand over the spots on the walls where the paint was peeling, the moldings we've never gotten around to finishing, the jumble of family photos in mismatched frames on the table, the crucifix on the wall.

"It's not perfect." I told myself. "But it's my box, and I love it."

The next morning when I woke up, I dug the ceramic box out of my closet, took it to the garbage can, and threw it away.

Don't get me wrong- more often than not, I still feel lost, confused, out of sorts. And I probably won't get this grownup thing down until it's much too late. But I guess little by little I'm figuring out who I am and this much I know:

I'm someone who is learning to think outside the box.

Sunday, April 2, 2017

Thanks for Nothing, April the Giraffe. Really- I Mean That!

Courtesy: Animal Adventure Park 
If you would have told me a month ago that I'd be spending what little free time I have watching a pregnant giraffe pace around her pen and not have a baby...well, I probably wouldn't have answered because I was very busy watching a pregnant giraffe pace around her pen not have a baby. I mean, seriously- April has been "close to labor" FOREVER. I'm starting to think I might give birth to a baby giraffe before she does. But back to my original point, if you had told me TWO months ago that I'd be spending ANY time watching a pregnant giraffe do ANYTHING, I would have said you were nuts. And yet, here I am, locked in a dysfunctional relationship via my computer screen with a silent animal hundreds of miles away. Ain't technology grand?

For those of you who haven't yet been formally introduced, April's story simple: it's a classic girl giraffe meets boy giraffe meets livestream webcam meets entire world kind of thing. And I, like millions of other people, can't seem to get enough.

Though April has been a viral internet sensation for some time, the first few times I tuned in, I didn't really see the appeal. After all, she was just standing there, looking...well, giraffe-ish. You know, enormous and spotted and gangly-legged. I watched for a few minutes and then turned it off, because it was kind of boring. It's not like giraffes make a lot of noise, or do much of any interest besides eat and poop...and quite frankly I see enough of those behaviors around my house. There just wasn't much happening.

But then for some reason, I kept checking back, and the more I did, the more I realized that was the best part: there just wasn't much happening. I've watched her eat, drink, walk around and occasionally canoodle with her baby daddy Oliver. Some days, I've even watched her sleep. It's about as simplistic as entertainment gets, and given the ever-crazier-by-the-minute world we're living in, that's a pretty amazing thing.

When you get right down to it, April is just a big, goofy-looking animal who is perfectly content in her own patchwork quilt skin. Some say giraffes are an example of God's majesty, but I think they point more to his sense of humor.

She's having a baby, which many of us can relate to, but she sure is a heck of a lot more calm about it than any expecting mom I've ever seen. I was two weeks overdue with my first child, and had there been a live broadcast of my behavior, my husband and I would still be paying off the FCC fines.

With April, there's no obsessive compulsion to decorate the nursery, or guilt at not having done so. No mommy wars of any sort. There's also no talk of Russian scandals, executive orders, or FBI investigations. I haven't asked her, but I think it's pretty safe to say April is a non-partisan giraffe with no opinion on the current administration, the role of the media, or the proposed federal budget.

She's just a mom-to-be, waiting on nature to take its course, and reminding us that it will happen when it happens. I believe that's a special something many of us used to possess called "patience."

I've heard some experts speculate that April's lure has something to do with giving us a glimpse into a world we'd otherwise not see. But I think it has less to do with the lure of the exotic than the calm of the familiar.

When I see April, I remember long, sweet walks through the zoo with my dad when I was a little girl, and the way he pronounced it "gee-RAHF." I remember my own world before my babies came into it- the hopes, dreams, and expectations I carried right along with each pregnancy. I remember that it is possible to just be.

To be honest, I'm not even interested in watching the birth of the baby- that sound very messy. So for now, I will soak in these last minutes with April and be thankful that relief and escape are just a livestream away.

Friday, February 3, 2017

He Put on a Hat and Everything Changed

I've never been a hat person. I have way too much hair and it's far too unruly to be contained under any dome-shaped contraption. If I try, it will either adhere itself directly to my head, or rebel completely and explode out the sides. Or both. Hats are just not my friend.

And now, I have another bone to pick with hats. You see, my oldest son- he's almost ten. In so many ways, he's still a child, and even though he's getting bigger and stronger, deep down he's still my little boy with the baby-soft skin and the stuffed animals lined up on his bed. But he grew up one day all at once, and I blame his hat.

It was a chilly November morning and he was getting ready to run a local 5k. My son came downstairs in his version of winter weather-appropriate running gear, which is another way of saying "shorts and a t-shirt."

"You'll need to bundle up- it's really cold out there," I told him, which of course is Mom Code for "You are NOT leaving the house like that!"

He went into the mudroom and put on a sweatshirt, gloves, a knit hat with tassels, and at least five years.

As he walked back into the kitchen, my jaw hung low as I searched in vain for my child who seemed to have been replaced by this much older, more confident boy with the hat on his head.

He pulled the hat down over his ears, the edges skimming chiseled cheekbones I'd never noticed, and framing eyes that held secrets no adult could not unlock, even if they tried to remember.

I marveled at the newly developed muscles rippling under his skin as he laced up his shoes.

I squinted in an attempt to bring the 9-year-old back in focus, and I caught a glimpse of something I'd never seen in him- never even considered might be lurking underneath.

A man?

I watched him without words, like you watch your favorite movie, my brain attempting to binge on the vision in front of me.

My heart was racing as if I'd already gone for a run. What had I done? I wanted to rip that hat off his head, to hold him close until the little boy reappeared- the one with the chubby cheeks who wore clothes sized with the letter "T" and smelled like baby wash and maple syrup.

But what kind of mother would I be if I sent my son out in the cold without his hat?

And so he ran- that older boy with the hat- he ran really fast. So fast that he worked up a sweat and removed the offending headwear. As he peeled it off to reveal his matted, damp hair, I saw his familiar goofy grin reflected in the finisher's medal around his neck and finally felt the earth return to its normal orbit. I exhaled for the first time in what seemed like hours and felt my breath slow right along with my little boy's.

He was back, and even as I squinted at him in the morning sun, I couldn't find any trace of the future man who had tried to take his place.

A few weeks ago we were at a large family gathering and when it was time for my father to go, he asked me to help him with his hat.

It was the same hat he's had since my childhood- the big, furry, oblong kind with flaps that come down over the ears. The kind more suited to winter in Siberia than suburban Detroit. I picked it up and took it over to him, and bent over his wheelchair so I could put it on his head.

As I held the hat in my hands, its soft, downy fur tickled my hands, melted my heart, and transported me three decades back. That hat smelled like Old Spice and Brylcreem, like winter mornings of my youth, when my dad, freshly showered and shaved, firmly pulled his rubber shoe protectors over his polished Rockports and placed his hat on his slicked-back hair before heading to work.

I looked at him and saw my 8-year-old self reflected back in his thick bifocals. I squinted and tried to bring the memory more sharply into focus, but before I could grab it, before I could dive back in time, it was gone.

I wanted to rip the hat off his head, to hold it close and keep it all to myself. But what kind of daughter would I be if I sent my dad out in the cold without his hat?

I focused all my attention on him as my son helped push the wheelchair out, the way you focus on the last few chapters of your favorite book, not wanting to miss a single word before the beautiful story concludes.

When it was time for us to leave I gathered up the kids, their shoes, coats and other assorted winter gear.

"Put your hats and mittens on- it's really cold out," I warned them.

"I didn't bring a hat, Mom," my oldest confessed.

"It's OK, my love," I told him as I bent down to kiss him, burying my face in his hair so he wouldn't see the relief in my eyes.

I put one hand on the top of his head- partly to guide him, and partly to steady myself- and together we headed out to brave the cold.

Monday, January 2, 2017

Snow Day Survival Guide

They are the two words every child wants to hear in the winter: "SNOW DAY!" But having kids home all day can be a challenge for parents. Here are a few ideas to get you through the day.

First and foremost, get the kids outside! If you don't already have child-sized shovels, they're a great investment. Snow toys like brick builders and snowball makers come in handy as well. One of our favorite things to do is to fill a squirt bottle with water and food coloring, and use that to make snow art. It's a great way for little ones to practice letter formation as well!

We also love to bring the snow make snow ice cream! The recipe is simple, the results are delicious!

And who says you need to go outside to make a snowman? No offense to Elsa and Anna, but the only ones I wanna build are made out of marshmallows.

Snowflakes are fun to make this time of year- they will take any adult right back to their childhood! For the simplest version, just use a coffee filter (what else are you going to do with that stack, now that you've switched to a Keurig?). If you're ready to get a bit more sophisticated, try a 3-D paper snowflake. They only require paper, tape, and scissors, and older kids can easily complete them. You'll find the instructions here.

Our final snowflake was a fun science experiment- it takes 8-12 hours, but hey- it's a snow day so you've got nothing but time! My oldest loved making these Borax rystal snowflakes, but we also made other cool shapes, including his initial. Instructions are here

I'm a big fan of projects the older kids can do with the younger ones, and homemade playdough and finger paint both fit that bill. With a little supervision at the stove, older kids can mix these up and then the whole crew can create...because you're never too old for arts and crafts! Both of these are made with common pantry ingredients and are non-toxic. 

A snow day is also a great chance to help your fine feathered friends...birds actually have a much harder time finding food when the snow hits, so take the opportunity to make a few easy bird feeders with your kids. You and the birds will reap the benefits all winter. Here are some ideas. 

Another great way to pass the time on a snow day is with some simple games- we keep busy with indoor obstacle races, and the many "Minute to Win It" style games you can find on Pinterest. One of our favorites is this one where the kids have 1 minute to move as many M&Ms as they can from one plate to another using a straw. 

Thanks to WDIV for having us on to share these ideas- happy snow day to all! 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Finding My Voice: From A Chance Encounter Years Ago To A New Year's Goal

Most broadcasters get their start in small markets- places like Glendive, Montana; or Alpena, Michigan, but my first gig was international.

It was 1994, I had recently graduated from college, and I was stranded in the Australian capital of Canberra. How I got there is a long story that involves first love, first heartbreak, and an overnight bus ride, but I'll save that for another time. Suffice it to say I found myself with several hours to kill in an unfamiliar place.

The sun was barely peeking out of the early morning sky, and in my teary, weary, travel-ragged state, I was hardly in the mood to tour the sights. Still, part of me knew this was quite possibly the only time in my life I'd have the chance to see Canberra, so I'd better pull myself together and take advantage of it. Surely there were national treasures, museums, and galleries that I should visit so that I could broaden my worldview and deepen my understanding of that great nation on the other side of the world.

Just one problem: it was 7am on a Sunday morning and all the bastions of Australian culture were closed. I had about 5 hours to kill before my next bus, so I stashed my backpack in a locker, grabbed a cup of coffee from a corner deli and wandered the streets.

About an hour into my aimless jaunt, I stumbled across a large building that looked interesting, and by that I mean it appeared to actually be open. It was the Australian Institute of Sport.

I walked up the steps, pushed open the door, and found myself face-to-face with a dark-haired, red-nosed man sitting behind a desk, surrounded by a pile of Kleenex, a manual of some sort, and a telephone.

"(Sniff) Well, good morning (cough cough cough)," he sputtered, and then continued in an extremely hoarse voice. "We're not quite open (sniff sniff) but now that you're here, I'm going to need to you do something..."

"Umm...what??" I replied nervously, as headlines of international kidnappings and trafficking rings flashed before my eyes, and I wondered why I couldn't have just wandered right past this place. It's not like I even understood cricket. Or rugby. Or Australian men. (oops, I digress again...)

"We just got a new phone system (GIANT COUGH) and I need to record (SNIFF) the outgoing message on it, but as you can see...or well, hear...(SNEEZE), I'm a bit under the weather. Could you do it for me?"

Relief flooded through me. "I guess I could, but in case you can't tell, I'm from the United States. Shouldn't the official message for the Australian Institute of Sport sound a little more....Australian?" I asked.

He looked right at me said, "You have a voice- that's what matters."

So right there and then, I scored my first paid job in the industry: I recorded the outgoing answering machine message, giving the days and hours the Institute was open in exchange for free admission and a refill of my coffee.

Shortly after my splashy debut on the international broadcasting scene, I caught a bus back to Sydney, and eventually a very long flight back to my regularly scheduled life in the US. I think it's safe to assume that my message has long since been erased from the phone system of the Australian Institute of Sport, but that random stranger's message to me was permanently archived on my brain: You have a voice- that's what matters.

I thought about it in those emotional, jet-lagged days upon my return to the States, where I felt lost and silent.

I thought about it in the years that followed, as I tried different career paths and countries; all those years when I said too much, struggling to fit in.

I think about it now, as I grow deeper into motherhood, when it often feels simultaneously like no one and everyone is listening.

It's no coincidence that "voice" and "vocation" come from the same root: the Latin "vocare," which means "to call." When I think of what it means to have a "voice," I think of the bridge that connects our inner and outer worlds. It's the sweet spot where body, heart, mind, and spirit overlap. It's not just the sound that comes from our mouths, but the one we make in the world.

As this new year begins, those words speak to me once again: "You have a voice- that's all that matters." Will I be strong enough to be a voice for justice and a voice for love? A voice of truth and compassion? A voice that says what it means, and isn't afraid to say no? A voice that is unafraid to speak alone? Because that's what matters.

About a month ago, my daughter gave her first book report of the school year. Despite being a voracious reader, and the daughter of a broadcast journalist, she's a shy flower who breaks out in a sweat at the mere thought of speaking in front of her class.

"Mommy- I don't want to do it," she cried that morning, her voice shaking with fear. "Why can't I let someone else read my book report for me?"

I took her on my lap, held her hands in mine, and looked right in her eyes.

"Because there's only one YOU," I told her firmly. "You don't have to be the loudest, you won't always have all the answers, and not everyone will always like what you have to say. But nobody, NOBODY can speak for you, sweet girl."

"You have a voice- that's what matters."