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The Right Place at the Right Time

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Who would have guessed that 12 years later I would don the same dress and hat in a classroom full of 4 year olds?

You know what is pretty awesome? Dressing up in bright orange and blue and a hat with ribbons, turning on Bolivian music, and dancing with preschoolers. Even better is when two of the preschoolers in the room are your own daughters. That’s a pretty awesome.

As I drove home from the preschool, I had an interesting realization. That awesome moment in my daughter’s classroom had been brought to me courtesy of a series of twists and turns in my life and choices that I had made along my own path. It was very much an If/Then or Sliding Doors kind of moment.

I thought back to an afternoon in July of 2004, as I sat in my mom’s living room preparing a baby gift for a friend who had just given birth to her second child. As I stuffed newspaper around the package so that it could be mailed, I happened upon a wedding announcement for another high school friend. The announcement taunted me with the news of Dr. S. and Dr. S. Not only has she found the man of her dreams (presumably), but Mr. Perfect was also a doctor. And so was she!

There I sat, recently returned from spending two years as a Peace Corps volunteer in Bolivia, possibly frittering my life away. People with whom I had graduated were having kids, getting married, and becoming DOCTORS for crying out loud. I was looking for a job, debating the merits of different grad school programs, and living between my mom’s basement and my little sister’s couch. I questioned every step of my life path up to that moment. What on earth was I doing with my life?

Fortunately, my mom showed up soon after that, and reminded me that my life choices to that point had their own merits. I was fluent in a second language and knew enough of a third language to get myself into trouble. I had gained the perspective that only comes from living in a different culture. I had gained valuable work skills. I knew better than to judge myself based on my relationship status. Oh, and I didn’t want to be a doctor, so what was I all worked up about, anyway? Thanks mom. I needed that. 

Not long after that I had a job and an apartment and a boyfriend (whom I would later marry). Life went on. I found a career in informal education that brought joy and job satisfaction (if not copious amounts of money). I got married to my own Mr. Perfect who had his own set of skills, if not letters after his name. I had one kid. I had another kid. They are both pretty cute and funny. Mr. Perfect isn’t really perfect, but neither am I. My life has turned out just fine.

Not that I’m comparing. It isn’t like my 20th high school reunion is coming up around the corner. Oh, wait. It is. How did that happen??? 

Then today I had this magical moment of dancing Tinku with preschoolers.

It is multicultural week at K’s preschool, and I told the teacher that I could come in and share about Bolivia. I gathered up pictures and music and a dance costume, things and memories that I wouldn’t have if I had skipped the Peace Corps. I called upon my years of visiting classrooms with science museum programs, a job I never would have been qualified for or even considered without my Peace Corps experience. I walked into my daughter’s classroom and shared something that I never could have shared if I had had children earlier or gone to medical school instead of the Peace Corps. I had the flexibility in my schedule thanks to the confidence and skills that I have gained along the way to become my own boss and set my own schedule.

And then I had that moment. That moment that came to me courtesy of my own exact life path.

It is the kind of moment that I wish I could have packaged up and sent to my July 2004 self. It is the kind of moment that allows me to back up and see the natural beauty and purpose of my path. I have always been in the right place at the right time, all the way along the path, even when the path was bumpy and poorly lit. Today, looking backwards, I could see the whole map. “X” marked the spot on that preschool carpet.

Funny how I searched desperately for these moments and understanding in my 20’s, and then in my 30’s they just sneak up on me when I’m only half paying attention.

I suppose that any given moment is a sum of all of the moments that preceed it. So in some ways, that moment dancing wasn’t particularly notable. Except that it was notable. It was exactly where I wanted to be and exactly what I wanted to be doing. Any regrets or hesitations I may have had along the way were washed away in that moment. In that moment I was living out so many facets of myself that I felt whole and authentic in a way that was notable, special, and fulfilling. The Returned Peace Corps Volunteer. The mother. The not-a-doctor. The educator. The Tinku dancer. All one. All me.

I’m sure that on that day in 2004, as my mom calmed me down, she already knew that I would have a moment like this one (and many of them) along the way. She wasn’t worried. My hope for my own daughters is that they have the confidence and intuition to follow their own paths and find their own authentic self moments along the way, too.

May their souls, and yours, too, have celebratory moments of dancing to just the right music in just the right place with just the right people at just the right time.

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Tinku Atipay, the best Tinku dance group in Sucre, arguably the best in Bolivia, and probably the best in the world. That’s my gringa foot over on the far left.

 

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A Love Letter for My Dad on Veterans Day

Nearly five years ago, on New Years Day, I listened to a phone message that my uncle had left the afternoon before. Somehow in the hubbub of New Years Eve and the exhaustion of having a one-week-old baby, I had missed the call. As I listened to his voice in the message, my heart sank. “Hi, Tiffany. It’s your uncle. Can you give me a call?” The significance of the call might have been missed in the simplicity of his words, except for the fact that it may have been the only time in my life that he had ever called me directly. I knew that something was wrong, and my mind raced between my 93 year old grandmother and my dad who had been fighting throat cancer.

A few days later I found myself in Fayetteville National Cemetery listening to a 21 gun salute and watching as two sharply dressed young servicemen precisely folded a US flag and ceremoniously presented it to my grandmother. Amid the emotions of losing my father and the continued exhaustion of new parenthood, I was struck by the fact that my dad had requested a military burial.

I knew that he had been a Vietnam Era veteran, although he had spent most of his time in Korea and had not actually been in Vietnam. Period. Full stop. That was really about all I knew about his Army experience. Like many veterans of that era, he didn’t talk a whole lot about his time in the service – at least not with his kids. He had, in our last few phone conversations, told a few funny stories about his time in Korea. By that time, though, his voice was so hoarse and his pain so great that our conversations were short, and I was often the one who filled the time.

As Taps played, it occurred to me, that his military service may have played a greater role in my dad’s life than I had ever realized. The pomp and circumstance of a military funeral brought a proud punctuation mark to the end of a life that had been haunted by alcohol and lapses in parenting.

Since then, I have struggled with how to talk about him with my girls. As they grow and learn more about their Papaw, I want to be honest about his downfalls. Kiera has been extremely interested in talking about cigarettes recently, and, with some hesitancy, I have let her know that after a lifetime of smoking, her Papaw got very, very sick. But I also want them to know that he was a good man – a good man with flaws, just like the rest of us. I want them to know about his strengths. I want to know more about his strengths. I want to remember and honor the good in a man who played a part in making me who I am today.

Last year my sister and I returned to Fayetteville National Cemetery to be with our grandmother, aunt, and cousins, as my uncle – the last of the brothers, and also a Vietnam Era veteran – was laid to rest. We took the time to find our dad’s grave marker and took a moment or two, each with our own thoughts.

Later that day, surrounded by family that I rarely see, two of my older cousins talked about my dad. Perhaps because they were military men, themselves, he had shared more with them about his service. The stories that they told shed light upon a whole new facet of my dad that I had only just barely been able to make out before then. Once lost in the shadows, I began to find a man of whom I could be exceptionally proud.

Don’t get me wrong. I loved my dad. I just wasn’t always proud of his choices. Alcohol and depression had taken him out of my life for over a decade, and we had been working on rebuilding our relationship in the few years prior to his death. I was glad to have him back as a positive part of my life, and I looked forward to seeing him in the new role of grandfather. It wasn’t until afterwards that I learned that he had been given a prognosis of six months to live on the same day that I had called him to tell him I was going into the hospital to be induced. Our last phone conversation was me calling him at 12:30am on Christmas morning to announce Kiera’s birth and to officially pronounce him “Papaw”. Instead of six months, he was gone within a week.

During my run yesterday (a rare opportunity for peace and introspection), I pondered Veterans Day and my dad. I thought of my cousins, grateful for their service and for sharing a piece of my dad with me that I might never have known. I also found myself unusually thankful for my dad’s military service.

Dad in the Army

David Hall before he was Papaw. The best picture I have from that era of his life.

In part, I am proud of what he contributed to our country and the role he played in saving lives through his own unique skills. On a personal level, I am even more grateful for a new way to frame the man who was my father.

On this Veterans Day, it occurs to me that I have a very special story to share with his granddaughters. A story of action and honor. A story that follows a family tradition. A story of service to our country. A story that begins to connect the generations of our family together in an unexpected way that I am only just beginning to understand. A story that makes me proud.

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Wonder and Awe

When I was pregnant with Kiera, I remember walking through the mall and seeing a little girl with her father. She was probably around two or three years old, and she stopped cold, right in the middle the hustle and bustle around her as she stared up at the dramatic Christmas decorations that hung down from the ceiling. “They are so PRETTY!” she gasped. I stopped briefly to take in the moment. At 100 months pregnant (okay, maybe it was only eight months), I was eager to meet my own little girl, and excited to see the world through her eyes. I looked forward to seeing the world in a fresh new light – one where even the mundane or expected might be greeted with wonder and awe. I smiled as I saw her dad stop and kneel down next to her to join in her experience.

Nearly four and a half years later, seeing the world through my children’s eyes has been one of the most beautiful and moving parts of parenting. At Easter this year, I turned to my husband and proclaimed this Easter to be the best one ever. I had so much fun watching each of the girls experience the thrill of the egg hunt in completely different ways. Ali, paused to open each egg and chow down on the graham cracker bunnies inside. Kiera ran around gasping with joy each time she found a new egg. The volume of the gasps was in direct proportion to how clever she thought the hiding spot to be. She truly seemed to appreciate the fine art of finding the perfect Easter egg hiding spot, and her excitement was a tremendous pat on the back to the two “Easter Bunnies” who had worked hard the night before to find the perfect blend of clever enough for a four year old, and not too hard for a two year old. Indeed, it was the best Easter ever.

Here is the thing, though. As much as seeing the wonder and awe through their eyes has been amazing, what I didn’t expect was how much wonder and awe I would experience looking through my very own eyes as a parent. I knew that they would grow and learn. I am awestruck at how quickly it happens. I delight in watching little light bulbs go off as they make connections that I know they have not made before.

When Kiera was three months old, I was amazed by how quickly she had changed from the small, drowsy being that we had brought home from the hospital that did little more than eat and sleep (and poop). She had become alert and interactive. If we put on her favorite music, she would lay on her back, smile and wave her arms and kick her legs almost to the beat. I couldn’t imagine that the rate of change would maintain itself for the whole first year, but it did! At the year mark, I thought for sure that the developmental growth would have to plateau a bit or at least taper off. Little did I know that it was about to go into hyper-drive! And it hasn’t slowed down, yet.

Ali hasn’t let me down in the wonder and awe department, either. The best part is that her own development has been unique, so that watching her grow and learn has been just as wonder-full. Where as Kiera was chatting away with us at 18 and 19 months, Ali held onto her words until she was good and ready to say them. At 22 months, I was adding, “Will she ever talk?” to the list of questions for the pediatrician at her 2 year check up. I needn’t have worried. At 23 months, she went from saying a few occasional words to popping out of bed one morning and clearly asking, “Where my other Elmo at?” Whoa. She hasn’t stopped talking since!

Every day I am amazed by what my children can do or say that they couldn’t do or say the day before. Today we walked to the park down the street. It is less than a block away, so we go there often. They both amazed me with their bravery, each taking on new heights (literally), as they climbed and played. They beamed with pride as I congratulated them for trying something new or difficult or scary.

I know that kids eventually learn to climb ladders and balance on narrow beams. I am under no illusion that my children are advanced or any more special than any other child out there on the playground. I am simply amazed by watching their capabilities develop and their understanding increase exponentially. As a biology nerd with a special love of animal behavior, I relish in watching my little primates grow. I suppose I should have expected it. Growing up just seems so mundane and expected. Everyone does it. I just couldn’t foresee how awesome it would be simply because they would be my little primates, each carrying a piece of my heart with them as they grew.

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Just Another Day in Paradise

Strolling home from the little park down the street.

Dear Kiera and Ali,

I’m going to tell you a secret. When your daddy and I decided to have kids, I came home and told him that I was ready for a new challenge. Either it was time to start a family or it was time to figure out a way to live in another country… preferably one that might feel like a little bit of paradise. Your daddy was a good sport and contemplated the options with me. Ultimately we decided to go the kids route. I was right. Having kids has been the most challenging thing that I have ever taken on – and I was a Peace Corps volunteer in a country where the US embassy nearly evacuated the entire volunteer program due to political strife!

Of course, I don’t want you to ever think that I regret choosing you kids over paradise. First of all, your dad and I haven’t ruled out living abroad, and you might just end up spending a few of your formative years learning a new language, new culture and new ways to keep sand out of the house. Second, living in a different culture comes with its own set of daily challenges. Some day when you are old enough, ask me about the time I had to scale a wall to escape a Carnival party. And maybe some day when you are really old enough, I’ll tell you a few juicier stories. But I digress. The real point is that some days – most days, in fact – despite the challenges (an maybe sometimes because of them), I can find a little bit of paradise right here in our own home.

Today, I’m not sure if I was paying closer attention or if the calm after the storm of the holidays made everything feel extra peaceful. In any case, despite Ali’s tantrums, the unrelenting and continuous flow of dirty dishes, and the cold outside, today I knew I was truly living in paradise. Today, and everyday, these sometimes small hints and other times rushing waves of beauty remind me how glad I am that we chose to have kids. I am grateful for your perspective that helps me to find excitement and novelty in the seemingly mundane.

I have no idea if you will ever read these words or see these pictures, but I wanted to share them so that some day, you might see them and remember – if only as if it were the memory of a photo, itself, and not really a memory of the event – that on this day your childhood was filled with beauty and love. One of my greatest desires is that you find this paradise in your own lives no matter where you go.

With all my love,

Mommy

January 3, 2014 ~ Our Day in Paradise

Hover over pictures for captions. Click on a picture to see it in a larger slideshow.

Please forgive my indulgence in a few fun filters in some of my favorite photo apps!

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What a Difference a Year Makes!

To all of my dear, loved ones~ near and far, old and new, seen and unseen ~ my annual Love Letter for YOU:

The FamilyWell, it has happened again, folks. I arrived at the end of another year without managing to send out holiday cards. The project just didn’t come together for any number of reasons, not the least of which is the teeny tiny fact that finding time to put one together with a full time job and two little girls sometimes feels like a Herculean task. If you were once one of my regular blog readers, perhaps you have already noticed!

That said, I feel like this year is worth honoring. Yes, there were some challenges along the way, but overall, the tone of my holiday wish to my loved ones is far more joyful and less reflective than last year’s. Perhaps I’m getting more sleep than before. Perhaps the hormones have balanced themselves out. Or perhaps, in returning to full time work, I have been able to honor the parts of myself that may have been neglected in 2013. Or perhaps it is a little bit of all three and a little bit of magic. Truly, what a difference a year makes! The perfection of our imperfection was easier to see and feel this year, and there is a bit (okay, a lot) more spring in my step and magic in my world. Most importantly, I want all of you to know how much I wish the same for you today, tomorrow, and always.

Ali

 

As for the magic in our own lives, allow me to do what I love most. I offer you a list. The magic we have experienced in this past year:

The first utterance of the words “I love you” between two sisters

Impromptu dance parties featuring “Hot, Hot, Hot” and “Mambo Number Five”

Discovering a microwave recipe for an AMAZING single serving brownie (Your welcome)

Introducing our 4 year old daughter to skeeball and then playing three lanes side-by-side with our new little fanatic

Loving grandparents who live nearby and who make a Belize vacation get-away possible

Unexpectedly planning a Belize vacation get-away just in time for LobsterFest

My favorite sister to share an Arkansas road trip with

The grand-reopening of the park and playground four houses down the street

A dear, old friend moved back to Colorado

Any explanation about how the world works as given by a four year old

Straws

Aluminum Foil

And that is just to name a few! I’d love to know what magic you’ve seen in your lives this past year, too.

Of course, one cannot live on magic alone. So for 2015, I also hope that you find time to:

Kiera

As for our family our hopes and dreams for 2015 include:

Developing communication skills so that mom and dad can’t claim that they “don’t understand” ~ Mastering the skill of hopping ~ Successfully talking mom and dad into letting me have more juice (a girl can dream!)

Starting preschool in the fall ~ Anything that is pink and purple and sparkles ~ More trips to the park (some things never change)

Simplifying life to make room for writing, exercise and creativity ~ Celebrating each day that I have the privilege of being with my family

Finally finishing the predator fish tank in the basement ~ Convince the girls to clean up their toys ~ Planning a tropical vacation (some things never change!)

More belly rubs and more frisbees

And so, dear friends and family, I find myself at the beginning of a new year, thankful for the gift of perspective that came from 2013, so that I can truly appreciate what 2014 has brought. It wasn’t perfect. It had a few ups and downs, some tears and some laughs. But it was full of love and wonder and hopes and magic. I hope yours was, too. And I hope that 2015 brings even more!

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To everything there is a season: tipping points in parenting

Twenty-two months is a long time to not feel like one’s self. So Tuesday was the first day of the rest of Ali’s life, as she began a completely mommy-milk-free diet. I feel so fortunate to have been able to nurse her for so long (13 months), and I was a little sad on Monday morning, nursing her for what I knew would be the last time. I am also incredibly relieved to finally feel like myself again. I know that not all moms experience the same hormonal effects when pregnant and/or nursing, but over the last month, as I have slowly weaned her, I have felt myself waking up again. I have more patience with both of my girls, my husband, and myself. I feel fun and funny again. I am once again attracted to my husband as more than just the father of my children. My rose-colored glasses are settled back on the bridge of my nose, and life looks great.

I applaud all of the mothers who choose to nurse for much longer. I share my own experience to let others like me know that while “breast may be best”, we all have to make the choices that allow us to be the best overall mommas that we can be. For our family, we had hit the tipping point. My emotional well-being outweighed the benefit of shared antibodies and nature’s perfect food. I may mourn the special time that nursing offered me with my daughter, and I may fight the guilt that comes with weaning her before she made the choice, herself. That said, any guilt that might creep in is immediately counteracted by my understanding that I am being the best mother, wife and caretaker of myself that I can be through this decision.

So here is to making the hard choices and doing what it takes to be good parents… whatever that looks like for each of us. After twenty-two months of limiting and eliminating caffeine for a baby who didn’t like to sleep and who was very sensitive, I’ll be raising a cup of coffee to all of you!

Cheers

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Yes, my hands are full. I wouldn’t have it any other way.

The other day, as I walked out of both girls’ annual pediatrician check ups, a woman looked at me – Ali in a carrier on my back and Kiera with her hand in mine – and said, “You sure have your hands full!” If I had a nickel for every time I have heard that phrase since Ali was born, I might not be a millionaire, but I’d have at least enough for a grande pumpkin spice latte, maybe two. Too bad they aren’t giving out nickels! Needless to say, I had heard it before, so I smiled and nodded. It really didn’t bother me. What surprised me was what came out of her mouth next. “I only have one. I was smart.” And away she walked to her car, as I turned my attention to Kiera, who wanted to walk down the ramp by herself and insisting that I take the stairs.

I don’t actually think that the woman meant any offense. Honestly, I’m pretty sure she just wasn’t thinking. It was the smallest of small talk. Commentary with a stranger that lasts about as long as it takes for both people to walk through a doorway. If she gave any thought to her comment afterwards, she may have actually realized how thoughtless it was to insinuate that my choice to have two children must have been the opposite of a smart decision. No, I don’t really think she intended to call me stupid. I do, however, wish I had had the presence of mind to come back with a thought provoking response. Something slightly witty, but ultimately more mind-opening than anything else. A week later, I still haven’t thought of that one-liner, but I have given it a little more thought.

I suppose, when I think about it, I do have my hands full. With only 25 months between them, some days with a one year old and three year old can be a crazy mess of bodily fluid incidents, communication breakdowns and bumps and bruises resulting from the perfect storm of excess enthusiasm and insufficient coordination. On highly needy days, I have been known to carry both girls at the same time. Yesterday I walked from the car into the craft store with one kid on my back and the other in my arms. A driver – no doubt, observing that I literally had my hands full – waved me to cross in front of him despite the lack of crosswalk in that particular area.

On the other hand, I am 24 months older than my sister. Having two daughters two years apart seems like a perfectly normal thing to me. I have a lot of friends with two children that are about two years apart. So, yes, I am sometimes a little surprised that others find my parenting situation remarkable enough to say something out loud. Perhaps if I had five or six kids, then it might stand out as a lot of work. Then again, perhaps parents of several children feel the same about their five or six kids as I do about my two. I suspect that even my childhood friend who just gave birth to her second set of twins feels like her family is as manageable as anyone else’s. Well, at least she will once the second set is out of the newborn stage. At any rate, I hardly think that she feels any dumber than I do for making the decision to become pregnant a second time. I suspect, though, that she will have enough of those proverbial nickels to afford a great many pumpkin spice lattes.

While it may not be true for everyone, Mike and I consciously made the decision to have two children. We wanted them to be about two years apart. We have a multitude of reasons for our choice, but the two greatest justifications for our decision are both peacefully sleeping upstairs in their bedrooms right now. They will both greet us tomorrow morning with wide smiles. Our hands will be full – of hugs and snuggles. As a testament to our wisdom in having two, our home will ring out with laughter as the two girls create their own private jokes and play side-by-side. I’m not saying that we have glossy magazine perfection. We have moments like that and moments of having our hands full of tears and diapers. Sometimes those moments are simultaneous. But that is true of parenthood in general. Parents of one, two, ten kids will have beautiful moments and moments filled with meltdowns and potty-training accidents.

I would never suggest that there is a perfect or “smart” number of children to have. For some, one is just right. For others, their family will not be complete until number five comes along. Some will be glad to have their children 15 months apart, and others will space out their children four or five years apart. At some point, we are all going to have our hands full. When I just had one child, she made dinner preparation incredibly challenging. She was always right at my feet. Now with two, they entertain each other, and most dinners are prepared with a minimum of interruption. Going out in public with two is definitely more of a production, and getting everyone suited up to play in the snow can feel like a monumental accomplishment. I’m so glad to have more than one and less than three. For me, two is the perfect number.

This evening as I rocked Ali, humming her a song to settle her down before bedtime, Kiera walked in with a toy that plays lullaby music. “I just need to let Ali listen to the music,” she said with a thoughtful smile. “It is good sleeping music. It is,” she insisted earnestly. In that moment, as one child stood there quietly smiling and “helping” her sister, and the other snuggled in my arms, I knew – as I have known so many times in the past year – that our decision to have two was the right one. No doubts and no regrets. Yes, my hands are full, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

Laughing and playing together. I love having my hands full with these two!

Laughing and playing together. I love having my hands full with these two!