A Message from Past Me

April 15, 2016   

If your 21-year-old self stopped by with a message for your 45-year-old self, what would that message be?

A few weeks ago, I was suddenly reminded of a moment in my past, and it grabbed my attention like a 24-year cicada buzzing by.

I don’t typically publish my opinions, but there have been a few exceptions and this moment in 1992 was one of those rare times when I took a stand. In response to a column in the Marquette Tribune that was inflammatory toward gays and insensitive toward people with AIDS, my college roommate and I wrote a letter to the editor of the Marquette Tribune, in support of gay rights.

My long-term memory isn’t worth much. Up until a few weeks ago, if you had asked me to describe the circumstances that prompted my friend and I to write that letter to the editor, I would have muddled my facts. I would have guessed wrong about who my co-author was. And I certainly wouldn’t have recalled the name of the student who wrote the harsh sentiments in the campus paper that spurred my friend and I to pen a response.

So, when the author of that opposing column and her college writings made headline news in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, I didn’t see the connection to my own story. She was then a Wisconsin State Supreme Court Justice and a candidate for a 10-year term on the court. The opposition to her campaign dug up her Marquette Tribune opinion pieces, and she was asked to account for them. She said she was embarrassed by what she wrote. I didn’t recognize her, and I didn’t imagine that her story had anything to do with that-one-time-I-published-my-opinion-in-college. That is, until I clicked on the attachments in the online article and was startled to see my name in one of her letters. Among the pieces giving her political heartburn was a strongly-worded rebuttal to what my roommate and I wrote.

Memory behaves strangely. Even though I had forgotten some of the details, I have long carried an emotional imprint of the courage it took to submit our letter to the campus paper. I remember I was very, very nervous about publishing my views in support of LGBT issues, which were still somewhat new to me. I was raised in a conservative Catholic environment. I am not sure what we were taught about gay people, but mostly I think we weren’t sure whether gay people really existed, and if you don’t believe in people, you tend not to worry about their rights or their feelings.   

At college, I made new friends. Over time, a number of these friends identified themselves as gay or bisexual. Some of them came out to me. Some of them confided what they went through as they came out to other friends or family. From listening to their experiences, I developed more sensitivity. Marquette is a Catholic University, and its anti-discrimination policies were a matter of public discussion. The second thing I remember about writing that letter is that it felt good to stand with my friends, and on the side of inclusivity.

Seeing my name pop up in the this backstory brought that past moment into this one, and made my heart pound. I wondered what our letter said, so I contacted the Marquette campus library. The nice archives lady who answered the phone happened to have a scanned copy handy. She said I wasn’t the first person to call her looking for this item.

I hoped like hell that whatever we wrote wasn’t too embarrassing and that whoever else was reading it would be forgiving. We were all so young.

The archive lady sent me the pdf by email, and I took a deep breath before reading. 

We opened our letter the same way that the opposing writer opened her column, talking about ignorance and folly on college campuses. Then we talked about the fight against AIDS and how it was deservedly a bipartisan effort. We walked through the reasons that AIDS victims are deserving of compassion, and closed by making the case for gay students to be supported by the student association. (I noticed there was another name attached to the letter in addition to my roommate and me. Neither one of us can recall his involvement.)

Though it wasn’t fantastic, I was relieved to discover it was a pretty even-handed response. I can’t say how much of the letter was my co-author and how much was me, but I feel a stronger connection to this last line – “Social justice includes compassion, understanding and respect for humans of every race, religion, age, sex and sexual orientation.”

I was relieved to know that overall it was a positive message, and one I stand by even now.

I’ve heard that life isn’t as linear as we like to think it is, but actually more like a spiral. So the same past lessons will circle back around. This seems especially true for those of us cruising through our 40s.

Reading the letter made me think of my college student daughter, who is now nearly the same age I was then, and of all the conversations we have had on related topics. I thought about the time a few years ago, when Carolyn asked to go to the gay pride parade in DC, saying “This is the civil rights issue of our time.” I replied that it was definitely one of them. At the time, the US Supreme Court decision on whether to make gay marriage legal across the country was in the news. We went together to the parade.

My daughter takes the lessons of inclusion a bridge further and she has taught me a lot – like how to be respectful to her friend who is transgender and how to handle which pronoun to use, something I stumbled with at first. “It’s really not that hard,” she said. “It’s all about accepting the person.”  

For me, the sudden reminder of this particular past moment was profound, as if my 21-year-old self had just dropped by to tell me something. 

I chose to wait until the coverage of that news story in my home state died down before writing here about what that might be. I didn’t want anyone to misconstrue this post as a commentary on the election. (If you are wondering, she won.) 

Nor did I want to weigh in on the debate regarding the value of excavating past writings of public figures. I do feel certain that for the rest of us, there is something to be said for the ‘right to be forgotten.’ Not every word needs to live forever. People do change.

But there is another reason I hesitated. I actually posted a version of this piece and then lost my nerve and took it down. I showed it to at least three people for a second opinion, which I don’t normally do with my blog writing. And then, in a moment of quiet, I realized what my problem was. I was dancing around the heart of the matter — that I am just as much a chicken now as I was when I was 21, just as anxious about what others will say. 

And that, I think, is the pop-up message from the past Amy. She would like to remind me, and actually all of us, that it’s not your job to play it safe to make people like you. It’s your job to be you. Sometimes that means speaking your truth, and standing up for tolerance and understanding. Words have power, and there will be detractors. That’s okay. Compassion will stand the test of time.

So, set your fears down. Let love be your guide. Keep doing what you do. Keep writing.

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Stitching Together Lessons on Life

It’s important to surprise yourself. Say yes where you would have thought to say no. Take a different route home. Sprinkle some cinnamon where you would have added sugar. The smallest of adjustments might change your life.

One day, a couple of months ago, I took my lunch in the cafeteria at my office building much later in the afternoon than normal. The place was nearly empty. I saw my friend Simi sitting by herself, or at least I thought she was alone. As I approached and asked to join her I noticed that the table of women near her were friends of hers. As Simi welcomed me to sit, I noticed something else about these women – none of them had food on the table. Where their lunches should have been were cloth bags; in their hands were needles and yarn.

I had just stumbled into the office knitters.

Today there were three of them at the table but there are a dozen or more in their group, and they meet over lunch most days to work with yarn. Their projects vary from shawls to blankets to baby hats. Each mentioned their leader and inspiration, the woman who organized the group and in some cases taught them their craft. In a few minutes, Coukkii (she asked me to use her knitter-world name) came to the table and sat next to me.

Coukkii has an gentle way about her and an easy smile. She’s old enough to have grandchildren but young enough to collect new friends daily. I asked her about her own knitting and she said that for most of her life, she crocheted. Only as an adult did she find herself wanting to knit and now that is her preferred yarn work. She said that thirty years ago she didn’t have the patience for knitting. Come to think of it, I didn’t either.

I had managed to avoid working with yarn when I was a girl. I appreciated people who could create this way, but didn’t imagine that I could learn. Or would want to.

What a surprise it was when the words came out of me, asking Coukkii, “Would you teach me to knit?”

Coukkii didn’t hesitate. “Sure,” she said. “But it will cost you.”

“What’s the charge?” I asked.

“A square for the chemo blanket,” she said with a smile, as she pointed to a red swatch on the table about the size of a washcloth. Coukkii explained that she organizes charity yarn projects and right now she is working on a patchwork blanket for a hospital. Each knitter in the group contributes at least one square.

I had been thinking lately about my sister Edy, who died in 2007 when she was 45 from breast cancer. As I approached my own 45th birthday, I didn’t want to just cruise past that milestone without stopping to honor Edy’s memory. But I hadn’t decided how.

“That’s perfect!” I thought. I will knit a square in honor of Edy that will be stitched into a blanket, and that blanket may offer some small comfort to a stranger, maybe someone else’s sister, fighting a similar cancer battle.

And so I decided to take up Coukkii on her offer. I guessed that I would be all thumbs, that it would take me all winter to successfully knit a 9×9 swatch, and that would be the end of yarn for me.

Boy, did I guess wrong.

First I needed some needles, and some yarn. It turned out that my former biking buddy also knits. She loaned me some needles and a project bag. And on our next visit, Coukkii took me to the yarn bin that one of the knitting ladies keeps in her office cube. Various acrylic yarn, donated by the knitters, fills a plastic tub for use in the group’s charity projects. I looked into the bin and pulled out a ball of pale sky. “This would have gone great with Edy’s eyes,” I said, “Blue was her color.”

I told Coukkii that I would probably have to knit a practice square or two before I had one good enough for the blanket. “No,” she said, “Your square will go into the blanket, mistakes and all.”

I loved hearing that. And, my first knitting lesson was not about the yarn. You have something to offer. Every square, every row, every stitch, every whatever-you-do-in-life, is a contribution. Mistakes and all.

At our next lunch hour meeting, it was time to teach me how to ‘cast on’ the yarn to the needle and to do a knit stitch. Coukkii explained that almost all fabric, from panty hose to coats, is either woven or knit. And all knit fabric is really just a combination of two stitches — knit and purl. Her approach to teaching is sort of organic. She shows the basic idea – what the yarn is supposed to do in the stitch, without telling the knitter how to hold the yarn and the needles. For the actual hand movements, each knitter has to find her, or his, own way.

I discovered that the way I naturally knit is called “continental”. Coukkii is what is known as a ‘thrower’. I can’t begin to explain the difference, but these are the two basic approaches to knitting.  When I tried to hold the yarn the way she did, I felt awkward and couldn’t make it go. When I did what came naturally, with the working yarn consistently looped around my left index finger behind the needles, I felt that I was onto something.

My homework assignment that first day was to cast on 42 stitches and knit a bunch of rows. At home, I stared at my ball of yarn and had trouble at first remembering what Coukkii had shown me. But after just a few attempts, I found my way to making those several rows. I knit this:

  
When I showed them my sample, Coukkii and Simi were impressed with how quickly I was learning. Coukkii said I must have muscle memory from somewhere. I found out through a sibling that my mother was a champion knitter in her day. She knit sweaters and lace doilies, using complicated patterns with multiple needles. I called my mom to ask how she holds the yarn. You guessed it; she knits continental. Like me.

So this was another surprise. I had just discovered a new connection to my mom. I believe there is a lot that we don’t really know about habits and tendencies that pass from one generation to the next. I’ve been learning about how much of our memory is not conscious. Who knows why my instinct is to knit like my mother, even though I don’t remember ever watching her work with yarn. How does a weaver bird know how to weave? I am sure I don’t know.

But, I do know it’s very fun to knit a perfect row of stitches, and then another, until you have a piece of fabric, the beginning of a thing.

After a few days, I brought my knitting to the table at lunch. “What’s it going to be?” someone asked, expecting me to have big plans.

“A square,” I answered proudly. “An Edy Ambrose Memorial Square.”

Later, I noticed that the rows I knit while making small talk had different tension. The stitches were sightly looser. Coukkii says that your emotions go into your project. If you are tense or upset, or relaxed and having fun, it will show in the work. Like the rings inside a tree trunk that reveal the year there was a drought, your knitting fabric becomes imprinted with whatever is going on in your life at the time. 

This brings me to The Gas Incident. I was about three quarters of the way done with my first Edy square, when my husband came in from being out and announced that he smelled gas in the house! I immediately dropped my knitting and ran to help find the problem downstairs. Our teenage son, who is normally very careful, had left a burner open in the kitchen. Fortunately, no one was injured by the leaking gas in the our house! But when I picked up the knitting to keep going, I had switched my left and right needles into the wrong hands. Several rows later I saw my mistake and it was driving me crazy. Half a row was doubled.

I brought it to Coukii. We talked about whether to fix it. And she showed me how to keep going in the right direction if I ever have to stop suddenly again. She said that for this project, this little slip-up wouldn’t matter. But in the end, I decided to have her show me a maneuver called ‘tinking’ or knitting backwards, to undo a mistake. For future projects tinking might be important, so I wanted to learn this skill, too.

I decided to fix it on the way to Wisconsin, during our Christmas drive across country. Here I learned my next lesson in life from knitting: Over-working a small problem sometimes makes a bigger one.

Firstly, I should not have tried to tink while riding in a car, but I wanted to knit to pass the time, and I wanted to get back to the last good row before proceeding. I had my knitting on my lap as we flew down the highway, and I kept dropping stitches. I wound up ripping row after row until I could get a clean row of “live” stitches and coax them back onto the needle, only realizing then that I had coaxed them on in the wrong direction. By that point I had ripped up half of my work and when I finally got it going again, my stitches were not so even. My self-assured square was now a wobbly, misshapen rhombus. Fortunately, I later learned, you can make up for a little bit of stretching by blocking the completed piece – pinning the fabric while damp until it dries. What a world this would be if we all forgave as easily as yarn does.

 This is how it turned out:
  
In the coming weeks, I knit another square just like the first, but more steady. And then Coukkii taught me to purl, which is when I really fell in love. By this point, I needed a new ball of yarn, and from the donation bin, I chose pink that had a bit of a halo. Coukkii gave me a simple pattern to make a square with a frame. At home, I found a YouTube video to help me get the rhythm on how to purl continental. Once I had completed about two-thirds of the square, I sat there staring at it.

I couldn’t get over it. I thought these knit rows were the prettiest thing I had ever seen. My stitches were tight and even. I studied the way the yarn held together. In a world that has gone completely mad, here were several inches of total, logical, beautiful order.

In just a few days, I had knit this:

  
After I finished that pink square I had just enough remaining yarn in blue and pink to make one more square if I put the two yarns together. That’s when I learned to change colors.

So altogether I made four Edy Memorial Squares for Coukkii’s chemo blanket, and which I have now posted on my Ravelry account. Coukkii had introduced me to this website, which is social media for knitters, crocheters, weavers and yarn makers. Among other features on the site, you can search for  patterns, post pictures of your projects, and keep a database of your yarn inventory. When the blanket is compete, Coukkii will connect her finished project online to my online squares.

From her profile on Ravelry, I found Coukkii’s blog, where she wrote about a health ordeal that one of her sisters went through. Coukkii’s knitting circle came together to pray for her sister and to knit her an “afghan of hearts.” Coukkii developed a pattern so that each knitter, no matter what level, could contribute to the afghan. The next time I saw Coukkii, I told her I enjoyed her story, and that I was glad to hear that her sister made it through okay.

“Thank you,” Coukkii said, “Only, she’s not a biological sister. She’s a knitting sister. That’s what we call each other.”

During our next lunch hour visit, I watched the way the women complimented each other’s work, and pitched in to help one of the ladies unwind a skein of precious, hand-dyed yarn by looping it around two chairs. I had found my way into a new sisterhood. Coukkii’s online network of knitters and crocheters and weavers and yarn dyers spans the globe.

With a birthday gift from my mom of a skein of yarn and some needles, I continued to practice, this time by making a simple scarf with the pattern that was inside the skein wrapper. And in the meantime, Coukkii organized a field trip to a yarn store in DC called Looped Yarn Works. It was time for me to graduate to the next level and to learn how to shop. Four of us took the train from our office to a boutique yarn supply store in Dupont circe, where the colors were bright, the textures varied and the fibers natural.

My mission was to get the stuff to make a hat. At the store, Coukkii and I logged into my Ravelry account and she helped me find a free pattern for a slouchy beret. She pointed me in the direction of the yarn that was the right weight for my pattern — either a worsted or aran yarn would do, she said. Then, she left me alone to explore.

Oh, she is wise. She knew how important it was for me to choose my own.

Forest green, sunset orange, lush purple, pastel pink, and moody charcoal grey — so many hues filled the shelves and woven baskets in this tiny well-lit room. Some threads were soft and fine and others fat and wooly. The yarn was spectacular. And I was learning one more lesson.

There is a time for acrylics and washable fabrics. There is a time for making gifts, and donations, and give-always. And then there is a time for buying the “good yarn,” for making a project that’s all you.

I selected a vibrant, deep sea blue with teal accents, made of merino wool. “This,” I said, as I brought it to Coukkii, confident that this was the one. “This color goes with my eyes.”

The store clerks used a wooden crank to unwind the first skein into a spool called a‘cake’ and helped me find the right needles and a project bag. I happily carried home everything I needed to make my first hat, including a promise from my knitting sister to teach me how to knit in the round.

  
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A Winter of Stopping

When my body hit the pavement, I remained still for a few seconds, conscious of the minivan that was just behind me, not moving, and conscious of the parked car to my right. I pushed myself up through a plank position, untangled my legs from my bicycle frame and slowly stood up.

My chin hurt and it was bleeding. So was my left shin. My forehead also hit the ground, but a well-fitted helmet saved my head. I didn’t think anything was broken and x-rays later showed nothing was. Still, a hard body slam to the earth, along with a jolt to the neck, can do a number on your body in ways you don’t immediately notice.

I have been bike-commuting to my office in DC for five years on a city-street route of about 11 miles one way from my Maryland suburb. Perhaps it was just a matter of time before I got ‘doored’ – what cyclists call it when you collide with the door of a parked car as it opens into the bike lane. My biking buddy with whom I had shared my route for most of those years had recently relocated. So I was by myself as I stood on the sidewalk, discussing my condition with an off-duty police officer who happened to be in the area, on that steep hill along Howard University.

After some deliberation, I reassured the officer that I didn’t need an ambulance. As I turned to walk myself to the hospital which was less than a mile away, and as the shock and the adrenaline started to wear off, I fell to emotional pieces. I didn’t want to hassle the woman who had opened her car door at just the wrong moment. I didn’t want to file a report. But the off-duty officer was wiser and when he saw me in tears he offered again to call an ambulance. An on-duty police officer also arrived, who took my information and a description of what happened. Strangers in blue uniforms packaged me up on a gurney, braced my head, and drove me to Howard University Hospital. There, medical students and doctors swarmed around my body, checked for broken ribs and a concussion, and bandaged up all my scrapes. With head injuries you never know, and it was smart to get checked out.

Up to that moment on that hill where I fell, it had been the perfect autumn morning ride. It was November 3rd, and the last of the remaining fall leaves still clung to their branches. I distinctly remember a moment about a half hour earlier, when I came to an intersection that crosses onto Sligo Creek Parkway. Looking up toward the east, I noticed rays of white sun piercing through the lacy orange and yellow leaves high above. It was about 7:30 am. I paused to take a good long look before continuing. I thought to myself – memorize that light.

After my husband picked me up and brought me home, I rested. And for two more days, I stayed in bed and worked from home. I was sore everywhere and short-tempered. I felt like the accident had stunned my metabolism somehow, into a cranky, irritable, immobile state. As soon as I felt strong enough, I got back into my work routine. The following weekend I hauled my bike to the bike shop for its check-up and was happy to find it needed only a minor repair to the handlebars. I bought a new bike helmet and had it properly fitted by the same people who saved my skull the first time. I figured I would push myself back on the bike as soon as possible, before I lost my nerve.

But I was rushing things and I didn’t know it. The next day, as I was putting away groceries, I reached across the kitchen table for a bottle of ketchup. In an instant my lower back was in so much pain I could barely move. Back to bed to lie down. And again, it took me about three days before I was up and going again.

And this time I finally got the message. Stop, Amy. Just stop. Whatever you are doing. Just stop. Do something else for awhile.

I put the bike away for the rest of the winter. And instead of changing sports to interval running, which is what I would normally do when biking season ends, I began taking more varied yoga classes and especially yin yoga. I focused on restoration. I also became more dedicated to my weekly Pilates hour.

Over the next three months, as I focused on my core physically, I also focused on my core metaphorically. I called my folks back home in Wisconsin more often and began exploring my Slovenian roots in earnest. I found my way to baking yeast breads, something I used to do when I was a teen. I also happened across an opportunity to learn how to knit, as well as a chance to learn about Ayurveda, a system of holistic health practices. I surprised myself by pursuing both of these. As I moved through the dark months with a new view, three themes began to emerge – self-healing, handiwork and heritage. Like threads in my knitting yarn, they intertwine.

My winter of stopping turned into a road of all green lights. As we go inward, life expands. I made new friends – the knitter ladies at my office, Slovenian-Americans at the embassy, and my classmates and teachers at the yoga studio.

All this led me back to the keyboard, and wanting to write again.

I topped off the season with an intense 2-day yoga retreat that coincided with my 45th birthday in January. There, our yoga teacher prompted us to meditate on what we would like to leave behind in 2015 and what we would like to carry forward. I invite you to consider that. I also invite you to come back to this blog in the coming weeks. For me, the themes of the past few months are still unfolding, and each one of them is a story that I am eager to share.

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Amy Ambrose

Saving the Parrot

Before my daughter was born, my co-workers at the adult literacy center where I worked held a baby shower that was all books. Each of the adults at the party brought a favorite children’s book as a gift. Carolyn came into the world with the start of a small library.

Today she will graduate high school. I woke up at 3 am, thinking of those books and teaching her to read them. Which of the books come to mind? Ferdinand the Bull, The Giving Tree, The Wind in the Willows, The Cat in The Hat, Guess How Much I Love You, Busy Busy Town. I started reading to her early; I read her James and the Giant Peach in utero.

One of the gifts was The Very Hungry Caterpillar by Eric Carle. This started us reading all of the Eric Carle books. We loved his illustrations which were collages made from bright colored tissue papers. When Carolyn was about two, we also watched a video about how he became an artist. Carle mentioned the importance of having colorful paints as a child and lots of big white paper and free reign to create.

So, I made sure Carolyn had lots of finger-paints in bright colors. I set her up in her high chair with large white paper and let her go. With her bare little hands, she swirled the paints on the page, delighted with her pretty mess. Over time I wound up with a huge supply of these pages of looping, random colors. I couldn’t save all of them, and didn’t want them to go to waste.

I had an idea based on what Eric Carle did. I purposely gave Carolyn combinations of colors to create vibrant hues. Then, I cut the painted papers apart into shapes and used the pieces to make a picture. I made two designs this way: one of flowers and one of a parrot (with some help from my brother who was visiting). I made a few copies and turned them into greeting cards.

Thinking about that moment made me get out of bed. It suddenly became very important to me to find that parrot picture. I know I saved it. Where could it be?

I remembered a box in the storage room with the kids’ school stuff. To get to it, I’d have to move a heavy pile of over-size canvases — Carolyn’s high school artwork that she recently brought home to end the school year. I carefully put them aside. I hauled out a plastic box of scrapbooks underneath. No luck. Tucked behind that, I found an even heavier box of grade school papers and projects from her and her brother. Inside, I found the parrot in a file folder, like a time capsule, like proof of something.

So, I didn’t dream it. Once upon a time, I really did have a little girl.

I actually did teach her to read, and I actually did give her finger paints. And together we made something neat. She hung onto my neck and didn’t want to let go. That was real.

Now, letting go is all she wants to do. She is getting ready to go to college, funded largely by an art scholarship. She’s still a huge reader and that will serve her well no matter what else she studies. This, too, is real.

I am reminded of another children’s storybook. I don’t recall the name. It’s about a momma chicken. She teaches her chicks the number one rule is to stay away from water because it’s dangerous. But then one day one of her babies goes into the pond. The hen panics. She frantically, helplessly, runs up and down the shore, completely going chicken-mommy bonkers, “Bagok, bagok!” After a moment, she gets what the reader knows — her chick had come from a duck egg that had rolled into her nest. Unlike her, this baby was born to swim.

I got my camera, snapped a photo of the parrot. I put the parrot back into the folder, put the folder back into the box, and pushed the box back to its hiding place. I arranged the giant paintings Carolyn made this year on top of that. Then I dried my eyes and got ready for her big day.

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amy@faceyourtalent.com

From Small Steps to Big Miles

You know a kid like this. The one that would rather sit on the couch playing video games or sit in his room building with Legos than play sports. My boy did not want to move, and if he saw exercise coming, he would get his complaining face on before you could say, “Let’s go.” 

When he was a little kid, we started him in soccer. Henry didn’t enjoy it. So we stopped. When he was a little older, we bought him a bike and taught him to ride. But once he learned to balance, he didn’t want to ride anymore. He insisted he wanted a scooter instead. So we got him a scooter, which he used a few times. It didn’t catch on. Then I got him to agree to see a Tai Kwon Do class, thinking martial arts might be a better fit. He went to the class. He observed. He wouldn’t go back. Not willingly.  We tried fitness-based video games. Nothing clicked.

There are ways of making a kid to move. But I didn’t want to coerce him and make him feel worse about it. I wanted my boy to find an exercise or a sport that he enjoys, so he would own his own fitness, make it a life-long habit. I wanted him to know it felt good to move, to see progress, to become stronger. I wanted to him know there were things he could do.  

I read a book recently called Eat Move Sleep and at the end of each chapter the author, Tom Rath, offers simple suggestions for eating well, moving more and sleeping better. The whole premise is that small choices lead to big changes. I already knew that was true for me, but I didn’t guess the difference it could make for my teenage son. 

At dinner one night, I announced that I needed two volunteers. One will wash the dishes with Dad. The other will walk with me and the dog for five minutes. Just five minutes, around a square block. 

Faced with this choice, my boy chose the walk. That evening, we walked the dog for five minutes. 

On the second night, I did the same thing. Again, Henry chose the walk. This time, I extended the route, one block more in each direction. 

On the third night, it was cold and raining. Still, Henry agreed and we took our walk. He carried an umbrella. When we finished a short loop and were back at the house, Henry said, “Let’s keep going. I have something I want to ask you about.” 

Okay, I thought. We are starting to get somewhere. Walking and talking, side by side, he figured out he could ask me questions. 

He wanted to know if I would consider getting him the character set from Disney’s Frozen movie for his WiiU Disney Inifinity video game. 

I said, “I might.” And then I had an idea – a way to take this walking program up a notch. I said, “Henry, have you ever heard of a pedometer?”

I explained that this was a small device you hook onto your waist that measures the distance you walk in a day. A healthy amount of movement is about 4 miles or 10,000 steps per day. No matter how you get the steps, it translates into less time sitting. “The pedometer measures every little step you take,” I explained. “We could set a target of a certain number of miles. When you hit the target, I will buy you the game pieces.”  He said he would think about it.

I freely admit this is Bad-Example Parenting, in the sense that it was a bribe, and more video-game related rewards, and plus I was teaching him to avoid household chores by leaving the house. But it was a good offer. The character set was about $30. I have spent $30 on less important things. And at least the reward wasn’t a dessert, which would undo the good of the walking.

The next day, I was on my way to run some errands and Henry asked if I was going to get “the device.” The pedomenter, I said? You want to start today? Oh yes, he did. He couldn’t wait to build the landscapes of ice and snow in his video game, which the Elsa and Anna characters would allow him to do. 

There are all sorts of devices for measuring body activity and wellbeing. I went to a sporting goods store and bought a simple Sync pedometer. It records the miles and steps by plugging into an i-Pad app. (It’s supposed to work with an i-Phone as well, but that feature didn’t work.) I wanted a device that this clever boy couldn’t out-smart by shaking it around. He admitted to me later that he did try that, but the chip wasn’t fooled.

I figured Henry probably walked a couple of miles a day already, just through ordinary living. I set a target of 60 miles, so that he would have to put forth a little extra effort, and if he actually did walk 4 miles a day, he could reach the goal in about two weeks. I helped him set up the stride distance in the pedometer based on his height. To my surprise, at age 14 he is already 5 foot 7. Now I understand why mom’s brag about their teenage sons’ height. You just can’t believe how abruptly they sprout. 

The first day that he wore the pedometer, Mr.-I-Don’t-Like-to-Exercise walked 5.7 miles. It was a Saturday. He started by strolling around the yard and back and forth through the house. Then he declared, “I am going for a walk,” and left to explore the neighborhood. 

Our suburb is full of curvy roads and street names that all look and sound alike. To keep from getting lost, Henry devised a path based on his bus route. It covers about 2.25 miles and takes him about 45 minutes to complete (longer if I walk with him and I bring the dog). Since starting this program, he treks this route at least once a day, sometimes twice.

Henry has also learned how to add movement throughout the day.  At home, he paces when he is thinking through a creative problem or listening to music. He volunteers to go with me to the grocery store. When I pause at the frozen food aisle to ask him a question, he gestures to me to keep moving. “Walk and talk, Mom,” he says. “Walk and talk.”

That phrase caught on. Henry and I continue our evening Walk and Talks just about every day. By Day 4 with the pedometer, our roles had flipped. I can be tired after a long day, and on those nights Henry is the one coaxing me (and sometimes his dad) to go. “I need you to be ready in 15 minutes,” he’ll say. “We’re going to do my route and you’re going to have to keep up!” 

I never say no. I look forward to our conversations. With his big sister getting ready to graduate high school, it would be easy to lose the focus on Henry. Instead, he has my captive attention for nearly an hour before the end of each day. Or more to the point, I have his. 

He uses our walking time to discuss the inner workings of his favorite movies, super-hero characters and creative people he admires. “It’s amazing when you think that Stan Lee basically started in a gutter somewhere and now Marvel Comics are in every media – television, movies, comic books, books. You name it,” Henry says.

We also talk about our tentative plans to attend the international ComicCon in San Diego, where it is just about impossible to get tickets. He suggested I go in costume, as Marge Simpson. “How about the Black Widow? I want to be the hot mom at the conference,” I say. He winces. 

Once in a while he will bring up a heavier topic, like his course selection for high school or the difficulties in getting along with his sister. But mostly, he shares funny bits he has seen online. 

“I saw this funny Vine video,” he said recently, “A guy walks into a room and gasps in fright because it is such a mess. Then he says, ‘Nope. Still not cleaning it.'”  

After about a week, I joked that he was racking up the miles too fast, “What are we going to do when you reach your goal?”

“That’s easy,” he replied. “We’ll set another goal.” 

And so we did. He completed 60 miles in less than ten days (including two days where he had the flu and didn’t leave his bed). So we walked to the store to get the Frozen people for his game. And then we set a new target. I told him when he walked 160 miles, I would get him the Phineas and Ferb game pieces to add to his collection.   

That was a few weeks ago. I should have picked a bigger number. As of last night, Henry had already walked 150. He continues to average 5-6 miles per day.

It helps that we began this experiment during winter. In summer this may not have worked. Henry loves the feel of cold air on his skin. He often will refuse to zip up his coat. Sometimes he will refuse to wear a coat. “Just feel the cold air,” he says. “It’s so refreshing!” 

And if we happen to be out on a night like tonight, walking through heavy snow fall, he does not want the walk to end. He stops at a median and climbs a snowbank.

“Hold on,” he calls out. “Hold on. I just want to stand here and enjoy this for a moment.”

He sighs, taking in the wintry view, white stuff collecting on his hair and his shoulders. I pause with the dog and look up at him, with big fat snowflakes in my eyes.

I know what you mean, Henry. Me, too.

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Amy@faceyourtalent.com

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From Montreal, With Love

We’ve been gone eight days, but it feels like we have been gone a month. My third Christmas tree story takes place this year, when our family of four decided to break with tradition and drive until we left the country. We went to Montreal, Quebec.

It was all Carolyn’s idea. As I have mentioned here before, my daughter loves adventure and travel. She is also in her senior year of high school and speaks often about how much she looks forward to being done with us, on her own. Just as soon as she leaves for college. Does she know where she wants to go? I hear you say. If one more person asks her that, she’ll burst. I remind her about her deadlines and ask about letters of reference. She promises me, with a toss of the hand, that she has this college business sorted.

Many months ago she asked if we could travel to a foreign locale instead of going to Wisconsin to see our extended families for winter break. I thought this was sweet. It seemed to me she was signalling to us that her last Christmas before she moves away meant something to her, that she wanted to make it count. She says not really. She just wanted to change the routine.

Carolyn suggested Canada in light of the fact that both she and her brother would enjoy a properly snowy Christmas. My son Henry is 14 and loves the feeling of being cold. He got his wish. We left DC, a place where December temperatures were hovering around 70 degrees, for a place where the daytime high was 17.

Our drive to Montreal involved a stop in Rutland, Vermont, a town that represents to my husband what Shorewood, Wisconsin, represents to my boy — the most idyllic years of his childhood. We arrived in Rutland after a harrowing passage through the Green Mountains at night in dense fog. The next day, Paul stood in front of the house with the screened in porch where he once played poker with his grandmother while it rained and lightning struck nearby. He showed us where a candy store had been where he bought comic books, the gazebo in the park where activists gathered to protest the Vietnam War, and the hill where he and his friends raced bicycles.

Lastly, we found the elementary school he attended, which is now boarded up. The kids and I paid attention to his stories. We snapped a photo of the house. I told Henry that one day he may stand in front of our old house on Newton Avenue with his kids, describing what life was like in the early 00s. He laughed.

Watch, I said. Families change.

The next day we drove through an ice storm to arrive in Montreal which had seen quite a bit of snow. The storm had knocked out power for hundreds of thousands of people in Toronto, but in Montreal the weather was kinder. Plows had not yet cleared foot-deep snow in the streets. Cars, buildings, sidewalks and trees were all coated in white, like in a holiday greeting card.

In the weeks leading up to this trip, Henry was concerned about keeping our traditions on the road. Would we exchange gifts on Christmas Day? Would we watch Miracle on 34th Street like always? (We would.) What about a tree? I could see he was not totally on board yet with our travel plans.

About a week before we left, I secretly took Henry to a department store. We bought a few presents. Henry insisted we also buy a small tree, something portable that would fit in the hatchback with all of our luggage. We found a plastic evergreen that stands about 18 inches tall. After that, Henry was more excited about this holiday vacation. The first thing he did when we arrived at our hotel in Montreal was unpack the little tree and set it up on an end-stand with the gifts around it. We didn’t decorate the tree or spend much time looking at it. This tree was just there, in the background, with us all the time. I thanked Henry for setting the mood. “Yes,” he said. “Without the tree, this would be just another road trip.”

I loved the city. One night Carolyn and I walked to holiday-lit, Old Port of Montreal. She bought lithographs from a man selling art under a street lamp, and we got tickets to midnight Christmas Eve Mass at the Notre-Dame Basilica. I am not a church-going person, and Carolyn is a self-described atheist, but we went anyway. We enjoyed the grandeur inside and the roof-raising holiday hymns. Everything was in French which we don’t speak. But we understood well enough. I lit a votive candle and said a prayer for our family’s safe journey home.

One day, all four of us ate at a French-style cafe where the waiter brought a huge platter of meat — sausages and pâte and ham surrounding a pot of fondue. Afterwards, we discovered this meal cost a small fortune. So we bought a loaf of bread and some mustard and lived off the left-overs of that platter for two days.

In the morning, the kids and I trekked a series of snow-covered stairs up Mount Royal to take in picturesque views of the city in falling snow. Carolyn and I toured the Montreal Museum of Fine Art where we saw expert Inuit sculptures made of stone. This was Chrismas like we’ve never seen it before. Everything in Montreal was new to us.

We made two stops on our long drive back to Maryland – for sushi at our favorite restaurant in Sleepy Hollow, and for a walk through Central Park with a friend in New York City. We recapped the week, and got on each other’s nerves. We talked about whether there would be another road trip together anytime soon, since next year Carolyn may have plans to be with other people, or she might be traveling to Istanbul or Paris. Or, she may be surprised to find out she misses us, and all those cozy hours in the Prius. You never know.

We arrived at our home late at night and travel-weary, and we went through our mail which had piled up. In amongst the holiday cards and bills was a large envelope addressed to Carolyn. She took it to her room to open.

Through her door, we heard her holler out — she’s been accepted into that art school in the midwest that she wanted. And they’ve offered her a fat scholarship.

With that, we bid adieu to our winter holiday, and turned our attention to the coming New Year.

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amy@faceyourtalent.com

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Christmas To Remember

This holiday season, I offer you three stories of Christmas trees — long-past, more-recent past and present. This is the second installment. However you celebrate the season, I hope you enjoy these. 

At the time of my earlier story about my mom and her Ambrose Christmas Tree poem, I was not yet born. By the time of this second story, I was an adult with children of my own.

The year was 2004. It was the first snowy weekend of December in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. 

Paul and I and Carolyn and Henry went shopping for a live tree together and brought it home and set it up. We set it in the stand and let it rest a bit first. Then, Carolyn who was 8 at the time and Henry who was just 5 helped decorate the tree. We used lights, candycanes, and some new orgnaments we picked up on the way home from the tree lot. I lit candles around the house and put on some music. Amy Grant was singing “Christmas to Remember.” Our house had dark hardwood floors and white Spanish plaster walls that reflected the ambient holiday light. 

Carolyn remarked several times, “This is the most wonderful feeling. I am all warm and fuzzy inside. This is the most perfect Christmas ever. I feel all smiley and relaxed.” 

The kids wanted us to all get together in the living room to look at the tree. Dad was busy hanging wreaths outside the house. When he was finished and I was done with my tea, we all gathered on the couch next to the tree. Whoops. Henry forgot his blankie. So he ran to get it. Finally, we resettled back into our places, all in a row. Paul sighed and said, “This is it, kids. It just doesn’t get any better than this.” 

In one synchronized motion, we turned together to admire our lovely tree. At just the moment we did so, it promptly crashed to the floor. “AHHHH!” Carolyn cried out as we all watched it tip slightly and then tumble in slow motion. Pop! Crackle! Smash!

Lights out, broken organments, the star topper snapped in two, water everywhere! Paul and I immediately started laughing. Our happy scene went from Hallmark Card moment to National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation in a matter of seconds. At first, Carolyn was mortified and couldn’t figure out what was so funny. Henry was likewise stunned.  

Paul and I sprang into action. After a little work, we got the tree back up again. Carolyn watched us struggle to find the center point of our wobbly evergreen and quipped, “I think this Christmas is going to be all about balance.”

The kids redecorated with the surviving ornaments. We restarted the holiday tunes and then took our places again on the sofa. At that point, we were almost afraid to look, but we again turned together to gaze at our pretty tree — only now with added appreciation for its perfect sense of comic timing. 

We spoke about the tree as if it had consciousness and knew exactly what it was doing. I pointed out that by falling down just then, the tree didn’t mean to ruin our perfect Christmas moment. I said the tree was just making sure we would never forget it.   

And so, we never have. 

Here’s wishing you and yours a holiday season to remember, with lots of light and laughter. 

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amy@faceyourtalent.com

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