For This Summer: Letting It Go

Each summer we gather with my husband’s family at his parents’ house. We converge on their home in vehicles stuffed with people and dogs, books and toys, luggage and anticipation. Mixed among all those are the lingering imprints of our lives.

I can pack. What I can’t do is to remember to bring what I’ve packed. I’ve left behind whole suitcases (twice), the bag with the suits and pool toys for a swimming trip, and Christmas gifts (all of them and, once again, twice). This year it was a just a visor. I brought a hat, but for reasons of pure vanity, I wanted a visor. Visors shade the face while exposing the hair, allowing the sun to do its bleaching work. Enough time outdoors and I will return home with hair lightened to something closer to the familiar blond of my youth.

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J’s mom had a spare, which came to me through the hands of my brother-in-law. He watched me attempt to cram it on my head in its tiny, straight-from-the-factory state and adopted a soothing voice as he began delivering instructions. “Release the tension. Pull the Velcro and release the tension.”

Release the tension. He made it sound easy.

Every year we arrive carrying varying levels of tension. We bring it from unending home maintenance projects, deadlines, calendars, family life, and work, the most consistent source of all. If it was easy to leave it behind, we would. Our week together is short.

Unlike our suitcases, tension doesn’t sit quietly in a corner waiting to be unpacked. Tension clings. Releasing it requires action. It is not something that happens to us; it’s something we do. Though the how differs from person to person, the possibility is there for us all.

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Earlier this summer I woke to a to-do app badge which read fifty-two. Fifty-two items on the list for that day. I knew the source of the bloat. Each time I ran into a project that I just could not get accomplished during the school year, I put it on the list for summer break. Clean out the freezer: May 27. Organize the study: May 27. Deal with the closet: May 27.

I knew that my mental plan was to spread those items out over the summer, but the foreboding number on the badge unleashed tension which gripped and twisted whatever part of me that experiences stress.

No books. No walks. No bike rides. I would be too busy.

That doesn’t work out well in a family. Kids and husbands, mine anyway, thrive on books, walks, and bike rides. They thrive when I am relaxed enough to stop and smile and attend. They flourish when I manage to release the tension.

So I had to choose. Which was more important, the state of my people or the state of my closet? The simple answer was my people.

But the list circled like a vulture, hungry after all these months on a goal-free, dream free diet. Mental assent was not enough. I had to act. I had to take the list and sort it, separating the need-to-dos from the want-to-dos and the most important from the still important but less so and live with the results. If my people were to truly win, I had to let it go. Every day.

Some days have brought more success than others. But I’m trying to remember what I know and act on that knowledge. My list will always be with me. My people may not. Some things have to be done. Other things must wait. That weight of all those undone things? I have to let it go.

How do you let it go?

For This May: Progress

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Never discourage anyone who continually makes progress no matter how slow.      ~ Plato

At nine o’clock one year ago tonight, my Dad inched his way through our door,  upper body resting heavily on a walker, toes laboring to do the work that his missing hip should have done. Straight from the hospital, wearied by painful months culminating in the removal of the prosthesis from an infected hip, they wanted rest. After a brief chat, my husband helped Dad into bed, where he settled on his back, legs at an odd angle, claiming he was comfortable.

Even though we were convinced that our home would be more navigable for him and that the treatment time would pass more quickly with a good view and easy access to the outdoors, along with the lively companionship of children, we were surprised at his yes. His plan was to stay for two weeks, but that soon changed. They would be with us during the entirety of his IV treatment. Maybe it was because our home layout was better suited to getting around. It might have been the view, or possibly because of the companionship of  family and the two capable little girls eager to assist him with twice daily infusions. Probably it was all of these, but the most compelling reason may well have been the abundance of companions for the short but time-consuming walks he took regularly to keep his body strong for the surgery that would come at summer’s end.

101_0295 - Version 2He hadn’t been with us long before he took his first walk. Our lane is long, two tenths of a mile. Our sloping driveway stood between the house and the lane. He would have to take that on. Every time.  According to my oldest girl, he walked about two hundred feet that first time, turning around at the apple tree. She would be the one to know, because of all of us, it was she who walked most often and best, keeping pace with him on his journey, just as he had kept pace with her when she was small.

He measured his progress as he walked down our lane, first with his walker and then on crutches, often trying to take five more steps than he had taken previously and coming in to report that he had made it to the hydrant, the bush, the neighbor’s maple, and eventually leaving the lane and taking to the road.

August brought a new prosthetic hip and the road to real recovery. Its pace was quick. The crutches gave way to a cane, and soon he walked with no aid at all.

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An active man of the outdoors, by March he was in Yellowstone with Mom taking a class which required them to snowshoe for the first time. He is ready for this year’s biking season. By the end of the month he and Mom will head west with my brother and his family. In August, he will make that drive again, this time to attend a writer’s workshop with me. We are already planning our hikes.

I suppose a girl never stops learning from her father.  Last summer’s lessons: Even when progress is painfully slow, try to take a few more steps. Note the landmarks that you pass and remember to never discourage anyone who is making progress, even if the going is slow.

For This March: Great Expectations

I have a growing collection of photos of signs for the road, for the trail, and for tourists. They speak, entertaining and enlightening me.
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Road construction where I live usually means decreased speed limits and short delays. In the mountains of Wyoming, thirty minute delays are typical and patience is not just a virtue; it is a survival skill. Pilot cars set the pace as they shuttle vehicles from one stopping point to the next. When the sign says to expect delays, it means to expect delays.

Of course, it also means this kind of scenery:

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It’s hard to beat the Tetons.

They are beautiful. It is easy to see why people would be in a hurry to arrive. Even so, there is beauty in the delay, if only we will slow down long enough to see it.

Once, when we had driven up into Yellowstone from the Tetons, we met a long line of cars going nowhere. This didn’t look like a bear jam but we couldn’t see far enough ahead to determine the cause of the hold up. I got antsy. There were things I wanted to do yet that day, an important one being to procure our campsite.

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When it became obvious that no one was going anywhere, we decided to head back to a picnic area that we had passed and use the time for something we needed to do anyway: make dinner. My husband climbed. Emergency vehicles passed. We prepared and lingered over a lovely dinner. Traffic began to flow by in both directions. We ignored them. We sat and absorbed this stunning view. Our priorities for the evening had shifted. Something good had been born from the delay.

Delays, on vacation, are not a big deal. Unless, of course, I am under time pressure; as in the road closes at 9:00 p.m. for the remainder of the night or at 10:00 a.m. for the rest of the season. That is some early morning pressure, best dealt with by looking at it through the lens of adventure or by finding another road.

At home it seems that I am always under time pressure and I don’t leave room for delays. Unfortunately, there are always delays. They bring their own kind of scenery. I don’t expected them. I don’t seize their opportunity. I miss the beautiful scenery.

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Perhaps I should post this sign at home because it is at home where I least want to miss the scenery. Good stuff happens in the delay, stuff that could be called life. If I miss it, I miss the beauty of my own life.

This March, as part of retraining myself to look beyond the next step, I am reminding myself to have great expectations, expectations for delays and great scenery, for therein lies the beauty of my life, if only I will slow down long enough to see it.

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The snows falls and delays will follow. So will the scenery.

On Vision and Purpose

Three simple verbs for this new year: Restore. Retrain. Remember. To remember is the most difficult.

Three reminders for the new year:

From the Word:

For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them. Ephesians 2:10

Now the eleven disciples went to Galilee, to the mountain to which Jesus had directed them, And when they saw him  they worshiped him, but some doubted.  And Jesus came and said to them, “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me.  Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you.  And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Matthew 28:16 – 20

And from children’s literature:

“Each of us has a unique destiny…There’s much to be gained by understanding your role in life and much to be lost by ignoring it.”

-Spoken to the young King Arthur in Hudson Talbott’s Excalibur 

For This New Year

Last January it occurred to me that I was without focus so I decided it was time to set some goals and get myself back on track. I stuck with this quest for about a month before my enthusiasm waned and it all got set aside. I told myself that things had just gotten really busy.

In early November I asked my husband about dreams. His. Mine. Ours. It was a disheartening conversation. Neither us could come up with much. I had vague memories of having dreams and silly things that I wanted to do someday. Today it might be called a bucket list. Eighteen years ago it was just a list of things I wanted to do. Now I don’t even know where it is.

It was at this point I began to suspect that I knew where my goals had gone: My to-do list ate them. And then it ate my dreams for dessert.

My to-do list didn’t act alone in this. Over time there was a slow shift in what I looked to to define my moments, my days, and eventually, myself. At some point I quit consulting my goals and dreams and looked only to the lists of tasks that I needed to do. Apparently, I was an accomplice.

Strangely, I was my own victim. Though far from sinister, as my list grew in both size and influence it began consuming more and more of my time and energy along with my goals and dreams. I found myself moving mechanically through my days, seeing only the circumstances of the moment, doing only the next thing, taking only the next step.

I lost vision. My sense of purpose deteriorated. I got dull.

I can’t afford to be dull. Who can? Too much is at stake for me to lose vision and purpose. They remind me why I am here. They inform my goals and nourish my dreams. They give meaning to the myriad tasks that eventually find their way on to my to-do list.

So for this new year, something different, three Rs: restore, retrain, and remember. Retrain myself to look beyond the next step, at least a little way out into the future. Restore a mindset conducive to setting goals and dreaming dreams. Remember what defines my moments, my days, and me.

And my to-do list? It remains, in a neatly organized app, but it is going on a strict goal-free, dream-free diet. Not for its health, but for mine.