I got this quote in an email from a fellow MIA member yesterday morning, and I haven’t been able to pry it from my brain: “I bargained with life for a penny…only to learn dismayed, that any wage I would have asked of life, life would have paid.” The author, Jessie Belle Rittenhouse (1869-1948), was a poet, literary critic, and compiler of anthologies. She was also the only female founding member of the Poetry Society of America, and she worked on the editorial staff of the New York Times for ten years in the early 1900s, as well.
I know it sounds crazy, but I feel immense pride when I think about women who were writing, publishing, and professionally employed in journalism before my grandmother was born. I know that Jessie Rittenhouse was a pioneer. She got her degree, went to work, and became well-respected in a male-dominated, intellectual field in a time when what she was doing was the exception rather than the rule. I am impressed by her gumption and wonder what might have made her choose such a non-traditional life for herself. After all, she didn’t bother getting married until she was 55, and she never had children.
I have a feeling that perhaps she did not so much intentionally choose that path as her talent and drive chose it for her and along the way she merely continued to raise the bar for herself. I examine the excerpt from her poem and I think that she clearly understood that she was the architect of her destiny. Her successes, taken within the context of the time period in which they were accomplished, were a direct result of her asking more of her life than her contemporaries were likely asking of theirs. While her college classmates were keeping house, she was hanging out with Robert Frost and T.S. Eliot and reviewing their poetry.
I think the reason that I am so affected by Ms. Rittenhouse’s poetic words, however, is because they embody the entire reason I started this Moms Into Adventure group. I realized it was time for me to ask more from life. I started down a different path than I originally had mapped out for myself and for a while I felt lost, but then I realized that my slight shift in direction didn’t have to mean that I had necessarily sacrificed all my dreams for myself. I still had those dreams. I still wanted those things. I was just traveling a back road to reach them.
When I think about what I want out of my life before it’s all said and done, it goes beyond having family. I know. I know. Having my beautiful and precious family should be enough for me; our culture indoctrinates us early with this idea, and I feel a tad bit uncomfortable knowing that I need more. I’ve always been a bit on the greedy side, though. I have perpetually asked life for more than a penny’s worth and now can say in all honesty that I am happy with who I am. When I ask more from myself, I rise to the occasion. When I want something, I find a means to get it because I am nothing but absolutely determined to have my way. When I feel like I’ve hit rock bottom, I somehow find a way to pull myself out of the chasm. I refuse to believe that I can’t have what I want. It might take me longer than anticipated to get it, but I will get there. I know it. When it comes to my dreams and goals, I have patience and perseverance.
You can gain none of life’s prizes without being brave and perhaps ruffling some feathers along the way. You know Ms. Rittenhouse’s mother was constantly railing on her: “You’re an old maid. Why don’t you settle down? Get married and give me some grandchildren already.” But her determination to walk her own path and ask for more than a penny’s worth made her powerful. Asking life for what we want is always a worthwhile venture, even if it means we encounter some opposition. I’ve long said my greatest fear is getting to the end of my life and realizing I’ve lived someone else’s. So, I’m going to continue asking for the things I want from life. I’m betting I’ll get them, so I’m going to be bold, up the ante, and enjoy taking home the whole pot.
We’ve gotten a lot of snow the past week here in Denver, so instead of going to yoga today as planned I could not pass up the opportunity to get out and enjoy the fresh powder snow. If the perfectly clear, beautiful blue winter sky wasn’t reason enough to get out, I noticed that no one had yet taken their snowshoes or skis out onto the open space field behind our house, which meant I was going to get to break a fresh trail. I have always loved making my mark in the snow and, since I was born a penis-less female, using snowshoes is the closest I come to peeing in the snow and marking my territory.
It was a balmy 6 degrees when the hyper border collie and I headed out. The thing I have always appreciated about snowshoeing is that it’s such a good workout that I am rarely cold for long. And, sure enough, it wasn’t but a few minutes until I was huffing and puffing and already unzipping layers of Smartwool. I planned to do the 4-mile loop the dog and I usually hike. It seemed like a reasonable and attainable goal. I snowshoe fairly often, but I usually head out on paths that have already been trodden down somewhat. In fact, I had completely forgotten how much work it is snowshoeing in fresh snow. I was stopping far more frequently than I had planned, just to catch my breath. The dog, completely unaccustomed to my taking breaks, enjoyed every last second by flying off in different directions with total freedom.
On one of my oh-too-many stops to catch my breath, I started thinking about my desire to blaze a trail today and how I’ve come a long way from my high school days when I was a truly devoted follower. My best friend was the leader, and I was happy being in her shadow (which was considerable since she is 6 feet tall in bare feet). In high school, I wanted to be able to camouflage myself, to fade into my surroundings. There’s a photo of me in the yearbook that comes to mind. The camera was pointed right at me, and I ducked my head and stared at my schoolwork as if I could disappear into it. I remember that girl as hesitant, reticent, and fearful. Definitely not a trailblazer.
Now that I am older and have more miles in my own skin, I’m a bit less concerned about whether or not I blend in. It’s not that I want to stand out necessarily. I just don’t care if I do or not. Other peoples’ opinions of me matter so much less than they used to. And, that makes it easier for me to be my own woman, to do what I want, and to move forward in my life unabashed. I may not be a true female pioneer like Amelia Earheart, but I’m closer to that adventurer now than I’ve ever been before. It’s not always easy. In fact, just like breaking a fresh trail in snowshoeing, sometimes making my own way is much more work than I imagined it would be. But, at least the path I create is uniquely mine, and that has to be worth more than just running with the pack. There’s something about breaking out on your own. Each step is a new beginning and the possibilities are limitless. It takes your breath away.
I have this small plaque on my kitchen wall that reads, “Who are these kids and why are they calling me Mom?” No. Seriously. Explain it to me. Some days I honestly wonder how I got here…and by “here” I mean “mother of two boys.” Okay. Okay. I know how it happened technically speaking. I just mean that I never imagined myself here. I’m sure many women envision growing up, getting married, and starting a family. I just never did. But five years after we got married, hubby and I found ourselves saying, “This is great, but now what?” Apparently our next great adventure after getting married, buying a home, and caring for two dogs just in case we decided to have kids, was actually having children.
I can’t believe I thought that becoming a parent would make my life dull. My life hasn’t had a dull (read: “quiet”) moment since the boys arrived. Raising them has been incredibly interesting. Remember before you had kids when you were worried about changing diapers and sleep deprivation? As if those were going to be your biggest concerns? HA. I giggle now when I think about it. It never occurred to me that there might be actual issues with my boys. I never imagined that they might have trouble with growth and development. It never crossed my mind that one of them might be ADHD. I certainly didn’t foresee my son feeling socially awkward or having a hard time making friends. Nor did I imagine how I would handle it when I found my six year old tying Barbie to trees or my eight year old researching “skinny dipping” on Google. Why is it that I have a million books on raising children, and not one of them tells me what I should do about my son with the killer gag reflex who vomits at least once during every dental appointment.
Through my time with my children, however, I have learned more than I did in 6 years of college and graduate study. What I couldn’t get in “book smarts” from college, I learn in hands-on lessons in real life. With my boys, I truly do learn something new every day. Granted, maybe I didn’t need to know that there is a gecko in Namibia that survives the deadly desert temperatures by using its large webbed feet to burrow deep beneath the sand it traverses during the day. I also probably didn’t need to know that baby powder, when completely emptied unceremoniously from its container, would take weeks to remove completely from the walls, carpet, and baseboards of a bedroom. I know I didn’t want to know that boogers are virtually impossible to pry from heavily textured walls or that you can pick up a so-called permanent tooth that has been knocked out and shove it back into its socket in the mouth, hold it there, and probably save it.
For each thing I’ve learned that maybe I didn’t feel I wanted to or needed to know, though, I have also learned something about myself. I pick my battles more carefully these days. I understand that sometimes it’s just best to cut your losses and that doing so doesn’t have to imply failure. I’ve become much better at problem solving and much more adept at improvising. I’ve learned that worrying about things doesn’t affect their outcome. I now know that sometimes even when things don’t work out as I’ve planned they have still worked out just fine. I’ve also learned that I am much stronger than I ever thought I was.
Parenting has been my life’s greatest adventure so far. It hasn’t always been a pleasant journey, but it’s been infinitely educational. Please remind me of that the next time Luke pukes in the dentist’s chair all over himself, me, and the floor, and I’m looking around as if I have no idea whose child this is. Please remind me that there are lessons to be learned everywhere in life. And then remind me that Spray ‘n Wash will remove regurgitated chocolate milk from a khaki sweatshirt if you catch it quickly enough.
A couple years ago after years of virtually non-stop time with my small bosses, I needed a break. Being the infinitely good sport that he is, my husband agreed it was a good idea. So, I booked a ticket to the city where I was born, Buffalo, New York. Hubby was surprised that I would pick Buffalo as my private vacation destination, but I told him that it wasn’t getting away if it didn’t involve two flights’ distance between us.
So, on Friday, June 12th, 2009 (yes…the date is engraved in my memory), I started my first solo adventure in 8 years. Sure. I’d traveled during those 8 years, but not entirely on my own just for the purpose of fun and relaxation. This was a HUGE deal. I was actually going to be free to do whatever I wanted whenever I wanted for three full days. My mind was dizzy with possibilities. Aside from my luggage, I had no baggage. I felt lighter than I’ve felt in years.
Although I’d made plans to see friends and family during my visit, I made sure to allow myself one 24-hour day of complete solitude. So, on my first full-day in New York I made a promise to myself: I would do only what I felt like doing, even if that meant staying in bed in my hotel all day and reading. I had no obligations, and I was going to suck up every minute of that freedom.
That day was my personal heaven. I had no specific plans. I would go where the spirit led me. I planned to check things off my to-do list that I didn’t even know were on my to-do list. I ran the track at a local high school because I had to see what living at altitude would do for my running game at sea level. (It didn’t help as much as I imagined it would.) After that, I purchased an enormous vanilla latte, which I leisurely enjoyed while getting ready for the rest of my day. Uninterrupted, ridiculously long, hot shower? Check.
Around 11, I grabbed a bottle of Classic Coke (no Diet Coke…this was serious), my iPod with its portable speaker, and some snacks and hopped into the rental car. I love to drive, but I perpetually have a destination. I was so excited to just drive and see what I would find. About an hour south of Buffalo, I saw a sign for Lake Erie State Park. How could I pass that up? It was cool and overcast, but I could not resist the opportunity to walk on some sand, sit by the lake, listen to the waves, and just be. I sighed just now thinking about it.
After lunch at the lake, I got back in the car and found myself in idyllic Chautauqua watching the sailboats glide effortlessly while I snarfed down my favorite salty snack, Bugles, with another Coke. (Yes. I was living life on the edge.) Then, just for giggles, I fired up Facebook on my iPhone and updated my status to “Having my best day EVER.” Hubby loved that.
Later, I wound my way carelessly back toward Buffalo on quiet highways through quaint towns that looked like they would have inspired Norman Rockwell. I stopped once to walk briefly around Ellicottville, but mostly I just drove and enjoyed the treed countryside and my unending iPod playlist. Finally, around 6 p.m. I landed back in Buffalo. I set my GPS to locate my all-time childhood favorite sub shop, John and Mary’s. I ordered my usual (ham and provolone with mayo, lettuce, and tomato) and drove back to my hotel room to enjoy it. It was warm. I temporarily freaked out. Had they given me the wrong sandwich? Nope. The bread was fresh from the oven. I nearly died.
Every woman should take one day a year just to be truly on her own, to remember who she is and what she likes to do, to relax and exist in her own skin…not as wife or mother but as human being. If you haven’t tried it in a while, you really should. Your family will survive a day without you. Who knows? In your absence, they might realize how much you are worth. Maybe we should make it a national holiday? We could call it Mother’s Day.
I am a “hat person.” Or at least this is what I’ve been told repeatedly throughout my life. I’d be somewhere, try on a hat for giggles, and someone around me would say, “You look great in that hat. I wish I could wear hats,” as if wearing hats is some kind of fashion dream that only a few can attain. Maybe it is. I’m not sure. But the truth is that despite my being a hat person, I have never worn hats. I assume this is because I’m kind of shy and feel that hats require a certain outgoing attitude I have never possessed. I prefer to blend into the wallpaper and become invisible. And unless British or you’re wearing a baseball cap at a game or you’re wearing a knit hat on a ski slope, a hat draws attention to you.
Yet for years, buoyed by compliments from others, I’ve bought hats, squirreled them away, and imagined I would one day wear them. I would conjure elaborate scenarios whereby I’d be wearing a hat and having a fabulous adventure, something positively Audrey Hepburn-ish; but I never got up the nerve to put one of my many hats on my head and actually go out in public. So, they’ve sat in boxes in our storage room and on shelves in my closet, completely ignored and collecting dust. Last fall as I was doing my semi-yearly closet clean out, I came across a bevy of neglected hats and vowed to stop being such a wimp. I promised myself I would start wearing hats more often, which is to say I would start wearing them more often than never.
The only way to get myself out of my self-consciousness was to force myself to wear them for a solid period of time until it felt not quite so conspicuous. I chose a week as the appropriate time period, figuring that it was long enough to get me used to hats but not so long that suddenly people would start asking me, “What’s up with the hats?” I also decided that I couldn’t count it as a day of wearing a hat if I didn’t go out in public while wearing it…at least for a little while. I mean, there’s no point in wearing a hat to get over your hat phobia if you don’t pointedly announce to the world, “Hey…there’s a hat intentionally placed on my head.”
I’m a gifted avoider. I put off my Week of Hats for months. Then, finally tired of the disappointment I would feel in myself each time I opened my closet and saw those hats judging me, I decided last Monday would begin my official Week of Hats. I spent Sunday night figuring out appropriate outfits to go with the hats. Because hats are an accessory, I had to make it look as if I cleverly tossed the hat on with this darling outfit because I am quite fashion savvy. There is nothing further from the truth. I am a fashion kindergartner.
Still, Monday came around and I got dressed, put on a hat, and went out into the world. At first I was sure people were staring. I felt out of place and uncomfortable. But then I would get a grip and stop over-thinking it. The more I acted as if it was completely unremarkable for a hat person like me to be wearing a hat, the less self-conscious I felt. It was the old “fake it until you make it” scheme and it was working. By day three, I didn’t notice if people were looking at me. By day six, I didn’t care if people were looking at me.
You know what I had forgotten? Everyone is wrapped up in their own personal drama, oblivious to what is going on around them. How silly had I been to imagine that people were actually regarding me at all? And, even if they had been, why did I care? It’s my life, and I’m a hat person. I should wear hats once in a while, otherwise it’s a perfect waste of my hat-wearing ability. Now, I’m not saying I’m going to start wearing hats every day in the future, but because of the hat trick I will now probably throw one on more often than never. If there’s something you’ve not been doing because it makes you a bit nervous, let go. Live your life. Who knows? You might inspire someone with your daring…even if you’re only being a little daring.
For years now I have been knocking things off my to-do list, most often big, nerve-testing things that have brought me greater confidence and a better understanding of myself. But, I’ve realized recently that some things that have been grand adventures were never on my list to begin with. Some of the smallest choices I’ve made have brought the greatest, most unexpected joy and taught me the biggest lessons.
Years ago, my oldest son asked me for a turtle. I’m not anti-reptile, so I told him I’d think about it and did some research. Turns out that a common box turtle, the kind you would get from a pet store for your son for example, can live for thirty years. Deciding I did not want to be moving into a nursing home with a turtle (which, let’s face it, is the probable outcome of that scenario), I gently nudged my darling son towards a different pet.
After a lot of discussion, we decided to get a tadpole and grow ourselves a frog. The tadpole experiment was far more interesting than I imagined it would be. For weeks, we waited to see some limbs develop. I swear I was more excited than Joe was when we first noticed legs beginning to form. Over the couple months of development, we anticipated the time when we would begin to feed him “real” food. Real food, it turns out, is live crickets. That took some mental finagling on my part. I was all for a frog pet but was not really thinking about how keeping a frog pet meant that I would have to keep cricket pets as well.
When the tadpole was starting to lose its tail, I began the odious task of raising crickets. I decided they would have to live in the garage; I pay an exterminator way too much money to keep bugs out of my house to move some into my house intentionally. I bought the smallest crickets I could get because our frog was still very small as well. Finally, when most of his tadpole tail was gone and he was starting to come out of the water for longer periods of time, I dropped a couple crickets in with him and crossed my fingers.
For days I watched that frog, but it would not eat the stupid, teeny crickets. I checked on it every couple hours. I was starting to fret that froggy might not make it so I decided to visit the pet store to see if there was something else he might eat. I went in to check on him before I left and found he was dead.
I was heartbroken. I cried over the loss of that little frog, sobbed and carried on in what had to be one of the world’s ugliest cries ever. I was the one who had convinced Joe that he needed a frog, and then I starved the poor creature to death. I had failed as both froggy parent and real parent. And then I had to pull myself together, go pick up my son from school, and tell him the horrible news. Sensitive boy that he is, he was convinced that it was his fault. We spent hours discussing life and death, crying, and finally burying that frog out on the open space behind our house. We decided no more small pets for a while.
Then, a year ago I saw our next adventure in a Brookstone store. It was a small aquarium holding two tiny, aquatic frogs. The frogs eat (get this) food pellets and not live anything. I knew that we might finally be able to put the great tadpole experiment behind us and have a potentially more positive amphibian experience.
So, in addition to four people and one neurotic border collie, we’ve had four African Dwarf frogs in our house since last May. These frogs are more my pets than my boys’ pets, and I am fine with that. I love those little frogs. I love them more than any creature has loved a frog since Miss Piggy worshipped Kermit. I am rather partial to Luke’s frogs, who seem to recognize my voice and swim over to see me when I come to their aquarium. Splashy and Swimmy love classical music and especially enjoy swimming to Beethoven’s 9th. Every day those silly frogs make me smile. They are constant reminders that sometimes life’s most rewarding and educational adventures are the small ones that we don’t plan for.
My husband and I have been parenting boys since 2001, and between our two boys we now have a combined sixteen years of parenting experience. So, it annoys me when we make rookie parenting mistakes. After this much time you’d hope we’d have a clue about how this whole parenting thing works. But, alas, sometimes we’re no better than we were the day we brought the little buggers home from the hospital.
Today we took our boys cross-country skiing. We tried this with them last month. Joe had been on skis before and took to cross-country immediately, but it was Luke’s first time on skis and he presented us with a bit more of a challenge. Luke, god bless him, always knows what to do before he is instructed and he has no intention of letting you tell him what he already knows. So, we spent the first thirty minutes of our last ski trip plucking him up off the snow because he refused to slow down and practice before setting off to catch up to his brother. The whining was unbearable, and don’t even get me started about the noises Luke was making. But eventually, when he figured out that he wasn’t catching his brother by becoming a snowball, Luke listened to our instructions and then took off like he’d been skiing for years. The whole experience had ended so favorably that we decided to spend the money to do it again today.
The boys remembered how to get into their boots and skis, and we were sure we were going to be able to ski three miles no problem. Once we got down the first big hill, though, Luke started having trouble. He was right back to where he was when we started skiing with him the last time. He wasn’t listening. He was perpetually on the ground. He started into the complaints about how he couldn’t ski. He was defeated, and we were getting incredibly frustrated. You know things are going poorly when you have to take turns relieving the other parent of their duty because things are getting ugly. After a half an hour, we had already had changed the guard several times.
The last time hubby scooped Luke up off the ground, he noticed that Luke’s skis were marked as “skate” skis and not traditional touring skis. The difference lies in the distinct lack of any gripping sections on the bottom of a skate ski. The smooth skis are great when you are skating your way up a hill, but not so great when you are trying to stay in the traditional, grooved ski paths and climb. I suddenly felt like Gru in Despicable Me: “LIGHTBULB.”
Had we really just wasted all that time thinking the dang kid was being stubborn when, in fact, he really couldn’t get up the hill? Steve and I have both been skiing most of our lives. You think it would have occurred to us that skiing is a muscle memory activity, and once you learn a skill in skiing you generally don’t lose it. Yet, we were so certain that Luke was being his independent self that we couldn’t even hear what he was saying. Not once did we stop to size up the situation and step back far enough to see that he was indeed slipping all over the place. Rookie parenting mistakes are almost always made when you make snap judgements. We had immediately concluded that Luke was simply not listening to us without even pausing to reflect on the situation.
The whole episode got me thinking about how often we get into a routine and we stop paying attention. We coast along as if we’re in those little cars at an amusement park, the kind where the cars are attached to a rail and even though you’re steering you’re actually just along for the ride. We’re just going through the motions, cruising along under the same tired assumptions totally oblivious to what’s happening around us. It’s fairly easy to get caught up going in circles when you’re on automatic pilot all the time.
In yoga class, the instructors constantly remind us to be present and to check in with ourselves, and on a yoga mat that is easy for me. But, in day-to-day life, it’s normal for me to coast along unaware. I wonder what better place I might be in if I looked up once in a while and made sure I was reading the signs and heading in the right direction?