August 24, 2017

Area 51-- the Empty Nest series continues

It seems apropos that on the day I end my 51st trip around the sun, I post about the theorized site of aliens visiting Earth. The previous year of my life certainly has had moments of other-worldliness. I've felt like an alien in the story of my own life as I've adjusted to several rapid fire changes that seemed to have crashed into my world like a comet.

Today, I revisit the story I began to write a year ago about surviving the empty nest and finding myself again.  It's been a year of searching and self-reflection, a year of discovery. Something I realized in this past year as I've slowly shed the pounds I picked up in middle age is that I've begun to shed some of the emotional baggage and angst as well.

A year ago today, I was wringing every last ounce of emotion out of feeling so lost and confused. My menopausal, empty-nest, lost-a-parent, just-was-invited-to-the-AARP self was in a tailspin. I blogged each week through the end of the year with the intent of turning those 18 weeks of reflection into a book.

I set out a timetable to deal with everything and set about it with utmost efficiency. But I was rushing myself and the process, and I hit a wall. I decided to set everything aside and just let it age gracefully. 

I wasn't done telling the story or discovering who I am. I wasn't quite ready to look past my empty nest. I thought about who I am and what I need to feel fulfilled. Now I'm ready to explore more about surviving the empty nest, because I indulged myself with the gift of reflection and time.

As I glance out my window at the changing leaves, through the bouquet of flowers, I realize I'm ready for change, too.

Stay tuned as we continue the journey together.

May 25, 2017

Ask me anything

One of the ways I fill my time as a freelance writer and lover of children is by substitute teaching. When my client load is low or my need to be surrounded by sticky little hands  and whiny voices is untapped, I accept opportunities to substitute teach.

I jest a little. I thrive on being around children and feed off their energy and curiosity. My imagination runs wild as I glimpse faces from the past. There is a little boy who could be a dead ringer for my now 19 year old daughter's second grade best friend. There is another little boy who could be my little nephew. I see these faces and smile thinking of young friends I adored from a different time and place.

Inevitably, at the end of the day, we've done all our work and there is time, usually only about 5-10 minutes, because I'm pretty good at sticking to and following the schedule. That 5-10 minutes can seem endless if you aren't ready for it.

Additionally, as a substitute teacher, you don't even know their regular routine or where the teacher keeps the "bag o' tricks" for those down times. It's okay. John Berryman once wrote a quote that has become a lifetime mantra, "Ever to confess you're bored is to confess to no inner resources."

That quote reminds me to dig deep. When I encounter that dead zone of what the heck do I do now, I fall back on a game called "Ask Me Anything". The students must raise their hands and they are allowed to ask me anything they want. Because I teach elementary school, I'm not too concerned that I won't have an answer, or at least be able to make them laugh if I don't.

Typical questions include:

  • Do you have kids? (yes)
  • How many? (2)
  • Girls or boys? (both girls)
  • Do you have a dog? (yes)
  • What is your favorite kind of ice cream? (vanilla)
  • How old are you? (50)
  • Where do babies come from? (their parents)

So it goes. "Ask Me Anything" usually fills the rest of the time and keeps the kids engaged.

Sometimes, however, I get a monkey wrench, typically with the follow-up question.

Isn't it rude that someone asked your age? (No, I invited the question).
How do the parents get the babies? (That's a question for a scientist).
What if they didn't have vanilla ice cream? (I'd probably order coffee with chocolate chips)
Do you like cats? (the hardest one of all, because I don't usually, but meet exceptions on a regular basis).

The ask me anything game is sort of indulgent for me as well because I get to assuage my ego that "I know everything". Then came the time the game got the best of me. As we were filing to leave for the day, a young girl with a twinkle in her eye asked me, "Do you teach all the subjects?" (yes). She smirked and said, "Well that means you teach science, so you can tell us how the parents get the babies."

Just then the bell rung and the bedlam of getting the bus ensued.

I learned the meaning of saved by the bell.

But in the spirit of the game, I now invite my readers... "Ask Me Anything".
I might even answer.

March 20, 2017

First Day of School/Spring

It is only apropos that I find myself composing today's post on the first day of Spring. I have filled so many of my days with obligations that I hadn't been able to accept many substitute teaching jobs. In fact, the last time I was called and could accept was back in September.

But last night, around 9 PM, my phone rang and I was asked if I could teach today. I hesitated for a moment, as I was supposed to meet a friend for lunch, but I also knew that my friend would understand and we could reschedule. I was giddy as I said yes, I would be there, knowing that I would spend my day with a roomful of young people.

I am not sure how I can describe how much I love being in schools. I suppose you could call me a teacher groupie. I haven't gone through the work to be one, but I cannot really picture myself doing anything else. While I do not have a teaching degree, instead I fill my days with ways to be around young people. I am a confirmation sponsor at my church, I volunteer teach for Junior Achievement, and I coach speech and debate for a local high school. Oh, and I also babysit for my neighbors 2 mornings/week.

In other words, if there is anyone in the world who loves being around young people, it is me. Heck my own college daughter said in a quiz about how well she knows her mom, that my favorite thing is to talk with young people.

So today, knowing I was subbing all day, I sprung out of bed at 5:30 AM. My husband was teasing me, said, First day of school? At 50 years old, I blushed and then nodded knowingly, yes, I was going to school for the day.

I am not sure I can appropriately explain how magical a school building is to me. It's just this place of wonder and amazement. I walk in and see so much promise. I'm surrounded with potential. I am enveloped with hope. It is a beautiful thing. Lesson plans, students, notebooks, minds, oh those minds! Such gorgeous vessels waiting to be filled!

I am realistic. I'm a substitute teacher. I'm just a place holder who comes in and imparts a little knowledge that their regular teacher has set in place.  What I do believe though is that a good substitute can bring a new energy and enthusiasm to a classroom -- a fresh face, and different perspective. There was a young man in the front of my classroom today who announced how he was in a bad mood and that I shouldn't expect anything from him.

I looked at him and firmly said, "I expect you to do your work, because a job has nothing to do with your mood." The rest of the classroom piped in and quickly informed me that the regular teacher always makes him do stuff, even when he doesn't want to. I quickly discerned that there was more going on with this student. I think that is what a good sub does -- read the situation and adapt.

By the end of the day, he was smiling and fist bumped him for getting rid of his bad mood. Oh yeah, and he did the work he was supposed to do. I call that a winning day.

January 3, 2017

Here they are, there they go: Week 18 (final installment)

big familyThe holidays got in the way of wrapping up my empty nest series. We were traveling out and folks were traveling in, our kids came home, we hosted a family get-together, we attended several family get-togethers. We need a holiday from our holiday. 

As the dust settles on the holiday season for 2016, I have some time for reflection and offer some realistic observations. The past two weeks were a prospecting mission to foresee what future interactions between adult family members will be like.

What strikes me most profoundly is the complete lack of homogeneity, and yet, we are united by blood. Each member of our family is different and unique and at no time was that more apparent than when we were all gathered in the same space.

We saw cousins that we don't often see, and realized that as the family grows, our time commitments get more thin. We pledged to do better at keeping in touch and crossed our fingers that we make it a priority. 

The greater extrapolation of an empty nest is the realization that we had several generations of families who have all experienced children becoming adults at one time or another. Yet, we still gather and enjoy spending time together. I suspect that is the truest glimpse of the future.  Years ago, my siblings and I left our family nests.  We still congregate with each other when we can and appreciate the family time. 

We hosted mom at our house and realized now it’s our turn to take care of things for her when she’s in our home. We stocked up on her favorite coffee, put extra blankets in the room, set out favorite family photos. We want to make her feel at home with the same graciousness we feel when we visit her home. 

family togethernessThe difference when we visit our childhood home is a built in sense of familiarity. My brother found the spot on the wall that he etched his undying devotion to a grade school crush. We walked around marveling how much smaller it seems today than when we were kids. We were threatened with punishment if we opened a door to a messy room. Though we laughed, we realized that mom's “Board of Education” still stings in our minds if not on our behinds. 

We surrounded ourselves with touchstones to the past, made memories of the present, and looked forward to the future. And that is the note to close this series. I'm looking forward to the future. 

This 18 post series will be expanded upon and compiled into a book. 

Projected availability is July 2017. 

December 20, 2016

You don't know me: Week 17

Here I am, reflecting on another week of pretend empty nest. Because at the particular moment of this writing, it's full. Plus one.

What I realize is the new normal, otherwise known as reality, is here to stay. From here on out, it will be coming and going, cars starting and stopping and parking. The door will revolve, and we will get glimpses of updates. At some point, we parents will no longer know who they hang out with or how often or what they do when they hang out.

That's normal and good.

I spent a day with my mom yesterday and I see the generational parallel. I told her about the lives of the people she knows are my life long best friends and realize, it's conversation fodder. It's how we touch base. My relationship with my children is approaching that place.
moving together forwardMy oldest child's beau is visiting us. They met last summer while she was interning and have kept in touch long distance. He seems really nice though I think I made him uneasy with my questions. At least he was polite and answered each one. I kept apologizing for being nosy. But the fact remains, we no longer will have that built-in framework of familiarity. We do not have any common ground other than the one person we know in common, my child, Period.

Admittedly, it is a bit disconcerting to realize that I no longer bond with our children and their friends over a common teacher, town event, or local story. Their worlds grow when we aren't looking. They grow beyond what I know or relate to and that is okay.

I don't know who all mom's friends are, nor does mom know all mine. The torch passes on. I don't know who all our kids' friends are, and likewise for them. Each story about someone else begins with some sort of explanation who this person we are talking about is and why they are in our lives.

When we start out as parents, our goal is to raise independent strong young people for the future. When it happens, it's a little unsettling, because it's hard to realize we achieved exactly what we set out to do. While it was the plan, it was going to happen regardless of any level of intervention on our part.

I think one of the difficult parts is that nobody throws us a shower or celebration. When we embark on this journey, we are literally showered with presents and cards of congratulation, and yet, upon retirement, it just fades. You want to holler, "Hey! All of you who loved that lump of wiggly baby in my arms? Yeah, you! I did it! We did it! That baby grew up and look-ee here! We got ourselves a co-ed!" Where is my party?

It doesn't work that way. Instead, we swirl away from the familiar world of over 18+ years raising young people.  We don't know where they are going and we somehow have to trust them, as well as ourselves. We have to trust that we did our best and so will they.

Stay tuned next week for my last installment. And stay tuned longer for my journey to book.

December 12, 2016

Nothing is the same, nor should it be: Week 16

As the month of December unfolds, I'm approaching the end of my self-chosen 18 week commitment to process and understand the dynamics of my empty nest. Back in August when I first began the series, the plan was to live-blog each week, chronicling my emotional and intellectual learning curve as I was experiencing it.

This past weekend, I picked my younger child up from college in Chicago. I drove in a day early with a neighbor friend and we had a mini-shopping girl's getaway planned. We briefly saw my baby bird to have some lunch and then went and checked into our hotel room. We spent the afternoon checking out some Chicago shopping destinations, had a nice dinner, hit the sack and got ready to bring two young co-eds home. (Another young person from our town attends the same university so we share rides to and from school with her parents).
Anyway, that little scenario led me to the realization of how little of my December is the same as in years past. It was a gradual process, but it hit me like a ton of bricks when I was shopping with my neighbor who still has younger children who still have child expectations of Christmas, including Santa and lots of magic and gifts.

Santa knows they were goodChristmas over the past few years has taken a decidedly less magical and much more realistic turn. I'm okay with that. My children were too old when the Elf on the Shelf "magic" became another thing to do over the holidays. Thank goodness.

Yet, I do recall the year that our dog was a new puppy and the children were nervous that he would scare Santa away from coming, so they asked to bring his crate upstairs to their bedroom. Then, when they couldn't decide whose room to put the cage into, they decided to share a bed. That was magic I'll cherish forever. The sight of my little angels sleeping next to each other on Christmas Eve, making sure Santa would still visit, will never be forgotten.

While I miss the visits to Santa, I honestly don't miss the built up deception and the impression that "Santa can do anything". My children haven't quite forgiven me, but literally the minute they were old enough to question Santa, I came clean. I am terrible at sugarcoating and not so good at lying either, so it was a huge relief to just say, "I'm Santa". Okay, I wasn't quite so blunt, I think I said something like "Once upon a time there was a very kind and generous man who loved making children happy. His name was Santa Claus and he was so inspirational that parents have taken on his traditions over the years and kept his spirit alive, and now that you know, you will want to keep his traditions alive for the younger children." Honestly, I never cared for the commercial bend that Christmas took.

Before I sound like an insufferable Scrooge, I love the family get-togethers, the parties, the baking, and the decorations. I love putting up a tree and reliving a lifetime of memories with each ornament I hang. But some of that has changed as well. Concurrent with children growing up and getting older is that the generation older than myself starts to shrink. The losses of patriarchs and matriarchs has all begun to happen over the past several years and life needs to take a new turn to compensate.

This year, I found myself especially nostalgic and I think my emotions were a mélange of events, but I fondly remembered not only the handprints my children made, but the crocheted snowflakes my grandmother made, the Shiny-Brites like the one my husband's grandparents hung on the tree. I recognized that nothing will ever be like that again. We will never pack ourselves into my grandparent's living room again, nor will we stay up half the night smuggling gifts out of hiding places, waiting until the children fell asleep to take bites out of cookies on the plate and stage a Christmas visit from Santa for the break of dawn.

Instead, we get the magic of well-educated young people. I get to talk to my younger daughter about literature and philosophy and sharpen my thinking skills. I get to arrange the meeting of my older daughter's beau for the first time. I don't intend to pressure or embarrass her, but honestly, whenever I meet someone she is dating, I always approach such meetings wondering if this is a person who will eventually become a member of the family. That's exciting!

Last week, my spouse and I had a date. We went to a Christmas ale blind tasting and didn't have to worry about getting home for the kids. It's something we'd never have even considered when they still lived at home.

Those are just a few slices of the ways life will never be the same. And I am so glad it's not.

December 7, 2016

You ought to admire each other: Week 15

Now we're approaching winter break, I'll be bringing my younger daughter home for the rest of the month this Saturday. The older one will be home a week later and our nest will be full again. Additionally, we have family flying into town this year between Christmas and New Year's which means the house will be bustling with good will and cheer.

Something has happened in the past week that just really struck me, and it transcends the typical proud parent role that we cast ourselves into. Even when we don't always like each other, I've realized how deeply I admire my children and their peers. I admire the people they became.

There is so much negativity floating around about those spoiled millennials that I want to depart slightly from my personal empty nest journey and talk instead about the things I'm learning from this generation.

Gather at The Bean Chicago*First of all, our generation raised them. Yep, we're the ones who decided that they should all get trophies, we're the ones who let that attitude of everyone gets a prize sink in. But you know what? They see through it. They still know who is the best and they still have a work ethic. We didn't fool them with piles of cheap plastic awards and hollow accolades. We need to own our role in that impression. We left them a pile of trophies and overpriced tuition.

*Secondly, we may have stopped asking them to do chores or get part time jobs, but we started to expect them to be "well-rounded". We threw every possible activity to do in their direction, beginning with pre-school play groups and ending with things to put on your college application. Seriously? Our generation maybe did one activity, sports or music, or maybe something with our church group. But we didn't do all of it nor was it expected of us. The pressure we've placed on our next generation is astounding. And they have risen to the occasion. The book "Busier Than Ever!" is an excellent read why this isn't such a bad phenomenon.

*Third, they love their elders. They ask us for guidance and respect what we suggest. Nowhere has this been more evident than in the past presidential election, when their most popular candidate was
the "grandpa who gets them", an unlikely 74 year old man who paid attention to their concerns, Bernie Sanders. Now, this is not to suggest that we should adopt the political platform of Senator Sanders, at least not in its entirety. It does mean that if we take time to listen to their concerns, they will take time to heed our advice.

Enough of this "Them vs. Us". They are our children and we taught them everything they know. We have a duty and obligation as the people who pass the baton to them to pay attention instead of dismiss. We are required to care about what affects them. I admire them and I look forward to the day they have to take care of me, because I believe the future is in good hands. It's time for all of us to believe it.


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