Old Car, New Story

When my husband, Rob, and I moved to Charlottesville in August of 2001, I bought a new car—a trusty Toyota Corolla.

One year later, we left the maternity unit with our first child–our daughter, Liana. We strapped her into her car seat and drove off on a new adventure with our greatest privilege–and responsibility.

Welcome home!

From the get-go, Liana seemed to have a mind of her own; she knew what she wanted.

Thinking…

As an older baby, she’d make noises while being held until we reached a certain destination. Rob and I joked that she liked us to carry her, not so much to be cuddled as to have a mode of transportation.

That way!

As for crawling and walking—this girl could not wait to go for it!

Freedom
More freedom

Liana continued along these lines, even riding a plane by herself at nine years old to visit her best friend who had moved away.

In Missouri, half a lifetime ago

Fast-forward several more years–she was eager to get her driver’s license. She reached that milestone this past fall and started to borrow—did you guess?–my Corolla.

Practicing driving on her 16th birthday

One month ago I bought a new car, and the Corolla is now Liana’s “new” car. It’s no longer fit for driving over mountains or long distances on the highway, but it’s still fine for local driving.

Yeah, it’s scratched and dented. It’s hit lots of potholes and bumps. It’s gone quite the distance. It’s not exactly a teenager’s aesthetic (or technological) dream, but she’s grateful.

Replacing the insignia that went missing years ago

That old Corolla—may it be as good to her as it’s been to me. I knew that I’d drive it for years. That’s what Rob and I do: we keep our cars. But I didn’t think I’d keep the Corolla for 18 years. Eighteen years of errands, carpools, and road trips.

On the way to North Carolina, back in the day before “real” devices
On the way to NYC with sister, Miya (left)

Eighteen years of graduations—from preschool, elementary, and middle school.

A graduation gift from her preschool teacher
5th Grade Graduation (and they’re still best friends!)
8th Grade Graduation

This coming spring, Liana is due to graduate from high school. I’m already feeling her impending departure. I’m very excited for her. And yet, I’ll miss her so much.

I often find myself thinking, “This is the last [fill in the blank].” I’m growing sentimental (even more than usual). Five for Fighting’s song, “100 Years” runs through my head: “The sun is getting high. We’re moving on.” I know, I know, but I can’t help it…

I live life, feeling both the loss and the gratitude. For me, each magnifies the other: more loss because of the gratitude; more gratitude because of the loss. But in the end, gratitude wins big time. We’re lucky that she’s able to live her life.

Can you spy the Corolla?
(Photo Credit: ReThreads)

For much of Liana’s childhood, it may have looked as though I were in the driver’s seat, but really, I’ve just been a guide.

In San Francisco to see Grandma
Pulling her share

I trust that Liana will continue to make good choices, to define success on her own terms, to live her best life. And I wish her all the luck in the world as she continues on her adventure, with greater privilege—and responsibility. I can’t wait to see where she takes herself.

On the way to NYC
On the way to VA

One thing’s for sure: This girl is going places.

And wherever she goes… may she always see the wonder in the world.

At Wrightsville Beach
On the Appalachian Trail

Until we meet again,

Amy

Listen to the Birds: Do the Best You Can

April 2017

Two Aprils ago, I blogged about a momma and poppa House Finch who built a nest on my front door wreath. I had the privilege and joy of witnessing the various stages of their nest and babies’ development–from the first few twigs in late March to an empty nest in early May. Awe-inspiring!

A pair of House Finches—I assume the same pair—went through the same process in the same place last spring. Repeat visitors! I guess they were happy with the way things had gone the previous year. I sure was happy to see them and their new sweet brood.

This past March, I was behind schedule. I hadn’t yet put up the spring daffodil wreath. On the door still hung the white flower wreath, the “filler wreath” between the holiday pine wreath and the daffodil one.

When I heard that familiar sound on the other side of the front door—that dainty scratching of twigs against the door during nest building—I knew the birds were back. Yay!

Later that day, I took a peek at the beginnings of the nest. And I worried. The base of the white flower wreath wasn’t as wide as that of the daffodil wreath. Would the white wreath provide enough support?

I thought about switching it out with the daffodil wreath, but I didn’t want to throw away the birds’ hard work. So I left up the white wreath. (Yes, this decision would continue to haunt me.)

Over the next week, a beautiful nest appeared. I still worried. Not only was the white wreath not as wide, but the birds had placed the nest somewhat off-center from the top. In addition, the outer layers of the nest didn’t appear as tightly constructed as the two in the past. This nest was lovely in its wispy way, but would it be sturdy enough?

The first egg appeared! I still worried. I asked my handy husband, Rob, to build something to support the nest.

His reaction? “It’s best not to mess with nature.”

I couldn’t bear the thought of the eggs/baby birds falling from the nest. Rob reconsidered and added cardboard and plastic below the nest. It looked comical. I felt better. But I still worried.

Four more eggs joined the first one. Momma bird sat atop the nest, warming and protecting her eggs. Poppa bird watched vigilantly from a nearby tree branch.

The five eggs were replaced by five baby birds! Momma and Poppa tended to them faithfully.

But as the babies grew, the weight turned the wreath a bit counterclockwise. I moved the wreath back to its original place. It was time for more intervention! I taped the wreath to the door (knowing that the tape would pull off the paint, but who cared at that point?). It looked even more comical. I felt better. But I still worried.

Then one day, I pulled into the driveway after work and found this sad sight:

The nest had come undone. I ran to the door. There was no sign of the birds. Except for a trail of poop that increased near the base of a nearby column.

Could it be? Could the babies have scurried underneath the column? Were they hiding there?

If the babies were there, I didn’t want to scare them. So I left and didn’t return.

I felt awful. And I still worried. I regretted not having switched out the white flower wreath with the daffodil wreath. I wondered if I shouldn’t have pressed Rob to build that cardboard and plastic contraption, or if I shouldn’t have taped the wreath to the door. I wished I had laid down soft padding in case of a fall…

But soon, I saw Momma and Poppa hanging around the base of the column! Chattering away. Momma poking her beak underneath the column, presumably delivering food. The babies had to be there!

Can you spy Poppa amidst all of that brick and moss?
Can you spy Momma sitting on a nearby branch?

For a week or so, I saw and heard Momma and Poppa every day. The poop oozed out from underneath the column—a great sign! I don’t think I ever felt so happy to see poop.

Ah, those smart, resilient, devoted birds. They amazed me.

But then one day, Momma and Poppa didn’t return. Rob looked under the column. No sign of the babies, either.

Maybe it was their time to fly away! At the same time, I worried: maybe something horrible had happened to the babies.

I’ll never know if there was a happy ending; there’s a lack of closure. But that’s life: sometimes, it’s messy. On top of all of that, I wonder at once if I made the process worse and if I’m assuming too much blame.

The previous two years, the birds’ journey was downright inspiring to witness. This year, my awe was mixed with stress, because of the family’s bumpy road and the babies’ uncertain “ending.”

And yet, watching the family handle their incredible obstacles was inspiring in a different sort of way: They did their best with what they had.

Another takeaway: I’ll put up that daffodil wreath way earlier next spring. It’ll be waiting for Momma and Poppa. I hope they return! And I sure hope their babies made it safely into the world this spring.

Until we meet again,

Amy

What’s on Your Shopping List? How About Some… Inspiration?

As the old saying goes, you never know when or where inspiration will strike. Earlier this week, it struck me at… PetSmart.

Not inspiration for a book idea. Or inspiration to adopt another cat (although I pretty much feel the urge whenever I see a homeless kitty). It was more like inspiration, along with affirmation, to keep doing what I’m doing.

Vague? It’s because what I took away was a generalized feeling; it wasn’t about doing any one particular thing. Another reason for the vagueness? Well, I hope to keep you reading!

So. I was in the check-out line at PetSmart chatting with the woman in front of me. For the sake of this post, I’ll call her Susan. Susan mentioned having a severely autistic son and we were discussing her frustration with some of his current and prior services. At some point, I mentioned being a teacher.

She said that the very best years of her son’s education were in elementary school. Susan asked where I taught and when I told her, she lit up. Big. Time.

Guess which school he had attended? You got it! Her son (and daughter) went to the same public elementary school where I now teach.

The view from my school

Susan gushed with warm, funny stories about her son’s experiences at the school. Her stories reflected his great sense of comfort and belonging with his peers, the faculty, and the administration.

Although I just joined the faculty this year and had nothing to do with her son’s experiences, the three adults that Susan mentioned still work at my school; and it made me even prouder to be their colleague.

More than anything, I felt such joy for Susan’s son. It was clear from what she relayed that his positive elementary school experiences still bolster him (and her!). That’s what I want for all kids — for school to be a source of strength.

If that wasn’t enough for me to get the warm fuzzies, Susan told me about her now college-aged daughter. In an essay for a course, her daughter, who is white, discussed how the high degree of diversity at her former elementary school has benefitted her as a person.

This woman’s takeaway from elementary school means the world to me. I believe deeply that interacting with people from various backgrounds is one of the most valuable things about school; and is one of the most promising ways for us to work toward understanding and peace in our world.

And here’s my general takeaway from my chat with Susan, something I’ve long believed as a teacher, writer, mom, and person: If we go with our gut and trust our process, which can sometimes be difficult to implement, good things come of it – and sometimes we don’t know what those things are until far down the road. Often we never find out (and that’s okay).

I told you — vague! But this “feeling” or way of living has helped guide me. And it was lovely to see it play out, albeit through other people.

I let my three colleagues know about my encounter with Susan. It felt like a rare and deep honor – confirming for them that the seeds they had planted years ago had blossomed in Susan’s children. My colleagues were delighted to hear it.

Daffodils in my yard from 366 days ago today; they’re on the verge of blooming again today.

This is why most teachers teach (and why most children’s writers write). Despite how challenging our work may be at times, we love kids and want to make some kind of positive difference in their lives — today and tomorrow.

Little did I know when I raced into PetSmart to pick up cat food that I’d leave with that happy message to deliver to my colleagues. And with all that inspiration and affirmation for me to keep plugging along.

Hey, next time you head into a store, keep your eyes and ears open. You never know what else you may pick up along with the items on your shopping list!

Until we meet again,

Amy

Hey! Look Up: A New Year’s Perspective

My older daughter as a preschooler

When my girls were younger, they added a magic to our household during Christmas. Their belief. Their joy. Their innocence.

Now that they’re teenagers, they add a different kind of magic. They carry on our holiday traditions: decorating the tree, baking the homemade cookies, making the holiday cards.

Part of the magic is watching them grow up into thoughtful, capable individuals. The other part is… I get to put my feet up!

A bit. Mostly, their contributions free me up to do other stuff. This year, Christmas passed by before I made photo cards; my older daughter volunteered to make New Year’s cards, as she had last year. Yes, please!

I scrolled through my photos from 2018, searching for ones to text her. I noticed a theme across many of them (not the ones I sent her, but my photos in general): Things Above My Head (literally, not figuratively). I know — it’s an odd theme, but stay with me.

Yes, I’m short, so a lot of things are simply higher up than I am! But I got to thinking… I do tend to look up. Like, I literally look up. Even when I don’t have to.

I unknowingly took a selfie, 8/15/18

It had dawned on me a while ago that I look up, often, while walking in my neighborhood. The tall trees and the big sky are a pretty sight. But there’s also something about looking up that fills me with hope and possibility.

And makes me believe. Like a little kid during Christmas. That thing that I’m looking up at — whatever it is, even if it’s a small bird — seems big in spirit. Magical, really.

On a walk, 2/24/18

On a walk, 2/26/18

It wasn’t until my daughter prompted me to look back at my 2018 photos that I noticed my upward gaze. During the first three days of holiday break, I looked up at three different sights — each cheerful in its own way:

On a walk, 12/20/18

While Christmas shopping, 12/21/18
“Somewhere Over the Strip Mall”

On a walk, 12/22/18

Here are a couple of other things that I looked up to in 2018. These still speak volumes to me given the plight of our nation and world:

On the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville, 6/25/18

At O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, 8/3/18

As for 2019, I’ll just keep looking up. 2018 went by in a flash, and I want to make the most out of this one, too.

At the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, 1/15/18

Happy New Year! May yours be filled with inspiring sights, no matter which way you look.

Until we meet again,

Amy

Sometimes Things Are What They Seem… And Sometimes They Aren’t

My daughter Liana found this four-leaf clover last spring.

Saturday

It was a quiet morning, the start of what was to be an unscheduled day for me. Ahhh.

In the previous two weeks, my family and I had flown back from our family reunion in California… I had finished up an accelerated summer education course… I had had a routine screening colonoscopy… I had taken my girls to various annual appointments, gatherings with friends, back-to-school shopping, and their school open houses to meet their new teachers.

Having a great time with family in CA! That’s me in the dragon’s mouth.

All good. But busy. (OK, the colonoscopy prep was no fun. But the results were good, so I’ll take it!)

I was planning to head out that afternoon to indulge in some writing which had taken a backseat during the spring and summer to teaching recertification. I would hide out at the library or a café… and escape from life for a while.

Not!

The door bell rang. A friend of my daughter Liana had arrived to pick up Liana so that they could go for haircuts. (Suddenly, over the summer, several of Liana’s friends had attained their driver’s licenses. And they were willing and, dare I say, eager to chauffeur. Yay!).

I rushed to get dressed, greet her friend, and say, “Bye and have fun.” What happened next happened so quickly that I’m not sure exactly how it happened. All I can say definitively is that I ruptured a tendon in my left pinky.

As I was getting dressed. Yes, I hurt myself getting dressed. More specifically, as I was yanking up my jeans. I heard “SNAP” and… I’ll spare you the details of what it looked like.

Ouch. I know it sounds crazy, and almost two weeks later, I’m still shaking my head. And laughing about it. Kind of.

My husband, Rob, rushed me to the nearby urgent care center owned by one of the local hospital systems. The nurse joked with me that I must have been doing something heroic. Ha!

I had x-rays taken and my pinky was put in a temporary splint. Good news! The tendon hadn’t pulled off any bone.

But! I would need surgery. Bummer. I was given a referral to an orthopedic doctor with directions to call on Monday morning.

Saturday (continued) & Sunday

I iced and elevated. And continued on with life, disturbed that I could hurt myself getting dressed and sad whenever I peeked at my limp pinky in the splint. Every now and then, I fantasized that it would bounce back to life and not require surgery.

All the while, though, I felt grateful that it wasn’t worse, that I had family at home to help me, and that we have good health insurance (while feeling very acutely that everyone deserves good health insurance).

I contacted a friend who had had a hand injury last year, inquiring where she had been referred to and cared for. She raved about the UVA Hand Center (where I had not been referred to) saying that her child had also received excellent care there. Having great trust in my friend’s judgment, I decided to make the call there, first thing on Monday morning.

Monday

The kind person who took my call got me onto the schedule that very day. Indeed, I received excellent care. And then I heard these words: “I don’t think you’re going to need surgery for this.”

What?!

“We see this type of injury all the time. It usually heals on its own. We’ll get you into a custom-made splint and show you how to dress it.”

I’d come in fully expecting to schedule surgery. Instead I felt like I’d won the lottery.

Who knows? Maybe I’ll need surgery in the end. But I’m going with this until we know more. And I’ll be keeping my fingers, umm, crossed.

Wall-E checking out my handy-dandy splint

******

I’m under doctor’s orders to air out my pinky for 15-30 minutes every day. Since I have to support it with my other hand, I can’t be my usual self during that time, i.e. either buzzing around doing stuff or sitting still reading and writing. So I’m doing something I’ve barely made time for since my kids were born: watching TV. Rob got a big flat-screen TV ten years ago and I barely know how to work the thing.

So, there we are, Rob and I, watching a half-hour of TV together each evening. Often it turns into an hour. I’ve laughed a lot. And I wonder why I hadn’t joined him in front of the TV sooner. I like to think it’s just what the doctor ordered.

******

Wednesday

While I grew more skilled at washing the dishes and my hair with one hand covered in a plastic bag, my girls started their new school year learning algebra and trigonometry. They came home with stories to tell and I felt grateful to be a recipient.

After dinner Liana pulled the ice cream tub from the freezer. “Uh, this is really soft.” She took a close look into the freezer. “Everything is soft and melting.”

Oh no. This fridge was 14 or 15 years old. It had been a tad too tall to fit underneath the cabinets, and the delivery guy (with our OK) sawed off the bottom part of the cabinet frame so that it would fit.

About 10 years, the crushed ice function had stopped working. More recently, the filtered water had stopped working. And it had started making strange sounds.

We had just needed to replace the entire heat pump a few months before. The stove, dishwasher, clothes washer, and dryer were all older than the fridge. Don’t go, fridge! Not yet!

I left the kitchen table and crept toward the fridge, not wanting to face reality. On the way, I peered into the ice cream tub, and the ice cream resembled soft-serve. I reached into the freezer, touched the chicken, and it sprang back. Water was dripping from the ice container, dribbling down the walls of the freezer and onto the kitchen floor.

And yet for the second time since Saturday, I hoped against hope. Maybe it wasn’t really completely broken. Maybe we wouldn’t have to deal with another bill, another inconvenience, another thing to do.

Rob had had to work late. Fifteen minutes later he came home and was convinced that we had to deal with it. Well, all right, if we must…

I remembered that our neighbors had a deep freezer in their garage. I called them. Even better! They had replaced their fridge recently and moved their old one into the garage. It was working and nearly empty! They welcomed us to use it.

We packed up everything except for essentials for the next day’s breakfast and lunch. Rob and Liana brought over the food to our kind neighbors. Then Rob went out to get Ready Ice for the freezer where we then stored the essentials.

Thursday

Leaving four dishtowels on the floor in front of the fridge to sop up the dribbling water, I spent the better part of Thursday shopping for a fridge that would fit our smaller space. At Lowe’s there was one more in stock! On sale! To be delivered on Sunday! Score!

We knew we would survive with our food just down the cul-de-sac road. And we marveled at how people in our world live without a fridge and other privileges that many of us take for granted.

Friday

On Friday morning, Liana raced up the stairs to my bedroom. “Mom! Everything is frozen! My lunch is frozen!”

What?!

I ran down to the kitchen and threw open the freezer door (careful to protect my pinky, of course). It was working! I threw open the fridge door. Working, too!

No more water dribbling out of the freezer.

Maybe a mechanical part had gotten clogged with ice, shutting down the machine until the water had drained? I really had/have no idea. There’s a reason I stick to books.

I voiced the possibility of canceling the new fridge, but the other three people in my house vetoed that right away. Yeah, it had become too flaky. Sometimes it’s best to let things go. And we were lucky that we could afford to let this one go.

Bye, fridge. Thanks for all the years!

******

Friday (continued)

Later that day I was headed home at the start of rush hour. First, I planned to make quick stops at the library and supermarket. The cars were going the usual 60 mph on this stretch of a two-lane highway. I was traveling in the right lane, preparing to exit soon, when I noticed that a line of stopped cars had suddenly started to form. Maybe an accident? Or an overflow of exiting cars?

The-car-in-front-of-me stopped. I stopped. I looked in my rearview mirror. The-car-behind-me stopped.

But the-car-two-cars-behind-me DID! NOT! STOP!

It was coming. I would be rear-ended.

I heard it: “CRASH!”

But wait. Where was the second “CRASH!”? You know, my car? My car hadn’t budged from the impending impact of the-car-behind-me. Why hadn’t my car been jolted?

And then I saw the-car-behind-me fly to my left-hand side and stop beyond me in my lane.

And then I saw the-car-two-cars-behind-me fly between our two cars and continue beyond the-car-behind-me.

I pulled over to the break-down lane and looked around, trying to process what had just happened during the last few seconds.

The-car-behind-me was smashed in the rear and in the front. The-car-in-front-of-me had sustained less damage, but still, it had been hit and was further up in the right lane than the-car-behind-me. The-car-two-cars-behind-me was behind the-car-in-front-of-me, but in the break-down lane.

So, the-car-two-cars-behind-me had hit the-car-behind-me AND the-car-in-front-of-me.

And my car was untouched. Untouched.

What?!

I took a photo (which I’m not posting to protect the privacy of the other drivers), then got out of my car.

The road was littered with car debris. The traffic behind us had halted. Including the semi who was the first vehicle in the left lane. Oh, what a scary thought I had when I saw that truck…

Everyone said they were OK. Thank Goodness.

A police officer came quickly. Traffic started to move in the left lane.

Each driver talked to the police officer. I was free to go and got into my car. The police officer waved me forward, my car tires crunching pieces of the other cars that were all much newer and nicer than my 17-year-old car.

As I drove, I replayed the scene in my head over and over, trying to make sense of this accident that happened all around me but had left my car (and most importantly, my body) unharmed.

I hadn’t seen it all unfold. As with my pinky, it happened so quickly. But given the aftermath and after several mental replays, I think this is what transpired:

After the-car-two-cars-behind-me hit the-car-behind-me in the rear, the-car-behind-me steered into the left lane, presumably to avoid hitting my car, and then steered back into the right lane. The-car-two-cars-behind-me steered between the-car-behind-me and my car, presumably to avoid hitting either one of our cars. However, because it was traveling so fast, the-car-two-cars-behind-me hit the-car-behind-me again, this time in the front; and then went on to hit the-car-in-front-of-me.

Intense.

Unreal.

I could not believe how lucky I was to be able to go on with my day. If my pinky had been like winning the lottery, this was like winning countless lotteries.

I made it to the library ten minutes before closing to drop off some books and take some books off of hold. I picked up a few groceries for dinner at the supermarket and headed home.

Rob met me at the door. I said, “I was almost in a bad car accident.” That, of course, made no sense.

So he said, “What?” And I explained, feeling ever so grateful. And wishing the very best for the drivers and passengers of those three cars.

******

Sunday

The weekend had been uneventful, thankfully.

And then the highlight arrived on Sunday afternoon: the new fridge.

It fit! It worked!

******

For the past six days, we’ve been enjoying crushed ice and filtered water.

We love our new fridge. Well, everyone except for the cats who are wary of it. Maybe it looks like a gigantic animal. It certainly looks and sounds different. And probably smells different, too.

But unlike the pinky that needed surgery, the fridge that had drawn its final breath, and the car accident that was bound to happen, this new fridge is indeed what is seems to be.

Wall-E and Howie trying to decide what to do with that big thing

******

What did I take away from that week?

A LOT. I won’t mention every teeny tiny thing, but here are Amy’s Top Three (oldies but goodies):

  1. Be mindful; stay in the moment. I’m trying to use my pinky as a wake-up call. When I’m getting dressed, let that be what I’m focusing on instead of thinking about a zillion other things that may distract me… Or maybe I’ll just stay in my pajamas the next time the doorbell rings.
  2. Be kind. I interacted with a number of people, mostly strangers, as I dealt with these three situations. I was met with way more kindness than not, and every bit of it mattered. I would go into things more, but this is already a super long post! Thanks for making it this far.
  3. Be hopeful. Like the saying goes, it ain’t over ’til it’s over. There is always hope.

Have a wonderful Labor Day weekend! Whether you’re traveling far or staying close to home, safe travels to you and yours. And everyone.

Until we meet again,

Amy

All of Those Hats!

From Caps For Sale by Esphyr Slobodkina

When I was child, I assumed that I’d have life all figured out by now. I’d be set and coast into retirement. Life would be simple at this point, because I’d no longer be searching and striving. I’d have my family and home and career. The End.

Not!

Well, in some ways, life is simpler than it was at earlier stages. But in other ways, it’s more complicated.

First, I now know that each of those “things” – family, home, career — requires a great deal of time and energy to maintain and grow. Yep, they don’t just happen on their own.

Second, each calls for a different hat. A different set of skills and responsibilities.

Third, those hats change in shape as needs and demands change.

I can’t think of a month in my life when I’ve felt more acutely the wearing – and juggling — of multiple hats. And by “hat,” I don’t mean going through the motions. Quite the opposite, I mean investing my heart.

In May, I’ve been:

  • a student of writing.

Soaking up the expertise of Editor Alyson Heller at the SCBWI Mid-Atlantic Picture Book Retreat.

  • a writer.

Writing at home — oh Howie, of all places to rest your sweet head.

  • a presenter.

Giving an inservice based on my book at my awesome local public library.

  • a student of education.

Updating my teaching certification; studying in my car while my daughter is doing volunteer work.

  • a mom.

Listening to my daughter’s voice recital, 1 of 5 musical performances my daughters took part in this month.

I’ve worn additional hats, but I’ll stop there.

Each hat has sub-hats. OK, I’m taking this metaphor way too far, but you know what I mean, right? Being a parent isn’t just about watching your kids’ performances. Being a writer isn’t just about sitting at a computer.

On the one hand, all of these hats are wonderful. Each is a teacher — no matter the role, I consider myself a student, still learning. Every day. It’s a privilege, really.

On the other hand, managing all of these hats can be overwhelming, so I’ve gone back repeatedly to these three mantras:

1)  I can’t do it all (at least not all at once). I have to let some stuff go. Hence, this symbolizes what my house looks like. Inside and out.

And this is what dinner sometimes looks like. More and more.

2) I can’t do it alone. When I went on the writer’s retreat, my husband was occupied a good part of the time with graduation weekend at UVA where he teaches. So two friends graciously helped by transporting our girls to places.

3) I’m doing the best that I can. And that’s good enough.

I see it on social media… and I hear it from friends and family in real time… and I just feel it in our country: we are all so busy.

You may wear more or less hats; you may have more or less support. Whatever your case:

Now, I’m off to take a walk in my neighborhood. I hope you’ll take a breather, too!

Until we meet again,

Amy

Make Like a Tree Branch and Bend

It’s not good story-telling, I know, to give away the ending at the beginning. But I don’t like stressing people out with this sort of thing, so I’ll cut to the chase. I recently had a biopsy done, and it came back negative. Yay!

I’ll also leave out most of the story, the part that led up to the biopsy — what?! — because what I want to share is what I got out of the experience. There is a short story in that, though.

See these branches?

They’re on a tall pine tree outside of my bathroom window. When I called my doctor’s office for the results, I retreated to my master-bedroom bathroom. This way, I’d be out of earshot from my kids who were home on a snow day (which yielded no snow, so the branches looked just like this).

I waited for the office staff to put my call through to the nurse. It took a long time before the nurse picked up. Well, maybe a minute or two, but it felt like a long time.

There wasn’t much to do in the bathroom, so I gazed out of the window at those branches on a beautiful, blue-sky day.

On the one hand, the branches looked vulnerable – sitting way up high, extending far from the trunk, bobbing in the breeze.

On the other hand, they’d weathered many storms over the years. Whipped around by high winds. Pelted by heavy rain. Weighed down by snow and ice.

Those branches had been really good at bending and not breaking. I’d been watching them for sixteen and a half years. A few had broken from extreme stress, but for the most part, they’d remained resilient.

So, as I waited for the nurse, I anchored myself by watching those strong, flexible branches. And I thought about how the nurse on the other end of the phone would give me news, likely either: “It’s negative,” or “The doctor will call you” (which I’ve come to understand often means bad news).

And I thought about how the news, depending on what it was, would take my life in one direction or another.

Photo via Visual Hunt

Would I proceed with my plans for the rest of this school year? Or would a good deal of my time and energy need to go elsewhere?

Whatever the news, I hoped to handle things as those branches do. In that moment, I don’t think I could have laid eyes on a better role model. They keep it simple. They do what they need to do. And they do so with grace.

They seemed to be saying, quietly, “You got this. Whatever it may be.”

As it turns out, I was lucky. Before this, I’d been lucky — and unlucky — in other life situations.

Haven’t we all been in both of those places? Lucky? Unlucky? Be it health or something else? Something little or something big? It’s just part of the human experience.

This makes me think of another very short story. When my younger daughter was three years old, she had an accident while under my care. She required stitches, as had my older daughter a few years prior. I felt awful. Both of them. Under my care! Maybe I could have prevented it, if only I had…

My brother, Pete, who happens to be a family practitioner, told me over the phone, “You’ve probably helped her avoid other accidents. You just don’t know it.”

That was such an eye opener, and I felt so much better. What a compassionate response. And what a novel way of looking at motherhood and at life. I also took it to mean: Luck is all around, even when we don’t know it.

I’m aware of how fleeting and fragile life is. It’s a heavy awareness to live with, yet it’s part of what feeds my gratitude. That awareness makes me feel grateful to wake up each day.

That awareness also makes me avoid drama (which is different from conflict). I have no time and energy for the former. I’d rather be doing something meaningful or having fun. Or eating chocolate.

Those moments, like my phone call with the nurse, feel like reminders from the universe to sharpen that awareness and gratitude and perspective when it may be dulling.

As I’ve moved forward from that phone call, I’ve held on to the image of those branches swaying gracefully. They don’t know what will come their way; they just keep bending.

Those branches remind me to keep bending. They remind me that I’m lucky (even when I don’t know it).

And now, for some chocolate…

Until we meet again,

Amy

My Christmas (and New Year’s) Wish

December is whizzing by in a blur of kid-related activities and holiday festivities.

And more outrageous national news.

I must say: America’s turmoil has challenged my spirit this holiday season, as it has this past year. Like many people I know, I’ve tried my best to stay informed and to carry on.

Thankfully, holiday traditions have grounded, distracted, and cheered me: shopping and cards, decorating and baking, gatherings and volunteering.

Loaded with butter and topped with my husband’s homemade icing

The same old holiday songs have played in the background, connecting the past to the present. Some people have grown annoyed by the endless holiday music — no wonder, some stores have been playing them since the day after Halloween! — but I haven’t been able to get enough of them. I think it’s because they’re so filled with love and joy, peace and hope. And good memories.

One song, “My Grown-up Christmas List,” has resonated like none other this year. It’s not my favorite, by any means. It’s always been too mushy for my taste, especially the melody. But I appreciate the lyrics, particularly those of the refrain.

What’s on your list?

Wherever these lyrics have caught me this season — in a store, in the car, at home — I’ve paused and thought, “Yeah. That’s where it’s at.”

No more lives torn apart
That wars would never start
And time would heal all hearts
And everyone would have a friend
And right would always win
And love would never end, no
This is my grown-up Christmas list”
— David Foster & Linda Thompson-Jenner

My kids are too old now to believe in Santa. And as much as I’d want it, I don’t believe these grown-up Christmas wishes will ever come true, completely. I’m dreamy, but realistic.

I love this ornament! I love this world.

Yet I do believe that if enough of us work on this list, we’d see less lives torn apart, less wars start, more healed hearts…

So, here’s my top wish: Our country and world will be in a better place at this time next year. Not in the same place, and definitely not in a worse place. But in a better place.

The grown-up in me knows that wishing is not enough. I must act, and do so with commitment and courage. I’ll do my small part in the greater effort to make that happen.

I spotted this while Christmas shopping.

Whichever holiday(s) you celebrate, I wish you and yours love and joy…peace and hope…and whatever fills your list.

I just may keep playing holiday music well into the New Year. Here’s to 2018! Together, we can do anything.

With friends at the Women’s March on Washington, January 2017

Until we meet again,

Amy

Finding Kindness: Two Stories of Strangers

My yard this morning

My kids have been back in school for over a month, and homework and activities have kicked into high gear. Leaves are drifting to the ground and blanketing the grass. Tomorrow we’ll turn the calendar to October. Summer is behind us (although the 80-90 degree temps have made it easier for my mind to remain there).

I’ll remember the Summer of 2017 as the Summer of Reunions (I went to three!). I’ll also remember it as the Summer The Nazis Came to Town. It was an eventful summer all around at local, national, and world levels, wouldn’t you say? [Heavy Sigh]

In the swirl of summer memories, two keep rising to the top. As each situation unfolded, I thought, “I could blog about this.” I got busy with other things, but they’ve continued calling for my attention (even though neither is directly related to anything mentioned above).

I think their appeal is due to the fact that each involved two things: kindness and strangers. There’s a reason there are so many quotes about this combo. There’s something magical about it.

******

It was mid-June (technically not even summer yet). My girls were headed out of town on a Tuesday, a few days after the end of their school year. They were flying to California to stay with their uncle and aunt, and were planning to visit additional relatives. In the midst of end-of-year teacher-gift-buying-and-making, I had picked up gifts for relatives as small tokens of our appreciation. My closet looked like Christmas in June.

My family would have said, “No need,” but I really wanted to. These people were planning to take care of my girls for two whole weeks, laundry and all. They were also giving me way more kid-free time than I’d had in 15 years. I love my kids and they’re great kids, but let’s be real, parenting is tiring.

The school year ended. Monday afternoon arrived. All the gifts were ready!

Except. As I searched the gift pile, I realized that I had bought the turtle earrings for my mom (and the flower earrings for my daughter’s friend’s birthday), but I hadn’t bought the dolphin earrings for my sister-in-law, after all. They were still sitting on a rack at the gift shop at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden. One-and-a-half hours away in Richmond. Oh no!

Was this a real problem? No. Remember: local, national, and world events. In a way, this “problem” was indicative of privilege. My girls were flying to CA. Relatives were excited to see them. My girls were old enough to finish packing while…

I drove to an outdoor mall in Charlottesville in search of something dolphin or cat or unicorn related. I saw a cute-looking store that I hadn’t noticed before. It was already 5 pm, so I dashed in. It was filled with cute knick-knacks and accessories. Perfect! I started to scan the shelves and racks.

A saleswoman, perhaps in her early 20’s, approached me. She looked like she could have been a runway model. In a professional manner, she said, “Is there anything I can help you find?”

There I was wearing my typical shorts, t-shirt, no make-up, and graying hair. I felt tired and frazzled, and probably looked it, too.

I told her about my sister-in-law’s preferred animals and mythical creatures. She reached for a pair of cat socks; too young. A unicorn stuffed toy; too big. She showed me a few more items, but nothing quite worked.

“I just really want to help you,” she said. I could tell that she did. And that she was disappointed with our luck so far.

“Thanks for all of your help. I’m sure we’ll find something,” I said, trying to reassure her.

Several times during our interactions, she said she was tired and apologized for stumbling over her words. Each time I told her, in one way or another, to please not worry. “I do that, too, when I’m tired,” I said (and it’s true).

I wanted her to give herself a break. She was trying so hard to help me find a gift, and to come across as the perfect professional. I understood this trying-hard-at-life thing. Don’t so many of us?

I spotted a mug. Not practical for luggage, but good enough. “I found something!” I said.

Photo compliments of my sister-in-law

She looked relieved. We chatted as we walked to the cash register. Again, she stumbled over her words and apologized. I told her that I had kids and understood feeling tired. “Look at me,” I said, “I thought I’d gotten a gift and I hadn’t!”

As she boxed and bagged and added tissue paper and ribbon, making a mug look like a million bucks, she said, “You’re the nicest customer I’ve ever had.”

Really?

“Some customers can be so demanding and also mean when I trip over my words.”

Really?

Then she started to cry. She said that she was a single mom with a four-year-old, that she was divorced from her daughter’s dad, that it was the best decision, that she loves her daughter more than anything…but that life was overwhelming.

“I went to my car during lunch and cried,” she said.

My heart broke for her. I was old enough to be her mom. I said, “I feel like giving you a hug.”

She came around to the other side of the sales desk. She bent down and I reached up, and we hugged. Two strangers in the middle of a store.

“You made my day,” she said.

“You made mine. I can tell you love your job, and you’re great at it. I bet you’re also a great mom.”

As I headed toward the door with my gorgeous gift bag, I turned back to her and said, “Keep doing your thing. Keep shining your light.”

She called back, “You, too!” She was smiling. She looked radiant. She didn’t look tired. The evening sunlight was streaming into the store and enveloping her red hair in a warm glow that made her look…well, angelic.

I walked to my car marveling that by simply being a decent human being, I’d made someone’s day.

After my girls had landed safely in California and I could breathe again, I called the store and left a message for the manager saying what amazing service I had received. Because really, that young woman had made my day.

And my sister-in-law loved her mug!

******

While our girls were away, my husband Rob and I visited a few places that we hadn’t managed to get to in our 16 years in Charlottesville. One place was White Oak Lavendar Farm located about 50 minutes from our house, on the other side of a mountain which is part of the Shenandoah National Park.

For a few reasons, I drove my car. It’s 16 years old, by the way. (See where I’m headed with this?)

We made it there and basked in all things lavender. I didn’t get around to trying the lavender wine, but I still felt intoxicated by the scent of lavender that permeated the place — from the fields and the shop products and even the tea. Guess what else filled the air on this picture perfect day? The sounds of live harp music. Life slowed down in this heavenly place. It was more than worth the drive.

At White Oak Lavender Farm

Afterward Rob and I enjoyed an equally relaxing late lunch/early dinner nearby. Then we decided to head back over the mountain to Charlottesville.

As I was exiting the parking lot, I heard something metal graze the pavement. A few miles into the drive, I heard the sound of metal scraping the road. “Uh oh, is that my muffler?”

“I think so,” said Rob.

I pulled over onto the narrow strip of grass near the guardrail and popped the trunk. We climbed out of the car and checked out the muffler hanging by one intact but rusted bolt. The other bolt had bitten the dust, lost somewhere on the road behind us.

Ah, my trusty old Toyota Corolla. It had passed the annual inspection a couple months before. Yes, we tend to keep our cars, Rob and I. My last car was towed away for parts right before we moved from Brooklyn. I still remember standing in my doorway waving good-bye to it like an old friend. Rob’s now seven-year-old car replaced his nineteen-year-old car.

Yet this was the first time, ever, that I’d been stranded by the side of a road. As a driver or a passenger. How lucky I’d been!

It could’ve been worse. It could’ve been raining. It could’ve been dark. We could’ve started ascending the mountain.

There were some stores, although they lay miles ahead of us. Anyway, it was Sunday at 5 pm. What would be open then in this rural area? And what was it about me and the 5 pm hour?

We looked in the trunk. No tools. My fault. I’d taken out the emergency crate to make room for our girls’ luggage and hadn’t returned it. There was some random stuff in there: reusable shopping bags, plastic forks, coupons, a clipboard, a lint roller. The most promising thing was some plastic twine. Rob wondered if it would burn from the heat of the muffler, but it was the best we had, so we were going for it!

Rob is a handy guy, much more so than I. He lay down on the grass with his head under the car. My attention felt divided between the cars whizzing by at 60 mph a few feet from his head, and the trail of ants crawling all over him.

I decided it was more important to keep my attention on the traffic, just in case I needed to scream at him to jump over the guardrail to safety. We’d deal with the ants later.

The cars on the two lane road kept zooming past us. Who knows where they were coming from or where they were headed? But I was keenly aware that we were in the middle of what was likely Trump territory. This is not to say that people who voted for Trump would hurt us or not help us, but as two Asian Americans, we were not in our comfort zone. We would have felt more at ease had we broken down in, say, Brooklyn or Charlottesville.

Several minutes later, a big pick-up truck slowed down and parked behind us. My eyes zeroed in on the specialized license plate: Don’t Tread On Me.

“This could get interesting,” I thought. “Probably not. Hopefully not.”

My eyes jumped to the driver behind the tinted window. He opened his door and stepped out – all 6’4’’ of him. A white guy wearing jeans and a t-shirt, he looked to be in his mid-20’s. He struck me as a nice guy; I caught a good vibe.

“Hey!” I said and smiled.

“Hey, do you need a hand?”

I exhaled. “That’d be great. Thanks so much for stopping.”

“I have some really thick bailing wire. Do you want some?”

Rob was looking up from the grass and watching the scene unfold.

“That’d be great. Thank you.”

The guy went back to his truck and soon brought us a strand of bailing wire.

“This is perfect. Thanks a lot,” said Rob who was now standing.

“That was so kind of you to stop,” I said.

The guy said, “Whenever I see someone broken down on this road, I pull over. People drive really fast here and they don’t always know what they’re doing.” He smiled.

“That’s so kind of you,” I said again.

“Well, I better go. I’m going to meet my girlfriend to buy baby clothes.”

“Congratulations!” Rob and I said. We thanked him again for saving the day. We exchanged names and handshakes. And the guy drove off.

Rob got to work with the bailing wire while I continued to keep an eye on the traffic. A few minutes later, we heard a loud honk. We looked over to the other side of the grassy median and saw the guy passing us. We waved.

And then I realized. “You know, he must’ve been heading in that direction, saw us, and did a u-ey to help us.”

WOW.

“Really nice guy. He really went out of his way,” said Rob.

“Yeah,” I said, “just showed up, helped out, and took off.” Kind of like a superhero.

******

When we got back home, I put that emergency crate back in my trunk.

The next day Rob left town for a work trip. And I took my car to the shop. I asked for two new bolts: one to replace the missing bolt, and one to replace the other rusty bolt that would fall out in a matter of time.

One of my shiny new bolts

******

When my girls arrived home a couple days later, they showed me their souvenirs. Miya was most excited about a bag she had found in Japantown in San Francisco. This pretty much sums it up:

“Choose Kind” is a theme in the middle grade novel Wonder by R.J. Palacio. This is Miya’s favorite book; she’s read it several times. It’s about so many things, but at the heart of it is kindness.

During these divisive times, I find myself holding tighter to stories of kindness – online, in the newspaper, in books, in life. These stories don’t erase the stories of horror, but they remind us that there is often kindness around the corner or down the street. It’s ours to give and, if we’re lucky, to receive.

Until we meet again,

Amy

A Little Birdie Told Me: On Writing, Parenting, and Living

via http://www.quotesvalley.com

Until this year, my favorite writing place was my 20-year-old sofa, tucked away in my bedroom. It’s comfy and embracing, as if cheering, “You’ve been here before. Many times. You can do this writing thing!”

But it became impractical to keep my piles of books and other writing materials on the bedroom floor. So this past winter, I ventured out to the dining room, a sunny room with an empty tabletop. And a big window that allows me to look out onto grass and trees and sky. It has turned out to be the perfect spot, offering lovely surprises and unexpected lessons along the way.

One blue-sky morning in late March, I was sitting at the table when I heard a gentle rattling at the front door. I looked up to see my cats, Wall-E and Howie, already sitting in the foyer and staring at the backside of the door. I glanced out the window and saw nothing unusual. I resumed work until the rattling and my cats returned.

This cycle continued a few times until I noticed a small brown bird, carrying a leafy twig in its mouth, zip past the window toward the front door. It was the closest thing to a peace dove that I’d probably ever see, and the fleeting sight was magical.

Artwork by Robert H Tai

OH! Could the bird be building a nest on the wreath? I hurried out the back door to take a look. When I was about 15 feet from the front door, the bird startled and flew away to the nearest tree, an oak tree in front of the dining room.

The next time I heard the rattling, I peeked out the window. Yay! A nest in the making! This city girl posted the breaking news on Facebook: Momma bird was building a nest! To lay eggs in! And there would be teeny tiny birdies!

3/28/17: the beginnings of a nest at the top of the wreath

I was in awe of momma bird’s brilliant idea to build a nest on a wreath (camouflaged!) under the porch roof (protected!); her expert skills in crafting such a beautiful and sturdy nest; her intense focus and abiding devotion. I was in awe of the miracle of life, with its newness and hope, unfolding at my front door.

How did I live on 2 acres of land for 15 years and reach age 50 without witnessing this? And yet, how lucky I felt to still have so much of life to see.

I went out of town to NYC for a writing conference. When I returned, I found five eggs! Perfect eggs. Gorgeous eggs. My husband Rob and I did research and determined that these were House Finches.

4/11/17: five babies-to-be

Well, that was it for the front door. No more using it for the whole family. No more visitors at the front door. I posted this sign:

I asked visitors in advance to come to the back door. Whenever an unexpected visitor came to the front door, poor momma bird fled to the oak tree. No doubt she was worried about her eggs, but what else could she do? She had to take care of herself, too. And take good care she did — of herself and her eggs. Before long… Happy Birthday!

4/28/17: newborns

The babies thrived. I could tell from all of the poop! It was not a pleasant sight, but poop was part of the package (and seemed to act as an adhesive between the nest and the door). Be forewarned: as the birds grew, so did their poop!

By early May, I noticed that momma bird had a companion in the oak tree. He was brown with red markings; poppa bird, I assumed! They chirped and flitted about in the branches, moving between the tree and the nest where they fussed over their babies.

5/7/17: almost ready to take flight

One morning momma and poppa birds were particularly chirpy and active. I heard what I thought was a mixture of excitement and nervousness. Could this be the day for their babies to take flight? It was — for one!

5/8/17: and then there were four

During the next two days, whenever I heard a flurry of activity, I checked the nest.

In the end, what remained was an empty nest and a whole lot of poop. And quiet. Momma and poppa birds had moved out of the oak tree.

In the days following their departure, I missed the cheerful sounds and the sight of the sweet family. I was surprised by how much joy the entire process had brought to me. And equally surprised by how wistful I felt after the birds had left. But then, when something brings you joy, isn’t it natural to feel its absence?

Yes, I was experiencing empty nest syndrome.

As the babies departed, I sent the photos to Rob. In response to one photo, he emailed back:

“Wow! But they’ll never call and never write. Sigh.”

I think this was his way of saying that he’d miss them, too. I shared his email with our 11-year-old daughter Miya who commented, “But they can Tweet.”

Ah, I can always count on these two for a little levity!

Still, why was I so moved by the birds? Other than allowing me to witness their amazing process, the birds also spoke to me as a writer and as a mom.

Building a writing career – building each story – is a process. And raising a child is a process. In the end, after doing the best we can, we send each manuscript and each child out into the world. We hope the world will be kind to them; we hope they’ll have good luck. And this is the case for whatever we invest our hearts into and then have the courage to let go of.

I’m a writer who has just started the process of querying literary agents and sending them manuscripts. It’s exciting, and it’s hard. Realistically, I’ll receive many rejections, and they’ll sting. But as they roll in, I’ll continue to nurture my manuscripts before sending them out again… and again… and again. And, hopefully, one day an agent will think that one of them is ready.

I’m a mom who has two kids wrapping up another school year: 9th grade and 5th grade. Part of me wishes I could keep them in those sweet elementary school years forever. But even if I could I wouldn’t, because moving on means that they’re privileged with life and growth. They’re still in my nest, but the reality is that they’re already leaving it on a daily basis, growing more independent; and one day they’ll leave for good when they’re ready.

Momma and poppa birds had but one month, filled with quick and numerous transitions, to spend with their babies. Their abbreviated cycle of life seems to make each moment that much more important and their process that much more obvious. Here’s what the birds shared with me:

  • Pick a good spot.
  • Build a strong foundation.
  • Focus and work hard.
  • Take care of others (and yourself).
  • Embrace the joyful moments and the process.
  • Celebrate!
  • Let go.

Maybe the babies were afraid to fly, or maybe not. Maybe their parents were afraid to see them fly, or maybe not. Maybe the babies and their parents miss each other, or maybe not. Whatever the case, they all did what they needed to do. And that to me is beautiful: that they did what they needed to do.

My family and I are back to using the front door. I’ve cleaned up the poop. But I’ll keep the wreath and nest up in case another momma bird (maybe even the same one or one of her grown babies) finds it and makes it home. It would be my privilege.

My move from the old sofa to the dining room was practical. But it’s turned out to be instructive and inspiring, too. I’m glad that I’ve been able to look out the window to see new sights. In a way, the window has also served as a mirror, reflecting back those new sights into deeper insights. Some days I may still choose to sit on my comfy old sofa and write. But for the most part, I think I’ll stay put at the dining room table.

Until we meet again,

Amy