Gray Socks

Gray socks.

Hospital issue gray socks, with the little non-slip nubbies crisscrossed on the bottom so you don’t slide on the polished floors.

Gray socks, slightly askew, on the ends of bare white legs. Gray socks, poking out from under thin white flannel blankets. Gray socks, wrapped in crinkly plastic, on top of the industrial tissue box.

Gray socks that say, “I’m vulnerable”.

A week and a half ago, my husband wore loafers. Or wingtips. Or running shoes. His footwear said, “I’m powerful. I’m active. I’m strong. I have places to be.”

Then, he couldn’t catch his breath. He thought he pulled a chest muscle. Or had pneumonia. A couple of days of an antibiotic and he would be good as new. He resisted the gray socks in the ER – what was the point since he would be lacing his running shoes back up to go home in a couple of hours?

He wore his own socks in the ambulance on the way to Muskegon – just a stress test under the supervision of a cardiologist – then I’d be bringing him home for lunch. He’d be wearing running shoes for that anyway, right?

The gray came out on the day of the surgery. I noticed that they were gone from the overcrowded window shelf when I got there in the morning. I went to my bedside recliner, moved the tissue box over to set down the oversized coffee I bought in the lobby, then glanced down at his feet.

There they were, peeking out from under the blanket. And I started to cry.

I needed to be brave and I needed to be strong. I needed to hold us both up, because his heart wasn’t strong enough. And so, I stared at his feet. Those damn gray socks, mocking everything I hadn’t said in the last year. And all of the things I wished I hadn’t.

They taunted me with the times I thought our relationship wasn’t going to survive, and ridiculed me for worrying about dirty dishes in the sink. They slapped me with missed opportunities. They punched me over and over with regrets until I followed them down the hall to the operating room.

I locked myself in a bathroom stall. I paced the hallway. I sat in the waiting room and cried. I have never felt so completely alone in my life.

We have faced a lot of gray socks in the twenty some years we have been together – miscarriages, accidents, funerals – but I have never had to face them without my husband right there to catch me should I stumble.
The only hand I wanted to hold, the only arms I wanted around me, the only person who I wasn’t embarrassed to cry in front of – was the one wearing the gray socks.

An hour in, the charge nurse came out to tell me that they had found a blockage and would be placing a stent. “How long?” I pleaded.

How long before I could see the gray socks again. How long before I could show them I could be better, that WE could be better. How long before this was over…..

Thirty minutes. Twenty-eight exactly. It took twenty-eight minutes for the doctor to insert a specially coated spring into my husband’s almost completely blocked coronary artery, then wheel him into the recovery room.

Less than 24 hours later, the gray socks were gone, leaving behind a wake of gratitude, blessings, and a renewed sense of what is really important.

We are not blind to the fact that we have been given a gift. We are remembering what it feels like to be lifted in love, wrapped in prayers, and held close by family and friends. As my husband’s heart heals, mine does as well.

We are committed to living a life of fierce grace from this day forward – so that should the gray socks come again, we will face them head on with no regrets.

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101 Reasons I’m not taken seriously….(Or just ONE really big one!)

For the past several months, I have been toying with the idea of starting my own small business. My method of trying things out is to talk to as many people as I possibly can. I read whatever I can get my hands on. I go until I am saturated with stories, then I add a couple more just in case.

I make a decision, but I don’t take action. I try it on to see how it fits.

Then I take a break. I lay on the floor with the cat and stare at the ceiling. I take walks. I read trashy novels. I eat jelly beans for breakfast and stay in my pajamas until noon.

And then I put the decision back on to see if it still feels right.

Sometimes it does, but more often, it needs some altering.

I shared last week that I have been through some heavy lifting recently. I will admit to being a bit of a change junkie – emotional discomfort must mean something externally needs to change. My family jokes that they know it has been a bad day when they come home to find the dining room turned into an office, the office a guest room, and the sofa is nowhere to be found.

When I decided to quit working last year with the transition to my husband’s new job, we bought an 1890s Victorian Cottage in need of updating. We honestly thought the “project” would ease my transition to full time stay at home mom.

I should have stared at the ceiling more.

While the house has been wonderful and certainly kept me busy, it did not even come close to filling the professional gap I was left with. I have tried desperately to hang on to a professional identity, while still being available to pick my children up from school every day, supervise their homework, make sure they eat something healthy before driving them to whatever activity the evening holds, monitor screen time, set up play dates, and keep the toilets clean.

When asked what I am doing these days by former professional contacts, I mumble something about taking care of hearth and home, and add “a little bit of consulting” to the end of my parenting duties.

A couple of weeks ago, I had an epiphany. I was talking with a wise woman who has been exactly where I am now about the possibility of opening a small store. At one point in the conversation, she referred to a small business she owns as a “hobby”. It didn’t mean much to me at the time, but it stuck with me enough to make me think harder about my own goals.

I realized while eating jelly beans one morning that was exactly how I have been treating my consulting work.

I have been angry with my family for discounting the value of my work, when I am the one who has set that example. I have turned down work, put impossible conditions on my hours, and tried to work only in the “free hours” I have. I have bent over backwards to make sure my working has almost no impact on our household, holding all of the pieces tightly together so that nothing slips.

In doing so, I have given them and everyone else permission to dismiss me as a professional. I am the one who questioned the legitimacy of my work, not the people around me.

I have also denied them the opportunity to step up to the plate and share the ownership of the household. My husband is great about making meals, taking the kids to appointments when he can, and driving the kids to school every morning. My kids can make their own lunches, feed the pets, and take care of their own laundry. They can even – GASP – ride the bus home on occasion.

When I worked full time, we all pitched in to make sure the big stuff got taken care of. No one died from the small stuff that got missed. I am a great mom, but a miserable full time household manager. And that is OK.

The good news? I don’t have to start a brand new business to gain my professional identity back. I just need to treat the one that I have as a business, and not a hobby.

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Welcome Back!

I have had several people ask me lately why I stopped writing. There are the usual excuses – I have been busy, the kids were home for summer, we have been too busy with the house – and while those are all true, they aren’t the whole story.

True confession time. I never stopped writing. I stopped publishing.

Writing is the vehicle that helps me make sense of my jumbled world. It takes my laundry list of anxieties and dumps them out in black and white. To write it, I have to organize it. And once it is organized, it loses its power over me.

A few months ago, I realized people were actually reading my blog. I was watching the Mason County Press grow in readership, and gaining followers on my Word Press site. People (Strangers!) were mentioning my blog when I would check out at the grocery store, along with other parents I would see at school the soccer field, the coffee shop.

Quite honestly, I just plain panicked. I got scared. I was suddenly uncertain if I wanted people to know what my kitchen looked like, let alone the jammed up conveyor belt of random thoughts that lived in my head.

I had gotten what I wanted – readers – then freaked out when they read my writing.

My favorite pieces of writing are the ones where the author bares his or her soul, because it sheds light on the human experience. Telling a personal truth, with honesty and integrity. Being willing to be vulnerable. Taking a risk.

I have always held the belief that the sharing of stories is what connects us. There is common ground between us all, and our stories the path to discovery. I truly believe it is how we get back to respect, common courtesy, inclusivity, create a community.

And yet, I held back.

It has been an emotionally tough year. While I am extremely grateful that my husband has a good job, my kids are healthy, our home is safe, and we have plenty of resources to keep us just short of spoiled, we have not been without our stressors.

The steady stream of contractors, the physical exhaustion from DIY projects, the transition to a new job (hubby’s) with a new hour long commute, and the daily round of constant chores has taken its toll on us. Our relationship suffered. I suffered.

I completely lost my center, and I wasn’t sure what I needed to get it back. And while I was still writing, I didn’t want the lady at the bank asking me how my marriage was. Or if my son ended up passing 5th grade Math. Or if I had decided to stay or run away to join the circus. And by the way, which anti-depressant medication did I prefer?

I know why people wait years to write a memoir. There is a need for the perspective of time and distance. We want the story to be delivered in a tidy package topped with a satisfying bow. No one wants to read about struggle, until the storyteller comes out whole on the other side. We breathe a sigh of relief and file it all away under “lessons learned”.

So the good news? I’m back. I’m feeling my way into this new reality of a commuting husband, the house is darn close to being finished, and I have a new project to focus my energy on.

Lessons learned? Tons. But for now, I am keeping those to myself. I need something to write about next week after all!

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The Winds of Change

I am blessed with a pretty awesome book group. There are twelve of us, a diverse group in age, life experiences, religious background, education, and, ironically, taste in books.

What is fascinating to me is we can bring all of that into the circle we sit in once a month, and just have real dialogue. I get to view the world not just through the lens of a story, but through other women whose life experiences have shaped them just as mine have shaped me.

Every month, my world gets just a little wider.

Our last book choice was The Invention of Wings, by Sue Monk Kidd. If you haven’t heard about it, the story follows two early abolitionists, the Grimke sisters, and the slaves that are owned by their family.

About half way into our discussion, the question was raised, “What does it mean to be a reformer?”

I have been thinking about that ever since.

Through the lens of history, it is simple to look to the early reformers as untouchable heroes. Those who faced penalty of death, imprisonment, ex-communication – all in the name of something unquestionably wrong – slavery, women’s right to vote, segregation, genocide.

There are the names that we all recognize, the ones that are recorded in the history books, the ones that feel untouchable, almost inhuman in their strength and bravery.

It is easy to define them as “reformers”. But could there be more to it than that? Is it possible for us all to be reformers?

Boiled down, reformers are simply agents of change. Sometimes those are big public acts with lots of fanfare, and sometimes it is the moment when we act on that still small voice that says for the first -or the 100th -time that something is wrong.

There is always risk involved, and change is always uncomfortable. Fortunately, for most of us, it will not be as monumental as death or imprisonment.

Personally, I don’t mind stirring the pot a little bit once in a while. I am also cognizant that many of my choices are not without consequence, and I weigh those constantly. There have been many times in the past year I have written a blog, only to hold back on publishing because I was wary of the repercussions.

I often feel guilty that I am not brave enough, or not fighting hard enough, or not using the public forum I have been gifted to make enough of a difference.

The fear of being socially ostracized, or publically shamed, keeps many of my opinions private. That, in itself, feels like a prison at times too.

Today, I am taking up the challenge to be a reformer. I am not sure yet what that will look like, but I know it will mean taking more risks. It will mean not biting my tongue when I am faced with ignorance, close mindedness, and intolerance. It means I will lean in to those who are much braver than I, and give them support where I can.

It also means I am probably going to have to get used to being a little uncomfortable once in a while. It is likely my small discomfort is nowhere near the discomfort the oppressed are feeling, and I have broad enough shoulders to hold a bit of that burden for a while.

I invite you all to take up this challenge with me. There is strength in numbers, and sometimes a kind word of support or sympathy is all it takes to power on other reformers.

Let’s start a movement where we all feel safe standing up for what we believe in, even when we don’t agree with each other. Let’s show that respect and tolerance, alongside open-minded dialogue, can go a long way in impacting change in our world.

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You CAN teach and old house new tricks!

Finally – after months of never being alone in my house, agonizing over decisions that I never knew existed, and ruining two vacuum cleaners with construction debris – the kitchen is finished!

 Here is the recap: We bought a house that was built in 1891. It was in great condition compared to many we have seen, but it still needed some updating to make it our own. We started by stripping wallpaper from pretty much every surface in the house, removed several rooms of carpet, prettied up a couple of bathrooms, put in a new well and heating system….. and then the real fun began in January when we converted a mudroom/garage into a kick-a** kitchen!

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The before….. 

We had some pretty important criteria for the project. It needed to look appropriate for the age of the house, be able to withstand two kids, a messy cook, and a couple of big labs. It needed to be functional, with lots of storage. And it needed to be able to accommodate entertaining all of our friends and their kids as well.

While we were at it, there was an old and not very functional bathroom and laundry room that we decided to update as well.

Here is the finished product:

 

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Kitchen

We chose soapstone for the counters in the kitchen to give it an old farmhouse feel. It has a more matte finish than granite or quartz, and is durable. One of my favorite projects was the island. We purchased an antique hoosier cabinet with the house, and repurposed the bottom half by having a soapstone top installed. The matching hutch is now hanging in the entry to collect keys.

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I absolutely love how this cast iron enameled apron sink looks in the offset contrasting cabinet! To pick up the black from the range and sink cabinet, we painted the old entry door black and used it on barn door track for a sliding pantry door.

My uncle (best contractor ever!) had the great idea to re-use the old tongue and groove bead board paneling from the entry as trim – it saved money and adds a nice detail framing the windows.  We were also able to re-use that same paneling in the bathroom, painted black to give it a vintage feel.

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 While the project wasn’t without its glitches, we made it through fairly unscathed. We had a few ice dam water issues before the new insulation was installed, and a couple of plan changes when the backsplash tile we choose was recalled. There were also a couple of minor casualties – a shower curtain, a couple of rugs, some miscellaneous parts – but all in all, it was a fairly painless process.

I owe that to our amazing contractor, who also happens to be my uncle, Jeff Wagner. He talked me off the ledge several times and helped me work through some of the more challenging design issues. We were also lucky to have a whole team of competent contractors – electricians, painters, plumbers, drywall installers, heating contractors, kitchen designers, and insulation contractors. I will admit that I am not always easy to work with, and I would highly recommend any of them!

I am also unbelievably grateful to my dad, who was here checking in, helping with whatever was needed, and is building me the best dining room table ever. (Pictures to come!)

Owning an old house has been an exciting and exhausting journey so far, and we are quickly learning that the world can be divided into two camps – “old house people”, and “not old house people”. The encouragement from the former has been much appreciated, and justifying why we haven’t completely lost our minds to the latter has added value as well.

Now that the kitchen is done, and the snow has (mostly) melted, we are looking forward to long summer naps under the big beech tree in the backyard. Just as soon as we fix the deck!

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Out with the Old…..In with the New!

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Living room fireplace at Christmas

I have had a lot of people ask me how things are going with the new old house.  I have developed a pretty standard response of, “It depends on the day….”.

We closed on the house about 6 weeks ago.  Throw in a couple of holidays, some dinner parties, and the actual move – that leaves us with about a month to get settled.

In that time, we have stripped and painted 8 rooms worth of wallpaper, painted kitchen cabinets and bathroom vanities, replaced three floors, added a bathtub and sink, changed out 5 light fixtures, swapped countless pieces of furniture from room to room and house to house, built a headboard, and replaced the well.  At 7:30 this morning, two dedicated workmen showed up to turn off my heat so they could replace the furnace.

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The “Before”

We have had a dead critter in the crawl space, four visits from the furnace repairman, and a fifth after the chimney was inspected.  The crack that we were sure was going to kill us turned out to be benign thank goodness, but since we needed a new furnace anyway…..  The roughed in plumbing that we thought was going to make the install of my new claw foot tub a breeze turned into two long wet workdays and the need to replace some ceiling tile in the office directly below. 

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Bathroom After – minus the major leak!

We swing from the simple ecstasy of enough water for a full hot shower to the frustration of an hour long light fixture install turning into a day long project requiring several phone calls to my dad, our electrician friend, and finally the electrician himself.

Old houses are full of surprises for sure.  We joke about the house’s strong “opinions” – she has eaten several paint chips, is finicky about making coffee and running the vacuum at the same time, and surprises me on occasion by dropping marbles in strange places. 

 She seems to thrive on drama – big mirrors, bold colors, and lots of activity.  She handles the shouts, stomps, shrieks, and giggles of a busy family with grace, buffering noise like no other house we have ever lived in.  We have never had so much company, and love the wide-eyed wonder and fond smiles from those who “have always loved that house”.

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Living Room, Parlor, Foyer all in bold jewel tones

What she lacks in heat, she makes up for in warmth.  She acts up like a petulant toddler when she isn’t getting enough attention – stomping her foot by refusing to turn on a light, reducing the temperature by 10 degrees, or dropping a pile of plaster at our feet. 

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Dining Room

But when she is full of family and friends, she shines.  Like the rest of us, enough wine and candlelight and the wrinkles of living start to relax.  Her cracks and stains aren’t so obvious under the sleeping labs on the wool rug.  We stroke her ego, coddle her a bit, and she rewards us tenfold with the good energy of 100 plus years of gatherings and love.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Why I Love my Imperfect Tree

In the last twelve years, I have had quite a few “bad mommy” moments.  Most of them were forgotten shortly after they happened, but there are a few that I consider lessons learned.  Those I keep around so I can pull them out when I need them.

A couple of years ago, I was running around in my usual frantic checklist of tasks to be accomplished before Christmas.  I will admit – I am a bit of a scrooge around the holidays.  Christmas joy feels like one more thing on my to do list that starts in November and goes through the New Year.

I think many moms feel that way.  Most of us are the family taskmaster, making sure that no one is forgotten, gifts are “just right”, teachers are appreciated along with the mail carrier, trash collector, and paper delivery.  Each child has the right clothes for the festivities, cookies are baked and set out for Santa, and no one misses a party.

On top of all that, gifts need to be wrapped and hidden, trees purchased and decorated, dinners planned, and the house clean for unexpected visitors.  Most weeks, I am overwhelmed with the usual household, work, and parenting tasks.  Needless to say, adding an additional list to my already full plate doesn’t always make for a happy mommy.

That year, we were “late” getting to the tree lot.  I flew into the room where my husband was peacefully reading a book, interrupted the kids’ playtime, and announced that we had to go out and get a tree immediately.  I was impatient with their boots, crabby about putting on their mittens, and decided that it wasn’t cold enough to bother with snow pants.

There was no joy in choosing the tree.  I vetoed the first ones as too small, too fat, and too many bald spots.  The kids trudged grudgingly behind me as I marched forward, barking orders to the tree lot attendants to find me a narrow, evenly spaced, 8-foot fresh tree. 

I had the tree bundled, paid for, and tied to the top of the car before they even had a chance to pet the Golden Retriever on the lot.  My drill sergeant manner continued at home as I told my husband exactly where the ornaments were stored, and impatiently directed where the lights should be strung.

When it came time to put the ornaments up, both children ran into the living room and started unpacking.  I cringed as they hung the lamb with the missing leg on the front of the tree, bit my tongue as I noticed the clump of red bulbs three feet off the floor, and tried really hard not to yell when one of my Grandma’s ceramic Santas lost a mitten.

I hovered over the tree, choosing to move things around rather than hanging the ornaments still in the box.  Some I moved up higher, some I spread out, and some I put back in the box.

I thought I was being discreet.  Until a few minutes later, when I realized that I was standing at the tree alone.  My son was back to his legos, my daughter was drawing a picture, and my husband had just simply disappeared.

“If no one is going to help me with this stupid tree, then we just aren’t going to have one!” I exploded.  “I can’t do everything by myself, and it isn’t my responsibility to make Christmas happen!”

That was when my son, without even looking up from his legos, taught me a very important lesson about life. 

“But Mom, we were helping…… but it seemed like you just wanted to do it yourself.  You were moving stuff all around to the way you wanted it.”

Out of the mouths of babes. 

I sank to the floor next to him.  “You know what?  You are exactly right.  I haven’t been much fun today, have I?”  I kissed his brown curls, and pulled my daughter over onto my lap.

“Let’s start over…… I will turn on some Christmas music, and since you do such a great job decorating, I will let you put the ornaments on.”

Fortunately, children are very forgiving.  The rest of the afternoon passed, the tree was trimmed – albeit a little unevenly – and Christmas came just like it always does.

That was the year I gave up on “perfect” – as least for Christmas.  For the past three years, we have had a mismatched tree that includes handmade play-dough candy canes, half functioning light strands, elves missing a foot or two, and sparkly bulbs in primary colors.  Fortunately, the kids are getting taller, so the decorations made it to the top this year.

Some years, cards make it out.  Some years they don’t.  We appreciate the gifts and greetings we receive, even if we can’t reciprocate with any more than a warm hug and sincerest wishes. 

My exasperated words about responsibility have become my holiday mantra.  It is, in fact, my responsibility to make Christmas happen – through spreading love, joy, and kindness.  And that starts at home.

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