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Study Abroad

For those with the good fortune to have immersed ourselves in different cultures, a truth that we gain from living and interacting with buena gente (good people) is that none of us are better, nor worse,  just different.

Source: Musings of the Crone

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Dear Hannah,

I was married at your age. You don’t even want to learn to cook dahl. (line from Bendit Like Beckham—just for fun and since you are a film girl and all)

You graduate from college in just three days. I want you to know that I am so proud of you and all that you have accomplished in your almost 22 years. You are an amazing, inspiring, creative, strong, loyal, dedicated and intelligent person. Often now, when we are talking, I am awed by the maturity and wisdom of the words you speak to me. It is hard to believe that you began as that tiny, dark-haired girl with the rosebud ears that came out of me when I had just turned twenty-two. I was still a baby in a sense, and I was continuing to raise myself as I began to raise you. You were the child meant for me at that time in my life—you were the one strong enough to withstand my cutting teeth.

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The two of us–Just after you were born. You can sort of see from this picture that I didn’t know the first thing about babies.

I think you know me well enough now to know that, when faced with transitions, I tend to write. It is no different on this eve of your graduation and imminent move to California. Instead of thinking so much about your accomplishments, which are many indeed, I find myself filled with gratitude for all of the people that helped me along the way in raising you. When you were about four years old, the wise Hilary Clinton made famous the African proverb that states, “It takes a village to raise a child.” At that time, I was practicing law and very reliant on daycare providers, babysitters, and your grandparents to help me raise you. This moment of your graduation will be a mountain top vista for me—a time to look back and embrace the village that helped me raise you.

Because I am not only a lover of the written word but also a devotee of making gratitude lists, what better way to celebrate your graduation from Beloit College and your leap into the world of adulthood than with a gratitude list for all who helped you along the way. I may never get an Academy Award (but maybe you will–do they give Academy Awards to Casting Directors?), but I did manage to raise you and that, my dear, is one of the singular accomplishments of my life. So here goes a list of thank you’s that would send the “exit the stage” music playing long before it was done–here’s to your village:

  1. Your dad, for believing in my ability to be a mom when we found ourselves unexpectedly expecting you during our first year of law school.
  2. My Constitutional Law professor, the late Marcia O’ Kelly, who taught so eloquently about the rights of women but also of the sanctity of family. I didn’t tell anyone I was pregnant that first year of law school because I was embarrassed. I hadn’t ever planned on children—only ever a career. When you were born, in the fall of my second year of law school, Professor O’Kelly gave you a little snake, covered with black and white fabric in geometrical patterns and stuffed with crunchy, sensory-rich filling. It was less about the gift to you, but her acknowledgement that I could be a law student, a career woman, and a mother that was so supportive to me. *You too will find surrogate mothers down the paths you walk in life. Be ever on the look out.*
  3. Law Professor Patti Alleva, who gave me a job as her research assistant after you were born. She was more than flexible and accommodating of my schedule as a law student and new mom. She’s continued on in both of our lives as a friend and support person.
  4. Your Grandma Melinda, who helped out with you during my first semester back at law school.
  5. Your own Grandma Marcia, who retired from teaching early to take care of you during my second-third year of law school and the summer before my second year, so I could write my law review—the summer after, so I could clerk in Fargo, ND.
  6. All of your kind and loving daycare providers through your formative years: Kim, Kari, Cheryl, and Karla.
  7. My dear friends, study partners and fellow UND law graduates, Pat, who baked you beautiful birthday cakes when you were younger and helped us out of many needful childcare dilemmas (like when I had to go to the ER with dehydration from the stomach flu) during our Brainerd years and Shari, who lived across the hall from us in married-student housing when you were born—already a mom and law student—she first taught me how to balance career and motherhood and still being a person; she continues to do so to this day.
  8. Your Aunt Tiffany, who took care of you on short notice so many times when our daycare was closed and was such a loving force in your life.
  9. The warm, caring, nurturing relationship you (and Ethan) have always had with Aunt Tiffany and Uncle Scott’s children, Phoebe, Jake and Nick.
  10. The prayers and guidance of your broader family of Grandparents, Aunts, Uncles, and Grand Aunts and Uncles, as well as cousins of all sorts (first, second, first once-removed etc).
  11. Your Godmother and Aunt Sarah for helping out with you at so many junctures (she watched you when I had my wisdom teeth surgically removed when you were just four months old and couldn’t nurse you for a whole day—she struggled with the pre-frozen breast milk and a baby who wanted her mama). She also threw you a confirmation party when I had to be out of town on your confirmation day in 2009.
  12. Your Irish Step Dance teacher, Katie who created such a wonderful dance community, all of whom became sisters that helped to raise you.
  13. Laurie, another dance mom, who sewed you vests and skirts, because I couldn’t sew, and set your Irish Dance curls for you—in your pre-wig days—because I did not have a way with curlers or hair products.
  14. Jean, your youth group leader. You were the one that led us back to church and specifically, to St. John’s Episcopal Church on Kent Street in St. Paul. I think you found your own way to Jean, who nurtured your spirituality. Perhaps Jean was one of your first surrogate mothers.
  15. Your second mom, Cindy, who helped your dad raise you during your visitations with him and who has worked so hard to continue as a supportive friend to you after she and your dad’s engagement ended. Another surrogate mom, to be sure!
  16. Your Grandma Melinda (again) for coming and staying with you guys after your dad and I divorced, to help accommodate my business trips. She was such a huge support to me through the years and I miss her greatly.
  17. Your Grandpa Spencer, who had the foresight, discipline, and generosity to purchase US Savings Bonds from your date of birth until you began college. These funds paid for travels overseas for your Rotary Exchange and your study abroad, paid for housing costs and books while in college, as well as other incidental expenses. What a huge gift he and Melinda gave you.
  18. Your Grandma Marcia (again) and Grandpa Duane, who also both helped out watching you and Ethan while I was away on business trips or wanted to entertain my hobby, concert going.
  19. When you don’t have another parent to discuss your kids with, you really rely on your friends. As a working single parent, I did not have much time for friendships outside of work and so I am ever grateful for all of the many friends I had along the way at work who listened and laughed and worried right along with me as I endlessly shared kid stories, issues, and joys, long before any of them had children of their own. In the order they came into my life, I want to thank: Christy, Kim, the triumvirate power of Louis, Staci, and Alice (oh to the life-saving power of the corporate coffee break), Bonnie (another surrogate mother who gave me the best advice ever and I followed it too!), Trina, and Tessa.
  20. My boss (and your boss, after you started babysitting her kids!) Pam, who was really so gracious and understanding when it came to the challenges I faced raising you and Ethan as a single mom. I couldn’t have asked for a more supportive manager during the near seven years that I balanced being both a single mom and a woman with a demanding–but fulfilling–career.
  21. Suzanne, who started out as my author and became my friend. She also became your friend and was so supportive always of us both. She continues to believe in you and for this, I am grateful. She is another one of my surrogate mothers and, in such a way, has become your surrogate grandmother (a very beautiful, young-looking grandmother).
  22. Chris, your second dad, who came into your life just about a year before you left for Japan. I am so grateful for the loving relationship you guys share. I am grateful that he brought you on all those college visits and got you through the bed bug experience in Pittsburgh. I am grateful for the solid, loving, supportive presence he’s been in your life throughout the past five or so years. As you know, he loves you so very much.
  23. Your two brothers. Siblings are a blessing. From Ethan, you’ve learned how to be in relation with people who are very different from yourself and I’ve watched proudly as I see the two of you closing in on a more mature, adult-sized relationship. And Josh–well, we all know that Josh is sort of like pure light and love. What could be better than a daily dose of Josh. Hopefully he’ll get better at conveying that light and love via Skype.
  24. Your Japanese Tutor, Kate, who did such a great job preparing you for your year in Japan with such a small window to work with (February through July, 2009).
  25. Your three sets of host parents (the moms in particular) for looking after you so well during your year in Japan. Sending a sixteen year old off to a strange country for a year is perhaps one of the more daunting things a parent can do. I still remember my last glimpse of your long brown hair as you went through security at the Minneapolis International Airport around 5:30 am on August 13, 2009 (I didn’t even have to look up that date—that’s how well it is burned into my head)—it was all I could do to let you go. So grateful that you had good host families and I know that your second host mom most especially became another surrogate mom and I am glad you’ve been able to see her twice now since your year in Japan. I hope you can continue to keep in touch with her in the future.
  26. Your Rotary Liaisons, John and Tom, who helped smooth out all of the many issues with your exchange on this end and many a time, helped smooth out your anxious mom who had a difficult time letting go of her baby.
  27. All of the people who prayed for you while in Japan—especially your step Grandmother, Helen, who has now passed on. Once, early on in your time in Japan, she wrote me a message that said, “Just want you to know…a silly little thing I do…do you remember when you were young and wished on a star?…well, each early morning and evening when I am outside with Sadie, I look for the brightest star, and do not ‘wish’, but pray for Hannah to find her place of joy there in Japan.” I like to think that both Grandma Melinda and Grandmother Helen are out there somewhere, looking out for you–still praying for you to find your place of joy.
  28. Ellie Roscher-your senior year English teacher at Cretin Derham Hall. She too had re-entered after a time abroad and I think it was just so helpful for you to know that at least one other soul understood what you were going through when you returned to an American high school after your life-changing year abroad. I thank God that this exceptional teacher was placed in your path the year you attended Cretin Derham (and that someone in the CDH office had recommended that you take Spectrum). She is the teacher everyone hopes their child will have someday.
  29. Three key best friends along the path of your life so far:
    1. Julia—Oh we love Julia so much. We’d adopt her into our family if we could. But I love how she stepped into your life when you transferred to St. Joe’s and I pretty quickly saw what a quality friend she was and I hoped she’d be a friend for life. It appears that is certainly the case. I think you already realize how blessed you are to have Julia in your life.
    2. Hikaru—Dear Hikaru who befriended you in your school in Nagasaki and made your time in Japan better in every way—introducing you to other friends, eating lunch with you and inviting you to social gatherings. I think it is neat that you were able to do your study abroad at a college so close to her college last year. It was fun to watch you guys (via FB on my end) reconnect.
    3. Sydney—Not everyone leaves college with a close friend like Sydney. I think you were friends with her from nearly the first day of freshman orientation—the day Chris, Josh, and I left you crying in the parking lot outside your dorm room. Knowing how she was placed across the hall from you, perhaps you can trust how all things truly do work out for our good, in the end. Sometimes our best of girl friends can also, at times, be surrogate moms to us. This is certainly true of my friend Shari’s role in my life. Embrace Sydney always, as a friend, a kindred spirit, and a mother in your time of need (P.S. I just realized that you have her listed as your mom on Facebook—kind of apropos).
  30. Debbie. I am not sure how you managed to find your career mentor last summer or how she found you, but I am so grateful that you two intersected and she has given you such a great internship experience this year and continues to mentor you in your chosen career field.

Seems to me, you’ve already learned a thing or two about finding surrogate mothers. But always remember, sometimes, as much support as you find around you, you still have to reach deep inside and mother yourself. I ask that in your life ahead, you be kind, compassionate, and forgiving of yourself. Please, treat yourself with as much loving care as you are able—it is more than okay to care for yourself in this world; it is a necessity.

And to all that I forgot on this list, and I am sure there were many, thank you. Thank you so much to all of the diverse members of the village that helped to raise my only daughter, my first born, my beautiful, smart, strong-willed girl with the teeth marks. We did it!

I love you to the moon and back into the atmosphere and deep down into the smallest fiber of my being.

With Love,

Your mom

 

The Kneading Dough Blessing

My Blessing to My Three. That even if you are kneading dough, perhaps especially if you are kneading dough, that you be fulfilled in each moist, sticky moment of contact. That you have mind-bending conversations while pouring the heavy whipping cream in a bowl or sprinkling poppy seeds throughout the batter. That you feel immense joy when returning phone calls over your lap top at a coffee shop, running your small business. That you smile while you ride your bike down the streets of the new city where you have moved, exploring each little organic food co-op and french bistro. That you know both the thrill of nose-diving in the air, and the centering pull of regaining balance. That you face each day’s battle with the confidant knowledge that it is the very battle that is meant for you. That you celebrate the shape and outline of your nose each time you look in the mirror. That you always leave room in your life (and your belly) for an occasional bowl of ice cream. That you spend time meandering through used bookstores and have the pleasure (often) of seeing the exact book you “need” jump into your hands. That you might someday be kissed in the stack of books of a library or in a parking lot by the person you’ve been waiting all of your life to meet. That you might find the perfect pair of leather boots that will travel decades of your life with you. That you have many crisp, well-seasoned pickles to accompany your deli sandwiches. That you go skinny dipping and swim with dolphins (perhaps at the same time) at least once in your life. That you will participate in a post-secondary learning situation, which will open your mind and enliven your soul. That you will have some friends who will know you all of your life and hold up a mirror to help reflect back all of your many gifts. That there is never enough room in your suitcase to carry around any bit of regret. That your siblings will join you on your path, from time to time, to remind you of where you’ve come from. That you always know and feel the love that has brought you here. That you will always know and accept the peace that passes all understanding.

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I wrote this poem four years ago now, when my daughter was about to return from a Rotary Exchange Year in Japan and now, she is graduating from college in two weeks with a degree in Japanese Language and Culture (which she did in 3 years–see The New Global Student for benefits of study abroad including reducing time in college). My blessing remains–although I am not so sure about the swimming with dolphins. I’ve started to believe that is an unethical practice, at least as a commercial venture. Also, for at least one of my kids, the ice cream may need to be made from coconut milk.

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I think that I’ve ended this blog twice now and have come back to it. Perhaps next time this happens, I just need to say that I’m taking a break for a while. In any event, I’m not good with endings; with goodbyes; with letting go.

I need this blog right now because, more than any other time, I feel in a unique parenting position (now with two in college and a preschooler at home) and I need to express into words this place where I am. I will try my hardest to not specifically discuss my children in this blog. In particular, child number two–who is the one who complained about me discussing his life on this blog. Instead, I’ll try to keep to the “me” part of parenting.

I left child number two off at college yesterday. I left him to his already-messy dorm room with his three roommates, already worrying they weren’t compatible. I left worrying about how he’d wake up for classes on his own. And worrying about his lack of interest in keeping up on the college web site or even emails–wondering how he’d know what was going on. I was sad leaving child number one at college two years ago, but I knew she’d make it. She’d managed a whole 10 plus months in Japan alone at age 16-17. How could she not manage college, only 5 hours away? Child number two, however, has not had that same type of life experience. So this is the first big separation for him. Yet, he is emotionally more independent than child number one (although she is getting there now). Chris assures me that he will be fine–that he is more than capable. And he is. He is.

When I came home last night, after dropping Two off, I found myself pulling out his birth video–still on VHS. We currently have a DVD/VHS dubbing machine set up (for transferring the VHS home videos to DVD–and when I say “currently,” I meant that it has been 4 years now and no one has completed the project) and so I rewound and rewound the tape, finally reaching the day of number Two’s birth. My ex-husband had started taping just after Two was born and placed on my belly. He was peaceful and calm. Then they took him away from me to weigh and such. Then he howled. I still remember how helpless I felt, over there pushing out the placenta and unable to reach my howling newborn. I felt that same way yesterday, driving away with my son still tired from his lack of sleep the night before (he’d already spent one night in the dorm room and I came back yesterday for orientation) and totally unsure about how he (who has always had his own room) was going to function in a room with three other guys. Number two likes his peace and solitude; needs it. I tried to encourage him to go for a single or a two-person occupancy dorm. He went for the quad, however, because it was cheaper. Two’s always trying to save money.

My pelvic region has been in pain for the past week or so. I am going to get it checked out but I am wondering how much of it was just early contractions. My womb preparing to spit out this child once again–this time to a place far apart from me. He felt it too. Indeed, perhaps he is the child most connected with me at a deep soul level. He is the most like me. And so, in preparation for leaving, he suggested we watch The Lord of the Rings trilogy during the week before he left. We watched The Fellowship of the Rings on the Sunday before he left. The middle one (forget the name–it is my favorite of the books and least favorite of the movies) on Wednesday. I slept through much of this one. On Thursday, the night before he left, we watch The Return of the King (my favorite of the movies). With each moment of the movie, I was aware exactly how many hours and minutes I had with that precious son left in my house. I never wanted a movie to drag on as much as that one. We last watched these movies together when he was 13. It was just after I had finished all three books so that I’d be able to discuss them with him (one of the best moves of my parenting life). It goes so quickly–once they reach 12 or 13 and become like these really cool people who like to do the kind of stuff you like to do. It is like having really fun friends right there with you. It’s not that I don’t enjoy playing dinosaurs on the floor with number Three (okay, well I enjoy that he is enjoying it), but the parenting years really get amazing when your kids are old enough to watch movies you enjoy (in other words, out beyond the Disney years) and can discuss novels with you and visit art museums, while intelligently critiquing the art, or introduce you to Broadway plays you never would have seen without fueling their interest. You only get about 5-6 incredible years like this and then they leave. It’s actually pretty sad.

I am quite aware that, had Chris and then Three not come into my life 5 and then 4 years ago, I would truly have not just an empty nest right now but also an empty home. I paused for a moment yesterday to think about what that would have been like, how I would have coped. I just couldn’t wrap my mind around it though, likely because it is just not my current reality. Instead, after dropping two off, I came home and hugged number Three just a little tighter all evening long. After all, he’s turning four years old soon. I realize quite acutely how these days of playing dinosaurs on the floor will eventually give way to days discussing and reading The Lord of the Rings and then, one day, the day when I too will leave him off at college. For today, however, I commit to really being in every moment down there on the floor with the dinosaurs and the puzzles. I am finally starting to recognize that my role as “mother” is the very best and greatest of my life.

Chris told me that my last entry for this blog was a bit of a downer–too much of a downer for what, he says, has been a fairly uplifting blog. Chris would never tell me such a thing unless he really believed it. Chris, like Ethan, is a bit of my “true north,” helping to point me in the right direction. Both have strong intuitive souls, but Chris has the wisdom of the years added to that intuition and oh how I value his opinion and views.

So on this lovely Mother’s Day, I have decided to write one more ending for this blog about motherhood, with one last gratitude list because I indeed have so very much to be grateful for in this life of mine and as a mother. I am grateful that:

  • Chris insisted on a second opinion for Ethan’s epilepsy diagnosis.
  • Ethan’s stay in the hospital (as difficult as it was) and second opinion, led us to an opinion by an epileptologist that Ethan does not have epilepsy (he does have a condition tied to his heart, blood pressure, circulatory system–but much less devastating than the epilepsy diagnosis).
  • Ethan was able to go off the horrible, brain-altering medications that he had been placed on for 6 weeks this past spring.
  • Josh went nearly a full year without a cold. This is a MAJOR miracle given the amount of sickness he had last year. Thus, he had his first real cold this year just 2 weeks shy of the year anniversary of his ear surgery. We were praying for as much time as possible for the ear to heal before an influx of fluid and pressure hit it. All of you who have had preschoolers will understand just how amazing it is to have such a lengthy cold-free stretch.
  • The ear surgery restored Josh’s hearing in his right ear to a level where he no longer requires a hearing aid in that ear and his language development has just exploded this year.
  • The perforation in his ear drum post surgery appears to have healed itself.
  • Josh is sleeping much better these days and thankfully, so are the rest of us.
  • Just two weeks until Hannah comes home from her study abroad in Japan and it has really gone smoothly.
  • Hannah has seemed very happy and content during her time abroad.
  • My older children both have such kind, interesting, honorable, upright friends in their lives.
  • I get to be married to my best friend.
  • I feel myself moving towards a place of beauty and passion not yet before experienced in my life. The wisdom of age is a blessed thing.
  • Right here, right now, right where I am–I am content. All is well with my soul.
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