Saturday, May 20, 2017

Motherhood and the Emotional Roller Coaster

Happy belated Mother's Day all.

Tonight as I listen to the roar of kids laughing in the other room, and the chirp of the peepers beginning their song, and the tinkling of the ice in my glass I am feeling pretty relaxed. Finally. It has been a challenging week. Not anything out of the range of normal challenges, just a week filled with the constant worry of whether or not I am doing the right thing by my children. Am I listening to their needs enough? Have I guiding them well through all of our massive transitions throughout the past two years? Am I managing their anger, anxiety, fears, and social challenges well enough? Will I help them turn into decent happy adults? God I hope so, but, when you're in the thick of it, sometimes it sure is hard to tell.

I have tripled my flock of children in a matter of two years, and I am still learning everyday how to manage the emotions of this huge needy brood. The balance between day to day parenting, step parenting, and every other weekend parenting is like a juggling act, one which I think Jon and I are doing our best at, but which never fails to make me feel inadequate. Ultimately I am pretty sure they will all be just fine, but of course in the day to day it's easy to lose sight of this. The jolly smiling pictures splayed across social media say nothing about what daily life is like with your kids. It's always amazing to me how perfect it can all seem in pictures. We are good. Great even, but we have our major share of screeching, breakdowns, sob-fests, rage, meetings with the principal, fights with siblings and friends, and the everyday "EVERYONE HATES ME!" "NO ONE COULD POSSIBLY UNDERSTAND WHAT I'M GOING THROUGH!" (storm off, slam door, repeat an hour later). Good times people.

One wonderful achievement this month is that RJ will be graduating in just two weeks. One down! Five more to go! I am immensely proud of RJ and his success this year, this kid has traveled many emotional miles in his short life, and I love the person he is turning out to be. It's funny how you can not be someone's mother, and come into their life when they are already so far into it, but still be able to take them into your cocoon and help them to grow wings. I cannot wait to see what life has in store for RJ, every step he takes towards adulthood makes me immensely proud.

This is what I know about motherhood. You spend your entire life in fear that something bad will happen to your children, and that you can't/won't prevent the bad, or, worse yet, you'll cause the bad or not be able to fix the bad. The truth is that the bad is unavoidable at some point, for some far worse than others, and there is totally nothing we can do to stop it. Some of it comes before we even meet our kids or step kids, some of it is natural consequence for life events, and some of it is just hideously unfortunate. Whatever the bad comes from, or whatever they have been through before us, we can only do our best to love the crap out of them and hope that they know it. My hope is that they carry that love with them to get them through the dark times, and hold onto it for whenever they need a little light to guide them. For now I will continue listening to the peepers and keep hoping for the best.

Thursday, March 2, 2017

Honeymoon in Cuba: Exploring beauty in a crumbling paradise

CUBA! We are back and I can't find enough people to tell how much I love this quirky island. I wish we'd had many more weeks to explore all that this lovely time capsule has to offer, but alas, it is hard enough finding five days together without kids, so we chose to enjoy the hell out of every moment.

The first, and most important thing I have to say about Cuba is that this island is home to the nicest people in the world. I am still in disbelief at how kind and helpful every person we encountered was to us. Not only was everyone extremely helpful and friendly, it was in a completely genuine and non-solicitous way. They were nice to us because they ARE nice, not because they felt like they had to be, or were trying to get anything out of it. In a time where it feels like Americans are frequently dropping the ball on kindness, this welcoming community was a tremendous relief.

Secondly, the Cuban people were greatly open to talking about life in Cuba, which is fascinating on many levels. I can definitely see both sides of the struggle, where people are upset about their lack of progress and upward mobility, but yet no one is starving, you see nobody begging in the streets, bleeding to death from untreated medical issues, or the rounded bellies of malnutrition. Nobody flaunts their tremendous wealth, and nobody is left to flounder in poverty. Everyone is educated, but everybody earns an extremely small salary (as in $10 per month). No one we met had more than one or two children, as birth control is wide spread and accessible, and abortion is safe and legal. In Vinales, a mountain town in the north of the country, no one locks their doors, even at night, because they just do not steal from each other. Crime is almost non-existent.

We spent the first two days in Vinales, hiking through the valleys where the country grows the tobacco for their famous cigars. We hiked on foot, instead of the widely offered horseback tours, and we were so glad we did, as we learned more from our guide Claudia than from almost anyone else on the island. The horseback tours offer beautiful scenery, but not a lot of conversation with the guides. We hiked into the Valley of Silence, a green lush landscape dotted with farm animals (interesting side note: cows are all owned and sold by the Cuban government, if you kill a cow in Cuba you get more jail time that you do if you kill a person. Beef is only sold in government restaurants).

We watched a local farmer roll cigars and bought ourselves cigars directly from him. The farmers are allowed to keep 10% of their tobacco to sell, while 90% of the tobacco gets taken by the government and made into the famous brands like Cohiba and Monti Cristo that are so highly sought after and expensive.

It was striking in Vinales how all of the food that was eaten and served was fresh, local, and in season. There is very little that is traded so the Cuban people work with what they grow and raise, which seems a million times healthier to me. There is almost no pre-packaged foods, and everyone goes straight to the farm to buy their goods, or lets the vendors come to them with their wheelbarrows full of bread or fruits. We ate fresh papaya and pineapple daily, rice and beans of course, and many other delicious concoctions cooked up by Dayanette, the owner of the Casa Particular we called home.

In Cuba, the most popular way to visit is to stay with someone in their home, in a sort of Air bnb type scenario. Homeowners can rent rooms out to tourists for a fraction of the price of what a hotel room would cost (we paid $30 per night). The rooms that we stayed in were clean, private, with our own bathroom and a private terrace, and both had a rooftop patio where we could see a tremendous view of the mountains or the ocean, and the stars at night. The casa owners were a tremendous help arranging tours, taxis, and just giving us ideas of where to go and what to do. Hosting tourists is their livelihood, and they take great pride in providing us with all of the makings of an excellent trip. Casa owners will provide meals for you, and this is absolutely the way to eat in Cuba. Restaurants are not excellent, but home cooked meals are spectacular. We had breakfast and dinner each day in the two casas where we stayed, and what a fantastic choice.

We spent our last two days in Cuba at the beach in a town called Guanabo, just east of Havana. We traveled to Guanabo via a 1953 Plymouth taxi driven by a man named Alexis, who made a pit stop at a local waterfall in Soroa, and natural pool where we ate lunch and swam in the cold fresh water. Alexis charged us $80 for the day and was happy to wait for us as we explored Soroa. The only glitch was keeping him awake for the second half of our four hour drive as the rice and beans had him nodding off while driving. Yikes!

We wanted to avoid the city this trip, as we were coming and going quickly, but we wanted some time at the ocean. The casa we rented was run by a woman named Marlene, who rents two rooms upstairs from the family's home. This casa felt more like a hotel and less like a home share, with the rooms having a separate entrance. The beach was a quick walk, and although it was quite removed from the town of Guanabo, it was nice to have a private stretch of gorgeous beach to enjoy on our own. Guanabo is a town where the Cuban government sends its employees for vacation. The government owns tons of crumbling houses along this strip of beach and rents them out for a week at a time to Cubans and their families. Locals told us that in the summertime the town and beach are packed to the gills with vacationers, but in the off season it was not the most exciting town to visit. We found the beach in Guanabo to be relaxing and unassuming, a great place to kick back and enjoy a rum and coke and a book.

The saddest part about our Cuban honeymoon was the fact that it ended so quickly. We will definitely be returning to this magical island, feeling more confident in our destination choices now that we've gotten a bit of a feel for how to get around. Cuba is a place of unexpected beauty and crumbling infrastructure, huge smiles, and deep connection to what's really important in life. Visiting Cuba has awakened a part of me that has been closed for a long time, the desire to travel again to places that are real and beautiful and not made shiny in the name of tourism. Let this be the beginning of many more adventures to come.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Best Day Ever

Three days ago I married my best person. It was the best day ever. We planned it in a month, gave almost no time to prepare and/or stress out over the minute details, and we didn't invite a million people (given that we held the event in our living room), and it was the perfect day. Live streaming over Facebook allowed our far away family and friends to view it from their living rooms and feel like they were with us, and allowed us to feel less guilty about the last minute plans.

Our friends and family brought all the food and drink, we did little to prepare in advance, and we had the most fun imaginable. It was an absolutely magical night, filled with more love than we ever dreamed possible. Getting married as adults with blended families changes the face of marriage into a beautiful swirl of emotion and vows. Vows to our kids to be good to them and one another, vows to love and care for each other without obligation, but out of a place of deep, genuine love, and vows to care for each other's children as our own. I can't believe how many people came up to me later and told me how touched they were by our ceremony. Everyone felt the love as much as we did.

The most beautiful surprises of the night were the toasts given to us by our children. None of them had planned to speak, but four of them not only spoke, but wowed with their elegant displays of open, vulnerable emotion. It felt like each of them was giving us their true blessing, a feeling that made Jon and me overjoyed. I have never, ever been so happy or felt so deeply in awe of our kids. These wise beings grace us with their presence daily, but we are sometimes too busy to notice just how lucky we are to have them. What an unbelievable day for love. My heart is overflowing. Thank you all.

Monday, January 16, 2017

Wedding Bells and Carb Withdrawl

Man, it's been a long time since my last post. I have had tons to say but apparently not tons of time to get it written down.

So the biggest news of this month is that Jon and I decided to get married, and soon. We didn't have some big proposal situation, or some far off plans, and no, this is not a shotgun wedding by any stretch (six kids is way more than enough for either of us!). No, we just have known since the minute we met that we wanted to be married, and suddenly now just feels like the time. We went through many different ideas for what we wanted to do, and when it comes right down to it, we can't afford and don't really want a big wedding, we can't afford to run off somewhere with our kids and elope. We just want to have a small gathering in our home that we love. So there you go. In four weeks.

We are excited and also pretty relaxed about it. It is the natural progression of what we have already started. We love each other and we are psyched about sharing our commitment with some of our loved ones. And we love a good party.

The other thing that happened this week is that Jon was diagnosed as a type II diabetic. Shit. This means that our jolly fat person lifestyle can go on no more. We have put away the sugar and refined carbs (also known as joy) and have grabbed the reigns of righteousness in order to not die too young. Ugh, it's depressing, even though we both know it's good. The carb addiction runs pretty deep and has been suctioned to both of us for many, many years. Jon had a headache for the first four days, and I am currently the grumpiest person on earth because I would give my left arm for a bagel. It fucking sucks, but it is also probably the best wake up call we could have gotten, and just in the nick of time as apparently we aren't getting any younger.

So hooray for marriage, boo for diabetes, and yay to embracing life as it comes, as there's not much else you can do.

Wednesday, November 9, 2016

Searching for light in a time of darkness...

I feel like I have the flu, but I am not sick. My whole body aches since this morning when I woke up to the election results. It is a heaviness in my chest that will not go away, the lingering dread and flurries of panic about what will happen now. Jon and I both woke up with a total loss of words. Loss of words as to how to protect our children, our biracial kids, our transgender kid, our special needs kid, our girls. How do we tell them it's safe to live and play and grow up in a society led by a man who so clearly disregards them, a man who has mocked and taunted them, a man who doesn't give a rat's ass what happens to them. How can we tell them everything will be fine when it is so completely uncertain, and the leader of our nation is a man who feels that it is completely acceptable to degrade women, to assault women, to attack entire populations of people based on their religion or race. We don't know if anything will be fine, and I have the sinking feeling in my stomach that nothing will be okay.

I am baffled by this country. I am embarrassed to be from a place where people hate women so much that they would choose an egomaniac monster over a qualified, intelligent, strong woman. It's beyond tragic, it speaks volumes to how little we have actually progressed. I am horrified to know that friends and family members of mine (albeit not that many, but still) agree with this sentiment. I cannot comprehend how any self-respecting woman (or man with any respect for his mother/sister/wife/daughter) could think it was OK to vote for someone who does not value women at all. I cannot comprehend how anyone who has any connection with any people of color, any immigrant, any Muslim, or any member of the LGBT community could support someone with the ability and desire to strip them of so many fundamental rights. Beyond all of this, I think the people who anger me the most are those who chose not to vote for Hillary, and yet are upset that Trump won. If you didn't vote for his opponent, what did you think was going to happen? This kind of mentality not only makes you an idiot, it also makes you kind of an asshole. The misogyny running rampant in our society is palpable, the patriarchy is swollen with pride today, and that is a crying shame.

What I have taken from this terrible outcome is the glaring reality that we ALL need to do something. The many of us who are angered and upset by this outcome, those of us who were empowered by the idea of a woman finally shattering the ultimate glass ceiling, and those of us who believe that love really does trump hate need to stand up and fight back. It's time to stop accepting whatever gets tossed our way and fight for what we know is right. I know this election has made me feel fierce and angry, and has ignited a flame within me. I will carry that flame and make sure to fight back against the inevitable injustice to come. Join me, fellow supporters of human rights, and let's do this together.

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Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Settling into the Chaos

We've been in our new home for seven weeks now, and we are all completely in love. This house is more than I ever could have imagined, it felt like home to me the minute we moved in, and every morning I wake up in awe of the fact that we get to live here. The house has turned out beautifully (and didn't require much more from us than furniture and a little paint here and there), it is the most adult house I can imagine living in. So much adulting going on here, I hope no one finds out that half the time I am bluffing at this grown-up stuff.

The other challenge we face living as a blended family is that there is not enough time in the day to get things done, or to give enough of ourselves to our children. The number of kids I have to think about/care about has tripled, and the stress of that reality combined with us working full time on opposite shifts has really weighed on both Jon and me this week. It is a major challenge to be emotionally present for six children, let alone each other, and ourselves, while working overnight, spending hours a day in the car driving everyone around, and making sure that dinner happens, the house doesn't get trashed, and the bills get paid. None of this is for the weak, that's for sure.

Some things we know are temporary. Right now we have four kids in four different schools, two of which are out of town and require driving to and from. That madness will only last one year, as RJ is graduating in the spring, and Nathan will be joining the ranks in our new town next year in middle school. So at least there is some relief coming eventually, but there will still be soccer practices, art classes, dance rehearsals, etc, to be running off to. I am currently envious of those families where both parents work when the kids are at school, and they are able to come home and have dinner together, even though for years I hated the thought of a 9-5 gig. Jon is at work five evenings a week, and I am out the door by 6:30 two nights as well, so it's a lot of crazy and not a lot of calm this month. Someday this will settle down and become a routine, but for now we just keep running in circles through the chaos.

Despite this chaos, there is a whole lot of love, and I feel overwhelmingly blessed to have found this life so quickly after coming out of years of unhappiness and mediocrity. No matter how busy and stressed out we are, I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Friday, September 9, 2016

Flying High in the Smokies: A Family Road Trip to Tennessee

This summer we took the longest road trip I've taken in many years, certainly since my motherhood journey began. We began with a long drive down to Florida from our home in Massachusetts, to drop my kids off with their dad in Miami. My partner Jon and I (along with his two teens Hannah and RJ) stayed in South Florida for a couple of days before embarking on a longer trek back up north, with a stop for two nights in Sevierville, Tennessee.

I had very little in the way of expectation before arriving in Sevierville. I have always been a beach worshiper, and  I had never really considered a summer vacation someplace so far from the ocean. For our return trip, we debated crossing over to the Carolinas and staying at the shore, but then opted for the Smoky Mountains to check out something new. I was pleasantly surprised by how good of a choice that was. 

The Smoky Mountains are home to America's most visited national park, and after visiting the area I can now certainly see the appeal. The gorgeous, unhindered views of the mountains and relaxed country vibe make this the perfect place to get away. The seemingly never ending stream of attractions will also make sure you never get bored. 

Jon and I have six kids between us, so we are always looking for affordable vacation options. The Smoky Mountains turned out to be an excellent opportunity to take an affordable, extremely fun, action-packed vacation. 

Our lodging was at the Hidden Mountain Resort in Sevierville. This resort is easily in the top three best places I have ever stayed in my travel career. The management was friendly and warm, and the rental cabins were pristine. Ours had two master bedrooms, a large soaking tub in one, a wrap-around screened porch bedecked with hot tub and pool table, and a full granite kitchen far nicer than the one I have at home. The pool at this resort was gorgeous and clean, a short walk from our cabin. Hidden Mountain Resort has almost 200 cabins for rent of all shapes and sizes, with prices as low as $75 per night. The resort is close to the action of Sevierville, yet tucked up into a mountain with nothing to hear at night but the crickets. Our only complaint was that we didn't get to stay longer. 

We began immediately with the family fun, heading out to go horseback riding within minutes of arriving. It was a joy to fulfill a dream for Hannah (and on her 15th birthday!) by taking her riding at Five Oaks Riding Stables. They popped us all on calm, steady mounts and wound us up the trail with glimpses of the mountains and the zip liners whizzing by in between the trees.  It was a short ride, just under an hour, but plenty of time for our novice saddle behinds.

Our next day was jam-packed with more adventure than most people experience in a year, and included a trip to a local zoo (link), zip lining, mountain caves, and a unique airplane experience. 

We headed up to Foxfire Mountain in the late morning, in time for the 11am zip line tour. RJ and Hannah were strapped into gear by experienced guides Tim and Sydney and teamed up with six other people for their 1.5 hour tour, including the second highest zip line in the United States, the Goliath. The tour included five lines, totaling over two miles of zip line, for just under $95. Beware that in order to zip line on the Goliath you must weigh less than 250 lbs, and they weigh everyone who shows up for a tour. Jon and I were able to watch the kids fly through the air while hiking on several wooded paths on the property, including a stroll across the county's longest swinging bridge. We hiked up to Foxfire's waterfall, relaxed in a hammock, and took in the views of the stunning green Smokies. The kids came back flushed from their zip line experience with huge smiles pasted on their faces. They loved every second of it. Be sure to bring cash to tip your guides on this tour, the guides' livelihoods depend on it.

After an adventurous morning we were ready for something a little more low-key, so we headed over to check out the Forbidden Caverns of Sevierville, a set of huge underground caves buried deep into the mountain. We took a guided tour equipped with a light show that lasted about an hour. Beware,  while these caves are large and spacious (and did not induce claustrophobia) it was quite chilly down there at 58 degrees year round, definitely bring a sweater. We also learned that you may not touch any of the amazing stalactites or stalagmites that line the chambers, as it can lead to corrosion. It was a challenge, but we managed to keep our hands to ourselves. Tours run hourly and cost about $15 per person.

Our action packed day concluded with a ride in an old-fashioned biplane piloted by Marc Hightower at Sky High Air Tours. After many years as Captain of boat in Key West, Marc transitioned his life to Tennessee and purchased and restored a beautiful Waco biplane built in 1927. As pilot, mechanic, marketing manager, and all around one-man show, Marc runs his business right out of the tiny Sevierville airport and his pickup truck. Friendly and knowledgeable, Marc was quick to ease any nerves we might have had about taking off in the open aired cockpit. Marc has over 1000 hours of flying time in this gorgeous antique plane, and as the mechanic he is able to keep it in pristine condition. Two people can fly with him at a time (with a combined weight of less than 400 lbs) and he charges by the flight, not by the person. Flying with Sky High is a unique and one of a kind experience not to be missed. Cruise over the fields of Sevierville and take in the fog covered mountains all around you, it is like gliding down the highway in the sky, bringing you right back to the 1930's, when air travel was a novel concept. Marc offers several packages for flying, and the personal touch he gives to every take off makes this experience worth every penny. Biplane rides start at $95.

No visit to the Smoky Mountains is complete without chowing down at one of the many southern eateries. When visiting Sevierville make sure to check out the Applewood Restaurant. The apple fritters served at the beginning of every meal are unbeatable, and you can get a five course meal for around $15. The streets in Sevierville are paved with biscuits and gravy from what I could tell, and we did our part to fill our tanks with the delicious (but not exactly health-conscious) grub. After driving for days, and chowing down on chicken-fried steak and grits, we were ready to head home again and cleanse ourselves with leafy greens. Road trips with kids are not for the faint of heart, but Sevierville and the beautiful Smoky Mountains made the extra mileage worth it.