Self care and scarcity

IMG_9551.JPGIn thinking about how I’m going to go about having this midlife crisis, wherein I dig out of of my 15 year phase of self neglect, I am finding it helpful to use the information I’ve gathered over the years from my work with children, my own and other people’s, and my work with the elderly. My mom, who went from being a preschool teacher to being a corporate trainer used to tell me, in reference to the transfer of skills from her old job to the new one, that people really didn’t change as much as they thought they did from 4 to 40. Their basic needs, the way they tick, and the things that help motivate them, were really pretty consistent across the years. My own experiences working with the very young and very old have shown that to be very true.
Teepa Snow, a popular dementia educator (if you love someone with dementia, you owe it to yourself to check her out) says that there are four major types of human activity that need to be addressed to create meaning in a person’s day. The first is productive activity. This can be paid or not. It’s what you contribute to society and your community. This is an area where I feel very blessed. Everyday, both at work and at home, presents me with ample opportunity to feel productive and contribute to the greater good. This particular kind of activity is not something most adults my age are conciously grateful for. We often have so much more opportunity for productive activity than we can realisticly handle that it feels more like a burden than a blessing. That is one gift that working with children and the elderly has given me. Seeing how much both groups struggle when they don’t feel as though they have a valuable contribution to make has helped me to cultivate gratitude for the work I have to do.
The second type is leisure activity. Things you do for their own sake. This can be anything from watching a game, playing cards, playing music, worship, or reading a novel. I could use a little work in this area, but not as much as you’d probably imagine. I am passionate enough about the things I do for their own sake that, when things do get out of balance in this area, I naturally push back and make time for them.
The third type of activity is self care. This is where I really fall down. The thing I have noticed is that most of my arguments to myself about why I should do better at this also surround the needs of others. If I were better rested, had better health, and took better care of myself, I would have more leftover to give. While this is true, I think it’s probably not a very good motivator for longterm change. Somehow I have to get to the point of valuing self care as much for my own sake as for others. How exactly I’m going to do that, I haven’t figured out yet.
The fourth type of activity is rest and restoration. This is also an area I struggle with, but again, not as badly as you might imagine. At 40 years old, my body just flat out refuses to cooperate anymore if it gets to the end of it’s energy and doesn’t get a recharge. Really, that window where you can just abuse yourself and push through without rest was short. I have some young coworkers who can pull 16 hour shifts, sleep three minutes, eat a bowl of ramen and get back to work. I remember being like that, but I had pretty much wrapped that phase of my life up by 25. Due to the lack of self care, my ability to recharge isn’t all that efficient, but it’s not completely neglected. Honestly, if there was one thing I would do differently in my youth, it would be to place a higher value on rest and restoration. It’s vastly underrated.
So the question, as it always is, is how to give myself the resources I need for better self care, when my resources are limited and already stretched. What kinds of self care am I most in need of? One source of frequent frustration between my husband and myself is that he is pretty good about just taking something if he needs it. If he needs new pants, he buys them. He doesn’t fret over it, or feel guilty over it. If his hair is getting too long, he cuts it. If he’s hungry, he eats. He’s not doing these things because he thinks he deserves them and I don’t. He’s doing them because they are reasonable self care, but I often take it personally, like he is taking a bigger slice of the pie. I constantly feel the pull of productive activity. I can’t decide how much of that is just reasonable, after all, there is a lot of productive activity that needs to be done, and I often feel like it’s not done very well, and how much of it is a habit of busyness. That is something I am really going to need to examine this year of I’m going to get a handle on this thing.

Community and Routine: Reflections on Breakfast and Goodness

IMG_9125.JPGEvery Saturday morning since we have lived here, Zach and I have gone out for breakfast at a little coffee shop just down the road a piece from our house. It’s a cute little place, with a cabin theme. Every Saturday, the owner and one of the two women who work there greet us, and, without even a question, bring us the same thing we always have. Coffee, caramel rolls and a croissant sandwich for Zach. Cream, but no sugar, for the coffee, and butter for the caramel roll. A group of older gentlemen, who also frequent the place every Saturday, greet us, and we ask each other about our respective weeks. We strike up a conversation with our servers about whatever is going on in our lives, and Zach and the owner, who owns a landscaping business, talk about the jobs they are working on now. I sit back and drink my coffee, listening to the sounds of the other patrons discussing the weather, and the crops, and the news from friends who are absent that day.  Zach plays a crossword puzzle on his phone, pausing frequently to ask my advice on a clue.

When I was 15 years old, almost 16, I took a job at the coffee shop down the street from my house, Java Joes. It was that year that I started PSEO at the University of Minnesota, and, in an anthropology class, was assigned to read the book, The Great Good Place, by Ray Oldenburg.  The book introduced me to the concept of the Third Place, at the same time that Java Joes was introducing me to it’s reality. A third place is a place outside of home and work, like a coffee shop, a bookstore, a hair salon or a pub, where people come together with regularity, to set aside the cares of daily life, and socialize. In the book Oldenburg argues, and I agree, that such places are a bedrock of healthy communities.  The friendships made in these places are often lifelong. 25 years after I got the job at Java Joes, I still have friends that I made there. Working there exposed me to conversation with people of varying ages and walks of life, and gave me the opportunity, at a young age, to talk with them about everything that gives life value and meaning. In our modern world social media has taken up some of the functions of the third place, which I think is part of why it has become so wildly popular, but I don’t think it can completely replace it. There’s just something about the physical presence of the people and the shared experience that can’t be replicated online.

I can see the fruits of this kind of community building in my work with the elderly. The mere mention of the places that functioned as third places in this town when the residents were young brings smiles to their faces, and a flood of memories and questions about people they knew in common. The stories start to flow, and even without ever having been there, I feel like I’m an adopted member of the club.

I’ve felt a deep need for that kind of connection for a long time, and moving to a small town, with places like this, is finally filling that need. I owe a great deal of who I am today to the opportunities I had at Java Joes to share my thoughts, build relationships, sharpen my arguments by exposing them to real discussion, and sharpen my wit. I learned how to have real conversations and real friendships with people I didn’t always agree with, and how to be kind and respectful without losing my sense of identity. I can’t help but feel like the world could use more of that, these days.

Simply Adventurous Dates: Local Music

IMG_9568.JPGZach and I have been pretty good about date nights for a long time now. Prior to having kids old enough to babysit, we had a built-in babysitter in my Dad, so it’s always been something that was easier for us than for most parents, in spite of our larger than average family. Yet even when we lived in the city, with it’s dizzying array of options for date nights, we usually opted for half price appetizers at various restaurant happy hours. This isn’t so much because we really love eating out, although I do enjoy that, but because happy hour is cheap, and, at the end of a long day, doesn’t require a lot of brain power.
One of the things I have been thinking about a lot as I am embarking on my Year of Goodness project, is the balance between rituals and routines, which bring about a sense of safety, comfort and reliability, and the need for adventure, which feeds our human need for novelty. Ever since I went back to work full time, I have been really dependent on my rituals and routines. In most ways that has been wonderful. As an ADHD adult, with several ADHD kids, I really thrive on routines. It’s easy for things to get chaotic and out of hand when I don’t have the regularity of a daily schedule, and, as the point of dates with my husband is the time spent together, what we are actually doing is, most of the time, not all that important.
I’ve been listening to Gretchen Rubin’s Happier at Home on Audible, and really enjoying it. In the book, she gives herself a few resolutions each month that help her to boost the happiness of her family life. One of the resolutions, which never came to fruition, was to have monthly adventures with her husband. For them, as natural homebodies, the decision to forgo that resolution was a positive one, but spontaneity and a sense of adventure were part of what attracted Zach and me to each other. I decided that it would be fun to ask Zach if we could adopt a monthly adventure date as a tradition.
Amery has a pretty thriving arts community for a small town in rural Wisconsin, and my work at a memory care center, has, strangely, put me in touch with a lot of really creative people. We often have musicians, artists, dramatists, and other creatives come in to do activities with our residents, and many of them had suggested that I check out the music offerings at the Apple River Opry. I decided we might as well try it. It was a night well spent. The Amery Classic Theater is a fun little place, and the music was very good. It was fun to have a reason to get a little dressed up, and have somewhere new to go. Having grown up in a family that highly values the arts, I think it’s time that I start supporting the kinds of things I want to continue to exist in my area. I felt like I got a better value for my $20 than I did back in the days of half price appetizers at Applebees, and it benefited my community as well as my husband and myself.

Year of Goodness


Every year, on my birthday, I assign myself a spiritual theme for the year. Last year’s was humility. That went just about exactly the way it sounds like it would, and, while I can very clearly see the fruits of that exercise, it also left me feeling pretty broken down. My mother got sick, and died a difficult death. We had financial difficulties. The contractor we hired to renovate our dream house left us in a nearly desperate state, and we are only now finding a replacement for him. I had to have surgery. My cousin, just a few years older than me, was diagnosed with ALS. And that’s just the highlights. Every little thing that could go wrong, did go wrong. Broken appliances, cars in ditches so often the local tow truck driver knows my name. It was brutal. Everything in my life changed. I went back to work full time, and my kids went from being home-schooled to public schooled, and I was on the receiving end of some harsh judgements for my choices, past and present. There were a million little humiliations. There were times I thought I was truly in the throes of a nervous breakdown. There have been few nights for the last year that I haven’t woken in the middle of the night in a panic.
This year, as I pondered and prayed about what I needed in the coming year, the theme my tired soul kept drawing towards was goodness. What is it? What does goodness mean? In my faith tradition truth, beauty and goodness are considered “transcendents.” They are things that point beyond themselves, and towards their creator. They draw our souls upwards and invoke in us a reaction we can’t put into words, but we know it when we feel it. Something about my year of humility has finely tuned my senses, and, while I don’t know how to describe goodness, or all of the nuances of what it is, I can see it in breathtaking colour. I can see it when I work with the elderly, and when I work with my children. I can see it in families, and communities, particularly this community, which helped me pick up the pieces of my broken self when I was a stranger. I resolved that I would keep track of these moments, and bought myself a journal.
There is a type of prayer in my faith, called the Examen, where you look back over the details of your day, and look for the moments of light, and the moments of dark. The moments where you can see the beauty of God working in your life, and the moments where you clearly see the ways in which you have fallen short. The ways in which things went well, and the ways in which you are struggling. The result is not, as it might sound, like some sort of spiritual guilt trip, in which you dutifully flagellate yourself for failing, but a calm, quiet, realistic acknowledgement of the true state of things. The result of this is that the moments of light set against the background of the darkness, shine with all the tranquil beauty of the stars. This prayer is the bedrock of my Year of Goodness. I am hoping that the more I acquaint myself with goodness in all its forms, the better my soul will embrace it.

Engineering a Midlife Crisis

As I am typing this, I am sitting in a booth at a restaurant down the street from my church, while my older daughters enjoy their time at youth group. I am hunkered down with my laptop, with a steaming hot bowl of chicken and dumpling soup and a sandwich, all by myself. All by myself. I don’t think I can describe to you how weird that is. I am a mother of seven children, and I work full time as an activities assistant in a memory care home. It’s a perfect fit for my extroverted personality, but it does mean that I am almost never alone, and I am almost always caring for someone else. Don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining. Very few people are blessed with as rich and varied relationships as I have. Everyday, in both a personal and professional capacity, the majority of my time is spent doing things I find genuinely valuable for people I genuinely care about. I have cultivated connections with people from all walks of life, on all ends of the age spectrum, and I have benefited from that more than words could ever express. But the truth is, I have pretty badly neglected my own needs for a very long time, and it’s starting to show. I was actually pretty surprised that I kept this appointment. I am generally pretty good at being accountable to others, but, like many people, trample over my commitments to myself with stunning regularity.
Two weeks ago, I turned 40, and I am assigning myself a little midlife crisis. It’s time to give at least a little time and attention to figuring out who Stephanie is again. In a bit of a twist on tradition, it’s time to love myself the way I love others. It’s time to have some regularly scheduled down time, a haircut and an adequate number of pants. I’m not asking for miracles here, just fewer days of needing dry shampoo and enough sleep to maintain some semblance of health. I’m not resolving to cut out sweets, because I know that will last until the next time someone brings donuts to work, but I am resolving to eat more fruits and vegetables, and drink more water that is not actually coffee. I’m going to clean my room and make my bed, and, if I make an appointment with myself, I’m going to give it the same weight I would give an appointment with anyone else.
I’m going to stop making everyone else’s lack of planning, or bad decision making my problem, and let them solve it themselves, within reason. I mean, justice is tempered with mercy, but if you can’t find your shoes because you left them in the yard, you are wearing your boots, and taking your lumps if that means you can’t go to gym. (How in the world did I make a kid who finds missing gym to be a punishment?)
I’m not going to take on all of the mental load anymore. There’s no reason for it. If a task is assigned to someone else, I am not going to remind them 20 times to do it. I’m not going to find every phone number or recipe or piece of information anyone needs. If someone wants me to remember the date of that thing they want to do, they can write it on the calendar. I don’t want to wake up in the middle of the night anymore with a to-do list in my head.
I will care for a sick child, play a board game, help study for a test, do my share of the chores, snuggle, go for walks, read books together, and a million other things that are right and proper to the roles I have assumed in life. I will not make it easy for the rest of my family to skate by with minimal effort. In the end, I think this is going to benefit them as much as it benefits me. Everyone feels more confident when they know that they are taking care of their responsibilities to the best of their ability. I suspect there is going to be a bit of a learning curve, and possibly some wailing and gnashing of teeth for a few weeks, but they are smart, capable people, and I have faith in their ability to manage it.








Home as a Haven 

When I was growing up, we had a cabin on a lake, that is only about three miles frommy current home. I have so many fond memories of visiting there. Tooling around the lake on our boat, sitting out on the deck watching the sunset, eating fried fish that we caught that day, with my grandma’s rhubarb torte for dessert. We’d go into town and look through the quaint little shops, or go to a nearby state park for picnics. We’d go out for pizza or ice cream, and we had sparklers for the Fourth of July. 

I daydream about having a cabin all the time. Ilse, Kelli and I were discussing the allure of upper Midwest cabin culture one day, and Ilse mentioned that she likes to make her home her cabin getaway. I’m sure Ilse will make a post on this, too, but she has me thinking, what would it take to make my home the place that brings me all of the things a “getaway” provides? 

I mean, I actually live in cabin country. A short bike riding distance from my house there is a popular bible camp and a YMCA camp, precisely because this is the sort of place that invites outdoor recreation and relaxation. I live 15 minutes from the very state park I ate so many of my grandma’s KFC picnics every summer. While my house doesn’t have any usable lake access, I actually do have a lake in my backyard. And it’s lovely. 

I live 10 minutes from the beach, a couple of state bike trails, a cross country ski area, a downhill ski area, a water park, antique shops and wineries, and a short drive to a waterfall you can actually play in. I have a fire pit in my back yard, and we make s’mores on a weekly basis. We own canoes and kayaks, and live close to two rivers, and more lakes than you could count. We have ice cream shops, pizza places, and a lovely local coffee shop with homemade caramel rolls. There’s live music several times a week, and more often than that if I can get my teenager to break out her guitar. The house I live in was going to be used as a bed and breakfast by the previous owners, before they got in a car accident. Even on work days I can get up and watch the sunrise over farm fields, go for a walk by the lake, or take my husband out for a date on the patio of a waterside restaurant. 

Clearly the issue here is not a lack of amenities. It’s a state of mind. I’ve been kicking this around in my head as I go about my business for the last week and this is what I’ve come up with. 

1. Mess makes stress. Less mess, less stress. Now I just have to crack that how-to-keep-the-house-clean nut, because unlike my high schooler, I don’t like cleaning. 
2. Expectation management. The difference between living full time in a resort area and enjoying it a few weekends a year is that real life is a thing, wherever you live. In addition to all of the beautiful amazing things that are happening, reality right now includes a mom that is passing away, a major construction project and two year molars. Not every problem can be escaped from. 

3. The perfect is the enemy of the good. I have a good life. A decent helping of counting my blessings goes a long way towards appreciating the good things that already exist for me. 

4. I want a boat. 😜 OK. OK. That’s not simple. But I still want a boat. Cheyenne, Bella and I counted up about how many shifts I’d have to pick up to save for one. It’s not an unattainable dream. 

What I can do, in the meantime, is to actually make use of what’s available to me. I can play more card games with my kids, get to the beach more, go on walks and ride my bike. I can make sure I get time in the canoe and kayaks this summer, and eat ice cream for dinner. We can stay up late and look at the stars, go on hikes, and experiment with campfire recipes. We can take the fishing poles to the park and catch some dinner. It won’t make real life go away, and I think I don’t want it to. There’s beauty in the struggles, too. But it might make the hard things more bearable. 

Simply Adventurous: The Beach 

As much as I love Pinterest, and anyone who follows me can attest that I do, the end result of many a well meaning post on gear or ideas to make outings “easier” or more creative is that the average parent reads them, gets overwhelmed, and is less likely to make it out the door. This series, Simply Adventurous, is the ant-Pinterest. It’s about how to keep things simple enough that you’ll do them more often. 

One of the things we gave up when we moved to St Francis Hall, our new home, was the pool. We’ve considered putting one in, and maybe someday we will, but there is lower hanging fruit on the to-do list. Like finishing our upstairs bedrooms, for example. Meanwhile, we live in the gateway to Northern Wisconsin’s lake country. There’s no reason we can’t go to the beach. 

I have seven children ranging in age from almost 2 to 14. With a family our size, you’d think that packing for a day at the beach would resemble packing for vacation, but I’ve found the more kids I have had the less I pack. I don’t want to spend three hours preparing to go to the beach to spend one hour in the water. By keeping essentials minimal, we can go after work on a weekday, not just when we have a whole day to invest. 

Here are my essentials. 

-Sunblock. Except for Zach and Charlotte, we are some of the palest people on the planet. Enough said. 
-Beach blanket. I got our foldable, easily wipeable beach/picnic blanket at Costco a couple of years back and it was a well spent $15. Sand just falls off of it, and if it gets really grimy, it gets the hose. This isn’t even essential. It’s just nice to have. 

-Towels. Obviously. Well, you’d think obviously, but on any given day at least half of my kids forget. We somehow make it work anyway. 

-Water bottles. Because never drink water that’s touched your butt is a literal house rule. 

-Snack. I like to keep snacks as low waste, and minimal work as possible, but sometimes one or the other factor has to be sacrificed. Popcorn, granola bars, bananas, or cubes of watermelon are all popular around here. We also make a lot of dinners around here that can be easily transported from the house to the beach or park, if the mood strikes. More on that in another post. 

-Bag for trash. Carry in, carry out, and leave the place at least as nice as you found it. That’s the rule at many of our local parks, and it’s just good stewardship, besides. 

That’s it. If the kids start needing more food than we brought, or start getting bored and crabby, it’s time to head home. They often decide, faced with that as the option, that they really could last another half hour, but if they don’t, that’s ok too. I’ll take an hour at the beach once a week all summer long over three hours at the beach once a year anytime.