Getting Your Hands Dirty

There are two things I miss tremendously since leaving our old home behind to build a new one here in Austin: my dear friends and my garden. Unfortunately, short of convincing all of my friends to follow me here (believe me, I’ve tried), there is nothing I can do about the former. The lack of a garden, however, I plan to remedy in the spring. I am a relatively new inductee into the world of avid gardening (you can read about how I began my journey here), but when I first decided to enter that world, I jumped in with both feet. With my own two hands, I built a raised-bed garden complete with four beds set into a hill, gravel walkways, and handmade trellises.

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I was SO proud of it! I told my husband that I didn’t think I had created anything so beautiful since I created our sons. I’m not sure he ever fully understood my passion for it, but there is something about getting my hands in the ground – building, planting, nurturing – that is so centering for me. I discovered that being close to the earth and helping things grow is meditative and enriching.

And, of course, I am not alone. Even a cursory sweeping of the internet will show you the myriad benefits of getting our hands dirty. Here are just a few snippets I found:

  • A new study confirms that people who garden are less likely to display signs associated with unhappiness or depression. It found 80% of gardeners feel satisfied with their lives compared with 67% for non-gardeners, and 93% of gardeners think gardening improves their mood.
  • In a study by Bristol University, Mycobacterium vaccae, or M. vaccae, a “friendly” bacteria found in soil, was shown to activate a group of neurons that produce the brain chemical serotonin, enhancing feelings of well-being, much in the same manner as antidepressant drugs and exercise. Interest in the study arose when patients treated with M. vaccae for another health issue reported increases in their quality of life (Lowry, 2007)
  • Beyond raising mood, time kids spend in the dirt may be the best preparation for the classroom, according to researchers at The Sage Colleges in Troy, New York. Creating learning environments in schools that include time in the outdoors where M. vaccae is present may decrease anxiety and improve the ability to learn new tasks.” (Science Daily, 2010)
  • Dr. Mary Ruebush, immunologist and author of ‘Why Dirt is Good: 5 Ways to Make Germs Your Friends’, counts letting kids play in the dirt as immune-system-building step number one. “Let your child be a child,” she says. “Dirt is good. If your child isn’t coming in dirty every day, they’re not doing their job. They’re not building their immunological army. So it’s terribly important.” (CBS News, 2009)
  • Making direct contact with soil, whether through gardening, digging for worms, or making mud pies has been shown to improve mood, reduce anxiety, and facilitate learning. – ‘The Dirt on Dirt’ by the National Wildlife Federation

Although I have not had a chance to build my new garden yet, last weekend I was able to get out into our yard to rebuild some existing corner beds and create a small patio area for our new fire pit. These simple acts of hard, dirty work rekindled my desire to consistently connect to the earth – even if it’s just our little backyard patch of it.

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Rest assured, there will be pictures of my brand new Austin garden coming soon. Until then, get outside and get your hands dirty. Trust me, you’ll be glad you did.

“Extra Yarn”

As someone who aspires to be a “real” writer when I grow up, I try to be an avid reader as well – to enhance my vocabulary, experience a variety of writing styles, and maintain a general awareness of what is happening in the literary world. However, since my book club has not exactly taken off here in Austin yet, and since my children occupy SO MUCH of my time, the authors on my recently-read list are more reminiscent of Silverstein and Seuss then Steinbeck and Salinger. Although, I still need to get some more mature materials back into the rotation, I’m not entirely disappointed by the deluge of picture books that flood my home after every trip to the library. I love children’s literature. I always have. As a matter of fact, the story I have been working on for longer than I care to admit is a children’s story – one that took me years to even begin writing because I didn’t want to start with an idea that had been written a hundred times before. I wanted something unique and subtle and surprising. A story with hidden layers that keep revealing themselves even after the bazillionth read (since that is how many times children usually ask you to read their favorite stories… every week). As surprising as it may seem, I think I’ve got the idea that meets this tall order, and one day I will finish it. Until then, I will leave you all to wonder about it in suspense, since this post is not about my story. (Hows that for a tease?)

This post is about another story I recently discovered that has so many of the qualities I aspire toward when writing, that it immediately became a source of inspiration and set my creative juices flowing. It is simple and beautiful, clever and subtle, and has layers upon layers of lovely messages for young people. Or it can be taken at face value and seen as just a cute little story that is accessible to even the smallest of readers. After the first time I read it, I liked it so much I was buzzing as I looked at my son and said, “That is what children’s stories are meant to be! I love it!” But I didn’t have to tell him that. He seemed as taken with it as I was – with wide eyes and a deep grin at each turn of the page. And don’t even get me started on the illustrations! So perfect.

The story is called “Extra Yarn” by Mac Barnett and illustrated by Jon Klassen.

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It is about a young girl who finds a magic box of yarn that never seems to run out.

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And she uses it to make herself and others happy.

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She presses on in spite of teasing and doubters…

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and even bribes.

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It tells how happiness cannot be bought or taken from someone else, but is something that you have to make for yourself – and definitely something to be shared.

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It is about self-assurance and contentment.

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And most of all beauty.

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If you have not already read it, please go get this book and read it to your children. If you don’t have any children, read it to yourself. What have you got to lose besides fifteen minutes of your time. Because, in my opinion, we could all use a little extra yarn.

The Juggling Act

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Looking at this oddly overwhelming drawing whenever I’m feeling overwhelmed somehow makes me feel better. I found it years ago, and, sadly, I can’t seem to find it again to properly credit the artist. But if a picture is worth a thousand words, this one tells quite a story about everyday life as an adult – a perpetual balancing act of everything that’s important. So many balls in the air, and the consequences of letting any of them fall can be great. Yet, somehow, we manage to do it – and not just survive, but often thrive. We grow, we grow people, we help them grow.

My oldest son told me the other day that he didn’t want to grow up (but he still wanted to have birthdays, mind you!) When I asked him why, he said ’cause grown ups didn’t get to have any fun anymore. I, of course, told him that wasn’t true and reminded him of all the fun things we have done together. But it’s not just pictures that speak louder than words. Actions do too. And somehow, my actions are portraying life as boring, busy, and work filled. All work and no play makes Jane a dull girl.

His declaration got me thinking. I admire people whose enjoyment of life is evident. Who wear joy on their sleeves like a beautiful accessory and brighten every room they walk into. I’m not talking about the fun or thrill seeking type, who shirk responsibility and look down their noses at anyone who chooses to tie themselves down with it. Don’t get me started on those people. I mean the people who manage to do the daily juggling act, and make it look fun. Because it is fun after all. Not each individual piece of it, but as whole picture, it is. And when I see something I admire about someone else, but don’t see it in myself, I have some work to do. I need to do better about not sweating the small stuff. Occasionally letting the little balls fall so that I can keep the big ones up. And showing my son that this juggling act of life, even as a grown up, can be a lot of fun. Who’s with me?

For Now…

In the future, my boys might roll their eyes in embarrassment if I try to kiss them goodbye. For now, Owen clings to me, begging me not to leave and Aiden hugs my neck and whispers in my ear, “When you come back, I want to hold you. And you’re the best Mama in the world.” I will not let the rush of life in the morning rob me of these treasures.

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In the future, I may be able to say goodnight from across the room – may even be lucky enough to get a hug or a kiss, before my boys retire to their rooms to do whatever teenage boys do before finally going to sleep. For now, I will not begrudge the long, loud bubble baths, the need to clip 40 nails that are not my own while making a game of counting the clips, the endless re-readings of the same favorite stories, the stalling for water or covers or deep meaningful questions at the door because they just don’t want me to leave, or the sweet nothings they call out before I go, “I love you! I’ll miss you while I sleep! When I wake up, I wanna hold you! I love you more!”

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In the future, when everyone has their own schedules and responsibilities and friends, I may have a quiet dinner alone. For now, I will happily cook as many meals as possible for us to eat as a family even if it means the cycle of dishes is unending, the process of getting every bite into my two-year-old’s mouth is a battle of wits and wills, the milk is always spilled, my food is always cold and up for grabs, the floor is always sticky, and chaos envelops us. I will long for the chaos later, so I will not wish it away today.

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In the future, my boys may fall down and get right back up because they’re too big to cry over scraped needs or hurt feelings. For now, I will gladly provide the kiss that makes it all better, the snuggle that makes the hurt go away, the reassurance that time heals all wounds. Because when the wounds are far more complicated, I want them to know that I am a safe place to come for comfort.

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In the future, going out with my husband alone, rather than taking an act of congress and a financial benefactor to accomplish, might be as easy as walking out the door. For now, I will cherish the few-and-far-between dates because their scarcity makes them more special and the thought and planning that went into making them happen will be missed when replaced with the casual, “You wanna go out somewhere tonight?”

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In the future, I may have all the time I want or need to write that article that will finally get me noticed or publish that book that’s on my bucket list. For now, the lives I am helping to build that demand so much of my time, are molding me into a person with a perspective worth noticing. I will not resent the delay because, “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” – John Lennon

Allowing Our Children To Cry

A few months back, I had a conversation with my 5-year-old son that was so tender, sensitive and mature that it made me both extremely proud of the person he is becoming and rather humbled by the fresh awareness it gave me of the awesome responsibility of raising a healthy, balanced human being.

It happened back when we were still in the throes of what I can only hope will be our most difficult move. We were stuck in Jackson trying to sell the house and pack up for the move. Daddy had been gone in Austin for nearly 3 months and, although Aiden was old enough to understand somewhat, he still hadn’t developed the right boxes with which to categorize his emotions. I know he felt abandoned, confused, angry, sad – all mixed in with his normal everyday happy. The world around him, as he’d always known it, was changing. Everything familiar that he loved was being crammed into boxes and stacked against walls. His preschool year was over and he was transferred, temporarily to a new day care until the house sold. His Mama, who was his lifeline, was stressed out of her mind and barely holding it together. And our daily face time conversations with Daddy, although important for maintaining connection, only seemed to dredge up these emotions and bring them to the surface. Sometimes he was so excited to tell Daddy something about his day, only to see his face and clam up and withdraw.

It was after one such conversation that Aiden disappeared into his room. Being somewhat introverted, he often does this to take some time to himself. But when I checked on him a little while later, he was crying. I went to him and quietly scooped him into my arms. He weightily sank into the embrace and shook as he cried. It took everything in me not to try, again, to “fix” it and tell him all the reasons it was really okay and he didn’t need to be sad and… blah… blah… blah. But I held my tongue and held my son and let him cry. Then, without someone talking over his emotions, or trying to explain them away, he filled the silence himself -

Aiden: “Hey, Mama, sometimes when I’m sad, I just go to my room and close the door really quiet so no one will hear and climb in my bed with a toy. And I just cry while I hold the toy.”
Me: “Does that help you feel better?”
Aiden: “No.”
Me: “Does it help you feel better to hold me instead of a toy?”
Aiden (nodding meekly): “A little. But sometimes I still feel sad.”
Me: “That’s okay, buddy. It’s okay to feel sad and to cry. And it’s okay to need help working through it. You just have to ask me and I will hold you while you cry. And if you don’t want to talk about it, just tell me and I will hold you quietly.”
Aiden: “Okay…   Hey, Mama…   I love you.”
Me: “I love you too sweet man!”

Sometimes kids just need to cry and know that it is okay – that they are still loved and accepted.

One of the most achingly poignant parts of this conversation was the revelation that he tries to hide when he’s sad, closing the door really quietly so no one will hear him. But, craving embrace, he holds a toy, which he readily admitted doesn’t help. How often do we, as parents, label every emotion that our kids can’t control as “bad”? Every episode of crying as a “fit”? Every poor expression of frustration as a “tantrum”? And our response to these immature expressions of emotion is, too often, to send them to their rooms to deal with it… alone. There is better way. We need to teach them that what they’re feeling is okay, that we understand it even if we don’t like its expression, and that there are healthier ways to express even the worst emotions. That it is okay to take time to yourself if you want it, but it is also okay to ask to be held and even to ask that we not talk about it if crying quietly in the safety of love is all you need in that moment. In this way, we will avoid teaching our children to bottle up emotions, seal them tightly with a cork, and wait for the pressure to get so great that it one day explodes. I have experienced the explosion, and I’d rather not lead my children down that road.

I am so thankful for a son who teaches me how to be a good mother while I teach him how to be a good man. I will always cherish this conversation.

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Photo taken by Aiden’s Aunt Gigi, aka Jenniffer Allgaier