the beat goes on

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 I like routines. Call them rituals, if you’re feeling fancy. Call them predictably mundane, if you’re feeling twenty-two. I love rituals and especially writing rituals. When my bloggy friends cover the same topic again and again, I find it as comforting as soup. Ordinary, yes, but still damn good. Besides, it is downright tradition to become boring with age—probably also to love soup more too, come to think of it.

Let’s all slow down and have a bowl of soup! I will someday happily exclaim to my eye-rolling grandtweens.

thirtysixWhether because of motherhood or just plain aging, I’ve grown increasingly fond of writing and reading about the commonplace. There are writers who have elevated this practice to a fine art. Take, for instance, David Sedaris’ New Yorker articles on topics such as: shopping trips to Tokyo with his sisters, the turtle he watched being fed pizza, and his adventures in fitbit-induced garbage clean-up [See also: Commonplace by Dina Relles]. I am not quite so clever in how I write about my experiences. I am always telling, rarely showing. But before you think I’m digging for compliments, you should know I’m okay with that truth about myself. I’ll get to that in a moment.

When I turned thirty-six, I felt an itch again to write about my age, an age that pulls me closer to forty than thirty. Though only a year had passed since I last wrote about age, I’d begun to feel a persistent shift that, imperceptible as it may have been to the outside, was monumental in my head. But it felt a little too indulgent to travel that road again so soon, even for a self-obsessed navel-gazer like me (I’m paraphrasing from one of my favorite blog comments of all time. Thanks for setting me straight, Anonymous Troll!).

Then again, screw it. Life is short. Let’s talk about me again.

Now seems like a good time because I just celebrated my half-birthday. Yes, I still mark the passage of these milestones, if only in my mind, but an Eeyore’s sigh has replaced an exclamation point at the end of the thought, “Closer to my next birthday than my last.” Timing is also good because Vivi just turned eight, and I have been wanting to write her a letter on her birthday.

When Vivi turned six, I stopped my tradition of writing the girls birthday letters on my blog to give them some privacy back. In this era of oversharing, I’m still glad I did that. But one thing I miss is being able to pull up the letters to reread at any time. Although I may have written the girls private letters for their recent birthdays, Lord knows where I put them. The greatest thing about blogging about my family, as I’ve often repeated, is that it keeps my memories in a place where I can find them later.

Inspired by my friend Kristen, who wrote a series of real and poignant letters to her daughter called “If you ask me…,” I’m sharing some changes I’ve experienced lately in the form of a letter to my daughter. I hope that by charting my growth, my girls might learn these lessons earlier than I did, but I don’t pin all my hopes on that possibility. I recognize people change throughout their lives as part of normal growth. As Auden pointed out:

“Between the ages of twenty and forty we are engaged in the process of discovering who we are, which involves learning the difference between accidental limitations which it is our duty to outgrow and the necessary limitations of our nature beyond which we cannot trespass with impunity.”

-W.H. Auden, found on an archive post on Gretchen Rubin’s blog

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Some references I make below will be way past their expiration date by the time Vivi reads this letter, but “you,” the Other Reader, might be interested in them, so here they are:

And as for the bomb I drop mid-letter about moving to Boston, I realize I’m burying that lede. But it’s a story for another day, and if you read on to the end, you’ll get the gist of why.

Dear Genevieve,

Eight is an age I recall well. You are so like me in so many ways: your tendency toward organization and planning, your passion for recording everyday life in a journal, your love of letter writing, and your desire to make everyone happy. These traits will serve you well; though your sensitivity and openness will certainly lead to being hurt, I do not worry about whether you’ll come out strong from those situations. Here’s where our likenesses diverge. I know you’ll stand up for yourself because a braver girl has never lived than you. Thanks to Glennon Doyle Melton, I have learned to tell you that your only jobs are to be brave and kind, and I hope you believe it. You already live up to the task.

Because I know it will please your organized heart, I tried to pool my thoughts below into categories. But enough explaining. Let the navel-gazing start!

1. acceptance

I don’t want to give you the impression that I obtained confidence suddenly in my mid-thirties and that, “you will too if you just hang in there long enough!” Rather, I had to make a conscious effort to build up the courage to accept my flaws, realize that I deserve love and support, and stop saying ‘I’m sorry’ unnecessarily. You say you’re sorry a lot right now. I try to undo that need for you, even though I realize I’m likely the person who put it in your mind to begin with, since it’s what I do. Call it a product of being raised in the genteel south.

It’s not that we should never apologize, just that sometimes we do it so much that it becomes burdensome to other people, like a tic, a need to be reassured that everything is okay. Sometimes it is better to say thank you instead of apologizing. Like yesterday, when I was late picking you up. I looked your teacher in the eye and instead of apologizing profusely, I said, “Thank you for staying late with them. I appreciate it.” An apology would have required him to say something like, “No worries!” In this case, my thanks gave him recognition he deserved for the good deed without forcing him to make me feel better about myself.

Acceptance, to me, means acknowledging you aren’t perfect and forgiving yourself for those imperfections, even embracing them. Your quirks are what make you, you! I learned this lesson from Gretchen Rubin when reading The Happiness Project and Better than Before. A big part of her message is to accept your quirks as part of who you are.

Here’s a quirk of mine that I’m sure you’re all too familiar with. I talk and talk way past the point that the other person has understood my meaning, and then I keep on talking: I am a teller, not a shower. Gretchen calls her rule, “Be Gretchen,” because she realized that although she was odd about certain things, it made her happier to accept those things and be different than it did to try to fit in. It’s a simple concept, but a powerful one too.

Maybe the primary message to Sheryl Sandburg’s Lean In was for women to build up their confidence enough to accept their flaws and stop apologizing, although I didn’t take it that way when I was reading it. She seemed to be saying, “Everywhere I go, women are doing it all wrong!”, but I couldn’t glean any specific tips from her. It was like, “Get a mentor! But don’t ask anyone to be your mentor because that’s too needy!”

But luckily, Sheryl isn’t the only source of feminism; there are far better badasses in my generation. Cheryl Strayed is my (and everyone else’s) writing guru and all-around feminist badass. Her Dear Sugar essay, “Write like a Motherfucker,” is the stuff of legend. Recently she offered a great counterpoint to the challenge to “Stop Apologizing.” She noted there are two kinds of apologies, the one we give when we’ve done something wrong, and the other that acknowledges someone else’s pain. “I’m sorry you’re hurting,” we say. It took me a few sessions of marital counseling with your dad to acknowledge the merits of such a phrase, but I’ve grown to accept it, and the more willingly I offer it, the more natural it becomes.

Feminist comedians are doing a great job of moving the conversation forward. Amy Poehler is another example I look for in a public mentor. In fact, I recall back when I read Tina Fey’s Bossypants that my favorite story wasn’t even about Tina herself, although she too is a feminist badass. It was instead the anecdote regarding Jimmy Fallon having told Amy a joke of her’s wasn’t ‘cute,’ and Amy shouting at him, “I don’t fucking care if you like it!” This is 100% Boston Badass Woman (she’s from Burlington), and it’s the primary reason I’m excited to move you back up to that area this summer. Boston has its flaws, chiefly its latent and blatant racism, and it is as cold as well digger’s ass in January. But it is also a place that raises women who stand up for themselves. I have no doubt you’ll do just that.

Last September, on my lady-friend trip to Colorado, I devoured Amy Poehler’s Yes Please. It is a feminist manifesto. Read it. But first, brush up on some of the best of Amy’s comedy, like Parks & Recreation and clips she did on SNL, like her Sarah Palin rap from Weekend Update when she was a week away from delivering a baby. PURE comedy gold. Amy’s insistence on her point of view, and her unflinching ability to look straight into anyone’s eyes and say, “I deserve to be here!” inspires me.

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2. grace

I’ve been hearing this word more often in the context of describing my actions toward others (and by ‘more often,’ what I mean is: at all). Of course my first reaction is to mimic Elaine, “You think I have GRACE?!” I’ve never been described as graceful in the physical sense, for obvious reasons, i.e., several broken bones, countless bruises, etc. But on further thought, I truly believe when I’m described as having grace it’s because of #1 on my list, the self-esteem that comes from accepting ourselves. It’s like that old adage, “You can’t forgive others until you’ve forgiven yourself.” Or maybe that’s a brand new adage I just created, and if so, you should use it. It’s a good one. You could insert other words for forgive, like love, tolerate, admire. It works!

The older I get, the less black and white the world is becoming. I think it’s by seeing most situations as gray, by admitting I can’t see all sides and that there are plenty of mysteries and complexities to any situation, that I’m able to offer others grace. Whatever grace I have to offer always comes back to me again. I still fall short so often, but the good and bad news is we never stop having chances to offer and receive grace.

3. slay

Around my birthday, my neighbor begged me to come work at the public health non-profit organization where she had just started a job because they needed so much help. I didn’t exactly saunter into that room, but I will admit I was the most nonchalant I’ve ever been in a job interview. I have to imagine it’s how many men probably approach their everyday lives, but for me it was highly unusual. The thing was, they loved me! They wanted me even though I was up front with them that I didn’t want to work full time and that I probably wouldn’t take the job for more than six months. I got the job!

I came home from that day feeling I could do anything

“The perception of meaning, as I see it, more specifically boils down to becoming aware of a possibility against the background of reality or, to express it in plain words, to becoming aware of what can be done about a given situation.” -Viktor Frankl

The hurdles that had kept me from pursuing my dream of nursing school were still there, but I decided that day to stop telling myself it was impossible and just DO IT. I sat down at my computer and immediately got to work doing the last few things I needed to apply. I registered for a microbiology class at the local community college and modified my new work schedule to allow me to attend the lab on Friday mornings. I asked my old faculty from graduate school to write me recommendation letters, again. Then I wrote a damn good essay, closed my eyes, said what the hell, and sent my applications to Northeastern and Columbia.

When the holidays came, I stuffed my face too full of food to do any real pondering, as usual, except for the time spent preparing for my annual “I need to cleanse my body of all this sugar!” elimination diet/eating disorder. When I was still emerging from that yo-yo, I got the word. It seems that Columbia could use a gal like Justine. And I was all:

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I’ll admit my reaction after elation was to wonder: why me. I mean really, why me??

A week later, I witnessed Beyoncé’s incredible Formation video and Super Bowl performance. The confidence it must have taken to dream up and enact a sea of female dancers dressed as Black Panthers, and the courage and power she demonstrated on that stage in front of thousands of white male football lovers and millions more on TV…well, it awed me. Then the negative reactions that followed such a wonderful display of powerful female art dismayed me. But in another way, I felt boosted up by the positive reactions from the girls and women between your generation and mine, whose voices rose up above the hate to say that we will not suffer the disregarded and diminished fate of the women who came before us.

Then a fog lifted from my brain, and I immediately thought, I KNOW WHY ME. Me because I worked my ass off to become a birth doula even while damn near every person within earshot of this decision would offer their unsolicited opinion of why this idea was no good. I did it anyway, not because I knew it would help my career, but just for its own sake. In discussing the success of his book Man’s Search for Meaning, Viktor Frankl said, 

“Don’t aim at success—the more you aim at it and make it a target, the more you are going to miss it. For success, like happiness, cannot be pursued; it must ensue, and it only does so as the unintended side-effect of one’s dedication to a cause greater than oneself or as the by-product of one’s surrender to a person other than oneself. Happiness must happen, and the same holds for success: you have to let it happen by not caring about it. I want you to listen to what your conscience commands you to do and go on to carry it out to the best of your knowledge. Then you will live to see that in the long run—in the long run, I say!—success will follow you precisely because you had forgotten to think of it.”

Me because I’m the one who had to schedule middle-of-the-night sitters so I could kiss you tiny toddlers on your sleeping cheeks after I dragged my ass out of bed to attend 30-hour births. Me because I’m the one who stood by the side of fifteen brave laboring women, three of whom were LGBTQ, while they attempted to navigate a health system not always committed to giving them the evidence-based births they wanted and needed, and did not even necessarily recognize their right to be mothers. Me because I am the hen who ground every last grain to make bread. 

Even though you know by now that I turned down Columbia to go to Northeastern in Boston instead so I could bring you girls home again, I will always be able to say I AM the reason I got into Columbia.
Because I slay. We slay. You slay.

Love, Mama

sense memories

Since reading this post by my friend Kristen, I’ve been thinking of how well she captured the scents and tastes of young motherhood. Especially this: “The sweet, milky taste of open-mouthed kisses that were given freely have long since stopped.” Awwww….

Then I read Dina’s post full of sense memories, which reminded me of a free-writing exercise I did. Have you ever spent ten minutes jotting sense memories? I loved the exercise; in case you decide to do it on your own, I dug up my notes to share (I picked smell & taste), so it can feel like we’re taking a class together.

One extra anecdote about the senses: I read a fantastic article in April’s Real Simple today in the Life Lessons section called “Sight Unseen” (can’t find a link to it online yet). I identified with the author’s description of “football-shaped” eyes and the wonder of the world after putting on contact lenses the first time. I think it’s not a coincidence, then, that I left off vision completely from my list of sense memories.

What are some of your favorite sense memories?

Smell

  • Baking bread, playdoh
  • Spring smells—magnolia blossoms; and fall smells—hickory nuts we were sure squirrels were purposely aiming at our heads
  • MUD. Spring mud versus summer mud, clay mud versus dirt mud, and how we avoided the rain puddles near the horse barn only to have the boys throw us in them
  • Rowing smells—too many sweaty people in a crowded gymnasium; the fishy smell of the church parking lot on a Lent Friday; how you could tell the season by whether the odor of Canada goose poop hung in the air over the Chattahoochee, and could tell the swiftness of current by whether you could smell garbage
  • Photography smells—odors that linger on and about a photographer…sweaty leather banjo strap, pungent nostril-stinging stench of cooking chemicals
  • Summer smells—Wet pine needles, dry pine needles; Hot car with leather seats, melting crayons, old French fries, and mostly empty coffee mugs; rotting mangoes and citrus around trees in Florida; railroad ties that reeked of tar; the stifling scents of cedar and old things in Grandma’s attic

Taste

  • The tastes of the outdoors—warm-to-touch muscadines that we’d suck like gooey eyeballs from their tangy peel; figs that always seemed too ripe or not ripe enough; juniper berries that tasted like Christmas; how deliciously sweet pecans off the ground tasted until inevitably you got a bit of the bitter center, the unpleasant taste of which would linger on your tongue for hours
  • Meats of the places we’ve visited, and the powerful taste of iron: zebra in Kenya, reindeer in Sweden, horse in Quebec, duck and practically-raw hamburger in Paris, haggis in Scotland, blood pudding in England
  • How exceptional all food tasted after a week of camping, especially the last piece of jerky forgotten at the bottom of your pack

If I had to pick a sense memory my kids will form today, it would be touch. It’s spring break this week, and we’re headed to a warehouse full of bouncy castles and trampolines, where they are sure to take a few accidental punches and accumulate rug burns. Fun times!

sense memories - heirloom mothering
MUD

an invincible summer

conjuring an invincible summer - heirloom mothering

In the depth of winter I finally learned that there was in me an invincible summer.
-Albert Camus

I just registered the girls for summer camp. Thinking of those hot days to come is my optimistic activity for surviving the bitter cold of January. Lately when I sit down to write, I end up writing about camp, which I think is also an unconscious way to warm up my thoughts a bit. I’m not a winter person, if you couldn’t tell. I never quite got the hang of skating and am terrified of skiing, so that leaves me to do lots of writing, reading, and knitting. Don’t get me wrong, I love those things, but I’d so much rather do them sitting in the sun, and there’s not much of that to go around right now.

Anyway, when I start down the road of a camp memory, I end up with lots to say. Camp is a wellspring of characters to draw from when writing a story. I think there is a good children’s story, perhaps an entire series even, about the learning experiences of camp. When William Zinsser said that writers are the custodians of memory, he was speaking about non-fiction; however, even fiction is drawn from memory, dispelling the notion that some fiction writers just conjure story and plot out of thin air.

conjuring an invincible summer - heirloom motheringAs for exactly what I would write about camp, the bildungsroman speaks to me as a genre. While I found my teenage years to be such a difficult transition, on the plus side the characters are so clearly etched in my mind from that time in my life. For those who experienced it, camp contains universal images and experiences, regardless of the literal place you attended it. I don’t want to say much more for fear of extinguishing the flame of my idea, but on the other hand, sometimes it’s nice to float the thoughts by you guys first.

Did you go to camp? What kind of mental activities do you do to conjure your invincible summer? Maybe your stories can help warm me up too.

 

practicing my hum and swoop

perfecting the hum and swoop - heirloom mothering
I have no reason to include it, but I happened upon this pic from 2012 and can’t get over the cuteness. Hug your babies, y’all.

(Note: If you saw an earlier version of this post a while back, my apologies. I had some technical difficulties with it)

My writing rituals come and go. I once got hooked on a webcam of baby hummingbirds my uncle showed me (to my dismay, it has since been taken down). When I sat down to write, I checked on those scrawny, ugly baby birds, and I came to see them as mine. What I found most mesmerizing about that webcam scene was how the mother hummingbird parented. Mama bird zoomed off in a hurry to somewhere–gathering nectar, probably. She droned back in a flash, so fast in fact, I couldn’t even see her return trip. She fed the delicate liquid into their mouths while their lazy heads with still-closed eyes flopped around. Then she’d push the babies back down with her feet as she turned in circles and made herself comfortable on top of them to keep watch. What a mom!

As if divining my recent online birdwatching, Children & Nature Network wrote about how we can parent more like hummingbirds. I shared theirs and other tips for how you can raise free-range kids in an article at Natural Parents Network last week. I appreciated one of the commenters, who wrote: “…there’s room to disagree on which specific practices are unsafe for which children, but…the bigger problem is neighbors calling police or CPS rather than asking children and parents if they need help or expressing their concerns to them.” Thank you, Crunchy Con Mom, for elucidating my point.

I spend most of my writing time in a local coffee shop now. But in a way, it’s a similar background scene to the hummingbird webcam. I love being amidst all the humming busyness of the townspeople. That din is becoming my writing soundtrack, and it doesn’t hurt that they serve a wicked awesome ginger scone there.

AND, that place is all about me; when I’m there, I can fall into a flow where things like laundry and Instagram don’t exist. Pilates is that way too, but sort of in an opposite way. At the coffee shop, I am happy and feeling quite smug for having chosen such a great location to write. When I’m in Pilates (doing Pilates? Pilates-ing?), I’m wondering what kind of an idiot chooses such a punishing activity like Pilates for a Monday morning. But it must be good because I keep coming back for more.

I hope y’all do something special this week that’s just for you, even if it hurts a little bit. And give your veterans a hug from me.
xoxo j

on writing, like a mother…

on writing, like a mother... - heirloom mothering
BEF: Bitch Editing Face

This summer I stopped at my dad’s house on our way to Georgia. We all sat down one evening to re-screen The Valkyrie, that Tom Cruise film about a mission within the German army to assassinate Hitler. My youngest sister picked it; she was probably too young when the movie was originally released so had never seen it. As we got comfy on the couch, I noticed a half-finished puzzle on the table in the corner. Dad informed me it had been in that state since Christmas.

Six months! Well, this simply will not do, I thought. I pulled up a chair and assumed the role of Tom Cruise in the puzzle completion mission, finishing just as the movie wrapped up. I love finishing a puzzle—LOVE IT—especially one I didn’t start. I’m like Harvey Keitel, just bring me in when you can’t figure it out, and I’ll get the job done. The trick is not to stand too close to it; up close, you’ll think a piece is missing or the puzzle is somehow flawed. But those standing on the outside, the Closers, can see how the pieces fit together.

When I’m writing, I need to see myself as the Closer to get any writing done. When I push past the fear of inadequacy and the unknown and stop worrying about the big picture, I arrive at the place where real work can be done. I believe it was Nora Ephron’s mother who once said, “Everything is copy,” but Nora and her mother both sold their art short. Everything is only copy if you’re sharp enough to find the story amidst the anecdotes and mundane details. You gotta sort out the corners and stop focusing on all those stupid spade-shaped pieces.

advice on how to get past impostor syndrome and just write like a motherf**ker - heirloom mothering

I love reading about as much as writing. Lately I’ve combined these two loves with volumes on writing. Writing is an anomaly in the working world in that people who do the work sometimes also document the mechanics of what they do. You’re probably not going to meet many plumbers who turn around and say, “You see, the reason I used that vented trap is…”— unless they’re filming an episode of This Old House. But if you’re a writer, you just might enjoy writing about the process of writing. I’m sharing the articles and books I’ve been looking to for inspiration. Some selections have been out a while, and a few others are new pieces. If you have some favorites, please feel free to share them!

A list of helpful books on writing - heirloom mothering

Books & Articles on Writing

Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird

No doubt you’ve heard of this one by now, if not in popular writing culture than in conversation with me. I love this book so much that despite finishing it many months ago, I still keep it on my nightstand to flip through from time to time. I’m not one to keep a stack of books by my bed (I hide them in my closet, where they can taunt me less). But this book is my security blanket, and a special friend deserves a special place.

William Zinsser’s Writing About Your Life & On Writing Well

“Writers are the custodian of memory.” These books are like if your favorite professor—the grandfatherly one, not the hip one—wrote a long letter of encouragement to you. Easy to read, easy to love.

Stephen King’s On Writing

“The road to hell is paved with adverbs.” Amen, brother. Whether you love the horror genre or not, you will love this book. This book is like if your funny uncle–the witty one, not the one who makes inappropriate jokes at the dinner table–wrote a book letting you in on his secrets. It’s open and funny—so funny I found myself laughing out loud almost once per page—and best yet, it gets the salient points across. This man understands his craft.

Dani Shapiro’s Still Writing

Dani is a writer and teacher whose expertise is in memoir, which if you haven’t noticed yet, is my primary topic of interest. I’ve only just gotten my hold copy from the library a few days ago, but so far I love it. I had already drafted the top portion of this post when I got to the place early in her book when she compares writing to a puzzle. YES! I nearly squealed in the gym.

Cheryl Strayed’s “Write Like a Motherfucker” essay (The Rumpus)

I read her memoir Wild and ended up loving it. I say “ended up” because I didn’t start out feeling that way. Wild is about Strayed’s hike on the Pacific Crest Trail, but it’s also about her divorce, her mother’s death, and her troubles with drug addiction. At first, her life decisions made me so mad I could hardly keep reading. Then it occurred to me how infrequently an author is able to rile me up (Cormac McCarthy still holds the top spot in that regard. I’m speaking about the time I threw The Road across a crowded subway car because I just couldn’t hold it in my hand any longer at that moment). I gave Wild a second chance; I laughed, cried, and got mad all the way through it, and it was a lovely experience to have gone on that journey alongside her.

An interview of Strayed (Guernica)

I keep coming back to re-read parts of this interview. I like a writer who gets to the point. Strayed is insightful about the writing process and is one of the most motivational I’ve come across since Anne Lamott (see above). Here’s a passage I like from the interview; it’s a response to a question about finding the time to write when you have other priorities:

I know, it’s maddening! It’s so hard, because you have to make a living, or most of us have to. I certainly had to, and have to still. So it’s really this balance between doing things you have to do because you need the money so you can pay the electric bill, and then doing that thing you really care about, your passion. I’ve done different things over the years.

One of the things I did is I never made excuses for myself when it came to writing. I prioritized writing time. Even if that meant taking risks financially. I’d apply for residencies—places that give you a free place to live and they feed you and sometimes also provide a stipend—and go off and write for these intensive periods of time. That’s why I was a waitress, because the job never meant anything to me, so I could quit. I’d quit my job if I got a residency or a grant and I’d go off and write.

The other thing I did more recently, once I became a mom and my kids were old enough that I could leave them for a short time, is I would just check into a hotel right near our house, you know, like, the Courtyard Marriott a half a mile from my house in Portland. I’d check in for two nights and I’d write more in those forty-eight hours than I would for weeks at home. So just finding all these different creative ways to say, this thing actually matters and we’re gonna do it, and we’re gonna do it whether we have the money or not, or we have two little kids, or whatever it is. And I know it’s hard. I mean, I truly know it’s just plain hard. But do your best. And really actually do your best. Ask yourself: What is the best I can do? And then do that.

What I like so much about that quote, and what I can’t get out of my head, is that she doesn’t accept excuses from herself for not doing the hard work. She just writes and writes, like a motherfucker. Again and again, she comes back to the second beating heart she feels and how she just wants to get it it out of her chest so she can move on with her life. I admire the courage it takes to stop worrying about whether you will publish it and just start writing, REALLY writing. It sounds easy enough, but I completely understand why it was so hard for her. It’s hard for me! Just do your best and Write like a motherfucker are my new mantras.

You are one of a kind, dear Reader, and I mean that literally (N.B. regarding literally: I must tell you my first grader used the word ‘literally’ today, and I think I literally saw the word jump a shark into The Waters of Amazing and Awesome). Really though, sometimes I feel like I’m shouting into the wind with my new writing venture, with only my supportive parents behind me to grip the wind sock. But that’s fine by me. I enjoyed having an audience once (and if you’re not my parents and are reading, thanks!), but I also like the idea of a place where I can yell into the abyss, Zach Braff-style, and see what bounces back.

"On writing, like a mother...", list of books and articles about writing, via heirloom mothering
view from a favorite writing spot in our town coffee shop

Hey, you guys! I wanna be on your team.

In the spirit of trying new things, our six-year-old daughter asked to try a soccer class at the YMCA. She isn’t the most coordinated (she comes by that naturally), so I wasn’t sure how she’d do at soccer. But I figured if nothing else it was an hour that would guarantee me some laughs.

When we arrived on the field, I bent down, gave her a quick hug, and told her I’m rooting for her. I always try to pump my kids up when sending them off to school or a sport by reminding them I’m on their team. I handed her off to the coach and selected a quiet spot back from the sidelines. It was a lovely, crisp, early autumn day in Boston. The coach spent a few minutes getting to know the kids and warming them up. Within a few minutes she was already dividing them up for a game.

At the start of the game, there were a few loud parents, as I had expected. They were the ones who dressed their kid up for the first day in real soccer gear with cleats and jerseys and those shin things…not that there’s anything wrong with that. I’ll admit it, I was a little excited about the loud parents. It was like, Alright here we go. (rubs hands together) Let’s see some action. I’ve been hearing about these people for years, and I was almost regretting my spot in the back where I couldn’t see what was happening at center stage.

My attention was quickly turned back to the field, where my daughter sped around actually kicking the ball. Say whaaaa? She even went up against a boy larger than her and almost scored a goal! Then she did score a goal! For the wrong side, but still! She was so proud and excited, she did a little gig. The spectators sitting near me on benches in the second row all laughed and clapped. I looked over to see a woman who was bent over in a fit of near-hysterical laughter over my girl’s end zone dance. I heard a few “Atta girls” from the sidelines, and I began to relax and join the laughter. It was a total Steve Martin ala Parenthood moment.

I appreciated the camaraderie. Those parents on the sidelines buoyed me up, and I’ve been riding on their shoulders ever since.It was a soccer game, but sometimes a soccer game is more than just a soccer game, you know? There are so many times I feel like I’m being divided from other parents on the basis of weird categories I don’t even understand, and that day it was like we all united, if only for a brief minute, in the hilarity that is pee-wee soccer.

The truth is that I’m not just on the kids’ team; I wanna be on your team too. We’ll call it team “Laugh at our children’s mistakes.” [NB: I’m also team “What’s that shit on the floor of my car?”] We’ll even laugh at our own mistakes! I’m not going to promise I’ll be the best teammate—this morning I paused to note I was scratching my head with a fork while I waited for the leftovers to heat in the microwave—but I will promise to root for you with enthusiasm. And I make a mean celebratory whiskey sour.

After last week’s lesson was over, when I gave our daughter a high-five for effort and asked her how it went, she said, “I regret my choice. I wish I hadn’t signed up for soccer.” Womp womp. A few thoughts simultaneously occurred to me. First, she said ‘regret.’ She is so totally six going on thirteen. My mom wondered, “If she says regret now, what is she going to say when she’s twelve?” Precisely. I have nothing to add to that question, I’m just putting it out there. Second, not wanting to play soccer is how I have felt my entire life, so it seems bizarre that I would push her into the sport given that she at least gave it an A+ effort on her first try.

This week, I asked her to try again.I’d love to be able to wrap this post up with a bang and tell you that we came back for an encore performance. But by the end of the lesson she was clearly not having any fun still. I’ll fast forward a bit to the end and tell you that we let her choose an alternative. Luckily the Y was nice enough to switch our credit to another class. She chose swimming, and I’m happy to report this is a sport she does really love. I can’t wait to see how she improves her ability this year. And if nothing else, I should be able to get some laughs from all those belly flops dive attempts.

I wanna be on your team - heirloom mothering

thinking outside the playground

thinking outside the playground - Heirloom Mothering
View from one of the local playgrounds in the woods

I live in a dense suburban neighborhood named “The Heights,” so called for its perch on a gigantic granite slab. The primary boast of this area is its unparalleled view overlooking Boston. Our small sloping back yard, virtually no front yard, and lack of personal space result in frequent excursions to local playgrounds.

thinking outside the playground - Heirloom Mothering

With an occasional rare exception, our town has standardized and regulated the equipment located at these spaces to a sterilized state. The town recently chose to dismantle one of the last of the old-school metal playgrounds, complete with too-high monkey bars and boiling-hot slide. It is currently being renovated.

That I would complain about such an upgrade probably says something about my spoiled nature, but hear me out. The primary reason for my dismay is I had noticed the teens congregating there. You know, these kids could use more places away from grown-ups to loiter and discuss the opposite sex. I wrote about this playground not long after we moved here (see here), and it seems even then I had a hunch it wouldn’t be  long for this world:

I’m actually quite surprised the powers that be haven’t swung by to collect it all. The monkey bars are one giant cage that rises about 20 feet in the air, and the slide is a rickety, dinged up, old metal contraption that heats to an ungodly temperature in the summer. It makes me nostalgic for the playgrounds of my youth, back when we had seesaws and merry-go-rounds of death. Those were the days.

thinking outside the playground - Heirloom MotheringI suppose I could look on the bright side. Removal of the type of playgrounds I grew up with does afford me a certain “Back in my day” rant that I already seem to love so much. And hey, perhaps this banality is a blessing in disguise, for it forces my girls to think outside the playground to encounter new experiences.

When we arrive at the park, they run over to their favorite slide or swing and play on it for a short while. But then after a few minutes, they’ll hightail it to the woods surrounding the playground to find the perfect stick and rock for their collection or to play hide and seek. Their unbridled glee in exploring their surroundings makes my heart sing from my distant post on a bench or rock. I’ll close my eyes and be whisked back to my own childhood by the familiar smells and sounds of dirt and adventure.

Yesterday we went to a local swimming hole. But instead of swimming, the girls ran right over to a playground and stayed there the entire visit. They tested themselves on the two relic structures left, the highest of monkey bars and the rickety swings, and we were able to ignore them and have a few hours of peace.

I wandered over once to remind them of the boundaries. As usual, on my walk back to our spot farther down the beach, I could see the helicopter moms who were right up in their kids’ business side-eyeing me. I smiled silently and continued on to our blanket, knowing what they were thinking but just not caring. I mean, it’s a fenced-in playground at a swimming hole teeming with lifeguards and parents. I can barely imagine a safer spot, and yet parents still chase after their kids here. What gives?

Back in June, I shared my concerns about our parenting culture’s current obsession with risk aversion. I’m reading Lenore Skenazy’s Free Range Kids with the hope that delving into the topic in more depth will give me something to do about it.  So far it’s both interesting and maddening, just as I’d imagined it’d be. I’ve also joined the Children & Nature Network, a movement focused on getting kids playing outside.

My curiosity took me online in search of what the federal government identifies as an acceptable level of risk. A quick lit review didn’t turn up much; while there are standards for families who have been afflicted with substance abuse and domestic violence, it’s more difficult to find an intentional guide to making childhood not more safe, but less safe.

One such place doing this difficult work is a country whose goal is to become “the best place to grow up,” the United Kingdom. Their risk assessment implementation guide gives pointers on how to “strike the right balance between protecting our children from harm and allowing them the freedom to develop independence.”

That’s what parenting is all about, right? Striking a balance between protection and independence. When it comes to play, I steer toward independence as much as I can.

After all, “to play is, intrinsically, to not do exactly what the grown-ups say,” notes Christina Schwartz in an article by The Atlantic urging us to leave our kids alone (not that article by the Atlantic, another older one). “Children,” she says, “have a knack for simply living that adults can never regain.”

Amen, sister.

thinking outside the playground - Heirloom Mothering
The kids, riding away from me. In 10 years, they’ll be riding away from me again, only in bigger vehicles.
thinking outside the playground - heirloom mothering
Hey Ma, look how high I can climb!

Update (9-8-14): I am going to have to eat my words this time. We have been to the renovated playground several times, and it is beyond any of my possible expectations. There are even somewhat dangerous elements (I overheard one mom bemoan to her husband, “There are REAL rocks!” in reference to hear fears for her child’s safety. Really, lady?), like a (fake) boulder wall that includes spider-like rope webbing to another boulder. There’s also a track that runs around the perimeter, on which I have already seen one child practicing biking without training wheels. It’s adorable, it’s fantastic, and I was wrong. I love my town for being able to see the potential I could not. 

a breakfast dream deferred {+ spiced granola}

I weave recipes into stories of life and motherhood because, in my family, food is what living is about. My own mother will readily proclaim that my grandmother didn’t cook well— “the bottom of a rubber-soled shoe” is how she likes to put it. Yet when describing her childhood memories, Mom never fails to mention the delicious brown bread, the cream cheese-and-walnut, and peanut butter-banana-butter sandwiches her mother made with love.

I could make jokes about my vegetarian mom’s cooking too, like the blood-raw steaks coated in salt and just barely warmed up in the toaster oven or the brown sugar-coated refried beans. But in the same breath, I would tell you that the most prominent smell in my childhood home was bread, and my mother was famous within my family for her big salads. Most days, there is nothing I’d rather eat than bread and butter and a big salad.

When I ask my paternal grandmother about her mother’s cooking, she has similarly ambivalent memories of the quality of the food. But listen to her describe standing on her tippy toes to sop up her mother’s potlikker with a piece of bread, and you’re whisked away to a lifetime ago, smelling the sauce and feeling the love in that room.

If I were to go back in time to when I was a child and tell my relatives that I would go on to write about my love of food, they would be confused to say the least. I didn’t start out loving a variety of foods. My grandma likes to joke that little Elijah Wood in this scene in the film Avalon was me as a child–“I hate when food touches!” But what I have loved as long as I can remember is the ritual of food. When I was young, baking was a skill I observed and enjoyed playing pretend with obsessive zeal. Even so, somehow I didn’t develop baking skills to take with me in my adult-esence phase of life. My mother, the aforementioned expert bread baker, and my paternal grandmother, whose pies were legendary, both invited me to learn from them. It just didn’t take.

Mom & Me, 1984ish, Texas
Mom & Me, 1984ish, Texas. I am pretend-baking and cleaning, my typical play activities at four-years-old.

In my thirties, I have rediscovered a love of baking, especially and perhaps even solely breakfast goodies. Ain’t life grand. My repertoire of homemade breakfast foods extends from the healthier yogurt and granola to the more hedonist biscuit or scone with jam. Nate and I happen to share a weirdly specific desire to learn to ferment, so I imagine someday my breakfast treats will involve drinks like kefir and kombucha. Nate hopes to learn how to smoke and cure meats, which in my dream culminates in adding homemade lox and hickory-smoked bacon to the menu.

The menu for what? you might reasonably ask. For as long as we’ve been together, the hubs and I have harbored hopes of opening our own business. In recent years, the business is coming more clearly into focus to becoming a bed & breakfast in the Blue Ridge Mountains. I would love to grow most of our own food and trade wares with the locals, Kingsolver-like.

Going on ten years of marriage this October, we haven’t yet put down a deposit on that B&B. But I don’t consider it a dream unrealized. It’s just been deferred for some unspecified time down the road. Meanwhile, I consider this time spent tinkering with recipes to be great preparation for my second career. For now, I rely mostly on others to provide my food, but I’ve learned to seek local ingredients when possible and practice patience when learning to bake.

To that end, I’m sharing a recipe for grown-up spiced granola, which is not quick, but it is easy and so satisfying to gather, stir, smell, and taste. And with minimal natural sugars and oils, I daresay it’s healthy too. I was inspired to make it because I grew tired of saccharine-sweet, oily granola that was nearly all oats.

If you’re looking to slow down and hoping to add something to your breakfast repertoire or create a unique thank-you gift, perhaps you’ll give it a try. I call it “grown-up granola” both because it involves whole toasted nuts, a no-no in my preschooler’s eyes, and because it isn’t as sweet as the recipe I make for them. I also believe that food as fussy as this granola should be shared with those who appreciate it most. Won’t you come eat it at my bed & breakfast in twenty years?

spiced granola for grown-ups - Heirloom Mothering

 

grown-up spiced granola

makes 20 cups, if I added correctly

Ingredients:

10 c. old-fashioned rolled oats

5 c. nuts, whole or coarsely chopped (whatever you like: almonds, sesame seeds, sunflower seeds, macadamia nuts, cashews, pumpkin seeds, pecans, walnuts, pine nuts)

3 c. coconut flakes, unsweetened

2 c. dried fruit (cranberries, raisins, cherries)

1/4 c. olive oil

1/4 c. coconut oil

1/4 c. maple syrup

1/4 c. honey (note: as is, this granola is not very sweet. Add another 1/2 c. honey to sweeten it)

2 tsp. vanilla extract

2 tsp. ground cinnamon

1 1/2 tsp. coarse salt

1 tsp. ground ginger

1/2 tsp. ground cardamom

1/4 tsp. fresh ground nutmeg

1/4 tsp. ground cloves

Directions:

1. Preheat oven to 350ºF. Toast nuts on baking sheets covered in parchment paper, rotating every few minutes, for approximately 10 minutes or until nicely browned. Transfer them to the largest bowl you have.

2. Toast coconut, rotating at least once per minute for about five minutes until lightly browned. DO not leave the oven during this step! The coconut will burn quickly if not monitored closely. Add it to the big bowl.

3. In a medium bowl, toss oats with spices and salt. Mix oils, syrup, and honey in a glass measuring cup and heat in the microwave quickly to loosen the honey. Whisk together, pour over oats, and stir to combine.

4. Cook oats on two baking sheets (again, lined in paper) for approximately 30 minutes, stirring every five minutes or so, until browned. Add to the nut mixture and stir together. Let cool for an hour so the mixture dries before storing it. I keep mine in the freezer and sprinkle it on yogurt, and I also love the giant glass canister for the counter ‘cuz this here granola is perty. To guild the lily, I like to top it with some bubbly meyer marmalade.

on wild creeks and flying monkeys

As a child I was given freedom to dream, create, and play by myself. Whether the space was granted because my parents understood the importance of unstructured outdoor play or just needed me to occupy myself, I appreciated it. Come to that, I’m sure it was a conscious decision on their part. Both of my parents were allowed to explore without hindrance or restriction as kids, so they must have wanted the same for me.

One of my dad’s best memories of childhood is riding his bike to school in the first grade, even crossing a busy four-way intersection on the journey. Go back another generation and the independence extends even further. My grandmother recalls building a hut with her siblings in a vacant lot across the street from her house in Miami; her parents let her spend the night in it (!!) without a care of scorpions or fire ants, not to mention the strangers who might have lurked about.

A post-mudpie ride around the Houson 'hood on my Dukes of Hazzard big wheel
A post-mudpie ride around the Houston ‘hood on my Dukes of Hazzard big wheel

Writing about that rusty trampoline got me thinking about my own other childhood exploits and adventures. One place I recall with fondness is a playground that was located near my dad’s old house in Marietta, Georgia. For the most part, it wasn’t the playground itself that captured my attention. Sure, there was a little merry-go-round, but we tended to use it for our own unstructured game of “flying monkeys,” which involved us seeing who could jump the farthest off it while it spun.

How to play FLYING MONKEYS:

1. Squat in the middle of a 1980s-era merry-go-round about the size of one of those Jazzercise trampolines.

2. Have your partners turn the merry-go-round as fast as they can.

3. When they yell “GO!,” you, the squatter, will attempt to stand. Fight the centripetal force pulling you back down to the center.

4. As you reach the edge, centrifugal force will step in and hurl you haphazardly off.

5. Dodge the metal animals that were meant to be sat upon and jump off the edge as far as you can go.

If I’ve described it well, it sounds as impossible as it was. Most times we would either fall right away or attempt to jump and end up splayed off it half way and need the spinners to perform an emergency stop. Regardless of the outcome, our end result would be to collapse in a heap of giggles.

After flying monkeys, we’d turn our attention to the surrounding wild. Unfortunately, the woods had been taken over by an impenetrable maze of kudzu vines and poison ivy right up to the edge where the mower clipped them. Somehow the creek had been spared that sad fate, so we’d march happily down to the water, where our real adventures began.

Sometimes we’d take the clay from the shore and make shapes. Eventually our works of art would harden into replicas of sandy red pea gravel at best or dried-up dog turds at worst. But at the time, we felt we were sculpting something good. We’d jump from bank to bank and wade in the cool, calf-deep water. When we tired of failing to catch water spiders, we would wander through the culvert to the shady unknown on the other side.

The excitement and trepidation of stepping foot into the slimy tube is one I will not soon forget. I would relive it all—the fear, the peer pressure, the anticipation, and the exhilaration—in a heartbeat. I remember how much colder it felt to go from the blazing Georgia sun into the depths of the dank, goose-pimply tunnel. My toes hugged the metal rungs as I tiptoed through; it seemed like forever until we would come out on the other side. I am certain we reverse-jockeyed for position on who would have to go first.

Once through the culvert, we fed off the energy of having survived the gauntlet by exploring the stream further. I have no memory of what lied beyond the culvert; the thrill of adventure was the only reward I required. Looking back, I can’t remember my dad ever checking up on us. I am particularly impressed with, and grateful for, his ability to let us go off on our own. I guess he figured we couldn’t get into that much trouble in our own neighborhood. It wasn’t like we were setting off on a 5-mile walk into the woods or anything, but it felt dangerous enough to me as a 10-year-old.

Dad and I exploring the Texas shore
Dad and I exploring the Texas shore

I hope I can manage to raise free-range kids, giving them the same space and trust I was afforded. In that vein, this summer I returned to my childhood summer camp–for the second year running–for my kids to attend and for me to be a counselor again. In the eight years between my stints as camp counselor, the mood has shifted ever so slightly toward helicoptering, even at camp. Kids are expected to report their exact location during any period of time labeled “free,” thus removing the sense of freedom from the equation.

I don’t blame camp administration for this change; they’re good friends and the same folks I’ve known for 15 years or more. I expect they must have endured plenty of parent complaints to have made the shift, since there weren’t any accidents that I’m aware of. Parents today simply expect they can keep tabs on their children 24/7, even while the kids are at camp. I understand the occasional need for an orthodontist appointment or an early trip to the beach, but why not schedule an extra thirty-minute window while the camp gathers your kid? Do you really want them to KNOW where the kids are at all times?

I myself love the idea of the kids being “lost” down in a mud pit or wandering a creek somewhere. Therefore, as a counselor I engaged in boundary-testing where I could this summer. Even though it took asking three people permission, gathering a cell phone and wilderness emergency bag, and making a list of who was going, I did end up taking a group of kids into the wild unknown for a creek adventure. After all, to the kids it’s just as wild as when I was taken on such excursions 20+ years ago. Maybe what they don’t know can’t burden them. And I’m happy to report that 30 years after I first stepped foot on camp property, kids are still singing about eating great green gobs of greasy grimy gopher guts and coming up with new verses about the fate of poor Tom the Toad. After all, what happens at camp stays at camp.

Willeo Explorers, 2014
Willeo Creek Explorers, 2014

spiffy & queen bee rule the world: on cousins

Cousins! I'm the one on the far right (underneath a cousin)
Cousins! I’m the one on the far right (underneath a cousin)

I’ve been trying to gain a deeper understanding of why cousins have been such an important part of my life, and I think I’ve come up with a possible answer. Kids are always trying to form stronger bonds with each other as friends, cutting into their palms to be “blood brothers.” With cousins, you are handed a peer with real blood ties. Regardless of how often you see each other, an immediate deeper bond is formed on that information alone. A barrier wall is torn down and boundaries of familiarity are crossed that haven’t been crossed before. Cousins provide us an opportunity to test the limits.

******

On a trip to visit family in Florida when I was about six years old, two of my male cousins and I ran around the outside of my great aunt’s house over and over again. She finally stopped us to ask what game we were playing, no doubt because we aggravated them by weaving in and out of the adults as we passed by. My cousin John, three years older than me, stopped and smiled at her and said just as sweet as pie, “We’re just playing tag.”

We were in fact not playing tag. The actual game may have been called something like “Chase Justine.” I didn’t stick around long enough to find out what was going to happen next when they finally caught up with me. I will always remember the feeling I had that day that the adults actually had no idea what we were up to and didn’t really seem to care. We were on our own, for better or worse.

The boys and I around the time of "Chase Justine." Wait, was I bigger than them?
The boys and I around the time of “Chase Justine.” …Wait, was I bigger than them?

My cousins helped me get into just enough trouble as a kid to feel like I didn’t need to push the boundaries more than I did. Whether it was shooting each other with Roman candles or BB guns, we had plenty of “near misses.” I still have a scar on my finger from when I took a steak knife to a Styrofoam cup while trying to make telephones with my cousin. Once again, I don’t remember the adults being more than slightly annoyed at us; they just bandaged the wound and went back to their conversation. Meanwhile, we went back to playing our intense games. As we grew, those games became full of grand schemes, one-upmanship, petty fights, and double dog dares.

 ******

I once heard adolescents compared to a flock of geese, and I love that analogy. Teenagers are a flock of awkward birds, forming groups and then disbanding again to crash-land with a buddy or two. Or as Jenny, the Bloggess, said of feminists, perhaps teenagers are more like bees, i.e. “they are adorable and fuzzy but people run away from them because they don’t understand that they just want to make things good.” And sometimes they sting you, which is really, really annoying.

When I was fourteen years old—in the summer of 1994—I became the principal hotshot of a gang comprised of my cousins. Our family gathers every summer at a reunion at Vogel State Park in the Blue Ridge Mountains of north Georgia. I became co-chief of the gang with my cousin Clay; Clay and I took over due to a vehicular right of passage. Our cousin John, much the same as others who’d ruled before him, turned 16 and got a car. Suddenly, my cousins and I were lucky if we even saw him, let alone rely on him to dictate our operations. And so, the hive passed to us.

When it occurred to me at age fourteen that Clay and I had become leaders, I gave everyone around me ridiculous nicknames and insisted they answer only to these new monikers, “Freckles,” “Monkey,” and so on.  In what could only be called a bid for status as sole Queen Bee, I even attempted to give Clay a nickname, “Spiffy,” which he promptly refused to adopt. The two of us held court with our trail of cousins behind us. We would hold impromptu arm wrestling matches or races across logs to see who was faster, stronger, or more agile.

Up to this point in my life, I had never been the leader of anything. But I knew instinctively that I needed to think of something that would keep their attention, should it start to wane. Thus, I determined what our next presidential act would be: obtain a token of worship.

I had seen the prize I desired early one day. My uncles lugged a huge cooler out onto the back porch of one of our rented cabins to prepare for a mid-afternoon party. It contained within it no less then eight varieties of beer in no less than 50 cans, and I knew they wouldn’t miss a few. I also knew the cans could squeeze easily between the porch railings and be slipped down to a co-conspirator waiting below. So, that’s just what we did. My memory is that we only took two beers. I have no idea what all the ages were of the cousins who accompanied us on our victory lap around the lake to consume the beer, but I’d like to tell you they were at least of the youngest European drinking age. In any case, a few sips of beer couldn’t hurt them, or so I told myself, and it solidified our place as pack leaders.

 ******

This year marks the seventh summer I’ve brought my own children to Vogel State Park to mingle with our cousins. I am finally able to see the adult’s side of the equation, which is that a week of family reunion constitutes one of the few times I’m able to ignore my children completely for several hours in a row. There is such beauty in this gathering of cousins, young and old, not the least of which is because we are learning from the mothers who came before us. I can count currently four generations of my family present around me at our reunion, and the elders pass down what they know to us so we don’t need to rediscover it on our own.

Witnessing my children’s raucous liberation from rules while experiencing my own liberation—from stress, worry, and guilt—is total parental bliss.  It is a time when I get to be not mother, not wife, but just be myself. I revel in letting loose of my obligations and taking on some risk and adventure. While I know the general vicinity of my kids, I’m certainly not checking up minute-by-minute. I just hope enough adults are wandering about to give the kids the vague impression they are being watched. And they are being watched—mostly. In fact, we often watch each other’s children, as the lines between mothers blur into one amalgam mom. I’ll invite a young cousin to stay in our cabin for a sleepover with my girls, and I’ll braid her hair and teach her to play cards and cover her in sunscreen and bug spray. And when she somehow still manages to burn in the early morning playground sun, her mother and I will share but a brief shrug of apology before moving back into the herd of collective mothering.

There is a moment when we all tire of being together and caring for the group. We even have a name for such a feeling; to wit, when you are ready to go home, you’re “Vogeled out.” But the feeling doesn’t last for long. Decompress for a few hours with a glass of wine and a moment of silence, and you’re already game again to download the photos, share the best stories, and begin making plans for the next summer.

AshleyShonter1998
Two cousins celebrating a cousin’s wedding in the late ’90’s
AshleyShonter2014
Same girls 15+ years later, with babes in tow!