Flowers – and Permission Slips – for a Virtual Friend

Years before Carol and I dreamed of starting a blog, a colleague got me hooked on “French Word-A-Day,” which is a thrice-weekly blog written by an American woman who married a Frenchman who owns and runs a vineyard in Provence.

Like thousands of other readers, I quickly felt connected to the blog’s author, Kristin Espinasse, and her vignettes about life as an expatriate trying to master French language and customs.

She and I have a bit in common: We both studied French in college, spent junior year abroad and fell in love with French culture. Now married to hyper-driven men, we are both trying to work as writers while managing hectic households and raising teenagers.

Apart from those similarities, I’m a bit envious that Kristin’s dream came to fruition; the man I dated in France was not meant to be a life partner and the man who’s my life partner was not destined to live in France.

Recently, my “cyber friend” Kristin hinted that a major change would soon impact her family. Readers started submitting guesses, such as: another baby, a new dog, a book or movie deal, a move to Mexico or the sale of the vineyard (Domaine Rouge-Bleu). She told us the news would emerge in late August.

And then, last week Kristin wrote a heart-wrenching post entitled “Larme” (for teardrop), in which she noted that the upcoming change “has thrown me off course.” She wrote that it was increasingly harder to find the motivation to write her blog, and that day, when she finally sat down at the computer, tears had begun to flow.

She courageously asked her readers if she should change the frequency of the blog posts from thrice weekly to once, or perhaps even less.

What followed were hundreds of responses from Kristin’s loyal readers, most concerned about her tears and her general state of mind.

As I read through the comments, it dawned on me that the struggles women face are universal, and that Carol and my blog concept, “Permission Slips,” is truly on the mark.

In our blog (and our book proposal) we stress that women need to give themselves – and their friends – permission to give themselves breaks, to jump off the treadmill, to let some of the spinning plates drop, to follow their own guiding lights.

We all spend too much energy trying to please our partners, our kids, our employers, our communities, our friends and even our in-laws, and somewhere along the way, we forget to take care of ourselves.

While specifically written for Kristin, the “French Word-A-Day” comments provide advice we could all heed: forget about doing for others for a moment, and remember to look after you. Just “listen” to a few of them:

1. Give it a Rest
[Give] yourself permission to slow down and rest — to absorb whatever change is coming in your life as it unfolds. – Ophelia

Rest. Take it easy. Watch a few silly movies. Go for a few long walks…Let someone else nurture you for a while…and you will see the sun shine again when you are ready. – Angelique

2. Take Care of You
There are times in life when we need a sabbatical to recharge and rejuvenate our lives…lest we crash and burn… We all need to take the time to take care of ourselves if we want to remain happy and productive. – Vicki

Wander around the nature about you… Little gifts are all about you and it is now time for you ~ just you.
Give yourself a special present of going somewhere beautiful and soak it all in and rejuvenate your soul.– Millissa

3. Please Yourself
Don’t put unnecessary pressure on yourself to please [your readers]. – Lesley

Don’t be pressured to move at someone else’s pace. Don’t let your groove become a rut. – Amanda

I [recently] realized how much pressure I had put myself under… I wanted to be the perfect wife, mother, friend, worker. When I first retired…I spent time focusing on only me. [I realized] I had always put myself last before… Allow yourself time to breathe and enjoy some new activities too, rest, look after yourself, release some of the constant writing pressure. – Lin

4. Make Your Own Rules
Life often gives us too many rules. It’s time for you to set some for yourself. – Paulette

‘Rules’ and discipline that come from the outside…can seem oppressive. Or itch like an ill-fitting suit of clothes… You have the wisdom to choose what is best for YOU if you listen to the thrum of your heart. – Linda From New York

5. Don’t Feel Pressured for Perfection
Please, don’t feel like you have to have a masterpiece in order to post. – Leslie in Portland

6. It’s Your Party; Cry If You Want To
Whatever you are grieving… let the tears come. Tears are so healing… Allow [yourself] to feel the feelings. – Nancy in Ft. Worth

Be kind to yourself, cry when needed, get out in nature. – Dana

7. Give Yourself Permission to Be Yourself
Give yourself permission to write when you want. – Laurel

If you really want to stay in bed all day and read and eat bon-bons, then do so. Do it for you. – Joie

YOU will have to give yourself whatever permission you seek.
Think of how this would all look from 30,000 ft. “Is she in bed or doing her blog? Are the people in that house even home? What people? You see a house? I just see the hills and valleys.”
The intricacies of our lives matter so much to us, but step back and you’ll see the world rolling on, “the benign indifference of the universe”. – Martine NYC

So, dear reader, make a special effort to take care of yourself today. You deserve it.

–       Linda Williams Rorem, 27 Aug. 2012
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River Time

The cool rush of water rolled over the bow of the paddle boat and hit me in the face for the 10th time that morning. The women in the boat giggled and squealed and the men let out a hearty laugh. We were all delighting in the fun adventure, great weather and good company on a trip through the Middle Fork of the Salmon River in Idaho.

Anyone who takes this trip must relax and unplug metaphorically as well as literally. By virtue of the remote location, no standard electronic device will work in the Impassable Canyon. It is 99 miles of steep jagged-edged cliffs, soft sandy beaches and sparse forests.  There are no roads and no motorized vehicles allowed. The only familiar noise was a propane tank firing up to cook. It is the ultimate antidote to stressed city lives.

The only decision that needed to be made each day was the choice of activity. The river guides inquired, “Would you like to do the kayak, fish or paddle boat?” There was also the option to do nothing and sit atop a perch while the guide paddled — dubbed the “princess boat.” We also hiked and explored petroglyphs and long abandoned pioneer cabins. We heard stories about the indigenous Chilcotin people, “Sheep eaters” and Earl K. Parrott, “The Hermit of Impassable Canyon.” We even slept next to the tombstone of Whitey Cox at one of our campsites. It was the Old West in a remote part of the country. It was hard to fathom the survival skills and independent streak of those who had made that area their home. 

Realistically, I don’t think I could unplug if I wasn’t forced by circumstance to abide. For the second year in a row, I had the good fortune to be on a week-long vacation with no cell phone coverage, no internet and no electronic access. There was a satellite phone along for emergency communication and peace of mind but otherwise no news was good news.

After a few days on the river I asked the Idaho River Journeys guide what the plan was for the next day. He said, “We’ll get to that later, just enjoy.”  I replied, “You have been with me a few days now, I’m a planner, I like to know what’s coming up ahead.”  He smiled wryly and replied, “Just enjoy, you are on river time.”

I have been counseled many times throughout my life to slow down and enjoy the moment. I am a list-maker, I like to feel productive.  I like planning, “calendaring,” and crossing items off my list. “It’s the journey, not the destination,” has not been my mantra.  I like to know what might be ahead on the next river bend. Yep, I like control and contingencies.

However, as I get older, I am finding that I am getting a tiny bit better at savoring the moment. While I may never be a “journey” type of gal, I was able to enjoy more on this trip than ever in my past. I was not constantly anticipating and planning the next step. Although I needed a little help to accomplish a state of mindful presence, self-permission was a piece of the puzzle. While I won’t embrace Yoga or Buddhism anytime soon, I found my own way to transcend.

One of the hallmarks of the trip was the great big cooler of drinks that always greeted us when we stepped off the river into our camp site. As a fan of advertising jingles I could not get out of my head the 1970s Olympia Brewing Company ditty,”It’s the water and a lot more. ”

After this trip I believe it was a whole lot more.

Carol Lewis Gullstad August 20, 2012

Hard and Soft Limits for Teens

Any parent who thinks raising toddlers is the toughest job doesn’t have teens in the house.

The “terrible teens” are longer-lasting and less predictable; as more than one mom has said, “I never know what child I’m going to get in the morning.”

Those of you enduring the teen years know that on some days the kids act pleasant, cooperative, appreciative and respectful, and other days they are absolute beasts, limiting conversations to monosyllables, leaving heaps of clothes on bedroom floors, sleeping well past noon and defying family rules.

“This, too, shall pass” is the mantra I repeat on those difficult days.

Don’t get me wrong: I have four great (not perfect, but perfectly presentable) children who – on most days – demonstrate love, kindness and respect.

However, as we prepare to send our firstborn back to college, I’m reflecting on the strife that we endured this summer.

We were warned. Community members with older kids told us that when a child returns home after his or her first year of college, the family inevitably experiences a severe culture clash: college freedoms vs. house rules.

For nine months, our son set his own hours, returning to his dorm room and waking whenever he pleased. He didn’t have a curfew and didn’t need to check in with parents late at night. He ate whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted. No one asked him to clean his room or wash dishes. He didn’t have a job, so did whatever he wanted during the weekend. And, most likely he engaged in the weekend-night activities that most college kids enjoy.

Back at home, we parents wanted to know who he was with, what he was doing and when he would be home. We offered one seating for dinner, which didn’t always fit with the his schedule. We asked for dishes to go into the dishwasher and clothes to go into the hamper or laundry room. We made it clear that college-kid “activities” were not allowed in our home.  We expected our son to earn money for college expenses. We were, in our boy’s own words, “a buzz kill.”

I know that these conflicts were par for the course, as the child was ready to use his wings while we parents wanted to continue establishing roots. (“Good parents give their kids roots and wings,” Jonas Salk once said. “Roots to know where home is, wings to fly away and exercise what’s been taught them.”)

I explained that we have more parenting work to do, as he is not yet an adult, and that the part of his brain that guides judgment is not yet fully developed. “Researchers have studied young men’s brains, and know that the frontal lobe is not completely connected until the mid-20s,” I said.

“Well, they haven’t looked at my brain,” he countered.

At times this summer, I threw up my arms and said, “Okay, just stay safe. My bottom line, hard limits are to prevent irreparable life changes: no drunk driving, no unwanted pregnancy and no drug addiction.”

I’m curious how the rest of you handle your kids’ college breaks. What are your hard and soft limits (and no, not the kind in Shades of Grey) for teenagers? Please leave your tips, as well as your frustrations, in the comments box below.

 — Linda Williams Rorem, 17 Aug. 2012
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Dog is My Co-pilot

In the B.D. era (“Before Dog”), I thought the bumper sticker “Dog is My Co-pilot” was really corny. Not that I preferred the original one (a different arrangement of the letters in “dog”), but I just didn’t understand the whole canine-adoration thing.

Okay, right now I can hear laughter from my fellow community members, who see me driving around town with an 85-pound Golden-doodle (half Golden Retriever, half Standard Poodle). He rides shot-gun while my kids are at school and waits in the driver’s seat while I’m in the grocery store or Starbucks.

This was especially striking when I drove a Smart Car; I often returned to that little blue machine to see strangers taking photos of Bauer behind the wheel.

In our three years together, Bauer has become my best friend and constant companion. He sleeps on a large pillow in the bedroom, and when my husband is away (which is often, as he’s a management consultant), I am comforted by the rhythmic breathing of another being.

During the day, Bauer spends most of his time in my home office, where I work as a writer and editor. He has a special place under my desk, in a corner, and literally warms my feet for hours on end. I also teach part-time at a private academy, and while he doesn’t go to school with me, he has made a few very welcome appearances there.

When I’m out and about, Bauer is always by my side—for walks in the park, drives to the store and even trips to Whistler.

Two weeks ago, while the kids vacationed with their grandparents and cousins, Bauer traveled to British Columbia with me. (My husband prefers to use his kid-free time off fly-fishing with buddies in Montana.) Sometime during the week, I realized that because of Bauer, I never felt lonely or afraid.

So, in this post I’ll permit myself to appreciate all that he provides:

Constant Companionship – My teens have great friends and full schedules, so they rarely prioritize time with me. My dog, however, is always game. No matter what he’s doing, he will drop everything to join me if I just ask, “Car?” “Walk?” or “Beach?” (Of course, the range of what he “drops” is quite limited: napping, eating, chasing flies or trying to engage the cat in play.) So, when I’m “alone,” I never feel lonely.

Fresh Air – I love exercise and really don’t need motivation for trips to the gym. Spending time outside in the fall, winter and spring is another story, though; you may have heard that Seattle experiences constant drizzle and low clouds from November through March. Because Bauer needs long walks and loves seeing his “friends,” I force myself to don the rain boots and slicker and head to the dog park several times a week. Yesterday, it was uncharacteristically hot in Seattle, and I would have loved to “chill” in our basement, reading or watching a movie. Instead, I took Bauer down to the beach, so he could cool off and tire out retrieving balls from the lake.

Protection – Although he’s quite friendly and views every human, dog and squirrel he encounters as a potential pal, I do believe that Bauer would protect me against harm. He has alerted us to cars in the driveway in the middle of the night (fortunately, that was just our college-age son), raccoons on the porch (they love cat food) and bears near our condo in Whistler. In fact, he tracks bear scents with his nose to the ground; recently, Bauer was obviously trailing a bear when a passerby said we had missed a sighting by about 30 seconds. When I’m walking with Bauer through the woods, I appreciate this advance warning.

Popularity by Association – Having a cute, friendly dog provides me with a certain social status. In the dog park, other canines run up to greet him and their “parents” always stop to chat with me. Friends call for dog walks because their dogs like mine. In our local dog park and anywhere in Whistler, strangers start conversations because of Bauer. Many encounters never would have occurred without my canine companion:

–       Last summer, a young woman who appeared to visiting British Columbia with her parents, approached me while pointing to her camera. I assumed she wanted me to take a photo of her family. Instead, she explained in very broken English that her mom wanted to pose with my dog.

–       Just a few days later, when my daughter was checking out a playground, another foreign lady signaled that she wanted a picture of her toddler sitting on Bauer. Of course, he was happy to comply.

–       A woman with a wheelchair-bound son struck up a conversation one day, saying she had watched me and Bauer outside the coffee shop several days in a row. After pumping me for information about the Golden-doodle breed, she said, “I have decided that a dog like yours would make a great companion for my son.”

–       During my recent trip, I was walking Bauer home from Whistler Village when a woman passing by on a bicycle hollered, “Hey, is that the dog I saw swimming yesterday?” I replied that yes, I had been tossing a ball off the dock at Rainbow Park. “Oh, I took a brilliant photo of him in the water, with a tennis ball in his mouth. Hey, Troy, look – it’s that dog!”

Right about now, some of you may be thinking, “That woman needs more friends.” In truth, I am blessed with many good friends. However, perhaps I need better ones. Or, maybe we should all give ourselves permission to love and value our four-legged friends.

A while back, Carol wrote about her dog, and that post resonated with moms who agree that dogs can be easier to manage and more pleasant than teenagers. I recently wrote about the similarities between raising boys and dogs. However, my emotions run deeper than that. I now realize that those of us with loyal dogs in our lives are truly fortunate.

–       Linda Williams Rorem, 13 Aug. 2012
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Thanks Mom #Olympics

As readers know by now, I am a self-professed sports-aholic. I enjoy watching sports of any kind. The Olympics, however, have presented me with an all-you-can-eat sports buffet and I have been happily gorging since the Games started.

The Games have already provided plenty of  “thrill of victory” moments. There is the bubbly teenage swimmer Missy Franklin with the cute home videos. There is the Gabby Douglas gymnastics story – siblings help convince Gabby’s mom to allow her to leave home and live with another family across the country at age fourteen to pursue her dream. And who could not appreciate, the  heart-wrenching story of Judo gold-medalist Kayla Harrison who was abused by her coach from ages thirteen to sixteen but was able to rise from those ashes to Olympic glory?

The camera focuses on the faces of individual athletes, but what about the supporting cast in the background? The parents, spouses, siblings and coaches that agonized every step of the way. The team behind the individual, not just Team USA or Team China, but Team I-believed-in-you. Team I-have-a-permanent-pit-in-my stomach. Team I-would-do-the-same-all-over-again.

Somewhere along the way in watching the Olympics, I became more interested in the look on the faces of the parents of the medalists rather than the athletes. A soon as an athlete wins or loses I anxiously anticipate the moment when the camera pans to the tear-stained face of the mom or dad, to me that tells the rest of the Olympic story. Perhaps I’ve watched too many of the Procter and Gamble “Thanks Mom” commercials for my own good.

While it takes someone of extraordinary drive, athletic talent and mental toughness to become the best in the world, successful people in life generally have a team of family, friends and mentors in their corner. Many studies have shown that an elite athlete’s involvement in high-level sports is heavily dependent on their parents in the beginning and all the way through and their sports club and coaches later. I can’t imagine the caliber of commitment it takes for a family to produce an Olympic athlete – even one who does not end up making the team.

However, I can relate to the emotions of the athlete’s parents. We feel for our kids as they try, succeed and fail as they grow and mature. My kids often tell me to “calm down” when I am watching one of their siblings on the court, field or pool of competition. After watching the Olympics with them this week I can point to Michael Phelps’ mom, Danell Leyva’s dad and Sanya Richards-Ross‘ husband and say “See!” I give myself permission to squeal with delight, furrow my brow with disgust and pace with nervousness. I am also very thankful that there won’t be a camera panning to me as I intensely enjoy the moment.

Carol Lewis Gullstad August 6, 2012

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