*Superstar* (a little February fun)

When I am alone in my car (and the circumstances are just right), I am the greatest singer on Earth. Day after day, week after week, year after year, I work hard to perfect my craft. I belt out the lyrics of songs I know, and I make up lyrics to the songs I don’t know. The acoustics are just perfect in my car with a background white noise of the tires humming along.

As I drive down the road in my own (somewhat odd and perhaps a bit self-serving) universe, I hold free concerts for thousands of adoring fans. They hold up their cell phones (since lighters are no longer a concert-fan-thing) and sway to the music. Sometimes, if I inspire this crowd of concert-goers, they will sing along in a great moment of unity, joining in for the chorus, or if I point to them, prompting them to sing. They know each of my songs by heart, and I love when they sing to me!

The minute I pull into the driveway of my building at work, the crowd begins to dissipate, fading into the trees surrounding the parking lot. My concert comes to an end. I step out of my car and back into the façade of professional educator. I become normal again. No fame and no fans follow me into the building. In seconds, I have gone from Superman to Clark Kent. I push my glasses up my nose as I settle into the desk chair and turn on some soft streaming music to fill the quiet that descended with the normalcy of the day.

As much fun as it is to think about superstardom, I embrace my normal life and the role that best fits my true strengths. Yes, I may (okay…I do) sing in the car, I only sing when I am alone for a reason. It’s just better that way.

Trust me.

{Photo by Austin Neill on Unsplash}

Brian

I stood in the dairy aisle examining the dates on the gallon jugs of milk. I was searching for the one with the latest date, but in this particular grocery store, I was also making sure the date had not passed. Next to me, an elderly man hoisted himself from a wheelchair, so he was standing on his one leg, and he leaned into the dairy case over the chocolate milk. I watched him for a moment. He reached way into the back and dragged two half-gallons to the front where he could see them better. He leaned over and adjusted his wheelchair, then he pulled a magnifying glass from the pocket of his jacket, and he checked the expiration dates on the milk he had just moved.

I moved closer. “Do you need help?” I ventured.

“Not yet,” he said with a smile as he turned to examine this person who had broken through his alone-space. He squinted a bit as he studied my face. “What do you do? Or what did you used to do?” he asked me. I told him I worked at the university in town. “Ah,” he nodded. “You teach?”

“Yes,” I told him. “I work in academic support.” He smiled and nodded knowingly as he told me about his cousin—the most compassionate person he’d ever known—who was also a teacher. Everyone thought very highly of her, and it was clear from his words that he did, as well.

With barely a breath in between, he began another story, this one about his life and his career, and I listened intently. He told me about the crimes he solved, the cases that he had easily cracked when no one else could figure them out, and the seventeen police departments that had extended job offers to him when he was younger because they recognized his talent. He shifted his weight on his leg as he leaned on his wheelchair for support. All the while he spoke, I watched his face. His long mustache and scraggly beard covered the lower half of his face, but his eyes held the wisdom that comes with age and experience. They held kindness. And they held loneliness.

Despite the fact that I had never met this man before this conversation, I recognized something about him. It was in his eyes. It was in the way he started his sentences… his stories. It was in the way he reached out of his loneliness to hold me in conversation, to connect with me, if only for a moment. Even though we were strangers, I recognized his humanness.

His stories, though perhaps embellished a bit, reminded me of the stories my grandpa would tell. And in more recent years, the stories of my dad. There is nothing that compares to the storytelling of the older generations.

So I listened. I learned. And for a brief, fleeting moment, I connected. I offered him the human interaction that we all need, whether we are willing to admit it or not.

When I walked into the store, this man was a stranger, but when I walked out, he was Brian. The next time I see him in the dairy aisle, as I’m sure I will, I will greet him by name, and we will pick up our conversation where we left off. Although somehow, I believe I may just hear the same stories—the stories of his youth—yet again.

{Photo by Doug Maloney on Unsplash}

Hitchhikers

On my way home from Parents’ Weekend at my daughter’s school, I passed three hitchhikers. Now, when I was younger, people used to hitchhike all the time. But in recent years, this ride-hailing method seemed to be a thing of the past. Honestly, I believe I’ve run across maybe two hitchhikers in the past 15 years. Until Sunday.

It was drizzly on Sunday and not ideal weather to venture out onto the road to hail a ride. Aside from the guy hitchhiking in the other direction, the first hitchhiker I passed was wearing a green hoodie and carrying what looked like a sleeping bag in a red stuff sack. Just a sleeping bag. Nothing else. It had just started to rain at this point, and he didn’t look happy. In fact, he looked downright grumpy. He was young—early twenties maybe. He stood on the side of the road, looking down, waiting for a ride. He pulled at the heartstrings of the mother in me, but I didn’t stop because… well, strangers, you know. We’ve all heard the warnings.

The other hitchhiker piqued my curiosity. She had positioned herself on the entrance ramp to the highway with a small cardboard sign just large enough to hold the name of a town farther north. She was looking to travel about 70 miles up the highway, but I was only going to the very next exit—3 miles at best. The hitchhiker looked to be a bit older than me, with a sassy mop of short grey hair. She was energetic and working excitedly to get a ride. Her face was expressive and smiling as she appealed to the passing motorists—she looked like the kind of person who would entertain the driver with animated stories of her life experience for the entire 70 miles. Up the road a few feet, she had placed her name-brand suitcase with an additional bag on top—as if she had just stepped off a flight at the airport. She intrigued me.

I experienced a momentary urge to stop and pick her up. I wished I was traveling farther in her direction so I might give her a ride and get to know her. From my brief glimpse of her as I passed, I envisioned her as the “Thelma” to my “Louise,” the partner-in-mischief I have been searching for. I could just imagine the conversation we might have as we drove—so engrossing that we would miss the exit. From our brief moment of eye contact, I wanted to know this woman. She was that intriguing.

And from my brief encounter with this intriguing stranger, I learned something. Everyone we come across on our journey—whether for five seconds or five years—has a lesson to teach. From this woman (and the contrast between these two hitchhikers), I learned that one’s approach to life can have a huge impact on how people see us. The first hitchhiker—he was definitely a stranger, and he would remain so. The second, however, was a potential friend.

Two strangers, one activity, two very different approaches. Whenever you have the chance, be the engaging “friend.”

{Photo by Atlas Green on Unsplash}

Confession

I was at the grocery store recently, in the coffee/tea aisle perusing the selections of both, really. But as I made my way toward the back of the store, some hot chocolate caught my eye—something different than the usual individually packaged powdered mix. This one was in a miniature, old fashioned glass milk bottle, and there were several different flavors. I bought some for my son—Chocolate Moo-usse. He likes hot chocolate, and this particular brand looked fascinating (and good!)—all natural and (relatively) local.

However, I have to confess that I bought the hot chocolate as much for the packaging as for the actual product, itself. Imagine what a cute vase that would make with some flowers (real or silk) on my desk at work! And just like me, the product promises, “Sillyness by nature.” Indeed, this is the perfect message for me and my life.

This evening, I went to the company website to take a look. They have a great story, and I have to say, I am quite anxious to try the “Hot Chocolate Silly Cookies.”

You know, maybe this was a silly purchase. Seeing as we’re heading into summer, it’s not really hot chocolate weather, first of all. And, as I said, I purchased the hot chocolate mainly for the packaging.

But on the other hand, think about this: all-natural ingredients, great recipes, and pure yumminess (and a new office decoration, as a perk!) all for under $4.00! What’s not to love about that?

Un-Cloudy

Early this morning, the sunlight swept across the tops of the trees outside my front window in an amazing moment that held promise for a beautiful day ahead. But then I made the mistake of checking the forecast on my weather app. It instantly became clear that I was better off not knowing what the weather would hold for the next very-long-time. Every day, for the foreseeable future, held clouds and rain.

I determined that this discouraging forecast would not dampen my mood. In fact, the best way to face a soggy week is with a smile to (maybe) spread sunshine.

On my way to work, I had to stop at the Post Office to mail an Easter package for my son. The clerk at the counter was smiling pleasantly as he worked and chatting amicably with the customers. When my transaction was complete, he printed out an unnecessarily long receipt, grabbed a pen, and began to show me my tracking number, estimated delivery date, etc.

Then, he circled the QR code at the bottom of the receipt. “Here is a survey you can take to tell us how we did.”

“Are you going to offer me a gift card like they do at Lowe’s?” I asked, smiling mischievously.

He took in a breath as if to respond, but then his face clouded with a brief moment of confusion. He had no idea how to respond to that, and he burst out laughing. “I guess I can’t do that,” he finally responded, through his laughter.

“It was my job to make you laugh today,” I told him as I walked away from the counter, waving my receipt. “I am glad I succeeded!” And as I walked out the door, I could hear him still chuckling to himself.

A string of cloudy days that stretches as far as the eye can see demands a bit of laughter. That’s a challenge I am happy to accept!

Believing in Magic

Navigating the many aspects of childhood can be an interesting journey. There are a million situations in which kids walk a line between the reality of the world and some magical thoughts of their own making (or the making of society), simply because their imaginations allow them to believe in magic. Santa. The Easter Bunny. The Tooth Fairy. This list is lengthy.

Recently, when I was sorting through some (very) old papers, I came across a reminder of my previous parenting life, back when all three of my children still had one foot firmly planted in the magical, and it was my job—as a parent—to make sure the magic remained for as long as possible. But as a single parent, things didn’t always go smoothly.

After all, perpetuating magic is a difficult job. Everything we say… everything we do… it’s all being registered by the little ones around us, even when we don’t know they are listening. Magic takes careful planning, much thought, attention to detail, and a lot of work. It is no wonder, then, that sometimes we slip up.

The note I recently uncovered reminded me that the Tooth Fairy forgot to come. It was one of those moments when I was—no doubt—jolted awake in the early morning hours when I realized that I had forgotten my role in the magic just a bit too late. Despite my best intentions, I had failed. Instead, I had to make up a story about why the Tooth Fairy didn’t come, and some blending of various reasons came out. Unlike Santa, the Tooth Fairy can’t always get to every house…. Teeth are heavy, and if she collects too many teeth one night, she has difficulty flying….

Really, I don’t remember the story I made up, but it seemed to be enough as the child in question believed me. And somehow, over the years, I was able to instill just enough lasting magic—despite occasional slip-ups—that a bit lingers in my now grown children. Because if you think about it, shouldn’t everyone hold onto a little bit of magic in their lives?

Firefly Season

It’s firefly season in New Hampshire, a magical time that awakens the memories of long summer days and playful nights from my childhood. Each year, I discover firefly season quite by accident, and it always takes me by surprise—as if I had forgotten that fireflies exist.

This year, I was walking along a path through the woods with my children. I saw a tiny yellow-green flash against the darkness of the woods. And then another. “Fireflies!” I exclaimed, though my children had already seen them. Each evening since, I have taken a walk just before dusk darkens to night, so I might once again experience their fleeting magic before they slip away until next year.

Fireflies bring me back to childhood summers. Bedtimes were extended to accommodate early July activities—picnics and fireworks and ice cream. We would venture out into the darkness with jars to catch as many of these magical insects as we could. Bugs that light up! We would follow them with our eyes, attempting to predict their path in the darkness, hoping their bright tails would reappear where we were expecting them. As we opened our jars to catch the next firefly, one or two might escape, and the chase would begin anew. At the end of our hunt, when it was way past time to go to bed, we would open our jars and set them all free.

Firefly season always brings me back to those magical nights of childhood. I can feel the warm summer air and soft breezes. I can smell the scent of grass and dew. I can hear the muffled voices of my parents by the open window and the squeals and giggles of childhood.

When I spot the first firefly,  I am right there, surrounded by all the richness of life.

{Photo by Steve Halama on Unsplash}

Jalopy

We are driving up the highway on our way home from a typical crazy trip out. The afternoon started with a long-awaited appointment, and spilled into a trip to the craft store for fabric paint for a school project, a hop into the grocery store for two necessary items for a cake, and a stop at the pharmacy, which (for future reference) closes early on Saturdays.

Just behind my peripheral vision, the clouds are on fire with the setting sun. Up ahead, the sky is tinged with residual pink, as if someone took a paintbrush and accidentally touched a couple spots with the wrong color. It is this time of day on this drive up the highway (as wonder streaks the sky with end-of-day color) when I am most likely to feel that Dad is present.

Suddenly, a large pick up truck pulls alongside my car, then passes me. He is towing a trailer on which rests enough of another truck to allow me to recognize it as an antique from the 1930s.

“There’s a jalopy,” I comment, speaking as much to myself as to my daughter, sitting in the passenger seat. The sight of the antique truck and the recall of the word “jalopy” bring to mind memories of being in the backseat as a child with Dad driving. He would comment on a jalopy on the road or sitting on someone’s front lawn.

“What’s a jalopy?” my daughter asks.

I smile to myself, remembering Dad. “Look it up when we get home.” It’s a Grampa word, I want to tell her, but I don’t.

“I don’t even know how to spell that. How can I look it up?” she asks.

“You’ll figure it out,” I say.

What a great word. Jalopy.

Rediscovered Treasure

This weekend, winter decided to move in. On Saturday, the temperature dropped several degrees, and the snow began to fall just before noon. And Saturday was the day I chose to sort through my Christmas ornaments to decide what I would keep and what I would give away. After all, some of the ornaments in my collection have been kicking around since I was just out of college. And even earlier.

Nowadays, I tend not to burden my tree with an overabundance of ornaments like I did when the kids were younger. Mostly because I like it simple—lights and a few sparkly ornaments to reflect the light back into the room. But there is also the fact that my teenagers are excited about decorating the tree, but not so excited about taking it down after Christmas.

So I sat on the couch and opened the large, green plastic tote, removed the first cardboard box, and began to unwrap small tissue paper balls to rediscover what was inside. Plastic animals dressed in Santa hats with wreaths, hand-painted cinnamon sticks and wooden disks picked up at a long forgotten craft fair, needlepoint plastic canvas squares… these were the items that found themselves in the ever-growing “give away” pile.

As I sorted, I came upon a yellowed box that said, “Mom’s dwarfs” in the handwriting of … I’m not really sure … one of my aunts, maybe? And in pencil, in a similar handwriting, it said, “For Suzanne from Nana.” More recently written were a number of notes in Dad’s handwriting: instructions about being careful, about the fact that there were extra parts wrapped up by themselves, about the things that Dad would typically warn me about as he removed these very fragile items from their carefully crafted tissue paper cocoons.

And now, I pulled one out of the box and placed it in my lap. I unrolled the tissue, getting closer and closer to the treasure it held. The weight of the ornament was less than one might expect, making it easy to fumble or accidentally drop it. But it was cradled securely in my lap. Finally, I was rewarded for my care when I spied the first glint of pointy shoes, a leg, and then a jolly face, its paint cracked and peeling from years of use.

My breath caught in my throat as I could feel Dad’s large hand carefully placing the “dwarf” ornament in my own then small hand. Each year, without fail, before he let go, he would ask, “Got it?” double-checking that this delicate figure was secure and would not fall to the floor where it might meet its demise.

The fact that these old ornaments had seen better days did not make them any less precious. The memories they evoked were worth the extra care needed. Of course, now that I have carefully unwrapped these very fragile ornaments on my own, I believe they are less fragile than all the past fuss would indicate. No matter. I still took great care as I hung them on the branches of my tree.

My one question that will never be answered: why, with elves all around at this time of year, did these ornaments end up being labeled “dwarves” rather than “elves” that might be more fitting for the Christmas season? I suppose I’ll never know. I will be left to devise my own theory.

 

 

Of Memory and Circuses

In honor of the final show of the of the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus that is happening today, May 21, I thought I would reminisce on the circuses of my past. In truth, my life as a single mom is often a bit of a circus, but I will stick to a discussion of circuses in the entertainment sense of the word.

When I was very young, I attended my first circus. I don’t remember how old I was, and I don’t remember where the circus was. I only remember that it was under a tent in a large field. It was a cold, rainy day, and my very scattered memories of that event include the fabric of the tent, the hay that was scattered on the ground to keep the mud under control, and the mingling smells of damp hay, dirt, and animals. I remember Dad’s large, warm hand holding my small one as we made our way to our seats. And that is pretty much my only recollection of that trip to the circus.

My second trip to the circus did not involve a performance under a tent. This one was a performance of The Great Moscow Circus in a large indoor arena about an hour from our home. [Side note: my childhood took place during the Cold War years]. It was a beautiful, sunny day, though I cannot remember the season of the year; I think it may have been somewhat cool outside. We made our way to our seats, and Dad left to visit the men’s room before the show began. A few minutes later, as my sister and I bounced in our seats in anticipation, we heard an announcement that began, “Ladies and Gentlemen….” The announcer continued, letting us know that we needed to evacuate the arena. We had a brief moment of disbelief before Mom gathered us up and headed for the door. As we descended the stairs and began to move toward the exit, we met up with Dad, and we made our way back to the car. We sat in the car, listening to the local radio station, but no news came as to why we had to evacuate. After a time, we were allowed back in the building, and the show went on as if nothing had happened. Later, we would learn there had been a bomb threat which necessitated the evacuation for a thorough search. I don’t remember any of the show that day, only the evacuation.

My third trip to the circus was to celebrate my younger son’s sixth birthday. We went to the Ringling Brothers pre-show first, where we met some of the clowns and saw some of the performers. I’m not sure how much of that experience my children will remember as time marches on. This is the only circus performance I remember—because it was much more recent—and I only remember bits and pieces. I think traditional circuses tend to be far too busy and flashy to appeal to those of us who can only pay attention to one thing at a time.

The moral of my circus story is that parents can spend time with children in all kinds of activities. Ultimately, what children will remember is the time together (and sometimes any occurrences out of the ordinary) rather than the activity, itself.