It Wasn’t My Finest Moment

“It wasn’t my finest moment,” I told the kids. Juan and Crystel were eating at our kitchen island.

Juan looked up briefly. “I was thinking about that,” he said.

Crystel just smiled. She likes a faulty mother.

Jody was gone for the weekend.

Our family volunteers at Loaves and Fishes at Wood Lake Lutheran church once month. Loaves and Fishes is a free meal program that has served those in need across Minnesota since 1981. We’ve been volunteering once a month for three years. “It’s our church,” I tell the kids. For various reasons, we haven’t found a traditional home church. “Church is about giving and receiving, and this is what our family does,” I further explained.

The evening before was our ‘church’ night. When we arrived to volunteer, I was disheartened to see that the cook had changed. I don’t know why that would surprise me. It’s less turnover then I have at work. This would have only been the third cook in three years. That’s not so bad. I just wasn’t ready for it. The cook is a non-profit hired chef. The chef plans menus, orders food and manages the volunteers, who sign up online as I did.

Juan, Crystel, and I put on our aprons and hairnets. I asked the twenty-something cook what he’d like us to do.

Juan turned to me and said, “What did he say?”

“We are going to serve coffee.”

His eyes lit up. “All three of us?” His voice was full of hope.

The last time we were at ‘church’, I let Juan skip out and go home to finish a homework assignment. Wood Lake Lutheran Church is only three blocks from our home. There was plenty of volunteers and he wasn’t being particularly helpful that evening. Tonight, I had told them before we arrived that if anyone left early, this time it would be Crystel. It was her turn. That was my mistake. Allowing Juan and Crystel to leave early. After all, this was church. We were here for the sermon.

Most times there is a shortage of volunteers and there isn’t even a question of leaving early. Everyone has a job. Everyone is needed. I often had pointed this out to Juan and Crystel, “What if we wouldn’t have come tonight? Who would have helped with dishes? Or served? Or cleaned up?”

Juan knew what it meant if three of us were going to serve coffee.

“You know,” he started. “I know it’s Crystel’s turn to leave early and I’m okay with that. But maybe, just maybe, you could serve coffee by yourself?”

“We’ll see,” I said.

A finer moment.

There were five servers on the line and one person in back to wash dishes. I left Juan and Crystel to serve coffee while I went in back to dry dishes. After a flood of people went through the line to be served, I came back to check on Juan and Crystel.

Crystel raised her eyebrows. “Just wait,” I said. “I’m going to have something to eat and we’ll see.”

I regarded the five volunteers on the serving line standing with a utensil in hand or using the counter as support. I got my tray and sat down.

“Okay, Crystel,” I said. “You can leave.”

She jumped up and was gone.

“What about me?” Juan asked. “Look, they’re not doing anything.” He nodded to the servers.

I had already noticed them and it was starting to irritate me. The young people on the line were probably fulfilling a service learning requirement for college. They weren’t real volunteers … like us. They needed to be here. They were getting something out of it.

“Go ahead.”

From where I sat, I watched the clean dishes pile up because there wasn’t anyone drying and putting away. I served the occasional person who wanted coffee, milk, or water. The pile of dishes continued to grow. It occurred to me that if I wouldn’t have let Juan and Crystel leave that I could have been back there helping. Now I was bound to my station.

When I got home, I startled the children. They looked at the time.

“You’re done early?” They both said at once.

“No. I left.”

“What?!?”

“I left.” Even as I said it, I was wondering, who does that? Who leaves a job they volunteered for just because they got mad that people weren’t helping? If you’re a volunteer, aren’t you a volunteer because you love giving back? Because you love to be of service?

“Volunteers were just standing there, and dishes were piling up in back and I decided that I wasn’t going to dry them. I just left.”

Juan and Crystel didn’t say anything.

It took me twenty-four hours, but I realized that we had gotten away from the message, the spirit of volunteering, of giving back.

“Guys, no one goes home early anymore. No matter how many volunteers come,” I said. “It’s what it is. It’s our church.”

Inventing a Life

During recent conversations with friends, I realized that each of us is considering how to reinvent our lives. One is widowed at 65. Another’s ailing father recently died, ending her time-consuming caretaking responsibilities. A third friend is trying to understand what retirement will look like. I’m contemplating how my life will change when my oldest son moves to the West Coast in a few weeks.

The widow said, “What do I do with all of the expectations I had?” Unspoken is how devastating her loss is. Her best friend is gone. Her children live out of town. This is not what she imagined for her life.

The friend whose father died now has the ability think about how she wants to use her free time. She said, “Now is the time to enlarge my circle of friends and activities. I’m going to need them as I get older.” Unspoken was the awareness that some friends might move away—to warmer climates or to be closer to grandkids—and some will get sick or die. During the next 30 years, the ranks will thin out. Better to cast a wider net.

My semi-retired friend is also considering how to enrich her next 30 years. She already has a full life—plenty of friends, her writing projects, yoga, biking and more. She asked, “What experiences do I still want to have?”

I don’t have answers for my friends, but I do understand the questions. Numerous times, I’ve had to re-envision my life.

Sometimes I’ve embraced the need for a major life change, like when my husband and I decided to downsize and move from the suburbs to the city. We eagerly searched for a new house and tried to picture ourselves in a variety of neighborhoods. We were seeking a new lifestyle, and I was excited about the possibilities.

Other major changes were thrust on me, like family illnesses. When my younger son severely injured his knee and needed to rehab with my husband and me, we all had to figure out the new dynamics.

How odd he must have felt to move into one of our spare bedrooms at 25. He’d been on his own and managing well since he was 19. While he was bedridden, we cooked for him and helped him wash up. He could make his own health care and financial decisions, but little else was under his control at first. When he wanted privacy, he even had to ask someone else to close his door.

Seeing him grimacing in pain and knowing that I couldn’t fix that was hard for me. I also had to walk the line between suitable caretaking like fetching ice packs or water and fussing too much. None of us knew what the next day or next week would bring, but I knew we’d figure it out. And we did.

Image taken by Daniel Schwen. Made available through Wikimedia Commons.

Some big changes are mixed blessings, like my oldest son moving out west. He and his significant other have dreamed about new opportunities for him and a well-regarded medical residency program for her. After months of uncertainty, their life is unfolding as they had hoped. I’m excited for them and think the Bay area will be fun to visit. But I’ll really miss them and know our time together will work differently. We won’t have the impromptu dinners and walks we all love. Instead, our future visits will be planned well in advance. We will need to create different rituals for birthdays and holidays. Inevitably, he’ll be far away and miss out on some events, like going for a beer with his brother, hearing my husband’s band perform, or attending one of my publication readings.

Whenever I’ve undergone a major life change, I’ve had to invent a life that better fits my new circumstances. That requires emotional energy, and sometimes that’s hard to find. But I’ve been separated from family before. My husband and I moved away from my Ohio family nearly 30 years ago. I know a lot about maintaining strong long distance connections.

So I’ve begun thinking about how we can use phone calls and FaceTime to maintain close ties with my son after he moves. I’ve checked out airfares. Bit by bit I’m inventing the new shape of my life.

Only In My Dreams

Only in my dreams do I sprint toward the hurdle. When I’m two feet away, I bring my right leg up to my butt and quickly extend it over the bar. It’s a beautiful thing, a split in midair. I continue scaling hurdle after hurdle until my final sprint across the finish line.

I’ve never done hurdles. I was the high schooler who after running the anchor in a relay or the 200-yard dash, went to the restroom, pulled a cigarette out of my gym bag, and smoked in the last stall.

Last week, I didn’t smell the tell-tale odor of cigarette smoke at Juan Jose’s conference track meet. No girl was hiding in the last stall.

I love watching Juan, Crystel, and their teammates run. I’ve known most of the team from kindergarten. At the meets, I can tell who the runner is by their body build, their stance and style before they even hit the straight away, their legs pumping up and down, their breath filling their lungs, and their arms propelling them forward. I stand twenty-five or fifty yards from the finish line, hollering, “Go Richfield, Go!”

It doesn’t matter to me where the runners place. It’s their heart that I love. I’m drawn to the winners and the losers, who give every ounce of energy that they have to the race. I’m drawn to the runners who strategize in the 800 and mile, who plan their break away, two hundred or a hundred meters from the finish. I’m drawn to the runners who starts at an all out run in the 200 and 400-meter dash, who have expended it all by the time they cross the finish line.

That is courage.

This track year, I was particularly drawn to a little guy with red hair, a sixth grader, who lined up for long distance races, who had to know that he was going to end up last or second to last and ran every race anyway. He stayed true to his nature and when he was one hundred meters from the finish line, he sprinted as if he was going to be first. I imagined him levitating, running on air those last one hundred meters. His feet were no longer on the ground, he had sprouted wings.

I remember that feeling. I quit smoking my 2-pack-a day habit in my mid-twenties, and started running marathons. I was like that red-headed sixth grader. Regardless of where I would place, I sped up towards the end of a race until my feet were off the ground and I was flying into the finish.

My days of levitating are most likely over due to a knee injury.

I’m okay with that. I can push myself in other arenas.

I’ll cheer on others. Celebrate with them.

The 200-meter race, is usually one of the last events of the meet. It was wonderful to witness the Richfield runners being first in every heat except Juan who was second in his.

Placing last, first, or second, it doesn’t matter. What matters is heart.

Lawn Care Craziness (Or in Spring, Anything Seems Possible)

I have never cared deeply about having a perfect velvety green lawn. Or rooting out dandelions, creeping charlie, and crabgrass. And yet, lately I’ve been trying to rehabilitate my lawn.

My neighbors care even less than I do, so creeping charlie crept over from one neighbor and dandelions blew in from the other neighbor. Crabgrass sensed an opportunity and launched its own attack. After only one inattentive year, our yard became The Bad Example. Clearly, its sorry state doesn’t bother my neighbors, but it does bother me.

I’ve invested a lot of time creating and cultivating flower gardens, so having a ratty weed-choked lawn seems incongruous.

Creeping charlie is the worst. I can live with it around the perimeter. But I thought it would be nice to have some actual grass in the main part of the lawn. Being organically minded, I didn’t want to nuke the yard with chemicals that would kill the weeds but poison the butterflies, bees, and birds I’m trying attract.

I read up. Several websites suggested covering the offending patch with cardboard and plastic in the fall. The heat and lack of light would kill the weeds and then I could rake them off in the spring. We tried it and all that did was kill the grass. The creeping charlie was alive and well. Sigh.

So then I began digging it up. A s l o o o w w w process. Until The Perfect Husband got involved. Boom. Done. Except for the oh-so-tedious process of knocking the soil off the dead weeds so the city would agree to take them as yard waste.

We reseeded. Lush grass is due to sprout any day. 

Meanwhile, all those dandelions I dug up last year are back and showing me who’s boss.

This focus on lawn care may be a fool’s errand. But hey, it’s spring. Anything’s possible.

Lock Your Car

October 2008

I’m a Police Reserve Officer for the city of Richfield.

Is that why, I want to shout, “No, Don’t Leave Your Wallet There!” to the lady who has her billfold sitting on the ledge in the coffee shop. Anybody could open the door, grab her billfold, and be gone.

Or, is it because I’ve stolen before?

In my teens, I did a number of things that I am not proud of. At one point, taking blank checks from my parent’s checkbook, signing their name, and then retrieving the cancelled checks from the mailbox. Our life was so chaotic that I got away with it for … awhile.

I want to holler to the woman who is walking to the shower at the YMCA, “NO, don’t leave your iPod sitting on your gym bag. Cover it!”

While still a teen, I opened the back of a car, once, and took the person’s groceries. Not because I was hungry but because it was there and because I could.

I often tell Juan Jose’ and Crystel to care for their belongings, that they could be stolen.

Soon after getting her phone, Crystel left it at our table in the restaurant, while we helped ourselves at the buffet. It wasn’t until we were walking to the car that she realized that it was gone. I saw her startled face. She was stricken. I pulled her phone out of my pocket. Told her that as far as a thief was concerned she had just laid $500 on the table and put a sign out that said, Take Me, when she walked away from the table.

Jody, Coach Marty, Beth

When I first put on a Police Reserve jacket ten years ago, it felt very comfortable. After a moment, I realized why. I had stolen a similar jacket from a river bar when I was seventeen. The bar had live music, dancing, and it was sticky hot. People piled their jackets in a corner. I eyed the pile, picked out a dark blue jacket that I thought might fit me and walked out of the bar. I wore that jacket for a couple of years.

Sunday evening, I was helping Scouts with their personal fitness badge. A billfold and phone were laying in a pile amongst papers and pencils on the ground. “Someone is going to stay here, with their stuff, right?” I asked. The Scouts had walked across the street to a park to run a mile. Still, I was nervous. I reached down and put the billfold and phone in my pocket for safekeeping.

This morning I got a text from our neighbor: FYI: someone rifled through my vehicle (on my driveway) last night. It was unlocked. I think only took some cash. I reported to police. They said at least 5 people from Morgan to Logan area reported the same thing.

I’ve sat in many police reserve trainings, and we discuss car break-ins. We provide a Theft from Auto Prevention Program by conducting a risk survey of unoccupied vehicles, in hopes that drivers will think about what they are leaving behind in their unlocked car. We tuck the result of our inspection under windshield wipers.

I text her back: It happened to us as well. Too embarrassed to report. Jody and I are Police Reserve Officers.

I also use my past as an example that people make mistakes and can change.