Sunday, September 26, 2010

Brilliant, bountiful autumn: I take comfort in you

I take comfort in the changing of seasons. The earth's heartbeat causes vegetation to bud, bloom, fade, and then blow to the ground as sudden as a burst of wind. Comfort exists in knowing it will happen again in due season - as brilliant and bountiful as before.

Autumn is the culmination of all that has been pushing forth since spring. A fantastic feeding of fruits, grains, and vegetables that have come to fruition - fully formed and formidably flavorful.

My fall favorites for feasting? Baked goods made with Wisconsin apples and snacks comprised only of Wisconsin cheese.

Therefore, when autumn comes to Iowa that means it is time for our family to visit neighboring Wisconsin to stock up on ... what else? Apples and cheese. I think of it as our fall forage; my sons and husband think of it as "Mom will soon celebrate Pie Baking Day." This purely personal holiday occurs once (sometimes twice) a year with the date and time unknown other than this: It will most certainly happen on a Saturday or Sunday after we have gone to Gays Mills and Mt. Sterling for apples and cheese.

We took our annual trip today; so sometime soon - when the mood strikes me - I'll begin to peel, mix, fold, roll, and bake at least three to five apple pies with perhaps a pumpkin and a pecan provided for variety.

This annual autumn tradition began - for me - when I was a child. For Mark, it began the year we were engaged, and for the boys, the first fall of their respective births. This was the first year Skye didn't come along with us; and while he was missed, Mark and I knew his absence is part of that inevitable pulling away. He has experiences he wants to live that are separate from us. That's good. That's inevitable. Yet I also believe it is inevitable that part of him will always be called to cross the Mississippi River each fall to forage like his family has for decades.

Our family is back together tonight, and Skye couldn't wait to eat an apple cider donut and then munch on fresh cheese curds, listening to their freshness squeak in his mouth. Those experiences are part of him; I believe they will always call to him each fall when the days grow shorter, the air gets cooler and the land looks richer in a harvest-sort-of-way.

That's as it should be. We grow older. We teach our children what we choose to from all that our parents taught us, then our children choose what they will pass on to their children. But all in due season. I take comfort in that.

May what ripens for harvest in my son's lives be a culmination of only the best of all that has come before - only the best of my good fruits, brilliant and bountiful.

Amen. May it indeed be so.

P.S. Tina Schroyer Berg - It was so good to run into your family and to know that you, too, enjoy spending a glorious fall day (sunny, crisp 50ยบ weather) together. Hunter looks like both you and Jim, but I think he especially favors you! Yay, North High class of ... (Well, you know. I don't need to say.) I hope you don't mind being featured in my vlog. I thought it was so fun that we just kept crossing paths!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Man is a Genius - I Have Proof

I realize that wives can sound biased in conversations regarding their husbands. Too many accolades can come off as too much ... uh ... too much ... well, let's just leave it at "too much."

But today I believe I found proof that my husband is a genius. At a minimum, I found proof that he is the kind of professional who stays abreast of the latest developments in his field - digital technology - and that he knows when to believe what is being touted in a trade journal and when to leave well enough alone.

Ok, I hear you, students who lived through the Jaz Drive era in the multimedia lab. He missed on that. But so did a lot of others. Therefore, I am very willing to cut him some slack.

Even with that Jaz Drive decision on his record, Mark still is a genius. I found the proof in a newspaper article titled "Cosmic Communications" from the Sunday, July 28, 1996, Mason City Globe Gazette. It was part of their 2001 North Iowa Economic Odyssey series. The article was written only a year or so after the Internet began to become part of daily life, and the reporter interviewed Mark along with other individuals regarded as local technology experts.

Please check out Mark's quote in the prediction box. While another individual shares the quote (not sure how that works), Mark's solitary genius is apparent in another portion of the article where he is credited with predicting that within five years, "company-wide 'intranets' will become more widely available for corporation insiders to use with a back door to their server on the Internet." Not bad. Actually pretty incredible.

I dare you to read Mark's "prediction" in the quote box and not wonder if he harbored some latent prototype designs that could have been cousins to today's Blackberry or iPhone. Most likely the iPhone or iPad, as he has always been a fan of Apple Computers. Always. Our first computing system was an Apple IIe. Now our youngest is using his confirmation money to purchase an iPad - with his father's blessing.

Really, check it out:

In the future, people will not only work at home with their personal computers, but probably will begin doing more computing with their television set.

There may be one unit capable of providing entertainment and completing work.

People will have the option of choosing with their remote control whether they want to just watch television or balance their checkbook or complete a homework assignment at the same time.

In time, the television, telephone and computer will all be melded together in one unit.

When I finished reading that today, I almost thought Mark might have possessed the ability - 14 years ago - to foresee how Stross would head into the bathroom to do his daily, every-four-hour cares, armed with his iPod and its storehouse of downloaded music, movies and television shows or his ongoing, interactive Facebook conversations and weather updates.

Our sons know their father's technological tendencies. In fact, they possess some of the same. So do many of Mark's former students. In the past 17 years, as Mark has learned, they have too; and those whose minds move like Mark's typically moved on to a career where technology motivates.

So, think what you will. Just know that when I read Mark's pull quote in this article today, I filled with pride. My husband is a genius.

Of course I knew that. But now I have proof.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Happy, Happy, Joy, Joy

From time to time I, Joy, receive a compliment that sounds exactly like this: “Your parents sure knew what they were doing when they named you.”

Or this: “You sure live up to your name.”

While I am flattered by such a comment, I am not compelled by a sense of obligation. Because my name is Joy, I do not have to be happy. In fact, sometimes, I am not. Sometimes being Joy means being sad or angry. Like last week, for instance, when my name could have been Distraught. That day I was distraught for the best part of an afternoon – until I learned that our insurance company was wrong (as I had suspected). We did not owe them thousands of dollars for four months worth of wrongfully paid healthcare expenses related to Stross’ daily living needs. Thank, God. We did not.

Once they verified the clerical error, I was relieved. Then, almost as immediately, I became extremely tired. Nineteen years worth of tired, in fact. For no matter how well my life might move along for stretches at a time, I know that I can be thrown into instant emotional upheaval over something as seemingly benign as a clerical error – even when I am 98% certain the error is not ours. A 2% portion of doubt can cause a unique version of terror (“Is this the moment we become financially bankrupt?”), even renewed grief. That will always be true. As the mother of a child born with life-shaping disabilities, I am familiar with sorrow and acquainted with grief.

In the instance I shared above, renewed grief looked like this: After the insurance representative apologized for the error, I began to cry. I cried awkward phone tears – the kind that choke your normal speaking voice and have the potential to scare the person who cannot see you. So I forced myself to speak. I didn’t want her to think I was crazy.

“I just want to thank you,” I said. “We will have a new insurance company in a few days, and our family will miss your company.” Sob. Choke. “You have taken good care of us. Especially our son. Thank you for that.” Choke. More tears. More forced words. “And I just want you to know we will miss you.”

It was her turn. She began gently and quietly.

“Oh. Thank you so much. That is very kind of you to say. We will miss you, too. … You know, I don’t even think I got your name before they passed your call to me.”

Now I had to forcefully push out words while trying to hold back a sob ... and a laugh.

“It’s … Joy.”

The irony of my name made me laugh. I could laugh. So could she – at meeting such a miserable Joy. Momentarily miserable, at least.

Let me be perfectly clear: My son’s life is not misery; I am not miserable because of him. Sometimes life brings things that make specific moments miserable. I learned how that can be so, courtesy of Stross, and I thank him for that.

But tonight I am thankful for a new type of understanding. Tonight I am aware that I am not happy. Not really. That also does not mean I am sad. Or depressed. I am just not happy – not content. And it has nothing to do with my children or my husband. It has everything to do with me.

Clarity about my unhappiness began September 7 when I was in Waverly to lead a media relations workshop for rural emergency first responders. The evening before the meeting, I enjoyed supper with some good friends who live there – reconnecting, through them, with periods in my life when I lived with a sense of purpose. Then, before returning home after the workshop the next day, I visited the Wartburg College campus to pick up a dessert and a cup of coffee for the road.

I didn’t go straight to the coffee house, however. I began walking campus. I let my feet take me places that looked new and yet were familiar. I felt the wonder of knowing exactly where I was, even when places looked different. Once I even tried to get lost, but I couldn’t. I knew exactly where I was going even when wandering aimlessly. And I loved the assurance of it.

Please understand. My assurance wasn’t about the physical location of my body as it moved through a familiar place. It came from another dimension. Moving through that familiar place helped me connect to a version of myself who knew exactly who she was and what she believed possible.

I found Happy Joy again. I had not realized I had left her behind.

Happy Joy has actually been with me for at least four decades – long past my days as a coed on that college campus. Of course, I remember her during our engagement, our wedding, our honeymoon, newlywed life, a first job, a second job that began to look like a career, a move back to Iowa, a job that was the start of a career, Stross’ birth (yes, Stross’ birth), and even during Stross’ early years.

Happy Joy even hung in there through some radical career changes for both Mark and me that resulted in a move to a town we likely would have never chosen to live in had a career opportunity for Mark not found him in an uncommon way. Happy Joy loved seeing Mark uncommonly happy, and she loved the challenge of finding a way to stay happy herself. She definitely loved giving birth to her second child, another son who brought her the opportunity to experience what other women did when they gave birth.

Now this is where I need to stop trying to explain where Happy Joy went; because, as I said earlier, she has been with me all along. What I have come to understand most recently, however, is this: Her happiness has not been a priority and that has adversely affected her – me – and our family. It might even be harming her and her future.

Because I know people who have wrestled with depression, I know avoiding depression is impossible. Fortunately, I am not depressed. But, as I said, I am not happy. Not really.

There is good news in this. Coming to the realization that I am not happy has helped me identify what gets me there: a sense of purpose, an opportunity to be an agent of change – positive change – that affects someone else’s life in a way they had not thought possible. Happy Joy shows up when I am being the truest version of myself, and in doing so, I cause something to happen that only I could make possible.

I can list examples of what that has looked like in the past. But I don’t want to here. My personal inventory is simply that: personal. Will I share it with you one day? You bet, but it will have to wait until I finish connecting all my dots. I might need to wander a few more familiar pathways and allow myself to reconnect to a few more times and places where I can remember what it has meant to be me.

But the best news is this: I have invited Happy Joy to join me on this journey. And I have given her a new name: Hope.

Saturday, September 11, 2010

Birthday KISSes

I spent my 46th birthday doing something I would never have imagined in any previous year of life: I went to a KISS concert.

I had a fabulous time.

Perhaps I needed to wait until I was in my 40s for such an experience. Perhaps I simply wasn’t ready for the wonder that is glam rock when I was a teen.

As I recall my life in the 70s and 80s, songs were one thing – bands another. For instance, I remember singing along to every cut on Meatloaf’s Bat Out of Hell whenever someone played that cassette on a boom box, usually on a bus ride to something like a field trip, a speech competition, a music contest or a softball game. Every song on that album was (is) incredible. I found (and continue to find) the lyrical imagery of songs like Paradise by the Dashboard Lights and You Took the Words Right Out of My Mouth inspirational - poetically, metaphorically, and theatrically.

Seriously. For those who have ears to hear, rock has a heart. Heck, rock even has soul.

Still I could not bring myself to buy that revolutionary Meatloaf album so many years ago. A good girl like me simply could not own an album with such a hellish title. But what an awesome, awesome album. So awesome, in fact, that I finally broke down and bought it during my third decade of life. By then I didn’t even need to fool myself into believing that I only wanted it for workouts. I knew I just wanted to own it. Finally. For myself.

So imagine my adolescent conflict over a band that could make your heart ache with a ballad like Beth but was tagged with the demonic descriptor “Knights in Satan’s Service.” Instinct told me the erroneous moniker for KISS was overrated. Yet I remained cautious of being negatively affected by a band that was fronted by a gregarious “starchild” and a diabolical bass player who breathed fire and spit blood from a mouth that contained an extraordinarily long tongue.

I could never have owned one of their albums (as much as I would have loved to) let alone go to one of their concerts. Heavens! What would people have thought? What might have happened to me?

Evidently this year, at 46 years of age, I no longer cared, for I was ready to kiss caution a fond farewell and welcome the wonder of KISS. Credit for this lies squarely with my oldest son, Stross, a card-carrying member of the KISS Army who began lobbying for a KISS birthday celebration in my honor as soon as he learned the band would appear at the Minnesota State Fair –“on your birthday, Mom!” That pronouncement occurred shortly after Memorial Day; my birthday occurred on the Saturday of Labor Day weekend. I gave in to Stross’ suggestion just after Independence Day and then spent a few days musing over what I had done. Fortunately, it didn’t take long for me to understand that I was poised for one of my most magical birthdays ever. I was not wrong.

While I simply could not have gone to a KISS concert back when KISS first began reshaping the way music was made, somehow I could go to a concert of theirs as a grown, middle-aged woman in the company of her sons and her rocker-at-heart husband. I believe I became caught – once again – by Stross’ joy for the stuff of life. Such a gift. A wonderful birthday gift.

I cannot adequately convey how, as a teen, I was ill equipped to take in the multi-sensory sensationalism of a stadium filled with people who were ready to rock and roll all night and then party every day. Yet now I long for those kind of days, grateful that I can still introduce my children to the kinesthetic phenomenon that is KISS – a band no longer marked as Knights in Satan’s Service but, instead, revered as a group of 60-something super seniors (well, at least Paul and Gene) who are still able to capture the imaginations of everyone in a stadium while prancing across the stage in 40-pound glam costumes that feature 7” platform shoes and dramatic full-face make-up. And it must also be noted that they are still fully capable of flying into their light riggings to play soaring riffs that remind everyone that God really did give rock and roll for the pleasure of everyone.

That night, when the stadium lights went dark and the announcer requested that we all get ready for “the hottest band in the world,” I did not get goose bumps. However, when the stage lights came up and the music swelled, my eyes locked onto the lighted KISS backdrop – still a classic – and I involuntarily smiled the entire time a hydraulic lift slowly moved the band down to the stage amid thunderous applause and cheering. I was at a KISS concert. Me. Thank you, Stross.

That beautifully cool evening, one of summer’s last, was just right for an outdoor concert. A time to kiss things of the past goodbye while welcoming a new year of life – the 46th year of my birth. Of my life.

Had it been a hot summer night, I might even have been ready to offer my “throat to the wolf with the red roses.” But it wasn’t a night for Meatloaf. It was a night for KISSing. More specifically, for collecting birthday kisses – from my husband, my youngest son, my oldest son; and yes, ladies and gentleman, even – metaphorically – from “the hottest band in the world: KISS!”
Who knows what the coming year will bring for me? Most likely, something I would never have been able to do when a young woman. And isn't that simply wonderful? Isn't that the way it should be?

Rock and roll, baby. I say, "Bring it on!"

Saturday, September 4, 2010

My Birthday Gift to You

Stross has a beautiful singing voice. We are daily reminded of that, as he sings through most of his day. Sometimes, like when he is in the bathroom completing his daily medical cares, he sings with a full, robust voice.

However, Stross is an elusive singer. By that I mean that you have to catch him singing, and you have to be an audience he trusts. Command performances are not this thing.

Well, there was a night back in May when he serenaded Mark and I with his rendition of "Beth" by KISS. That was the first time he a sang solo for anyone; I am glad it was for us. The performance happened at his initiative, and it was wonderful. So sweet. So pure. But I wasn't able to record it for posterity.

So ... a few weeks later we were riding in the car as a family. It was Mark and my anniversary, and Stross told us he wanted to sing "Beth" for us again as our gift. Because Stross sits directly behind me in our van, he couldn't see that I had grabbed the Flip camera and was capturing his voice (and his chatter) as he sang. That's why the video looks strange. I added a special effect on the imagery to distort the seat upholstery and the side of my door. They were too distracting. I only wanted the audio. I only wanted to preserve the moments filled with Stross' singing.

That brings me to today.

Today - Sept. 4 - is my birthday. I can guarantee that Stross will offer to sing "Beth" for me again as a gift. Guaranteed. I promise I will tell you why I am so confident about this in a future blog - once I have proof that I am right. And, if I am wrong, I will tell you that too. (But I won't be wrong.)

And I am so looking forward to my gift.

Until then, I see no reason that Mark, Skye and I are the only ones able to enjoy the delight of Stross' gift of song.

Please consider this my birthday gift to you.

Thursday, September 2, 2010

The last ones dancing

Now that I have a Flip camera, it seems I have a difficult time not capturing certain moments of life as I see them unfolding. And so many things seem to unfold in the intense moments just before a bride walks down the aisle. Same for the intimate moments of the ceremony itself and the instantaneous moments that occur once the celebrating truly begins.

Our family attended the wedding of a former student near the end of August. I caught some of it on video; the bride gave me her blessing to share it with you. If you choose to watch it, you still won't be able to see what I saw. For, like other married persons, I experience weddings as a time of personal reflection. This day was no different. Well, other than the fact that on the way to the wedding, Mark and I argued in the car - loudly. Yes, we exposed our children to the nonsense of a marital fight. I would use the word "disagreement," but who would I be kidding? When a husband and a wife argue, it is a fight with words. Someone wants to win.

Am I ashamed our sons were captive to such? Yes. Does that mean Mark and I will never do such a thing again? I hope so. But odds are against it. We love intensely; we fight intensely. We make up reluctantly, but intentionally. We try to be sure our sons get to see the "it's all better" part too.

Of course I cannot remember what was so important to be right about. After all, winning is about being right. Right? It was something totally stupid, I am sure. I have a feeling if I ask either of our sons, they could tell me. But I won't ask. Who wants to dredge then reexamine stupidity? Not I.

What I do remember from that day is realizing that Mark and I are extremely different from the blushing bride and bursting-with-pride groom we were in 1986. On the Friday of Memorial Day weekend that year, we stood arm-in-arm, listening to the officiant of our wedding, Rev. Larry Trachte, declare that May 30 was "a day marked with joy." Then, as newlyweds during Mark's seminary years, we became Mark and Joy. I'd even say that the experiences of that time period turned us into Mark&Joy - a symbiotic couple whose relationship further deepened and solidified after a miscarriage and the birth of our first child only a few years later.

Nearly 25 years since we said our own "I dos" (I believe we actually said "I will"), it remains difficult to know where one of us ends and other other begins. That isn't necessarily good.

During the summer of 2000, we treated ourselves to some marriage counseling sessions and discovered how intensely entwined our relationship had become. We had not lost our individual identities, but we had to admit that Stross had caused Mark&Joy to become exponentially more important than either Mark or Joy.

That is still true today. In fact, I can't imagine it not being true, and I'm not sure if that is necessarily good, either. But it is, what it is, as they say.

Here is what I do know. When Mark takes a hit, I get bruised; and when I get cut, Mark bleeds. What's more, if someone dares to bare his or her teeth our direction, it is not clear which one of us will have the most difficult time not biting back.

On the day of this wedding, once we had time for tempers to cool - courtesy of a wedding aura - Mark and I welcomed the opportunity to come together at the invitation of the dj: "All married couples, come join the bride and groom for a special anniversary dance." And had we not willingly walked to the dance floor together, our sons would have insisted.

What occurred next, however, brought even more perspective. The dj kept announcing criteria for which couples could remain on the dance floor: "Everyone except the bride and groom who has been married X number of years or less, please have a seat." Finally, four announcements of time increments later, guess which couple was almost the last one dancing? Mark&Joy. According to the bride's estimate, we outlasted everyone but the groom's parents.

This silly dancing game reminded us that long marriages are, indeed, rare. And that, at nearly 25 years, our marriage might be as rare as we have always believed it to be.

When we vowed to spend our lives with one another one quarter of a century ago, we had no ability to comprehend how different we would be from the young man and young woman who stood facing each other, hand-in-hand that day. If that tall, handsome, smiley, Southern Baptist man came to find me today, I'm not sure I'd know what to do. I'm confident Mark would have the same difficulty if he found himself face to face with the dark-eyed, daintier, dimpled darling I used to be.

I wish I could have done a better job capturing all the moments that have shaped who we have become. But I would have needed a Flip camera capable of capturing faith. No piece of film, no byte of data can ever make that come to be. Memory even fails. But that doesn't matter, I will never forget what I have. It is exactly what I hoped for nearly 25 years ago: a life partner who continues to stand beside me no matter what life threatens to throw our way. And his faith in us and our future remains as fierce as it was so many years ago.

For a guy who grew up not going to dances, he's sure an incredible dancer. And I'm incredibly blessed to be the one who gets to dance with him. I sure hope we aren't taking it for granted that - as on the night of that wedding - we are becoming some of the last ones still dancing together.

"For I know the plans I have for you ... plans to prosper, and not to harm; plans for hope and a future."

Dear God, search us and know our hearts; test us and know our thoughts. See if there are any wicked ways in us, and lead us in the way everlasting. And, dear God, please keep us close. Allow us to keep feeling your heart while we dance for we wish to remain with you through it all - until the last ones dancing.