Alpharetta, GA

After driving overnight to our sit in Georgia we were hungry, exhausted and in need of a shower.  We arrived and found the house key under the mat.  Our hosts had left that morning and communicated very little with us via text.  They had had many sitters before and seemed to prefer non contact transitions, not too unusual these days with Covid-19.  For us it feels a bit odd letting ourselves into a stranger’s home.  It is a big beautiful house, and we expected to be greeted by the two dogs who had been home alone all day, but instead there was silence when we called their names.  A quick search of the first floor yielded a well behaved and silent Shelby sitting behind a closed office door.  We were told the dogs were not allowed upstairs,  but we found the second dog 13 year old Burton deep in sleep on the guest bed.   Relief crossed my weary mind and we proceeded to unpack the car, fed the dogs and eat our now cold pizza.

Burton took his walk the next morning as we were instructed.  Shelby stayed home, apparently too mischivous to be trusted out on walks.  When we returned from the museum late that afternoon our greeting was much the same, except that Burton merely sniffed his food and lay down under the dining table as we ate dinner.  I recalled Sam and Bruce not eating the second night of our previous sit and thought perhaps Burton missed his owners.  I suppose contacting the owners at that time or worrying more would not have changed the outcome.  The following morning we found Burton where we left him the night before,  under the table.

Imagine giving a stranger the news that their loved one had died in their sleep.   I realized I had a glimpse of what my husband Kenny did everyday for ten years working at the Office of Chief Medical Examiner’s (OCME) office, except that this was a dog left in our care.  Of course we felt in some way responsible even though we had only been in the house 36 hours.  Our heads were still spinning when our son woke and walked in as we broke the news to the owners over the phone.  We felt terrible that we had no opportunity to prepare him for the news.  This was the beginning of our second full day of our nine day sit. 

My husband and I are probably more familiar with death than most people because of our ER and his OCME experience.  I wonder if somehow Burton chose to die in our care because we could “handle it”.  Not that we were not saddened to tears for this dog and the family that we didn’t even know.  Perhaps he was sparing his owners the pain.  It is surprising to me how transfefrable our medical skills are and how seamlessly we revert to assessment of the situation, diagnosis and plan even as we house and pet sit.

We spent the next days trying to ensure Shelby was not lonely without her companion.   She enjoyed tug of war and playing ball in the yard and we enjoyed her company.   The uneasy feeling in the pit of my stomach after Burton’s passing was starting to subside when suddenly Kenny bolts out into the yard yelling for Shelby.   She had pushed aside a board in the fence and was three houses down by the time Kenny had miraculously convinced her to turn around.  Disaster number two averted thanks to my dear hubby.  We baracaded the fence and never left Shelby outside alone again.  This was day #7 of 9.  Lesson learned,  never let your guard down.  

I would imagine some might never want to house sit after this story, but there were also good experiences.  The family whose house we were sitting included a daughter and son around our son’s age.  Ricky enjoyed playing with the boys toys and reading their books.  He seemed comforted by familiar things and very much at home in this house.  And except for Shelby’s escape, she was actually very lovable and a great companion.  The bottom line is house sitting, like life, is full of experiences.  The way I see it you can choose to accept things for what they are without judgement, learn from them and move on or choose to label things as “bad” or “good” and miss out on all that life has to offer.

Not far from home

Though I had never been in this older house before in Jersey City, it is familiar as are the people in the neighborhood.  The house is worn, but warm with lots of character and love. Outside, the memories of my childhood in the Bronx as it was “burning” in the 80’s seem so vivid here and yet I have not thought of them for many years.  I was determined to leave them behind when I made a home for my sons.  Here I faced sometimes unpleasant memories and reconciled them with the reality in front of me. 

My initial emotion was disdain for the neighborhood, it’s unkempt streets and old homes, some abandoned and boarded up.   I saw what most outsiders probably do, but I should know better having grown up in a similar neighborhood.  I didn’t know what made me more uncomfortable: the fact that I felt unsafe or my prejudice against these strangers and the neighborhood.  I thought I was less judgemental.  I have been in poorer places around the world and could see the beauty in simplicity and have compassion for their hardships. I rarely felt unsafe. Something about this place brought me back to my childhood. Funny how you hold on to things without realizing.

I did not like my own thoughts or emotions.  I had to face them and sit with them for a while.  First I justified them as necessary for self preservation, but I knew that was an excuse.  I was forced to re-examine my childhood and young adult years with fresh eyes and let them go.   There were plenty of painful memories, fear and feelings of never belonging, but the reality is they had nothing to do with the neighborhood or the people in front of me.  Most people were actually friendly,  especially the children.

My son was blessed with a warm welcome every time we went to the neighborhood park.  He is outgoing (unlike me) and makes friends easily. The children never judged him for his appearance or as a stranger, unlike my experiences as a child.  Multiage groups of children played together, watched out for each other, shared and included my son in a way that contrasted so much with the children in our own middle class neighborhood that it struck me. These children reminded me to look at all people and places with fresh eyes.  My son’s innocent perspective enabled me to let go of my preconceived opinions and my past pains and move on. I left this 10 day house sit feeling more comfortable in this neighborhood and in my own skin.

Continue reading “Not far from home”

My son has taught me so much

When Alex was first born I clearly remember staring into his beautiful face thinking “what do I want for you more than anything?” And the word that came to me after a long time was “respect”. I wanted him to have self respect, respect for others and the world. I believe that when you respect things how could you choose poorly. It forces you to evaluate the situation and decide “does this choice reflect your values?” I raised him with this principal always in the forefront of my mind. 

Throughout the years I’m sure I fell short of my goals more than I realize.  At the moment we all make the best decisions and choices that we can given the situation.  However, I’m a bit of a perfectionist so when I was blessed with the prospect of another child I could not make those same mistakes twice.   I reflect often on my shortcomings and ignorance, try to forgive myself and live more intentionally. I now believe that while perfection is unattainable and an illusion, we should always strive to learn from the past and live in the present.

While respect is still a fundamental value to me, I also want my younger son to be seen for who he is and feel it. I often regret that I did not stop to fully engage with my oldest as he spoke with me. There were so many missed opportunities to engage him as I was drowning in thoughts, things to do and worries as a single working mother. Often I know I provided solutions when all he needed was someone to listen. Problem solving is a valuable skill that must be developed and I robbed him of many opportunities in my haste to get things done. Sadly, my interference and impatience also undermined his confidence. The products of my mistakes surfaced during highschool, but I only recognized them because I could finally see the young man struggling to make himself known to me. Too many years later.

My oldest son, now twenty five years old, has never ceased to amaze me with wisdom beyond his years, his kindness, intelligence and of course his respect for himself,  others and the world.  Alex is much better at problem solving now. He still does not realize his own value, but that took me forty years. He told me recently that he wants to be remembered for living his values. I would say that he is a reminder that children are a product of their environment and also fortunately, very forgiving of their parents’ shortcomings.

Homeschooling

The most challenging part of our new lifestyle has been and continues to be homeschooling.   I am no longer terrified of the prospect, now that I recognize that children are naturally curious and inclined to learn without some adult shoving information into them.  I see that there are opportunities to learn everyday and there is also no need to learn every minute of the day.  I still struggle with my personal need to teach my son discipline and grit through more traditional exercises that are familiar to my catholic school education.  Somewhere deep down inside I feel comfort in the familiar even though I know there are better ways to learn.  Old habits are hard to break, but I am committed to trying.

We vascillate between more structure and more play/exploration as we have limited resources in NYC during these times of Covid.  Our original plans included more exotic locales and experiences,  but now we have struggled like everyone else to transform our quarantine days into positive, productive and educational days.  We were fortunate that online learning in the spring was better for us than most in the NYC public schools, but the novelty of zoom playdates and classes has long worn off.  Perhaps it is easier for girls who tend to have better verbal communication skills, but my son needs to be active and interact with other children and nature through physical play. 

A constant struggle is screen time, movies, games and even reading apps.  They are the default when he’s bored or tired and sometimes we just give in when we need some time to ourselves. I am trying, unsuccessfully, to teach him to manage his own time. It helps that now he knows how to tell time and that now he understands that “time flies when you’re having fun”. I suppose I should consider those accomplishments and a step in the right direction.

We are also working on teaching him to be more independent. At first I could not leave his side during the day if he was not using a screen. It was impossible to get anything done. He could not get any school work done, eat and could not even play with his toys without me being within arms length and actively involved. Now I can get away with being in the room with frequent checking in. Prior to Covid he was very independent, making this need for attention that much more unexpected. I can only imagine what fears and insecurities he cannot verbalize. I am grateful that we have the luxury of being home with our son in these stressful and uncertain times.

Camping Exposed

I have been camping a couple of times in NY, but never out of the state or for more than two or three days.  Our camping equipment is limited to a queen size air mattress,  a six foot tent, a small $25 cooler we bought fifteen years ago, Kenny’s trusty cast iron pan and my Berkey water filter.  Yet, overall camping our way down to Florida and back in July during Covid was more enjoyable than flying or staying in hotels. Yes, there were a lot of flies and mosquitoes. The worst was in a “primitive” campsite at James Island in Charleston, SC. It also gets really hot mid afternoon to evening, but we managed by staying at the beach or pool most of the day.

Camping tests your ingenuity, resourcefulness, resilience and comfort level.   You are limited by what you can pack,  so you quickly learn that the creature comforts of home are just luxuries.   Binder clips,  duct tape and twine are amazing multi taskers that come in handy and challenge your creativity. We managed to hang clothes, seal packages, suspend a six inch diameter batter powered fan from the pull ties and seams of the tent, patch up holes in the floor of the tent, a bag and an inflatable pool bull with these multi taskers.

Lying in your tent at night with the roof off to allow every precious little breeze to enter tests your courage.  My little family was totally exposed to the elements, animals, everyone. No walls, locks, not even a nylon roof to give some false sense of separation or safety. What was that sound in the dark?  Who are the strangers in adjoining camp sites?  Florida is a concealed carry state with a lot of Trump supporters and my car has NY plates…  After 8 nights of camping in 4 different sites and even sleeping at a truck stop in our car one night, the worst things that happened is that a raccoon stole our marshmallows, we got a lot of mosquito bites and a large branch fell from a tree at an adjoining camp site. I guess it wasn’t our time.  People have been polite,  if not friendly, once again proving these cynical New Yorkers wrong.

Camping also provided plenty of challenges for a seven year old boy. He learned to persevere as part of our team to set up and break down camp in the heat, while being attacked by insects. He learned that starting a fire requires constant care and attention. I enjoyed watching his confidence and skill improve as he learned to respect and enjoy the ocean, its waves and its inhabitants. Ricardo also learned that sometimes the best discoveries are made at the end of a long, hot walk when he stumbled across a tortoise, frog or a majestic bird along the way.

Cost for tent camping sites range from $30-60/ night with beach or pool access. Each site varied as far as water and electricity. Only the primitive site had no access to either and the bathroom was far from the site. Fire wood $5-9/ bundle which usually lasted two nights cooking one meal/ day.

“Primitive” site in James Island, SC
Kathryn Abbey Hannah State park in Jacksonville, FL
Breakfast at Enfield KOA in NC
Dawn in Jacksonville, FL
First night in Kiptopeke State park, VA

St Petersburg, FL

We have completed our two week sit in St Petersburg. This weekend I mowed the lawn, vacuumed the house, swept the side patio, cleaned the pool and did laundry. Ricky swept the deck of the pool, cleaned the cat (he’s too old to groom himself), the litter box and took out the trash. Kenny took the dog for a run, helped me clean and packed, made breakfast and lunch and studied Spanish. Kenny joked that I’m made for house sitting because he saw the look of satisfaction on my face when all was clean and done before noon.

I realize that I enjoy yard work and a clean home. I don’t mind a little physical labor especially when I don’t have to do it on my only day off from work. The house work here reminds me of the house in Monroe, but much easier since the house is smaller and everything is so well organized for me. The house in Monroe was therapeutic and taught me I can accomplish great and difficult things on my own. I must admit I had quite a bit of help from neighbors, now adopted family and my Mom. The house was finally beautiful and complete and had served its purpose. I have no regrets selling it, but I do sometimes miss gardening, pets and living close to nature.

Fast forward ten+ years and I’m fortunate to find a way to satisfy those needs without giving up travel. I believe there is more than enough to enjoy without owning my own home and pets for now. We can provide a service to the home owners and pets and benefit from their hospitality. Longer stays like this one allow us to live like locals and really enjoy the pets. There is no rush to see or do everything and surprisingly we love this pace, unlike our crazy trips of past. We are thoroughly enjoying each other’s company, free time, cooking together and playing with Looper, Hunter and Lilly. St Petersburg has lots of nice parks and beaches to enjoy as well.

I will miss this place and the pets who have welcomed us into their pack. Their owners have been generous and trusting and I have enjoyed my short conversations with them. These connections alter ones perceptions of the world for the better. I believe people are inherently kind, if we only slow down long enough to take the time to get to know each other. Everyone has a story and I look forward to weaving more of these stories into our lives. Thank you Anne and Pete.

Slowing down

I rushed to do things most days, to get to places and plan ahead. Then suddenly I realize I’m here on a beach in Kiptopeke, VA playing with my son smiling back at me. I realize this is where I am supposed to be, there’s nowhere else to be and nothing else to do. Thich Nhat Han would be proud. I finally understand what it means to be truly present and it is blissful, yet transient.

This is our first trip as full time travelers, and I still don’t quite now how to feel about all of this. Quite honestly it’s a little unnerving being on unfamiliar ground. Unlike a vacation where you’re excited and get to run away from life’s responsibilities for a short while, we actually have to learn to navigate relationships, education, meals, lodging and budgets while on the road. Throw in a little pandemic into the mix and it’s not the glamorous life you might imagine. It’s a work in progress and it’s hard to give up type A personality controlling behavior habits.

There are glimmers of benefits to slowing down that I can see already. The most obvious are the happy smiles and hugs from my little boy who suffered from the fear and isolation of the pandemic. I am more present and attuned to his needs and moods and thus can respond more thoughtfully instead of reacting to his behavior. I hope we will continue to develop happier relationships wherever we are in the world.

As I reflect on the 4 nights we spent camping at two different camp sites in two states – Kiptopeke VA and St James Island SC, Kiptopeke was by far my favorite. It is a small state park and beach which had a cool breeze despite the 90+ degree weather and shallow water with gentle waves perfect for relaxing and watching crabs burrow in the sand. The water park at St James saved that stop and was a welcome distraction from the hoards of flies and mosquitoes at the camp site. Surprisingly the night we spent between both sites at a truck stop was not so bad and we have discovered that truck stops down south sell all sorts of things we’ve never seen before!

Pandemic pause…. and possibilities

I feel as if some greater power decided it was time to put the world on pause. If we as a society were not going to slow down and see the world for what it was, some external force decided it was time to make us do some reflecting. I have decided not to waste the opportunity that this gift of living through a pandemic has given me. I am profoundly aware of the luxury that my education, health and financial security afford me and yet eludes many. I owe myself and everyone my honest reflection, education and action to make positive changes moving forward.

As a healthcare provider I promote physical distancing as essential in protecting our collective health. But as a student of yoga, I believe we should be embracing those near and far within our hearts especially at this time. We are all part of one global society and the pandemic exemplifies how intertwined we really are. When one suffers we all lose, and conversely society benefits from each small act of kindness, even a simple mask. My hope is that we continue to evaluate the world we live in without judgement or hate, but objectively to improve race and gender relations, economic and educational disparity, global warming and our environment for all of its inhabitants. While physical distancing is necessary for the pandemic moment, distancing ourselves from our neighbors is short sighted and unsustainable in the long run.

Lokah Samastah Sukhino Bhavantu is a Sanskrit mantra which means: “May all beings everywhere be happy and free, and may my thoughts, words, and actions contribute in some way to that happiness and freedom for all.” 

Imagine if we all just paused now and then to evaluate our own thoughts, words and actions what a movement we could create and what transformation would result.

Our differences are opportunities to learn and grow together,  just as genetic variation ultimately selects the strongest traits to move life forward in an ever changing world.

Changing Perspective

First I had to imagine myself where I wanted to be in life. Seems simple, but when you have identified with a job for 20 years it is hard to imagine being anything else. There is a detox period, similar I imagine to “unschooling” older children. I had to unlearn all of the constraints that society taught me and I put on myself. It felt like I had to navigate myself out of a straight jacket. I had to learn to dream and trust in myself.

It took a lot of self reflection and deciding what is important to me. What do I want to teach my son in this new day and age? How can I be a better mother, wife and human being? How can I find my “Dharma” or path? I cannot express to you enough the benefits of mindfulness and meditation. I once thought the skills learned in the ER of multitasking and anticipation were valuable, but I had taken them to the extreme. I forgot how to sit down and enjoy a simple meal or conversation without wandering off to the next tasks. I ignored my own needs and lived life like it was a list of tasks to be completed. Slowly, through mindfulness and mediation I learned to slow down and get to know myself. Slowly, the answers and sense of ease began to wash over my exhausted mind. Slowly, the tiny voice, that had been whispering in the background for attention, began to speak confidently and resolutely.

With reflection, I rediscovered some principals that guided me in raising my first son almost 25 years ago. Love and respect. If your actions are guided by love and respect for yourself and others, you are probably making the right decision. I decided when #1 was first born that when in doubt, I would let these principals guide me. I have made many mistakes along the way but #1 is an amazing young man that anyone would be proud of and we have a wonderful relationship, so I suspect my love and respect for him was palpable enough for him to pardon my faults. This was my starting path to returning home to myself.

I mulled this jumble of ideas over and over in my mind for a while, but it was when I started to put my values down into words and sentences that things started to happen inside of me and around me. Initially I dared only to share the written words with myself. I had to find clarity and confidence before I could bare my soul even to my husband. Slowly, my husband began to see my point of view and I feel like my change in perspective began to open a door for him to see outside of his world. He began to see new possibilities and we began to dream together about taking time off to travel. This first step took about one whole year!

I searched and searched online for information on how to travel the world for a year or more with a child until finally I found an explosion of families that travel the world in a myriad of different ways. I found Brandon Pearce and the Family Adventure Summit and slowly the names and faces began to become familiar. Our plans have changed numerous times and even now is in flux. First we considered traveling for a year south through Mexico, Central America and into South America. But there were so many other places that called us and with my new found freedom I did not want to be limited. The question changed from “is it possible?” to “how can we make this happen?” From this perspective you really begin to evaluate your priorities. Suddenly all of the non-essentials fall by the wayside because they are obstacles to your goals and the mind begins to hone in on what is important to you. The reality for my family is that there is very little in the way of material things that we need to be happy. Many of the things we collected was because of boredom or a need to fill the void created by our inability to travel and spend quality time together.

The purge of belongings was actually much easier than I thought because I had already changed my perspective and mindset from scarcity to abundance. I put things up for sale at reasonable prices and people purchased or I gave away many things in a matter of months. It felt good to make others happy and to see my things find a new home. I still have a way to go, but all of the major furniture is gone and about half of the clothes and toys. I feel lighter already and I am amazed at how once you are willing to let go new opportunities arise. Instead of fear guiding my choices, I trust that I can create my own future with the choices that I make now to live in the present.

Re-education

Being a mother is a full time job that I take seriously. I love my boys and I am proud of the individuals that they are. I feel my job is to support them and protect their individuality from the conformity that society prescribes. Honestly, I did not always believe that last statement. You can ask my first son who often heard me say “suck it up, this is the game we must play to succeed in this society”. This is what I was raised to believe, like I would imagine many of my generation.

Life and my crazy husband gave me a second chance when my second son was born almost 18 years after the first. I had the luxury of reflecting upon what I enjoyed about being a mother, what I thought went well and and what I would change. I was blessed with bright sons who are curious and interested in learning about the world. Honestly, I believe all children have these traits, it is just not always so obvious as with these two chatty boys who wear their hearts on their sleeves. I could not limit my younger son’s growth as I had the first, and I had to acknowledge to my older son that I recognized my mistake and apologize. My older son all but patted me on the head and said “it’s OK mom you tried your best” and re-affirmed my suspicions that the traditional education system in the US is broken despite him thriving within it.

Now I wholeheartedly protect my sons’ rights to individuality and their right to an education and a life that does not require them to conform to societal norms. That led me to find a project based learning school – The Hudson Lab School, that supports the individual children’s needs and learning styles. The children are encouraged to take risks, explore, make mistakes and ask questions. It has been a wonderful experience for my son and helped me to re-educate myself on how learning can be meaningful, engaging and natural. This has been a wonderful transition to the homeschooling/worldschooling that we will undertake while we are on the road this summer. Thankfully the angst over finding the perfect curriculum and teaching has subsided, because I now understand that learning happens naturally if you support an individuals curiosities and take the opportunities to learn wherever you are and in everything you do. I am actually excited to learn together and from each other as we travel, because as I look back the most important lessons I learned from my family and life, not in school.