Blog

self care, Self reliance

Help Yourself

For as long as I can remember, I’ve practiced caring for others. My own self-care, as we call it today, amounted to brushing my teeth and bathing. As a child, I ate the things I liked that were put before me, typical meals of pot roast, spaghetti, or fried chicken, with white rice, buttered noodles and corn. The boiled to death cabbage, lima beans and peas I would put in my napkin, excuse myself from the table and head to the powder room to flush them down the toilet, or try to go unnoticed and feed it to the dog under the table. We had loads of other stuff in the house too, none of it checking the self-care box: Fruit Loops, Ritz crackers, fun size Milky Ways, 2-liter bottles of Sprite and root beer, and King Dons. If you were feeling particularly adventurous, there was maraschino cherry juice to wash it all down with, the jar in the fridge door. My exercise in high school amounted to playing on the tennis team, swimming in summer, occasionally jogging and generally running around, thinking and talking quickly, tightly strung like the tennis rackets I owned through the years, the Wilson junior valiant, Miss Chris and Chris Evert Autograph.

But enough about me. Back to the others. Hold the door, write your thank you notes, pass the (insert whatever is on the table) and then you can have one. Certainly, good manners are important to observe, but I think with the overt nudges from my mother, this practice went deeper. The idea that you always bat last was seeped into my soul at a very early date. It’s a wonder I was born before my twin, instead of letting him go first. Maybe he was a gentleman from the get go, and instead held the door open for me, insisting that his sister go in front.

It seems all the shoulds were always swirling in my conscience, with my mom running down her list before or even in lieu of ever asking me about me. Did you do your homework? Set the table? Make your bed? Clean the ring in the tub? At the end of every bath we’d sit in the tub, still full of water, bubbles now burst, and shake Ajax on a small sponge and as instructed, scrub the grimy tub ring surrounding us. Ingenious on our mother’s part, because who likes cleaning tubs? I look back and wonder if she ever took stock of the day for herself or her family, past the to dos. Was the day good? Or did you struggle? Are you making friends in your classes? Did you do anything interesting today? Would you like to talk about it, or can I do anything to help?

As a little girl I had a sudden, isolating bout of insomnia. Most nights I could hear my family one by one drift off to sleep, all of us upstairs in our house, and I was left wide eyed, lying there awake, which of course branded me the first one a burglar would get. It didn’t matter that we were never burgled, or that we had a 110 lb. German Shepherd who would protect us; it was forefront in my mind. I begged my sister to teach me how to fall asleep and, like the rest of the family, she shrugged her shoulders and said, “You just lie there and it happens.” Like swallowing or sneezing, the practice was automatic, and it worked every time for everyone, pets included. Everyone, except me.

My dad decided that a few nights each week the two of us would go on walks before dinner, several miles to the end of our street and back. Early on in our regimen, all the walking caused whatever was running in my head to stop and join me and also drift to sleep. I loved these walks, just the two of us, where I felt special and cared for with no siblings along, and loved him doing something just for me.

Later, there were the couple of years when I was the last child in the house, the other two now off to college, one graduated. My parents were divorcing and had been sleeping in separate rooms. I used my mom’s bathroom in the mornings to get ready since it had a grownup vibe and a drawer full of makeup: a bottle of Revlon tawny beige foundation, but no blush, blue eye shadow and the skinniest silver tube of mascara. My Bonne Bell lip smackers tinted gloss completed the look, and the mini Susan Woody went out into the world.

Occasionally in the bathroom I’d see notes taped to the mirror and one time found a message scrawled directly on the glass in lipstick in my mom’s handwriting, which read, I will not be your scapegoat. I had no clue what this meant, but knew it wasn’t a sexy love note between my parents. This marital anti-bliss vibe ate at me, and as a result, I ate too. I’d cook a Stouffer’s macaroni and cheese after eating a full meal and eat the whole thing, or I’d grab an entire stack of Chips Ahoy cookies from the cookie jar, and then tear the plastic off a package of lady fingers and dive in, or nosh on fun size candy bars chewing the nougat and caramel, feeling it coat my teeth. All the tennis playing and wired-ness I possessed couldn’t offset this eating, and I began to want to purge myself of these binges.

One night while my dad sat in our den in his wing chair drinking Budweiser from a can and reading The Atlanta-Journal, as he did most nights, I asked him what you give kids who have swallowed poison, that thing you take to throw up. He asked me again what I was talking about, eyes still fixed on his paper, and when I repeated my question, he replied, “Ipecac.” “Can you spell that?” I asked. He did and I wrote it down.

Thus began a new chapter of self-care, one of eating and purging. I had chalked it up to my desire to stay thin, but it dawned on me just a few years ago that this bulimic season in my late teens occurred at precisely the same time as my parents’ separation. I don’t remember all the details, but I do know it was unsettling to see my sister’s bed unmade each day, knowing she hadn’t surprised us by coming home from college, but rather my dad slept in there. Or to come home from school late after tennis practice to find the house quiet, my plate of dinner warming in the oven, my mom in bed for the night. It was eerily soundless yet the house was perfectly neat, the fridge full and pets cared for, as if invisible elves were tending to all these things, while my mom stayed largely out of sight.

I’m not sure if it was the silence screaming loudly in our big house or the tawdry lipstick note, but this tense undercurrent didn’t sit well inside me. The self-care I chose was the only way I could control something, a way to give me the best of both worlds: eat comforting foods but not let them show. A little swig of Ipecac, my private salve, and no one would ever know. Thankfully it only happened a handful of times and then I stopped.

My self-care practice has gotten much better, and if I am going to continue to improve, there are three things I must remember:

1) What you eat stays with you, assuming you’ve dropped the propensity for purging, and you should choose good things, not the comfort foods from tv or grabbing your attention in the grocery aisles. The truly good for you comforting ones are those you’ve known all along, the things you adore, like home grown tomatoes, sweet potatoes, roasted chicken and grilled fish, or a really good meatloaf. Salads you can tell were made with care with soft washed lettuces, avocado, grated carrot, thin cucumber slices, sunflower seeds, too. Homemade bread and eggs scrambled with cream cheese and snipped chives, pasta carbonara with whisked egg yolk, sugar cured bacon and plenty of parmigiano reggiano cheese, or steamed haricot vert with a little butter and salt and cracked pepper. Strawberries dusted with powdered sugar and a splash of balsamic vinegar, a fistful of bing cherries or a plump satsuma orange at Christmastime, its cheery leaf like a holly’s.

2) Exercise flattens anxiety, your stomach too, and builds bone. There are the walks too, no longer with my dad, but with my dog in my neighborhood, or the long ones you take at the beach, wet sand underfoot, pelicans overhead diving for dinner, soaring over the sea. There is jogging and 10K races that leave you feeling strong with a smile on your face that lasts days. There are your bones, exactly 206 of them, which carried you into adulthood and will still carry you if you work them, move them with the earth under you, walk, run and lift, each time pushing yourself to do more.

3) Sleep is delicious brain food and like exercise, cuts the edge off a bad mood. My insomnia has all but gone and I am a good sleeper, rarely waking even during two pregnancies. Our bodies know what we need and if you’re like me and falling asleep in front of the tv and can’t get through a show, or at the kitchen table with dishes still to do, or worse, on the stair landing where you stopped to sit for just a minute, you ought to get yourself to bed. All these things that you do, that you work at, that you keep up, all of them will wait for you when you are ready. And you’re ready only after you’ve cared for you.

It’s easy to defer to your factory default setting and focus on everyone else, but in adopting this holy trifecta of eating, sleeping and moving, you can reset and shift back to you, where you’ve always been all along. As Anne Lamott so brilliantly put it, Lighthouses don’t go running all over an island looking for boats to save; they just stand there shining.

I’m not sure why these obvious, common sense things — which all of us learned out of the gate — have taken decades to sink in, but I’m encouraged to finally realize that self-care begins with self.

IMG_8398
Me, circa the early ‘70s, modeling my new go go boots.

 

Atlanta, Nature

Spring Forward

IMG_7897It’s official! Spring has sprung. Before the mosquitos and the pollen, the poison ivy and the palmetto bugs, we should get ourselves out there. It’s a hopeful heat, not yet summer’s impending sauna or fall’s don’t get too used to this warmth. It’s a pool where the water is great, not bathwater, not a polar plunge, just refreshing, and so you want to jump in. It’s a verb too. Spring leaps, pays, stretches out, rises, arises, resets, springs forward, and gives momentum, movement, rebirth, and a restart. Everything is profoundly awake.

Coming out of winter, spring’s days are clear and bright, and everything’s green and sharp and in focus. Like the vision you’re after when at your eye exam your doctor has you test out different strength lenses, asking, do you like “this or that?”, “that or this?” Each time you blink, your tears reset your view, and you go on eliminating lenses, getting to your best vision. That clarity, that prescription you need, that looks like spring.

The owls are loud, high up in tree branches looking for love, and the other birds never stop singing. Right on time, everything shows up and does its part. Nothing seems to bog any of it down, except maybe competing for sunlight and losing or needing a meal but instead becoming one. For the most part, though, things unfurl, uncoil, and bloom, and belt out unlimited encores. There’s even an azalea named for that.

Once it shows up, you can’t not see spring. It’s there out my window right now, showing off. Budding tree branches stretch over blue skies, and the partial light from late winter now covers the whole yard. There’s purple loropetalum, pink redbud trees, and things to cut and bring inside, and every shade of green you can imagine, a living Lilly Pulitzer landscape.

IMG_7229Even though I’m wearing a wool sweater over my t-shirt, my face is getting a sunburn. I toggle between sweater off, then on again, and repeat. My pale arms haven’t seen the sun for months, and this warmth that seems like it’s sticking around is welcome to stay. This show is blowing through town and you really ought to see it to appreciate the next. Without spring , summer feels sudden, stale, thick, stifled, one big hot mess after winter. Spring is that baby step which escorts you into summer, leaves your dry skin soft again, your face and hair sun kissed. With or without you, the show is going on, but maybe it will rub off on you, literally. Smell Easter lilies up close and their stamens will give you a pollen yellow nose that lasts until your next shower, longer if you don’t scrub it with a washcloth.

Spring cleans, organizes, restarts. Big things are happening. Blooming. Growing up tall. The days are longer, your coats are put away, and you notice the sun streaks in your hair. The markets’ strawberries are the size of a child’s fist, and there’s asparagus, leeks, lettuces and peas too.

It’s hard to beat Atlanta in the spring. Each year outdoes the last. Like when your kids are a certain age, say three, or eight, or twelve, and you think to yourself, this is the best age, and the next year you’re saying it again for that age. I do this with spring, the great green ballet, with beautifully dressed dancers fluttering across the stage. One group exits and the next, even more dazzling, goes in. The show pulls you in and dazzles.

IMG_8167It’s earliest showing is in February. Camellias are blooming, daffodils are up, forsythia too, red bud trees sprout purple beads, and white and pink dogwoods, azaleas and kousa dogwoods bloom. No longer drooped from winter, pansies sit up, and lilly of the valley bunches appear in the yard. Add in the holidays too — Valentine’s Day, St. Patrick’s Day, Easter — and you’re feasting on chocolates, green beer and Cadbury cream eggs.

As far as resets go, spring is better than the new year. The heavy eggnog is gone, the tree is out of the house, ornaments and decorations are packed up, and the pressure of resolution keeping has passed. It’s just you and this burst of a season. Extract everything from it you can because, like an awesome sunrise, it will be gone with a blink.

Even with all this green underfoot and blue above, some years, you just don’t feel it. There’s been a lot going on lately, globally and locally. Several incidents in my community have happened, deeply affecting friends and families I know. Big, sad tragic things, and silly, unfortunate ones, too. Unlike the light fluttery season tugging at us to pay attention, these things weigh us down, like winter.

Spring can be too much, too bright, and too sudden, and you squint wondering where you left your sunglasses. There’s a pressure to take advantage of this new weather, walk in the park, put down a blanket and eat something nourishing in the sun or under a tree. You get to the store on a weekend thinking you’ll buy something to plant, but it’s all too much, the nursery teeming with people and choices of things to care for and nurture. You don’t match the scene; you’re not in the mood. You’ve emerged from winter barely nurtured yourself. It’s all lost on you.

I get torn between hanging out in spring’s predictable and reliable good mood or staying in, cocooning with the TV, which works hard to pull us in and keep us there. Yet outside there’s always something good on, something to watch, reliable, queued up, ready, but you can’t stream it, tape it or rewind it, and there are no reruns. It’s active. It’s live. It’s now.

Once spring really takes hold, summer’s heat shows up, which I tend to dread, but without it you wouldn’t get those spring and fall perfect weather bookends. Or linger in the long late days it brings and in swimming pools or air conditioning. Spring is activity. Birds singing, mating, nesting. Weeds are at it too, moving forward, growing their best. Everything outside it seems is vying for a spot in the sun. Aren’t we all? Cut back a shrub and it’ll usually grow back fuller, so it can bloom again. When we’re cut down or diminished, we also have a chance to come back better than before. Spring forward. xo

IMG_7119

Empty nester, Family, Midlife, Parenting, Self reliance

Leaving the Nest

IMG_7348
Joe and Evan leaving Duke tour

I’m in a car headed to Durham, North Carolina, the second leg of our college tour with our younger son Evan. We just paid the second semester tuition for our older one, now a freshman in college, and here we are, beginning plans for helping our second go, too. Everyone should be so lucky. Why can’t I feel this instead of the fear and confusion that’s taken hold?

As I rushed to tend to the many details of packing up for four days away, notes for the pet sitter, pulling together college tour information, watering plants, paying bills, cleaning out the refrigerator, I realize I like the buzz of busyness, tending to this and that, getting my child to the dentist, talking about his soccer tryouts and creating interesting foods as his taste buds evolve. I like the promise of someone else coming home, my husband, my son, and occasionally my other son. I’ve been so wrapped up in this household and my kids and pets these nearly two decades, that on the rare occasion they’re away, I don’t quite know what to do with myself. I’ve begun working out again and running and thinking about my next act. The first seemed like a dilution of myself, spread thin tending to other people and their needs.

We’re on the road now, returning from a full four days of driving and looking and walking and listening. It’s all starting, and I’m delighted to see him beginning to take an initiative, give it all real thought, researching other schools and their entrance requirements, thinking. Always thinking. As different as my two children are, this round of college tours is also, with a broader swath of schools, cities, and questions to explore.

IMG_7757
Heavy fog covers the way home.

We’ve crossed into Tennessee from Virginia and are making our way home to Georgia. The rain keeps falling as it has for days, and our car slices through the dense fog as Evan sleeps and Joe drives, my Spotify soundtrack in the background. We visited schools with strong engineering programs, what he likes and is good at. I vacillate between being ready to get him situated somewhere as this rite of passage looms, and wondering, with a healthy dose of anxiety, how this big house permanently minus two will feel.

I take for granted the noise that’s here now, three people moving up and down our staircase, pets following us into rooms and heaps of laundry piling up and spinning, water running in the kitchen sink, meals, dishes. Rinse and repeat. Some call it a hamster wheel or Ground Hog Day, my daily intermittent repetition, and then there’s coordinating people, pets and their stuff — soccer cleats, reading glasses, bras, and phone chargers, and those half pairs of socks forever missing their mates. We come and go at different times and don’t intersect as much as before, but mostly it’s the familiar voices echoing in these old rooms that I will remember.

Everyone promised the teen years with children would be challenging, and these haven’t disappointed. Maybe there’s some comfort in these days unfolding just as we thought, as if on cue, our children separate from us and push us away. I know we’re in their way as they’re on theirs, but I still want to be near and soak up the moments I know are fewer and far between. These days, the timing seems off. Not getting much information asking him questions about school, soccer, or what’s on his mind, I try to glean what’s going on, hang out in the periphery, and, in lieu of inventing moments for connection, focus on enjoying the ones that just appear, seemingly out of nowhere. There is no formula for how to parent. Mostly I’ve been winging it, going with my gut.

I try to remember what I was like some 38 years ago and how much I drove my mother up a wall and vice versa. She even told me so, sometimes declaring, “you’d argue with the Lord!” I’m certain I was no picnic, but with her now decades gone, we can’t of course compare notes, and even if we could, would they even help?

There are still moments, little gems, where he and I share a smile and connect over a wonderful meal or something good on TV, or the occasional best times when we just find ourselves talking about who knows what, and lose all track of time. Then there are the others – no sign of him after curfew has come and gone, my mere presence bringing forth a scowl akin to the “ugh, YOU’RE still here?” thought I’ve assigned to his expression, and the parents’ requests, “did you do this?” or “hurry up!” and “I need you to (fill in a chore sure to break up video/tv/chill time),” that are equally unsatisfying for both parties. I guess it’s supposed to be this way as scores of parents before us observed.

IMG_7747
Five schools in three days requires sleep.

Then there are moments such as this morning when I checked on him, lying in bed blanketed in soft morning light, his sweet face half hidden under a cream chenille bedspread in the guest room of our Charlottesville friend, where maybe he’s dreaming of the college he’ll pick or which will pick him. It’s in these split seconds that I melt with an intense fondness and immense pride, and a mother’s tenderness that comes from down deep. It’s overwhelming how it surges so dramatically and then uneventfully recedes. I already feel the start of another hole in my heart near the one gaping from six months earlier when I settled my older son into college. That hole has closed slightly, and filled in with new conversations, in person and via FaceTime, and with those moments when his face and flash of a smile fill me right back up. They’re addictive, these boys, and just when I think I’ve had enough, I turn around and find I want more.

It’s a state of limbo, this 18-months away from empty nesting, and I’m immersed in it now, well ahead of schedule. As my friends can attest, I’m never early, so why this and why now? I mustn’t look at this as falling into some choking purposeless state you’re assigned once an empty nester. You can fall in love or fall into a depression, but these pull you in a direction where you can’t help but surrender the reins, lean in and let go.

But this? I can control this, or at least how I react to change, and what I do next. We are all moving ahead toward different futures, ripe with opportunities for ourselves individually and together as a family. I’ve been thinking hard on this, trying to imagine my future. Since I can’t exactly picture it, I just want to bypass any bumps in the road, or tangled mess of traffic ahead, find an exit and turn off. A great song will come on and I’ll fly through twisty roads and sunshine, the only car on the road, happily plowing ahead. Everything will fall into place, right? Just like I would find that career with my name on it, effortlessly sail through menopause, and march into mid-life forever a size four.

Ignorance is not bliss. It’s going to hurt a little and there will be times when I’ll feel lonelier and frustrated, a far worse and longer lasting punch than the snarky teen sulks or eye rolls or silent treatment can pack. This kind sticks and there is no boomerang effect with some comforting rhythm or reset returning the next day. I’ll need to pick up with my own new rhythm, whatever that will look like. I hope to stop looking backward, or forward, trying to manipulate these moments, and just be here for all of them, pull my shoulders out of my ears and let the noise or silence wrap me in some kind of peace.

I am in the middle of a song, a rhythm that has kept moving and moving me along. For 19 years I’ve been in the song —  singing, crying, sleeping and smiling — but always in the song. The lullabies, the lyrics, they’ve lulled me too. Now they’re replaced with ear pods in my sons’ ears, keeping my babies in their world and me increasingly out. This is normal I tell myself, but I can feel it, I can feel him already gone. I’m a sea creature that has attached myself to my children, emitting helpful stuff and sucking up their mess, which oddly enough feeds me too. This co-dependency is addictive.

I did it in my 20s when my parents were sick, rushing to their side in the hospital, smuggling in ham and cheese omelets, onion pizzas and whatever else they craved. I’ll do it for you, too, if you’re my person and you need me. I can’t help myself wanting to pave the way and make it easier, less scary, tastier and comfier. Yet I worry that I’ve lost myself in the process, so hyper focused on everyone else. I’ve become the classic middle age empty nester scratching my head and wondering what next. Will I have the courage to pursue my dreams if and when I can bring them into focus?

 

Uncategorized

London Calling

airportThere’s nothing like the nudge of a book a flight or lose your Sky Miles standing to get out the door and across the pond for Christmas. Using miles and buying one ticket, the four of us left Christmas Eve for London. The Virgin Atlantic flight attendants greeted us in red skirt suits, with matching nails and heels, their long blonde hair tucked into big neat buns, each brandishing her own strain of English drawl and cheeky disposition.

Dinner was capped off by a doll-house sized dessert, a 200 calorie 5-bite wonder, cakelove (cakelove.com). The tiny jar, no bigger than a hotel marmalade, contained the most fabulous cake and salted caramel icing. Afterward, I drifted into a delicious sleep waking in a few hours to a British version of “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” The only thing missing on our flight were those hot towels you get sometimes, the ones that wipe off the day.

cabCHRISTMAS DAY: Back on the ground, we got a cab and made our way down the dark pre-dawn Christmas streets toward the hotel. Taxis here look like a mini Rolls Royce, taller and with fancy grilles, and inside they’ve got a cushioned bench running the cab’s width and three fold-down seats opposite it for six people and their things.

The hotel was tucked away down a cobblestone motor court, a fairyland of lights and trees. The front reception counter had a wide mouthed jar of candy canes and next to it, a bowl of tangerines, simple old-fashioned Christmas treats straight out of The Little Engine That Could for good little boys and girls. I don’t think that book was referring to jet lagged surly teenagers, but nevertheless, those candy canes caught their eye and their hands went right in.

The reception told us the mini bars were free, and in ours we found two bottled still waters and a KitKat. Originating from York, UK,  KitKats here tasted different, strange with less sugar and more cocoa and fat, but free chocolate, nonetheless. These bars are made by Nestle and those in the U.S. by Hersey, and each has its own distinct recipes and branding. It was a delight to return to our room each day to beds made, towels replaced and the mini bar, once again stocked with two still waters and a KitKat.

piesWe were settling into our double room when I heard a knock on the door, and a jolly bellman appeared carrying mince pies wrapped in cellophane with purple ribbon. His eyes, how they twinkled, his dimples how merry! Wait, wrong story. He wished us a merry Christmas, and then he was off, certainly a spring in his step, but I didn’t wait at the door long enough to look. Exhausted, we hunkered down for a long winter’s nap.

We woke hungry and headed out to find a snack. Red double decker buses snaked around the streets as dusk fell, and we found a pub with a table by the window. Shepherd’s pie came with sweet glazed yellow and orange carrots, and fish goujons, with chips and mushy peas, and a half lemon wrapped in white mesh, an intriguing first for Evan, the lemon and goujons.

phone booth

We left the pub and walked around passing Westminster Abbey, Big Ben (covered in scaffolding), Buckingham Palace, and Parliament, and I was surprised to find each iconic giant so close to the other, a mile walk if that. Red phone booths were everywhere, as if placed on this London set, and thatched rooftops silhouetted the grey sky. In the distance you could see the London Eye, a cobalt blue Ferris wheel at first, and closer up, a slow-moving London observatory.

Back at the hotel, we dressed for Christmas dinner. Black pants from five years ago barely fit, but determined, I zipped them up. I imagined the dining room from Hogwarts, with hurricane lamps over glowing tapers, and berries and garland framing windows. Servers dressed in tails and tall hats carrying trays of Yorkshire pudding and popovers, roasts and chestnut stuffing too, and pouring red wine into pewter goblets.

christmas dinner

Instead, the dining room was low key, light and festive with all kinds of people seated and eating, some wearing gold paper crowns, one of the party favors rolled at each placemat. The multicourse menu was sophisticated, but our picky eaters managed to (somewhat) dig into their Christmas dinner with all the trimmings. After dessert we fell back into our beds, jetlagged as we would be for days.

tablesBOXING DAY: Our room came with two buffet breakfasts so each morning two of us ordered off the menu and two got the buffet, which had everything — eggs and pastries, yogurt and cereals, and sausages and grilled meats. I’m amazed how much food these hotels prepare, and hope the leftovers end up in needy hands or at a food pantry. My omelet was perfect and garnished with a lively nest of watercress, as is most everything here. Small carafes of milk were on each table, and if you preferred half and half in your coffee, you could request double cream, and they’d bring you the heavy whipping kind.

Today was Boxing Day, a day of giving and reflection and celebration. It was noticeably quiet, and we headed out walking through St. James Park, which had a pretty lake with ducks and swans, and apartment buildings along it, and home to the fattest squirrels I’ve ever seen. I wore my new velvet fedora hoping to up my style. At the very least, my ears stayed warm.

fish n chipsWe stopped in a pub and Evan ordered the fish ‘n chips, large fillets this time, and they came with “mushy peas”, which vary in presentation: some are mushy like baby food, others al dente, cut in half and seasoned with mint, and some just regular ‘ole green peas. Back outside, I noticed a refreshing absence of lit wreaths on doors and instead, they were fashioned from pine cones and plaid ribbon or simple greens and a bow. Walking through the park, we saw the London Eye and its reflection on the lake, moving so slowly it looked perfectly still.

lemon slicesTucked into a cozy drive, our hotel was a comfortable place to return. The trees outside were decorated with gold and silver balls and luscious dried orange slices, hanging from simple wires, a nod to war time decorations when many had so little. Inside, the ornate lobby was painted white top to bottom, and overhead, crystal chandeliers with cinnamon drum shades sparkled. A table by the window held two wooden trees with real handmade white and milk chocolate ornaments.

DECEMBER 27: The next day walking toward the Tate Modern museum we noticed a sliver of blue sky, rare for London. I packed umbrellas for this trip, but over the course of the week we never once opened them. Back in Atlanta, we heard it rained every single day, not showers, but epic, monsoon soakers. Oh, the irony!

With Christmas and Boxing Day over, the streets were full of people again crossing the bridge over the river Thames and past a stout bagpipe player, who posed with passersby dropping coins in his case. The river was choppy with boat traffic and along its edges pop up shops sold bric-a-brac.

Outside the Tate’s entry was the “Ice Watch” installation, two dozen Greenland blocks of ice, detached from an ice sheet, a reminder that more ice is melting, sea levels are rising and global warming is no hoax, but sadly, all too real.

The Tate’s exhibits inside sparked interesting conversations, which infused our day with a new energy, a welcome connection for parents and their teenagers.

churchWalking along the Millennium Bridge at night we saw London bridge, which is actually Tower bridge, but everyone confuses the two. In the distance St. Paul’s cathedral loomed large and majestic, its dome lit up at night, and we went inside in time to light candles and sit down for holiday hymns. Leaving, we walked past an enormous tree outside decked with blue lights. Simply beautiful.

DECEMBER 28: We explored Westminster a little more, window shopping while Ben got a haircut, and then stopping at an Italian place for lunch, fried prosciutto and chicken salad, pizza and risotto. By 4pm dusk was falling, and we walked along Victoria Street and then toward Harrods, its blazing lights pulling us in. Harrod’s was spectacular, if not overwhelming, and after an hour or so we left for Hyde Park where we came upon Winter Wonderland, a traveling holiday amusement park. Its happy energy was contagious, and we got in line to ride the München Loopin, a loop to loop coaster. Tempted to stay longer, but most rides had long lines, so we headed out, my three blokes and I, and found ourselves another pub. Boys had really good burgers, and my baked camembert with onion marmalade and toast hit the spot.

tea potDECEMBER 29: We woke Saturday and headed to Portobello Market, Notting Hill’s outdoor version of Atlanta’s Don Scott’s market, throngs of people minus the big furniture, and with loads of silver vendors. Ben saw wonderful potatoes, and we bought a serving, rich with cream, brie, garlic, onions, chives and parsley, and pastéis de nata, too, the to-die-for Portuguese custard tart. We branched off in different directions and I stopped for some mulled wine and walked with it browsing vendors’ booths. I found a pretty teapot for 20 pounds, which I bought from a lady, also mom to an 18-year-old. We chatted about our sons and her ceramics as she carefully wrapped my new teapot.

Next up was the Victoria and Albert Museum’s fashion exhibit, which was interesting albeit brief, and directly across from it the Museum of Natural History, where we peeked into the dinosaur exhibit housed in a grand lofty space. London museums are free and easy and don’t eat up your day, as some can.

We headed to Kensington Park and the Serpentine Gallery and Arcade, an architectural exhibit that changes annually, but unfortunately had been disassembled for the season a few months earlier. We walked through Kensington Park, expansive and home to Diana’s memorial fountain. Loads of songbirds were performing as if just for us, but the fountain was quiet, turned off for the day 20 minutes earlier.

Years ago, I remember waking in the middle of the night with my mom and sister to watch Lady Diana’s wedding on TV. Her life ending so abruptly gave pause to my own and its possibilities ahead. Her sons no longer having their “mum,” I felt particularly grateful to be here with my boys. The park’s large swaths of green space, the birds’ sweet singing and the hint of sun trying to appear combined to make this place full of grace and beauty and hope, a legacy I’d think anyone moving on past this world would want to leave.

Later we took a cab to Shepherd Market, and our friendly driver had a fabulously exaggerated British accent, the only one I heard up close all week. I could have lingered longer here as it was quiet and the dark streets resembled Italian piazzas, but we left to get to a store, Selfridges, that was closing soon and which Ben wanted to see. I stayed on the main level killing time with a glass of wine at the champagne bar, and the boys shopped with Ben.

We reconnected in an hour, our energy sapped in the way only a department store can sap it, overwhelmed by aggressive shoppers with too much money to burn. On our way out, we saw a bizarre sushi bar with a rotating display, like airport luggage carousels, but substitute sushi in plastic domed containers parading out on a catwalk. I never did see someone grab one in motion; maybe they were too entranced by the spectacle to reach one in time.

rum babaDECEMBER 30: It was our final full day and the boys took the buffet breakfast vouchers since Joe and I were saving up for our high tea reservation at noon. What a treat tea was, especially the rum baba with Chantilly cream, and the small perfect scones and homemade jam and clotted cream. Afterward, we all walked by Westminster Abbey, the bagpipe player and across the bridge over the Thames for the afternoon London Eye boat tour, where a lively guide pointed out interesting bridges and buildings.

Next we walked to Trafalgar Square, and saw street performers and ended up at a great pub, The Admiralty, Ale and Pie. It had a good mix of lively people and high ceilings, delicious food and a guitar player, just the pub experience Joe had been looking for, the bee’s knees, you could say. I had rarebit and a mini steak and mushroom pie with thyme and onions – divine! – and a pint too. Kids had burgers and Joe, a pint and a Thai inspired pie, and he nibbled on boys’ food they didn’t finish. We later rode the London Eye. One revolution took 30 minutes, and being inside an enclosed car with 20 people (complete with crying child) made me a little impatient, but the expansive city views were impressive.

barBack at the hotel and in no rush to pack, Joe and I went to the bar for a drink. The Sardinian bartender was fun and chatty, and we talked about all things Italian. I charged his dead iPhone for him so he could share pics of his very much alive and adorable 1.5-year-old son, Valentino. Grateful to get a few bars on his phone, he kept refilling my prosecco. We ordered calamari, amazing, flash fried and with an Asian twist, and the boys came down later for a final fish and chips and Caesar salad. Then it was time to pack and sleep as we had to be up before 6.

NEW YEAR’S EVE: We silenced our alarms through a few snoozes but managed to get up and out, showered and packed. The car was on time waiting for us outside in the dark. We loaded our things in back, climbed in and made our way toward Heathrow, passing the queen’s house, darkened but for two silent lit Christmas trees flanking the entrance.

I will remember this Christmas week as magical and exhausting and new, and will recall the many walks exploring London together, all of us now carrying new memories. I held on to the water bottle from the mini bar and keep it filled by my bedside at night. I’m planning a high tea at my house, too, and will try my hand at Devonshire cream and scones, and maybe even a rum baba. As for those daily KitKats, those I left back in 2018. Cheers!

buckingham

 

 

Uncategorized

Simmer down

doorway

It’s that time of the year when the world falls in love. The simple act of wrapping up a gift and giving it, and the delight once it’s opened. Waking up Christmas morning, coming down the stairs. Traditions, togetherness, decorating, lights. It’s sharing, it’s connecting, it’s a moment you want to relive over and over.

Christmas is extraordinary. As the calendar moves down to the end of the year, we send friends off into the season with our good wishes, hugging them goodbye before the holidays hit — big long hugs like you mean it, because you do. It’s ok to linger on these; it’s Christmas for crying out loud.

When we give out these hugs, these bursts of love, what are we wishing others and what are we wishing for? Is it the silent sparkling night that is Christmas Eve and that quiet pre-dawn grace that comes to blanket the next morning? Hope is packaged up in all sorts of forms getting us to and through these holidays, holy days, giving us a new start. It’s not a package, it’s a feeling. It’s not a present, it’s presence.

It’s different this time of year. Most mornings leading up to Christmas I find ornaments on the floor and ribbons missing from packages. The cat is having a ball after we go to sleep. Nothing is broken. It’s ok.

Earlier this month I pulled up to the post office mailbox struggling to push my bills in the slot overflowing with cards – gorgeous red white and gold envelopes all vying for a place in the mail. With so many good wishes pushing through to get where they want to go, my annoyance melted away and I realized people are good natured at their core and they want to send love.

A few weeks before Christmas as I tried wiping down my dirty laptop screen, my fingertips inadvertently swiped the Spotify icon and Santa Baby came through the speakers. I couldn’t figure it out and uncomfortably rushed to quiet it, the noise I didn’t start. But I realized it’s here, the season, and I should pay attention, listen even. I let Christmas songs fill up the room, not knowing what was coming next. I didn’t choose this; it chose me, and I went along for the ride.

Each year around Thanksgiving, Christmas comes in like a lamb, ramps up like a lion and then tiptoes back out as a lamb. Come and gone in a twinkle, the season can be a bumpy sleigh ride juggling Christmas balls, bills and bonbons and gearing up for full throttle acceleration and the exciting skating skid into Christmas. A slow simmer dances into a rolling boil, then a simmer and a sputtering flame and it’s a wrap. We’re all done with wrapping, baking, eating and drinking and are left cozy and content. We stand there in those precious moments slack jawed at the astonishing beauty around us and the enormous dollop of gratitude swirling in the air that seemingly came out of nowhere. And which quietly ushers its way out.

Now we’re at the bottom of the calendar, the end of the year, which so recently felt merry and bright, and we’re left basking in the afterglow we know is fading. With Christmas now behind us, how can we keep that low simmer going, those good feelings in the warming drawer waiting for us when we are ready to slow down and nourish ourselves and each another? Surely they’re still there, aren’t they?

It is Boxing Day today, the day after Christmas which in the UK was traditionally a day off for servants and the day when they received a Christmas Box, a Present, from the master. The servants would also go home on Boxing Day to give Christmas Boxes to their families. It’s a day of giving, reflecting, celebrating and sharing the abundance you have to give.

My Christmas Box to you is that you find more presence with loved ones, friends, family and most importantly, yourself. Love to you this season and the next and the next. Let’s keep it going. Merry everything.

the eye