Monday, February 13, 2017

The Incarnation of Love

In honor of Valentine's Day, or perhaps in protest of it, here's a little flash fiction piece I wrote a few years back. And by "fiction" I mean a version of this actually happened to me, which I suppose technically makes it flash memoir. Or something like that. Names have been changed to protect the people whose lives turned out exactly as I expected they would.

THE INCARNATION OF LOVE

As if it isn't miserable enough to be a twelve-year-old girl, add some jealousy and humiliation and you've got the makings of the worst Valentine's Day ever.

The year:1988, the object of my affection: a boy named Matt, part rebel and 100% flirt. In math class he would reach into a tiny Ziploc bag, pull out a miniature rubber band, and instead of slipping it onto his braces he would shoot it across the room. Right at me. From what I had been told about preteen boys, this act was a sign of affection. I would laugh, whisper a flirtatious, "Stop it" and smile inwardly.

He obviously loved me.

When Valentine's Day rolled around I took a chance and confessed my feelings via a student council carnation. My tiny act of adoration paled in comparison to what Matt did to show the world which girl he truly liked.

Spoiler alert: It wasn't me.

It was Kara, who had recently moved from Tennessee and had a sweet southern drawl and beautiful golden flecked hair. I had been one of her first friends when she arrived, but as we approached teenage-hood she began to pull away and associate herself with the popular crowd, destined to become a cheerleader in high school and date all the best looking jocks. Matt, of average attractiveness (a hunk by my standards), did not even blip on her radar. But that did not stop him from sending her a dozen red roses. Roses. That he ordered from a florist and had delivered to homeroom. Their appearance made a mockery of my single white carnation. And dashed any hope I had of Matt becoming my Valentine's Day sweetheart.

What a sad, sorry tale of woe. So what? Heartbreak happens all the time. But it didn’t end there. On a dare, Matt decided to eat my carnation. Chomped away at it during first period as if it were an ordinary breakfast sandwich. Did I mention he was a bit of a class clown? Oh, yes, the rubber bands. An act I had mistaken for affection, one that was carried out simply for a laugh. And there I sat, once again the butt of his joke. If that hadn't humiliated me enough, he proceeded to draw a flower onto a piece of notebook paper, staple it onto the last two inches of stem that hadn't ended up in his stomach, and place it on my desk. Desperate, I took it as a sign that maybe I did have a chance with him after all, and saved that pathetic spit covered stem for weeks. On the paper flower he had written, in scrawled boy handwriting, "Sorry I ate your flower. Love, Matt"

Love! I held onto that hope way past its expiration date.

Meanwhile, Kara threw her flowers in a nearby trash can, unwilling to give any indication that she returned Matt's affection. The path of rejection drew a straight line to her, the one with the most power. It taught me a valuable lesson in the hierarchy of love and showed that taking a risk does not always pay off.

As for Matt, he ended up in the hospital with stomach distress. Turns out the chemicals florists use to dye and preserve carnations make them inedible.

Love hurts, but karma is a beautiful thing.


Saturday, February 4, 2017

Measuring success

Per the advice of my wise spouse, I decided to change the way I approach goal setting. Instead of vague ideas that never get fully accomplished and result in an endless spiral of self-doubt, I set out to be specific in what I hope to achieve and establish solid, realistic plans.

The house is better. Most of the time. We spent an afternoon purging the back room of our basement, which mostly contained empty boxes and other random things that never quite made it to where they were supposed to go. I cleaned out J's closet and donated several bags of winter clothing to a local charity. (SMART goal: to organize one space in the house and carry at least one bag/box of things out of the house). I've been consciously trying to end each morning and evening with a clean counter - which has been great for my psyche, but I haven't quite been able to get the rest of the family on board with helping out in that arena, which leaves me a bit frustrated. So that one is a work in progress I guess.

My health is better. I decided to do a thirty day yoga challenge for the month of January. It didn't start out so well, however, because I spent all of January 2nd in bed with a stomach bug. Determined to get back on track, I did days two and three on day three and managed to finish out the month strong. In fact today is the first day I haven't gotten up to exercise, but I gave myself the day off as a reward. My body is sore, but it feels good overall and I'm proud of myself for sticking to the challenge and actually getting out of bed with my alarm. Hopefully that feeling will keep me motivated to continue.

My writing.... oh dear. We seem to have arrived at an impasse. The good news is that I put myself out there for an online writing conference and with my critique group. They've even offered to workshop my entire novel. !! The bad news is I've been riding that annoying emotional roller coaster again, you know the one. Where you feel like you could conquer the world one moment and the next you are doubting why you ever tried to put word to page. Maybe it's because I am no longer drafting in the quiet silence of my office, surrounded by post-it notes and a sense of purpose. Now I am sending my baby out into the world to be picked apart and analyzed, and while I know it is a necessary part of the process and I NEED HELP fixing elements of the story, it does not make it any less terrifying. I much prefer the creative, locked in the room part of this journey. New projects swirl around in my head, but getting them down and going in a direction of some sort, well that's another story. In order to accomplish my SMART goal of sending out (some number - silly me wrote it in the letter, then stuffed it into my stocking without writing it down anywhere else... 20 maybe?) queries, I need to get DOW into better shape. Particularly the query letter, which currently stinks. Sigh. I did enter one writing contest and will receive feedback in May. And I'm trying to be helpful and encouraging to other writers. I really like my new critique group and am making new friends online.

My life in general is... better I guess? I decided to try acupuncture again and went for my first appointment last week. No overnight miracles, but I am hoping it will help get me on a more even keel. The new job is going well, although I feel a little overwhelmed by all there is to learn. Very much loving the shorter commute and lack of stressful traffic!! But I miss my old co-workers and students. Working in a cubicle is strange - kinda like sitting alone in an airport terminal. It can be incredibly lonely despite being able to hear the conversations of people all around you. Maybe even because of them? I don't know exactly... it's an adjustment.

Faithful readers: I hope 2017 is going well for you. It is not an easy place to exist right now, but I hope we can all find positive things to focus on. In an effort to help spread love instead of hate, our family committed to supporting a different local charity each month with both our time and resources. And here are a few more things I'm committing to this month:

  • Send entire MS to critique group
  • Plot new story
  • Try a different exercise video series each week - and work out at least five mornings
  • Recycle old/broken electronics
  • Give myself credit (not measurable, I know... but something I need to work on)

I'll pop back in with an update next month, and hopefully will have a post or two in between. Cheers!

Friday, December 2, 2016

Letters to myself

Last weekend we unpacked the Christmas boxes and began to decorate the house. My favorite things about the holiday season are our family traditions, and one of those traditions is to write a letter to your future self and hide it in your Christmas stocking. We did it for a few years when I was a kid, and I remember reading over highlights from the previous year, my current faves (which were somehow no longer cool a short twelve months later), and the list of things I hoped to accomplish. My boys love this part, writing things like, "Ride the Viper" and "Play video games for 100 hours". When boxes appear from the back corner of the basement, I excitedly search for the one containing our four stockings, and pull the letters out like buried treasure.

The letters are meant to be a snapshot of the year and an encouraging way to look at all we've accomplished as a family and individually. But sometimes they make me sad. When I was substitute teaching year after year, the letters would ask if I'd found a permanent position yet. Now that I've been querying, the letters ask if I've found an agent. And every single year I vow to be more organized, vow to really, truly purge the house and live with less.

Spoiler alert: I left the teaching world, am still searching for an agent, and the house isn't any cleaner.

But every year I give my future self a little pep talk.
From 2009: "Take care of everyone. And remember to take care of yourself."
From 2010: "Remember that you are a great mom, a devoted wife, a dedicated teacher, and fabulous woman!"
From 2013: "C'mon girl, you CAN finish things! Really and truly!"
From 2014: "Love yourself every day - despite the wrinkles and sagging bits, despite the incessant need to procrastinate. Despite the cynicism."

Last year I even acknowledged that my goal setting often falls short. "Every year you make goals for yourself. Some you reach while others fall by the wayside. That's okay. You need to forgive yourself and move on. Change what you can - change what you can CONTROL. In other words, let others be who they are going to be and focus on being the best you in that moment."

How's that going you ask? Eh. I was sad for several hours after reading the letters because not much has changed in the past year. The truth is, we can't escape our weaknesses - no matter how hard we try to cheerlead them away. There is an underlying current of jealousy in these letters, of wanting what others have and I don't, and it feels dirty.

Last night I attended a book launch for a new writing friend. Her book is beautiful (I read an Advanced Review Copy - one of the perks of being immersed in the writing world), the room was packed full of people who love and support her, and I was happy to be able to share in her moment. But right before I left I said to hubs, "I understand that saying now - the one about always being a bridesmaid and never a bride." It's impossible not to feel the "when will it be my turn?" feelings at book launches, impossible not to sit there and imagine my own book launch, imagine where it will be and if my mother will still be alive to make trays of Italian cookies. Maybe the green-eyed monster is a good thing. Maybe he'll keep me motivated. Maybe I need to look at the positives in my letters to self instead of worrying about what I didn't accomplish.

From 2015: "I'm making a promise to have DEVELOPING OUR WINGS finished in the next six months. To be a better blogger and continue to encourage others."
I finished my rough draft in early April and just completed the first full round of revisions.
My blog entries were at an all time low this year, and I'm pretty sure no one even reads this little life chronicle - but I've been at it for EIGHT YEARS. And in my world of not following through, that's a pretty huge accomplishment.
Do I encourage others? I hope so. Maybe not all the time, maybe not with shouts from the rooftop.

But I keep trying. Because lifting others up makes everyone feel good. So here's some advice from past Sandis:
To all you other writers out there - "Keep writing, hon - there are so many great stories inside you."
To the parents - "You are a good mom [dad]. Have faith in your children."
To everyone who worries all the time, who thinks they are doing too much, or not enough - "Relax. Let things be - you can do it and the world will still revolve."
To the world, especially now: "Love more."


Saturday, November 19, 2016

Perspective

I became a mom ten years and 11 days ago, and I can vividly remember the first 24 hours of parenthood. The first five were spent coming home from the airport, hubby driving in the rain on zero sleep - my India.Aria CD playing in a continuous loop because he didn't know how to change it, and me in the backseat trying desperately to calm a hysterical seven month old stranger. Yep, we were complete strangers on that first night - connected only by pictures (we had three of him, he had a chewable photo album with a few pictures of us) and health reports. We stopped at a gas station to change his diaper and were yelled at by the attendant for not having a hat on our baby.

Initial thought: I am a complete failure as a parent.

Back at home, I tried my best to help P adjust to his strange surroundings while hubby caught some much needed zzz's. I showed him his room, lovingly decorated with Noah's arc animals. We read books and sang songs. I felt like the babysitter waiting for mom and dad to come home and take over the real parenting. In the morning, we gave P a bath and he screamed. His foster mother told us he loved baths. My husband looked at me with an expression that asked, "I thought you knew what you were doing - did you lie to me?" In truth, I didn't have a clue how to be a parent, and I'm pretty sure none of us do until it actually happens. My brother had become a dad a few years earlier and he told me that the hospital staff passed him his son and ushered him out the door. Without any sort of instructions as to what to do next.

Truth: No one truly knows what they are doing at first.

There were two profound moments in that first 24 hours and both of them could be seen as parenting fails, but to me they were shifts in perspective that helped with our rocky transition. The first was during the bath, after hubby realized that no, I did not know what I was doing. He said, "Everything we're doing is wrong." Me, with bewildered expression, "Huh?" But he was right. Every smell, every sight, every experience was not what P had become used to in his foster home. It wasn't WRONG in the broad sense, but wrong in his little slice of the world. The second moment took place that afternoon when we brought him to the doctor's office. Our pediatrician, a kind and enthusiastic Asian woman who cooed at P when she first saw him, made my little boy's face light up for the first time. Her face, her tone of voice - the familiarity - comforted him.

It wasn't me. We had ripped this kiddo away from everything he knew, forced him to fly across the world with a complete stranger who handed him off to two other complete strangers, two weird smelling people who had no idea how to draw a proper bath. When I think about that day I think about our gain - I love my boy so much it hurts and I can't imagine life without him - but I think about his loss, about how scared he must have been during those first 24 hours. We were all pretty terrified. But his journey, and the journey of his little brother four years later, must have been incredibly frightening. We celebrate the anniversary of those days (known in our family as KTA day, or Korea-to-America) and recognize both the joy and the heartache involved.

Truth: Parenting is hard, and I'm not always good at it. But I love my kiddos unconditionally and try to grow as a mom every day.

No doubt I have made countless parenting fails along the way and there are plenty more waiting for me in the next ten years and even in the ten beyond that. But I'm trying to shift my perspective. We had P's conferences yesterday and it was overwhelmingly positive. They haven't always been, believe me. But yesterday, as I listened to his teachers talk about how smart, hard-working, and enthusiastic about learning he is, my heart swelled with pride. Sure, a lot of that is genetics, but some of it must be our parenting. Don't get me wrong, I make mistakes. ALL THE TIME.

But somehow we've figured out how to do a few things right.

Saturday, September 10, 2016

Van Family Summer Bucket List

Inspired by the launch of my dear friend's book, The BFF Bucket List, the boys and I decided to make our own summer bucket list. As soon as school let out, we brainstormed ideas, wrote them down on a piece of loose leaf paper, and posted the list on our fridge. There were 18 items and we checked off 14. Which is pretty darn good and made for an exciting, adventure filled summer.

Here are some highlights:

BUCKET LIST ITEM #5: HAVE A CAMPFIRE WITH S'MORES
We started the summer off with a backyard campfire complete with requisite s'mores. Our friends joined us for a fun night - the kids loved launching LED copters into the sky once the sun went down. 

BUCKET LIST ITEM #15: DARIEN LAKE 
We actually did this one twice. Once for hub's work picnic, where J braved his first upside down roller coaster (and LOVED it), and once with friends for a crazy day of rides, water park, and slushies. We're pictured above on my favorite ride, one that does not go upside down or fast... the Ferris wheel. 

BUCKET LIST ITEM #3: TRY COFFEE ICE CREAM 
For whatever reason, this was important to P, so it made the list. We went out for ice cream to celebrate the removal of braces (YAY!) and let him order whatever he wanted. Look at the shiny, straight teeth! As you can see, he also decided to grow his hair long this summer. It's a middle school thing I guess.

BUCKET LIST ITEM #16: BOAT RIDE ALONG ERIE CANAL 
There is a lot of cool history in our town. We rode a boat through two locks on the Erie Canal and then spent the afternoon walking through Lockport and sampling more ice cream (see next item). There is also an underground cave tour which we have done once before but decided to skip this year. Fun fact: part of Sharknado 2 was filmed in the Lockport cave. 

BUCKET LIST ITEM #9: TRY LAKE EFFECT ICE CREAM 
It tastes good.

BUCKET LIST ITEM #10: GO TO A LOCAL BEACH
The boys went to the beach a few times with their summer camp group, but the picture above is from our day trip to Canada to visit with some friends at their cottage. It was a fun, relaxing day that included fishing (item #18) and a campfire, with s'mores of course (item #5).

BUCKET LIST ITEM #1: GO TO THE DRIVE IN
Look at us, all match-y and smiling... oh wait...

Our cub scout pack organized a summer outing to the drive in, and it was the perfect opportunity to cross another item off the list and enjoy a night out at the movies watching one of my all-time faves, The Princess Bride. P had a good time, he just didn't want to have his picture taken.

BUCKET LIST ITEMS #5 and #18: GO CAMPING/GO FISHING
Camping next to a creek = AWESOME! I'm fairly certain J would still be in there looking for crayfish if we hadn't dragged him out when we left the campground.

BUCKET LIST ITEM #7: CAMP IN THE FAMILY ROOM
Labor day weekend. Second to last night of summer vacation. Perfect opportunity to sneak in one more bucket list item. I have no idea why they wanted to sleep on the hard floor under a fort of several blankets ("Mom, it's really sweaty under here!"), but they did.

I'm happy with how things went this summer. The boys grew a little taller, a little braver, and a little more independent. I am grateful for their enthusiasm and willingness to try new things and happy that we are able to spend time together as a family. The day is coming when they'll have summer jobs and scoff at the idea of hanging out with mom and dad. So I'm doing my best to cherish the moments we have right now and letting go one finger at a time.

Sunday, August 21, 2016

Oh, summer...

Hello from under the rock of summer that buried me sometime in June. There have been several blog posts running through my brain (typically at two a.m.) but my fingers and the keyboard have been strangers these past few months. Don't ask about the book; it's covered in avoidance cobwebs. My Twitter account? Silent. BUT, the family has been plugging away at our summer bucket list, and I promise to post a detailed account, complete with photos, sometime in September.

Or October. Hashtag PROCRASTINATION.

I'll try to avoid bucket list spoilers, but here are some of the things the Family Van has been up to since my last Internet shout-out:

Hubs went to Milan for work and took me with him. Hello, Italy. Your food is delicious, and I had fun wandering your streets and checking out your amazing churches. Love, Sandi.

The boy graduated elementary school and is headed to the big, bad, dreaded middle school in two weeks. Neither one of us is ready, but when will we be? Truly? Our root beer float talk went well (P requested that root beer floats accompany our birds and bees conversation), but I am slightly terrified about the onset of puberty. And not sure how much longer I can openly blog about my preteen without him stumbling on my posts and feeling mortified.

Both kiddos went to scout camp for the first time (with mom and dad in tow) and loved it. Despite a weekend filled with wicked storms, we had a great time learning new skills and bonding with the other scout families. P also learned not to carry electronics in your pocket while paddling in a canoe.

Hubs and I decided to coach P's soccer team next season. And by season I mean now through next July. The past year was a little rough - there was a bit of bullying among teammates as well as aggressive parents on the sidelines, and we are hoping to create a more positive environment. The last (and only other) time we coached together was back in Virginia when we were in our early 20's - it was a coed U15 team, and it was a tough run. But we're ready to get back in the saddle and excited about sharing our passion for soccer.

Summer has been fun, but I look forward to getting into the routine of fall, a routine which hopefully includes time for writing.

Stay tuned for our bucket list post!!

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Entering the next phase

Once upon a time in the not so distant past, I stood anxiously at a gate in JFK airport and waited for my son to appear. Tonight, I attended a parent information session at the middle school. Middle. School. The place where one comes in like an innocent little lamb and leaves as a horny teenager.

I am not ready.

To begin with, middle school remains a rough section of my past. It's where I mustered up the courage to ask a boy if he would dance with me and was met with a response that echoed in my subconscious for years to come: "My feet are tired." It's where I was taunted, teased, and harassed for talking to myself, having facial hair, and looking at someone's boyfriend the wrong way. It's where I discovered that boys prefer silly girls over smart ones.

Not the best years of my life by any stretch.

P is nervous. He's nervous about forgetting his locker combination, getting too much homework, and encountering bullies. But he's excited about the freedom and about joining computer club and chess club (a geek after my own heart.) I want him to hold on to the excitement instead of focusing on the things that make him nervous. Which means I need to let go of my own demons and let him be him.

That's harder than it looks. I teach through examples; he's already been subjected to the story of my facial hair taunter and the girl who was my BFF in 5th grade that turned all our friends against me right before middle school. He's even heard the tired feet story, complete with the part about how I barfed in the bathroom after it happened. Part of me hopes he'll learn from my experiences and mistakes, and realize that I came out okay (well, mostly) on the other side. The rest of me knows that he needs to have his own experiences, make his own mistakes, mistakes that he'll tell his kids about someday when they're getting ready to head off to middle school.

Parenting is so much harder than I ever imagined it would be, and there is still a lot of road ahead of us. Each day I have to let a little piece of my boy go and hope that he can navigate the world without me. He's a good kid. Smart, outgoing, secure in who he is. He yearns to be fiercely independent but still kisses me every morning before he gets on the bus and every night before he goes to bed. I want to hold on to my little lamb a bit longer, but I know I need to let him grow up. I need to let go of all the things that happened to me when I was his age, but I know that they have forever shaped me just as I know whatever happens to my boy in the next few years will forever shape him. He will have his heart broken, and may break a heart or two. He'll mess up, make bad decisions, ruin friendships. But he'll make new friends, learn more about the world, and figure out how to navigate through all of the crazy changes his body has in store for him.

I can't wait to see the amazing teenager come out on the other side.