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November 2019
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Dance of Family

It was the quiet part of the morning when I was the only one awake. The thoughts in my brain had finally shaken themselves into an order where I could commit them to words, so I sat down to write. I don’t have a private space where I can retreat to write. I share my bedroom with my husband Howard and due to some family shifts, my office is currently also my youngest son’s bedroom. So I sit on the couch in the front room, which works fine in the morning before everyone else is awake, or later in the day when everyone is occupied with their own things.

The words were flowing when my 18yo came to the top of the stairs across from me and sat down. They were hugging a teddy bear tight, which is a behavior that screams “I’m stressed.” Within a minute I’d coaxed them to sit across from me on the couch to talk. They were worried about their upcoming volunteer shift. The first one they had to do and it was triggering a massive anxiety attack. We’d only begun to tease apart the emotions when Howard wandered down as well. He volunteered to make a smoothie for our child. The child made a choice about how to handle the shift. They got off the couch and headed out into their day.

The space on the couch was vacant for only a few minutes before my older son plunked himself into it to talk to me. He was happy after having a discouraging day the day before. I was glad to hear about his happy things. While we were still talking, my oldest daughter wandered into the room to give me a hug. I suspect if the couch had not already been occupied, she would have taken the space and talked to me for a bit.

It was like a maypole dance. I could almost see the ribbons of connections as my people moved around each other and around me. Howard made smoothies and breakfast for more people. I occasionally typed some words in and around the conversations. I remembered how the day before my youngest son had planted himself on the same couch spot to talk to me. This is family when it is functioning well. It was so quiet and non-eventful. Yet beautiful.

Right now all of my children live under my roof. Including the son-in-law-to-be who spends 90% of his free time here. Things will change again in January when the young couple will move out into their own spaces. It is an important step in their lives, and it will be nice on our end to move my youngest out of my office and into the room that used to be hers. But for now we have this special space where everyone is together and enjoying each other’s company. It is nice to have that again after years of kids living away from home and mental health turmoil.

Updates

Several times in the past week I’ve opened up the page to post to One Cobble and not had enough brain to find words. There has been a lot to track between wedding preparations, running a Kickstarter, finishing off home improvements, and shifting kids further into adulthood. So this morning, I’m tackling blogging first before any of those other things uses up my brain. I’m also giving myself permission to talk about all the things in scattered pieces instead of expecting myself to pull it all together into some sort of narrative whole.

Wedding planning is alternating between “this isn’t so bad” and “wow this is a lot.” We’ve decided to solve a lot of the logistical problems by finding local family-run wedding businesses and handing them money. This means we won’t be scrambling on wedding day the manage decorations (the venue is pretty enough it doesn’t need them,) food, or photography. Even with hiring professionals and eliminating some of the time-consuming traditions that have no emotional resonance for us, there is still a lot to handle. Much of the “things to handle” have more to do with the physical and emotional readjustments to switch into being spouses. They’ve been remodeling spaces so they can move in together after the wedding, discussing bank accounts and finances, etc. I’m part of all the wedding logistics, but much of this more important foundational work takes place between them where I can’t see. Which is as it should be.

We launched our most recent Kickstarter earlier than we would have preferred. We like to have the book completely ready for print before the launch so that we can deliver to backers more quickly after the Kickstarter closes. Financially, we needed to run this Kickstarter in June or July. Instead we spent the summer in massive upheaval where all my time went into home improvement projects and Howard struggled to find enough normality to keep up with the daily comic. Then in October I did the math and realized that if we wanted our Kickstarter to conclude before the onset of the holidays, we had to launch right away. (The holiday season between Thanskgiving and New Years is a terrible time to run a Kickstarter. There is so much else going on that Kickstarters get lost and don’t fund as well.) Now we’re in the last week of the funding period, and I’ve been spending a lot of time making noise on social media to bring attention to the project.

I finally reached a point in home restoration where I can declare it done. I gathered all the receipts and photos then submitted them to the insurance company. A small additional amount of money will be coming our way. I’d hoped for more, but noticed a phrase in the contract “additional money available if incurred” I was pretty frugal in my approach to replacing things, so I don’t think we incurred enough expenses to get some of that additional money. Which is a wash anyway. If I got that money it would only mean that I’d pre-spent that money, not that I could use the money to fill our financial hole. I have pictures of the restoration on our stairs, but that is a post all by itself.

A month ago one of my kids made the hard decision to drop out of college and focus on their mental health instead. Today we’re going to the school to make that official. Depression is like that, it can take weeks to follow through on a decision because each step feels daunting or impossible. Around the same time my son decided to move back home and also drop out of college so he could focus on working and personal projects. So we’ve gone from two college students to zero. Me scrambling to help them try out college was the right thing. They both learned important things about themselves and about how college works. Now I’m helping with the paperwork clean up after the fact. The next time either of these kids wants to try college, they’ll get to own the process more fully. I will do less scrambling because I’m learning that scrambling on their behalf deprives them of the opportunity to rise to the challenge of scrambling for themselves.

On that note, my high school junior is no longer on track to graduate. He’s pared back his schedule to what he thinks he can handle without my help. So passing the few classes he has is all on him. I no longer track his grades or assignments. This is on the advice of his therapist who says he needs to learn how to track his own things. Instead of me coming at him with lists and schedules, I am standing back and having conversations about how if he wants to graduate, he needs to do the calculations to figure out how many packets he needs to do and how quickly. If this kid graduates it will be because he decided to scramble and work hard. Graduation will be his triumph, rather than because he was slid under the wire by well-meaning adults who don’t want him to fail. I have a whole series of thoughts on the public school system and the societal pressure to keep kids “on track.” Perhaps I’ll be able to collect those thoughts into a cohesive post sometime soon.

Later this week I’ll be heading out to California to visit my parents. The plan is to help them with some household projects that they don’t have the strength or energy to do by themselves. My daughter and son-in-law-to-be are both coming as well. We’ve frequently joked about how we’re taking a vacation from all the things-to-do and renovation by traveling 12 hours to do different things-to-do and renovation. We do plan to take a day off and go tidepooling. They may also run off and see Muir Woods. It is going to be a good trip, after which we’ll come back and dive into the holidays.

That hits the highlights for now. Hopefully the trip away will give me new thoughts and some time to process them in writing.

Wedding Shopping

On Saturday I accompanied my daughter and her fiance as they went shopping for a wedding dress. From the moment we walked in we felt the weight of expectation. We were greeted at the door and assigned an appointment with a stylist who could be with us in just a few minutes. The store was full of women prepared to pamper and flatter because surely every woman wants to feel like a princess when buying a wedding dress. We were surrounded with racks of sparkling, flowing white. And somehow they all had a sameness to them which seemed completely unappealing. After a few minutes we were convinced that we weren’t going to find anything and we were making contingency plans involving going to a vintage clothing store, ordering off the internet, or perhaps even sewing.

Then the stylist showed up and listened to my daughter’s concerns. To the fact that she didn’t want anything sparkly or scratchy. She knew that having dress that rustled as she moved would grate on her nerves. She needed something that she could wear comfortably for hours at a time while having to mix and mingle with crowds of well wishers. A dress that was lovely, but designed for wearing not for flashy display. The stylist listened and helped her pick three dresses to try on. We were then led to an area with dozens of mirrors, dressing rooms on a raised platform, and a ring of chairs surrounding it. It was an area designed to put the bride on display. Fortunately we’d walked in during a quiet time, so we didn’t have to deal with other brides and their entourages. It was just us and a stylist asking “So does this dress make you feel like a bride?” while my daughter stared at her in disbelief and said “I have no idea what that feels like.”

Several other stylists stopped by since they didn’t have clients at the moment. They all kept asking “do you think this is The Dress?” and you could hear the capital letters on The Dress. As if we were on a quest to find the one true dress. Which seems like a lot of emotional weight to put on some clothing. We even spotted a sign which was obviously designed for women to hold up while taking Instagram photos.

And yet despite all the interest and expectation, the stylist was very good at her job. Once she realized that my daughter was more interested in a dress she could wear while running from a zombie apocalypse should there happen to be one mid-wedding than a dress which made her feel like a princess, the stylist changed which questions she was asking. (The moment of complete bafflement on the stylists faces as we were making running-from-zombie-apocalypse jokes was sort of priceless.) We were fortunate and surprised when the second dress turned out to fit all my daughter’s needs while simultaneously being lovely. The last act of the stylist was to have my daughter ring a bell to indicate that she’d found The Dress. I think the tradition is to ring the bell loudly so that everyone in the store could cheer. Fortunately the store was pretty much empty and the bell can be rung quietly too.

We were handed off to a seamstress to talk about alterations, she was much more practically focused and she was also geeky enough to laugh at zombie apocalypse jokes. My daughter has another fitting in three weeks and we’ll pick up the completed dress a comfortable month before the wedding day. So we have another task complete and we can move on to the next one.

Changing the Words

“I need to point out a language change I’d like you to make.” he said.
I was sitting across from my son’s new therapist. I’d spent the past forty minutes describing my son’s challenges and our current status.
“When you talk about your son’s schooling, you keep saying ‘we’ and ‘our,’ I want you to use ‘you’ and ‘your’ instead. Put the responsibility for his schooling onto him instead of both of you.”

The moment the therapist said it, I could see how such a small-seeming language shift could matter. Every time I said “we need to get that essay done.” I was shouldering part of the burden of the essay, and it is really easy for kids to just let mom carry things for them. They’ve been doing it since they were small for everything from coats, to toys, to expenses.

Since that appointment, I’ve been working to make the shift, and the effort has shown me how often I included myself into my kids’ struggles instead of letting my them own those struggles. I think I began it because I didn’t want them to feel alone against hard things. I also wanted to frame the struggle as “us against the mental health issues” instead of mom vs kid. It is also probable that I was including myself in an un-self-aware attempt to have more control over the situation. I feel pretty sheepish about that last bit, because I’ve been saying for years that I needed my kids to have some life-solutions that didn’t involve me, while I was simultaneously auto-including myself into their every struggle.

I’m only a few weeks into making this language shift and it is still hard because habit is strong. Yet I’m already feeling the differences in how I think about my kids and their challenges. I’m realizing that every time I help my fledgling adults, what I’m actually doing is slowing down their learning process by absorbing some of the blow of natural consequences. Usually I’m helping to appease my own anxiety, so that the terrible stories of possible outcomes don’t come to pass, or so that I don’t have to watch them struggle. It is hard to be able to help and to let someone else struggle anyway. Yet that is exactly what my kids need me to do for their long term good. Helping makes today better, but it prevents the development of resilience that will let them survive their futures.

There is a part of my mind that wants to dwell on the What Ifs around this language shift. What if I’d learned this five years ago? Was I wrong to do so much helping when they were struggling so hard? Can I do it now only because we’re far enough removed from suicide risk? Did my use of inclusive language in their early teens literally save their lives, or is it the reason we’re here with adults who can’t fly on their own yet? I can’t answer any of those questions and dwelling on them doesn’t really help anyone. We are where we are, and the best way forward is to accept where we are and focus on moving forward from here.

And for right now, moving forward requires me to learn how to change the words I use on a daily basis.

Choices and Helping

A while back I listed some blog posts I wanted to write, including one about what I was learning helping neuro-atypical adults adapt to college. At the time I had two college freshman. Within a couple of weeks I’ll have zero. Both of my young adults have decided that the best decision for right now is to step back from college and take care of other things first. The thing I’m working to learn is that the more I help, the more their life learning slows down. I have to let them do the hard bits by themselves so they can discover how strong they are. So I don’t think writing up that list about helping is useful to anyone really. I’m actually feeling pretty good about their choices. I can see they’re choosing right for them for right now. I get to focus on my choices and the places where I need to be stretching, trying, and failing.

Replacing Family Room Flooring

One of the last tasks remaining before we can declare ourselves done with disaster clean up was to replace the carpet in our family room. Only a small portion of the carpet got wet with flood water, but since it is attached to the rest of the carpet, the whole thing had to be replaced. Since the carpet was over twenty years old, it was past time anyway. Here is Milo displaying what needed to be removed.

The first thing we did was remove extra furniture and clutter. Most of it went into the garage with the remaining clutter from Howard’s office, an my office, and the bathroom. The garage will have to be it’s own project later. For now it is a hodge-podge of items shoved together randomly. The biggest challenge was that large sectional sofa. We didn’t want to have to carry it upstairs, so we opted for the “shove things to one side” approach.

Pulling up the carpet was fairly simple. It cut into strips and we made rolls. The padding came up quickly as well, except where it had been glued to the concrete. We took crowbars and hammers to pull up the tack strips around the edges of the room. Then we used scrapers to remove glued on bits of carpet pad. Some of the glue spots scraped away cleanly. Other bits were…goey. But we got it all clear.

That meant it was time to push all the furniture onto the cleared concrete so we could repeat the process on the other side. Callie was quite interested in the re-configured furniture. (She’s wearing a cone because she had a sore on her chin that she kept scratching open.)

It took a full day to pull out all the carpet and scrape the concrete clean. I had help for a few hours in the morning, but the rest of the time it was just me, so the work went slow. In the evening we put the couch back into position so we could watch TV.

The next day I began work laying down the luxury vinyl plank. This is click-and-lock flooring which is very easy to assemble.

After I got the room about half assembled, I notice a couple of problem spots. I went across everything I had done and marked the problems with pink tape flags. One spot wasn’t clicked together properly, another couple had strange lumps underneath them.

But the really nice thing about this type of flooring was I just took it apart, fixed the problems and lay it back down again.

Once side one was complete we were ready to put furniture on it and lay down the other side.

The floor went down in a single day because I had help from two teenagers and another adult. Once it was down and furniture re-positioned, everything looked lovely again.

After the above picture was taken, I still had to replace the trim, but the rest was complete. Honestly, the only complicated bits were around door frames where I had to custom cut pieces by hand to fit around the edges. The first try on this one, I didn’t cut right.

The second time I cut more carefully, and I put the trim piece on the top of the stairs.

We’re very happy with the new look for the room. And as soon as I finish the stairs, I can have the insurance adjuster come inspect and then we’ll get the final insurance payout. Slowly but surely we’re restoring my house to normal again.

A Day of Many Things

I have notes for a blog post on parenting depression with a focus on teenage and newly adult depressed people. Meant to write it up today, instead my dishwasher flooded through the floor into the basement. This required every towel in the house and six buckets to contain the water. Now I have dehumidifiers and fans running in two rooms. Again.

On the up side, we had four functioning adults in the house to rapid manage the flood. Even though my daughter’s fiance was actually supposed to be convalescing on the couch with a head cold. We made him lay back down as soon as the crisis was over.

Also my parents were in town for a visit and we ended up having lunch in my house (instead of meeting at a restaurant) while I talked with the plumber whose error caused the flood (and who will pay for the damage to be repaired) and also the disaster recovery company guy who brought me the fans and will do the repairs. Visiting was squeezed in around signing of contracts and contingency planning. Fortunately my parents already planned to stay at a different house because not only do I not have guest space, I have one of my kids who will have to sleep on the couch for the next five days.

Also I fielded phone calls from my kid who is considering moving back home and shifting his trajectory for the next six months. He needed help possibly applying for a new job and considering his options. My plan had been to invite him to stay home over the weekend and do a test run of living at home, only now his bed has buckets on it catching dripping water. So if he wants to come home, he’ll join his brother in sleeping on a couch.

Also I took my one of my college freshman to find out how to do a medical withdrawal from courses because they haven’t been able to make themselves go to class for about three weeks now. Depression, anxiety, and OCD can be serious hurdles for getting to class. Grades are no longer salvageable and it is time for us to regroup and figure out what comes next. (The answer is likely: take a gap year while they get a handle on self care and basic adulting.)

Tomorrow I have to get up, put on professional clothes and spend the day at a conference giving a presentation. Fortunately it is a presentation I’ve given many times before, so I can use my existing notes.

So that is how I spent my Mental Health Awareness day.

Engagement Announcement

One of the hugely important and joyful things of this past spring and summer was watching my daughter and her boyfriend grow close and figure out how they wanted to be together. There were ups and downs. Days where they cried (and I cried) and days where they spilled joy through the house. I couldn’t talk much about any of it because their story doesn’t belong to me. Now they’ve reached the point where they are making announcements and I can be happy for them out loud. Here is what they posted on social media last week:

I feel happy whenever I look at it. He fits so well into our family and even better with my daughter. They will take care of each other and balance each other for years to come. Now I’ve added “help plan and finance a wedding” into my tasks for the next few months, but I don’t mind. This is the happiest task on the list.

If you want to support Keliana with this project and her art, she has a patreon.

The Stories by which We Define Ourselves

I was at a party and a young man, to whom I’d been introduced when I arrived, was asking couples to tell the stories of how they met. The inquiry felt unusual to me and I had to pause to figure out why, because I remember when the story of Howard and I meeting was often pulled out and shared on similar occasions. I then realized that this young man was recently married. Stories of how people meet and fall in love was very much on his mind. Also it is one of the most significant shared stories that he and his wife have together. In contrast, Howard and I have been married for twenty-six years. We have so many shared stories they could fill a book. The story of how we met is no longer a defining element of our marriage. The hundreds of shared decisions, crises, joys, and adventures since are far more relevant to who we are now. Howard summed up this idea very well in a tweet:

Was at a party where @SandraTayler and I were asked about how we met. We’ve been married 26 years. How we met has very little to do with how we ARE. It’s a nice story, but a meet-cute is not a rom-com is not an actual life-long romance.

Life-long romance has far more to do with continuing to choose each other and make space for the other person in your life as you change (and they change) in all sorts of unexpected ways. When I try to imagine what story I would tell at a party to encapsulate Howard and I as a couple, I’m a bit at a loss. The story of a newly married couple is short and compact with a clear narrative arc. The story of a long-married couple is more like a series of epic fantasy novels with multiple points of view, lots of random external characters, and a plot that frequently gets lost in side tracks. The story of Howard and Sandra is not easily summarized.

On a separate occasion I met a different young man along with his father. During our conversation the father shared a story surrounding the birth of his son. I could tell that it was a family-defining story which forever changed the shape of all of their lives. As evidenced by the fact that when asked to tell about his family, this is the story the man chose to tell, even twenty-five years after it happened. When the conversation with the father was over, I had a chance to talk with the son. I could tell that he was used to this story being told, and was surprised when I suggested that perhaps at twenty-five he could claim a different story. He didn’t have to be defined by this story of his birth, but could instead bring forth stories of things he had done as an adult. That defining stories of a family could be updated and recast.

As long as we are alive, we are in a process of re-invention. Sometimes it is a massive renovation akin to knocking down walls and completely re-invisioning a room. Other times it is as subtle as putting a new cushion on a couch. Yet even subtle changes accumulate over time, and the stories we tell about who we are have to evolve along with us. The stories we tell about those we love, especially the stories told in public, especially the stories told while the loved ones can hear, those stories have power. The stories we tell make others feel stronger or weaker. They can build people up or push them down. Howard and I frequently tell funny stories on each other. We have a rhythm and a set of performance roles that we use in public for effect and the amusement of others: Howard the goofball and Sandra the responsible. Yet we always check to make sure that we aren’t trapping ourselves in the joke, forgetting that we are larger than the stories we tell at parties. Making sure we remember the other stories, the ones where Sandra is funny and Howard is the hero.

Most of the best stories of us aren’t the kind of stories which are good to tell at a party.

Prepping for Home Improvement…Again

After a summer of offices moved into living spaces, speed installation of drywall and flooring, then returning offices to their original homes, we were all ready to have life be calmer for a while. I decided to halt all house projects until after I returned from the Writing Excuses Workshop and Retreat. I figured that would buy us five weeks of relative calm. The dishwasher vetoed this plan and instead chose to leak underneath hardwood flooring a mere three days before my departure. We had to yank out the machine, turn on fans, and tell the kids they were hand washing dishes while we were gone.

It turned out the dishwasher wasn’t entirely to blame, a leaky valve contributed to the problem. This was discovered by my kids while I was away. They solved the problem with a bucket that they emptied regularly. Upon my return, I summoned the plumber once again, and paid to have plumbing fixed. For those keeping count, the plumber has been to my house for urgent repairs six times in the past five months. Six. I’ve begun to question the whole idea of indoor plumbing.

Here is the buckling on the hardwood floor, that light reflection should be a smooth circle, not broken up like it is reflecting off of waves. Which it is. Because my floor is all wavy now.

We’ll be living with the wavy floor for a while. I’m still trying to pay for the mess downstairs and can’t spend resources to fix a cosmetic problem like this one. The gaps between boards are also water damage.

Replacing the hardwood with vinyl plank was already part of the kitchen remodel plan. All of which is on hold until I finish the repairs downstairs. The last, giant, piece of downstairs repair is that we have to remove all of the carpet from the family room and replace it with vinyl plank.

It is not a small room and we use it every day. Having it torn up is going to be seriously disruptive. Once I start I want to get the job finished inside a week. I think I can, even though I’ll be laying the floor by myself. The adventure begins in earnest later this week.

Post Script: A listing of the six plumber visits.
1. Disposal under kitchen sink failed and was actively leaking under the sink.
2. Dryer died and we decided to do the plumbing adjustment for the secondary sink in our planned kitchen remodel. If we’d known about the coming things, we would have put this off. At the time it felt urgent to get it done while we were moving the dryer anyway.
3. Downstairs toilet was clogged so badly we ended up replacing two toilets and discovering a major issue with the sewer line, ripping out flooring in three rooms, and flood cutting walls in two rooms.
4. Putting back the downstairs toilet and sink once the room was reconstructed.
5. The downstairs shower needed a new cartridge so that it could have hot water as well as cold. This felt urgent because I needed to be sure that the hot water wasn’t leaking inside the wall somewhere.
6. Replacing a valve under the kitchen sink that was dripping water down the dishwasher intake line at the rate of a gallon per day.

Edited to add: As of 10/8/19 we’re now up to seven visits from the plumber. We had him back today to install the new dishwasher when the Home Depot install team completely failed to do their job.