Zen and the Art of Blueberry Peace

I woke up today with an immensely odd craving for blueberry pancakes. You see, I’m more of a breakfast burrito kind of gal; bacon, potatoes, burn your taste buds right off hot sauce. Savory’s my game. And until now, my pregnancy has lacked the thrilling side effects Hollywood’s most notoriously appetite-less women would have you believe are normal. I stared at the ceiling in our bedroom contemplating how in the world it’s possible that I have never in my life made pancakes. How absurd.

Equipped with a fancy from-scratch recipe, I progressed slow and determined through the isles of our tiny grocery store. Still bleary-eyed with interrupted sleep I nearly missed the familiar package of Krusteaz pancake mix my mom always used. Studying the simple instructions on the back of the bag I chuckled at the realization that we do not even own a whisk, the one of three necessary items to get this done the easy way. So long cake flour, almond extract, and baking soda, Krusteaz and Mrs. Butterworth never let my own mother down, why mess with success?

9 Months Pregnant + 30 Years Old = Powdered Sugar AND Syrup

9 Months Pregnant + 30 Years Old = Powdered Sugar AND Syrup

Unburdened with what was sure to be a hopeless effort, I picked up some Visine and made my way through the checkout line. My eyes are still a little puffy and red from last night’s major meltdown. Infuriatingly typical, at nine months pregnant and only a few hours from the dreaded 3-0, I completely lost my cool. I was hit hard by the big questions: What if I can’t let go of selfishness? How will my marriage suffer? What if I’m a bad mother? What’s left to look forward to? And the smaller questions: What if I’m never fun again? What if I can’t eliminate Nutella from my daily diet? Why oh why didn’t I plan for a birth not immediately preceding swimsuit season?

Some answers are easier to journey toward than others but my first taste of blueberry flapjack had a zen-like effect. There is no need to over-complicate an already complex life, go with your gut, learn and grow together, as a family. On my 30th birthday, when I think the world has no surprises left for me, our little lady showed me sometimes it’s nice to wake up and find out you’re wrong.

Smooch

Mushaboom Brain

My brain is in so many places at once, I’m pretty sure I deserve a gold medal for the mental acrobatics I’m constantly performing. I have never attempted more fervently to pay attention, make eye contact, concentrate on the words being spoken to me. In the midst of extreme focus she’ll  kick and, to be specific, it feels like she’s somehow memorized the moves from the Kriss Kross Jump video. And just like that I’m suddenly wondering what happened to wearing whitewashed jeans backwards and the sweet neon innocence of 90s hip hop and … What was I saying? What month is it? October?

When she’s not breakdancing I’m compiling mental lists of why she might be feeling mellow. Did I eat something I shouldn’t have? I’m probably juggling work and a side conversation but I’m also thinking of pregnancy week one, when I ate both Caesar salad and béarnaise sauce in one meal. I spent the following week and a half feeling more remorseful and guilty than that time I crashed the family Volvo into the garage (sorry Mom). And then my phone rings and I’m back in the present where I realize, oh hell, we’ll have a daughter crashing into our garage soon. If I’m looking at you like you’re lime green, this is why.

-4

I feel the need to write lengthy apology notes to all the poor souls duped into conversation with me, I am miles away with no intention of mapping my way back. The slightest trigger and I’m transported back to college, an olive green kitchen where I sat on the counter with Socrates and a glass of wine and repeatedly made a mockery of pasta alfredo. Tapping my toes to Mushaboom I remember the exact moment I considered the future I live today. Back then it seemed like a dreamy little fairy tale, married, settling down, and starting a family, that’s crazy I thought. I got the crazy part right, but it’s been much dreamier than I could have possibly imagined.

Love

 

Warm-Hearted (Central) Americans

I adore Central America. I love the way the heat sits on your thirsty skin like a wet bathing suit. I stepped off the plane and my brain sent emergency alerts to my confused body and I was instantly perspiring in all the wrong places. I marveled at the locals who seemed to glow ethereally while we foreigners glistened and shifted uncomfortably in our absurd performance fleece and denim airplane attire. After a few days though, I relished my sun-kissed skin and frizzled hair, the climate seeped into my pores and my overstuffed suitcase was as useless as 60+SPF.

Paradise from above

Paradise from above

Sensory memories from the PanAm proved accurate and somehow magnified but what I didn’t anticipate was the all-encompassing joy my pregnant belly could bring to total strangers. I felt like a celebrity everywhere we went, I considered practicing my pageant wave and flawless autograph flourish every time someone beamed ecstatically in my direction. It was a refreshing change of pace from the oddly concentrated frowns back home.

Stairs? Oh no ma’am, not for you, let me direct you to the special VIP pregnant-lady elevator. I found myself gratefully accepting every sincere offer of goodwill and unavoidably comparing them to the snide “I just thought you were fat” remarks I received prior to stamping my passport. Security line? No no, you probably have to pee, right this way to the front of the line. Forget the scanner, how could you be a terrorist? You’re a mother! Tell that to the TSA agents who scolded me to “just go through” the scanners in Texas. Waiting in line for the ladies room in Guatemala was like being on tour. If one lady caught a whiff of my impending motherhood, the whole line was an uproar of nudges and whispers and I was faced with 12 women smiling so hard it looked like they were instantly creating new facial creases with the effort. Is this what it feels like to be Oprah I wondered.

These ladies had no objections to us joining their roadside tortillaria

These ladies had no objections to us joining their roadside tortillaria

More valuable than any trinkets I brought home was the perspective. The frigid Nebraska temperatures had only aided the ice forming around my heart lately. I have been embarrassingly consumed by my expanding waistline and the judgement of others, so easily forgetting the time and energy spent hoping to get to this place. These precious few months left to me are meant to be cherished. In the sultry heat of Belize and Guatemala, I let it melt away and embraced the simplicity of kind words and sincere affection, the small gestures of genuine compassion I hope to teach our daughter soon.

 

Baby's first ruined adventure

Baby’s first ruined adventure

The Sweetest Thing

Approximately three days and 17 searches: the amount of nail-biting time and hysterical googling it took for this lady to swear off all prenatal reading material.  Should you ever feel the odd desire for slick palms, heart palpitations, and dizzying anxiety just google “first trimester back pain.” At 18 weeks, each day is a surprise for me. I learn as a I go and like to think I’m bringing a hip vintage edge to my pregnancy rather than the reality, the perhaps misguided efforts of a determined ignorance.

Luckily I have a husband who instantly became an enthusiastic reader the moment he laid eyes on the pink plus sign. He keeps me up to date on our tiny progeny and sometimes makes me swoon with his sweet absurdity. When he told me I shouldn’t go to the annual haunted corn maze due to my delicate condition, I was sure he was joking. But when he repeated the statement to his own mother, appalled that she would even presume to think we would attend, I started to wonder where he was getting his daddy-to-be information.

Despite my love of screaming like a sugar-frenzied tween and sprinting through a dark, confusing, freezing-cold corn maze chased by our neighbors dressed in gorilla suits wielding chain saws, I acquiesced and we stayed home. Not because I believed his firm notion that pregnant women ought not to be overly frightened, but because, come on, that’s just the sweetest thing. To this day he defends himself, “Oh sure, you laugh now, but just think if something had gone wrong, the headline the next day would’ve been, ‘Idiot husband brings pregnant wife to late night, unlit, corn maze full of drunk people’ and the whole town would rally for my immediate incarceration.” Alright, so maybe he has a point.

 

Rollin’

Journal Entry: March 1st, 2014

The familiar squeak of the hinges and then the warm rush of a forced-air furnace, I’m instantly relaxed. A few faces turn to smile at our arrival and the lively chatter resumes. We place our coats on ancient, battered hangers and line up our shoes with the others, snow melting wet puddles into the abused carpet. The routine of this moment is so comforting. For one night each week, this run-down bowling alley is my happy place. I forget about my incessant need to tackle something more meaningful, I let go of my nagging subconscious telling me to think bigger.

Thursday nights are for cracking corny jokes, for smiling wide and genuine, for contemplating new theories on alcohol to turkey ratios: this week I bowl better with my glasses and drinking only Coors Light, last week’s three cocktail minimum was a total bust.

Small-town Thursday night

Small-town Thursday night

This is where my fears of impressing a small community fade, where I feel less like an outsider and more a part of the scenery in which I want so badly to blend. The radio plays state basketball playoffs and the whole place keeps one ear on the game. But it’s not all easy talk of weather and sports. Somewhere between clashing pins and stiff cocktails, the hard stuff filters through, quiet conversations with down-turned eyes; the recent loss of a beloved sister, struggling to find your place in a community you’ve called home for 30 years, worries over a son’s divorce.

It’s easy to gaze on this scene and call it simple but there is nothing easy about this life.

Upper Peninsula

Journal Entry: June 30th, 2013

Two weeks on America’s highways and byways, a journey inspired by Jim Harrison’s Dalva (read this immediately). Maybe this journey’s literary beginnings serve to highlight all the tremendous emotions we grappled with along the way.  We’re nearing the end of the line where something mysterious and new awaits, home. Not just a rental with an exit plan, we’ve got a mortgage and room to grow. The next 40 years stretch out before us, a life we can envision.

Sunset in the Smoky Mountains

Sunset in the Porcupine Mountains

The UP had it’s moments. It rained 80% of the time and was perhaps not the most ideal climate to host our anxieties. For two weeks we camped in the rain, we hiked, we woke before dawn to the echo of emergency storm warnings across desolate wilderness, we lost count of the mosquito bites, and felt certain we might never be dry again. We worked through our fears of parenthood, of sitting still, of living better in Small Town USA. And in the middle of all of it we  muddled through the devastating shock of a friend leaving this world before any of us were ready to see her go. If we went in search of perspective, there’s no denying the effect of a mortal reminder.

No one ever said it would be easy

No one ever said it would be easy

Parked outside the most expensive small-town hotel we’ve ever stayed at, we listened to Iowa’s 107.9 and summarized our emotions over a bottle of Dickel Rye. It was one of those stations that made you want to keep driving right past your destination with Reba, Willie, and the boys.  After the last several years spent side-by-side in a vehicle, it came as no surprise when we felt unable to leave the car that night. I can’t imagine a more comforting conclusion, to know that through all our worries, fears, and questions, we can find solace in each other, in a parked car, in the middle of no-where, lost together.

I was on the verge of jumping into one of those holes in life out of which we emerge a bit tattered and bloody, though we remain sure nonetheless that we had to make the jump.”
― Jim Harrison Dalva

Literary Layover

Arriving in London was like a dream. I never forgot, in fact I consciously reminded myself several times, I had just stepped off a plan from AFRICA and the logic of my excitement for a Western European international city landed me somewhere between absurd and schizophrenic. I have nearly 1500 photos of insane African wildlife awaiting perusal on my laptop but the feeling I get when for the first time I hear someone tell me to “mind the gap” makes my head spin. London! The home of some of my favorite authors and birthplace of more literature than will ever fit on my kindle.

Who me? Yeah. Just chillin' at Virgina Woolf's house. No big deal.

Who me? Yeah. Just chillin’ at Virgina Woolf’s house. No big deal.

As we rolled along the tube (the tube!) I tried to keep my idiotic grin in check. What’s the big deal anyway? I asked myself. Looking around: earbuds in, newspapers out, on the way to work, it reminds me of San Francisco. But on closer inspection this is better. When the doors open we aren’t inundated with a claustrophobic underground hole of a station, but somehow we seem to be in a lovely little village, trim gardens, quaint brownstones and birds, actual birds (not those flying rats we have back home), singing like we’re all in a damn Disney movie.  Is this real life?

If you think this is weird, you should've seen what I did when I realized I got to hear actual recordings of Alduous Huxley and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle inside.

If you think this is weird, you should’ve seen what I did when I realized I got to hear actual recordings of Alduous Huxley and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle inside.

Everyone is incredibly friendly, chatting us up and spouting off recommendations with genuine interest. I almost fell over and died on the spot when one of them proclaimed, “Cheerio!” in parting. Don’t get me wrong, I loved every minute of Africa, but I think we just landed in my heaven.

Who ever said you can't find happiness at the bottom of a pint hasn't been to London.

Who ever said you can’t find happiness at the bottom of a pint hasn’t been to London.

The Hunt

It’s been about three years since I last fired a rifle so the shot that rang out nearly knocked me to the ground. From that point, the memory seems like an ancient film: silent, covered in a hazy glow, a romantic thriller that loops back on itself and leaves you bewildered.

My thoughts jumbled, I told myself not to forget. I memorized the trees, the look on Logan’s face, the brush like splinters snagging my pants, the dense heat rolling off our bodies into the calm cool of the approaching dusk. I thought of the people in the Land Cruiser waiting miles away wondering if the echoing shot had made it’s mark.  The nyala dropped.

I approached the animal not expecting to find him alive. He breathed deeply and moments later, with one last wide-eyed gaze at this world I witnessed the moment life escaped him. A lung shot according to our tracker, our eyes met and with my hand on his shoulder he settled swiftly into the earth. I felt hyper-aware, the blood pounding in my ears, conscious of a heart that continued to beat on, hovering over another that never would again.

I am the twist you never anticipated, the hero and the villain. Kneeling in the deafening silence of the African bush, somewhere between pride and remorse, I discovered a deep respect for our mortal world.

“Death smiles at us all, all a man can do is smile back.” Marcus Aurelius

 

The Other Half

On top of the world

On top of the world

Completely out of breath, our shoes overflowing with sand, our lungs burning  we stood doubled over at the top of Dune 45. Without thought or discussion, we had sprinted to the peak of this five million year old accumulation of sand.

A few months ago I had been mesmerized by images of this exact spot, our friends were overlanding Africa and their adventures inspired equal parts raging jealousy and uninhibited desire. It is difficult to admit the chaotic emotion within an overlander when they’re forced to return home and live vicariously through their friends. Half of you wants to write them off, slam your laptop shut and forget the life you led before. The other, seemingly sadistic half, just can’t look away and it’s this part of ourselves we can’t deny that eventually leads us to one night throw out our last three months of planning and book two tickets to Africa.

There are few moments in life when we can look around and say “I dreamed of this and now it’s mine.” This was one such moment and neither of us were about to spoil it with words that could never hope to match our surroundings.  United in this unspoken agreement we sat silently watching the sunset with only the sound of the sand whipping endlessly over the blurred edge of the dune.

Shadow and light

Shadow and light