Category Archives: Spouse

The Blessings Lists

Here we are, still.

We just celebrated our 23rd wedding anniversary. I’m not sure any couple stays married long without some help. Help from family or friends, the support of the community or the church. There’s also many, many individuals and things that hurt and destroy marriages. So I’d like to thank a very good doctor in Kansas City for saving my marriage a while back, and continuing to save it a few times since then.

My husband and I were an unlikely match of opposites. What few things we hold in common aren’t exactly useful glue for sticking together: we’re both opinionated, independent, sensitive. I’m logical about most things in life except for him, and he has a gift for reading everyone around him except his wife. We married young, still in college, and had terrible communication skills. And after 7 or 8 years, we were tired of fighting and being misunderstood. We loved each other and hated each other in the same breath.

That’s how we met Dr. H, a marriage therapist with a cozy office and a kind smile. He seemed old and wise and I hoped he would be good for us.  [As a side note, marriage therapy has only been practiced since the 1970’s, so it’s a newer field of counseling therapy.] I vividly remember the first question he asked us: Do you want to stay married? It was a shocking thing for me, to hear it put into such simple terms. But maybe it’s really that simple. If both partners want to stay married, then stay married they can. I think about that from time to time.

Not all marriage therapists are effective and competant like Dr. H. We got lucky on the first try with him. And I highly recommend marriage therapy for couples, with the one caveat that the therapist should be a trained, certified therapist that you can relate to well.  Just like selecting a good medical doctor. Don’t put your marriage in the hands of someone who only took Intro to Therapy. Don’t bring your parents into your business. A trusted older married couple you respect can often help with the little things, but for something major, call in the professional.

Dr. H was really good at diagnosing issues and teaching us better ways to communicate with each other and how to solve problems we hadn’t tackled before. Like the checkbook. There was an entire session on money management. Another on household chores. It was such a relief to figure out how to divide up household responsibilities that played to individual strengths and gave us flexibility and space. Anyway, there was a long list to be worked on, it would have been better to have gone earlier so the crap didn’t pile up so high. But at the end we understood and appreciated each other, and were at peace. We LIKED each other again.

Most importantly, Dr. H taught us the value of remembering why we love each other. There was an exercise he had us do at the beginning and the end of our therapy. At the beginning we each made a private list of all the reasons we fell in love and married. At the end he gave us back the lists and we added to them the reasons we wanted to stay married and took them home. From time to time, when one of us feels the need, we revisit our lists. I can tell when my husband has peeked at his list. He seeks out time with me. He complements my character and performs extra acts of kindness to make my life easier. He holds me more passionately.

So thank you to Dr. H., for helping us save our marriage back then. For teaching us tools to communicate and compromise. And most especially for the lists of thankfulness, of counted blessings. Marriage is still a difficult thing to navigate each day, each month, each year. But for a long while now, we’ve counted the blessings and found the lists are longer than whatever the current trouble might be.

Musical pairing:  “You’ve Got It” by Simply Red, 1990 and “Talk To Me” by The Outfield, 1985

Beauty and The Brain

1970's Hair

My little sister was always called ‘the pretty one’ and I was called ‘the smart one.’  We were stereotyped by family and the community, just like most other siblings.  I guess in a twisted way it’s a compliment, taking one of your strong points and then reducing a description of you to just one word that contrasts you from your brothers and sisters: smart, pretty, athletic, funny.  So people can tell us apart I guess.  Some people’s strong point isn’t flattering: slow, clumsy, plain, small.  My sister and I were sometimes also described as ‘the uncoordinated one’ and ‘the fast one.’  My sister won track meets.  I won scrapes, sprains and broken bones completely by accident.

So this is a picture from the 1970’s.  I was 9, my sister was 4.  She had spent the afternoon trying to style my hair with tiny plastic barrettes and hairspray.  As you can see, my sister is graced with a natural beauty, including long blonde hair, sparkly eyes and creamy skin.  I had crazy hair with waves that refused to behave and stuck out every which way.  And I unlike my sister who loved to wear girly clothes, I preferred my collection of NFL jerseys with Levis.  I don’t know why anyone around us needed little labels like ‘pretty‘ and ‘uncoordinated.‘  It’s obvious we aren’t twins 🙂

Being a little girl in the 1970’s was confusing sometimes.  The traditional stereotypes of what girls should wear, what toys they played with, how they should act, what they should excel at, and what they should do when they grew up, were still very much in place.  We were told that math and science was over our heads.  We were told that good girls wore dresses and bras and got married and were homemakers.  There was no Title X.  There was a glass ceiling and a lower salary for the same work.  We were supposed to go to college to ‘get finished‘ and obtain an MRS degree.  Pregnancy guaranteed problems at the office or retirement.  Women over 40 were over the hill and replaceable.  Madison Avenue dictated the narrow definition of beautiful (white, thin, busty, air headed) and promoted one of the most impossible ideas imposed on our generation: SuperMom.

Given the times, my sister’s looks and natural preferences made it slightly easier for her to navigate her way.  I still think she had to play dumb from time to time, she’s actually smart too.

Me, I didn’t do pink or ruffles.  I liked to watch football and Star Trek.  I rode a skateboard and won ribbons in the science fairs.  Teachers sighed and said I was a problem.  It was awkward to be me in the 1970s.  Fortunately, I had a daddy that told me it was great to be smart.  He said not to mind what people might say if I was doing my thing.  He drew football plays on a legal pad so I could learn the strategy of the game.  He said someday I’d meet a guy who would think a girl who liked football and science was cool.  Oh, AND crazy hair that didn’t obey hairspray would be alright too.  And you know what?  I did.

Musical pairing: “American Woman,” Lenny Kravitz version 1999, and “Lady Madonna,” The Beatles, 1968.

Christmas Past, Christmas Future

Christmas Journal

I started keeping a journal of our Christmas celebrations after our oldest was born.  I made notes from memory about the 7 Christmases before when it was just my husband and me.  From then on out, every year I wrote a diary entry, including where we were, the family that was with us, the snowfall, and what Santa brought the kids.  Tucked in the back are my shopping lists.

In 1998, we moved away from family, and I began to include details about Thanksgiving as well to accommodate the family rotations that needed to come with the distance.  I’ve started entering log #23 in the Christmas journal.  That’s a Christmas blessing all by itself.

As one would expect with that many holiday seasons, some were better than others.  Sometimes I couldn’t write about Christmas for a few months, to make sure that I was able to look back at it with a little forgiveness.  I did not ever include the slights or unkind things that were said or done.  Or some of the things I thought.  Sometimes the family gatherings had a sad undertone, with grandparents dying earlier in the year and leaving an empty space in the celebrations.  Some years we endured longing for children we wanted but did not have.  Despite the planning, decorating, cooking and shopping, some Christmases were awful verging on horrible.

Like the Christmas my husband had to work all day, and we were so poor we couldn’t buy gifts for each other.  There were holidays we didn’t exactly like or love each other and we smiled and faked it.  I’ll never forget the Christmas we were without a house, living in a hotel the entire month of December with all our stuff in storage and looking “forward” to moving across the country for a temporary job assignment.  Then there was the Christmas there was a blizzard snowing family in at our house for three extra days and well, let’s just say it’s a bit surprising we are all still alive.  There was the Thanksgiving that didn’t include eating together after a prayer because some people showed up so late.  Thanksgiving and Christmas can be really messy.  It involves families and traditions and religion and money and weather…mix just any two of these together and it can be a dangerous combo!

And yet the next year rolls around and we are hopeful again for the joy and magic.    Some years we get what we wish for, we get the joy and the magic.  With peace on top.   My Christmas journal also includes many entries of celebrations that were wonderful.  First Christmas for a son, years of big family celebrations with closeness and cheer.  Opportunities to give to and serve those less fortunate.  Quiet Christmas celebrations that were relaxed and we soaked up the excitement of little ones enjoying traditions and playing with wished for toys.  Surprise gifts and delicious tables of food.  Standing in church singing Silent Night and timeless carols to candlelight, filled with thankfulness and faith.  Waking up to fresh snow.

It’s sometimes the insignificant things that become the most treasured memories.  Packing a picnic and eating it in the gerbil trails overlooking the Hollidazzle Christmas Parade in downtown Minneapolis.  Taking our boys for their first sledding trips in gently falling snow.  Standing in the cold in a crowd when the choir sings and a million lights turn on at the university commons and everyone gasps.  My little one asking Santa for a present for his older brother that didn’t believe anymore.  Horseback rides on cold afternoons.  Waiting in line to see Santa at Marshall Field’s.  Children’s concerts at school.  Hot chocolate under the Walnut Room tree in downtown Chicago.  Reading the account of the birth of Christ from The Bible together in our PJs.  Flipping on the outdoor lights for the first night.  Cooking in the kitchen with all my sisters in law.  The cat sleeping up in the branches of the Christmas tree.  Watching the Charlie Brown Christmas movie every year and never getting tired of it.  Intimate kisses in the twinkling tree light after filling stockings and constructing toys at midnight.

Everything in my Christmas journal is a noted blessing.  Every year is unique and will continue to be.  In Christmas future our sons will bring home mates or call from long distances.  There will hopefully be grand babies to hold and my husband to smile at when we are old.  Surprises, continued traditions, family, carols and candles at Christmas Eve worship.  The peace and faith to survive the hard ones, with joy and love most of the time.  “And though it’s been said many times, many ways, Merry Christmas to you.”

Musical pairing: “O Holy Night” 1847, Placide Clappeau and Adolphe C. Adam. “The Christmas Song (Merry Christmas to You)” 1944, Mel Torme and Bob Wells.  “Christmas Time Is Here (Charlie Brown Christmas)” 1965, Vince Guaraldi Trio.


Smarter Than a 5th Grader

5th grader with phone and cat

Our youngest son was having trouble syncing his Android (boo) phone with our Mac since I upgraded the OS.  My husband downloaded a new app and left it to sync.  After a wait, the little one chattered excitedly that the sync was complete, and asked what to do next.  My husband called from the kitchen to leave the phone alone until it had a chance to reboot.  “What is rebooting?” our son asked.

I said, “the phone needs a gut check.”  He tilted his head, thinking.  “I don’t get it.”  So I continued, “your phone needs to rethink it’s life.”  His eyes got wide and he started to smile.  He patted his phone.  “OK, that makes sense.”

As parents, it’s not about being smarter than the 5th grader, it’s being able to make the 5th grader smarter. 🙂

Retreats Are Good

Lake In October, Wisconsin

This weekend my husband is at a religious retreat with other men from church, enjoying a camp in northern Wisconsin on Lake Michigan.  October is gorgeous there, full fall foliage and mild weather.  I’m so glad he went.  He works too hard and doesn’t take enough time for guy friends.  Spiritual renewal is vital too.

I have a weekend I usually take to the lake with girlfriends every year.  A couple of friends had been bugging me to come with them to their scrapbooking weekend.  I’m not much into scrapbooks, so at first I said no.  But they kept explaining how it’s more than the scrapbook work, so I went and understood.  I don’t accomplish much in the way of scrapbooks, what I enjoy is the time away with just ladies, talking, eating, shopping, walking by the lake.  There’s ritual to it, the same restaurant for dinner, the same toasts, the same expedition to try on shoes and then stock up on PJs at the Life Is Good shop across the street.  Hours looking at one another’s photo memories and creativity.  Working side by side with our hands.

You know, we spend most weekends raising little ones, tending to the lawns and home maintenance, baseball games, scout meetings, church worship… the weekends are SO jam packed that there’s no time for friends.  No time for relaxation, meditation, or communing with ‘sisters.’  We often live life too fast, and don’t set aside time to unplug.  Time to listen.  Time to encourage.

I’ve heard snippets about the men’s retreat.  Different rituals to appeal to men, such as trail biking, hikes, rock wall climbing, bonfires, and food.  Maybe they even beat drums and chant, I thought it best not to ask 🙂  But the elements of communing with ‘brothers,’ relaxation, mediation and ritual are the same.

So I don’t mind covering all the family activities for the weekend.  The lawn can wait a week.  And in return I’ll get a better husband.  I’m pretty good at hanging out and doing guy stuff.  But I can’t and shouldn’t fill his every need for companionship.  And he can’t fill all of mine.  That’s why a weekend retreat, or bunko night, or basketball league night, etc. is good.   We often live life too fast, and need to take time to unplug and renew with our friends.

Musical pairing: “I’ll Be There For You,” The Rembrandts, 1995

Our 9 – 11 Snapshots

Peace Bracelet

Most Americans will reflect this weekend about the snapshot moment of 9-11-01, where we were, how we felt ten years ago.  The moment when the old normal ended for all of us.  Our generation hadn’t seen Pearl Harbor, hadn’t seen JFK in Dallas, hadn’t seen Dr. King.  We had witnessed the end of the Cold War when the Berlin Wall fall, but that was a hopeful event.

So we each have our snapshot of that hinge point day, a piece of the collective American snapshot.  Mine is less terrible than thousands of others.  But it’s mine, and I’ll never forget it or let it go.

I had just dropped my small sons off at daycare and was driving to work in Minneapolis, MN.  An announcer broke in on the radio and stated that a plane had crashed into the World Trade Center.  I had coworkers that I knew at my company’s NYC office, so I was desperately trying to figure out in my mind how many blocks their office was from the WTC.  By the time I walked into my office the second plane had hit. I called my friend Rick, it was so good to hear his voice and learn that our NYC coworkers were apparently safe.  Rick had been visiting our Connecticut office that morning, and he had been able to contact his fiancee who worked in lower Manhattan on her cell phone.  She was safe and walking home.  He would spend two nights at a coworkers house until the bridges opened back up and he could get home.  I breathed a sigh of relief and headed to the conference room to see if the TV was on.

Everyone in the office was huddled around the TV, watching the live coverage and discussing possibilities for the tragedy.  Then the Pentagon was hit.  One guy tossed out the idea that if it was a terrorist act, he suspected Osama Bin Laden.  Who?  I’d never heard of him.  The south tower fell.  Then the north tower collapsed.  I burst into tears.  How many people were still inside?

Panic swept the room.  What if it wasn’t over, how many cities were targeted?  Someone said that Minneapolis wasn’t important enough to target, but if it was the target would be the IDS Tower downtown.  Wait.  My husband worked in the skyscraper next door.  I raced to the phone and called my husband.  He was the ranking officer in the building that day because his boss was traveling.  He decided to evacuate.

It seemed unreal, watching the TV for several more hours together in the conference room.  No one could work.   No one could think.  Our boss sent us home.  And I put my babies to bed and clung to my husband and felt deep, deep grief for those who could not do the same.

Not long after, I came across this bracelet, with red, white and blue beads and a little medallion with the word “peace” on one side and a cross on the other side.  I decided to wear it because the war was starting, thinking at the time I would take it off when it was over.  Between years 5 and 6 the bracelet broke.  It’s elastic had worn out.  It seemed like a bad omen that things weren’t better, that our soldiers weren’t home, that the WTC towers still sat as dark holes.  A peaceful America is something I would very much like to wear and feel again.

That’s my snapshot.  If you would like to add yours, please post.

Musical Pairing: “One Tree Hill,” U2, 1988 and “Caoineadh Cu Chulainn: Lament,” Riverdance, 1997

Fireflies Don’t Like To Have Their Pictures Taken

Firefly entertainment

This stormy summer has brought with it multiple days without electricity.  The wind blows, it knocks down trees that fall into power lines, and presto, more than 850,000 Chicagoans were without power.  We happen to be on one of the craptastic ComEd grids that is out often and for long stretches of time.  This most recent outage was for 4 days.

Being without electricity in a big city is a bit disconcerting.  We’re used to the soft glow of downtown in the eastern sky.  We’re used to streetlights and home appliances and the neon buzz of the local art deco movie theater sign.  The home and library internet is suddenly inaccessible.  And here’s the killer- Starbuck’s coffee makers won’t work without power.  Thank heavens Starbucks is not on my house’s power grid!  The city would go mad from caffeine deprivation in way less than 4 days.

So we made do.  We slept downstairs because the 2nd floor was too hot.  We learned how to bake pizzas on the Weber grill.  Everyone in our house has a small personal lantern to navigate the dark hallways and bathrooms.  Life moves with the sun, not the alarm clock.  The summer days provide long hours of daylight, but the day is over much earlier than usual without power.  Being a family of night owls, we chose to exit the house at dusk and spend the early evening outdoors in our yard.  We talked with neighbors, the kids played in the sprinklers, and I spent 3 evenings trying to take a photo of a firefly.

I’m not a bug person.  I think they are necessary yet icky creatures that I don’t like to have in my house or in close proximity to my person.  With the exception of the wonderful, best bug, the firefly.  They signal the best days of warm summer weather, coming out at night to blink and signal outdoors among the hedges and flower beds.  God’s little fireworks.

Fireflies are actually bioluminescent beetles with one pair of wings.  They do not live west of Kansas in the US.  Hmmm.  They like to eat nectar or pollen during their 2-month life span and are poisonous if eaten.  They glow and flash to communicate with each other and to ward off danger.   (Thanks to National Geographic and Ohio State’s science department for these cool facts.)  My husband says they are cool because when he was a kid he remembers using them for glow-in-the-dark war paint on his face and taking tennis rackets to them with his neighborhood thugs, I mean friends.  He’s not allowed to share that little piece of family history with our sons.

OK so back to the present and I’ve got no TV, no internet, no light over the dining room table for board games or cards.  I’m in the backyard trying to entertain myself and decide to try to take a photo of the fireflies.  But as soon as I’d click the camera, the fireflies would turn off and I’d get a black picture of Chicago without electricity.  Apparently I’m not a good firefly, they don’t like my camera flash.  So I’d sit quietly for a minute or two, the fireflies would begin their flashing, flying dance again, I’d snap a picture, and nothing.  Picture number 10 of Chicago without electricity.  I gave up and just enjoyed the light show.

Night number 2.  Back outside in the dark trying to click a photo of a firefly.  I obviously don’t have a good enough camera and they really don’t like the iPhone camera.  The fireflies turned off for a long time after trying the iPhone.  I’m thinking to myself, oh great, now I have a yard full of fireflies seeing spots and blinded by my camera flash careening wildly into the night.  I feel a little guilty.

Night number 3.  I start my photo project a little earlier, before I’ve seen the first firefly of the night.  I camp out in the grass near the echinacea with a glass of wine, my camera and a little hope.  I waited patiently for the firefly flash mob to begin, and this time I waited.  I enjoyed the show as their numbers grew, marveling at the pattern of their conversations and flight.  I had determined I would only try once for a photo tonight, I wouldn’t interrupt so much.  Click.  It’s not a great photo, but if you look carefully you can see the glow of one firefly.  The one little guy who was on when the others were off.  The one little guy whose pattern was just different enough than the others to allow me to take his photo.  Thank you for being different.  Thanks for lighting up the dark.