Holiday lights and haunted houses

A month ago the light was touched with the colors of the season. We counted pumpkins on doorsteps, noting the special ones, unusual colors or sizes, and brought great quantities of candy into our home. The quietly spectacular transformation of green into stains of orange, red and yellow took place before I could appreciate it properly.

One by one, thousands of fallen leaves evaporated into the earth, leaving us with a memory of when they were lush and unseasoned.

Like so many birds, I flew south for a few days last month. During my absence winter came crawling, beckoning at the door. When I got home I dug out gloves and hats in preparation for stinging weather. A rainbow teased itself across the blue only to leave no trace of its existence when I blinked, and suddenly I was gazing upon a dull grey sky.

I blink sometimes, and she is gone again.

When I talk about her with someone who really knew her, it makes it feel real again.

It makes me miss her more, and yet makes me feel like I’m not the only one, and so I am sad and grateful at the same time.

Most of the time these days I’m hardly thinking of my dead sister, though, and the enormous void that was left in our family when she died, and really, for a long time now, my grief  has remained silent. I am happy, and yet my heart is haunted, you see.

So then.

Then something happens, and I am struck, no, torn, torn into a thousand pieces of misunderstanding and hurt and terror mixed with ambivalence and blame and fear, and I fear for my children, for the world in which they are being raised. How on Earth can we protect them?

Yet when I was a child, we lived without sun protection and seat belts. Secondhand smoke was, well, everywhere. I remember tipping full ashtrays into the trash, with no immediate effects. We were routinely allowed to get hurt (or okay, at least put in harm’s way with limited observation especially in the summer time).

My sisters and I made it to adulthood with a few scratches and scars, but nothing serious. Certainly we arrived as newborn adults prepared to live, and live freely and confidently.

This is part of the reason why it’s been so very, very difficult to accept my sister’s death (nine years ago and counting). She was so very much alive.

That, and also that our national and international news is so terrible of late.

I know my sister would be fighting to arbitrate such news today. In her core she was a stubborn negotiator, a protector of human integrity, and a woman who sought to collaborate, agree with or attempt to understand someone despite of or due to their differences.

She was a person who fought back, typically with words but once with a well-placed and most deserved punch to the face. She listened to stories from men and women who were disabled but not downtrodden – she recognized those who needed a hand from time to time were not unworthy of their humanity.

She would fight with me, with us, help me to understand what I can do better.

There’s a lot on my list to do better.

(At least seat belts, smoking and sun protection don’t make the list).

I’ve been doing some yoga lately. I’m not one with the mat or anything, but it makes me feel better.

Yoga makes my wrists hurt, my sister said with a shake of her head, a long time ago.

Some nights I cannot sleep.

There are haunted houses in my dreams, darkened windows, broken glass. The wind scatters leaves across my path; a cat cries before I wake up.

Haunted hearts, empty, shadowed by sadness. Full of memories that can not always be trusted.

I lose you again and again and again.

You move and breathe and smile in our minds, but just like those moving portraits that hang on the walls of Hogwarts, you aren’t really there.

Those whom we we have lost in recent days are real. As usual, I send a silent appeal to my angel sister so that she may greet them in turn, a reflective reception for Michael Brown among them… always, I think, those whose deaths were unexpected deserve a kind and compassionate welcome.

Lights sparkle in our living room tonight, illuminating a tiny Nativity scene organized on the coffee table by our youngest son. He is very taken with the miniature wooden figures, especially the Three Kings and the Baby Jesus. We have been listening to a lot of holiday pop music lately, and not especially focused on theology, but I thought I’d been pretty clear about the meaning of the holiday until he asked me about Michael Jackson’s role in Bethlehem at Christmas.

Perplexed, I asked a few questions, and it turned out that he had confused the Baby Jesus with the renowned rock star.

My explanation of Christmas was puzzling at best, dubious at worst. I attempted to set him straight, and he marched back into the family room to dance to little Michael’s rendition of Santa Claus is Coming to Town.

My sister would have celebrated another turn around the sun tomorrow. Surely she’s dancing, wherever she is, and crying, too, at the loss that we invoke while here on Earth, at the sudden force of grief and mourning that we create when another young life is taken senselessly and forever.

In my heart I remember you as you were, Liz, 28 years old, a smile upon your lips to greet a loved one or a stranger, a frown as you observed injustice around you. I am grateful for you, and saddened by your absence. Always, I remain your sister and your friend.

love

 

 

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I am behind in posting to this personal blog. I owe two reviews, various musings, and a special response to a nomination by The Imperfect Kitchen – a post that I am excited about writing and sharing with my readers.

But lately I’ve felt more like thinking about writing, rather than actually writing, thinking-past-bedtime-style, and thinking about the the usual suspects.

Loss, healing and love, in no particular order, because in my mind they are all one and the same.

A neighbor of mine cared for her mom during her last days this month. She gently, sadly left her family far too soon, and it made my heart ache, though I’d never met her.

It made me think, god, I’m so grateful, truly grateful that my mom and dad and sister are still here with me. 

Most nights my family sits around the dinner table and haphazardly share our daily gratitudes. It’s our “Our Father, Full of Grace”, a reflection on the day’s gifts and rainbows.

The deal is that everyone is supposed to share at least one thing for which they are grateful that happened that day, even if, and this is quite plausible, that day truly sucked and was horrible till the end.

Despite that we have shared gratitudes before the evening meal for over a year now, it’s not sinking in. Our boys dig into their food, starving, until I ask them to pause. Then they’re suddenly squabbling, hands reaching, each determined to share his gratitudes before anyone else.

Our youngest says he is grateful for the “water park” that we visited last November. He says this every night.

It’s not a religious practice, I guess it’s optional, but it irritates me that I constantly have to remind them to show appreciation for what they have. They are good at saying ‘thank you’ for an ice cream cone or a birthday gift, but less so at acknowledging a subtler act of kindness or uncommon experience.

The truth is that we live in a community that enjoys so much privilege. I want our boys to recognize this, and so I make them identify something, anything, for which they are grateful every night. Once they get started, however, they have a hard time stopping. This suggests that one day I won’t have to prompt them.

Right?

Recent gratitudes from the older brother include “watching the World Cup, especially Brazil and USA and the Netherlands, and sorry, Mom, but I’ve got to root against Mexico when they play the Netherlands, and for this dinner, and for getting ready to go to Bubba and Nana’s house…” and from the younger, “I’m grateful for this beautiful dinner and I love Mom and Dad and Miles and Coppi and our new kitchen and going to the water park and coming back from school and the dumpster wasn’t here and we didn’t need to do any more work”. 

It’s really good stuff, these gratitudes that I insist they share.

In late 2000, my two sisters visited my partner and me in southern Mexico. We were working 12-16 hour days, volunteer-style, at a guest ranch located not far from the Guatemalan border. Mostly European and a few intrepid American travelers arrived shouldering backpacks, ate great quantities of excellent home-cooked food, hiked and photographed nearby ruins before heading on their way.

We served traveling Germans a lot of Mexican beer and washed piles and piles of dishes. We also developed a healthy respect for the indigenous Zapatista community’s presence down the road as well as for the Mexican army base located less than one mile from the ranch.

I’ve written about this experience in Birds of Paradise, Part One, Two and Three. Fresh out of the Peace Corps, we were thrilled to have the opportunity to live and work in a piece of the world not well known by anyone other than its residents and the local American missionaries (I should write about them sometime – they weren’t your stereotypical missionary family).

Toward the close of our tenure at the ranch, my partner and I spent time in close dialog, not only with each other, but with members of the staff. We agreed that the way in which the operation was run (by American expats greedy for pesos and a permanent vacation) was crude and unethical. The ranch employed a hard-working staff of young men and women who completed their tasks with a serious yet pleasant attitude. For most of them, Spanish was their second or third language after their indigenous dialect. We earned their trust by working alongside them, washing dishes by hand, serving plates and drinks, and weeding the garden. It helped that we spoke the language, sharing jokes and lightening the atmosphere a bit.

Bringing this memory back today seems timely. Although we did not have children back then, and in fact did not have much for which we were responsible – no mortgage, no “real” jobs, no bills waiting to be paid – we felt accountable, to one another and to the staff and neighbors of the property.

At the end of the day we felt responsible and grateful. We coordinated humble yet delicious dinners and assisted in buying, cleaning and preparing the food alongside two talented Mexican cooks. Eventually the work took place in a rhythm that worked beautifully so long as the ranch owners were not present. It was a good, yet unsustainable situation since we knew the owners were due back any day. After six months, we chose not to take part any longer in an operation that was unkind and unjust to the very people who made it work.

Maybe gratitude can’t really be forced. Through observation and experience of humbler conditions than my own, I grew in immeasurable ways that season, and I was a whole lot older than our kids are today.

I want to live my life with eyes wide open to the blessings around me. Our boys have big hearts, even if they less aware of how good they have it.

Piglet noticed that even though he had a Very Small Heart, it could hold a rather large amount of Gratitude.

– A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh

 P.S. By the time I got around to posting this, both of my boys had driven me mad, because they were tired and melting down, causing me to feel very ungrateful indeed. But we’ll try again tomorrow. 

gracias

 

 

 

the usual suspects

Do I title this post Creepy Bunnies?

Or Boston Strong?

I woke up ruminating on the holiday, but my thoughts quickly turned toward the runners and spectators who lined the streets of Boston this morning.  It’s been humbling and inspiring to read about how the running community moved resiliently through this first anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombings. I was touched to learn that hundreds of runners and their families attended the Blessing of the Athletes at Boston’s Old South Church yesterday, which coincidentally was Easter Sunday.

Part of the blessing read:

May you mount up with wings like eagles. May you run and not grow weary. May you walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40:31)

I remain unconvinced that Christianity with a capital C is the way to go,  but I also appreciate how we might seek solace and inspiration in scripture. This particular piece seems especially meaningful for runners.

That said, the explanation I provided to my kids about the meaning of Easter felt inadequate.

Our eldest son can tell you the Christmas story, or at least he’ll hit the highlights… how baby Jesus was born in a manger after his parents wandered for several hours in search of a place to rest. He likes the idea of a bright star guiding the way of those who sought him, and he’ll certainly mention the fact that there were animals, too… an ox, a donkey, a camel, and maybe a dog.

Also, since the city of Bethlehem is within an hour’s drive from the Mediterranean Sea, my son is certain there was a shark or two silently lurking near the shore the day Jesus was born.

Healer, sage, leader, teacher and philosopher, Jesus was a man who cared deeply about humanity. Was he reborn? I’m not entirely certain.

Anyway.

Most Easters since our kids have been born have passed without much reflection on the day’s purpose or history. Yesterday I felt like tackling it differently, because the secular approach to Easter is focused on a creepy, man-sized Easter Bunny, and and the sugar ingestion alone is bound to hurt.

We painted and hid eggs and filled baskets with treats. Our eldest handles special treats discreetly, saving them to enjoy one at a time. His Easter Basket was still pretty full by the time the sun set. Our youngest, on the other hand, was intentional in his excessive consumption of jelly beans and chocolate. Throughout the day, he returned to his basket to dip in for a handful of sweet, until it was gone. Then he leaned in to me with chocolate breath to inquire about more.

After spending the entire day in our backyard playing soccer and badminton, gardening, swinging in the hamaca and organizing an army of Lego guys on the deck, we finally stopped to come in for the holiday meal. Before dinner, we went around the table to share gratitudes.

I said something like, Today I’m grateful for sunshine and each of you and the understanding that we are sharing this special Easter Sunday with many people around the world.

Oldest son: Um, Mom? Couldn’t there be a cooler holiday that celebrated sharks around the world? Like everyone would just be excited and celebrate about Sharks being alive in the ocean around the entire world?

After dinner, the boys scrubbed down into cleaner versions of themselves and watched an original Peter Cottontail movie from the 1970s.

Public apologies to the movie-gifter, but this film is a little scary and dated. The boys didn’t think so, but I cringed watching the dark Evil Irontail try to outsmart the innocent Peter Cottontail. The stop-motion animation is fun, and probably easier for our youngest to follow than fast-paced modern films, but it’s still a pretty terrible movie. I like to be present during the viewing of a new movie in order to interpret as needed or talk it out afterwards, but I’m also finding myself being less present lately.

More and more, I need the boys to work stuff out on their own.

When they are separated, they long to be together… or at least the youngest wants to be near the eldest. Left apart long enough, the eldest inquires about the youngest, too. Since we don’t live in the Taj Mahal, intimacy isn’t typically a problem, and we are within shouting distance at any given point.

On Easter Sunday I felt like we should feel as a family,  like a whole, curious, healthy entity, moving toward a shared interpretation of the day. Faithful or not, life really comes down to love, gratitude, family, patience, kindness and strength of spirit.

Our kids are young. Easter baskets are compelling, and they sit in the room, teasing, tantalizing as they entice little hands to dig down for jelly beans and chocolate. But if I can support those things listed above as part of my life and that of my family’s, then I feel we are doing pretty well.

And that, readers, makes for a happy Easter.

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holiday thoughts and blessings

Ashes – My Messy, Beautiful

A few months ago someone I know liked a business on Facebook that creates cremation urns.

You know how we like stuff on social media. Sugar sweet piles of puppies, spinning dolphins who live in crystal blue seas, dazzling rainbow sunsets in far off lands. We like sleeping newborns, political jokes, break dancing toddlers, important messages, pleas for prayers and hundreds and hundreds of photos that we cannot unsee and occasionally we wish we could. Social media descends on our lives every day like so many birds, assailing us with images that remind us of days long since lived, or of places where we one day hope to go.

We scroll down, down, down… clicking on the occasional link that someone we truly like has posted or for whatever reason catches our eye at the moment.

Well, it turns out that on social media there’s a bunch of us that like cremation urns.

I guess.

Urns are tenderly created bowls of earth made for the purpose of housing ashes. Dedicated to offering a space in which one’s remains can be kept safe and sacred, they have been used by many civilizations across thousands of years. Like seemingly everything else on the planet, today you can buy them on Amazon.

You can bury ashes. You can scatter them. You can keep them. You can do whatever you feel is right, and you can possibly almost forget about them because they may be tucked into a brown paper bag in your closet, by the neatly folded sweaters that you never actually wear.

Truth: just seeing this “like” of urns on Facebook destroyed me a little bit for a few minutes.

A portion of my sister’s ashes has been housed unceremoniously in a paper bag on a shelf in my closet in my bedroom for over eight years now. Safely out of sight in a quiet corner, I rarely notice them. Occasionally I get up there to sort out sweaters and whoa – there they are.

It never, ever occurred to me to acquire an urn until I saw that Facebook post.

A few months after she died, my family and I scattered my sister’s ashes in the way back of my parents’ generous backyard, close to the basketball court where she spent plenty of time dribbling, free throwing, rebounding, and laughing (I didn’t play but I paid attention).

A breeze nudged the warmth of the day aside, but did little to temper our feelings. My feelings were red-hot, smoking, passionate in the anger I felt toward my sister’s death. Not toward my sister. Never ever toward her. Well, maybe just a little bit.

WHY had she gone out that day? Why to work? Why on a bike?

Why Why Why?

Then a roaring crippling sadness tumbled down the mountainside trapping me beneath its weight.

We said nothing as each of us in turn gently tossed her ashes across the creeping green ground cover that blankets this bit of land and protects it from erosion and drought.

The physical and poignant process of scattering my sister’s ashes is one that remains matchless in its depth, love and sorrow in my experience to the present day.

All the spoken words before and during and after her memorial service were beautiful and brilliant and funny and heartbreaking. I loved all the words, all the voices. They lifted and carried our family through those bleak days, but when it was my turn to hold my sister’s ashes in my bare hands I couldn’t have stood it if anyone dared whisper another goddamn word.

Hushed, we scattered some of her ashes in silence, then trekked back indoors. Our hearts and bodies were heavy.

The days and weeks afterward happened, and we began again to do the sorts of things we used to do. I moved again, and kept waking up every day.

But some of her – a piece of her – was kept aside for me. My husband and I moved a few months later, and among the boxes I tucked a flimsy paper bag full of ashes. It may have traveled on my carry-on, or lay beneath clothing in a suitcase… I cannot remember anymore.

Should I house my sister’s remains within an urn?

Do people really have urns any more?

Who imagined they would sell so well on Amazon?

I did a little research, but not much. Did you know you can turn yourself into a tree when you die? There are biodegradable urns made from coconut shells, and inside they contain seeds. You can even pick the type of plant you would like to be.

Even after eight years, it’s still too hard and horrible and impossible. I’ve been dreaming lately, and they aren’t good dreams. I believe my sister would forgive me for hitting the pause button a few times in my journey toward accepting her absence.

So I am satisfied with the paper bag in the closet. It is her life that I remember – not her remains – as I move throughout my days, as I sleep, struggle, smile, cry and think — this is the way in which I know and honor her.

I am not going to procure an urn anytime soon.

But I am going to make more of an effort to honor her memory, and realize that the life that I am living is the only one I’ve got, and love the lives around me to pieces more often. I can appreciate the joyful messiness that is parenting, working, living, loving, and being.

And the funny thing is that I feel pretty okay today, actually, a feeling I thought would never come back when my sister died. I feel happy, humbled, and realize that happiness is fleeting – is cannot be sustained. It can’t really be caught, either. I think it’s more a consequence of being in the world as one should be for the moment.

And since life is just a series of moments (as social media would confirm), I feel happy to be among them today.

This essay and I are part of the Messy, Beautiful Warrior Project — To learn more and join us, CLICK HERE! 

grande girasol

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You must not blame me if I do talk to the clouds. ~Henry David Thoreau

what went right

Today’s prompt comes from Reverb 13What went right in 2013?

Maybe you didn’t quit smoking or lose those pounds or go to Paris, but something did work, did happen, and/or was realized. What was it?

I’m not quite ready to reflect on the entire-yet-presently-happening year. The end of the calendar year is, well, still on the calendar. In my commitment to living in the now, I can’t – or won’t – go too deep into what went on during the past eleven-plus months.

But it’s pleasant to think about the good stuff when I tend to focus on the bad stuff. After all, I’m a recovering optimist.

This year’s highlights (or lowlights) include a move-that-was-not-to-be-resulting-in-extra-clean-home, initiation into homework, entertaining spring and fall (kid) soccer matches, fantastic local (adult) soccer matches, tremendous learning through independent contracting work, the blessed end-of-diapers-forever, and navigating the evolution of the three-and-six-year-old boys with whom I share a home.

I guess a lot went right this year. There have been some challenges, some of them ongoing, but I am still up for the holiday season and the red, green and sparkle it brings.  This morning’s task was to clean the living room and move furniture around to make space for the tree.

The Tree.

The Christmas Tree.

On a side note, yesterday I was telling our oldest about how Christmas is the birthday party for Baby Jesus, a sweet innocent born long ago in a manger who grew up to do good works and make meaningful change. This was discussed in the context of how not everyone celebrates Christmas, and that’s ok, and some people celebrate Hanukkuh, and that’s ok, too.

The baby’s full name was Jesus Christ, I explained.

Mom! That’s a bad word!

Yeah. So, then I explained about how Jesus was a real guy whose name is special and we don’t say it when we’re angry or upset, because then it makes it a bad word.

Okay, moving on. It’s been a very full year. Full of hard stuff. Full of real. Full of wonder as I watch my kids grow and learn and move and be.

Following every dark night there is a moment of brightness. We sleep in a room with pitch dark black-out curtains. I adore them and the darkness they provide. I cannot imagine living (or sleeping) in a place where the sun doesn’t slip out of view for several hours every day. Yet as day breaks, slivers of light make their way into the bedroom, flirting with us and tempting us to shake off sleep and move.

Every day breaks anew. We wake refreshed, exhausted, or somewhere in between. Many times of late I’ve woken on the latter part of that equation. What I love is that daily we’re given the chance to start over. It gives me the opportunity to experience a morning like today. In the chilly sunshine, we loved being a family, selecting a tree and coming home together.

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Convos with my twothree-year-old is one of my guilty pleasures. The sheer irrationality of small children’s minds never ceases to amaze me. The older my children get, the more rational they appear to be, but sometimes this is deceptive.

My older one asks a lot of questions. We drive past a donut shop on the way to drop off his brother at preschool and we have never been inside. Apparently I told him months ago that one day we would go in for donuts. Yesterday he spied the huge sign and asked me when we could go in. I told him that since Bubba (his grandfather) is coming to town in a few days, he could take him and his brother because he loves donuts.

How do you know Bubba loves donuts?

Because I know my father pretty well. I know lots of things about him.

Well, you don’t know me very well, Mom.

Really? I don’t?

No. There are a lot of things about me that are mystic.

Mystic, huh?

Yep. Very mystic.

Getting to know my children often includes things that are not, or were not, of interest to me. For example, spiders. Scorpions. Snails. And the most recent obsession, sharks. Tiger shark. Reef shark. Mako shark. Hammerhead. Great white. Orca. Megalodon (look it up). We talk sharks every day. EVERY DAY. Did you know that there are over 470 distinct types of shark?

Getting to know my little guys involves being silly and often pretending to be a sinking ship. Not on a sinking ship, but the actual ship. It requires tremendous patience (of which I sometimes run out). It thoroughly entertains and exhausts me on a regular basis, unlike, say the getting-to-know-you process that one engages in with a new partner. Then, it’s all about lust and love and one’s patience isn’t being tested – at least not in a bad way. If you’re interested enough in getting to know someone, the fact that he or she has an odd habit or two or an unusual obsession with sea creatures isn’t a deterrent from spending time with him.

What’s wonderful about raising young boys, however, is that I’m not in it alone. In addition to their dad and me, my kids have dedicated, compassionate, smart teachers. They also have other parents. While not spending significant time alone with them, they do hear and see other adults in our home, at the playground, in the grocery store. My oldest has good manners, most of the time. My youngest needs to be prompted to say please and thank you.

I try to parent positively, but I definitely resort to threats and extortion when it comes to good behavior and I’m at my limit.

It’s that time of year when Santa starts watching.

Closely.

Navigating my preschooler’s emotional roadmap is hard. I feel like there are hidden, undetonated bombs buried beneath the surface of his soft, sweet skin. They could go off at any time, and I know it. I prepare accordingly, but I don’t always manage to avoid them. In fact, I sometimes step right smack into them and then we both fall apart and I long for bedtime and a book about a dystopian community inhabited solely by teenagers.

Literally two minutes after the meltdown, he brings me a blanket from his room under which I can hide. He is a kissy-huggy kid right now and it’s impossible to stay mad at a wriggly, adoring person who is 40 inches tall. He’s like an Oompa Loompa – a practical joker, merry and mischievous but sometimes moody and a little dark.

And another thing.

I’ve never seen the Star Wars trilogy, but I did once rock Wonder Woman underoos. I know the story of Darth Vadar and Princess Leila and Luke Skywalker, more or less due to being alive in the late 1970s, but I never dreamed that one day I would have extensive dialog on the characters and content of the original trilogy with a six-year-old who hasn’t yet seen the movies. My eldest and I Googled ‘how to build a light saber”, but I’ll save that for another day.

Here’s to donuts and dismantling bombs tonight.

SW

Donuts and landmines

It’s too early for Christmas music

My daily thoughts for NaBloPoMo ’13:

I mailed not one but TWO Christmas boxes today. On the FIFTH of NOVEMBER. Let’s say it again. I mailed two Christmas boxes on the fifth of November! It is not quite a Christmas miracle but close. I love our post office. One of the women who works there is a fellow mom to a first grader at my kid’s school. The other employees are friendly and efficient. Standing in line at the post office, I once met a man who at age 89 was mailing a package to his sister for her birthday. Another time I was assisted by a sixty-something father who had raised five grown boys. My ones were fussing and he set them straight.

Also, I confess to playing one short Christmas carol on the stereo today in the car. Just one. The rule is we wait until the day after Thanksgiving before enjoying the music of the holiday season, but I came across a CD I love and couldn’t help myself. Now I have to tuck it away to avoid temptation.

Speaking of Christmas miracles, I still want an inflatable snowman. All you haters of tacky holiday inflatables, I hear you. I do. I don’t want a Santa in a swimsuit drinking a Corona or a reindeer aiming a shotgun. I dislike inflatable animals and elves on Harleys. But a kind, smiling nine-foot-tall snowman would bring the neighborhood cheer. A good idea, no?

Thanksgiving week is around the corner. I write week because public schools are closed all week, thus extending the one-day holiday into nine actual days at home. The only things we have planned are a one-day day camp, a day full of turkey and Turkey Trots – the boys and I are all running at the Zoo this year – and a follow up 12K run across the river with a dear friend a few days later. I’m creaking around with a sore back and fatigue, but I’m getting outside and getting it done. Looking forward to a merry, magical, and healthier Christmas season!

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