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I’ve been taking for granted all the things I love to do that involve being surrounded by strangers. Hearing live music and singing along with people you’ve never met but who find meaning in the same songs that you do. Seeing a movie and laughing or crying along with everyone else who is laughing or crying. Eating delicious food at your favorite restaurant, noticing everyone else satisfying their craving for that same food. Exploring a museum, learning something new, being inspired, wondering how the exhibit is speaking to those around you. Going to the beach and watching people fly kites and build sandcastles and splash and swim and throw frisbees and soak up vitamin D. Being at church and listening to a sermon that might be preached just for you and also for hundreds of other souls searching for ways to make sense of the world, and lighting candles, and praying and meditating together, and holding hands and agreeing to help each other be a force for good in the world.

Even reading, which you might think of as a solitary activity, often involves strangers. I love going to the library–helping my kids pick out books and finding something for myself. And in Arlington I almost always run into someone I know at any library. Browsing in bookstores, which is as much a sensory experience as an intellectual one. I’m one of those people who likes to feel the covers of the books and inhale the scent of paper and ink. At my favorite bookstores there are post-it notes or little notecards taped to the shelves explaining which books are recommended by which of their booksellers and why. I love discovering wonderful things to read thanks to mysterious other readers who are humans rather than algorithms. This month I had planned to go with three good friends to hear Glennon Doyle read from and talk about her new book, Untamed. I would’ve been in the audience at the Lisner Auditorium with thousands of other fans, mostly middle-aged moms like me, feeling intense sisterly solidarity. I was also excited to go with one of my best friends to see one of my all-time favorite authors Ann Patchett speak at a local middle school. Being in a room with strangers and knowing they have all read the same books you’ve read and have been moved by them too is heady.

I’ve spent a considerable amount of time over the past 13 years at playgrounds, which are usually lively and well-populated. Around here, if you spend more than 10 minutes at a playground, you’re likely to hear families speaking in at least a couple languages besides English. It’s always fun for me to guess what language they’re speaking and where they might be from. I haven’t heard any languages besides English (random French, Spanish, or German phrases thrown around by my family notwithstanding) in a couple weeks now. Even when we’ve been out on hiking trails in Northern Virginia, I feel like I hear mostly English. We see a lot of white guys in their teens and 20s, some of them talking on their bluetooth earpieces, looking like they’re training for something big.

Just before coronavirus exploded in the US (fortuitously), I had the opportunity to be part of literacy activities at both my kids’ schools. At Zoe’s middle school, I coordinated Booktopia, where invited all 1,100 students to come to the gym (not all at once) to pick out a book to keep. Any book they wanted (that we had)! This involved a lot of volunteers who helped me sort, organize, and restock the books, then sell the leftovers at the used book sale at the school a few days later. Booktopia involved conversations with students and teachers and touching a lot of books that a lot of people had touched. I didn’t think too much about that at the time. The book fair at Zeke’s school was held the same week. This year the book fair was presented by one of my new favorite Arlington organizations–READ (Read Early and Daily). READ’s mission is “ensuring babies and young children have new, quality, culturally relevant books of their own that are mirrors and windows into their everyday lives and communities.” One of the ways READ funds its book giveaways is by running school book fairs. One of the best things about this set-up is that our school book fair had the most spectacular selection of books with diverse characters by diverse authors that I have ever encountered. And since I had just spent several months ordering books for Booktopia that featured diverse (in every possible way) characters written by diverse authors, I was super impressed. The point here is that book fairs are another occasion where many kids and teachers and parents are swirling around. I love helping kids pick out books. I love reading with kids. Now when I think about that I just think about all the possibility for transmission of germs.

Then there’s substituting as a co-oper at Arlington Unitarian Cooperative Preschool, which I have enjoyed doing on occasion since my kids graduated from there. Turns out it’s much less stressful to co-op when A) you’re not required to do it but you’re getting paid for it and B) your own child is not demanding your attention when you’re supposed to be helping with the whole class. The bad news is that infants, toddlers, and preschoolers are pretty indiscriminate about who or what they touch and when and it doesn’t matter where their hands have been. The good news is that AUCP is really into good handwashing. Every kid and every adult washes their hands before snack and after snack and after the playground and before lunch and after lunch and of course after diaper changes and using the potty. One of the lines I always remember from the many parent orientation sessions we attended there was the preschool’s fabulous director Susan Parker saying, “I suggest you invest in a good hand cream because you will be washing your hands all day long.” All that hand washing practice has paid off! So many adults have had to come up with creative ways to remember how to wash their hands properly, but I guarantee you that the five and under set at AUCP have it down already.

Next Monday would’ve been the first game of the soccer season with my amazing women’s team Ice & Ibuprofen. We have cool new jerseys for the season, with a new logo. I don’t know when we’ll have a chance to wear them. Soccer involves a lot of contact with other people. You could kick a ball back and forth while standing six feet apart, but you couldn’t play a game. I know a lot of my teammates know each other because they live in the same neighborhood and their kids go to school together, but I only see them on the field. We had tickets for our family to see the Washington Spirit play their season opener at Audi Field for my birthday. Randy has season tickets to DC United. There are few things as thrilling as cheering on your favorite players and teams in a stadium filled with tens of thousands of other fans. No matter how big your TV is, it’s not the same watching from your couch.

Even though we’re going a little stir-crazy, my family is fine. We have more than enough stimulating and fun activities to do in the house. And we’ve been hiking. We’ve been FaceTiming and Zooming with friends and family. All that is absolutely saving our sanity and keeping our brains engaged. But there’s something about being out in the world, surrounded by strangers, doing something you love and they love too, that I am missing deeply.

For the past several years, each day of November I have posted on Facebook about what I am thankful for. Or, I have posted every few days a few things I am thankful for. I find it challenging to stick to doing any given task every single day beyond the basics required for hygiene and decent parenting, even if it is a task I want to do and set out for myself.

In recent weeks (maybe months?) I have found myself more anxious and stressed than usual (which is saying a lot). I have struggled to focus my attention on anything for more than a few minutes at a time. I am getting plenty of sleep. I am walking a lot. But my brain is just on overdrive all the time. It feels chaotic in my head.

I am contemplating the causes of this (not that hard to figure out, really) and working on solutions (harder). One thing I know I need to do is express gratitude. I am absolving myself from any requirements of eloquence or grace or even complete sentences. I just want to put some things out into the universe.

I am thankful that

  1. Zeke has finally made two friends in his first grade class and I’ve finally managed to contact one of the moms and have actually arranged a playdate for next weekend. I am both relieved and excited.
  2. My sister has been coaching me in how to say no. You might think this would be simple for me, but you would be wrong. I am rehearsing these lines in my head and planning to use them soon. In fact, earlier today I offered to do something for a group I am in and then I thought about my lines and I rescinded my offer! It felt good.
  3. Several people I care about are dealing with life-threatening illnesses or taking care of loved ones with life-threatening illnesses right now. This is not what I am thankful for. What I am thankful for is that these people all have access to excellent medical care, and more importantly that they are surrounded by family and friends who are providing unwavering love and support. AND that some of these people are willing and able to share what they’re going through online so that the wider community of people who care about them can know what’s going on and offer continuous love and comfort and encouragement. It’s so unnecessary to suffer alone.
  4. Tonight I watched Zoe help Zeke with some martial arts techniques with confidence and patience I have never before witnessed in that situation. It would seem that becoming a black belt and taking a recently added leadership class at EvolveAll have really made a positive difference. She was kind and enthusiastic in instructing him and he was receptive to her teaching and demonstrated immediate improvement. I was proud of both of them.

    (I was going to try to write 30 thankful things here because there are 30 days in November but as the words seem to be just spilling out of me I’ll go for 10 tonight and do the other 20 later).
  5. I have a new client that I am so thrilled to be working for and whose work is making an enormous impact on our country with the potential to seriously change things for the better in the next year. This client completely fell into my lap unexpectedly and I am thankful for the referral from someone I worked with years ago and for the new relationship.
  6. My husband is keeping up with the impeachment hearings so he can explain everything to me. He is more attuned and seemingly better able to understand political news and analysis than I am and he loves to discuss it and doesn’t mind answering my questions. And I am thankful that (hopefully) some people are finally going to be called to account for their unethical behavior. There’s so much more they should be called to account for, but I guess we have to start somewhere.
  7. There are so many extraordinary books in the world and I get to read some of them. I have read (or listened to) some absolutely stunning books in recent months, including The Dutch House; Olive, Again; The Miseducation of Cameron Post; Normal People; Every Note Played; The Miscalculations of Lightning Girl; Children of Blood and Bone; Unsheltered; Sing, Unburied, Sing; Evvie Drake Starts Over; Starworld; Little Fires Everywhere; How Not to Die Alone; City of Girls; and The Book Woman of Troublesome Creek. This is not an exhaustive list. But a good one.
  8. We have a washing machine and dryer and a dishwasher in our house. These are the kind of conveniences we often take for granted, but they are actually huge. We do so much laundry in our house. I am so grateful that I don’t have to take it all to a laundromat. We have nice clothes. We have warm clothes. We have plenty of choices of what to wear every day. We can be as clean and as cute as we want to be.
  9. I have choices. I am so fortunate to have plenty of options in my life. At times it may seem like too many, but what a luxury to have too many choices. What to eat, where to go, what kind of work to do, who to spend time with, how to raise our kids, what kind of vacation to take, what camp to send our kids to, how to entertain ourselves. We have immense amounts of freedom and privilege in how we conduct our lives.
  10. I play soccer with a phenomenal group of women. I love my team and I love playing with them on Monday nights and I am pretty happy with the fact that I have become a better player over the past eight seasons. And we have new jerseys for the spring season! Stay tuned for pictures come April.

    It’s time to put Zeke to bed. I am thankful that he still loves to read and snuggle with me.

Last Sunday my friend D and I led the service at UUCA, on the theme of Embracing the Mess. D wrote a great scene in which our kids (and one bonus kids) demonstrated how to make a mess and we figured out how to deal with it. This was not much of a stretch for any of us.

A moment from our “Embracing the Mess” service on July 14.

If you’d like to watch the service, visit http://www.uucava.org/livestream/ and click on archives and click on the July 14, 2019 service.

Here’s my reflection from Sunday:

One of the reasons I became a Unitarian Universalist after spending many formative years as a Presbyterian was that I wanted more variety than the Bible seemed to offer. When I discovered that UUs looked to many sacred and secular texts as sources of inspiration, I was delighted. As a writer and reader, I love discovering wisdom from new people and places.

That said, I acknowledge that the Bible includes some great stories. They’re not always easy to understand, universal truths are embedded in those parables. My perspective on Jesus is that he was a kind, compassionate, and generous person and a powerful teacher. When I think about embracing the mess, I keep coming back to this story from the book of Luke, chapter 10, verses 38-42.

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Picture the scene. You have an unexpected celebrity guest—plus his entourage—and you’re working frantically in the kitchen to find something suitable to serve. You’re pouring chips and salsa into your best bowls. You’re searching for the corkscrew to open a bottle of sauvignon blanc. You’re preheating the oven to pop in some Trader Joe’s appetizers. 

And you’re doing it all by yourself, while your sister is in the other room laughing at your guest’s amusing anecdotes and not lifting a finger to help you. Maybe it’s not your sister, but your significant other or your roommate. Regardless, you’re growing increasingly frustrated at them for having a good time while you’re working your tush off.

I have a question for you. How many of are familiar with the enneagram? How many of you are type 2?

For those of you who don’t know the enneagram, it’s an ancient tool used to help us understand motivations and behaviors. The enneagram can be a useful way to examine the choices we make and help us to become emotionally healthier. 

Type 2 is known as the helper or the giver. Martha was likely a type 2. A bunch of guys show up on her doorstep and she immediately gets to work making dinner. There is a need to be met, and she assumes it is her responsibility to meet it. She does not understand why no one else is helping, because it is so obvious to herthat there is work to be done. 

I will confess that I am also a type 2. After years of emotional work, however, I would like to think I am a healthy 2. This means I would probably head to the kitchen to get snacks for Jesus and his friends, but then I would order pizza so I could join in the conversation sooner. I might ask the apostles to take everyone’s drink orders. 

Unhealthy 2s plow ahead with all the work themselves, becoming increasingly resentful. Healthy 2s will ask for help when they need it, or even decline a request that someone makes of them. My spiritual director calls this “the holy freedom to say no.” The enneagram provides a direction for each type to move toward in order to balance out unhealthy tendencies. For type 2s, we are guided toward 4, known as the romantic or the individualist. I suspect Mary in this story was a 4. When Jesus showed up at her house, she knew exactly what she wanted to do, which was sit and hang out with him. What could possibly be more important?

I can’t count the number of times when I was younger that I cleared the table and started doing dishes when I had friends over just to get the mess out of the way. And then missed out on time I could have spent having fun and laughing with people I loved. The dishes will always be there. I have learned that community, conversation, and connection are much more important. 

A couple months ago, a friend of mine from college emailed me to say he and family were going to be in town and wanted to get together. He asked if we wanted to meet at a restaurant, but I suggested they come to our house, knowing it would be more relaxing, and that the kids could play, and we would have more time to talk. He agreed, although he suggested we get takeout and he offered to bring wine and dessert. I ordered dinner from Bangkok 54 and we had a fabulous time, and I did very little work.   

Of course, I’m not saying you never have to clean your house, but that embracing the mess provides an opportunity to cultivate both connection and creativity. 

How many of you have ever lived in a house overrun by Legos?

This has been my house for the past decade. 

We have built Lego sets of a lunar lander, Hogwarts, the Millennium Falcon, the Beatles’ Yellow Submarine, countless superheroes and villains and their vehicles, and many more. We have thousands of Legos that have been used to build fabulous creations even more imaginative than the sets you buy at the store. Everyone at our house is a builder, but Zeke in particular is on his way to becoming a master builder. Where I see Legos scattered all over the coffee table and the floor, he sees superhero hideouts and innovative spaceships and cars that can dive and fly and so many technologies that might actually come to fruition someday. I have no doubt that he could become an engineer and design the prototype for an actual car that flies.

Our house is also littered with overflowing bins of art supplies, books piled up next to densely packed bookshelves, and magazines with ideas for making new stuff out of old stuff you have lying around. Sure, sometimes I wish my house looked like something out of a magazine, where you’re sure no one actually lives there because there’s no stuff. But at the same time, I wouldn’t want to give up the time our family spends making art, reading, and creating with everything that surrounds us. 

Embracing the mess opens up possibilities and allows for freedom. This can be risky. And liberating.

Both my kids attended AUCP, the phenomenal preschool located here at UUCA. After Zoe graduated and before Zeke started, AUCP launched a program called Timber Tuesday, where, every other week, a class spends the entire three-hour school day in the woods near Long Branch Nature Center. Rain or shine. I have never been an outdoorsy person, and I was skeptical about this at first, but AUCP’s director Susan Parker quickly sold me on the value of spending this time outside. Kids who struggled to conform to classroom expectations thrived outside when given plenty of space to explore. Kids with sensory or motor challenges pushed themselves to climb rocks and touch trees and splash in the creek. As a parent, one of the most important lessons I learned was that it’s ok to get messy. Just bring a change of clothes. Or be prepared to ride home in your underwear. 

I remember sometime after I had become a Timber Tuesday convert that my kids and I were out after a rainstorm. Instead of instructing my kids to avoid a puddle, I encouraged them to jump in it. They were astonished. 

They have certainly taken that encouragement to heart. Two weeks ago, our family was on vacation in Lewes, Delaware. One evening we went to the beach to watch the sunset. One minute we were walking with our toes in the water, and next thing I knew both of my kids were laughing and splashing, submerged up to their chests in the Delaware Bay, fully clothed. Then we went to get ice cream. Because why not?

(originally published on invocations.blog)

My main skill
on the soccer field
is getting in people’s way

Also I can cheer

I am not fast

No matter how many 
games I play
or watch
I cannot see
what needs to happen
beyond my need to kick
the ball away from me 
toward someone who will 
know better than I do
what to do with it

Nothing that happens 
on a field
or with a ball
or on a court
or in a pool
or on a track
or on a mat
comes easily to me

This is not to say I am weak
because I AM strong
I can be fierce
and determined
and endure
but it is
never
ever
easy

I watch my teammates 
sprint toward the ball
maneuver around our opponents
boot the ball gloriously 
through the air
with what seems 
to me like
no effort at all

I hear them talk about the other team’s 
offense and defense 
and which players 
are the ones 
to watch 
“All we need to do is…” 
they explain
on the sidelines

but I don’t 
really 
understand

still I will jog onto the field 
and see who I need to 
get in the way of 
when she has the ball
and maybe steal the ball
if i’m lucky
and pass it
and cheer loudly 
for whoever
takes it down the field
to score

Our friend Marie Sinclair died last week at the age of 94. Marie lived a few houses down from the house my family lived in when we first moved to Virginia from California, when I was a toddler. When I was a kid, she was like a surrogate grandmother. This is for her.

Curled up in the corner
behind Marie’s recliner
oblivious to the rising smoke, the laughter,
the roar of the small assembled crowd
sleeping through the Super Bowl
yet winning big because my mom
penciled my name in the right squares

Crawling under the table to hide
while they played poker in our dining room
I loved the names of the games
especially Dr. Pepper
I heard them say “bets” again and again
and wondered why they were talking about me

Coming to visit
“Gimme some sugar!” she exclaimed
holding out her arms and offering her cheek
before delighting me with her hospitality:
Cheez-its and Coke with ice cubes in amber glasses
generously poured
All of Forrest’s wind-up toys lined up
for me to make them march across the table
while the grown-ups talked
about grown-up things to which I listened hard but
only half understood

Climbing on the wooden two-stepped stool
under the phone in the kitchen
a Broyhill notepad and a pencil at the ready
for me to scribble important messages

Chicken chow mein for every special occasion
Coke cake for dessert
Macaroni salad delivered
in the big glass bowl every May
for my dad’s birthday
luckily, he shared some with us

Cheering for the Redskins
in the living room or at RFK
whether or not they won
Fight for Old DC!

Christmas after Christmas,
matching sweaters for my sister and me
knitted with love
if not always fitting quite right

Casablanca Court’s queen
on her La-Z-Boy throne
ensconced in sweatshirts, soft fuzzy socks, and blankets
while Forrest wore short sleeves and smiled

 

Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso
February 16, 2018

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