Visions of Sugar Plums

One of my annual pilgrimages is to the Nutcracker Market in Houston, Texas. It’s a yearly gala hosted by the Houston Ballet in a fundraising effort that has grown into an extravaganza that takes place just ahead of the Christmas season. It provides a gathering of unique merchants from all across the country inside the vast halls of the Reliant Center, offering everything from holiday decorations to furniture. It is also one of the most interesting places to people watch, or should I say mostly women watch. Thousands of ladies converge on the event starting early on a Thursday morning in November, with a rare male joining their ranks now and again. It is a carnival, a celebration, and at some moments a truly crazy experience.

I have to admit that I had never even heard of the Nutcracker Market until one of the school administrators with whom I worked told me about almost thirteen years ago. She was shocked to learn that I had never been and decided to show me the ropes by inviting me to join her in taking a “sick” day from work and playing a bit of adult hooky. I reluctantly agreed because it was not my style to be anything but dependable, but the lure of adventure ultimately caused me to agree to her plan.

I was mystified as to why she insisted that we travel in one car on the morning of our glorious day off until we reached the entrance to the parking lot and sat in a long line of traffic waiting expectantly to get inside. We had to leave the car so far away from the hall that we must surely have satisfied our daily exercise routines before even reaching the next huge line of women purchasing tickets. Even though we had begun our journey early in the morning it was almost ten before we finally walked into shopping Nirvana.

Since I have a tinge of Attention Deficit Disorder I was almost overcome when I saw the swarms of people, the array of colors, and the bazaar like atmosphere that lay before us. Thanks to my friend I was able to keep a semblance of focus under her tutelage. She took me to the best vendors first and even insisted that we buy mimosas to calm my anxiety of not knowing where to first turn. We walked from one stall to another in a determined hike that must have been miles. All along the way were women feverishly searching for items that they might never find in a big box or department store. My friend was a veteran of the Nutcracker wars so I felt confident that I would not make any mistakes. She knew where to find the less frequently visited restrooms, and how to secure a table for lunch which she insisted had to be catered by a tamale company that came every year. We talked and laughed and tried on clothes and filled our bags with gifts for friends and family and for ourselves as well. When our purchases became too heavy or bulky my friend demonstrated how to get tons of things inside one bag that we paid to be stored for us for a small price until we were finished shopping. When we finally felt the first tinges of exhaustion we realized that we had been inside the strange world for well over eight hours, and it was growing dark outside. We left as happy and chatty as when we had started earlier that day and vowed to return again.

My friend left the school where I had been working and I lost contact with her but I was hooked and had to go back to the Nutcracker Market each season. Over the years I have found different partners and groups willing to accompany me to the astoundingly celebratory event. During all that time I have watched the crowds swell to unimaginable sizes and the outrageousness of the shoppers become more and more interesting. I still go into a kind of ADD trance when I first enter the scene, and I doubt that I would be capable of navigating the rows and rows of merchants without someone to keep me focused. Those with whom I have gone come and go, either because they have moved away or they just can’t quite handle to zaniness. Nonetheless I remember my times with them with great fondness.

This year I attended the market with my sister-in-law, Allison, who is a great partner in any situation. She’s full of energy and laughter and has a knack for taking on any challenge with a relaxed and optimistic attitude. I was quite grateful that she was driving because the craziness began in the parking lot where there were already of groups of women sitting in lawn chairs enjoying breakfast and a few cocktails to gird their loins for the shopping battle ahead. We ended up parking so far away that walking from my home would not have been a much farther distance. As we searched for a spot to leave her car we saw ladies wearing matching shirts and exotic headdresses. There was a carnival atmosphere in the air and I became as excited as a child.

As usual my brain froze up once we got inside. I knew the drill but there were so many choices and my mind started jumping around like a pinball machine. Allison took charge much to my great joy, and after a time I calmed down enough to actually see what I was doing. We found great gifts from friends and family members and chatted like two sisters. Our bags became as full as Santa’s sleigh and still we walked and walked and walked viewing the great wonders and sampling soups and candies and muffins. As is always the case we lost track of time, and of the world in general. For those wonderful hours we were in our element, just having fun without a care, bonding the way women so often do.

About seven hours into our adventures our feet and our knees and our pocketbooks told us that we were done for this year. We took a trolley to the edge of the parking to retrieve Allison’s car and drove through the parcel pickup station to claim the treasures that we had found. We returned home a bit tired, but feeling so close to one another for what we had shared. It had been another wonderful day at the Nutcracker Market.

I’m already plotting and planning for next year. I hope that Allison will want to go again because she is a fabulous partner. Visions of sugarplums danced in my head as I dreamed last night. I suppose that if truth were to be told it was not the actual shopping that was so much fun, but rather the time spent with my sister-in-law and thousands of women letting their hair down and having a good time. We were a motley crew with smiles on our faces, and for a brief moment in time our cares and woes were set aside.

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Keeping Up

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It’s exhausting to watch today’s young mothers. They are constantly on the go, unable to get the hours of sleep that they need. There appears to be little room for slacker moms in the present environment that lauds women who dedicate huge portions of their lives to driving their children from one class, practice, event to another. It’s no longer acceptable to just shoo the kids outside and tell them to use their imaginations to entertain themselves. I’m drained just observing the sagas of motherhood that are in full view on Facebook. I have to admit that I would probably be a total flop as a mom by current standards.

I have to bow in admiration to the young women who are creating such wonderful lives for their children, starting with the monthly professional photographs that track the first years of the offspring. Most of them are elaborately creative with special little outfits that must indeed take a great deal of thought and time to put together. I myself have random snapshots of my girls taken from a rather lousy camera in all modes of dress, including j a simple cotton t-shirt and a diaper. Dressing them up meant choosing the least stained and best fitting togs in the drawer. For daughter number two that often meant wearing a somewhat used little dress that big sister had already worn. It never occurred to me to go all out for anything other than those once in a blue moon photographs taken at Penny’s or the studios that talked me into purchasing package deals of standard issue but slightly better quality images.

It seems as though every single modern day child is enrolled in dozens of activities. They learn to swim only slightly later than mastering the art of walking which I strongly advocate, but then they join neighborhood swim teams requiring practices and early morning meets during the most coveted hours of the weekend. Generous parents forego their own rest to provide their little ones with opportunities to learn how to compete and challenge themselves. There’s way more than just soccer practices to which mom’s across the land are driving the kids. Baseball, football, cheerleading, dance, karate, lessons in Chinese, robotics, volleyball, track, music. The list goes on and on and on with most youngsters involved in multiple activities that require time, money and total involvement. The old neighborhood games have been supplanted with highly organized opportunities that require mothers and fathers to change the way they spend their free time. In fact, free time is a kind of oxymoronic phrase in parental vernacular. The devotion to helping the kids develop their talents that parents so willingly provide is unrelentingly selfless, and I find myself thinking that I was indeed a slacker when it was my time to be a mom.

I managed to sign my girls up for swim lessons each summer but I honestly had no idea that there was such an animal as a swim team. I dropped them off at Patty Owen’s dance studio to learn a few steps and when the younger one expressed resistance I gladly allowed her to quit. For the most part my involvement in their activities was minimal other than getting them from one place to another. Mostly I encouraged them to use their imaginations to create fun and adventures around the neighborhood. I enjoyed hosting sleepovers and watching them play, but my budget was far too limited to keep pace with the kind of entertainment that children enjoy today.

Birthday parties are increasingly extravagant. I can hardly believe how much thought and effort is put into them with special themes, decorations and gorgeous cakes. I usually whipped up a few homemade items, bought a balloon or two and called it a celebration. We never went to any special places or hired entertainers. Instead I turned on the soundtrack from Grease and let the party goers dance on the back of my sofa to the strains of Greased Lightning. My “swim” party consisted of hotdogs in the backyard with the garden hose and a midsize blow up kiddie pool. Since the other mothers operated much like me the children never complained. Life was rather ordinary even on birthdays.

I honestly don’t know how modern mothers keep up with all that they have to do. I get exhausted just thinking about all of their duties. My own daughters have schedules that would easily match that of an important executive. Their calendars are crowded with demands that they must fulfill with precision. It’s easier to see them by attending the various events than to expect them to drop by for a visit. I’m privy to their datebooks and so I plan things with them accordingly. Sometimes I even help them when they have to be in three places at one time. The logistics of getting everyone in the right locations at the right times can be akin to being an air traffic controller.

I greatly admire all of the moms who are so generously dedicated to their little ones. At the same time I worry that they may indeed be burning themselves out. The stress of all of that time consuming parenting must be overwhelming. I certainly hope that they find moments for themselves along the way because mothering is a marathon that doesn’t end even when the kids leave home. It’s a long haul that is beautiful and exciting, but it requires stamina and energy that will easily dwindle if “me” time isn’t a central part of the routine.

If I have one bit of advice for all moms it’s that as long as the love is ever present the children will be alright. What they most need are hugs and kisses and someone who is willing to listen to them when they are afraid. They will thrive the most when their mamas are rested and happy. If achieving that state means cutting back on perfection they will never notice the change other than seeing a mother who is calm and collected. The important thing for children is feeling safe, and knowing that someone truly cares about their well being. Sometimes all it takes to get there is a great big hug.

Let’s Stop

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The idea of harassing another human being has always been repugnant to me. When I was in the fourth grade I had a teacher who should never been in the profession. Her method of managing the classroom was known for its terror and humiliation. I despised what I saw her do and heard her say even at the young age of nine.

In middle school I witnessed some of the boys making fun of one of my female classmates to the point that she literally broke one day and had an emotional meltdown. My all time favorite teacher came to her defense in a manner that inspired me. I would never forget the deft way in which she taught all of us that bullying behaviors are never acceptable. She literally stopped the practice in its tracks and restored the young woman’s self esteem and status in the process. I so admired the idea of speaking up for someone who is unfairly being targeted with ugliness.

As a teacher I made it my focus to watch for instances of students being emotionally or physically torn apart by the kind of mob rule that constitutes bullying. I was unwilling to look the other way, or to justify such behaviors even when the object of derision was not a particularly likable person. I fought many such battles again and again, sometimes even with my colleagues who took a general dislike to certain individuals. Something in my personality found constant harassment for any reason to be horrific.

I’ve made it well known that I do not care for President Donald Trump. He himself has the horrific habit of making exceedingly offensive remarks about anyone whom he perceives to be out of step with him. His boorish behavior is a turnoff and embarrassment to me. I cannot accept him as simply being someone who is using his bully pulpit to fight for certain causes. A leader can be strong like Theodore Roosevelt or Abraham Lincoln without demeaning others in the process. Nonetheless, I believe that far too many in our society have reacted to our president with insults and anger that is as disturbing to me as any utterance that Trump has made.

I have been particularly concerned by the taunts hurled at Melania Trump and her son. I do not know the First Lady nor do I have any idea why she chose to marry Donald Trump. As a matter of fact, it is really none of my business or anyone else’s to concern ourselves with such things. What I do see is a stunningly beautiful woman who carries herself with great dignity and kindness. I also note that many of her efforts to be thoughtful are thrown in her face.

From the very beginning Melania Trump has been overly criticized at every turn. When she showed up for her husband’s inauguration wearing a modest and lovely blue suit it was suggested that she had copied another first lady. Her attempts at decorating the White House for Christmas were ridiculed as being weird and creepy. When she wore high heels to flood ravaged Houston there were those who wondered how she could have been so tone deaf. Her recent visit to Africa was covered not for the compassion that she displayed but for her choice of wardrobe. It seems that because she committed the sin of marrying Donald Trump she will forever be found inadequate and even repulsive.

I have to admit that I was a huge fan of Bill Clinton. After his liaison with intern Monica Lewinsky the luster wore off for me. What bothered me most was that his wife, Hillary, stood by his side. I argued that she should have left him like any honorable woman might have done. I spoke of this with my mother, and in her wisdom she argued that none of us will ever really understand the dynamics of a relationship between two people. She further insisted that it’s not our place to do so. She defended Hillary’s choice to stand by her man, and urged me to worry about my own household.

I think that my mother was absolutely right. It is not up to any of us to judge another because of the ways in which they choose to love. Such things are actually a kind of mystery to anyone on the outside looking in. So it has been with countless first ladies including Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy, and now Melania Trump. Often their love for their husbands seems incredulous to us because of the unfaithfulness that they have had to endure, but they were in fact able to overlook seemingly insurmountable flaws in their spouses. They should not be insulted because they remain faithful to someone that seems to betray them. They have their reasons.

The latest travesty aimed at Melania Trump should be soundly criticized by anyone who is of good heart, and most especially by all women. A rapper named T.I. has made a video that features a Melania look alike wearing a raincoat like one for which the First Lady was shamed. The model enters what appears to be the Oval Office, climbs on a desk, takes off the coat, and dances in the nude. If all persons of  even moderate decency do not find this utterly offensive, then I worry about the future of this nation. If we do not demonstrate respect for all people regardless of their beliefs, then I fear that our children are learning lessons that will not bode well.

It’s well past time that we all speak out whenever we witness the unfair degradation of anyone. If we rationalize bullying of any form or just laugh as though it is a joke we are complicit in allowing harm to fester in our midst. If we might unite in one common cause it should be to insist that this sort of thing should never be allowed. It is not funny nor is it justified. Let’s stop! 

Our Angel

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My youngest daughter had little idea how difficult it would become for her to have children. The women in our family tended to be hardy souls who were models of the old frontier stock who laid down next to a covered wagon to birth a child and then continued on the journey. I had joked with both of my girls to be careful because we seemed to have DNA that led to pregnancy if we did little more than glance sideways at a man. I came from a family of women who without birth control might have mothered ten or more children. It seemed inevitable that having children would be one of the certainties of my girls’ realities.

When boasting about our seemingly genetic fertility I didn’t take all of the members of our family tree into account. I knew little or nothing about my paternal great grandmother who died from childbirth. I didn’t really consider the large number of only children in my husband’s family. Because having a successful pregnancy had been a walk in the park for me I never thought that either of my children would find the task to be daunting, but I was wrong. 

Just a few months before my youngest had been married for a year, she announced that she was pregnant. There were few visible signs of the child growing inside of her, but as with all women she had felt the subtle changes in her body, and a doctor had confirmed her suspicions to her utter glee. Her celebrating ended unexpectedly and abruptly when she miscarried shortly after she had so happily told us of her joy.

I had never had such an experience and I fumbled to comfort her in a meaningful way. It was my dear friend, Pat, who came to the rescue. She had been in my daughter’s shoes, and she knew exactly what to say to her. She wrote a long letter of support to my girl, accompanied by a care package filled with goodies that were meant to bring succor and understanding. A bond grew between those two women that only mothers of little angels who don’t quite make it into this world ever truly understand. I was so grateful for the love and counseling that Pat so willingly gave to my own child. I knew that my girls was hurting beyond my capacity to speak the words that she needed.

Sadly my daughter’s saga was to be filled with one disappointment after another. She learned soon enough that getting pregnant and keeping that condition was almost impossible for her. One terrible loss after another occurred until she was seeking help in a fertility clinic in Chicago. The doctor was renowned for his ability to help women to bear children, but he was honest about my daughter’s chances and they were not particularly good.

Over time she endured hormone shots, and multiple treatments that threw her body into a continuous cycle of hope and loss. Finally she and her husband and her physician agreed to try in vitro fertilization. It was risky and there were no guarantees, but nothing else had come even close to working so she endured yet another treatment. Not long after, on a cold February day she got the news that she was pregnant with two children. The tulip bulbs that her husband had given her for Valentine’s day had bloomed at that very moment with two perfect flowers. She took that as a sign that the spirit of her first angel baby was reaching out to her, assuring her that this time things would be okay.

It was a difficult pregnancy, made worse by the worry that stalked her. She and her husband had worked so hard to get to this point, and they prayed as each month passed that their babies would make it to become healthy enough to enter the world. It seemed as though their entreaties had been answered until my girl went into early labor, so early that the probability of her children having grievous health problems was almost certain.

My daughter lay in the hospital hearing dire predictions from her doctors. Her children might be born without the ability to breathe properly. They might endure brain damage, become blind. It was a terrifying time but in a miraculous moment that not even the doctors were able to explain her labor suddenly stopped. She spent the remaining many weeks on full bed rest emotionally willing her children to grow healthy and strong. They would ultimately be premature and tiny at their births, but they were mostly healthy in spite of some lingering problems. Today those same babies are in high school. They are brilliant and beautiful and loving. They have a little brother who surprised everyone as a miracle who wasn’t ever supposed to happen.

My daughter still speaks of her four children. She knows that there is a baby in heaven watching over her, a child who may have even been the angel who guarded her through all of those difficult times. Now that little one has been joined by Pat, the woman who gave her the courage to soldier through her difficult journey toward motherhood. My baby girl who is fully a woman and devoted mother herself knows how blessed she has been, and she understands in the deepest way the women who like her lose the little children that they so much want to bring into the world.

I never before knew that there is actually a day in October set aside to remember all of those tiny ones who were so wanted and loved by their mothers, but were not quite able to make it into our lives. Somehow it seems fitting that my sweet daughter’s twins were born in October. I find myself believing that I have had eight grandchildren, not seven, and one of them is truly our angel who has gone ahead of us into heaven.

My Hybrid Feminism

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If there is one thing of which I am certain it is that politics have become toxic, and there is no such thing in most cases of a rational conversation about beliefs. While there are multiple points of few, most of them are immoveable. The idea of possibly changing someone’s way of thinking is ridiculous for the most part, and yet so many continue to try. Their posts and rants litter the commentaries of social media essentially for naught other than allowing the world to see where they stand. Those who agree with them rally in support and those who are at odds often condemn them for their ignorance and even ugliness. For those of us caught in the middle it can become a kind of irrational nightmare as we too struggle to enforce a bit of diplomacy which never quite gains traction. Instead we are accused of being without moral compass, cafeteria citizens who pick and choose what we support. We independents are seen as the worst form of persons because we don’t appear to be guided by a philosophy that might describe from whence we form our opinions.

I’m a combination of many different political persuasions. As a woman I am a hybrid feminist, part progressive and part conservative. I grew up in a world when most women stayed home to care for their families. My mother was somewhat unique in our neighborhood in being a single parent due to our father’s death. She was the child of a woman who was unable to either read or write. Mama’s high school diploma was considered a great achievement, and she might have been content with stopping her education there had she not suddenly found herself responsible for supporting a family. She worked hard to hold down a job and earn a college degree, but at the same time she urged me to always put my husband and children first because she believed that nothing was more important.

I grew up surrounded by friends with large families because birth control was still somewhat unreliable. My mother cautioned me to be “ladylike” and to save myself for someone who loved and cherished me. While she emphasized the power of education and urged me to go to college, she also maintained that all of that was secondary to building a strong foundation for the family that I would one day have. Once I was married, she urged me to be respectful of my husband, and sometimes criticized the amount of time that I spent on my job when I would become involved in projects that kept me away from my family far into the night.

I rallied around the feminist movements of the sixties and seventies. I planned my family by carefully using birth control. I earned two degrees and moved up the ranks in my profession. All the while my always enlightened husband supported every single idea that I had for living my life both in conjunction with his, and independently at times. I fulfilled my own wishes while also somehow balancing the many duties of family life. To this day, my husband and I see each other as equal partners, and we confer with one another in all of our decisions. He is as proud of my accomplishments as I am of his. As a woman I have enjoyed the freedom to be the person that I want to be.

Sadly, for the most progressive women, my brand of feminism is not enough to satisfy them. When I note that I struggle with the concept of abortion because in my heart I believe that it is a form of murder, they maintain that I am ignorant and that I obviously don’t care about the plight of women. When I mention that I did not work full time during my daughters’ early years so that I might build a strong foundation for them, I am told that my thinking is old fashioned and quaint. If I suggest that all women should allow each other to form their own opinions, I hear that there is only one way on  “ the right side of history.” If I complain that the rhetoric about men is often too generalized and damning, I am met with derision and disbelief. I am often made to feel that I am not a feminist at all, but an ancient throw back to a time when women were degraded and made to be prisoners of a male dominated society.

I’m not an angry woman. Perhaps I have been lucky in my interactions with men and the world of work. I have found boorish “male chauvinist pigs” to be the exception rather than the rule. I have been supported again and again by amazing people both male and female. I have enjoyed a freedom of mind and action that might have amazed my female ancestors. I don’t want to have to walk in tandem or be dominated by any form of group think. I take each issue individually and after study and contemplation form my own personal opinions. I firmly believe that this is the way feminism is supposed to be. I support my sisters by allowing them to think however they wish, but ask them to respect my philosophies as well. We need not argue because I know that we react to the world based on a lifetime of experiences. We form our conclusions depending on who we are and who we have been.

I suppose that many women are still trying to determine what their places in society should be. To attempt to create a one size fits all way of doing things is ridiculous. Neither do we need to destroy the men who live beside us with insults and slurs that demean them. Ours is not so much a fight as a process of discovery. Each girl child should be encouraged to approach life in a way that feels right. She should understand that men need not be her enemies. There is good and there is bad in both sexes. We must teach our daughters and granddaughters how to discern who is who, and that it is always okay to have personal beliefs and preferences, even when they diverge.

I like being a hybrid. I like being independent. I have had a very happy experience as a woman because the people closest to me have allowed me to be the person that I choose to be. In turn I hope to always honor the choices that my “sisters” decide are best for them. True feminism demands that we understand that there is no one pathway, and our quest is doomed if we demand that it be so. Our journey has to include a wide range of views and the other half of the human race known as men. Our power will come only when we see ourselves as individuals with all of the rights that such and idea implies.