Grateful and Authentic: A Work In Progress

10.21.16

I recently celebrated another birthday; this one carried very little pomp and circumstance. However, it encouraged me to take a step back and to look at the big picture…to celebrate all of the experiences that have brought me to this point and to ask myself, where do I want to go from here?

During the past year, living a grateful and authentic life has become my personal mission statement. While I clearly have not mastered the art, I have learned a few things along the way:

  1. Be thankful and ask for help. Last January, I began keeping a prayer journal. Each morning, I try to take a minute to document my blessings; I celebrate everything from my strong cup of coffee to the sweet freckles on my daughter’s nose. Then, I pray for help… This simple ritual starts my day off on the right foot, with a thankful perspective and a calm heart.
  1. Collect authentic friends. I hear myself telling my kids to fill up their lives with friends who lift them up, make them happy and like them unconditionally.  Lately, I’ve had to remind myself to follow this advice, too.  Life is simply too short and too busy for “friends” that add stress and subtract joy.
  1. “No” is not a bad word. I’ve learned that saying yes to one thing means saying no to another. There are only so many minutes in each day. And, we all have a limited number of days. So, I have become more selective about how I fill up my calendar. Just because I think that I have time to take on another volunteer project or other commitment, it doesn’t mean that it’s the right thing for me (or my family).
  1. Each day is a gift. Ever since my birthday, my enthusiastic five-year-old (who loves everything birthday-related) keeps asking me, “Are you 41? Are you still 41?” Each, innocent question connects me to my aunt, who passed away at 41. It reminds me not to take anything or anyone for granted…
  1. Be brave and try new things. Writing this blog is completely outside my “box.” Putting my thoughts out into the “Universe” for others to read and judge is terrifying. Whenever someone mentions that they are following me, it makes me feel a little self-conscious (like I forgot to wear my cover-up to the pool). But, I appreciate the encouragement; it’s much more fun to have an audience than to write for myself.

So, thank you for joining me on my journey. I encourage you to take a step back and to admire your life…If you’re inspired to create your own “mission statement,” I’d love  for you to share it, too.

xo Kara

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Finding Our Happily Ever After…  

7.16.15

Tomorrow, my husband and I will celebrate our 18th wedding anniversary. It’s hard to believe that I met him when I was an 18-year-old sophomore at the University of Kansas. He literally almost knocked me off my off my feet when he bumped into me at “The Bull,” a dive bar down the road from my sorority and his fraternity. I remember thinking that I’d never met anyone quite like him. He was tall, tanned and handsome, with these intense blue eyes. He was also kind, driven, intelligent and athletic. He checked all of my boxes and then some…

About a week later, my sorority had a date dash: we were given 24 hours to find a date for a surprise party, which was planned for the next night. My first thought was to ask Kyle. I’d seen him running (shirtless) that afternoon and he’d yelled “Hey, Kara!” to me (a good sign). With a room full of sorority sisters, I mustered up the courage to call his fraternity and to ask for him. Eventually, he answered the phone; I asked if he had plans for the next night? He paused and said that he thought he might have to study. (It was a Friday night…and the first week of school!?!). Before I could say okay, he hung up on me. Stunned and embarrassed, I handed the phone to my roommate and said, “It’s your turn. I hope you have better luck!”

About a half hour later, the house phone rang and was connected to my room. It was Kyle. He said that he was asleep and confused when I called. When he tried to fall back asleep, he realized who I was and what he’d done. He asked if I’d found another date and I said, “No. I’m still trying to recover from your rejection.”

I’m not sure why I love this story; it’s pretty humiliating! My eleven-year-old son was asking about our first date a couple of days ago and I told it to him. He started laughing and said, “I’m sure glad that Dad came to his senses and called you back!” Me too.

Today, my own dad pointed out that I’ve spent the same amount of time as Kyle’s wife as I spent growing up in my parents’ home…It’s all gone by in a blink. I constantly hear myself commenting on how fast our three children are growing up. Although I’ve started buying wrinkle cream and coloring the silver sparkles that I am beginning to spot more frequently in my hair, I rarely pause and reflect on how quickly my husband and I are also growing up. (I think that sounds much better than growing old.)

When I look at photos from our wedding, I see two kids making grown-up promises. I see two bright-eyed, optimistic twenty-two year olds who cannot wait to take on adulthood together. We could not imagine the challenges or struggles that we’d face as a team. We could not envision the beautiful family that we’d create or the friends and experiences that we’d collect along the way. I am so thankful that I’ve had him as my teammate to help navigate the bumpy road of life. We continue to pursue our happily ever after, one small (and big) decision at a time. As we celebrate our 18th wedding anniversary, I’m so thankful that he made the correct first decision and chose to say, “Yes!” to me.

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180 Birthday Candles and 70 Years of Marriage

6.19.16

Last night, my family gathered to celebrate two of my favorite people and three really big accomplishments: two 90th birthdays and one 70th anniversary. As my house filled with loud, loving laughter…mixed with a little mischief, I realized that none of it would be possible without my wonderful grandparents.

For as long as I can remember, my Nana has personified love. As a child, I was given the gift of spending one week at their farm in Illinois each summer. She stocked her kitchen with all of my favorite (and forbidden) foods; I loved it when she served me ice cream sundaes for breakfast! We spent hours dressing the tiny barn kittens in doll clothes and strolling them around in a baby buggy. I loved making hollyhock dolls from the blooms in her magical garden. Each year, she’d take me on a day trip to Chicago to explore a different museum; I remember being amazed by Colleen Moore’s incredible dollhouse at the Museum of Science and Industry and begging to go back to see it again and again!

Later, my grandpa lovingly built my own cherished dollhouse. He allowed me to select the design plans and colors…wallpaper and flooring, too. It was a true labor of love: I cannot imagine how many hours went into this project. When my grandma would visit, she’d take me to Miniature World, where I’d select a small piece of furniture or whimsical accessory. Eventually my dollhouse was so overly decorated that it had seasonal decorations that I’d switch out, depending on the holiday… (Maybe, I was just a little spoiled?!?)

On the flip side, my Papa has always personified laughter. I remember him embarrassing my grandma when we were shopping at Water Tower Plaza. We came out of a store and put his hat on backwards and started walking pigeon-toed toward us, pretending that he had too much to drink. He yelled her name and waved wildly. She blushed and I giggled and giggled and giggled…

At 90, he still loves to entertain both himself and everyone around him. Just the other day, he was telling me about the identity thieves that have been targeting residents in their senior living community. They’ve been calling and pretending to be representatives of a health insurance company, hoping to get personal information. My grandpa got a phone call and the game was on. He said his name was Freddie Fudpucker. He spelled it very carefully then made up all sorts of information regarding his date of birth and address, etc. When it got to the phone number, he gave them the number for IRS Fraud line and said he’d be calling it next. He started laughing; the reply was a click. I love that my grandpa can find the humor in all situations. During another recent conversation, he was laughing about how he was on Hospice for a month last summer. He truly is a miracle and proof that attitude is everything.

My grandparents met in high school and married at age 20, after my grandpa returned from World War II. Seventy years of marriage is a great accomplishment, but being happily married for seven decades is exceptional. One of the joys of having my grandparents just down the street is that I’ve gotten to know them as an adult, myself. I often leave their apartment praying that my own mature marriage will have the same loving tenderness and patience that I witness each time I spend time with them.

My grandparents are among the people that I love and admire most. I’m so thankful for those 180 candles and 70 years of marriage. I’m lucky to be a branch on their family tree. I can only hope that I inherited some of their good stuff. To be honest, I see a lot of it in my own children. I hope that love and laughter remain dominant family traits for generations to come.

Teachable Moments: Finding the Good in the Bad

6.3.16

Sometimes it feels like you are sailing though life…loving your family, making new friends and feeling authentically happy. That is how I would describe the first weeks of summer: filled with sunshine and freedom.

My kids feel relieved to have a break from the rigors and routines of the school year. They’ve been enjoying long and lazy days, filled with unscheduled stretches of time that allow them to read books, play Legos and pick up spontaneous games of kickball with the neighborhood kids. This week, swim team practice and tennis clinics began; it’s felt good to add a little structure to our days… In short, our summer has been filled with abundant blessings.

Yesterday, I had a reality check when I walked into a situation where a pack of boys was treating one of my kids with cruelty. My child was asking “Why?” and was being laughed at as I walked up and stood next to him. The kids stopped and looked at me, wondering what I was going to do. I simply put my hand on my child’s shoulder and said that it was time to go home. As we walked away, I wondered if I handled the situation correctly…

This event completely sucked the wind out of my sails. My mom’s old saying describes my feelings perfectly: “You are only as happy as your saddest child.” I just cannot shake this overwhelming sense of sadness.

When your kids are toddlers and have a “booboo,” you can kiss the pain away. As they grow up, you become more of a passive spectator…a fan, cheering for them to make the right choices and to pick the right friends. You are backstage, making sure that they feel loved and supported at home; but, you realize that most of their daily experiences are completely out of your control.

Growing up is hard. Everyone wants to fit in and to be accepted. Some kids struggle more than others to find friends that click. Although I desperately wish that I could turn back the hands of time and prevent the ugly incident from happening, my hope is that this will become a teachable moment. From it, I hope that my child will learn to pick his friends more carefully. I hope that he will choose to fill his life with kids that make him feel happy and who can appreciate all of the qualities that I love most about him.

I need to let go and to move on with the understanding that all of the boys involved are also growing up and learning who they are and who they want to become. What I witnessed was a snapshot in time, not their defining story. Maybe my intrusion will create a teachable moment for them, too? Who knows? It’s time for me to focus on my blessings and to enjoy the short season of summer.

 

Ten Birthday Wishes for My Daughter

4.20.16

Today, my daughter turns ten. Today, she celebrates her first double-digit birthday. Today, she officially becomes a “tween.”

A tween is defined as “a youngster between 10 and 12 years of age, considered too old to be a child and too young to be a teenager.” There is something bittersweet about watching your daughter close one chapter and begin a new one. It marks the passing of time for both of us. Ever since she was a baby, I’ve been told that girls are easy when they are little, but everything gets flipped upside down as they enter their teen years. Although I want to reject this advice, I understand that this sweet stage may not last forever.

As I watch my daughter make a wish and blow out the candles on her cake, I find myself making wishes for her, too.

Here are ten wishes for my daughter on her tenth birthday:

  1. Develop Drama-Free Friendships. My sister always tells me to “fill up your life with good stuff.” I think that’s especially true about friendships. Fill your life with friends who make you feel happy and secure…friends who like you just the way you are, no improvements needed…friends who won’t ever put conditions on your friendship or make you feel pushed to do things you don’t want to do… My wish for you is that you will find true friends who will encourage you to be you (and love you for it).
  1. Take Chances. I know that you want to succeed at everything you do. But, don’t be afraid to fail. Ask yourself, what’s the worst thing that could happen? Then, put yourself out there and go for it. You are more talented than you realize. And, you are more resilient, too. It’s tempting to always play it safe and to avoid disappointments. If you don’t try, you may not reach your true potential. My wish for you is that you won’t be afraid to chase big dreams.
  1. You Don’t Have To Be Perfect. I can see that you are a little bit of a perfectionist. I’m not sure where that comes from. 😉 Speaking from experience, the problem with being a perfectionist is that no one is perfect; it’s unachievable. So, don’t put too much pressure on yourself to do everything perfectly. Everyone makes mistakes. And, I love you because you are you – not because you do everything so well! My wish for you is to know that you are loved without conditions; nothing could make me love you less.
  1. Don’t Take Life (Or Yourself) Too Seriously. Often, your wit catches me off guard and I find myself wondering where your wonderful sense of humor came from? (Not me!) You are able to be silly and to laugh at yourself. I hope that you will never outgrow this trait because it makes the world a happier place. My wish for you is that you will never lose your sense of humor.
  1. Never Forget Your Nine-Year-Old Self. Remember our trip to Chicago to celebrate your ninth birthday? Remember the first time you walked down Michigan Avenue? At first, the enormous skyscrapers, the roar of the traffic, and all of the people amazed you; then you encountered a needy person, asking for money. You stopped and opened your little purse and handed him one of your precious five-dollar bills – a large percentage of the birthday money that you’d saved for the trip. The smile on the man’s face lit up your own and warmed my heart. As we walked to the next corner you stopped again and repeated your act of generosity. After crossing the street, you met another person in need of help; at that point you realized that you were quickly running out of money… So, you asked if you could share your lunch and dinner with them? I’ve always been proud of you, but this stands out as one of my very proudest mom moments. My wish for you is that you will hold onto your generous, caring spirit.
  1. Be Confident in Your Natural Beauty. Over the next few years, you are going to hear a lot about what it means to be beautiful. I hope you always remember that true beauty shines from the inside out – it can’t be purchased in glossy tubes or beautiful bottles. Beauty is revealed in your words and your actions. My wish for you is that you will never conceal your natural beauty.  
  1. Don’t Be A Sheep. You are one-of-a-kind. You were given your own mind, so never be afraid to use it. I know that you have a strong moral compass, with it as your guide – you will steer clear of trouble. If you are uncomfortable with the direction your crowd is moving, have the courage to step outside. It will seem scary, but the consequences of making dangerous, unhealthy choices can be much more devastating. My wish for you is that you will always have the courage to make your own choices.
  1. No Hurry to Meet Prince Charming. I know you still say, “Ewww!” at the end of Disney cartoons, when the prince and princess kiss and go off to live happily ever after. But, one day your attitude may change. When/if it does, I hope that you set your bar high, knowing that you deserve to be treated with respect and kindness at all times; never settle for anything less. I hope that you’ll take the time to find yourself first. It’s okay to be a little selfish when you’re young: to focus on your goals, interests and dreams first. My wish for you is that when you’re old enough to date, you will have the confidence to be extremely selective.
  1. Say “Thank You.” We all have been given far more than we deserve. Focus on what you have, rather than what you lack. My wish for you is that you will always take time to count your blessings…and share them with others.
  1. Be Yourself. Discover what makes you happy (not me or anyone else). I truly believe that we all have a purpose and the sooner we discover it, the better. My wish for you is that you will have the courage to be authentically you.

Happy, happy tenth birthday, dear daughter!

May all of your wishes and my wishes come true!

xo Mom

 

 

 

Love or Approval?

4.5.16

This weekend, I had dinner with a dear friend; she mentioned that she felt like the Universe had a very specific message for her: It was time for her to stop pleasing others and to start pleasing herself. She said that she’d heard the same theme over and over throughout the day… My husband chuckled and said, “I think that message is for Kara, too.”

I confess that I am a pleaser. I’ve always thought that this trait made me thoughtful and unselfish. But, now I’m wondering what makes pleasing others so important to me?

I’ve spent my entire life believing that love is conditional. In order to be loved (or even liked), I must please those who are closest to me. I don’t think that this was a lesson that I was ever taught, just a core belief that I’ve held as long as I can remember…

In her book Kitchen Table Wisdom, Rachel Naomi Remen writes: “Of course love is never earned. It is a grace we give one another. Anything we need to earn is only approval.”

I love this quote. I am embarrassed to admit that I have never conscientiously separated love and approval before. But, they are definitely two very different things.

It is critical that my children know that they are loved by me without conditions. Of course, I want them to try to maximize the gifts that they’ve been given. Of course, I want them to make choices that will set them on a path leading to a happy, healthy life. Of course, I want them to do what I want, but these are not conditions that must be met in order to receive my love. I will love them even if I don’t approve of all of their choices. It is critical that they understand that love and approval are two different things.

The truth is that as much as I believe that I know what’s best for each of my kids, I may not. I want to raise strong, independent children who consider others’ feelings, but are capable of pleasing themselves, too – without guilt.

Ultimately, I want my kiddos to live authentic lives that bring them happiness and success. In order for them to achieve these things, it is entirely possible that my husband and I may need to get out of their way as they grow into independent young adults.

 

 

Rattlesnake Tails & Other Gifts From My Grandma

3.17.16

When I was a kindergartener, I brought a little baggie full of dried rattlesnake tails to “show and tell” at school. Thirty-five years later, I can still remember the shocked expression on sweet Mrs. Blackwell’s face as I stood in front of my class (with my big bow and perfectly curled hair, wearing a little dress with white knee-high socks and black mary janes) and explained that my grandma had killed all of these rattlesnakes with an ax on her ranch in Montana. I told my classmates that she had a large glass jar full of rattlesnake tails on the shelf in her basement, but I only took a few. I explained that she taught me that you can tell the age of a rattlesnake by counting its rattles; a rattlesnake grows 2-3 rattles each year of its life.   It was a “show and tell” first for Swanson Elementary.

My grandma, Mildred Spencer Monson, passed away more than 14 years ago. But, she’s been on my mind a lot this week. At times when I’ve felt like my life is hard, I’ve encouraged myself to summon my inner Mildred. When I compare my life to hers, I have it pretty easy.

Mildred was a strong woman. She killed rattlesnakes with an ax. She grew up in the Bear Paw Mountains of Montana. She received a formal education as a young girl, attended boarding school, college and went on to become a teacher. She married Melvin Monson (a handsome rancher), had three children and settled on a cattle ranch near Chinook, Montana. A regular day for her included waking up at the crack of dawn to milk cows, gather eggs, make three meals from scratch (no convenience items or microwave), tend the family garden (where she ran into many rattlers), sew her children’s clothes, wash all of the family’s clothes and dishes by hand . . . Oh, and teach grades first through eighth in the rural, one-room schoolhouse. She ran a small home without indoor plumbing for years. My dad remembers playing marbles with his siblings and listening to the radio at night for entertainment. The nearest town was about 25 minutes away (no Amazon.com). She was an expert at stretching the dollar. I fondly remember her cutting paper towels into fourths because that was cheaper than purchasing Kleenex (she’d done the math). She also stretched her coffee grounds by reusing them multiple times…

It really is amazing how quickly life has evolved in just a couple of generations in this country. I was trying to explain to my kids that cell phones did not exist when I was little and that I didn’t have an e-mail address until I was in college. In order to do a research paper for school, I used to have to go to the library and use a card catalog, microfiche film and encyclopedias (all foreign words to them); we did not have the Internet or a computer when I was in elementary school. They could not comprehend that my television only had three channels or that cartoons were only played on Saturday!

Modern conveniences have allowed us to save time, but somehow we’ve still managed to fill our calendars with more “stuff.” I wonder what Mildred would say as she scrolled through my family’s iCal for the week? Would she approve or would she scoff?

I think she’d question the value of spending so much time and money on extracurricular activities. I think she’d wonder why my children don’t help out more around the house and why I’m so exhausted at the end of the day. But, I think she would be incredibly proud of my oldest son, who inherited her love of learning. I think she’d smile as she took in all of the messy stacks of books around his room, noting many familiar ones that I inherited from her own book shelves; that image makes my heart happy.

When I was a little girl, I was told that I inherited my grandma’s eyes. As an adult, I catch myself thinking Mildred-like thoughts and doing Mildred-like things. I am thankful that I grew up with a strong grandma who taught me that you don’t need to be afraid of rattlesnakes or hard work.

Focus on What’s Right

3.10.16

Growing up, I remember my mom saying: “You are only as happy as your saddest child.” This past week, her words have echoed through my thoughts as I’ve driven carpool, jogged around my neighborhood and tried to fall asleep at night.

When I was pregnant, I constantly prayed for happy, healthy children. I felt like it would be greedy to add anything else to the list (smart, athletic, attractive, driven, artistic, musical or socially gifted…). When you boil it all down, these are the two greatest blessings.

One of the most difficult facts about motherhood is that I can’t actually control my children’s happiness or their health. I can make sure that all of their basic needs are met. I can teach by my example. I can preach (by far my most used and least effective tactic). I can provide constant love and support.  But, I can’t do it for them. I can’t make them make healthy choices or follow my advice.

I can’t control what cruelties life hurls at me or my family. But, I can control how I react. Do I get depressed? Angry? Even? Or, do I choose to count my blessings? Happiness is a choice.

A wise man once told me not to build a shrine to my sadness or anger. He encouraged me to make our home a happy retreat, separate from the unkind world. He told me to have faith and to trust that there are lessons to be learned; in the future, we will be able to look back and laugh at the memories that are painful realities today.

When my mind starts to go toward the sadness, I must force myself to focus on the joy. I must choose to find the beauty in the ugly. I must choose to celebrate the simplest blessings, which are plentiful. Honestly, even on my darkest days – the good still outweighs the bad.  I just have to make the choice to focus on what’s right…again and again and again.

Focusing on what’s right in my life takes away the power of what isn’t. It also allows me to be a better mother, wife, sister, daughter and friend…a better all-around person.

 

My Heart: Walking Around Outside My Body

2.29.16

“Making the decision to have a child — it is momentous. It is to decide forever to have your heart go walking around outside your body.”
― Elizabeth Stone

I will never forget the first time that I left my oldest son for an hour. He was a couple of months old, and I handed him to sweet Miss Donna in our church’s nursery. I gave her detailed, written instructions for every possible scenario that she might encounter within the next 60 minutes. As I walked upstairs with my husband to attend the service, I understood Elizabeth Stone’s quote for the first time. Once you have a child, your heart never leaves his side. Your heart feels his joy more strongly, his pain more deeply. . .both his pride and shame are multiplied.

During the next hour I struggled to focus, wondering if he was hungry or needed to be changed…did I bring two pacifiers? What if one dropped on the floor? When I picked him up, he was sleeping soundly in Miss Donna’s arms as she gently rocked him. Over the next three and a half years, Miss Donna became a regular part of our weekly routine and a person that our family came to adore. After 11 years, this incredibly kind, big-hearted woman has not missed a single birthday, Christmas or Valentine’s Day—my kids continue to be delighted when they find her cards from North Carolina in our mailbox. I am so thankful that she came into our lives when I truly needed a break and a person I could trust. She has continued to spread sunshine and to remind my kids just how special they are through her loving eyes.

As my kids have grown up, I have felt my heart separate from me time and time again. The odd thing is that it never gets easier. . .never becomes routine. I remember when the nurse gave my son his first set of vaccinations, plunging needles into his chubby little thighs, his cherubic face went from innocently smiling into my eyes to a pained, twisted, angry shade of red that matched his blood-curdling scream. I wished I could change places with him. As a toddler, I remember when a little cute little girl with golden curls bit him on the cheek because she wanted his toy, during “Book Babies” at the library. I wished it was me with the teeth marks on my own face. As he’s gotten older he’s no longer at risk of being physically bitten by another toddler, but tweens’ words can cut with much more force…It breaks my heart.  I wish I could protect him from cruelty.

Motherhood has been full of surprises, but my greatest shock has been the incredible, unconditional love that brings great joy and greater pain. When I kiss my youngest goodnight, I always tell him that I love him and he always responds by saying that he loves me more — such a sweet sentiment, but so NOT possible.

Elizabeth Stone Quote

Same Beach, 17 Years Later

1.22.16

I spent last week in Grand Cayman, tagging along on my husband’s conference.  It was the same place that we spent our honeymoon, 17 years ago.

Walking on Seven Mile Beach during our last morning on the island, my husband remembered how he felt as a 22-year-old when he was packing up to return home.  He would start medical school the very next day.  Thinking back to the mountain of hard work ahead: medical school itself, class rankings and decisions about specialties, residency applications and interviews, Match Day, fellowship interviews and placements, more Board exams — written and oral, and finally landing a “real” job… He left the island stressed, considering all of the dedication and determination that it would take to be successful.

I only remember being sad to leave the tropical paradise, but excited to return to our very own tiny, one-bedroom apartment.  Excited to return to my modest paycheck and grown-up job, with a boss that I adored.  Everything about that chapter in my life was new and thrilling.  I loved being a young “wife.” I quickly recognized that our courtship could not have survived the demands of medical school and that my smart husband knew that instinctively.  I expected too much attention as a girlfriend, but I was a supportive teammate and our young marriage flourished.  He went to school and studied; I went to work, volunteered, trained for races and planned frugal dinner parties with friends.  Our calendars were full and happy.

I looked at my husband and commented that I never knew that he felt that way.  He had made everything appear effortless from the passenger seat.  But, I’m thankful that he made it to the other side of the mountain.  In response, he just smiled quietly.

Something tells me that if we are ever lucky enough to return to the island in another 17 years, we’ll have a similar conversation about the last day on the beach.  No matter what stage of life you are in, there are always daunting goals ahead and unexpected stresses to manage on the horizon.

In 17 years, our kids will be raised and our youngest will be 22.  It took my breath away when I realized that he could be wrapping up his own honeymoon and beginning to climb his own mountain.  I hope that all three of my children have the courage to dream and to pursue their goals with focused determination.  If they are really lucky, they will also find a wonderful teammate to share the journey. . .

Cayman Sunset