Life in London

All In

“All In” may have long ago crossed over from a general expression to an overused one but it’s the only way I can explain this spreadsheet.

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This is my 15 year old’s spreadsheet. It is NOT for anything to do with school. It has to do with football. It’s a 4 page spreadsheet with all the teams in the top 4 English football leagues (with annotations to the left of teams promoted and relegated) and games he has attended in the 2017/2018 season in green and games he has attended in the 2018/2019 season in blue with tick marks for teams he has seen home or away.

The boy does not have other tracking spreadsheets related to schoolwork. I know this because I not so subtly asked.

He’s seen 22 teams play in 8 different stadiums. He checks games he wants to see with our shared family Google calendar and then buys all his tickets online in advance (for usually a student discounted price of £2), adding them to the calendar. He then finds his way there and back on public transportation. Sometimes he goes with a friend or his brother but a lot of time he goes on his own. It’s one of his London hobbies. He has 4 more stadiums to hit in the London area.

When our friend Nate Frank was recently in town, he appreciated the spreadsheet at first glance. (It took a lot of patient explaining for me to simply understand the names of the 4 divisions.) Nate told Colin he had to read Nick Hornby’s memoir “Fever Pitch” about the author’s similar childhood obsession with football. We bought the book the next day. One however can’t be fully committed to every aspect of an obsession -- so his energy reserve after game attendance is moderate enthusiasm for finishing the book before the end of the 2018/19 season.

Recently Colin showed us his growing collection of game tickets and programs. Noticing that one of the programs was a little roughed up, Brettasked: “What happened here?”

Colin: “Oh yeah. That one accidentally fell in the urinal. But don’t worry. I washed it off in the sink with some soap and then dried it in the hand dryer.”

ALL IN. ALL BOY.

Tell Me More

Tomorrow the kids go back to school. I knew we were coming to the end of our summer parental energy when we twisted our 11 year old’s arm into watching the new Amazon series “Jack Ryan” for Monday night family movie night.  He said: “It’s going to be scary.”  We said: “Nah, it’s sweet-faced John Krasinski from The Office!”  Spoiler alert and alert to any other veteran parents thinking of bypassing their kid’s internal violence-o-meter:  a weapon gets extracted from a cadaver in Episode 1.   Ewwwwww.

I had to take him to bed and promise to stay with him until he feel asleep.  My presence in the dark was enough for him to fell safe and rewind the gore of what he witnessed on screen.  As we hugged, he nuzzled into me and said: “Mom, don’t you love it when you close your eyes and you see all those red and blue lights?”  When I told him I only saw black/darkness when I closed my eyes he was genuinely perplexed: “Really?  You don’t see all those coloured lights?!  Wow.  I thought everyone did.”  I asked him about the purple lights and then to tell me more but soon he was fast asleep.  

On the eve of Back to School, like all parents I’ve been thinking about what I can do to help my kids have a great year.   Asking them regularly: “Tell Me More” is one thing I keep coming back to.  Kids are still in the process of making up their minds about what is possible and what is not and discovering - sometimes gently and sometimes not — that not everyone experiences all the same things.  “Tell Me More” gives them space to keep exploring at a time when they are perfectly wired for it.

The next morning my same son said he had a bad dream.  When I asked him to “Tell Me More”, he said I had signed him up for swim team and told all the instructors he was an excellent swimmer.   (This premise was not an initial cause for reflection as every member of my family is an unskilled swimmer who would lose to a camel in the water.) Anyway, because of what I said, the teachers kept moving him up into the more advanced groups and into deeper water.  No one cared that he didn’t really know how to swim.  (Oh. Scanning now for terrestrial applications…)  When it came time for the first meet, not only was he last but he couldn’t finish the race.  He was humiliated.  I, he said, was surprised and disappointed. (Ouch.)

I’m glad he told me.  It’s another thing I and all us parents can do for our kids to help them have a great year: be realistic with our expectations.   “Tell Me More” might actually be a great tool for recalibrating what those expectations might be.

Tomorrow I am expecting my boys to set the alarm, put on a clean school uniform that fits, and pose for a photo.  I know it’s not realistic for me to hope that the youngest will make his own lunch because I missed the window on that lesson — but I am expecting to be surprised by them in new ways this school year. 

Women Running the World and A £30 Find

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I may have never won the lottery but I have found £20-£40 lying on the ground four different times since moving to London.  You’d think money was falling out of the sky.  One of the times was on the street, two of the times was on the Tube, and the last time, this past Friday, was on a dirt path in Hampstead Heath.

I found the £30 in Hampstead Heath while on a run with my running group.  Unable to find it’s rightful owner in the Heath (people are so honest!), I planned to give the money to someone I saw on the street or bring it to church.  But … then a better, more spontaneous, idea surfaced on the way home.

After the 8 mile Heath Route, I peeled off from the group and detoured to see my hairdresser Jonathan who had just cut my hair earlier that week.  I wanted to schedule a follow up appointment for what we coarse, thick-hair people know as “more texturing.”  Nothing like a sweaty run to make my big hair case.  Sweet Jonathan offered to solve my problem on the spot. 

As I was sitting in his chair for the five-minute fix, it dawned on me that it had been his chair where I first heard about the running group.  Almost exactly a year ago.  A woman named Stephanie was in his chair before me and she had been chatting enthusiastically about her great running group.  Desperate for friends in a new city, I asked Stephanie for the details.  She immediately followed up to connect me to Women Running the World (or WRW for short.) A weekly email was soon in my inbox with detailed running routes that look like this. 

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This is the 9 mile route we did from St John's Wood to Canary Wharf (!) last Monday.  Not a run I would have done on my own.  :)

Now I’ve been part of a few other running groups in the past but none quite like WRW.  First, there are close to 150 women in WRW which means no one is left stranded if you accidentally forgot to set your alarm.  The run will go on without you but you will have no less than two dozen WhatsApp messages letting you know how great the run was and how much you were missed.

The size of the group is in part because all abilities are welcome including and especially encouraging women who have never run before.  The group runs from September through June and women are welcomed to join any time of the year which is why I was able to turn up in February and be immediately embraced.  

The large group is broken up into pace groups who run 3x/week where we stagger start times for the sake of London pedestrians and a true beginner group who run the alternating 2x/week.   I’m part of the “Naughty-Nines” pace group which is as entertaining as our name suggests. Regardless of pace, we all have our eye on a shared goal (a destination 1/2 marathon set for the spring) and love for the post-run coffee.  115 women are traveling to Utrecht, The Netherlands in about 6 weeks for this year's spring race. 

The genius of WRW is that the group always meets in the same spot (the Barclays Bank in St Johns Wood) at the same time (8:15am.)   The vast public transportation system in London means that we can always start at the same place and Tube or bus home.  I have seen so much of this city by running destination routes with WRW.  Route maps are consistently emailed the week prior but the only thing you really need to know is to show up at 8:15.   There are at least two leaders for each pace group who know the routes and emergency loo spots which means your job is to simply run and not get run over. 

One of the Friday Hampstead Heath routes was also my very first run with WRW last February. An endorphin hit plus a payoff view like this is enough to make anyone want to run.  

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That memory in Jonathan’s chair made me smile back at my red, sweaty face in the mirror.  I did win a different kind of lottery that day.  In a city of 8 million people, given where I live and where my children go to school, I may not have found WRW otherwise.  It was through Jonathan’s unknowing connection that prepared the way for me to meet a group of ladies who have become treasured friends.  So on this day at least the £30 from the sky was left in Jonathan's tip jar as a way of closing the loop to pay it forward.    

The Joy of After School Activities, minus the Carpool

This week I was reminded by Facebook of this post I wrote one year ago.  It was about my dread of having my then 13 year old son travel to and from basketball practice on his own after school through a tough part of London.  A year later, he is still making that commute to his basketball family, now three times a week plus weekends.  Those three days a week father and son share a 12 hour workday, occasionally finding each other on the last leg of their journey home.  Independence intertwined with care and common sense (and a little extra cash for food) is like a plow that loosens fear and allows our children to grow. 

While grateful for his blooming independence, I’m also thankful that my 11 year old still needs an after school escort.  He has regular after school activities twice a week where my services are required.

It used to be that after school activities were a series of curb side pickups and drop offs in a car you always apologised for given that it doubled as a dressing room and mini-mart.  In London however, after school activities without a car means multiple backpacks and never leaving home without an Oyster card and umbrella.  You  have to learn to do “more” in public restrooms and if trainers were forgotten, then loafers it will be.   On the plus side, crumbs are no longer your concern.

Shuttling a child to and from activities without the convenience of a car has indeed been more inconvenient, but if truth be told, I’ve found a lot of pluses that extend well beyond crumb avoidance.  After a year, we have found a rhythm to these two days that has made them more joy than chore.   

First, the snack upgrade.  With 20 minutes to kill after school before the boys need to ferry off in different directions, the three of us meet up for a quick snack somewhere near Oxford Circus.  The food options are endless with places like Joe & The Juice, Kaffeine, and Gitane (Persian food and today’s stop.)  Gone are the days of groaning about a granola bar and apple slices,  Also gone are £s.   

Second, undivided attention.  When it matters most.  You often get the unedited version of the day’s events right after school ends, before it’s either forgotten or buried.  I’ve found that I’m a much better listener in those precious 20 minutes when I’m not responsible for making the avocado toast or focusing on road and traffic conditions.  The bizarrely spotty mobile phone coverage near the kids school has also been a boost to attention.

Third, touch.  An 11 year old may be outgrowing hugs and kisses but nothing gets them to nuzzle into you like a crowded Tube or bus after a long day.  On one of the days Lawton and I head west on the Bakerloo line from frenetic Oxford Circus to Maida Vale.  We typically start our journey standing face to face until the train empties at Paddington Station when he then takes his position either on my lap or with his head on my shoulder.  When there are no watchful eyes of friends or siblings around or room to escape to, Mom is your home base.  Even in public.

His head finds a similar resting position on the other day of the week when we take a crowded bus 17 stops heading east to Islington. Together we people watch as almost the entire bus ridership turns over as the neighbourhoods change.  The transit part may be less about conversation but the physical hip to hip connection has a way of quietly restoring energy for both parent and child.  It’s something that doesn’t happen with a front seat/back seat seating arrangement. 

Fourth, alignment.  Not having a car in a big city naturally forces you to be more selective.  And when a little more skin in the game is required, it becomes clearer to both you and your child on what activities they really want to invest in. That clarity of choice helps you muscle through on days when one of you isn't feeling it or you aren’t up for all the humanity. And since my 11 year old isn't likely to become a top college basketball player or rising thespian, it is a relief to take the proverbial pedal off the gas - even when you didn’t really know you were speeding.  

Fifth, park time.  On both days I can either take the bus to meet the boys near school which takes 15-20 minutes or I can walk through Regent's Park which takes 30 minutes.  Nine out of ten times I walk.  I'm not even competing with anyone for steps.  I walk because green space has a way of elevating your mood even in the rain.  Somehow even though that time is in service of my children, the distinction between giving and receiving blurs when I'm under a canopy of trees rather than behind the wheel of a car.   

Sixth, bonus me time.  On the day I drop Lawton off in Maida Vale for basketball, the lack of good transit options going west to east without heading back into Central London means that my best options for getting home are either Ubering or walking.  Nine out of ten times I choose to bundle up for the walk and listen to a podcast.  The walk, much of it dark at this time of year, takes me 50 minutes but it’s through beautiful residential neighbourhoods where the quiet leafy streets shush the noise of the bustling city.  And because Brett tubes from work to pick up Lawton after practice and they Uber home for their own one on one time, I magically have an hour and a half in a quiet kitchen to make dinner.  

Seventh, eating out.  Sometimes it's simply not practical to get home after an activity drop off.  Instead it's more practical to spend the 90 minutes in a cozy neighborhood pub reading.  On the second night our regular schedule involves me doing that at a place in Islington called The Albion where there is always a seat near the roaring fire.   After pick up, we then meet up with Brett and Colin somewhere new for a late dinner.  Beyond the Kindle time during what is usually cooking time, there is something pretty cool about coming from different parts of the city and seeing your rosy cheeked 14 year old holding the table for your 8:15 dinner reservation. 

After school activities can be slog but there are some small rewards that open up when you ditch the car and grab an umbrella. 

Life is a Beautiful Ride

One of my joys this fall is that I’ve gotten back into spinning. I thought I would start spinning again right when I moved to London but it’s funny how inertia sets in when there’s been an extended gap from doing something you once did with proficiency. It took me nine months to work up the courage to give one of the boutique spinning studios a try. I felt like a fish out of water walking in alone the first time to Psycle in Central London but as soon as I clipped in, my body remembered what to do and I was hooked again. I just had my 15-Class Anniversary at Psycle which was my inspiration for writing this:

Life is a Beautiful Ride

By Kate Ballbach (Psycle Rider since 2017, Life Rider since 1970)

We ride alone in our own saddle, yes, but even in a darkened room or during a darkened time unless your eyes are glued closed, you know that we also ride together.

Sometimes we spin in circles, forgetting where we are heading, which is why it’s helpful to look up at an instructor you trust and mirror their body language until you find the beat again.

We can tune out and just ride when the coast is clear but when we need to add on or double time, we can go further and faster wherever people gather and where there is music.

The multifaceted wonder of music, that welcome distraction when we feel pain, that subtle builder of endurance, that megaphone to drive us deeper into synchronicity with ourselves.

In a world of nonstop talk, we forget that our ride does not depend on our ears or tongue. It's the position of our feet, clipped in and pedaling one push at a time, and our hands, open and not gripping too tightly, as we learn to build our core strength.

We can skate through, cheating our resistance dial, or we can choose to give it our all where we are guaranteed to get soaked in sweat but where we know it's the only way to find the zone.

The zone, where effort feels momentarily effortless and your Everest feels possible, isn't a place where we can live permanently but isn't it glorious to know we can pass through from time to time.

Life is a beautiful ride, yes, but it’s only when you get out and ride through headwinds, heartbreak hills, and heat that the promise finally makes sense.

Lessons from a Cookbook

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We all have that area in a bookstore where we encounter short term memory loss as to our collection at home.  Mine is the cookbook section.

A few months ago I was in Waterstones for something I can’t now remember.   Instinct took me past my favorite section.  Nudged by the prime table placement, captivated by the gorgeous photography and food styling, and peddled by an exuberant Jamie Oliver endorsement, I left (hopefully with the thing I came for though) AND a copy of Stirring Slowly by first time cookbook author Georgina Hayden. 

Since then two more cookbooks have been added.   The first was because Amazon suggested it to me as they know both my weakness and my vegan curiosity.  The second was due to arriving early to my first yoga class and channeling my 15 minutes of nervous energy in the studio’s gift store. 

When I get a new cookbook I quickly speed read through the recipes and sticky note ones I want to try.  I blow past the boring Introduction where every author tells some version of the same story about early childhood food memories with their grandmother.  I also skip the Stocking Your Pantry section because by now I have it.  I’m all about the recipes and my quest for an eggplant dish my family will finally love.  It usually takes me about 12 hours from cookbook acquisition to grocery list.

One of my first recipes from Stirring Slowly was the “Roasted Chickpea, Cauliflower and Sesame Lamb.”  It was a winner.  “Herby Puy Lentils, Greens and Smoked Mackerel” was next and also a winner until I made it often enough that one family member mentioned after 25 years together he thought I KNEW that he doesn’t really like smoked mackerel.  I reasoned if you are good with smoked salmon and tuna, smoked mackerel is game on.  And on.

I made “Sticky Carrots and Beets with Dates” for appreciative dinner company and my only complaint about the “Chorizo, Tomato and Chickpeas on Toast” is that the recipe should have demanded I double it.   The “Popeye Smoothie with Mint and Blueberries” elevated our smoothie game and the “Sausage and Wild Garlic Linguine” is now in our regular pasta rotation.

What I couldn’t put my finger on precisely was how to describe my new cookbook.  As you can probably tell from the recipes mentioned above, it was filled with a hodgepodge of recipes with lots of different ethnic persuasions that made it hard to categorize.  I just know I liked what was coming out of my kitchen … well except maybe for the “Khichdi: a traditional Indian dish with mung beans.”  The photo wasn’t even promising.  But mung beans weren’t yet in my bulging pantry and every cookbook has that recipe you feel sorry enough for to try.

The other miss wasn’t the cookbook’s fault.  If your family is convinced that the only pancake is a buttermilk pancake, you might want to skip the “Caramelized Apple, Ricotta and Hazelnut Pancakes” to protect yourself from hurt feelings that naturally come after you have pulled out the food processor, apple slicer, sieve, and electric beaters at 8am on a Saturday morning.  

Inevitably what happens after cooking through my sticky notes and removing the aspirational ones, I often hit a wall with a new cookbook.   That happened a few weeks ago with Stirring Slowly.    That’s when I crowdsource by doing a Google search to find out what other people have made and liked from my fading favorite only child cookbook.  It always turns up a few good new recipes to try.   That’s how I discovered the “An Insanely Good Blondie” recipe that somehow I had missed.  And it was insanely good according to a ravenous group of 11 year olds who forgot to leave me one. 

The Google search turned up no mentions of the mung bean recipe for good reason but it did tip me off to something else.  Somewhere, deep in a comment thread, someone made mention of the author’s, Georgina Hayden’s, tragic loss.  Curious, I searched further but couldn’t find any more details online.  So I flipped back to the Introduction of my now well-worn cookbook – the pages I had skipped over.   There after several paragraphs into a standard intro, Georgina detoured and shared how this cookbook, her first one, was born out of losing her son just before birth.   I had completely missed this detail.  One not directly important to my cooking per say but nevertheless very important to the author.     

I felt terrible for her loss in the way you do when you hear sad news about a stranger.  I don’t even know this woman.  And yet this woman had indirectly helped me put food on my family’s table for the past several months.  I was so focused on finding recipes, shopping for and then measuring out ingredients that I never considered the context for how these recipes might have come about.   I didn’t think about the person behind the cookbook.  I thought about how it was serving me and how I would serve it.  I noticed how that little piece of information shed so much more light.

I turned back to the front cover, taking in the title with more understanding, and noticing the subtitle that I had glossed over before: “Stirring Slowly:  Recipes to Restore + Revive.”  

That’s why there were so many soups and one pot meals.  Oh, I get it now.

I read the rest of the introduction where Georgina further explains: “Cooking went on to become an interesting and integral part of my healing journey.  Along the way there have been the meals that are nutritionally sound, which I know are sorting me out on the inside.  And there are recipes that take time and patience and there are the ones that are almost meditative.  Writing this book took time, and it has changed along the way – it isn’t just a collection of my favorite meals, it has been a work in progress and I’ve lived it.  The subtitle is recipes to restore and revive as I believe this applies to us all.”  

The wide range of recipes with varying levels of difficulty that defied a tidy label.  Oh, I get it now. 

I’m not writing this post to beat myself up about not reading a cookbook introduction.   I have way bigger failings than that but the story has burrowed in me for another reason.  It makes me realize that one small but important piece of information about someone can completely shift something into better focus.

When we think we know something, we skip ahead.  We don’t ask obvious questions or the question sitting just below the surface.  Instead we race ahead to find our perfect recipe rotation for purpose and passion and then collect the ingredients we need.  We focus on the data and the measurements.  We create output.  If other people factor (and they always do), we go straight to figuring out how they can be of service to us. We aren’t meaning to put people into boxes but we forget the fullness of every single person we encounter.  We forget about the person behind the book, the counter, the computer screen.  That what they are saying or doing comes from experiences they have had. 

Of course we can’t know everyone’s story and few people will ever hand us a written introduction of theirs, but aren’t we all some version of a story of love and loss?    And if we really, really believed every person has missing puzzle pieces we may never be privy to, doesn’t just knowing that cause something to shift in us that brings us past tolerance and closer to respect and genuine conversation. 

Now when I cook from this cookbook, which isn’t any more or less than I used to, I picture where in the healing process the author might have been when she wrote a particular recipe.  I imagine many of the recipes in the “A Sunny Start to the Day” helped her get out of bed on hard days or the surprising numbers of celebratory cakes were byproducts of a disciplined gratitude practice.   The insight into Georgina’s story has made me both appreciate her recipes more and cook with a little more intention.  It’s a small shift but I can’t help but think it makes me a better cook.   We will only know when I try the “Caramelized Apple, Ricotta and Hazelnut Pancakes” for a second audience.

But mostly it has challenged me to see people who I can't quite put my finger on as more than meets, at a bare minimum, my eye.  I don't have to tell you there are lots of places where you can practice this.  We all have our lists.

Also, that cookbook I recently picked up at the yoga studio … I read the entire Introduction.

A Master of a Day

If I had to guess, the “I’m in” moment happened over a shared plate of Dutch pancakes.

This past Monday had been a lazy summer morning. We weren’t on vacation. Nothing except for a routine doctor’s appointment at 9:30am was on the calendar. It wasn’t until noon that I engaged with my three boys on a plan for the day.

I casually suggested a free museum. They forcefully rejected the idea on the rational basis of “summer + London + tourists + 1pm.” With rain threatening, we made the uninspiring decision to go out to lunch.

Because I am the Mom to three boys, lunch also involved us breaking into two teams and racing to the lunch destination. And because I am The Mom, I shackled Team Tube with an errand on the way. Team Bus won although there was some debate about possible unsanctioned running.

It’s hard to go wrong with a lunch featuring guacamole, street tacos and a restaurant foosball table. But what surprised me was the unexpected constellation of “Ok, yes, and sure” after lunch when I suggested we check out the neighborhood and walk the two miles back home.

Whether it was due to tortilla guilt or the siren song of a vegan brownie, our longest stop on the way home was at a mega Natural Food Store. Hanging out in a Natural Food Store for 30 minutes with my 10, 14, and 19 year old sons was certainly not something that had happened before. We left with two bags of groceries we didn’t really need, most of them experimental snack foods we had all helped pick out.

The best of the bunch was my youngest son’s pick of the 100% organic dried seaweed from Cornwall. The seaweed claimed to be bursting with vitamins, minerals and traces (or what we would call huge hunks) of sand and shellfish. We watched him ferociously gnaw his way through half of the 20 gram package before we collapsed in laughter reading the label: “Excess intake may enhance thyroid function. Recommended max daily intake of 5g.”

Enter the Dutch pancakes. In an attempt to cleanse the seaweed palate and make up for the Natural Food Store’s try at a carrot muffin, we made a final stop at our neighborhood street food market.

We stood outside the Camden Market and ordered a large plate of 15 Dutch pancakes with powdered sugar for the 4 of us to share. It’s hard not to feel grateful for your little tribe when you are standing cheek to cheek over a plate of doughy goodness, toothpicks in hand, and no one wants to take the last few for fear of taking more than their fair share. Overcome with a feeling of love that is hard to describe but sweeping in its power, when the plate was finally empty, I took it and dramatically poured it over one of my son’s head dusting him from head to toe in powdered sugar. It surprised me as much as it did them.

What under other circumstances might have been considered impulsive or embarrassing was received in the spirit given. They all laughed. Hard. Then much later..

At 10:30pm the five of us were sitting around the dinner table, stuffed. The kitchen sink was filled was just about every pot I own. The mess could wait for the morning because …

At 9pm my 10 year old was explaining his starter dish. How he and his 19 year old brother had soaked almonds in water and used them along with several other ingredients to make a vegan Caesar dressing and how they added pomegranate seeds for color to their dish. The extra flourish was not entirely a surprise because …

At 8pm when my husband walked in the door from work, he was instructed to both “not look” and also to please clean out the food processor because it was needed for main dish preparations where silken tofu featured. By that time, I had already answered a steady stream of questions ranging from “how to take the paper off the garlic” to “where that’s thing you mix with.” But no question is too many when …

At 7pm you find yourself watching your 14 year old carefully chop 600g of tomatoes for a Prawns & Scallops with Tomato & Feta main dish and you think – oh my gosh, this. is. heaven. I’m in the kitchen with my three boys and they are not just here but they are here and fully invested. And this time, they didn’t say “Ok, yes, and sure” – they responded with “YES! YES! YES!” And all your cookbooks are scattered on the dining room table to prove it. This collective YES that started …

At 5pm when my 10 year old and I, working off our Dutch pancakes, were riding bikes and I sent this spontaneous but expectant text to his brothers: “Master Chef Competition tonight. Team Kate/Colin vs Team Quinn/Lawton. Salad and main. Dad will be the judge. Get the cookbooks out.” So when both teams were headed out the door 30 minutes later in opposite directions to different grocery stores with ambitious plans, I wasn’t thinking I might have a teenage chef in the making … I was thinking …

That feeling I had when I poured the powdered sugar over my son’s head. They felt it too. And now they were christening me back.

It’s not a mystery that the soundtrack of love still plays on ordinary days. Most days we don't hear it but some days we hear it and on very special days, we hear it together with the ones we are trying our best to love.

The Downside of Moving to a New City

Life in a new city, where people may know your name but nobody knows your maiden name, can be lonely.  When every interaction you have is with someone you’ve only had a few previous interactions with, it can feel a bit like an endless audition where you are waiting for a call back.  And really who of us wants to be auditioning during perimenopause, which if spoken out loud is as good as labeling yourself not just hormonal but also a hypochondriac.  You sometimes just want the ease of being around someone who already knows your kids names (and loveable quirks and yours too) and knows the way to be a forever friend is through a competitive game of ping pong (where I win, but it’s close.) 

The process of making all new friends simply takes time and that time is further protracted when you live in a big city like London.  Spending 3.5 hours of transit time like I did recently so your kid can have a 4 hour playdate with a new friend demonstrates the hard realities of navigating new friendship in a big city.  You want to say "yes" to every invitation but you'd also like to make it home by dinner.  It’s a known downside to this otherwise exciting life.  This is one of those weeks where I’ve felt it more than others.  I know I will “get there” with some of the wonderfully warm people I’ve already met (and more still to meet) but it’s not like college (or even a small community like Luxembourg) where insta-friendship develops because you’re all in the same boat together. 

My feeling of impatience this week probably has something to do with my husband being gone for 8 days sending gorgeous pictures from Tokyo and having spent time with an old friend who knew me when … back when I used to see the world in mostly black and white and who understands and shares the world I now see in more color.  

Common wisdom teaches us that gratitude is good for our mental and physical health.  It has helped this week. Normally we practice gratitude as a transactional checklist of things to be thankful for but this week there have been two things that keep bubbling to the surface, providing a kind of extended release of gratitude.  Better than any endorphin surge after a long run or sip of perfectly crisp Sauvignon Blanc.  

The first thing that happened this week was when I was working at the homeless Shelter.  The woman who runs the Shelter asked me if I wouldn’t mind popping upstairs to where they distribute clothing to see if there was an extra backpack.  She wanted to give the backpack to a young, immigrant woman who was new to the shelter and carrying several plastic bags.   As I don’t normally do the clothing, I had to be directed where to go.  Upstairs they take guests one at a time every Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday to fit them for up to three new articles of clothing.  When I got upstairs, they were just finishing up with an older gentleman guest who I knew from the breakfast line.  He was beaming as the proud owner of a new suit, one to replace the ratty sport coat he had on and to keep company with his worn-out fedora.  As I watched the volunteer neatly putting the suit back in its protective cover while another volunteer went in search of a backpack, I recognized the Nordstrom label on the cover.  It was my husband’s suit.  I had brought it in weeks before.  Of all the Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays,  I was summoned to bear witness at the exact moment where my husband’s simple act of giving joined with real, heart-pumping, human need.   It sent a shiver up my spine. 

And then …I returned downstairs with a small, very dingy backpack.   In route to deliver the backpack to the young, immigrant woman I was stopped by one of the regular guests – an English woman who has been on the streets awhile and who fills a space with her loud and occasionally combative personality.   She looked at the small backpack and the young woman’s overflowing plastic bags and led me to where she was sitting. There I watched her empty her much larger, much newer backpack and put her stuff into the too small, soiled backpack and told me to give the woman her backpack instead: “It’s an Adidas backpack!  It has much more room for her.”  This time I was bearing witness to a more costly act of giving, done without a flicker of hesitation.  The young woman’s need was greater than her own and so she did what she could.  As the middle woman, I wasn’t even one of the actors in this story and yet this story keeps filling me up and quietly asking me if I am doing all that I can. 

The second thing that happened this week was getting a text from my 14 year old son.   He’s been charting out routes on the Tube and photographing new stops as a kind of hobby.   As most of our text communication is short and informational, it was the length of the text that first got my attention.  Knowing that this was the same child who not so long ago had bouts of anxiety, it was the content of his text that keeps filling me up.   Here’s what he texted: “I’ve never been more happy and relaxed in my life, I’m sitting down on a bench in the bright sun at Cockfosters station at the end of the Piccadilly line.  I’m watching trains arrive and depart and there’s not a soul around plus not another hour or so until my practice.  Also got 4 new stops, loving it!”

I’ve read his text several times this week.   As most of us parents do, we wish not just for our children’s happiness but that they are able to find deep contentedness.  Part of that journey toward a contentedness that isn't tied to accomplishment or experiences is learning how to be “alone in the bright sun without a soul around.“ Which is, interestingly enough, where this post started.  

Our kids can be our best teachers.    So can bearing witness as a middle woman or man.  I have this feeling that maybe I haven’t been doing all that I can.  Of course there is more I could be doing.  Instead of waiting for a call back, I can make a call or send a text.  This week I heard the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr say that he prays for one good humiliation a day so he can watch his reaction to it.   Moving to a new city makes that prayer comes true without even having to pray it.   So now that I am at the end of this week, I can say that I’ve had way more than 4 new interactions with people --and several well timed texts and calls even today -- and thanks to my son’s good advice, I am choosing to love it!  

Portraits, Porridge and Lessons from a Homeless Shelter

A guy I recently met, Pedro, sketched this too kind portrait of me.   With sculpted eyebrows and visible cheek bones, the portrait is a more complimentary take on what I look like in person.   It also makes me look way more serious than I really am (I thought for sure I was smiling most of the time!) and curiously like I’m wearing overalls.

Likewise, this post has the potential to be self-congratulatory and overly serious without a bit of context.  So … in keeping it real:  1)  I am wearing a blue disposable apron.  2) I know many people for whom service and volunteering is as natural as breathing.  I’m not one of them.  I’m one of those people in a new city with disposable time on their hands.  3) Pedro is an artist and also homeless.

Every Wednesday I volunteer along with about a dozen other regular volunteers in a day center shelter for the homeless which serves anywhere between 75 and 100 guests.   The shelter is in a beautiful old church with high ceilings and stained glasses windows, an equal to the opulence of the neighborhood it resides in.  On Wednesdays and Fridays, the pews are moved round to make room for tables, seating areas with couches, a coffee bar, a ping pong table, an art corner.  It's a place to hang out, charge phones, borrow a computer, read the newspaper, sleep and eat a big breakfast.  Twice a week the church becomes a big, aromatic, very much lived-in living room without another analog in the neighborhood.

Wednesdays have become one of the highlights of my week.  Actually that’s not entirely true.  The first week was magical.  It was as if I walked into a place where I knew I was supposed to be.  I fit right in with the other volunteers, got the easy job of serving sausages, and felt welcomed by the guests I was supposed to be serving.  The first week one of the more sociable guests asked me: “So what skill do you bring?  Do you cut hair?  Or help people find jobs?” to which, because I was buzzing with delight in having found my place, answered, “Nothing really --- except maybe my smile.”  It seemed enough of an answer for him and a good enough reason to come back the second week.

The second week was all topsy turvy.  I realized that some people who I thought were guests were actually volunteers and vice versa.  I was doing that thing we do where we assess people based on appearance and other external factors and came to discover I had gotten several people wrong.   In a way though, that discovery was like a whack-a-mole reminding me that the line between who is giving and who is receiving is a thin one.  We all are on different sides of that line at different times. 

The third week security had to ask a few guests who smuggled alcohol in to leave.  In truth, that probably happened my first week too but I hadn’t noticed it then.  I was so mesmerized by the light shining in through the windows, my being “of service” that I missed the messiness of sharing a big, aromatic lived-in living room with people who don’t have a living room every day of the week. I didn’t see how even among the homeless, people cluster with their own kind and how there are cliques.

Homelessness is a complex issue without easy fixes.  Of course, I knew that the first week but as the weeks wear on, the knowing moves from your head to your heart.  The more you learn about the guests, the more you start to understand the host of reasons people get stuck.  Other weeks I’ve had the hard job of serving the scrambled eggs, the most popular item that always runs out first.  I’m easily persuaded to serve too generous a portion on the first helping to those who ask, as if scrambled eggs served with a smile will somehow tidy over the despair in their eyes.  But then I remember that I told James the first week that I’ve brought my smile, my contribution, and I can’t let up even when my heart is weighted down by what I see.  I’m getting better at telling the few pushy ones to wait for seconds.

The shelter is a messy place where sadness doesn't have a lot of places to hide.   I’ve had meaningful conversations with people, bizarre conversations with people, funny conversations with people.  I’ve had a heated conversation with someone where a young woman volunteer with Down’s Syndrome hugged both of us and told us she loved us with every volley of the conversation.  I’ve witnessed outright, hurtful racism.  I’ve witnessed simple acts of friendship. 

I’ve seen one of the guests in a completely different part of town on a park bench, who I warmly greeted, only to be shaken awake realizing that might be his living room for the night.  But then I saw him again the following Wednesday and we didn’t talk about where he slept that night.  We talked about Seattle; a place he once visited, and had he possible met me there in 1993? I told him it was unlikely.  What I didn’t tell him is my 1993 eyes didn’t have the same focus to see people like him.

Every Wednesday after breakfast it looks as if the crusted over porridge pot will never get clean.  Even after a hot soak, the layers of burned on porridge seem too much for the best elbow grease.  But every week the impossible happens.   A volunteer, of various strengths and sizes, muscles their way through the sticky porridge pot and it comes out looking shiny and new.  A couple of weeks ago, my oldest son who was visiting from college and came to the shelter with me, got his turn with the porridge pot. 

Last week I offered to do the washing up but another volunteer said he would wash if I dried.  Different than me, this volunteer was once a guest, obviously in a very sticky life situation I only know vague details about.   Watching him wash up as we talked, making it look more effortless than I’ve experienced it to be, I was reminded that people are like pots.   We all have layers of burned on crust but with the right mix of desperation, determination, and daring – the impossible can and does happen.  None of us are too far gone to be returned into something shiny and new.

So great, you love London, but what about the kids?

We’ve been living in London for almost 3 months now.  I’ve been pretty vocal about how much I love living here.  The question I’m always asked next is how the kids have adjusted to the move.  As today is Colin’s 14th birthday, it seemed like a good time to answer that question.

The answer is that the adjustment has been incredibly smooth.  For both boys.  Really smooth.  I say this with sensitivity as I know moves are usually not smooth on kids and with humility as we've had our fair share of un-smooth parenting years.  Aside from the occasional grumbling, we’ve registered few complaints and very little discontent on any front.  There’s been no day where it’s been a struggle to go to school (except maybe a weak plea on Rugby game days), not one tear shed about the move or missing Luxembourg, and recent school conferences and reports have confirmed a very positive start for both boys.  As we told Lawton, “Different School, Same Student” to which he perceptibly replied in reference to his brother, “Different School, Better Student.”  

We fully expected some churn with a new city, new school, new school system and approach to education, new uniform, new teams, no car, etc, etc.  Our move to Luxembourg certainly wasn’t this easy and I fully expect the natural bumps of life to show up here in London too.  But I’ve been thinking about why the transition itself has gone smoothly and I’ve identified several things that have likely contributed:

A second move is naturally easier than the first.   You know better what to expect and you’ve practiced the skills needed to learn a new place and system.  You hope a move grows some adaptability muscles in your kid and it’s cool when you see get to see them flex those muscles when they’re uprooted and replanted again.  Luxembourg was wildly different from Seattle but London is less different and in some ways a natural bridge back for them between European and US culture.

Their ages are right in the sweet spot for living in an urban city.   At 10 and 14 years old, they have just enough control of their bodies and reasoned thinking to make navigating a city manageable.    More importantly, they seem to have understood – with wisdom beyond their years -- that this move was both an opportunity for Brett’s career and our family.   We sometimes assume our kids don’t see the bigger picture but it’s surprising how willing they can be to go along for the ride when they sense that ride is something their parents feel called to.  It probably helps too that they see how happy Brett and I are being here. 

The sibling relationship is a fickle thing but my boys picked the very best moment to decide to be each other’s best friend.  This move would have been much different if they didn’t have each other to lean on and if they didn’t genuinely enjoy each other and share some interests. They were looking forward to finally having their own rooms when we moved here, and even though they do, they are back to essentially sharing a room.

Their new school is so vastly different from their old school and that helps them from constantly comparing.   While the boys would still tell you they miss and prefer their old International school in Luxembourg, they speak of it with nostalgia and not pining.  Things look good in the rear view mirror and that is healthy.   The things they like about their new school are different than their old school and while Lawton in particular wishes for more friends, he seems to also understand that they will come with time.

Finally, we have a Virtual Village of friends who care and pray for us and I believe have carried our boys through what easily could have been a different transition.  Hard transitions grow muscles too but apparently those weren’t the ones we needed this time.  If you were part of that Virtual Village, thank you.