Saturday, February 7, 2009

The Mississippi's Mighty and it Starts in Minnesota...

The tiny folks and I have returned from Minnesota, and I now sit in my Atlanta living room with a blanket and a laptop to warm my lower half, despite the fact that it was 67 degrees today. This is where I am supposed to complain about Minnesota's subfreezing temperatures and the bizarre way that my nostrils froze when loading the car in -13 weather, but ... I'm not going to do that. It wouldn't be right. Or accurate. Truth be told - and I want to get this over with at the start of this post - the weather was not only bearable, it was actually lovely.

Granted, there was a 50 degree temperature difference from one day to the next, but that just meant we could stay out for longer than 20 minutes. So, Minnesotans? I'm on to you. You get to make snowmen and go ice fishing, and turn your baseball fields into skating rinks and go sledding and snowmobiling. You *enjoy* winter. Actually, you enjoy all four seasons, and when spring comes, you rejoice, just like the rest of us. So, take your mittens, wool socks and down vests and your quiet understanding that you've kind of got it made and leave the rest of us two-and-a-half seasons, unprepared for anything other than the heat of summer folks alone. We'll just keep on thinking that you're crazy to live in a place that's as dry as the Sahara and as cold as Siberia. You can Minnesota-nice us into thinking we're right - or, at very least - not wrong. But I'll know.

I'll know.

The boys and I arrived with enough stuff to make Okies think: "Wow. Too much. You could have picked up some of that later, you know?" We banged through the Atlanta and Minneapolis airports with three humans, a stroller, two backpacks, a purse, a carry-on, coats, snacks, and (the straw that broke the mama's back) two carseats. Fortunately, I wheezed my way into the consciences of passers-by, and with a lot of kindness and compassion from strangers, we made it onto our plane and to the rental car place with relative ease. There was a brief moment where I had to run relays against myself once I picked up our massive suitcase from baggage claim and race to plunk stuff (i.e. carseats and the boys in the stroller) down about 20 feet ahead, retreat to gather what had been left (i.e. everything else) and continue forward. It was more than pathetic, and my entire left side was so bruised that I looked like I'd been in a horrible paintball accident, but we made it.

Aunty K, Maisy and Owen met us at the Hertz counter, and with a few more gymnastic feats to get two families and two Okie-loads of stuff into a single mini-van, we were on our way to the Arc Retreat center, which is about an hour north of St. Paul. The "I haven't seen you in 8 months!" jitters wore off by the time we hit the freeway, and by the time we sat down for dinner, it was as if no time had passed.

The last time we saw them was in May and Cooper was just into the real-live-person phase of his childhood, and was something of a novelty to Owen. This made Cooper a rockin' new playmate, and a total bonus friend that came with buddy Jackson. Back in May, my Goddaughter, Maisy, was a cute, little, immobile baby and has since developed into a talking, walking person of tiny adorabilty. Truly, everyone should have to spend time with an 19 month old. They're like joy and delight personified, but they also take great naps and say cute things like, "Bakywardigicans froot snaks, Peese!" On the down side, they irritate computer spell-checker programs when quoted. Ah, well. We all have our flaws.

The kids quickly settled into a routine of life and play together. Owen and Jackson were the older dudes who determined the level of involvement of any other playmates. For Maisy, this was completely fine, as she was content to come and go as she pleased. For Cooper, he scrapped around most of the week trying to stay included. Since the Mamas put the kabosh on all action figures and there was no media other than a CD player that ran instrumental Celtic spirituality songs, the boys and baby were left to their imaginations and ... a tent. Aunty K brought a perfectly sized tent that we put in the upstairs loft space. It instantly became a space ship, a rocket, a car, the Millennium Falcon, the rental van. And it defined the "who's in" and "who's out" dynamic of their play.

Incredibly enough, everyone was really "in." Cooper was either too oblivious or too determined to let the big boys get him down for long. He had the added benefit of sleeping in the tent with Jackson each night, so he had some proprietary ground to stand on when it came to belonging. Other than a few typical skirmishes, these babies of ours found a way to be in community together without leaving anyone out - at least not for too long.

For those of you who parent, I'm sure you know how difficult it is to do it alone. I find that when it's just me for any length of time, I get irritable, impatient and very snippy. I'm also crazy apologetic and overly permissive. Throwing two families together, but eliminating the second parent of each family could have been a recipe for friendship destruction. But, it's part of why Aunty K is the sister I would have if I could pick one out all by myself. We parent alike, we balance each other, our children respect each of our authority (she literally had Cooper putting himself in time-out after whacking Jackson on the arm; this is no small feat). We also gave each other a little bit of alone time during the days to work or nap, as the need arose. (I opted for napping.) We've joked that when we're together with the gaggle of children, suddenly polygamy makes a little more sense. (HA!) There's another mama to wipe noses and tie shoes and load dishes and bake brownies with just enough gooey in the center. Okay - maybe it's not polygamy that we're replicating, but some form of communal parenting. Perhaps it's simpler (and less likely to become a reality show) to say that having another set of maternal hands sure was helpful.

Our days went like this: we stayed in the cottage that was a short walk from the main retreat lodge. We had breakfast and dinner at the cottage, which the kids all called, "The Cabin in the Woods." Aunty K's brilliant wake-up light would signal that it was okay for the long since-awake kids to exit their beds at 6:15 a.m.

Wait. Let me stop here. Have I told you yet about Aunty K's magic talking light? She saw this contraption online about a year ago, and thought it would be a perfect solution to her childrens' early rising times. She was so sleep deprived that she almost shelled out the nearly $80 for the light, and no one would have blamed her. After a good nap and some strong coffee, or a whisper from the Holy Spirit, she realized that a simple timer and Christmas candle would do the same thing for literally 1/20 of the cost. During the week, we set it for wake-up times, rest times, and sleep times. I can't tell you how hilariously simple this idea is, and how marvelously effective it was to give them all some structure. So, the older boys would stay in the tent until the light went on, and then they would leap about as if magic had played a role in freeing them from rest-time confines. It was marginally effective in the morning - even though it was set for 6:15 a.m. CST - everyone was up well before that. Everyone but me, that is. I would wallow for another 2-10 minutes and pray that no one noticed. As long as I mumbled down some answers to questions: "Sure, bear! You can have cerelmfnnazzzzzzzzzz...", I felt like I was still participating. Downstairs, everyone else would be eager to re-greet each other with a refreshing newness and instant comfort of activities that remained to be completed from the day before. The boys built creations with legos, Maisy ate the first of at least 3 breakfasts, and we were all fed and dressed by 7:30.

Aunty K gave me some time each morning to go to the lodge for some grown-up conversation and breakfast. The staff offered a silent prayer service for 20 minutes at 8 a.m., and I went one day, only to find that silent prayer services are not for me. You may argue that this could mean that it's exactly what I need, but I'll argue back. It just wasn't for me. My guilt over leaving my dearest friend with our four children in a cottage by herself while I sat in silence made that time less than illuminating. Granted, she gave me this time for free, but I could think of hundreds of ways that I could have used it, and only 999 of them were "more sleep."

At 11:00 each day, we'd make piles of winter clothes on the floor and bundle up all the folks for some outside sledding time before lunch. It took us 30 minutes to get them ready for a 20 minute excursion, but it was so worth it. After cramming chubby arms into jackets, tiny bird legs into snow pants, wobbly ankles into boots, fingers into mittens, necks into scarves, heads into hats, and cameras into pockets, we were finally ready to head out. The road from the cottage to the lodge was the perfect incline for some bunny-hill sledding with novices. I should admit that "novices" include me. I have never, ever in my whole entire life been sledding. We got plenty of snow when I was a kid, and despite my ownership of an authentic Flexible Flyer sled with steel runners, I could never really use it. We never packed down the snow enough for it to move. Ah, the travails of living in the south. I could spend the rest of this blog just posting sledding pictures (all of which are available here), but I'll offer some narrative with them.

Like everything in our successful week in the woods, we developed a routine for sledding. Owen would go first, with Jackson running behind him. J would gleefully drag the sled back up the hill, and then he would go down, and drag the sled back up. Some combination of Cooper/Jackson/me would sled down, and Jackson would drag the sled back up. We made one attempt to send Maisy down, and she made it about 9 feet before we stopped her and her sorrowful cries. J dragged the sled back up. You see how it went. It was really fun, and kept us outside long enough to turn all of our cheeks into perfect, red circles.

We would head to the lodge at 11:45 and untangle ourselves from the masses of down and wool. In our socked feet, we would head upstairs to the main dining room of the lodge, and enjoy incredible and simple meals of homemade bread, delicious hot soup, and crisp salads. After consuming piles of warm bread with butter and honey, we would stuff ourselves with cookies and milk, pouring bengal spice tea into the last available spaces in our bellies, and would head outside to the snow labyrinth that a staff member had carefully carved into an open space. The older boys first caught sight of this when looking out the massive picture window of the lodge. They had been entranced with a large, shallow bowl on the coffee table that contained a little water and a few stones. Aunty K taught them how to remember their baptisms, and J even took a moment to help me remember mine. Stunning, no?

The babiest of babies needed a nap right after lunch, so I would keep the older ones with me at the snow labyrinth. Owen and Jackson were surprisingly respectful of this space and its intent. I tried to teach them about how it was like our journey with God, and sometimes we walk closer to the center, and sometimes we're very far away. But, a simple turn can bring us back closer than we might have ever imagined. I don't know if they got the metaphor, but they trekked with purpose and intent each day after lunch to this place and followed it to the center and back out in near silence, with only a few attempts to rush their journey to the center. So, pretty much, they're spiritual geniuses.

The afternoon led to naps for most of us and books on tape for O and J in the tent in the loft. At the chime, they patiently turned each page of The Magic Tree House, Peace and Pancakes, and other beloved tales while waiting for the candle to ignite. Once it did, all bets were off, and they would whoop with joy and begin re-enacting some form of Star Buzz Lightyear Wars. We would take some time to read The Stinky Cheese Man, just to give them something to joke about other than underpants and poop.

Kara spent the afternoons at the lodge working on stuff for Sunday, and when she returned, she would set the table for dinner, warm the food that had already been brought to us, and I would transform into TICKLE MONSTER, Lord of all Hilarity. She's got some great photos of all four kiddos lying on the floor, waiting for their turn to be tickled, but mostly the boys ran in circles around the downstairs space and waited for me to capture them. This was definitely time for them to get their ya-yas out, and resulted in at least one late-afternoon game of Twister one night. Sadly, no photos exist, and it has nothing to do with the fact that my bum would have been prominently displayed in all of them.

After dinner, we would pajama-up and read a chapter from Laura Ingalls Wilder's Little Cabin in the Woods, and only had to skip over details in one chapter that was about a panther attacking Laura's great-grandfather. Funny - I loved that whole series when I was a girl. Laura Ingalls Wilder was always my answer to the "Dead or alive - with whom would you want to have a conversation?" question (right after Jesus, that is. Incidentally, I'm contractually obligated to say Jesus to any and all questions relating to my personal preference or whose leadership style to I strive to emulate. Servant leaders: Unite!). I don't remember being terrified of these stories. The one freaky one was about Laura (or Mary?) nearly drowning in the creek. But clearly, I worked my way through it.

Once all the kiddos were in their beds (or tents), Aunty K and I spent the lovely, long evenings at the dining room table with piles of liturgical resources, hymnals, and wine. We worked on ideas for Lent and more ideas for the upcoming Sunday. We planned worship and talked through sermons. We caught up in longer-than-30-second bursts, and it made the day feel somehow balanced, and we even got to work through her church's website, which you should totally check out here: Lake Nokomis Presbyterian Church.

The week went shockingly quickly. I couldn't believe it when Friday rolled around and we found ourselves loading the van and watching Jackson vacuum the living room (that kid has a gift). The huge motivator for all of us was a trip to the world-famous Pannekoeken Huis, which serves the most delicious and authentic puffed pancakes. Kara gave me her recipe for pannekoeken years ago, and one Saturday out of four, it will substitute for our standard pancake day. My blogmother, Catherine Newman, posted a pannekoeken recipe recently, and I made sure to comment and remind her that she left out the most important part: melt butter in the pan, then add thinly sliced apples and crumbles of brown sugar before pouring on the batter. You'll thank me later.

The afternoon meant that the boys got to reconnect with their toys and favorite shows. We made sort of a dumb decision to head to Target at 3:30 on a Friday. With four children. Who haven't napped much. Or eaten recently. It was awesome. With a lot of key-jangling and distraction techniques, we managed to get out of the store with provisions for dinner, milk, milk and more milk, and snacks for the Super Bowl without huge tantrums or massive meltdowns. A light snow fluttered around us as we packed back into the Minivan and finished our first day back in town.

Kara and I celebrated an easy bedtime with grown up drinks and a viewing of "The Soup," and the most recent episode of "The Flight of the Conchords." Feeling warm and bouyant, we crashed at 9:30 or so. Saturday brought pancakes, and time for Aunty K to finish her sermon while I partied with the kidlings in the morning. Owen was so delighted to be back home with his stuff that he and Jackson hardly emerged from his room the entire time. J suited-up as Buzz Lightyear for the morning, and I dressed Maisy in her fanciest of fancy clothes while I had free reign of her wardrobe, and Cooper spent time running near and far away from Kirby and Kimmel, the dogs of the house. Kara returned, brilliant sermon in hand (please, please, please read it here - click on "God of All"; you'll be so glad you did. You'll never hear this scripture the same way again.), and we proceeded to do what we do best: lunch.

When Kara and I were in the infancy of our friendship, we would spend afternoons together after our baby swim class with the 12 week old boys we'd produced. They would conk out quickly, and leave us 12-90 minutes to make lunch. It became the highlight of my week, those Wednesdays. I would hunt for good lunch recipes, shop days ahead of time, and look forward to her oatmeal chocolate chip cookies dunked in hot coffee with cream. The meals we made were never replicable in my own setting. There was something special and remarkably simple about the ingredients that we used and the resulting feast of deliciousness. We made salmon cakes on baby greens, tuna salads with kalmata olives and roasted red peppers. Any good idea I had about lunch was instantly made better by one of her suggestions. "This would be great with basil!" She would observe. And she was always right. So, we got a chance to work our chemical romance in the kitchen and made the best kinds of lunches that involved apples, red peppers, candied walnuts and bleu cheese, or pasta, with parrano cheese, salami and tomatoes. Balsamic vinegar is the secret to all good succesful cooking, and it was used with abundance.

By the time everyone woke up on Saturday afternoon, the temperature had skyrocketed up 50 degrees from the day before. FIFTY. It was a stunning 43 outside, and we loaded up the kiddos into the wagon and trundled with mamas, kids and dogs to nearby College Park. If it's not famous, it should be. If you have ever pictured a scene from Garrison Kiellor's Lake Woebegon Days that involved massive sledding hills, bundled couples walking mitten in glove, squeals of delighted, above-average children and recipe swapping by kind and well-meaning mamas, then you've seen College Park. It's surrounded by huge, beautiful homes, sidewalks, gorgeous stone churches, and lovely neighbors. Here is a photo from the spring of Jackson and Owen racing down the hill and into the basin of the park, next to a photo taken in the approximate location 8 months later:

This was the most beautiful day Winter could have produced. It was warm enough to be outside for long periods of time, but cool enough that the snow didn't seem like an anomaly. The boys and I spent most of our time sledding down the hill, and running Cooper to discreet places to urinate in the snow. Ah, motherhood.

Sunday, we headed to Lake Nokomis for church. In ministry, it is rare to have the chance to see your colleagues in action, since we all work at the exact same time. This is why I missed Owen's baptism - which is a decision I sorely regret. But, church is church and as all preachers know, it comes relentlessly and predictably at the same time each week. But, this week, we loaded up the rental van with dapper children, mugs of delicious coffee in hand, and got to church in plenty of time. I can't tell you enough about how great Kara's sermon was (did I mention you should READ IT HERE? Just checking...), and how age-inclusive the congregation is. During the hymns, the children pick instruments out of a basket and play as the congregation sings. I credit Cooper with starting a parade.

It was a wonderful morning, and we all sort of crashed into a funk in the afternoon, which is typical for pastors on Sundays. But, I think it was also everyone's way of saying, "I'm sad to go, but also kind of ready. I don't want to think about saying goodbye." We fumbled through the afternoon, and somehow managed to get all the tiny ones in bed by 6:45, just in time for the last half of the Super Bowl, which I understand was quite good. Kara and I spent most of the time with the volume on mute and looking through our photos from the week, which are instant classics.

The boys and I were packed and ready to go the next morning, and we said goodbye after a final portrait session. We banged our way back through the Minneapolis airport, and were welcomed by Cindy's minivan chariot, which had arrived to take us home. Surrounded on all sides by loving and kind friends, it did feel good to be home. But, there's nowhere quite like Minnesota.

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