Crying over lost chicken

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Two nights ago I went to bed quite late after a lovely family movie night (Moana), and found myself sobbing over a small stuffed chicken. I’d been losing sleep over chicken all week long, ever since we’d been unable to find him as we left for school on Monday, but this was the first time I’d cried about it. I lay there in bed fully cognizant that it was, frankly, ridiculous that I was crying over a lost toy when there were so many more horrible things going on in the world that were worthy of tears, but I couldn’t stop.

Parenthood is so strange and complicated and powerful. I become more and more aware of all of the baggage (both useful and burdensome) that we carry with us from our own childhoods, and even things that our own parents carried into ours. I have a thing about stuffed animals, I always have. I struggle mightily to view them like other toys and to this day if someone steps on one I wince and want to rescue it. I can’t explain this phenomenon exactly, and honestly I wish it weren’t the case. I’ve always hated The Velveteen Rabbit (do any children truly enjoy that story? Do adults?), and when we became parents I tried to avoid stuffed animals, because I knew that once we had them I’d never be able to get rid of them. But then everyone else started buying the kids stuffed animals and now we have dozens that no one plays with stuffed into bins and cradles all over the house.

Jonah never really got attached to a particular stuffed creature; he didn’t really have a comfort item per se (well, besides me). But Jude and Vivi like dolls and stuffed things more, and when Jude got this small yellow chicken in his Easter basket from Grandma Sue this past spring, he took to it. He’s taken it to school on a number of occasions, it travels with us, and he sleeps with it often (though he’s perfectly able to sleep without it, so it isn’t the kind of comfort item that many children end up with). He doesn’t necessarily ask for it every day, but he has been known to say, “I love chicken so much,” and it’s as adorable as it sounds.

When we went to Northern Michigan this past August, chicken came with us. When we stopped to eat lunch in a town somewhere between Traverse City and Mackinaw City, Jude insisted on bringing chicken in and somehow we left him. We were about 20 minutes away when suddenly, from the back seat, Jude yelled, “chicken!” There was panic in his voice. We turned around immediately, called the restaurant, and they retrieved chicken from the table and kept him safe for us until we got back.

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Chicken was probably just out of this shot, sitting on the table in the foreground.

When chicken turned up missing this week, I kept thinking of that restaurant and Jude’s panicked realization from his car seat. I also thought about my green pillow. When I was tiny I had a small green pillow (known just as “green pillow” much like chicken is simply “chicken”) that I took everywhere.

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I know, I look just like Jonah.

When I was still quite small it was lost somehow. Every night when my parents put me to bed I would ask them to look for green pillow, and they would assure me that they would; this must have gone on for months. I don’t know whether they actually looked for it, but probably not because I believe they told me eventually that it was left at a hotel. My parents have talked about this loss for as long as I can remember, but I don’t think that I’ve ever asked them how they felt as I went through it.

My dad has been writing these stories for me lately, memories from his youth about all sorts of things. (I’ll write about that another time, but it’s via Storyworth and it’s wonderful). I’ve noticed in his stories that seemingly small things, anecdotes that others might breeze past, still carry tremendous hurt for him.

We travelled to Kentucky Dam Village at Kentucky Lake and stayed in a cabin Tuesday night before heading to Iowa on Wednesday after breakfast. I recall this because we kids were given the opportunity to buy a souvenir of our trip. I picked out a straw hat with a red plaid hat band with the rim turned up all around. Not your typical souvenir but it was what I wanted. I think we bought it on Tuesday. Wednesday morning we had breakfast in a resort log type cabin restaurant that seemed similar to today’s Cracker Barrel but was a local establishment. We finished breakfast and hit the road for Iowa. I don’t remember how far we had gone when I realized I had left my hat at the restaurant, I just knew it was too far to go back.

Reading this broke my heart for the small boy in the story, and I can tell by the way my dad tells the story now that there’s something about childhood sadness in a moment like this that just hangs on and shapes you. There was this one too.

While in Peoria, I went fishing with my brother and sister and the other kids on the river and I caught my first fish. It was small but I was so proud. Bud and Frannie had just returned so everyone was at the cottage and I remember running up from the river to show everyone my catch. It was a small mouth bass and I recall Bud and my dad telling me it was too small and I should have thrown it back. My mother then pointed out to me that it was young and its mother was probably looking for it. I was crushed that I had taken this small child fish away from it’s mother for all eternity. I just bawled and ran out of the house and hid behind the large propane tank and cried and cried. I will never forget that day.

Do you ever wonder what your children will remember and what will truly shape them? My dad is so sensitive in such a beautiful way, and I know that I get a lot of my sensitivity from him. When he told me the fish story one day recently before having written it down, he cried. That moment hurt him so deeply as a young boy, and sometimes I’m overcome with fear that the mistakes I make with our kids may scar them in ways that never quite heal. I feel like I make at least a dozen potentially significant parenting mistakes every day.

I listened to a podcast awhile back (edit – found it thanks to Kristin) and the episode involved a scientist who also happens to be a parent. The scientist was talking about how much we change over time, not just in personality but every one of our cells. They were also talking about memory. We have memories of significant things that have shaped us, but every time we recall those memories we corrupt them in a way and they change ever so slightly. So even memories of our most significant times begin to change along with our cells. But memories from our very earliest years, we can’t recall those later in life. Most of us can’t remember anything from before the age of four or so. And so the researcher concluded that perhaps that’s one thing that stays with us as we grow. Those very early memories are incorruptible because we cannot recall them and inadvertently alter them, so perhaps they’re always there and always the same.

As the week wore on and chicken still hadn’t turned up, I felt heavier and heavier. Every day I’d comb the house again, go through baskets at preschool drop off just in case he’d been left there, ask the teachers to keep an eye out, and I started to worry that something terrible might have happened. Had he fallen out of the minivan and been left in a parking lot somewhere? With my stuffed animal neurosis that was more than I could take.

In families with multiple siblings it’s easy to feel like there isn’t a lot that truly belongs to the younger one(s), and that feels especially true when it comes to Jude. Vivi has such a big personality that she asserts herself and everyone knows what she likes and what makes her uniquely her. But Jude? He’s so easy going, so easy to please, and he’s happy to play with Jonah’s toys and take Jonah’s hand-me-downs, and to tag along with the things Vivi loves. There are so few things that seem truly special to Jude and that are his alone, and chicken was one of those few.  Despite the fact that Jude didn’t seem all that concerned about chicken’s absence (save for a tiny bit of upset on Monday), I could not let this go. Maybe in the back of my mind I knew that this was more about my baggage, my sensitivity, my worries about not giving enough of myself to each of my children, my attachments and losses, than it was about Jude’s. But I couldn’t let it go. An ocean of parental guilt washed over me when I thought that perhaps my carelessness had contributed to chicken’s disappearance.

At 11:30 on Friday night as I lay in bed sobbing there was no way that I was simply going to sleep. I got out of bed and grabbed a flashlight and began looking everywhere, again. Kristin seemed bewildered by my emotional state and need to find chicken, but she was incredibly gracious and took up the search alongside me. I went out to the van, I searched the basement again, Kristin searched our bedroom closet and Jude and Jonah’s drawers, we both went back into Vivi’s room where Vivi and Jude were sleeping (and where chicken is most of the time) and started going through everything again in the dark. I put my hand inside of the blankets at the bottom of Vivi’s mattress and felt something fuzzy: chicken. I pulled him out, whispered to Kristin, and then collapsed into her lap and cried.

Is this even the tip of the heartbreak-iceberg for any of our children’s lives to come? Of course not, so it’s the sort of episode that makes me wonder if my heart is even cut out for something as emotionally wrenching as parenting. Glennon Doyle Melton has a quote that I love: “We think our job as humans is to avoid pain, our job as parents is to protect our children from pain, and our job as friends is to fix each other’s pain. Maybe that’s why we all feel like failures so often – because we all have the wrong job description for love.” I know that I can’t protect my children from pain, and that doing so wouldn’t really equip them for the world anyway, but it doesn’t stop me from wishing that I could. I hate to think that my oversensitivity might leave them sobbing over a stuffed creature at midnight decades from now, or that someday they’ll recall a mistake I made or words I chose poorly with tears in their eyes.

The next morning, Jude danced into the room where I lay in bed with Jonah. He was holding chicken and he was smiling, and in that moment everything felt lighter. One tiny crisis had been averted, only a million more to go.

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Are you thinking, “that’s definitely a duck, not a chicken”? We know. At some point it was decided that it’s a chick and that was the end of it.

Ghosts of Halloween past

It’s almost October, which means that we’re preparing to kick off some serious Halloween costume crafting. Back in late August, Jonah really wanted me to buy “spooky stuff” for the house, but it felt way too early even if we did put it all away till October. Then September raced by, and suddenly I realized that I only have five weekends till Halloween and I need to get cracking. Even though I’ve had a theme in mind for the kids’ costumes since March, this week I’ve been thinking a lot about the costumes we’ve done in the past, as well as some sources of inspiration.

I’ve mentioned before that Halloween was big in our house growing up. I grew up in a spectacular trick-or-treating neighborhood where, even now, folks say that you can easily hand out 700 pieces of candy by 6:30 p.m. My mom always made costumes for me and my sister, and my dad always took us around the neighborhood while my mom stayed back to keep the porch light on for the other trick-or-treaters. I don’t have vivid memories of my mom working on the costumes, but now that I do it for our kids I can only imagine that hours of work that she must have put in. My mom has a much more low-stress approach to crafts than I do (plus she’s crazy talented), so last year I loved being able to work on costumes with her at night (since we were living in their house).

Last year we did Octonauts, because the kids were all really into the show. I won’t elaborate on it because that one has its own post, but I wasn’t blogging in the years before that so I’ll share a few highlights from other Halloweens.

The previous year, Jonah set the theme by asking to be a John Deere tractor. I wasn’t really going to try to make him blend in with the equipment, so instead I sort of made him a tractor driver, or a farmer if you will. That led us naturally into a farm theme, so I made Jude a scarecrow and Vivi a chicken (a rooster, I suppose is more accurate).

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I didn’t document the process for any of these, but for the most part they were all pretty simple. Not quick, but simple. While it’s hard to tell from the photo, Jude’s overalls had patches sewn onto them, with straw sticking out from a number of places. I made his hat from burlap and twine, put him in a flannel shirt and called it a day. Vivi got a TON of attention while we trick-or-treated. Her costume was actually just a feather boa loosely tacked around a white long-sleeved bodysuit, orange leggings, and some baby shoes hot glued inside kitchen gloves. My mom helped us to make her little hat with the comb on top. Jonah had a diaper box painted in John Deere colors (no, I didn’t pull any Pantone or RGB codes, but I chose as closely as I could from memory), with reflective tape for headlights and tail lights. He seemed pretty pleased with the result.

The farm was actually our second year of diaper box costumes, since the previous year Jonah wanted to be a bulldozer (once again, I went for “bulldozer driver/construction worker”).

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I was pretty happy with the way this one turned out, especially since it was my first box costume. The bummer was that when it came time for trick-or-treating, he wouldn’t wear it. I carried it the entire time we were out. He only stepped inside once towards the end of the night to let me take a picture.

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The year before that was Jonah’s first Halloween. He was eleven months old and had just begun walking, but was still in that in-between place where crawling was much quicker. He was also too young to choose his costume, so I made him an octopus.

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I spent many an evening sewing buttons onto tights, and while he was too young to trick-or-treat, we did spend the evening with friends and I was proud of my efforts.

There are so many extraordinary costumes out there, and while none of mine have ever come close to that level of artistry or originality, there’s something important to me in the process of making them. Earlier this week I was actually looking up something Christmas-related and went back to a blog that was probably the thing that made me dream of blogging someday. While it doesn’t appear to be operational any longer, Sweet Juniper was one of the first blogs about parenting that I read hungrily, many years before I ever had children of my own. It was also a blog about Detroit, and a family that moved there from San Francisco, so while we were still firmly planted in New York it was a welcome glimpse of what it might be like to move away from a big city on the coast back to the Midwest of our youth. But maybe most of all it was a source of inspiration for the kind of parent I could only dream of being someday. It was written by a stay-at-home dad who created the most magical childhood for his daughter and son through exploration, endless curiosity, and a willingness to build or craft just about anything you can imagine. They were the kind of family that made all of their Christmas presents by hand (for real), so naturally their Halloween costumes were outstanding.

I hadn’t given much thought to Sweet Juniper in quite a long time, but as I poked around on it this week I realized what gratitude I owe that father for sharing his parenting adventures with the world. Even before becoming a mom I knew that creativity at that level was probably not in the cards for me, but I do have to say that parenthood has brought out my willingness to try, and to end up with something imperfect and maybe unimpressive, but to still feel great pride that I gave it a go.

This weekend Jonah and I have a date planned to shop for Halloween costume supplies, and he tells me that he’s going to help me this year. I’d worried that I hadn’t chosen costumes that are interesting or unique enough, but now I feel like maybe it’s the perfect year to let Jonah have some control of the process. Too often I’ve let perfectionism get in the way, but maybe what matters most is letting the kids see how much fun creation can be, no matter what we end up with.

The first weekend of “fall”

It’s been at least 90 degrees every day for the past week or so, which is ridiculous since the fall equinox was on Friday. Normally I love spending a good portion of our weekends outdoors, but the weather has been so unpleasant that I went into this weekend feeling a little bit grumpy because nothing sounded like much fun and we didn’t have a plan. I also knew that my 20th high school reunion was on Saturday night, and I wasn’t exactly looking forward to it. I was determined to make some family magic happen somehow because I needed to balance out what might be an awkward Saturday night.

Although Kristin was less than enthusiastic about baking in the sun, I dragged everyone to the beach on Saturday morning. Although I have no photos, we had a really wonderful time. We swam, we played in the sand while sitting at the water’s edge, we took the kids to a great playground, and then we headed back home to get ready for the evening. My reunion was actually more fun than I’d anticipated, but Jonah was up really late while we were gone, so we knew that we ought not make Sunday too busy. We did, however, manage to make it to the Fall Fest at the Nature Center (which, again, ninety degrees). We only caught the last hour, but it was a pretty hour and given the weather it was uncrowded. I managed to snap a few beautiful photos of the kids exploring.

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As we left (a little past closing time), I asked a staff member about a couple of terra cotta pots of cherry tomatoes that were sitting on a workbench by the entrance. “Take them,” he said, which thrilled Jude and Vivi because they pick those from the garden at school and the neighbor’s house across the street every chance they get. Then he gave the kids a golf cart ride to the parking lot just because. Jude and Vivi ate tomatoes the whole ride home.

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I don’t know why I get so worried about not squeezing enough quality time and joy into our weekends. I guess the time just goes by so quickly and I see the kids growing faster than I can believe. Somehow though, most weekends at least, it all works out better than I could have imagined.

A snapshot from school

The teachers at the kids’ preschool take a lot of photos throughout the day, and they post them on Shutterfly for parents to view with a login. Last year I clicked through them periodically and asked Jonah who everyone was and what was going on in each one, but there were so many and most were unremarkable, so most of the time I didn’t even bother. This year they’ve started tagging kids in them, however, which is a lot more efficient. Yesterday I got an email that our kids had been tagged in photos, and when I clicked through I found such a wonderful image. It captured everything that I love about our school and made me so happy that we decided to keep them there this year, despite the cost.

Our preschool operates on a modified Montessori model, which we love, but what we love most is the outdoor space. The kids have tremendous freedom to explore and create and get dirty and take reasonable risks. I find the idea of forest preschools and even eccentric playgrounds like this one somewhat inspiring, and while nothing quite that edgy exists around here (to my knowledge) the freedom of the outdoor play at our preschool is largely why we chose it.

Back to the photo; I won’t share it here because it has other kids in it and I don’t have permission, so I’ll do my best to describe it. It was taken in a corner of the play yard where there’s a teepee like structure made of big tree branches, and a pile of old tires and logs sits off to the side. Jonah has his back to the camera, and taped to his back with masking tape encircling his middle is an upside-down Club crackers box. You can see that he’s talking to two boys, pointing to them and perhaps giving directions. They appear to be listening intently, and one is giving Jonah a thumbs-up sign. Both of the other boys also have masking tape wrapped around their middles with cardboard boxes attached to their backs. On the ground in the center of the three boys is a wooden plank, with one end slightly higher than the other. On the low end is a pile of what appears to be action figures of some sort. There’s no teacher in the photo, no one directing or cautioning them in any way. The teacher who shared it captioned the photo with the following:

“We are going to take turns. I am going to go first, then you are going to go, then you are going to go last, then I am going to go again, then you are going to go, and then you again, and yeah, that’s what we’ll do” -Jonah

I couldn’t stop smiling. I replied to the teacher and told her that I was dying to know what was going on, and she told me that they’d made a catapult out of the plank and a log, and were taking turns jumping on the end to launch the rescue heroes into the air. Jonah’s teacher told me later that she had to fish one out of a tree at some point. When I showed the photo to K later and mentioned the boxes taped to their backs, she said without any hesitation, “those are jet packs.” Obviously.

This is exactly the kind of raw, imaginative fun that I want them to have opportunities to engage with. There is so much about their every day that I’ll never know anything about; most of those details are lost, and by the time they come home they don’t volunteer very much when we ask what made them happy that day. It made my day to see this moment captured. It also made me sad when I started to think about Jonah starting public school next fall and all of this magic disappearing. I don’t have a solution yet, but I know that there must be a way for us to supplement what they’re doing in public school with more opportunities for creativity and risk-taking and getting out into nature, because this kind of magic can’t end in kindergarten.

Animal lovers

We found out on Friday that there was going to be a neighborhood picnic this evening just a block and a half from our house. One of the two churches that flank the elementary school hosted it, and I wasn’t sure what to expect but it turned out to be a lot of fun. Families were asked to bring a dessert to pass, so earlier in the afternoon the kids and I picked apples in the backyard, and after their nap I made an apple crisp. Jonah is always eager to help bake treats, and I loved watching him help today because the light in the kitchen was just right and I’m loving his long hair these days.

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We walked over to the picnic and the kids immediately went into a fun-scatter. I ended up separated from Jude and Kristin for awhile, so sadly I have no good photos of Jude with the animals. I did hand him a chicken at one point, but he got a little scared and wasn’t into it. Vivi and Jonah were the animal whisperers, however. I feel like the handlers kept handing critters to V, maybe because she’s tiny and that’s funny and adorable and also because it was clear how much she loved it.

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I love this one (below) because she’s clearly talking to that tortoise.

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And Jonah would have sat with that bunny in his lap all night long. He was in love.

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We saw a couple of the kids’ preschool friends, and while many of our friends nearby didn’t make it, we made some potential new friends after being introduced by an acquaintance, so that was a lovely bonus.  I really love our neighborhood and events like this are such a nice surprise.

Summer’s last hurrah

We’re three days into the school year and the weather already seems to have shifted completely into fall mode. For a lot of people, September 1st is a time for celebrating permission to break out the fall tchotchkes and begin wearing boots and sweaters, but every time the seasons change it’s as if I’ve forgotten how to get dressed. I always end up floundering as I ask myself what on earth I wore the last time the weather was like this. So far this week I’ve managed to lay out out all of the kids’ outfits before I go to bed, but we’ll see how long I’m able to keep that up. I failed to do any back-to-school shopping for any of them, and so far we’re cobbling things together from their summer wardrobes, but the 50 degree mornings are calling for a bit more already. There is a giant pile of clean, unfolded laundry taking over our living room, and both K and I already feel way too exhausted to deal with it. A day or two ago I suddenly realized that we’ve been in our house for almost a year and there are home projects that we started last October that haven’t moved at all, and I was suddenly overcome with the urge to finish the trim, and paint and reinstall the fireplace doors before we reach that one-year mark. The start of the school year probably shouldn’t feel like such a dramatic change, but for some reason it does.

This week’s early mornings definitely have something to do with how I’m feeling, but so does our jam-packed Labor Day weekend. My sister, brother-in-law, niece and nephew came to town from Charleston, wrapping up a summer of wonderful visits from friends from all over. When we lived in New York we were frequent guests but only very occasional hosts. We just never felt as if we had the space to host a proper get-together, and we had lots of guilt about how unbalanced it felt to take advantage of friends’ homes so often and rarely give back. We always dreamed of having more space to spread out and make friends feel at home on our turf, and this summer we’ve finally been able to do that a bit. We’ve had friends visit from New York, Seattle, Detroit, Oakland, and now Charleston.

My sister is nothing if not a planner, and as a result we managed to squeeze a huge amount of activity into a long weekend. By the time K and I climbed into bed on Monday night Kristin said, “I feel like no one sat down for four days.” We were worn out, but it was an awfully good time.

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My parents celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary at the end of July, and since my sister and her family were planning to come to town anyway, she suggested that we throw a small surprise celebration. We invited some close family and friends nearby and Kristin and I were thrilled to finally be able to host. The funny part was that just days beforehand, my mom suddenly approached me with the idea of having a BBQ with all of those same people, and wouldn’t it be more convenient to have it at our house rather than theirs? Naturally we agreed to host, and lots of amusing back and forth ensued between my sister and I as we re-planned a BBQ that had already been planned, this time with my mom coordinating the menu and the guest list. The night before, one of our family friends accidentally ruined the surprise, but it worked out for the best because my dad ended up bringing along the actual banner from their wedding (who knows where it was all these years) and taping it up on our garage. It made everything feel more complete, and the evening was lovely.

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On Monday, we squeezed in one more family outing before everyone headed to the airport.

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Last year when they visited we somehow managed to get such a cute photo of all of the cousins together (and believe me, we have some hilarious doozies from attempts in the past) but this was the best we could do this year. I still love it for its imperfection and chaos. When we’re all together it’s never quiet or still, but it’s full of love and lots of happy.

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Backyard apple picking and preparing for fall

I’ve been having a tough time saying goodbye to summer, which isn’t all that different from the way I’ll probably feel as fall turns to winter or as the Christmas season comes to a close. (I can’t say that I ever feel that way in April as months of cold, grey, dreariness finally begin to disappear). The long hours of summer daylight that stretch well into the 9:00 hour, the laissez-faire attitude towards bedtime, running through sprinklers, outdoor movies, catching fireflies, and summer vacation road trips – all add up to a way of life that I look forward to all year long.

Our kids go back to school (preschool, that is) the day after Labor Day, which I realize is later than most of the country so we’re lucky in that regard. But I’ve been doing a lot of hand-wringing over how on earth we’re going to get them back into a normal sleep routine (and what my mornings will be like getting them out of the house each day if they’re crabby and overtired), and just generally feeling sad about the end of a season that I love with kids who are at a really fun age for the enjoyment of that season. I’ve read a couple of wonderful things recently from other nostalgic moms, bloggers I love, who have reminded me not to hang on too tightly to time. Kelle Hampton (who lives in Florida but spends the summer in Michigan with her kids) wrote:

…it isn’t their littleness that makes me happy. It isn’t Michigan or summer or having a kid who still totes stuffed animals on our adventures (although, that’s perfectly lovely and heck yes, I get joy out of it)…It’s ME that makes me happy. It’s loving the season I’m in. It’s realizing that joy and all the simple pleasures of life that inspire me are not confined to specific seasons

With this in mind, I’m trying to get myself excited about all of the joy that I can pack into fall. First stop: apple picking in our backyard.

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We have a lovely apple tree right in the middle of everything in our backyard. It kind of separates the patio from the yard, and provides the perfect kind of shade to sit on the patio on a sunny late afternoon. We have no idea what variety of apple tree it might be (but if you know how we might find out, please share), and we also had no idea whether the apples would taste good once they were ripe (although the deer and squirrels seem to love them). Even so, I was excited to do a little apple picking and make applesauce from scratch.

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Jonah and I went to Michael’s the other day in search of the perfect apple-picking buckets (I may have gotten an eye roll from Kristin, but she lets me do my thing). While we were there, he couldn’t get enough of the Halloween aisles and begged me to buy “spooky stuff” but since it’s not yet September I told him that we should probably pump the brakes, and that maybe we could pick out some yard decor on a day when the whole family could join the fun. I was pretty jazzed that his Halloween spirit is as big as mine though, so even while I was saying no I was complimenting him on his enthusiasm.

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Jude didn’t show much interest in the picking, but he was happy to munch on the results. He and Vivi passed that apple back and forth, bite after bite.

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We started with just one basket, not knowing exactly how our backyard applesauce might taste, and as I began to core and peel, Jonah pleaded with me to be able to help chop. I hesitated, but ultimately handed him a knife and gave him a tutorial and let him go. He did cut his thumb once, but didn’t give up and went right back to it once he’d been patched up. I’m so proud of his focus and dedication to helping; I think that he was pretty proud of himself too. We talked about what it means to make something from scratch, and for a few moments I felt like I could pretend to be just like Nici from Dig & Co. who never ceases to inspire me with her photos and stories of beautiful homemade things and raising kids in the glorious outdoors.

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When he went to bed tonight, with the applesauce simmering on the stove, he told me that he couldn’t wait to have some for breakfast. I can’t wait to watch him enjoy it.

While I’m somewhat sad to send the kids back to school, Jonah is truly excited about returning and I think that Vivienne and Jude are going to love this year too. The start of this school year feels SO different from last year when we were new to Michigan and hadn’t yet learned what a good fit their new school would be for them. I have a feeling it’s going to be another year of huge leaps for all three of them.

My Pinterest Halloween board is slowly filling up with ideas (let’s be honest, I’ve been thinking about their costumes since March), I’m putting every fall festival that I can find on the calendar, and I’m feeling a little more ready than I was a week or two ago. This weekend should be a perfect toast to the end of summer as my sister and brother-in-law and my niece and nephew come to town, the last of a string of summer visitors from across the country who have brought SO much love and laughter into our house and yard. The kids can’t wait to see their cousins and I can’t wait to see them all together again. If the weather cooperates we might just get a beach day and a BBQ. What could be better?

48 Hours in Indianapolis

It’s almost time to wrap up this summer, and it’s been so full of wonderful things that I’m really not ready. We’re not quite there yet, however, and we squeezed in one last mini-vacation this week.

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Mutsy, the stuffed dog that I’m holding, made it back to Indy this week; this time with Jonah

When I was a kid, maybe around ten or so (I’m guessing based on the photo of my sister and I above), my parents took us to Indiana to visit The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis. We stayed at this amazing hotel where they’d turned old train cars into rooms. I actually remember the hotel more vividly than the museum, but my parents have always talked about what a great museum it was. Our kids love children’s museums and we’ve visited them pretty much everywhere we’ve taken the kids.

We arrived in Indianapolis on Sunday evening and had museum tickets for Tuesday, but hadn’t really done much planning for Monday. We knew that it was the eclipse that day and that it would be about 90% in Indianapolis, but we didn’t have glasses and didn’t have a definitive plan. We’d talked about visiting a place called Conner Prairie (weird fact, I kind of love historical make-believe museums – it takes me back to playing pretend as a kid) but I failed to realize that it wasn’t open on Mondays (or Tuesdays or Wednesdays, for that matter). Fortunately we had a backup plan and headed out to the Indianapolis Museum of Art 100 Acres Art & Nature Park. I guess it would be redundant to mention its size, but it’s a huge natural park full of sculptures. The only problem is that it was roughly 90 degrees and humid in the blazing sun. The kids enjoyed climbing on sculptures for a little while, though.

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He’s pointing out the skeleton’s butt, if you can’t tell

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After maybe an hour or so, Jonah had reached his breaking point and was thirsty and wanted to return to the hotel (foolishly we brought no water with us on the walk), but I knew that the eclipse was starting around 1:30 and didn’t really want to head indoors yet. We managed to find a (gorgeous) visitors center with A/C and a drinking fountain, not to mention stylish chairs.

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The kids perked up a bit after cooling off, and we finally decided that maybe it was time to head to lunch and figure out the eclipse thing from somewhere else (we didn’t have glasses anyway, only paper plates with pinholes) but once we walked back towards the car we saw people gathering in the open area for the eclipse, and I just couldn’t leave. Jonah was beside himself; he wanted to leave SO badly, but I had some snack bars in the car and that bought us a little time.

By some miracle, we met a woman named Jennifer who was there alone and was more than happy to share her pair of eclipse glasses with us. She said that she’d gotten them late in the game and felt that she ought to share the good fortune. We hung out with her until the eclipse was at its peak, and then we called it a day. The kids didn’t stay interested throughout, but whenever Jennifer would offer them another peek they would run over eagerly.

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Clearly staring right at the eclipse. Parenting fail.

We left the park and squeezed in a late lunch at a cute place with delicious food that accommodated us five minutes before close, and the frosé allowed me to forget about the beastly heat from earlier. The rest of the afternoon was a bit of a bust, since it was roughly 3:30 and raining and everything we were interested in doing was either closed due to weather or closing at 5:00 anyway. We ended that day feeling sort of lukewarm about Indianapolis as a destination, but we hoped that the museum would make up for it the next day.

We got up early on Tuesday and arrived at the museum before it even opened (K and I high-fived about this, because as anyone who knows us well can verify, we aren’t early to anything). This place is incredible. First, the Dinosphere, which is oddly beautiful and dramatic. The “sky” changes color from deep blue to magenta, clouds pass overhead and storms roll in with pretend lightning and thunder, the moon appears and comets fly across the sky. I didn’t count the number of dinosaurs, but I’d guess there were at least six or seven large ones and a number of other smaller ones. Some of them were even real fossils and not casts (according to signage). There are actual paleontologists at work in a lab on site and K talked to one while he worked on an actual t-rex bone.

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The kids can also take part in a “dino dig” nearby. At the end of the day, Jude and Vivienne declared that the dinosaurs were their favorite part of the whole museum.

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Next came the trains. They have a real steam engine along with lots of model trains, and Jude could barely pull himself away. He climbed into this tunnel below a larger model and followed that little train back and forth, back and forth within the tunnel for probably ten minutes. He was in love.

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Then came the space exhibit, which was made up like the kids were inside a shuttle or the ISS.

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I can’t even handle that tiny person (Vivi) inside a giant (yet child-sized) space suit.

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I don’t even remember what this next exhibit was called, but it was related to National Geographic and featured an Egyptian tomb, a shipwreck, and the Terracotta Warriors. Vivi is measuring a canon at the bottom of the ocean.

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We had lunch in the food court, which was surprisingly good and full of natural light, and everyone was ready for more. We headed to an exhibit on China in which you board an airplane and exit into a world of Chinese shops, restaurants, parks, and even a panda nursery.

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Notice Vivi doing tai chi along with K and the instructor, while Jude carries around a baby panda

Next we went up to the Playscape, an area for kids ages five and under. It didn’t blow me away, but the kids loved it (and I’m not five, so maybe that’s why). There was a machine that moved balls through pneumatic tubes and pathways, and Jonah couldn’t get enough of it (it was his favorite part of the whole museum – he always gravitates to interactive machines and loves to observe how things work). There was also a really nice climber that all of the kids enjoyed, as well as a sand table that I found to be rather serene and that Jonah also loved.

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We briefly checked out the dance exhibit, as well as a science room that was heavily sponsored by Dow and didn’t seem to be quite as broad or interesting as I would have liked (although the kids liked the water table, and Vivi loved driving a pretend tractor across a video of farm land), but we didn’t linger long in either exhibit. We ended with the circus exhibit, which did not disappoint.

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We closed the museum down, and I can’t say that I’ve ever opened and closed a museum (or any attraction, for that matter) before. It was seven hours of fun and we didn’t even make it to everything (but not for lack of trying). The kids were totally engaged throughout, and never melted down or asked to leave, which says a lot about how great this place is.

When we finally returned to the parking ramp and strapped them into their car seats, they were all asleep before we even started the car. We decided to risk an epic meltdown and wake them up to eat dinner in downtown Indy rather than trying to find some crappy chain restaurant in farm country on the drive home. We’re so glad we did. Although they all hated the idea of waking up and going anywhere they all perked up in the restaurant, and despite the swanky, hipster vibe at Nada, the service was awesome and they were great with the kids! Our server even brought three extra donuts at the end of the meal. I feel like the way a restaurant deals with an exhausted family with cranky small children after seven hours at a museum says SO much about an establishment. The food was awesome, and I wish we lived a lot closer.

When we go back to Indy we have Conner Prairie and the riverwalk on our agenda, and we’ll probably do a little more planning next time, but it was absolutely worthwhile and a great way to close out our summer travels.

Catching the sunset on our 11th year

Today is our 11th wedding anniversary (our “real” wedding, which oddly enough is the way that I refer to the one that wasn’t legal, but which involved all of the traditional ceremony/big reception/all-of-the-people elements; we also had a legal wedding years later, but that one just involved some tacky fake ivy draped around an arch on wheels and a trip to the courthouse, followed by falafel). Thanks to my parents watching the kids overnight we had a fun get-away on Thursday, but today we had a low-key morning and decided that we wanted to take the kids to the beach in South Haven for sunset. Lately the kids love the beach, and we haven’t been to South Haven much since moving back despite having spent SO many summer weeks there for years. I’ve always loved catching the sunset over Lake Michigan, but we realized tonight that we’ve never done that with Vivi and Jude, and the last time Jonah did it he wasn’t yet two. It felt special to spend our first Lake Michigan sunset as a family of five on our anniversary, since we also spent our honeymoon out there. It’s kind of where it all started.

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Northern Michigan Vacation

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It’s Sunday night following a week of vacation, so naturally I’m feeling sentimental and sad knowing that it’s back to work for me tomorrow, but it’s also a good time for me to reflect on the past week. Since we spent thirteen years living in New York, nearly all of our vacation time has been spent visiting family. Many of those weeks were also spent in glorious vacation-like ways, but they almost always involved staying with family. This was the first vacation that we’ve planned as a family of five that had nothing to do with visiting anyone, and we had a lot of fun plotting it out in advance.

Although I grew up in Michigan, we didn’t do a great deal of Michigan road-tripping when I was a kid. It may be because my dad’s family only took long road trips to visit family, so he was determined to give us a different sort of vacation experience (which I totally appreciate). We spent many summer weeks on Lake Michigan in South Haven, and I love having that tradition as a part of my childhood, but there are lots of quintessential Michigan vacation spots that I’ve never seen. We decided to do a Northern Michigan trip and hit a few places on my list, and it was wonderful.

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We started out at Sleeping Bear Dunes National Park. A few years back, ABC News voted it the most beautiful place in America, and I’d been wanting to see it ever since. Kristin’s sister had taken her kids not long ago, and warned us that we may as well skip the dune climbing portion since the kids would surely whine and refuse the walk, but advised us to check out a particular lookout point on the drive. We didn’t budget very much time there, but really wished that we had. As soon as we got out of the car and the kids saw the sand, Jude said, “I forgot my diggers.” We had a picnic lunch at the bottom and then all tackled the climb. The kids were absolute champs! Jonah practically ran up, with Vivi close behind. Jude was slow but determined, holding Kristin’s hand along the way. Everyone made it to the first plateau, and I think that the kids would have kept going but Jude’s pace and our schedule led us to call it quits and head back down.

IMG_7079 We packed everyone back into the car and drove out to the lookout point, which was incredible. Sure, it was only about 450 feet above the lake, but it felt like we were looking at the earth from space. The kids wanted to climb and explore and dig; I think that we could have spent all afternoon there if we hadn’t planned to be elsewhere.

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From there we headed to Great Wolf Lodge in Traverse City. Our first experience with Great Wolf (which is a chain) was in the Poconos. We were driving back to New York from Michigan a few summers ago, and desperately needed coffee late at night. The only Starbucks we could find happened to be in the lobby of a Great Wolf Lodge. Kristin came back to the car with two coffees and a dazed look on her face, and told me, “You have to go in there. It’s like Chuck E. Cheese on crack.” This is probably my brother-in-law’s idea of a nightmare vacation (they take totally amazing vacations, so I have nothing but respect), but for some reason I really wanted to do this for the kids. Great Wolf is a waterpark hotel, but it goes way beyond that. The indoor water park is incredible, but it also has things like a kids’ spa, a bowling alley, character appearances, story time, dance parties, a cute camp-themed restaurant, and this complicated magic game that runs throughout the entire hotel. Jonah got a wand and played the game, and Jude and Vivi both got stuffed animals that connect to a simpler game for little ones, all thanks to Kristin’s parents who paid for those activities in advance.

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The week before we went on the trip, I was in New York for work and met up with good friends. As I was telling a wise friend about our plans, and how we’d chosen Great Wolf entirely for the kids, she gave me some sage advice. “Try not to make it just for the kids,” she said, “or you may end up disappointed if they don’t react the way you’re hoping. Instead, tell yourselves that you’re doing this because you want to do something new.” Oh the wisdom of mom friends, and how right she was. I knew this going in, and still made some terrible mistakes that I can’t quite let go of many days later.

Jonah wasn’t as interested in the water park as we’d hoped, and if I’m being honest with myself I should have expected that. He did go into the water a couple of times, and liked the lazy river and the toddler area, but he wasn’t interested in much else. On day two I told him that I really wanted to do one of the big waterslides with him. He’s tall enough to do them with an adult, and after giving it some thought he said that he would. We walked up the stairs, and I made sure to show him all of the details as he went so that he’d feel comfortable. We chatted with other families in line, many with kids his size who were also lining up to ride with their parents. They told us about the ride, how fun it was, but when it came time for Jonah and I to climb into a tube he wouldn’t budge. I tried to convince him for a number of minutes before we finally walked back down. This is where I should have told him that it was fine and asked what he wanted to do instead, but I didn’t. I told him that I was disappointed because I’d really wanted to ride with him. I told him that I felt like he was missing out on an opportunity, and we went back to the room. It didn’t take long for the guilt to set in. He took a nap, and by the time Kristin came back to the room with the twins I was in tears and feeling incredibly remorseful.

You see, I can be a control freak about lots of things, but vacations tend to dial things up for me in a really unhealthy way. I’m so determined to make the most of every minute, so aware of how quickly time passes and of the power of regret and disappointment, that I’m always on high alert trying to determine whether I’m using the time wisely, or if there’s some better way to set up conditions for success and happiness and quality time. When I read this piece years ago it really struck a nerve. My approach is totally bonkers and almost counterproductive, and yet I’m not very good at reining it in.

I apologized to Jonah more than once, telling him that he always has permission to change his mind and choose not to do something if it doesn’t feel right or safe or good, and told him that my reaction was based on nothing more than my own selfishness. I promised to try harder, and he forgave me, but I’m still stewing in regret. The next morning I asked him what he wanted to do most before check-out. He said that he wanted to play the “wand game” and Jude and Vivi chose the waterpark, so we split up again and I reminded myself that it’s OK for kids to have different ideas of fun. As we packed up for our next destination the kids watched TV, and on our way out of the hotel we asked them about their favorite moments over the past couple of days. Jonah immediately said that his was watching cartoons in the room, and despite my friend’s wise advice and my decision to honor his perspective, I was fuming again. This time I really only vented to Kristin, but I was disappointed. Why spend all of this money on a vacation when he could stay home and watch TV? A friend pointed out today that despite the value of asking questions like this, and helping kids to reflect on experiences and focus on gratitude and highs and lows, a four-year-old may not be fully capable of answering the way I expect. There’s often a recency bias at play and cartoons were the very last thing he’d done that was enjoyable.

We hit the road and headed to Mackinaw City, where we stayed in a cabin at Mackinaw Mill Creek. The kids have been looking forward to “camping” ever since we told them we had this all planned. And no, staying in a cabin with a bathroom isn’t truly camping, but it’s the first campground experience they’ve ever had and it was unlike anything they’ve ever done. This place was wonderful. Such a lovely contrast with the chaos of a waterpark hotel. We got in towards evening, but still had a good bit of daylight due to the long Michigan summer nights. We biked to the camp store where we bought firewood and matches, and spent some time at one of the playgrounds (there are three or four).

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It was an old playground with equipment I’ve never seen before, but there was something so charming about that. Like what is this spinning thing in the photo below? Does anyone know what that’s called? It was awesome.

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The kids were totally into the loft bed in the cabin, and while none of us slept there they were up there quite a bit. My parents had given my sister and I some lovely old quilts in a house clean out a year or so ago, and we decided that this was the perfect opportunity to pull them out. My parents seemed thrilled that we were actually going to use them, and my dad encouraged us to, “use them up.”

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That night we built a fire and Kristin and Jonah went to pick up a pizza, which we ate at the picnic table outside. When they came back, Kristin told me that in the car totally unprompted Jonah said to her that he loves vacations that I plan, and that he’ll go on any vacation that I plan. When she told me, after all of my mistakes over the past day or two, it made me cry with relief.

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We made s’mores by the fire, which the kids had been waiting for for days, and then we drove out to the dark sky park. All five of us love the night sky; the kids love looking for the moon and Jonah loves telling us what phase it’s in and pointing out constellations in the sky. I was so eager to spend time gazing at the stars with them, but unfortunately it was cloudy and you couldn’t see a thing. Kristin was so sweet about it, packing everyone up and going anyway just in case, but we didn’t stay for more than a few minutes before we headed back out.

We’d planned to take the ferry to Mackinac Island the next day, but the forecast called for rain on and off all day, so we chatted about an alternative. Kristin proposed that we move the island visit to Friday, the day we planned to drive home. We could drive late, she said, if it meant better weather for the island. I was incredibly thankful since Mackinac Island was also high on my wish list and the dark sky park hadn’t worked out. What to do on a rainy Thursday in a totally blah city, though?

We drove across the Mackinac Bridge to the Upper Peninsula for breakfast, just because it was fun to say that we’d been there and tell the kids about it. Breakfast was frustratingly long, the kids were restless and hungry waiting 40 minutes for their food, and when it arrived Jude suddenly didn’t seem like himself and wouldn’t eat. We noticed that he seemed warm, and before we finished breakfast he clearly wanted nothing but sleep. We headed back to the cabin where it became clear that he was under the weather. We tried to get all of the kids to nap, but failed and ended up arguing about the day and yelling at Vivi and Jonah for disturbing Jude’s sleep. Fortunately we’d bought a puzzle in Traverse City so Jonah and I did that for a bit, and when there was a brief break in the rain we all went to a playground, but the day still felt like a bit of a bust. We worried that Jude might not feel better by morning and that our plans might have to change.

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At some point Kristin suggested that I could get Jonah and Vivi out of the cabin and away from Jude by walking with them to find the water’s edge. We hadn’t even looked for it, and I was curious. It turned out to be no more than a block away (if that’s a thing when you’re at a campground), and it was gorgeous. A row of pines and a beautiful shoreline and the bridge in the distance. Watching Vivi and Jonah wade into the water and be so present and joyful in the experience was one of my favorite moments of the whole vacation. I told them that this was my favorite moment of the day, and Jonah said something funny like, “That’s good, Mama D. You should be proud of yourself!”

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He waded out to get that rock from a pile, and didn’t even cry or get upset when he fell into the water unexpectedly. Even his hair was wet, it was quite a wipeout.

The next morning, we woke up early to pack everything up and check out of the cabin before heading for the ferry. By some miracle Jude was himself again, and the weather was cloudy but dry. We managed to get on a ferry that went under the Mackinac Bridge (which is unnecessary to get to the island, but certain ferry times take you under just for the experience). We found seats on top to maximize the view, and while it was chilly I think that the kids loved it. As the island came into view we pointed out lighthouses and beautiful old buildings, and I think that we were all excited.

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A neighbor and friend had warned me that the island was just a lot of touristy crap, so I tried to temper my expectations. But my favorite blogger takes her kids annually and seems to be completely in love with the place, so I knew that there was beauty there somewhere. The kids loved seeing all of the horses, and the lack of cars was such a novelty.

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We started with breakfast at a cute little pancake place, before deciding to get off of the main strip (which, while architecturally pretty, really is just tacky t-shirt shops, fudge, and ice cream) and bike all the way around the island. I’m SO glad that we did, especially since I had a moment of hesitation before we left town in which I wondered if bringing our bikes all that way was really worth the hassle. I imagined us carting them around all week long just for one short ride at our final destination. As it turned out we used them a lot over the last three days of the trip and even if we’d only biked the island it still would have been worth it. The back of the island was stunningly beautiful; almost no buildings, just a bike path and eight miles of rocky coastline and crystal clear waters. We stopped at least twice for the kids to play at the water’s edge, which they absolutely loved. As we biked, Jonah said again and again how much he loved Mackinac Island.

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One of our last stops was at the playground of the public school, which couldn’t have a more breathtaking location as playgrounds go.

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After a brief stop at the cute little public library, and the requisite stops for ice cream and fudge, we headed for the ferry back to the mainland. Kristin said that she would splurge to stay on the island on a future visit. On the ferry back I felt somewhat triumphant about the week, having experienced so many moments of beauty despite some frustrations and mistakes. The kids were happy; we made it possible for them to see and do some new things they truly enjoyed, and so much of my joy came from watching them engaged in those experiences. Hopefully I’ve learned some lessons for next time, but this felt good and I truly wish that it could have gone on much longer.

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