Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Beginnings and Endings

Our dear friends Rick and Gretchen gave us a gift a few years ago that has become a dinner ritual most nights.  This blessing bowl is an enhanced version of the "good part, bad part, silly part" of dinner conversation we've enjoyed for many years; the blessing bowl adds a little direction and reflection to the daily events of our lives.  Each piece in the bowl is symbolic for something important:  gratitude; kindness; valley highs; mountain lows; remembering; loss; sacred moments; beginnings and endings. Last week, the two pieces that were selected the most were the "beginnings/endings" piece, and the "sorrow/loss."  To me, in the contexts in which they were used, the two are interchangeable.  This past week, it certainly felt so.
Last week was the Beginning:  of a new school year; of new opportunities; of trying new things; of a new season.  We celebrated the beginning of the school year by shopping with Grandma for new shirts; going out to lunch with her and eating celebratory ice cream; meeting new teachers; packing up new school supplies; learning new bus routes, routines, and schools; choosing special dinners for the nights leading up to the first day; a last hurrah on the lake.  

And yet as proud and happy as I was to have three children eager and excited to go back to school, it was also an ending.  I felt keenly the loss of summer, of days that stretched before us without the constraints of time and schedule, of memories that I was largely responsible for creating, the ones my children store in their treasure box labeled Childhood.

The first days were very good, and the beginning of the school year - total success - was something to celebrate.

(Studious and ready for work at Preschool.)

But then, at the end of the week, Jeff and I flew back to California to be with our family.  We went to bid a final farewell to our beloved, Leo Vanoni.  Hundreds gathered at the fairgrounds and lingered through the day - telling stories, sharing tears and laughter.  "Family is everything and everyone is family," that's the motto by which Leo lived his entire, amazing, inspiring life.  Leo's life philosophy didn't click for me until this farewell trip: Leo Vanoni was a man of great faith who quietly and humbly lived out that faith in every action he took.  His heart was huge; his spirit, gentle and kind; his words and actions, loving and affirming.  In death, he has awakened me to something new about him.
The marquee at the fairgrounds says it all; dozens of photos cataloging a life well-lived; Leo's Fair Chair and hat; a gorgeous photo of Leo, holding an avocado, by his talented granddaughter Nicole Ennis-Brooks.
Jeff and I said our own private goodbye to Leo on this quiet stretch of the Pacific Ocean, opposite the fairgrounds.
Jeff and his cousins each wore a Bolo tie, one of Leo's own, as requested by Leo.
As we made the exhausting flight home on Saturday night on the red-eye, eager to see our kids, I gazed out the window at the gorgeous, gorgeous moon.  An ending.
Hours later, I watched the sun rise over the horizon, 3,000 miles from where I'd last touched ground.  Beginning.

Sunday, August 10, 2014

CA Adventure Part 3: Palm Springs

During the bleakest days of February, when I am chilled to the core with no end of winter in sight, I dream of California.  I dream of running through orchards full of tree-ripe avocados, lemons, limes... of wading into the cool waters of the Pacific... of lingering over memories and meals with family I'm lucky to call my own.  And I dream of palm trees, hot, sunny days, cold, frothy drinks - and the time to spend with friends, and to savor it all.  I dream of this:
Our tour of Southern California would be incomplete without time to spend with our beloved friends, the Grants; the line between family and friends on this California adventure is very blurred, indeed.  The boys picked up right where they left off last summer, when the Grants were in Virginia, and seemed more like brothers than ever before:
In Palm Springs, we held diving contests:

...while the biggest boys worked to perfect their "leisure dives.."
Um... I think you need to keep working on this, Jeff!
Practically website-worthy...
Meanwhile, Em and I made sure to stay well-hydrated...

 ...while a certain Carter child made sure to hydrate us from the OUTSIDE:

Lest you think it was all fun and games, there was serious work to be done.  Phone conferences were conducted:
...and important meetings were held:

A train was formed to transport important cargo:

...but eventually, the work gave way back to play.
We played nine thousand rounds of this game.  Because it *never* gets old.
This "all-play" relay was a huge hit with our crew!  Kids v. Grown ups... and they beat us.
Glo-sticks = fun times
We decided on a formal group shot this year:

 ...and clearly nailed it with just 57 takes!
When the nearing-the-end-of-vacation blues got us down, we embraced the motivational decor of the rental house and made it our own personal motto:
But then, seriously, we looked at these faces and felt happy again.  The grown ups can claim a friendship of 14 years or so... but these boys?  can claim it for a lifetime.
As I remind my kids from time to time, all good things must come to an end.  After four days of respite, relaxation, and rejuvenation, we said a tearful goodbye to the Grants and began the long trek home.  

Remember that blissful day of travel we had out west?  Yeah... not so much Eastbound.  L.A. traffic is nightmarish, which we knew.  But that morning, despite leaving 4 hours before our flight, we hit horrible traffic and crawled to the airport.  We finally pulled up to the terminal 55 minutes before our flight was to depart.  I unloaded all the bags and the kids, then Jeff dashed off to return the car.  25 agonizing minutes later, he returned.  I had to pretty-face my way through security and sweet talk them into letting us cut to the front of the line.  (You can imagine how popular we were.)  After making it thorough the checkpoint, we sprinted toward our gate, holding backpacks and Pax as I ran. I passed him off to Jeff at some point, then dashed ahead.  As I made my way to the finish line gate, the friendly agent greeted us - "Oh, you must be the Carter family! You're here now, you can relax.  We actually have a teeny bit of a wait."  She checked us in, we boarded the plane - sweating, gasping for breath, and still recovering from our white-knuckled drive through L.A. - only to hear the pilot announce, "There is currently a 2 hour delay out of the gate.  You are free to leave the plane." 

We recovered; the plane finally took off; but the kids were grumpy, we were all so tired.  There were no in-flight movies or television; it was a long 5 hours... with a few very beautiful moments mixed in:

Without prompting, Aidan and Leo journal-ed their CA adventures
Once on Virginia turf, we eventually collected our bags (after much delay) and went to find our shuttle to the hotel where we'd left the car.  With 15 people wanting 8 spots in the hotel shuttle, exasperated and exhausted, we hailed a cab and inched our way back to our car, which has never looked more inviting to me in my life.  We hit up Wendy's drive-thru at 10:00 p.m., then made our way home.  It was midnight when we pulled down our drive; nothing could have felt better that day. 

With the memories of our adventure playing on a continual track in our minds, we eased back into the waning days of our summer break, glad to be home again but wishing we were still adventure-ing...

Till next time --

Thursday, August 7, 2014

CA Adventure Part 2: Ventura

The unique beauty of a farm mingled with the functional aspects of growing food always amazes me.  The vista overlooking acre after acre of avocado, lemon, and lime trees is breathtaking.  The massive water pumps and miles of irrigation pipes serve as reminders of just how hard it is to grow good food in a land of drought.  The combined effect humbles me every time, this tree-to-table production I tend to take for granted as I select avocados and citrus off the grocery shelves, year-round.
Each visit to the ranch results in new discoveries.  This year, I learned just how different the ranch is in July than it is in early June.  The most shocking discovery I made was that avocados are harvested just once every year.  Once a year!!  And the differences between east coast farming and west coast farming aren't actually all that different after all - for the strawberry season had long since ended when we arrived in mid-July.  
The view from the ranch house - such beauty!
Still, some things were just exactly as we've always known them to be.  Pax made a beeline for the very same John Deere that every other boy has ridden and loved in past trips.
I ran beautiful 5 mile routes each morning, different every time.  I started each run near the eucalyptus that borders the property, then turned at the avocados.  I snaked my way up and down each row, then headed over to the lemons one day, the limes another.  I criss-crossed the barren strawberry mounds, and marveled at the reservoir water in this drought-stricken land.  The tread on my shoes filled with lemon thorns, bark from the trees, and the ashes from small fires made by the pickers in the field who, at lunchtime, warmed their tortillas over the small open flames.

When one of Jeff's most favorite cousins, Mark, arrived on the Ranch, he brought the mischief along with him.  Within minutes, the two grown men had launched an attack on Leo and Aidan, continuing a long-standing tradition of lemon fights.  Apparently, rotting lemons are best both for their (relative) softness and for the stinky residue they leave behind:
A dog toy, intended for launching tennis balls, is repurposed as a lemon launcher.
About to be pummeled.....
TWO GROWN MEN waiting quietly and patiently for their targets...
Their intended targets - inexperienced, loud, and impatient -
but thrilled nonetheless with the lemon fight.
Pax wisely joined Jeff and Mark's team.
Time slowed in a most delicious way during the hours we spent with Grandma and Grandpa:

I never miss the opportunity to dip my toes in the ocean, and getting to visit the Pacific always feels like an extra-special treat.

Our kids have developed their own list of "must-do's" during these trips to California, which was pretty cool to realize.  I said to Jeff, "I love that we've been doing this trip long enough now that they have come to expect certain things, that they know this area and these people well enough to have set ideas of what needs to happen."  Thus, our first stop on beach day was at the huge pirate ship with a zip line.

A short time later, we met up with the whole crew at a great little area of the beach that is home to myriad creatures, including sea anemones, hermit crabs, and even the occasional dolphin in the bay.

Predictably, Mark was there with more mischief.

That night, we had a family dinner.  Back at home, "Family Dinner" consists of 7 people, and when we're really lucky, that number goes up to 11 people.  In California, 27 gathered together that night, with 14 others too far away to make it for dinner.  Wow!  The best part for me, aside from time with Grandma and Grandpa, was watching how quickly our kids were welcomed back into this village of kids and adults who so lovingly care for one another, include each other, and delight in each other.

 Before our bittersweet farewell the next morning, we met up with Mark and Gwen one last time for breakfast at a wonderful little cafe at a local airport.  The kids could watch small planes take off and land and run around in the specially-designed play area, complete with speakers to hear the air traffic control on duty at the moment.  Mark and Gwen's oldest daughter claimed Aidan as her own, and he reveled in acting as her big brother-cousin.  Personally, I was super-excited to see a real, live motorcycle gang member, having watched waaay too much of Sons of Anarchy before heading west.  

With hugs and kisses all around, we said farewell to Grandma and Grandpa, and to our fabulous hosts, Uncle Charles and Aunt Laurie.

We loaded ourselves into the car and began the trek out to Palm Springs for a visit with our long-time friends, the Grants.  The sadness at saying goodbye in Ventura gradually and eventually gave way to excitement, especially as we drove thorough this part of California - not only do the wind turbines signal that we are getting very close to Palm Springs, they are also really, really awesome to see!  They are enormous, and there are hundreds (thousands?) of them covering vast portions of the desert.  The turbines always provide rich fodder for discussion on conservation, ingenuity, and creativity.

Part 3 of our trip began shortly after the turbine sightings....