Halloween Costumes: Moments I Thought Would Never End

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All I wanted to find were the pumpkin lights to hang outside. It was Saturday and finally felt like fall. Hurriedly, I cracked open the plastic box and smiled as obnoxiously bright orangish-red curls exploded into my face. She was about 11 when she wore that, I thought. I never saw that coming – she was usually so reserved, so modest. I unwound a sparkly silver and pink princess tiara caught in the curls and slipped back in time to moments I thought would never end, to those October afternoons spent nurturing her dreams, spent coaxing out another side of herself.

The plastic presidential hopeful mask came next, squished under a handmade ceramic black cat. Not too long ago he confidently walked the town with his ‘binder-full-of-women’, confusing most children but eliciting guffaws from the adults.

He always had a dry sense of humor, even at ten. I didn’t realize then that it would be his last one.

She started as a teddy bear, snuggled up in gender-neutral brown furry suit that partially covered her bald four-month-old head. At the last minute I remember pinning on a tiny pink polka-dotted bow just for fun.

I had no idea when I first zipped him into his chili pepper suit at five-weeks-old what he would dream about fifteen years later. His tiny, premature body sunk into the red felt; only his generously-sized head kept the costume from slipping off entirely.

witch and chili pepper costume

At three she refused to remove her fire-engine red patent leather boots, so my sister created a masterful ladybug backpack when, worn over black leggings and a long sleeve turtleneck, showcased her rapidly energetic personality. Amazingly, the headband antennae stayed atop her head the entire day.

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I think Bob-The-Builder was his favorite. Never had I seen him believe so strongly in his alter-ego. He scurried around town that year in his plastic yellow helmet, tools banging against his little overall-clad legs, singing at the top of his lungs.

He wore that yellow hat until it cracked in half and no duct tape would keep it together. That was a sad day.

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I unfold a tiny white hand print nestled in bubble wrap, ceramic edges rough enough to reveal the artist’s age. I nestle my fingers into hers. She really was that small, wasn’t she?

I don’t remember every costume in between. There were dozens between the two of them – spiders and firefighters, Dorothy and several witch variations – even George Bush during the election years (my son’s wry sense of humor). Now, those moments are buried, memories triggered by photos in an album or a glimpse of glitter at the bottom of the box. They are all there, somewhere, stored in a place where they can be retrieved someday, but not everyday. Was her last one in high school, dressed as a cowgirl with her best friend? How could I forget the pirate in rubber fireboots? How have these moments escaped me? Extraordinary in their ordinariness, they flicker with time like a fading, silent movie reel.

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This may be the first year without costumes. They’ve both moved on, figuring out who they are and living their dreams in reality, without masks or face paint. Her tiara still shines on her head 600 miles away – I’m sure of that.

And so the years melted together, moments of Halloween joy captured behind glass and squished into plastic boxes. Not sure why, or what I think I’ll do with those fading clown wigs or teeny tiny hula skirts. All I do know for sure are those moments, those ordinary days in the life of a young mother, mark the extraordinary unfolding of a life I had no idea was happening. These are the moments I will look back on with wonder, moments I wish could have lasted just a second longer. Moments I wish I knew how much I would miss.

We hung the pumpkin lights ourselves this year, just the two of us. At twilight they make me smile. I hope some other young mom to pauses for a moment outside our front walk, glimpses at their beauty, and hugs her baby in the beauty of the moment. No selfies, no photos. Just a simple hug, maybe a kiss to the forehead, and a memory to etch in her heart.

Dear readers, what ordinary moments do you remember from Halloween costumes? Please share in the comments!

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe is a mom and middle school teacher who loves nothing more than watching kids be brave, courageous and navigate the world. Travel along with her as she attempts to simultaneously slow down and speed up time by trusting fate and the global community to teach us life’s lessons.

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Extraordinary in the Ordinary

I’m a creature of habit. As much as I love adventure, I take comfort in the little routines of motherhood, carefully evolved over years of practice. Those small moments help center me, help me to feel at peace – knowing my babies are right where they’re supposed to be every night and morning. They are the ordinary moments of motherhood that bring me unimaginable joy.

Since August, my routines have been turned topsy-turvy. Pre-dawn tiptoeing down the hall, quietly nudging open bedroom doors, I find only one bed occupied. The other remains as it was last night, and the night before, and the night before that, white duvet pulled tautly against the black bedframe. White carpet screams vacancy at me in absence of dirty laundry, skis and textbooks. She’s not here.

When I dropped Lily off at college eight weeks ago, life had thrown those ordinary moments in the air like debris after a tornado. A flooded kitchen and broken bones combined to transform a quiet July into absolute chaos. I mourned the changes happening around me, yet at the same time, I couldn’t think about them for more than a moment. Life was just that tumultuous. Unpredictable. The ‘new normal’ was unfolding in front of me, and although I knew it was coming, I felt unprepared. Vulnerable.

As moments spun into days, I wound up at Lily’s college convocation – alone. This was it – the last official event before I would drive the six hundred miles back to reality – alone. It was a celebration of great importance in her life. It was the moment I’d been preparing for and denying for 18 years, and there was no stopping it. Time was in motion. This was really happening.

Bagpipers brusquely proclaimed the arrival of 500 new freshman, kids ready to launch their dreams and move to the next phase of their lives. To find the extraordinary in life. To celebrate their transition to a life on their own.

Life wasn’t exactly going according to plan. I wasn’t supposed to have to battle this moment on my own. I felt my body lighten as she walked down the aisle in her tie-dye T shirt, smiling  yet just a touch apprehensive. She’s California, I thought. The only one in the room.

I sat in the bleachers, fighting the tears and watching my little girl’s childhood flash before my eyes, and began to listen to Dr. Richard Badenhausen, head of the Honors College, read William Martin, The Parent’s Tao Te Ching: Ancient Advice for Modern Parents. In that moment, my heart lifted just enough to catch a glimpse of clarity-to cement me in the present:

“Do not ask your children

to strive for extraordinary lives.

Such striving may seem admirable,

but it is the way of foolishness.

Help them instead to find the wonder

and the marvel of an ordinary life.

Show them the joy of tasting

tomatoes, apples and pears.

Show them how to cry

when pets and people die.

Show them the infinite pleasure

in the touch of a hand.

And make the ordinary come alive for them.

The extraordinary will take care of itself.”

Have I done that? Is that the two-year-old girl down there – the one who delighted in smearing peaches in her mouth, juice oozing down her chin? Is that the five-year-old who grabbed my hand and pulled me to the jungle gym to proudly perform her latest trick? Did all the years of homework and studying and projects and sports and testing and applications prepare her for the ordinariness of life? She reached her goal, she’s attending the college of her choice – hopefully the one of her dreams, too. Is she ready to leave the moments of self-doubt, of wondering if her transcript is strong enough or her athleticism amazing enough to have a college want her? Is she ready to stop worrying about being extraordinary and just enjoy being….ordinary?

“The path to success travels through the ordinary. Life is transformative through the lens of time,” the speaker continued. He’s speaking my language. Have I not spent the last 18 years peering into this day? Have I not known that each moment we spent together would help guide her down this path? Why are these words causing me to weep?

“Listen when others speak,” he advised. “Have conversations with professors. Write second drafts of essays. Ask for help – perfection is an unattractive quality.” Grit, I thought. Digging deep – that attribute we hope our children develop over years of testing and writing and competing. What she learned on the ski hill. What I hope she left home with. What I know will see her through. What I hope she’s listening to at this very moment.

“Focus on the ordinary,” he continues. My attention is rapt-is hers?  “Build a foundation that will steady you. Have awareness of yourself and your place in the world. Focus on the ordinary. The extraordinary will take care of itself.”

He ends his speech and the crowd applauds. Bagpipers chant and drone their way down the center of the room, the freshmen following behind. She’s one of the last out – I can spot her green and yellow tie dye from the bleachers. I recognize that look on her face – the one where she knows she’s done well and that I’m watching.

Aware of her place in the world – yes she is. Her foundation is rock solid.

She’s ready.

She’s extraordinary.

She can take care of herself.

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pc: Matt Chirico

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe is a mom and middle school teacher who loves nothing more than watching kids be brave, courageous and navigate the world. Travel along with her as she attempts to simultaneously slow down and speed up time by trusting fate and the global community to teach us life’s lessons.

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Consider Life

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A really nice woman died last weekend. 

That’s how I remember her. She was nice. She smiled generously, and always seemed happy. She was a mom, a wife, and a genuinely nice person. Nice is such a vague word, but that’s what she was.

I guess would call her a seasonal acquaintance. Like many moms, we became acquainted by default –  through our kids’ sports. I met her years ago at Alpine Meadows when our kids were both on the same ski racing team. We chatted in the lodge, alongside the race course, and sometimes I’d see her in the locker room. We didn’t know each other the way you know someone in your hometown – we were brought together as ski moms. I remember thinking how her daughter was her ‘mini-me’ – long blond braid poking out from under a ski helmet, both tall, lean and athletic. Equally full of smiles and life.

I wish I’d taken the time to know her better.

Ski racing moms tend to form friendships because we ‘get’ each other – we understand the commitment our kids feel, the effort it takes to get them on the mountain day after day, the determination it takes to keep going through storms, injuries and disappointment. We make easy friends. We feed each other’s kids when they’re hungry, carry their gear and wet jackets into the lodge, and scream for them as they fly down the racecourse. We mother together. We are the support system for our kids and for each other.

When another ski mom texted me to break the news, I was stunned. She was so nice. So happy. So alive. How could someone like her get sick and die within a month? How could her life be abbreviated when she had so much work to do – so much niceness to share with the world? What did she do when she heard her life would be so tragically interrupted?

I wish I understood.

Alongside this loss  is the story of Brittany Maynard, recently diagnosed with Glioblastoma Multiforme. Her story is making the news right now because in response to her diagnosis she chose to move to Oregon, a state in which death with dignity is legal. If you haven’t heard of her yet, click here for more about Brittany.

She is 29 years old, a newlywed, never had children. She is young and beautiful and happy. Full of life. And she wants to die with dignity on November 1.

I wish I could comprehend her bravery.

Two women, two lives not yet completed, two people given the news that they have months to live. One a mother, one longing to cradle a baby. Both with lives reduced to months, both with lives full of promise just a day before.

I can only imagine what would run through my mind. It’s not supposed to happen like this.

I drift back to my day spent in the classroom, struggling to convince twelve and thirteen year olds that they need to learn how to annotate text, search for the main idea, and consider the theme of a novel. I imagine my daughter, far away at college, and wonder what happened in her day –  is she packed for her first college adventure trip with her boyfriend? I hear my son’s music through the wall as he studies in his room, occasionally crutching down the hall to ask for food or help with studying for his geography test. I think of my husband, teaching in his studio as sounds of a Beatles tune being plucked on a ukulele drift through the open door. My dog snuggles at my feet, happy to have company after a day alone. I glance at the floor and see tote bags full of papers to grade, notebooks to read. As I gaze to my left, book cases brim with unread stories and words I just know will fill my mind and heart.

What would I do? What would you do?

Didn’t they believe they could create their own destiny, that they were writing the tale of their life?

Searching for answers, for some sort of way to make sense of this all, I escape into solitude, the only place I know to explore those deep, dark places of the human experience. I find Brittany’s video; I’m fascinated with her composure. I weep watching as her mother wipes away tears, sharing her plan to face her own fears and travel to Machu Pichu, comforted that Brittany will ‘meet’ her there. The only greater pain I can imagine would be to watch my children suffer. As the video concludes, I grab my pen and scribble Brittany’s last words to the camera. They are the answer. They tell me what to do.

“The reason to consider life, and what’s of value, is to make sure you’re not missing out,” she reminds me. “Seize the day, what’s important to you, what do you care about, what matters. Pursue that. Forget the rest.”

Thank you, ladies, thank you. I think I kind of understand.

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe is a mom and middle school teacher who loves nothing more than watching kids be brave, courageous and navigate the world. Travel along with her as she attempts to simultaneously slow down and speed up time by trusting fate and the global community to teach us life’s lessons.

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Choice: It’s What Makes Life Full of Possibility

Choice.

If I had to choose one word I’ve used over and over in parenting and teaching, it would be choice. I learned early on as a parent that simply saying ‘no’ over and over had no lasting effect; if I really wanted something to happen – especially with any sort of chance that it would happen the way I wanted – I needed to give choices.

It went something like this: “What do you want to wear today? You can choose either the red leggings and boots, or the red dress with tights.” Or with my son, “I haven’t decided what to make for dinner tonight –  would you rather have pasta or chicken?” Now, when they don’t respond to my texts or block me from some sort of social media, I feel 100% comfortable saying, “Ok, you can keep me blocked/don’t respond to my texts  and pay the monthly charge for your bill, or you can respond and I will continue to fund your phone.” That one always works.

Choices like these gave my kids a voice, and practicing that on something simple when they were little meant when they were teens, and we had to grapple with the big stuff, they were used to the process. They knew what it felt like to make good – and bad – choices. They understood logical consequences, and sometimes even unintended ones.

As parents, we are obligated to teach our children about choice from an early age. Kids need to know that their life is full of possibility, and certain choices will make doors open and opportunities appear – or disappear. Teenagers are bombarded with choices to make, some small, but at 15, 16 and 17 many are huge and can have lasting impact on their future. Should I post that online? Do my homework or go to bed? Drink and drive? Text and drive? Have sex? The list is endless, really. How do kids know how to trust themselves, how to weigh options and make good choices if they’ve never had any practice?

Giving my middle school students choices has really evolved for me over the years. As a beginning teacher, I felt insecure offering too many choices-I was afraid that if I didn’t set down the rules, chaos would break loose. In reality, when I started giving kids more choice about what they did and how they did it, management mostly became a breeze. Oftentimes I’ll give choices about what they need to do for a particular grade, or what order they need to tackle different parts of a task. As long as they get to the end result that I’m expecting, giving them choices about how they get there allows students to learn how to manage their time, how to push themselves (usually – but not always) and to take a route for learning that makes most sense to them.

Last year, when my daughter was navigating the stressors of senior year and college applications, I found myself repeating and reminding her that all her hard work paid off in all the choices she had between colleges. I tried to keep mum on my strong feelings about one school or another, and let her not only weigh the merits of each college, but also let her listen to her heart and choose the school that felt right.

Ultimately, I think choice is what makes humans stronger. Choice builds character, empowers people, and provides a barometer of how we navigate the world. Having choices teaches us how to be decisive, how to weigh options, but also to listen to ourselves and trust that we can follow our instincts instead of following the crowd. Sometimes, just knowing that we have choice – that every day we choose how we approach the world, how we treat other people, how we spend our time and what we work for – is enough to make the day just a bit brighter, just a bit kinder, just a bit more full of possibility.

This post was inspired by Barracuda by Christos Tsiolkas, a novel where former Olympic hopeful Dan destroys his swimming career and his attempt at redemption after prison. Join From Left to Write on September 30th as we discuss Barracuda. As a member, I received a copy of the book for review purposes.

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe is a mom and middle school teacher who loves nothing more than watching kids be brave, courageous and navigate the world. Travel along with her as she attempts to simultaneously slow down and speed up time by trusting fate and the global community to teach us life’s lessons.

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Mom To Mom, Teacher To Teacher, Writer to Writer: A Conversation With Erin Lindsay McCabe

I Shall Be Near To You by Erin Lindsay McCabe

It’s a good sign when you meet someone for the first time and you’re dressed in identical outfits. I guess Erin Lindsay McCabe and I were both more than a little excited the northern California heat had broken and jeans were finally not too hot and sticky to wear out for coffee.  Paired with cream-colored lace shirts and sandals, we giggled as we looked at each other in person for the first time. This synchronicity started off what would prove to be a delightful Sunday morning chatting about parenting, teaching, writing, and her latest book, I Shall Be Near To You, as we sipped organic coffee (me) and spicy chai (her) and nibbled on freshly made pumpkin muffins and bear claws. I found Erin to be as real as her Civil War character Rosetta as mom to mom, teacher to teacher, writer to writer, we filled three hours in a little bakery/coffee shop in northern California, the start of what I know will be a new friendship – mom to mom, teacher to teacher, writer to writer.

Erin Lindsay McCabe and mamawolfe

I first ‘met’ Erin when I devoured her Civil War era book, I Shall Be Near To You, over the summer. I’ll admit, I was on a historical fiction kick, and jumped at hers after seeing the cover – loved it – and was enticed by the love-story angle of the title. After only a few pages, I adored the main characters, feisty Rosetta and tender Jeremiah – and knew I had to tweet the author right away:

mamawolfeto2: @ErinLindsMcCabe So excited to start#ishallbeneartoyou by @erinlindsmccabe I love Rosetta already! #books #civilwar

ErinLindsMcCabe: @mamawolfeto2 Oh I’m so glad you <3 Rosetta! (Me too!)

mamawolfeto2: @ErinLindsMcCabe Oh yes, I’m hooked! Love how you so tenderly portrayed their ‘practice’ – refreshing #ishallbeneartoyou

ErinLindsMcCabe: @mamawolfeto2 Aw, gotta love Jeremiah too. ; )

mamawolfeto2: @ErinLindsMcCabe oh yes. He surprised me with his sweetness.

mamawolfeto2: @ErinLindsMcCabe just finished#ishallbeneartoyou Wiping away the tears. ❤️

Yes, I devoured this book…and was thrilled to meet a new author who was so eager to talk about her book, her characters, and life as a writing mom. And then life interrupted…

So on that somewhat smoky Sunday morning, inside a brightly lit cafe near the Sierra foothills, we picked up where we left off, and found threads of motherhood, teaching, and writing peppering our three hour conversation:

On motherhood:

I think every writer-mom wonders how a published author ever finds the time to make a book a reality. Turns out, Erin wrote the entire draft of I Shall Be Near To You before her son was born, and spent the early years of his life editing, rewriting, and submitting for publication. We talked about the writer/mom life-balance, so hard to juggle that precious time between naps and preschool and play dates, and the palpable awareness of being present during those years-all years, really-when our children are under our wings. Now working on her next novel, Erin notices an acute change in her writing/editing practice, and devoutly sticks to her ‘1,000 words-a-day’ commitment, something she credits to Anne Lamott and found enormously helpful after reading Bird By Bird. “It’s the doing,” Erin shared with me. “Start with 250 words, then 400, 500, and 1,000.”

On teaching:

I love meeting teachers, especially English teachers. They just GET my life. They understand what it’s like to balance motherhood and work, they understand how emotionally and physically draining teaching all day and then coming home with stacks of papers to grade. Erin GETS it – she spent years working as a high school English teacher in the Bay Area, and then again as a community college writing professor. She understands the challenge of attempting to squeeze out an ounce of creativity before daybreak, or most often for her, late into the night. I had to laugh when she mention her good fortune that her three year old was a night owl-I actually craved those moments when my own two babies were tucked into bed at night and I could choose between grading and writing!

Our conversations circled around how to teach controversial novels, what was just the right amount of feedback to give students, and how we wished our kids would dig deeper into their writing and not give up with a first draft. Her inclusion of ‘hot topics’ in I Shall Be Near To You, such as homosexuality, war, young love and even profanity have caused some controversy for a few of her readers, but for me, her choices not only provided a realistic story line and characterizations, but also shrunk the time between the Civil War and what humanity is still dealing with today. I loved making the teacher-writer connection, and her eagerness to jump right back into teacher-mode was evident when we started to chat about writing – our writing.

On writing:

Erin knew how much I adored I Shall Be Near To You before I met her, and after listening to our conversation swirl in and out of motherhood and teaching, I realized how closely woven her life was with the book and characters, it actually made me love it more! As a lover of historical fiction, I couldn’t wait to ask her how she approached the idea of historical accuracy – something I know requires not only tremendous research, but also carries with it tremendous risk that historians will dismiss her story as too fictionalized. Turns out, the idea that the story of her real-life main character, Rosetta, would be lost due to errors in historical accuracy was foremost on her mind during the writing and editing process. Erin’s choices to depict battle scenes as accurately as possible not only added depth and grittiness to the finished novel, but also were the hardest to write-after writing each battle scene she described herself as being in a ‘dark place’. She found herself attempting to balance just the right amount of detail for authenticity with the numbness that would come with an overabundance of the gore that Civil War soldiers experienced. Interestingly, she intentionally chose not to directly include slavery in the novel, feeling that after 10 years of reading and researching the ‘real’ Rosetta’s letters written during the Civil War, it wasn’t part of what she recorded and therefore not authentic to the character’s story.

Our coffee drained, pastries long gone, and families wondering if we’d ever come home, Erin and I ended our mom-teacher-writer conversation with hugs and expectations: new writing, new conversations, new friendship. What a lovely morning, what a lovely writer.

You absolutely don’t want to miss I Shall Be Near To You, Erin Lindsay McCabe’s ‘extraordinary novel about a strong-willed woman who disguises herself as a man in order to fight beside her husband in the Union Army, inspired by the letters of a remarkable female soldier who fought in the Civil War.’ Now out in paperback!

Jennifer Wolfe

Jennifer Wolfe is a mom and middle school teacher who loves nothing more than watching kids be brave, courageous and navigate the world. Travel along with her as she attempts to simultaneously slow down and speed up time by trusting fate and the global community to teach us life’s lessons.

More Posts - Website

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