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What I learned from Clark Griswold

Some of you may already know this, but my family and I just returned from a two week vacation in which we rented a 30 foot motor home and drove over 2,500 miles,  across 6 states, visiting 5 national parks including the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone NP. While some people might cringe at the idea of spending two weeks in a 300 square foot box on wheels with three kids and their spouse, this was actually a vacation I’d dreamed of for a long time. I wanted to have a real-life Griswold Family Vacation (minus the dead great-aunt and dog)!

The decision to make the trip this year had a lot to do with me turning 40 and wanting to check-off a few things on the bucket list. But when my husband had a stroke less than a month before the trip, the significance and meaning of this trip took on even greater magnitude.

love at the Grand Canyon

I had begun planning for this trip months earlier. As I researched and evaluated each stop, campground, and driving route, I dreamed of the family time spent around a campfire; of my kids happily playing card games at the table while their Dad or I drove to the next destination; of the life-long memories we’d make together seeing some of the greatest sites in the country.

But as the trip got closer and closer I started to realize my ideas of the perfect family vacation spent on the road were highly optimistic, if not entirely unrealistic. I began to worry that I was building-up this vacation too much in my mind and that could only lead to disappointment when things didn’t go as planned. I jokingly referred to myself as the female Clark Griswold, but when I began to list the things that could  go wrong on our real-life Griswold Ballon Family Vacation, and calculate the chances I might have my own Clark Griswold-esque meltdown, I wondered: did I really want to try and pull this off? Wasn’t I just setting myself up for a huge, expensive disaster?

So I tell you truthfully, there was no small amount of anxiety plaguing me in the days before we left, and even the first few days of the trip. But I decided the best thing to do was try to stay flexible (completely out of character for me), and know that things might go wrong, but that didn’t mean the vacation would be ruined.

And you know what? For the most part the trip went off without a hitch. Sure, we had a few minor issues, but none of them were enough to ruin an entire vacation, or at least we didn’t let them become so important they were allowed to ruin any one day of our trip.

It was, indeed, a wonderful vacation. And while I liked to tease the kids that I was making them learn on their summer break by going to places like the Pueblo Indian cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde National Park, or reading about the geological history of the Grand Canyon, I think I was the one who learned the most on this trip. Channeling my inner “Sparky” taught me a lot about myself and my family. Here are just a few of those things:

Be a family first.
In “National Lampoon’s Vacation” you hear Clark say over and over, “Why? because we’re the Griswolds!” I can’t say that I’ve ever said to my kids, “Why? because we’re Ballons! But I did learn from this trip that establishing  identity as a family creates unity.

Today there are so many places in which people claim an identity — even kids. We’re runners, dancers, drummers, teachers, students, etc. We belong to our employer or our school, our church and our clubs. And there is a sense of unity that comes when you claim them. Often they begin to define us. It becomes easy to forget that the first place we belonged was a family.

By spending such a concentrated amount of time together — away from our jobs, schools, and friends — we were able to just be a family. To be the Ballons. For 15 days straight we got to experience these wonderful places and things,  together. We will always have that. And while others may take similar trips and see similar sights, none will have the exact same experience that the five of us had together.

Garden of the Gods

Arkansas River

Sisters

 

When things don’t go as planned, have a Plan B, even if you make it up as you go!
Like I mentioned above, I had a great deal of anxiety leading up to the trip as I thought of every thing that could potentially go wrong.  Overall, we were fortunate that none of my biggest fears came to light. However, I don’t think it’s possible to go on a 2 week road trip and not have something go awry, and our trip was no exception.

We found out two days before we were to pick up the RV that we were not going to be able to get it before 4 p.m., when we had figured on a 1 p.m. pick-up. This meant not only a 3 hour delay, but also dealing with rush hour traffic in Denver. It didn’t take long to figure out that our original plan to drive three and a half hours that first day was not going to work out. After getting over the initial frustration, we looked for a new, closer destination for our first night and adjusted our plans accordingly. As it turns out, we loved the campground we stayed at the first night, even if it was a short stay, and by dedicating our second day to driving (originally we were going to visit Sand Dunes National Park, but had to scratch that plan to allow for a longer drive), we were able to go slower and enjoy everything we saw (see number 4).

Grand Canyon

Grand Canyon tower

Jelise at the Grand Canyon

My body is still strong, even when it hurts.
So the truth is that I’ve been mourning the days when I was more fit and exercise wasn’t quite so hard. Turning 40 has magnified a lot of the things I don’t appreciate about the aging process…and gravity. But on this trip we did a lot of hiking and moving. In fact my fitness tracker calculate I walked over 140,400 steps, or 66 miles in two weeks! And I can tell you a big portion of that included some strenuous, up-hill hikes, and even climbing wooden ladders through rock crevices in Mesa Verde.

Of course, it hurt. I was physically exhausted each night, and took a few more ibuprofen than usual. But I did it. And it felt good. This 40 year old body is still strong and capable of new challenges.

Bryce Canyon

Mammoth Hot Springs, Yellowstone

Sunset over the Grand Canyon

Enjoy the unexpected moments.
I’m a planner. Like my Sparky namesake, I spent a lot of time mapping out routes, researching parks, reading reviews, and making reservations. But, like I mentioned above, on a trip like this you will have moments that don’t go as planned. However, what really surprised me were the unexpected sights and experiences that became some of my favorite moments of the trip.

For example, day two’s focus was on driving from Buena Vista, CO to Cortez, CO. The most direct route that Google Maps indicated was a 5 hour trip through the Rio Grande National Forest, so that’s what we did. What I didn’t know was that this path would take us through an area called Wolf Creek Pass, which was not only a beautiful drive across the San Juan Mountains, reaching 10,000 feet elevation, but it brought us across the Continental Divide, provided an unplanned snowball fight, and hike to see Treasure Falls. It was one of my most favorite days, not just of the trip, but of all time. Totally unplanned and unexpected.

Snowball fight at Wolf Creek Pass

Bison baby at Yellowstone

Bottom of Bryce Canyon

Everyone is allowed at least one meltdown.
So, Clark Griswold’s meltdown in the movie is pretty iconic and long been quoted. Watching the movie before we left I laughed nervously at that scene because I could totally relate to how he felt in that moment and knew that I was fully capable of having a similar meltdown if faced with a trip where it was one disaster after another, and a vehicle full of whiny, complaining family members.

I confess, that it didn’t even take a series of ridiculous events to trigger my meltdown. On our second-to-last night in the RV it took nothing more than fatigue, lack of fire-wood, and a slightly ruined dinner. While I was at least about my wits enough to know I needed a time-out and went to bed early, it was not my finest moment. As soon as my head hit the pillow I felt guilty. The next morning before we left our campsite I gathered my family to apologize and I was met with the most unbelievable grace and love. They understood and forgave. And then they all thanked me for the planning and effort I put into the vacation. It was a very sweet moment and reminded me that everyone is bound to mess up, it’s how we deal with the mess-up afterwards that matters.

Old Faithful

Cliff Palace at Mesa Verde

Horseshoe Bend - Page, AZ

There was so much more I learned about myself, my family, and my country on this trip. But I realize this is already a pretty long post, so I’ll wrap it up with this: spend long periods of time with your family, disconnected from electronics. Take long drives and explore places you’ve never been. Be willing to let plans change, and make unexpected stops. And remember, if things go wrong, if you get pushed passed your breaking point, if you have a Clark Griswold meltdown moment, things always look better under the light of a new day and an apology.

 

 

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The unexpected Thanksgiving gift

Christmas may be the holiday best-known for giving and receiving gifts, but just a few weeks ago I experienced an unexpected gift on Thanksgiving. A gift that will live in my heart forever.

Before I tell you what the gift was, I have to tell you a little bit about my family. Families are usually the people who have known you the longest, and yet sometimes you feel like they don’t really know you at all. Misplaced loyalties, unspoken expectations, and strong personalities can often lead to hurt feelings, tense moments, and even estrangement. Families can be complicated, and mine is no exception.

My family tree is a little more like a juniper bush – dense and wide spread. Due to divorces and re-marriages, I have many I consider family that are not blood related. I have two moms who raised me at different stages of my childhood and a lot of aunts and uncles and cousins. I also grew up knowing and loving three grandmothers and two grandfathers. When I was a little girl I spent a good bit of time with my grandparents during holidays and summers.

I remember a lot of family dinners at my Grandma and Pappy’s house (my dad’s parents). Their house was the central hub for my  dad’s three siblings and all their kids to gather. It was always loud…there was usually a football game being watched in the basement, aunts chattering in the living room, and kids playing on the floor or running in the yard. My Pappy was always trying to pull a coin out of someone’s ear and my uncles were relentlessly teasing someone — usually my aunt, me or my sister. It was a bit chaotic and not always happy, but it was family. It brought us together and my Grandma was the central force in that.

When I was 13 things changed. My Pappy died. For several years we all continued to gather at my Grandma’s house, but things weren’t quite the same. A few years went by, some family moved out of state, I went off to college, my dad and step-mom got divorced and suddenly there weren’t big family gatherings at Grandma’s anymore. Or at least they were a lot less frequent and smaller.

During the next few years I didn’t see my Grandma very often. And when I did I usually got a bit of a guilt trip for the lack of frequency of those visits. If there was an Olympic sport in handing out guilt trips, my Grandma could take home the gold. I laugh now, but back then I didn’t.

The honest truth is it was not always easy to visit with her. I wasn’t sure what to talk about. I took everything she said very personally, which often led to hurt feelings. I was wrapped up in my world as a young wife and professional and I felt like she just didn’t understand my life. Of course I didn’t really make much of an attempt to understand hers, either.

Things changed a little bit when I had my kids. They were, and still are, her only great-grandchildren and she really treasured that. I wouldn’t say that the frequency of visits improved much or we became closer, but at least now when we visited we had the kids to focus on as our common ground.

During my early 20’s and 30’s I lost both of my grandparents from my mom’s side, whom I had been close to. We also lost my uncle Bill, my dad’s brother, who was just 50 when he died. It was incredibly painful to watch my Grandma go through the loss of a child. I remember her saying to me after the funeral that parents aren’t supposed to out-live their children. As a mother of three I couldn’t begin to imagine what that was like for her. But it was then that I started to see her in a different light. I saw her not just as my Grandma, but as a woman. A woman whose greatest joy in life had been being a wife and mother. She had lost her husband and then a child. I suddenly saw how strong she was and even began to understand that the “guilt trips” came from a place of genuine longing to be with her family.

Late last year my step-Grandma passed away and I found myself with only one living grandparent, and a lot of regrets for time not spent with the ones I had lost.

In March we celebrated my Grandma’s 90th birthday. I took on the project of putting together a photo book of her life and it was a special gift for me to go through these old photos of her as a girl, young bride, and mother…to take a look at the journey of her life. Being my only living grandparent, I silently vowed I would spend more time visiting and calling…

…then two months ago I got a call that my Grandma was sick and in the hospital. The details didn’t sound promising. After a few days in the hospital they moved her to a rehab facility. She didn’t do well there. She couldn’t rest, she ended up with bronchitis and almost developed pneumonia. After several weeks of her being there and some conversations with my aunt I agreed we needed to get her out and offered for her to come stay with us. I wasn’t sure how long she would need me, but made arrangements with work so I could be home with her.

Grandma was only with us for one week, the week of Thanksgiving, but that time was a gift I will not soon forget. It was a week of sitting around the table drinking tea and talking, watching her play checkers with her great-grandson, and shopping together for new clothes. It was time spent napping in a recliner while a Hallmark movie played in the background, eating too much food, and reminiscing about times past. I got to hear about her first job cleaning outhouses at the public school, and how she saved that money to buy a yearbook and go to her senior party.

There were lots of hugs and kind words shared. And for just one brief week, Grandma let herself be taken care of by someone else, in the way she’d taken care of her family for so many years.

In 39 years of being grandmother and granddaughter, I don’t think anything we’ve experienced made me feel as close to her as that week did. And I’m sure that’s partly due to my age and a bit of perspective…things look a little different in middle age than they did in my 20’s.

I’m learning to let go of old hurts and unspoken expectations, to lower my walls and get rid of fear. I’m learning to focus on what really matters and family is at the heart of that.

I hope in ten years we’ll be celebrating Grandma’s 100th birthday and there will be many, many visits and phone calls in between. But the truth is, I don’t know what tomorrow will bring.

If you have kept family at a distance, or let old hurts linger, causing separation; if you are waiting for tomorrow or next week to pick up the phone and tell someone you love them or go visit that relative…I just want to ask you this one question: what if tomorrow never comes?

Don’t wait. Let go of your fears and your pride and do it today. Even if it’s hard and messy, it will still be worth it. And you might just be surprised at the results.

Let’s all give ourselves that most precious, beautiful gift.

The gift of time.

 

 

Finding your tribe – 5 unconventional tips for forming meaningful, lasting friendships

I recall walking into the kitchen and seeing the giant pot simmering on the stove as the hearty aroma filled the house.

“Whatcha making?” I asked my step-mom.

“It’s chicken soup. My friend Sue is having surgery tomorrow and I wanted to bring her some soup,” she replied.

This was a common occurrence in our house. Whether it was making soup, dog-sitting, sharing lawnmowers, an evening out, or simply talking on the phone, I watched how these relationships developed and evolved over the years and realized what my step-mom had was more than just friendships. While I didn’t have any sort of label for it then, I saw this closely-knit group of people made up of neighbors, colleagues, sisters, and other friends support each other through raising children, changing jobs, moving homes, battling illness, surviving divorce, losing loved ones, and celebrating life’s milestones; and whatever it was called, I hoped one day I’d know it, too.

I wanted a group of friends who became an extension of my family.

Friends who frequented my kitchen often enough to help themselves.

Friends who knew my children so well they could kiss a boo-boo and scold them for climbing on the sofa in the same breath.

Friends who called when they needed help, support, or prayers. And who, in return, were there at the drop-of-a-hat when we needed the same.

I wanted a tribe of people to “do life” with.

After graduating college and getting married, I thought finding my tribe would be easy. While at college I met some of the sweetest, best friends anyone could have, and I’m so thankful these girls continue to be a big part of my life today. But after graduation we all scattered to different states and cities, and I felt lonely. I longed for friends that were closer to our new home.

My husband and I joined a church, and I found a great job. There were lots of young couples and I thought surely this was where we’d find our tribe. But somehow, it didn’t happen. People were busy. They had previous engagements with other friends. We didn’t click. We had different values. Whatever the reasons, I suddenly realized making adult friends — the kind of close, family-like friends I wanted — was not going to be as easy as I thought.

It’s been 16 years since officially entering the “adult world” and today I am blessed with the most amazing group of friends. Many of these friends I consider my family. We support each other, pray for each other, raise our kids together, and laugh together — a lot of laughter.

They are my tribe.

My tribe
Doing life with some of my tribe.

 

But it was definitely a journey to get here, one that took the better-part of a decade and is still going. I’ve learned a lot along the way. Conventional advice like “find people with similar interests” or “join a club/committee/gym/church” is definitely good advice. However, I’ve found a few bits of unconventional wisdom that have worked for me.

So for every 20-something trying to navigate the road of “friendship-after-college”; for every 30-something wondering where are all of the “couple friends” you thought you’d have by now; for every 40-something longing for a support system, here are my five (unconventional) tips for finding your tribe.

1. Seek out those who are in need of a friend.
Whether they are the new family down the block, the co-worker going through a divorce, or the newly widowed woman at church, seek out the people who need a friend. Nothing forms a bond faster than offering your friendship to someone who really needs it.

That doesn’t mean you can’t become great friends with that outgoing couple that knows everyone in town.  But, it may take longer to develop a close friendship with someone who is already nurturing a lot of relationships. Plus, when we approach friendship with the mind-set of what we can give, rather than focusing on what we will get, it usually blesses us ten-fold.

2. Invite people in to your life and home — mess and all!
It used to be that when I first befriended someone new I would put on that “new friend” veneer — you know, always with a smile on my face, agreeable demeanor, clean the house for hours before inviting them over, pretend everything my children did in front of them was precious, etc. Not only does this get exhausting, but it’s not real!

I don’t know about you, but my life is messy! There are usually dirty dishes in the sink, and dirty clothes on my children. I have bad days. I have days I don’t get out of my pajamas because I just never got around to it. And sometimes my children drive me crazy and I want to sell them to gypsies. That’s the real me. And I have found the sooner I let my guard down and let people see the authentic me — mess and all — the sooner the friendship gets real. Because most of my tribe? Their life is kinda messy, too. So we get it and we love each other not in spite of our mess, but because of it.

3. Host/join a small group Bible/book study
Here it is, plain and simple: most of the close friends my husband and I have — our tribe — we either met or got to know better through a small group study. Whether it’s a book club, Bible study, prayer group, etc, there is something powerful in coming together with other people on a regular basis to study and discuss a similar topic. The focused nature and smaller numbers usually creates meaningful conversation, which can accelerate a friendship like little else I’ve seen.

I’m partial to Bible study groups because I believe coming together under the blanket of God’s word is second-to-none. But if you are not ready for that, then seek out a book club or parenting group. Just as long as it’s relatively small in number (15 people or less), meets regularly, and has a formula for guided discussion that will get people talking and opening up.

4. Channel your inner nine-year-old
Have you ever seen an 8 or 9 year old on a playground? The moment they arrive they seek out other kids to play with. Usually it takes my kids no longer than 15 minutes to come over and introduce me to their new friend(s).

The best part is they have no criteria, check-list, or pre-conceived notions that must be met. My kids don’t approach the playground and say, “hmm, let me find other girls who look like me,” or “I only want to play with boys who like the slide the best.” And at this age they don’t suffer from the insecurities that start to inflict us right around those icky pre-teen years. I assure you it doesn’t even occur to my 9-year-olds that the other kids on the playground won’t want to play because to them everyone is a potential friend.

Wouldn’t it be great if we adults approached meeting new people in the same way? If we looked at every person we met as a potential friend, without going through some mental pre-qualification check-list? Or what if we never let apprehension or a lack of confidence convince us we’re not worthy of approaching someone else? It could be pretty darn amazing.

I can’t say that I’m very good at this myself. However, there have been a few instances that I let my guard down and embraced my inner nine-year-old-on-the-playground, and you know what? Almost every time I was rewarded.

5. Pray about it.
About four years ago I really started to feel frustrated that my husband and I just couldn’t seem to develop close friendships with any of the couples we’d met at our new church. We had joined a young couple’s Bible study and, while everyone was nice, most of them had known each other for a while and we didn’t feel like we were connecting. After some hurtful things were said we left the group and I even considered looking for a different church. But before making a decision I went to God and prayed. I asked Him to bring some godly friends into our lives and help us find where we belonged.

The next week I found out the new minister at our church had moved to our neighborhood and, along with his wife, was going to start a small group that met around the corner from us. Two weeks later we went to the first meeting. I didn’t know it at the time, but the people we met that night would quickly become part of our extended family and some of our best friends. They are the people we “do life with” and ultimately that small group evolved into a new church plant.

I prayed for friends and God brought us into a new family, one that has supported us, loved us, and worshiped with us for four years now. God’s plans are so much greater than our own and when we are willing to ask, He faithfully meets us where we are.

If you are struggling to find your tribe or make adult friends, I encourage you to try some of these ideas and see how they work for you. Most of all, take heart: deep, meaningful relationships aren’t made overnight. They take time to cultivate and develop, but God called us to be in relationship with others and He will bring the right people into your life.

I’d also love to hear what has worked for you in finding close friends as an adult. Any other (unconventional) tips you want to share?