Red Light Days

As a mom of three children, there are two types of mornings.

Some mornings they wake up of their own accord, their circadian rhythms attuned to the customary 6:30 a.m. nudge and the light in the hallway switching on to ease them gently from their sleep. On these days they scurry down the stairs while I’m still packing their lunch boxes or standing at the kitchen counter with a bowl of cereal and a cup of lukewarm coffee, the creamer a faint swirl on the surface. They slip into a chair and ask for waffles with whipped cream – Eggo, obviously, not homemade. While they eat we listen to music they request, anything from Hamilton to Fallout Boy to a children’s musical duo who go by the name Koo Koo Kanga Roo.

I wouldn’t say these mornings are easy – mornings with my girls are never as simple as that – but there is a serendipitous feeling to them, a notion of things falling into place. We get ourselves into the car, dropping the older two off at elementary school before my four-year-old and I continue on to preschool down a stretch of Main Street interrupted by traffic lights at nearly every intersection. On what we like to call Green Light Days, we hit the timing just right, gliding under light after light without even slowing down. When we spot a red light up ahead, my youngest waves her imaginary wand and commands, “Change, light! Be green!”  When it does, I exclaim over the awesomeness of her magical powers, which makes her giggle.  

It is the best possible way to begin a day.

Of course, the opposite of a Green Light morning is a Red Light morning. And while I’m sure it isn’t actually the case, it feels like the days when all the lights are red are also the ones when everything at home is going wrong, when one of the girls wakes up on the wrong side of the bed and takes it out on me and her sisters, and all of the breakfast options are terrible and her hair won’t lay flat and if anyone looks at her they’re bound to get screamed at. On Red Light Days, shoes cannot be found, and someone hits someone else on the way out the door, and usually there are tears – theirs, mine, or both. After unburdening myself of the big kids, we crawl down Main Street, gritting my teeth at every stop. Why is the universe aligned against me? Why can’t I just MOVE at the pace I want to MOVE? When we get to the preschool, I pry my daughter off of my leg and hand her over without looking back.

It used to take me a long time to recover from a Red Light morning. But since I began to notice the ways these colors shaped my day, since I began to say to myself, as the lights turned from green to yellow to red, I guess today’s just a Red Light kind of day, I find it easier to smile and shake off the stupidity of all the morning’s arguments.

Sure, I get where I’m going faster on Green Light Days. There’s something powerful about the feeling that there’s a red (or green?) carpet rolled out before me, that the whole world is giving me the right of way. There are times when we all need to feel that way. On Green Light Days I get to congratulate myself: Look at that. Me and my kids, on our way, getting the day started on the right foot. We’re happy, we’re smiling. I must be doing something right. 

I realized, eventually, that there is a beauty, too, in the Red Light Day. True, on Red Light Days, my imperfections take center stage. My children’s too. We are messy and mean. We don’t often think before we speak. We let our frustrations boil over, and everything becomes about me, me, me, me. Everything is a little bit harder than we want it to be, even the simple act of getting from one place to another.

After enduring all the negativity of such a morning, it was difficult for me not to view the wave of red lights as a punishment, a cosmic joke of which I was the butt. All I was trying to do was get on with my day, and I was being THWARTED, damn it!

Or was I? STOP, the red lights said. As I breathed impatiently through my nose, replaying my tone of voice when I yelled, kicking myself for waking the girls up five minutes later than usual, the lights told me again. STOP. Stop the rushing, the blaming, the regrets. Stop comparing yourself to others, your kids to other kids. Stop comparing today to yesterday. Stop wishing that every day was a Green Light Day. It won’t be. When one comes along, take notice. Enjoy it. Those days are a gift, but so are the hard ones. The red lights aren’t there to thwart us, they are there to remind us.

When we view a masterpiece, do we walk by it? Drive past with a cursory glance? No. The act of appreciation, of our lives, our children, ourselves – it takes a pause to appreciate a masterpiece like that. It takes a full stop.

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At Thanksgiving, Feeling Thankful Isn’t Enough

Thanksgiving (known to many as “Pre-Christmas”) is next week, and I’ve been seeing gratitude posts all over social media, a kind of “Thank-down” to Turkey Day. Many of these posts are genuine and heartfelt; others, I’d guess, are for the sake of appearances. Because if you don’t participate in the Thank-down, all of your followers will think you’re an ungrateful jerk. Obviously.

As someone who’s been an enthusiastic gratitude poster in the past, I totally get it. Feeling thankful feels good. Having to come up with a post for each day allows you to really examine and appreciate your blessings. It’s not a bad thing.

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Thankful for these three for sure. 

What I’d like to do, however, is to propose a Thank-down, version 2.0. A verbal Thank-down. A personal, not a public, Thank-down. Maybe it would go a little like this:

Call your mom. Say Thank you, mom, for literally everything. Thank you for feeding me and tucking me in and making it to all of my track meets, every one. Thank you for trying to make me a decent human being, even when it took the form of you ramming my door with the vacuum cleaner over and over again that morning I was hungover on college break. I’m sure I deserved that.

Then call your dad. His own phone call, not just I’m talking to you because I already talked to mom. Call him first, even. Hey, dad. Thanks for teaching me how to drive. Thanks for always telling me I could stand to put on some weight.  Thank you for that time you took me to see Bush when I was twelve and I spent the whole time screaming, “I love you, Gavin!” That was pretty much the coolest thing ever.

If your parents were terrible people, call or write or message the person that gave love to kid-you. Let them know that you made it to adulthood, and they’re part of the reason why.



Thankful for my original fam.

Thank your friends. You’re awesome and I love you. Thank you for being generally amazing. Who doesn’t want to get that text?

If you have siblings, thank them. Even if it’s completely unspecific, it’s still nice. Thank you for being my sister. (As if they had any say.)

Thank your spouse or significant other for choosing you. Thank them for putting up with all your bullshit, day in and day out. I could – and probably should – write my husband a ten-page letter telling him all of the reasons I’m thankful for him. Do this with no expectation of getting a letter in return, because gratitude is unconditional.

The same goes for your children, who most likely reside way up at the peak of your gratitude pyramid. Ask them, Do you know why I’m thankful for you? Tell them until they get bored and wander away. Tomorrow, ask them the same question. See if they were listening. I bet they were.

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Thankful for beautiful details. 

Thank as many people as you possibly can, anyone you see whom you have the slightest reason to thank. The school crossing guard. The custodian. Thank your doctors and nurses, policemen and rescue workers. Thank your elected officials – then make sure they know just what they can do to best represent you. Thank every teacher you or your children have ever had; thank them over and over again for the time they invest in our country’s future. Thank the barista who hands you your morning coffee. Give a grateful wave to the driver who lets you merge. Go out of your way to look for people to thank.

Thank God, your god, whatever that looks like to you. Out loud, like you mean it. Thank your religious leaders, who do the difficult work of trying to usher us selfish people toward goodness.

And remember, Thanksgiving isn’t a deadline. It doesn’t have to be the culmination of gratitude. In fact, it can be the perfect starting point.

P.S. If you read this, thank you.