Nowhere Near Perfect
Sarah Schwab's imperfect blog
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Balancing Act

January 13, 2013   

I’m getting busy. Really busy. I know, I know, everyone is busy these days. We live in a very busy culture. I’m not so sure that is a good thing, but I’m getting ahead of myself.

I’m taking on more time at the part time job I am working. I’m officially launching my own business, and joined a program to make sure that I stay on track with it. Those two things are relatively new and could easily take up all of my time, except that I still have all the things that used to take up all of my time. I have three kids to raise and house to maintain. I also have an ailing mother in another state. And I have a creative streak that is a vital part of who I am… and a body I try to keep healthy… and friendships I am trying to foster and maintain… How can I keep up with it all?

Yesterday, I told Joe that the next several months are going to be a bit like a residency for me. See, Joe actually went through a medical residency in which he worked 80 hours per week (at least) for 5 years. The way I see it, even though my work doesn’t look anything like his, and I happen to be home more often, I need the discipline and long hours of a residency to accomplish my goals this year.

But then I remembered something I wrote in 2007 during the peak of Joe’s residency. It was an essay for the NPR program “This I Believe.” (I’m an NPR junkie, if you haven’t noticed). I submitted it, and nothing ever happened, but it is still true. My life looked a little different then, but it was good for me to revisit my belief as I look toward the near future:

I Believe in Balance (For NPR’s “This I Believe”)

I believe in striving for a balanced life.  I am a mother of two toddlers, a consultant for nonprofit organizations, someone trying to stay in shape, fuel my creative spirit, be a global citizen.  I could write an entire essay about any one of these things.  But, I have come to realize that the most important thing is just trying to keep all of them in my life.

Oh, did I mention I’m also a doctor’s wife?  My husband, Joe, is an orthopaedic surgery resident.  My belief in balance has been confirmed over the past two years – six if you count medical school – as I watched my husband’s life be consumed by medicine.  Don’t get me wrong, medicine is a noble profession, but I can’t imagine having such a singular existence.

Tonight, Joe came home after a 32-hour shift, too tired to give our kids the quality daddy time they so desperately want.  He fell asleep in a chair after dinner.  So, our 2 and 3-year-olds helped me take daddy upstairs, tuck him in bed, and kiss him good night.

Besides work and sleep, Joe doesn’t have time for anything else.  Typically, he doesn’t even have time for three meals a day.

I believe that people need many things in their life to be fulfilled.  I believe extremism in any single facet of one’s life is limiting to the human spirit.  Joe’s extreme work situation is constraining his creativity, spirituality, relationships.  I know he misses spending time with the kids and me, and doing things that feed his soul like playing the guitar, building things, and even making a good home-brewed beer.

As for me, I try to find balance in my life.  In addition to raising our two children, doing my work, and maintaining our home, I’m also trying to go to the gym regularly, take voice lessons, volunteer at church, learn a new language.  Then I realize I’ve achieved extreme busyness.  True balance means also having some down time, some reflective and relaxing moments along with the busy times.  I’m not sure I’ll ever find the perfect balance, or even that it exists.  But I find fulfillment in having many facets to my life, and to my self.

Right now, having quality time with my husband is one of the things that is out of balance, for both of us.  Although, the other night, he stayed awake to spend a half an hour singing duets with his guitar for old time’s sake.

Holiday Cheers

December 22, 2012   

Sarah on the Radio

Yesterday, I went to the studios of Wisconsin Public Radio and interviewed with some producers from NPR in Washington D.C. for a segment on All Things Considered. I was so excited and nervous that the interview didn’t go anything like I had imagined or hoped. But hopefully they got enough useable content for their piece, which will air on Christmas Eve or Christmas day.

It all came about when I heard a request for stories about food that people eat on Christmas. “I have to do this!” I thought. Our family Christmas is steeped in all kinds of traditions, though not many of them involve food… unless you count a 7-layer taco dip. So I decided to write about the holiday drink that my family has been serving for 29 years. Here is the essay I submitted:

My Favorite Christmas … Drink

My favorite culinary Christmas tradition isn’t actually food… it’s a drink. Whenever the family gathered at our house for Christmas, the dinner was always different. But there was one thing you could count on. As the adults were sitting and chatting, my dad would bring out a tray of “Holiday Harveys.” It seems like we may be the only family who still knows of this drink, since Google came up surprisingly empty when I searched for “Holiday Harvey.” Not a single hit!

A Holiday Harvey is based on the “Harvey Wallbanger,” a drink made with orange juice, a shot of vodka, and a splash of Galliano liqueur on top. My mom found the recipe in a 1983 issue of Good Housekeeping, and we still have the clipping today. The Holiday Harvey uses Five Alive instead of orange juice for a brighter citrus taste. Though, the original recipe called for “Squeeze Six,” a citrus juice drink that no longer exists.

But more important than the drink itself were the tall, lime-green frosted Blendo tumblers that they were served in. Our whole family has a sentimental attachment to those green “Holiday Harvey” glasses. The tray my dad carried glowed like the northern lights. Unfortunately, over the years, their numbers diminished and we had to use other serving ware. But a Holiday Harvey never tastes quite as good, at least to us, as one served in a tall lime-green glass.

As a child, I was, of course, not allowed to partake. But as my cousins and siblings and I grew older, getting handed a Holiday Harvey of our own was like an initiation to adulthood. With time, as our family grew, we introduced this drink to significant others and spouses. While some were skeptical at first, everyone came to look forward to their Holiday Harvey at Christmas.

Holiday Harvey GlassesI remember one year my dad interrupted the conversation to ask what everyone wanted to drink. Perhaps he thought it was time to move on or that some people might want something else. But everyone looked at him with confused expressions on their faces. “Aren’t we having Holiday Harveys?!” And ten minutes later, the tray appeared and we haven’t questioned the tradition since.

Inspired by this assignment, I went on a search, and this time Google did not let me down. I was able to find the exact same vintage tumblers, and I can’t wait to surprise my family this year with a lime-green tray of Holiday Harveys.

Cheers and Merry Christmas!

Where are the brakes?

December 20, 2012   

It has been two months since I last wrote. That is an eternity on the internet. I watched the days slip by, some ideas came and went, but I never wrote them down.

There are two reasons for my silence. First, I’m finding it a lot harder to write when I am home. It is a realization that has become part of the definition of “home” for me.

Home n. (hōm): A place where things are so normal, they don’t seem interesting enough to write about on your blog.

Things are also much more personal at home. When I was writing in Switzerland, it was about all the things that were going on around me, or things that were happening to me. And though they were part of my life at the time, that chapter of my life feels like a separate book. Like I put my “real life” on hold for a while to have that experience. And the experience itself was a constant flow of things to write about.

Here, when things happen, they don’t just feel like part of a fun adventure. They are part of my life. And it is a lot scarier to write about real life choices and struggles and joys. But I’m working on it.

The second thing that makes it harder to write now is that I am so much busier. Being home also means that I have more responsibilities, more things to do, and a lot more stuff. I am engaged in things I enjoy, but sometimes I feel like I’m running around like a chicken with my head cut off. The other day I found myself missing not having a car. I laughed because the thing I missed most often in Switzerland was my car. But now I feel tied to it. There is hardly anything I can do without it.

I had intended to slowly reintegrate myself, being careful not to get involved in too much too quickly. Apparently I’m not very good at that. Now I manage our household with three kids, sit on a volunteer committee, have a part time job, and I’m starting my own business. (More on that soon, I promise!)

So, perhaps this space is a reminder for me to slow down. To really experience things and to find the courage to share them.

Concert Week

October 18, 2012   

 

Choir

Singing is part of my identity. I have been singing for as long as I can remember. With a music teacher for a mother, and a father who is musically… enthusiastic, it was just natural. I sang in the children’s choir at church, which my mom accompanied. And I still remember my first solo performance — I sang “The Rose” in my 5th grade talent show.

From then on, I was always singing in choirs. My choir teacher in High School, Mr. Squires, was one of the biggest influences in my life. Beyond making music, he taught us about priorities and discipline and responsibility. Some people learned these things through sports, but I learned them in the choir room. That’s where I made friends and also had a ton of fun. I traveled to Europe for the first time with my High School choir, which began my love affair with exploring the world.

I especially remember Mr. Squires during concert week. Each spring he created a freestyle concert called “Celebration” that featured the school choirs as well as students performing solos and group numbers. It was a lot to coordinate, and we would practice every day after school until late in the evening during concert week. There were two things Mr. Squires told us during concert week. First, “drink until you pee clear.” So, all the choir geeks would walk around with water bottles during school drinking as much water as we could to stay hydrated. Second, “don’t get sick. If your body says its feeling sick, just tell it ‘that’s not allowed. You can get sick after the concert, but not this week.’” We pushed through the ups and downs, and created great concerts.

Singing has continued to be a part of my life in varying degrees. I joined a choir in college, took more voice lessons along the way, and when we moved to Milwaukee, the first thing I looked up was a choir to join. That is how I found my first job in Milwaukee as the Managing Director of the Bel Canto Chorus. I worked with wonderful people and talented musicians who continued to shape me as a person. And again, in Switzerland, joining the local choir was how I met people and stayed sane during the challenges of living abroad. Being in a choir is a familiar experience for me, and making music with other people breaks down cultural and language barriers like magic. It was like coming home.

Well, now it is concert week again. I am finally an official singing member of the Bel Canto Chorus, and my first concert is this Sunday. I’m drinking water like crazy! We have several nighttime rehearsals this week. But the biggest challenge this time is the piece itself. We are singing an a cappella symphony by Alexander Levine that is easily the hardest piece I have ever sung. It has tightly clustered chords and erratic rhythms. When we stopped having a piano to help us with our notes, it seemed we would never get it. It reminded me of a scene from the movie Shakespeare in Love when the performance of the play is threatened to fail:

“The natural condition is one of insurmountable obstacles on the road to imminent disaster.”

“So what do we do?”

“Nothing. Strangely enough, it all turns out well.”

“How?”

“I don’t know. It’s a mystery.”

I think all performers can relate to that. Heck, I think everyone can relate to that. When we face challenges, things do always workout eventually. I would argue, however, that we don’t do “nothing.” We still must put one foot in front of the other, take every step even though we don’t necessarily know where we will end up. And somehow, it all works out.

I am dedicating my performance in this concert to my mom, who gave me the gift of music and who is taking her own steps on a difficult path into the unknown. And though we are geographically distant, music still has the power to make me feel close to her. And I know she will be with me on Sunday as we strive to ensure that it “turns out well.”

Endings and Beginnings

October 10, 2012   

Grandma with her grandkids

My mom is sick. Really sick.

There are so many other things I wanted to write about. But my mom is sick.

It is so hard to think about it. I wasn’t sure if I should write about it. But, my mom is sick, and I find that I can’t write about anything else.

Last weekend, I went to Minnesota to be with my mom and dad. I found myself doing things for my mom that I am used to doing for my young children. Helping her get dressed, cleaned, and fed. At this stage, it is like our roles are reversed. I am now mothering my own mother. It is as though, in the circle of life, she is getting closer to where she started out. It is true that we end very near to where we begin.  And maybe that’s what this is about — endings and beginnings.

For the last 8 years, my mom has dedicated much of her time to being an amazing mother and grandmother. She watched and held babies whenever she could. She took grandkids to music classes. She travelled to Switzerland for the express purpose to play with her grandchildren. She often stayed back with the youngest grandchildren while the older ones went on to bigger things with the other adults. I think that was her favorite role.

As a mother and as a teacher, she has always had an affinity to small children. I’ve often thought she is like a kid at heart. Playing and singing and watching for hours, after most other adults would have gotten bored or gone crazy.

She can no longer do those things.

It is, at least for now, the end of another stage of life. She is no longer the babysitter, the hostess, or the traveler she has been. But, an ending also means a new beginning.

Right now, it is difficult to accept, not to mention embrace, this new beginning. Partially that is because we didn’t choose this situation, and also because we don’t really know what the new situation is. Between each ending and beginning is that nasty thing called transition. That’s where we are stuck right now… in transition.

Transition is hard. It means change. It means uncertainty. It means waiting for time to tell. It means adapting to what each day brings.

It’s been several months, and we still don’t really know what is wrong. The doctors don’t know. And perhaps that is the biggest frustration — not knowing. But we live in hope, and also in fear, that maybe the next doctor, or the next appointment will bring some answers.

At least with knowledge, we can embark on a new beginning.

One Year Ago…

September 30, 2012   

There is a new game I like to play called, “What was I doing at this time last year?” It’s a fun way to relive our year abroad and bring back fun memories. And it so happens that this week last year was extremely memorable. It was fall break, and we went on one of the best family vacations we have ever had.

First of all, I have decided that having longer breaks in the middle of the school year is really nice. This year, my kids have several days off of school in September and October, but they are all spread out. Having just one extra day isn’t enough to do very much. A three day weekend, while nice in some ways, is not really that different from a regular weekend. And if you try to squeeze in something big, you just end up exhausted and stressed. So this fall, we are taking things slow. I’ve had some great, laid back days with my kids. Sitting outside, reading, going to parks. It’s really nice.

But not last year. Last year at this time, we were in the first part of a three-week-long break. And, let me tell you, three weeks is a really long time. We took two family vacations – one to Germany and one to the Swiss Alps – and we still had a week in between to just relax, and a day at the end to recuperate before going back to school refreshed and rejuvenated. It was wonderful. Just different.

Anyway, in the first week, we headed to Southern Germany for a week of incredible experiences, hilarious mishaps (at least they’re hilarious in hind sight), and some of our most popular blog posts ever. I think all family vacations are similar in that, while you see things and go places that you planned in advance, it is often the experiences that were unplanned that create the strongest memories. We went to Oktoberfest, visited Legoland Deutschland, and saw the castles in Hohenschwangau. It was, at times, idillic. However, we also remember our ridiculous travel day from Münich to Legoland, and how Henry got plowed over by a careless teenager and had a scraped face for the rest of the trip. But to my dismay, the post that everyone talks about from our entire year in Europe, is the one about Henry’s diaper disaster on the Alpsee in the shadow of the Neuschwanstein Castle. I think every parent on the planet can relate to that experience in some form or another. And it happened one year ago, almost to the day.

A stroll down memory lane is an enjoyable, if somewhat treacherous thing.

Wasted Time

September 26, 2012   

Dandelion

I just went for a walk around my neighborhood, and up the street there was an old man laying in his front yard listening to the radio and pulling weeds by hand. He greeted me and joked about having a weeding job for me (at least I think it was a joke). Then he said, “Keep an eye on that patch,” pointing to a patch of dirt in his yard about a foot in diameter. “If that patch doesn’t have weedless grass in the spring, then I’m just wasting my time.” I smiled and agreed to keep an eye on it, assuring him that I didn’t think he was wasting his time.

But it got me thinking. What if there is no grass in the spring? What if it grows back with weeds, which, more likely than not, is what will happen. Does that mean the beautiful sunny day he spent working outside was wasted? Absolutely not! At the end of today, he will have a sense of accomplishment, not to mention a lot of fresh air. What happens 9 months from now won’t change that. If his efforts turn out to be a failure, does that mean he shouldn’t have tried in the first place? That it was a waste? On the contrary, he should learn from his first effort and get out there and try again.

This is important to me right now, since I’m spending most of my time trying to do two things: raise my kids and start a business.  The idea of parenting being a waste of time is laughable, though there are individual moments when I wonder whether what I am doing matters. But what if my business fails (as many do)? At times, both of these things feel like an endless field of weeds. I work hard pulling weeds, planting seeds, and praying for rain. And inevitably more weeds pop up. And I do the work not because I expect to have a perfect lawn, but because I believe that each small success along the way makes a difference.

Trying to make the world a better place, one child, one business, or one patch of grass at a time is never a waste.

Different is Different

September 22, 2012   

An apple among oranges

During our year in Switzerland, we experienced many differences between things there and what we were used to in America. Everything from the smallest details of daily life like greetings and food to large cultural and value differences like the language and the education system. There were thousands of differences of varying degrees, which is a big part of what makes living abroad such an amazing experience. There is value in opening your mind to different ways of doing things, adapting your own behavior, and eventually understanding the underlying reasons for the differences and making informed decisions.

It is very easy to be judgmental about cultural differences. Some Americans travel abroad and complain about everything. They believe that the good ol’ American way is the best, and that the rest of the world is just wrong. They wonder, “How can people live like that!?” They refuse to change what they wear, or what they eat, not to mention the nuances of how they talk or the language they use. “Doesn’t someone around here speak English?” As you can imagine, it can be somewhat off-putting to the people around them.

Fortunately, not everyone is like that. Many people enjoy experiencing other cultures and do their best to integrate and try different lifestyle choices. We tend to be on the extreme end of this continuum, assuming the best about the cultures we visit. Different is good, right? The food is… fresher. The people are… more loyal. The transportation system is… amazing.

Of course, there are other adjectives, good and bad, that could be used to describe each of those things in Switzerland. (Well, except the transportation system… that really is amazing). And the more we experienced the Swiss culture, the more complex our descriptions became. The food is fresher, more local, pretty bland, and very expensive.

When you have a deeper understanding of something, it is much harder to categorize it as “good” or “bad.” It just is what it is. Different isn’t necessarily better or worse, it’s just different.

Coming home, we had this experience in reverse. Now we see American things with new eyes, and it is easy to jump to judgements about which is better, and I keep reminding myself, “It’s just different.”

Anyone who is married knows this feeling. Integrating into a new family is a lot like integrating into a new culture. It’s amazing how different two families can be! The dynamics, the expectations, the values and beliefs, how they talk, what they eat…. It takes time to embody the ways of another family and understand them fully, or as fully as possible. After 10 years, I love my in-laws like my own family, but it is still different.

Just like I love both Switzerland and America. I wouldn’t want them to be the same. That would be so boring! Then we wouldn’t have the opportunity to experience differences and challenge ourselves to understand them.

So maybe different is good after all.