Spring Break Then and Now

One Spring Break, not too long ago, Jamie and I spent most of the week bickering about everything and nothing. My expectations for our family time together had fallen short once again. On that fateful morning, I heard Parker crying from his crib and plodded upstairs to retrieve him. He was nearly seven months old and as I lifted him out of his crib, I pulled his tear streaked face close to mine. We matched that morning. I would have a good cry right along with him. I sat down on his bedroom floor and nursed him. His cries ceased, yet mine continued.  

I heard Jackson’s small feet ambling up the stairs and he crouched down beside me on the floor. “Why you cry, Mommy?” He asked. I didn’t have an answer.  

Soon there after, I sat Parker up on my lap and a fierce burp escaped from his mouth, followed by a stream of spit up all over my pants and the rug. Before I had time to think, my sweet two-year-old sighed and said, “@#$%ing @#$%.” I’ll leave you to your own imagination. What ever words you think he said, magnify them by ten and that may be close to the truth. Probably not though.

I hung my head and cried even more. I am home with my kids every single day, and this is the best I can do? My two-year-old just said “@#$%ing @#$%” Not shit or damn. Not any regular ol’ cuss word. I should have known that we were not well right then and there. But I didn’t.

Four years later, we have circled back to the same place in our lives in so many ways, and yet, everything is different.  

Again, we have a seven month old baby. Again we just had Spring Break. Again there was some bickering. But on the whole, we are well. In the space between then and now, I’ve learned so much about myself.

I’ve learned that I need time alone to recharge. I’ve learned that it’s important to ask for help when you need it. I’ve learned that running and the outdoors are my greatest therapy. I’ve learned that everything I need to find wellness is already inside me. I just have to be intentional about carving out the time for it.  

The boys and I have hiked at least once a week since November. I couldn’t bear the thought of being shut in all winter with a baby, so I recreated my own truths about babies and the outdoors. Instead of hibernating, I bundled a baby and kids up and we hit the trails. We may not have stayed out long on the coldest of days, but we did get out.  

They don’t always love it. There is arguing and whining. But there is also exploring and romping and time to play with friends. It’s the best kind of freedom I can offer their curious souls. And it’s not completely about them. It’s about me too. I love my time in the forest, wandering along a lake or creek, talking to other Mom’s about the crazy things my kids do, and hearing their strangely similar tales. I’m always lighter when I leave the forest.    

On this Spring Break, we saw Virginia’s second highest waterfall at Bottom Creek Gorge and got caught in a surprise rain shower. The kids learned that sometimes things don’t go as planned. Make the best of it. 

Bottom Creek Gorge overlook

We had Easter egg hunts galore. This provided an important lesson in learning how to consume excessive amounts of chocolate for breakfast.

We hiked at Green Hill Park with their cousins and grandparents. They saw horses, had a picnic lunch, and enjoyed an afternoon outside with family.  

Green Hill hike

We visited Hungry Mother State Park. I snuck in a run around the lake through awe inspiring tunnels of rhododendron. We hiked to the top of Molly’s knob for an incredible view of the surrounding mountains, and we tried out geocaching for the very first time. Some amazing friends joined us for a few days and it turned out to be an awesome little getaway.

We carried a lot of bodies 3.6 miles
Little mountain baby
Approaching Molly’s Knob
Lake Loop Trail

Two of our favorite friends stopped by for a surprise visit. We laughed, told stories, drank fizzy water and got all caught up on life.  

We ran Mill Moutain Mayhem – a 10k trail race up to the Mill Mountain Star, TWICE (thanks to Jamie and Mike, as Jamie is training for a marathon around Carvin’s Cove in June). Then of course we drank some beer.

And finally, I decided to sit down and write. It calls to me all the time and I struggle to carve out any more seconds from my days, but I decided I can certainly find 30 minutes to do it, just 30 minutes for something I love. Don’t we all deserve this gift to ourselves each and everyday?

I remember what happens when we don’t extend this gift. When we start to feel that life is one long list of obligations to hurdle. When the joy starts to slowly fade away. Eventually it escapes us and we are left struggling to find our way back to ourselves.

This Spring Break deserves another cuss word. Not the sour one from years ago. It deserves a good ol’ fashioned, “Hell yeah.”  

We saw our people, we saw our places, we pursued that which brings us joy.  

“Hell yeah!” roared the parents from the top of a mountain (and then the kids did too.)


Strength is Within

If you’re one of the estimated 65 million people who embarked on a run in the U.S. in the last 12 months, it’s likely at some point you’ve experienced the mental warfare that goes with the territory of being a runner. The mind is a powerful vessel – it can embolden us, but it can also defeat us.

Your running legs feel like lead or your lungs are achey. Maybe you can’t breathe or it’s just too cold, and as your mind acknowledges these horrible truths, the act of running becomes exponentially more difficult. This is why runners cling fiercely to their mantras. When I’m climbing the final hill after a long, slow 12-miler, there is but one thought that sits in my mind. The words echo behind each footstep. They sing together in a determined rhythm. My jaw is clenched as I recall, “Strength is within. Strength is within.”

I say these words, even though they haven’t always felt quite true. I say them because I know the power of the mind, I know that how we speak of ourselves matters. I know that the more you say something, the more it starts to feel true; when you believe strength is within, you can often find it therein.

There were years that I was a runner working to achieve fitness. I wanted to be faster, to go farther, to achieve a goal, to complete a race. But these days, my running is less about fitness and more about wellness. I’ve learned that running is the best gauge I have for my mental health. When I am able to run, I am able to feel well. And so I’ve made it a priority.

My wellness is tucked away in the fresh air I breathe as I my feet shuffle along beside a frozen creek. It’s in narrow footpaths carving passageways though rhododendron in the forest. It’s in the sense of flow that comes when my legs and my breathing and my mind all move together in a light and easy rhythm. It’s in the endorphins that circulate within my brain thereafter. My wellness and my running go hand in hand. It took me the better part of a decade to figure that one out.  

Study after study outlines the benefits that exercise and the outdoors have on depression. Trail running offers a healthy dose of both so it’s no wonder I find myself drawn to it. 

One afternoon last November, I set out running on Chestnut Ridge Trail with my friend, Mike. As I bounded downhill along a leaf littered trail, my toe clipped a root and for the briefest of seconds I was soaring through the air, arms stretched out before me in true Superwoman style. My eyes closed as my body collided with the hard ground. Mike was up ahead and reported that he heard me yell, “Oh shit,” as I went down. I was shocked I didn’t say worse. I opened my eyes and felt a horrible pain in my knee.

Often, the fall happens fast. It takes our breath away. We feel blindsided, incompetent, and frustrated by the course of events. Yet, these falls are an inescapable component of life. Relationships fail; expectations linger unfulfilled; we make terrible mistakes.  There is unimaginable loss as we cope with death and illness. Falls abound.  

There on the ground I rethought all I knew about trail running. I’m not sure I should keep this up. It’s beautiful, yes, but it can hurt too. What if I am really injured? Is trail running worth the risk? 

I lay in the leaves for a bit and then surveyed the damage. It seemed that my right knee had collided with a rock. My shin was scraped and sore, my knee boasted a bloody gash. It hurt like hell. But we were on the back side of the loop and the farthest possible distance from our cars. The only way I’d get back was by using my own two feet. So I got up and ran onward, albeit quite slowly. Strength is within, a soft voice whispered.

I was shaken. The trail had lost some of its allure – each root and stone seemed less adventurous and more like an obstacle to overcome. Eventually, I made it back to the car, drove myself home and hobbled around my house for a couple weeks with a swollen knee. I took a little break from running to be sure all was healing well.  Honestly, it was awful. I missed getting outside everyday; I missed running tremendously.  

I decided the fall isn’t the important part of the story. Each and every one of us has our own formidable challenges. But what happens after the fall is quite significant. What story do we choose to write? Do we blame the trail or others or ourselves? Do we take responsibility for our actions? Do we find a way to bring forth the strength within? Do we rise and walk onward? 

The trail runner’s dilemma is always with us. Watch the ground too closely and you will miss the beautiful scenery around you. Look up to admire the vistas for a second too long, and a root snags your toe and brings you down. I’m not so sure we can ever master this dance. Maybe all we can do is take in the beauty and make peace with our falls, knowing that more of both are yet to come if we are lucky. 

My feet are back on the trails. My heart is as full as it has ever been. My mind is clear and well. There is no question of if I will fall again. I am quite certain I will. But I’ve fallen before and each and every time that small voice inside has countered, “Strength is within.”

Guess what?

She’s right. 

Baby Garst 3.0

I’ve heard it said that God, the universe, or whatever you find to be greater than yourself will not give you more than you can handle. If this is true, the world was on point when it brought Finn into my life. I imagine members of the Baby Selection Committee reviewing my case and concluding, “They aren’t up for a challenge – a bit run down, getting older. We need to go easy on them. Let’s ship out the 3.0 Easy Boy model.”  

They did. On August 21st, our shipment arrived.  

And now, we’ve blinked and suddenly two months with Finn have gone by. We’ve been caught up in all the regular baby tasks – changing diapers, late night feedings, spit up trails snaking down our clothing, etc. But more importantly, we have been rocking and snuggling and loving our sweet boy.  

Recently, Finn has started smiling. Broad grins stretch across his chubby cheeks, relaying his delight in those around him. As he guzzles his bottle, his toes curl tightly beneath striped socks and two clenched fists rest snugly against his chest. Steel blue eyes watch me closely. A thin layer of dirt has already collected under his fingernails. No amount of scrubbing or soaking in the bath will release the black debris. Oh well. He’s the third child, you know, and we don’t have time to worry about that. He kicks his legs back and forth when he gets excited and is mostly content to sit and watch the chaos around him. He embraces his brothers’ affectionate and sometimes overzealous head patting. Soft downy hair stands upright and the tip of each ear is pinched at the top like an Elf’s.  

Clearly, he is amazing.  

But us? Not so much. We look uncoordinated at any task we attempt. I’ve resorted to drinking coffee out of a Pyrex measuring cup. I’ve recently locked both Finn and my car keys inside the van. Twice, the battery to the van died and left me in a pinch with two small kids. A week ago, the van key fell out of my pocket while running on the trail in front of Parkway Brewing Company. The key has still not been recovered. Jackson has worn his shirt backwards to school and nobody’s hair is combed before they leave the house. In a nutshell, we are mess. We have never been this uncoordinated, this unorganized, this unprepared. We have also never been this happy. 

I often think back to that day last December when I stood in a hallway of my endocrinologist’s office expecting to be cleared to take a tracer dose of radioactive iodine, but instead was told I was pregnant. For the next 36 weeks I carried a bit of fear with me. There was fear about what Finn may have been exposed to from shots I’d been given in preparation for the radioactive iodine. There was fear that postpartum would drive me back to depression, fear that I couldn’t do what was being asked of me. There was so much fear that I had a difficult time getting excited about this pregnancy. 

For nine months, I was waiting for a storm to come. It never arrived. I exhale in relief, knowing that I missed a big one, that I got lucky. Finn is well, and so am I.  

By day, I am a mother. We dash around each morning getting a kindergartener out he door and onto the bus by 7:15. I take a four-year-old to and from preschool a few times a week and feed and diaper and snuggle my tiniest. But in the space between and with a lot of help from a lot of people, I am also a hiker, a runner, a substitute teacher, a beer drinker, an adventurer, and a writer. All of these identities add significant value to my days. 

By night, you can find me in the gray rocker in our living room holding the sweetest little bundle of love. Finn figets and squirms in my arms as sleep prepares to overtake him. I sneak a paci in his tiny mouth and he sucks on it a time or two before he spits it out. We rock back and forth, back and forth. I try the paci again.

Eventually, I pull the side lever so that the chair reclines. Finn lays against my chest with the paci now anchored between his lips while soft snores rattle from his tiny nostrils. Sleep has won the battle. His hair tickles my chin and I wrap my arms around his tiny warm body. I breathe in his baby smell and feel absolutely certain that he is the best gift I never asked for.  

I’m not the only one who feels this way. Jackson sits on the floor and shows Finn pictures from his Pokemon book. “Here’s Pikachu,” he explains, “and this one is Bulbasaur.” He brings toys to him from the baby basket and often makes a request to hold his little brother.  

And Parker. Oh my word. He is the most loving big brother imaginable. Apparently there is a magnet that draws Parker’s hand to Finn’s head all day long. If you’re not sure where Parker is, there is a 99 percent chance he is patting, rubbing or kissing the top of Finn’s head. He also loves to sing him original songs. His shoulders sway and his hand pats (sort of) gently while he sings, “I love my little Finny Finn. I love my little Finny Finn.”  

Jamie, too, is enamored with our little guy. He snuggles and feeds him and rocks him on the front porch. It seems that love is bursting at the seams these days.

Thank you, oh thank you, Baby Selection Committee. You knew far better than us how much we were in need of sweet baby Finn. Our hearts are now filled to the brim.

Four Is

Four is parading to the curb in a rainstorm with a red pillow perched atop your head as a makeshift umbrella. It’s catching salamanders at the lake and picking your nose first thing each and every morning. It’s rocking on the front porch without a stitch of clothing and laughing about poops and toots and burps at every opportunity granted. 

Four is a nasally “whhhhy?” expelled after nearly every statement made. 
Go put some clothes on. Whhhhhyy?
We don’t pee off the front porch. Whhhhhy?
Dinner is ready. Whhhhhhy?
Help put all the dinosaurs away. Whhhhhy? Whhhhy? Whhhhhy? 

Four is cheeks that turn fiery red on summer days. It’s sweat soaked blonde hair and the musk of earth in your clothes. It’s long, lean legs racing down the sidewalk trying to keep up with big brother on a scooter. It’s playing so hard you fall asleep at 4:30 in the afternoon and don’t wake up until the next day.  

Four is an absence of the the letter “l.” It’s “wook at me” and “I wove you.” It’s cleaning the storm door while wearing a pair of swim goggles, and looking pretty darn cute as you go about your work. So what if most of the glass is still smudged. You gave it a hearty effort. 

Four is loving peanut butter sandwiches, applesauce, and ketchup. It’s sneaking into kitchen cabinets for cinnamon and baking soda so that you can do your own science “spearmint.” It’s spending time each day in a whirlwind of adventure, mischief and curiosity.

Four years ago, our eyes fell upon Parker James for the the very first time. It was just after one in the morning when his tiny frame was wrapped snugly into a blanket burrito and placed into my tired arms. He was soft and fresh and miraculous. Four years later, he is still quite soft, not nearly so fresh, but every bit as miraculous.

Happy fourth birthday, Parker! We love you so!

Bribery and 37 Weeks

In the last few months we’ve made some progress around the house as I’ve gone full tilt into nesting mode. We’ve purged a great deal of random stuff, organized cabinets and closets throughout the house, cleaned out the fridge for the first time since moving, and prepared a small room for our little one.  

But despite all this effort, it seems that every morning I awaken to a minefield of mess. It’s scattered across the floor and glaring at me from cups and dishes that haven’t yet made it to the dishwasher. I try to remember that yes, we do LIVE in this house, which means our house will look lived in. However, there’s a part of me that craves order and functional space.

Presently, exhaustion is my biggest enemy. I don’t recall this level of tiredness with either of my other pregnancies, though I was much younger and generally, a bit more pleasant back then. It’s a bone tired. A vacuuming-the-living-room-has-left-me-spent kind of tired. An I could fall asleep at a red light sort of exhaustion. A tired that makes taking a shower feel as difficult as running a marathon.  

So today, I needed to shower AND I needed the house cleaned up – a double whammy. I dragged myself off the sofa and explained to the boys that after I took my shower, we would all be cleaning up the downstairs. Then I had an epiphany. If they were good helpers, I’d let them spend a little bit of time playing some games on my iPad.  

I felt like a rockstar as I trudged upstairs. This is how amazing moms function at 37 weeks pregnant, I told myself. I got this. Bribery has some very real benefits and I planned to make use of them all during these final weeks.  

I showered and dried my hair and not surprisingly, felt unwell after such an undertaking. I don’t know if it’s the heat or the energy required to move 35 extra pounds everywhere I go, but it leaves me quite miserable. I came downstairs completely out of breath.

As I rounded the corner I heard feet stomping out of the kitchen and two voices whispering, “Here she comes! Here she comes!”

This usually means a disaster has occurred. I braced myself for the mess that usually accompanies one of their science “spearmints” gone bad. Cinnamon and baking soda would be scattered across the countertops. Or maybe instead, a weeks worth of applesauce pouches were consumed in thirty minutes. I walked into the living room and saw rug fibers unobscured by Mario figures, game cards and pieces picked up, blocks put away and two little boys smiling sheepishly.  

I collapsed on the sofa in joy. “Ohhhhh! You cleaned up! Thank you, boys.” I pulled them close and gave them each a bear hug.  

The room was certainly not Pinterest worthy. But it was good enough for today. And like life, the best of it isn’t often nestled in being perfect, but in being present. And presently, my three and five year old had given their exhausted, pregnant mother a room she could easily walk through, and they’d done it without requiring a hint of nagging on my part. Hallelujah!

“Can we get on the iPad now, Mama?” 

“Yes, yes you can, boys.” I spent the next twenty minutes plopped uncomfortably in a chair, still waiting for my breathing to return to normal. The boys took turns playing Subway Surfers, trading every 7 minutes, and as I watched them sitting hip to hip on the sofa, I knew I had much to be thankful for.

Goggles, a Strainer, and a Glorious Lounge Chair

“Can I wear them, Mommy? Can I?” Jackson asked as he held up a pair of neon green goggles. They didn’t belong to us, but we were alone on the shore of Loch Haven and I didn’t see the harm in borrowing them for the afternoon. “Just be sure you take really good care of them,” I replied.

I adjusted the straps and we worked together to pull them tightly over his head. A little bug-eyed five-year-old grinned back at me. Then his feet splashed quickly away from the shore.  

His first investigation was rooted in exploring the world below the surface of the water. “Do you think I should put my head under water?” he called across the lake. I nodded my approval from shore, and surprisingly that was all it took. For the very first time he held his breath and tilted his face down into the murky water. He looked for salamanders hiding in the sand for a while, and then Parker placed different objects down below for him to spy. An afternoon was spent exploring a completely new world below the surface of the water, a world Jackson had never seen before.  

Sometimes, it’s the littlest thing that is holding us back. Forget the giant walls, the sweeping chasms. Sometimes gaining access to the simplest tool has the ability to transform the world as we know it. It turns out, a great adventure can even be hidden in someone else’s neon green goggles. 

Parker, too, uncovered a small jewel that day in the form of a plastic strainer. Last summer, we spent a great deal of time pursuing salamanders, though I was the only one who ever managed to snag one. Not anymore. Parker was transformed into a steadfast salamander catcher with the help of his strainer.  

He waded through the water until he spied one resting on the sand below. Then he plunged the strainer underwater and as the salamander tried to flee, he’d scoop it below the belly and bring it quickly to the surface. Sometimes, the salamander got away, but a great many times the strainer would rise supporting a shiny creature. His new tool offered him access to a newfound ability.

I joined the boys in making a discovery as well. While they were engaged in unrelenting action, I found a bit of stillness. I plopped by pregnant body down on a weathered throne, also known as a lounge chair, and watched the day unfold from the sidelines. In years to come, I imagine this summer will be fondly remembered as “my lounge chair summer.” It is the first one in a long time that doesn’t require me to chase little people around. And perhaps it’s especially sweet because I am supremely aware of all the change that will soon be upon us. Next year, I’ll leave the lounge chair behind once again and return to the sacred act of corralling tiny feet.  

But not on that day.

That day, I stretched out long in the sunshine and watched the beauty around me – the birds calling from shaded branches, the shimmering lake surface, the grins on two little boys’ faces as they explored their newfound worlds and I basked in the joy that a pair of goggles, a strainer and a lounge chair can bring to those who behold them.  

Adventures in Growing a Human 

Best Of All

1. Food. My whole day revolves around eating and goes something like this: breakfast, snack, lunch, snack, snack, dinner, snack. Coffee ice cream every night? Sure. Cherry pie before breakfast? Why not! Other favorites are french fries, watermelon, and macaroni and cheese. It is no wonder I’ve gained as much weight to date as I did during my entire pregnancy with Parker. The feast is in full effect.

2. Nesting. My house hasn’t been this clean since…well, since I was pregnant with Parker. I am deep into clearing out the clutter, throwing away all the junk we’ve acquired, and organizing all of my life into tidy boxes with labels. Cue the chorus of angels singing. You may be wondering if I’m purging any of my boys’ clothing to make way for pink. The answer is no. Not yet. The theme for this pregnancy will be “surprise” from the beginning all the way until we meet this sweet little one. 

3. Quickening. I’m fairly certain I’ve felt acrobatics for months. With each passing week the movements grow in strength and now the jabs and kicks can be felt by a hand resting on my belly. Stirs and whirls flutter within. I am amazed each and every time. Each movement is a small reminder of how miraculous it is to grow a life.  

Worst Of All

1. Food. By the end of the day, there is no more space inside my torso. It’s jam packed with organs, a baby, and several pounds of food. But ice cream is my favorite, so I help myself to one more bowl after dinner. That last serving is what pushes me over the edge toward unrelenting discomfort. The rest of the evening I have the distinct feeling that must accompany a sausage as it’s stuffed into the casing.  

2. Veins. It’s warmed up enough for me to consider wearing shorts. However, when I looked down and saw a 75-year-old leg attached to my body, it was a bit horrifying. The arachnids responsible for my spider veins are certainly working overtime. My right calf is splayed with fine purple webs that make me suited and ready for Halloween festivities. Not to be out done, varicose veins are throbbing their way through the same calf. I’ve been informed I should wear stockings to combat these little boogers. We shall see how that goes in the summer heat.

3. Peeing. Not just frequently, but also on my clothing. When I was a kid, a friend and I used to laugh hysterically when our conversation turned to her mother’s incontinence. Now, I realize that karma really does come around. I tend to get a cough each spring, but it’s always worse when I’m pregnant. This year, I get the added bonus of sometimes peeing on myself when a coughing fit seizes my body. Cough, cough, gusssshhh. Hello, extra laundry!

Most Important Of All

This is the first pregnancy I’ve been able to maintain a consistent exercise routine. As I’ve mentioned before, during my other pregnancies I mostly laid on the couch Homer Simpson style while eating ice cream and watching “The Biggest Loser.” There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. It was the place I needed to be all those years ago.  

Now, I’m in a different place.  

Weeks ago, I drove up to Blacksburg through a rainstorm to meet my Tuesday morning running group at Pandapas Pond. As the rain fell in spurts across my windshield, I couldn’t help but notice my growing belly extending toward the steering wheel. “Who runs in the rain while they are pregnant?” I asked myself. “This is crazy.”  

I sat with the weight of my question and then I did something important. I gave it away. Instead, I thought of all the good it does me to get outside, to move my body, and to see good friends. The answer to my question was right in my rear view mirror. “Me. I run in the rain.” I decided there is basically only one set of rules that really matter to me, and they are my own. As long as I live by them, I shall live well.  

The world is full of walls, some real and some imagined. The walls that are hardest to break through are the ones that we have unknowingly built around ourselves. Instead of doubting myself for being a pregnant woman who plans to run in the rain, I decided pull out the wrecking ball. I have the ability to change my rules, to alter my mindset, to reexamine the framework I operate under. I have a responsiblity to seek and follow my personal truths.

I’ve been reading “The Joy Diet” by Martha Beck and have fallen in love with her idea of pairing seemingly dissimilar interests together in our lives. We shatter imaginary boundaries when we learn to weave together unique components within our life story. We become intententional, we get creative, we seek out fulfillment. I don’t have to be pregnant OR a runner. I can, in fact, be both. I suspect that this concept was a driving force when we took small children on a trip overseas. Somewhere deep down I knew that I could be a parent AND travel across the world. I didn’t have to choose one or the other.  

Though I was certainly ready to face the rain that day, I ended up missing it entirely. As I drew closer to Pandapas, the drops became intermittent. Before my running group started down the trail, the rain had ceased all together.  

I waddled through the greening woods with one of my favorite running partners resting right on top of my bladder. Then I said a silent prayer to the pee Gods that I’d make it to the bathroom with enough time to spare.  

Baby bump