Monday, December 28, 2009

Photo Evidence

I am currently downloading 861 photos from my camera. These photos document the fun and frivolity of the last two weeks, from Santa to holiday parties to the sheer magic of Christmas morning.

What they fail to capture are those very mundane and occasionally challenging moments in between. Like the scene yesterday when Benjamin decided to throw Papa's glove out the door of the Estes Park Starbucks into the snow, not out of some attempt at silliness but out of an attempt to see how far he could push his beloved grandfather. In fact, the actual image doesn't even exist in my mind because it happened while I was ordering coffee for myself and Josh, so all I have is a fabricated, patchwork scene pieced together from the story my dad later told me--fuzzy, indefinite, surmised.

This picture, and dozens like it, do not grace the photo archives. They occur in the moments when the camera is tucked away--the everyday, ordinary, unexceptional moments that comprise a lifetime. But by and large, these are the moments that will define the boy, the man, the family, me. The sweet, pretty, photo-worthy moments are the frosting, the small reward for the hours of investment leading up to them. They represent the fruition of the faith and hope invested to that point. They are not the whole story, but they are the good story we hope is being woven from all the good and not-so-good scenes in between.

I learned of the Starbucks incident late last night after the kids were sound asleep in their beds. My heart sank a little, my picture of our lovely afternoon in the mountains smudged by this display of defiance and ill-will. I wasn't sure what I would do about it, but I knew it needed to be addressed. I need to know that when I leave Ben with another adult, I can trust him to make good decisions so that everyone involved can enjoy their time. Few things frustrate me as much as the times when I find myself anxious, uncertain of whether Ben will be delightful and sweet or snarky and uncooperative.

To be honest, it's times like this when I sometimes wish we spanked our kids. At least then the consequence would be clear, my course of action straight forward. I wouldn't have to think about it, I could just get it over with--swat, swat, swat--and move on. Sometimes I even think spanking would help me remain cool, calm, and collected in the face of their bad decisions, since I generally find myself teetering on the brink of anger when I don't know what to do--when I feel backed into a corner by my kids' misbehavior and uncertain of how to craft an effective consequence. But I think there are some kids for whom spanking, even when executed correctly, does far more damage than good, and Josh and I believe Benjamin is one of those children.

So I found myself last night and this morning spinning my wheels trying to determine how to address this issue. After thinking all night, still I had no answer. At some point mid-morning, I realized I was spending way too much of my own energy on this problem, thereby depriving Ben of all the thinking I was doing for him. Instead of continuing to stew, I changed the question and made it his problem: rather than ask What should I do about this? I asked What should Ben do about this? And then I posed the question to him.

The conversation started by addressing the incident and learning his perspective. He knew he was at fault and conceded guilt by immediately saying, "I told Papa not to tell you." Clever child. I asked him if he knew why throwing the glove outside was a bummer decision, and he acknowledged that it was not respectful to not listen to Papa. Then I told him he needed to decide how to make things right and let me know his plan by the time he went down for his nap.

There. The problem was out of my hands and into those of the person who created the problem in the first place. My job, then, was simply to wait, and empathize as needed.

By the time nap time arrived, I think it finally was dawning on Ben how much this decision at Starbucks was inconveniencing his life. Throughout the morning, he thought of things he could do, and they spanned the obvious to the ridiculous. At first he tried to tell me he would always listen to Papa and respect what he said. "Sounds great," I would reply, "but we expect that anyway." Then I reposed the question of how he would begin to mend the damage done to the relationship yesterday. This exchange occurred a couple more times throughout the morning, with him throwing out ideas that simply identified courteous and respectful behavior. The bonus of these exchanges is that I was able to simultaneously affirm our expectation and belief that he would treat people this way all the time while validating the importance of relationships. We treat people this way because we believe they are important, because we want them to know they are loved, because we desire to build trust, not break it. We don't get to treat people carelessly when we feel like it and then assume that we can make it right by treating them the way they deserve to be treated in the first place.

When we sat in his rocking chair to read books before his nap, I asked once more what he had decided. After having this conversation again and then grasping at straws ("I'll help Papa move my bunk bed"--a non-existent task), he grew frustrated and teary, demanding that I tell him what to do. "I don't know what you should do, Bug. That's what is hard about relationships. It's hard to know how to make things better when we've hurt someone. It's not easy to fix." We talked about how Papa might have felt when Ben threw his glove outside and whether Ben actually felt about Papa what his actions communicated. He thought about this as he wiped big tears from his cheeks with the back of his hand. I think he was beginning to realize the significance of his decision, the impact he had had on this man he loves--he was showing signs of feeling genuinely contrite for the way he treated Papa.

The conversation continued to weave in and out of the nuance of relationship and the problem of yesterday's decision and what to do to make it right. Eventually, Ben decided a good start would be to apologize to Papa for throwing his glove. I affirmed this idea, and after seeing his sincere attempt to find a path forward, I offered a suggestion: "Maybe you could make him a card telling him all the things you appreciate and like about him. That way he knows the way you treated him yesterday isn't how you feel about him." He liked that idea and added, "And I'll tell him I love him."

Yes, Baby, there it is. The heart of the matter. You love Papa, and that is why this is important.

As his breathing settled into a quieter rhythm, we reviewed his decision. "You'll see what I do," he told me as we snuggled in to pray. It took us so long to come to a conclusion, we didn't have time for books. He seemed both genuinely aware of the problem and at peace with his decision about how to address the conflict. He seems to desire true reconciliation this time, not just a quick fix. I think he's beginning to see and feel the consequence of his decision, both in terms of his relationship to Papa and in terms of his life. Choosing to hurt someone requires reconciliation, and working toward that affects everything else--play time, book time, Mommy time. Asking forgiveness isn't always easier than asking permission.

He's sleeping now. The late nights and busy days and rushes of excitement have taken their toll. Both kids are exhausted, though the memories are worth the price. We'll see what Ben says when he wakes up, when Papa arrives home this evening and the time comes for stepping into resolution. But I'm cautiously optimistic that this mistake has become a true learning opportunity.

And I'm hoping this conflict will mark a step in the journey of Ben's relationship with Papa, will propel them both toward a stronger, deeper, more honest relationship with each other. I think that is the role conflict should play: drawing people closer. In our frail and belligerent humanity, we are bound to fail each other, but in the tender exchanges of resolution, we have the opportunity to lean into each other, to bandage each other's hurts, to affirm our belief in each other's goodness and good will. And so while I wish this incident had never occurred, I'm hopeful that in the end I will be grateful for this opportunity for them to work through it and grow closer.

And one day, I hope to take a picture of the two of them in front of the Starbucks in Estes Park, their love and respect for each other evident in their closeness and familiarity--a snapshot made possible by the thousands of moments that went before.

Thursday, December 24, 2009

I'm Dreaming of a Screen-Free Christmas

'Twas the night before Christmas, and all through the house
Lay cameras and cell phones and computers sans mouse.

The illustrations of that Christmas classic would look vastly different these days with all the digital paraphanelia we use to keep our lives moving. By the time my family assembles for an event, we often have at least three laptops in addition to our desktop downstairs, a handful of blackberries, and a menagerie of cameras. On the one hand, this technology is a blessing because it allows my dad to maintain his business from a geographical distance and keeps us all in touch with our various social networks and life obligations. On the other hand, it can also feel like we're all simply sharing space in the house without actually being present. Conversation can only go so far when folks are engrossed in a screen, and the kids, above all, sense this divided attention.

And then where's the break? The rest? The pause from the daily grind? The hours to simply enjoy the presence and company of those gathered in our midst? I, too, am guilty of escaping into the computer, of tuning out of my surroundings by tuning into e-mail or Facebook or the latest story on some network. Somehow, there is respite in being plugged in.

But I don't think it's as restful, as soothing to the soul as being engaged with our nearest and dearest. So this year, I think I'll propose a screen-free Christmas. No computers. No blackberries. Just us and the kids and the joy of celebrating together. We'll keep the cameras, of course, to capture the magic of the day for the kids. But I'm hoping we'll all be mentally present in addition to physically present from the very first moments when the kids awake to the time we all retire to our beds, happily exhausted from the festivities.

To that end, I think I'll keep this space quiet for a few days as I settle in for a precious few days with those little and big. And I wish you and yours the sweetest of holidays, too, whether you're anticipating the man in the big red suit or celebrating the incarnation of Divine Love--or, like us, both.

Merry Christmas to all, and to all a good night...

Monday, December 21, 2009

Bye-Bye, Baby

Last night after dinner, I asked Abby to run upstairs and get her pajamas for bedtime. When she came down, she had actually put them on all by herself. The top and bottoms did not match because the matching bottoms are in her laundry basket, and her pants were on backward, but otherwise, she had managed the whole process flawlessly. She was proud of her accomplishment, announcing her feat of independence while bouncing up and down.

As she stood there telling me what she had done, brushing her long blonde hair out of her face with a sweep of her hand, it was clear that we've left the once-consuming and seemingly endless realm of babyhood. We have, without question, entered childhood.

With two more years of experience behind him, Ben is a creature of total self-sufficiency. When he makes a mess, he cleans it up. All bathroom, mealtime, and bedtime procedures are second-nature to him now. Gone are the days of worrying about how many ounces he ate, of enduring the tedious and grueling hours of teaching him to fall asleep, of noting how many diapers he's soiled and wet in a twenty-four hour period. The basic functions that consumed the baby hours are mastered, and we are on to more exciting endeavors like reading and writing, understanding the nature of good and evil, and discovering the joys and travails of friendship.

In addition to dressing herself, Abby now speaks a language whose pronunciation resembles English enough to be understood 90% of the time. She still misses the occasional consonant, and her "o" sounds take on a long, round sound--akin to that of a Brit turned southern gent--but I know what she's saying, receive her meaning as she intends, and can respond in turn. As we drove yesterday, she told me that she is big. "I big. I uh lih-uhl guhrl," she told me--a little girl, not a baby. I replied affirmatively, telling her that soon she would get to sleep in a big girl bed. "And sih in uh bih guhrl chaihr," she continued, remembering our conversation about moving out of her high chair and into a booster. "And use a big girl potty," I added. "And weahr bih guhrl unnerwear," she finished with genuine excitment. All these milestones are just around the corner, and soon we will be a house without cribs or diapers or high chairs.

At this point in some mother's tales, there would be tears shed or wistful sighs sighed or nostalgic proclamations that it all passes too fast. I, however, do not cry or sigh or bemoan the passing of time. Though there are moments when I look at babies and remember how sweet it was to snuggle them close and smell their baby breath and feel all their tiny fingers wrapped around one of mine, I also remember acutely the work of it, the all-consuming demand of it, the tied-downness of it. My memory is not selective. Every stage has its sweetness and its challenges. And perhaps I can better accept the trade-offs. I'm no longer rocking an infant, but I do get to leave the house without a breast pump. I'm not hanging on every smile and coo with rapture, but now I understand what makes them smile--and fret, cry, giggle, and puzzle.

It is a miracle to watch them grow and to see more of their temperament and personality revealed. I love this stage--the innocence and wonder and curiosity and unabashed excitement for all things extraordinary and mundane. When cleaning the floor is a treat and folding a towel is cause for celebration and writing a word is nothing short of magical. The world is new and fresh and waiting to be discovered.

But they will get older, and that's okay, too. I look forward to one day reading chapter books and doing science projects and watching games and recitals. I look forward to conversations at increasing depth and complexity. I don't look forward to adolescent snarkiness, but I pray that we will have a relationship that minimizes the ugly and maximizes the fun and candor. For me, what is most miraculous about motherhood is not any one stage but watching the progression, witnessing the transformation day by day, seeing every little change and development in real time.

And I think I've made peace with the fact that, at each age, I give up more of my starring role in their lives. But that's the beauty of it. I'm working myself out of a job so that we all gain independence, so that we're all free to pursue that which we love--in the security of our love for each other. Hopefully, the kids will grow up into adults who continue to bring joy and wonder to the world--without having to hold my hand. I'll be there, of course, ready to listen or to remind them of their strength or to hold them close, but when they return to their homes and families and jobs and lives, I will return to my life. And my reward will be watching them become their own incredible people.

That's the thing: motherhood is my gig right now, and it shades every perspective I have, but it doesn't define me solely. I enjoy sleeping through the night and having time to write. And when the kids are awake, I love snuggling them tight.

So maybe I'm weird, but I don't think I'll be shedding a tear when we use our last diaper or when Ben heads to kindergarten or when Abby celebrates her sweet sixteen. It is all as it should be, and I'm doing my best to be present in the present--celebrating the good and acknowledging the bad, every step of the way--so that when we find ourselves years down the road, we'll look back not with regret but with gratitude for all the memories we've shared--and with anticipation for the adventures to come.

Abby is no longer a baby. She is a little girl. What could be more amazing?

Friday, December 18, 2009


Trim tree: check.

Hang stockings with care: check.

Visit Winter Wonderlights display: check.

Deliver teacher gifts: check.

Last day of school: check.

Complete and order my project: check.

Complete all shopping: check.

Build anticipation for kids: check.

Let the festivities begin!

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Like Riding a Bike...

In searching yesterday for quotes for the project I'm working on (that same one I was supposed to be working on a week and a half ago but managed to put off until now), I stumbled across a few that aren't right for what I'm creating but that resonated enough to add to my list of potentials. I needed to be sure I had them somewhere to refer to as an encouragement.

As I reread them just now, I noticed that they all speak to the tenuous and often paradoxical reality of parenting: the joy and the fear, the protection and the letting go, the pride and the insecurity, the excruciating love, and always, the need to be present in whatever state of competence or failure we happen to be in at the moment. As a mother walking blindly yet boldly into each day with my children, I appreciate an honest look at the challenge. It validates the work, the very hard work, I engage in daily.

It also reminds me of the proper perspective. Parenting is not about creating or making my children but about knowing them. It's about walking with them as they grow into this world, at times holding their hands, at times cheering from the sidelines, at times praying like crazy from a frightening, and lonely, distance. And miraculously, in the process of entering into relationship with them, I am made--and become more of myself than was ever possible before.


"It's not only children who grow. Parents do too. As much as we watch to see what our children do with their lives, they are watching us to see what we do with ours. I can't tell my children to reach for the sun. All I can do is reach for it, myself." -- Joyce Maynard

"In every dispute between parent and child, both cannot be right, but they may be, and usually are, both wrong. It is this situation which gives family life its peculiar hysterical charm." --Isaac Rosenfeld

"Most of us become parents long before we have stopped being children." -- Mignon McLaughlin

"The guys who fear becoming fathers don't understand that fathering is not something perfect men do, but something that perfects the man. The end product of child raising is not the child but the parent." -- Frank Pittman

"You don't really understand human nature unless you know why a child on a merry-go-round will wave at his parents every time around--and why his parents will always wave back." -- William D. Tammeus

"The hardest part of raising a child is teaching them to ride bicycles. A shaky child on a bicycle for the first time needs both support and freedom. The realization that this is what the child will always need can hit hard." -- Sloan Wilson


We've all learned how to ride a bike, felt the fear and exhilaration from the perspective of childhood, sensed the swell of pride and anticipation as we forged this frontier of independence and accomplishment. But until we are parents, we know no more of how to usher our child into this new world than we know of winning the Tour de France. Point of view changes everything, and the phrase "Like riding a bike" takes on all new meaning for the parent holding on hopefully, expectantly, and anxiously from the back. All we can do is reassure with our presence, lend a hand for balance, and encourage wildly, "Pedal, Baby, pedal."

For a lifetime.

Monday, December 14, 2009

Who Knew?

On Friday morning, at approximately 9:15 a.m., I discovered Abby's secret power: she can sit still.

If you've had the opportunity to meet my little girl, then no doubt you've witnessed her constant whir of activity. At the tender age of two, she already has a full agenda of toys to play with, costumes to put on and take off, books to skim, trails to blaze in the house while hopping, bear crawling, running, or--rarely--walking, and people to charm with her sweet affections and charismatic antics. She flits through her days like a hummingbird, buzzing here and there, stopping just long enough to enjoy the choicest morsel of whatever catches her attention, her little body a-hum with energy even when momentarily still. "Busy," we call her. That may be an understatement.

Her activity level is matched by coordination, however, resulting in all manner of climbing, swinging, tumbling, jumping, and balancing on the nearest piece of furniture. Aside from the occasional miscalculation, she manages to wield her body with grace and athleticism. For nearly a year, we've talked about needing to get her in gymnastics so that she has an outlet for all this monkey-business.

But there was always the little problem of sitting still long enough to hear direction. Last spring I had her enrolled in our rec center's Tumblebugs class, a kind of open gym for tots. They create all kinds of obstacle courses and climbing structures for the kids out of gym mats and equipment, and the kids can roam freely from activity to activity at their own pace. Some kids walked, others ran. Abby careened. She loved it. The problem came, however, when the class had to leave the mecca of adventure to close the class in "circle time," five minutes of structure where the instructors led us in silly songs and rhymes. For ninety-five percent of the kids, it was no problem. When Ben was little, in fact, it was his favorite part. For Abby, it was a physical impossibility.

The first few weeks I tried to keep her corralled, explaining firmly that it was time to stay with Mommy and sing songs. At some point, though, it became clear that resistance was futile. Generally, any attempt to keep her engaged resulted in fussing and an early departure. A few weeks into this charade, I conceded the battled and allowed her to meander through the circle of parents and kids. It was then I realized she was still paying attention to the songs and motions--often, she'd stop and watch for several seconds on end, and I'd hear her singing them in the car later or around the house--but she needed to move. This was a temperament issue, a learning style, not a behavioral problem. Abby was made to go.

Nevertheless, it drove me crazy (because now I was the parent with that kid--humility is a tough lesson) and left me riddled with anxiety about her ability to survive in future classroom settings. So Josh and I put off registering her for this more structured gymnastics class until now, though she was eligible by age several months ago. Her need for a physical outlet finally outweighed our reservations about her attention span.

We've been talking about this class with Abby for a while now. Originally, she was supposed to try it a couple weeks ago, but she got sick, postponing our trial. So when we arrived on Friday, she was excited and eager. I walked her through the procedures so she'd know what to expect: when we entered, she'd have to take off her shoes and socks (and yes, her hat and mittens, too, which she wears practically 'round the clock these days) and then wait for the coaches to tell her it's time to go into the gym. And once she entered class, Mommy would stay out to watch, and she'd have to listen to the coaches and follow their instructions.

I sat in the waiting area and watched her carry her carpet square from the door to the big blue floor and line it up with the other children's. I then proceeded to overflow with pride and amazement for the next forty-five minutes. To the extent that she understood, Abby followed their instructions enthusiastically, jumping, stretching, crawling, hanging, and balancing as directed. At times, other kids wandered off or got distracted, but Abby remained focused, patient, and cooperative. She stayed on her mat while waiting her turn, and though she squirmed around the full square foot of it, her attention never wavered.

I'll confess to being stunned, pleasantly.

She had a blast. I think she felt like a big girl, finally getting to do something all by herself. When Ben asked her what she did that morning after we picked him up, she said she went to her school to do gymnastics. She was given a taste of independence, of personal responsibility, and she handled it brilliantly.

I won't pretend that I didn't exhale a huge sigh of relief, both for the immediate outlook of the gymnastics class and for the long-term probability of success in school. Abby has energy, yes, and will need the opportunity to move and motor in whatever setting she finds herself, but she has the basic skills of listening, following directions, staying in one place, and waiting her turn necessary for success in structured endeavors. Her very mature display that morning filled me with optimism for her future. Does that sound crazy?

It also raised my expectations of her, and I noticed myself allowing her more freedoms throughout the day out of confidence that she would handle them responsibly. The way we view our children truly shapes the way we treat them, which in turn influences the way they see themselves. Never before has that concept manifested itself so clearly and obviously to me.

I learned something about Abby Friday morning. It's not that she didn't possess those skills before--I just hadn't given her the opportunity to show me now that she's grown up a bit since our Tumblebugs days. Her personality, in all its exuberant energy and charismatic charm, is revealing more of itself as she grows. And perhaps as exciting is the revelation that she's gaining, even without our notice, the maturity and self-control to channel it appropriately.

As parents, we plant these seeds and we care for them diligently day after day, but it seems so much of the fruit of our labor is reaped somewhere in the distant future. This little gymnastics class was a sweet reminder that the sowing does matter, that there is all kinds of growth occurring below the surface that we can't see. And occasionally, we get to see a little shoot breaking through the surface into our view, a small encouragement to continue on in faith and great expectation of what will eventually bloom.

Abby sat still. I can hardly imagine what's next.

Thursday, December 10, 2009

Today's Bummer Brought to You by the Conflicting Interests of Parenthood

What is wrong with me?

Just when I think we're having a lovely day, my four-year-old sends me into a tail spin with one intentionally goading comment. I can see he's testing, I recognize he's trying to get a rise out of me, and yet I cannot manage to maintain my cool so as not to satisfy his curiosity. I am a thirty-one year old woman, but sometimes my self-control is little better than his. Seriously, what is wrong with me?

Of course, once the party is rolling, Abby has to join the action. It's fun to see Mommy get so worked up. That's the irony of parenting. Anger fuels the fires of misbehavior.

I hate that my default in situations when I'm angry is to go into "dragon" mode, an accurate term coined by my son's preschool teacher turned parenting coach. I can feel it. My breathing grows shallow, my muscles tense, and my voice assumes the frosty edge of detachment as I feel myself teetering on the brink of explosion. And when the next button is pushed, I wield all of my adult authority in a loud, fiery voice that could still the masses.

Now there's a great model of conflict resolution. Way to show the kids how to handle stress. When all else fails, yell. Really loudly.

The kicker is that it's hardly effective. They may respond momentarily out of shock and awe, but it doesn't actually address the underlying issue. I may have quieted them for the rest of the car ride, but I haven't done anything to build our relationship or their sense of right and wrong. I've only shown them how to get under Mom's skin--and communicated that I can't handle their testing. Lovely.

I don't really have any consolation here. No silver lining to report. Ben screwed up. I screwed up bigger. Two wrongs don't make a right--just two more problems to deal with.

Ben did apologize to me before naps and said he and Abby would need to do some chores after naps. Yep, they sure will. That will address, at least in part, one problem: putting some of the energy they drained back in Mommy. But I still have to figure out how to make my problem right with them and find my own self-control in the meantime.

There is something about parenting that exposes our deepest weaknesses and insecurities. It probably has something to do with the fact that no matter how much we try to control our lives, we simply cannot control our children, who waltz through our lives blissfully unaware of the havoc they leave in their wake as they learn how to get along in this world. I suppose I could manipulate them to always do what I want, but this would involve tools like fear or shame and would only result in children, and ultimately adults, who are afraid to think for themselves, unable to control themselves. And I don't want to raise children who will simply do what they're told, though that would certainly make my life at home easier.

I want to raise children who know how to evaluate choices and make good decisions for themselves while respecting the people around them. God forbid, if one of them were to find themselves in the company of a person looking to take advantage, I do not want them to blindly do what they are told because the teller is an adult or someone who wields their voice with authority. I don't want them to meekly give control over to the nearest grown-up. I want them to evaluate the situation, believe they have a right to respectfully say, "Please stop," and then exert control over their own life to get out of there.

The problem is that in order for them to learn how to exert their autonomy appropriately, they're going to have to try it out, which means they're going to occasionally exert it inappropriately, usually on those of us closest to them. And this is where I should have the foresight to help them feel the consequence of their behavior without lapsing into dragon--or dragon's calmer counterpart, drill master--mode. Because the latter does nothing to further the development of responsible, respectful, autonomous thinkers and doers.

No one signs up for this. People without kids think they're signing up for sweet and charming life accessories who love them so much they would never defy or disrespect those who take care of them, play with them, and look out for their best interests. But the big shocker this side of parenting is, surprise, you've signed up to shepherd an actual person with his own temperament, personality, likes, dislikes, thoughts, and feelings through this world in the company of your family. Actual people, right now. Not eighteen to twenty-five years from right now. This little reality makes parenting much more complicated.

Which is why raising children has to come back to relationship. And relationships aren't built on yelling matches and temper tantrums, at least none of the relationships in which I choose to participate. Rather, they're built on respect, trust, and forgiveness.

I've messed up. It's not the first time and, unfortunately, it won't be the last.

So what's wrong with me? I'm a parent of two independent souls who think for themselves and make their own decisions, occasionally at my expense.

My favorite parenting philosophy says, "We want our kids to make lots of mistakes," especially while they're young and the price tags of those mistakes are small. Sigh. In reality, Ben was doing us both a favor this afternoon by creating a learning opportunity, and I chose to view it as a problem instead. Bummer for me. Bummer for him.

I'll choose better next time.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Even Better Than the Tree

The magic is palpable here. It surpasses even my highest expectation. Ben could not be more excited about Christmas: everything from the tree to the lights to the stockings to the music to the books and pajamas and parties and activities have him spinning in a reverie of delight. "Can we keep the Christmas tree up all year until next Christmas?" he asked yesterday.

Abby is absorbing everything, too, in her sweet two-year-old way--trying to understand, watching her brother's excitement, asking questions, studying the trimmings. She may not be able to remember last year's celebration or fully anticipate what is coming, but as we drove into our driveway Saturday night and saw the Christmas lights Josh had hung with care earlier that day, she said, "I luhv our Chrihsmahs lighs." And yesterday, she told me quietly, "I luhv our Chrismahs twree." A few days ago, I caught her just gazing at the tree from her perch in the kitchen while I prepped dinner. When I asked her what she was looking at, she said, "Duh ohrnamens."

The kids' favorite car game right now is "find the Christmas lights." When we drive after sundown, a common occurrence now that the sun sets at 5 o'clock, they both point out with limitless excitement, "Christmas lights! Christmas lights!" The last set we see receives as much enthusiasm as the first, and they find the meager displays as praiseworthy as the elaborate. Christmas cheer in any form is an equal opportunity wonder-maker.

The highlight of the weekend for Ben, of course, was the fire department Christmas party Saturday night for the volunteer firefighters and their families, where Santa arrives in a fire engine with Mrs. Claus to deliver toys to all the boys and girls in attendance (and for the record, this is about the most authentic and warm Santa and Mrs. Claus I've ever seen--no fake beard here). When Santa walked in the door, I diverted Ben's attention from the balloon lady to his big, red coat, and Ben's face burst into joy. He began jumping up and down and pointing and then handed me his balloon mountain lion so that he could more effectively clap and cheer. I could see the rapture on his face--his little boy wonder radiating from his bright eyes.

Santa did not disappoint. When it was Ben's turn to climb into his lap, Santa asked Ben what he wanted for Christmas. "A little Santa toy," Ben answered with all sincerity. Mrs. Claus even stopped to admire Ben's mountain lion as they walked to their seats of honor in the great hall.

Abby, a darling in her red sweater dress with white faux fur trim around the collar and cuffs in true Santa style, caught the Claus's attention from the crowd. They waved and smiled at her throughout the evening, and though she waved and smiled back, she did not feel quite the same warmth when her turn came to sit on Santa's lap. She fretted and cried, so Josh got to sit on Santa's lap with Abby on his, earning him quite a bit of razzing from his fellow firefighters. I have a great photo, now, of Abby's little face flanked by Santa's on one side and Daddy's on the other.

So far, this season is proving to be everything I had hoped. The kids are like little fountains spilling over with joy. They, and Ben especially, appreciate everything. There is no selfish materialism, no bah-humbug jadedness, no disappointed disillusionment. Just pure, unadulterated exultation.

Children are beautiful in this way, and their wide-eyed perspective redeems all the work of parenting--indeed, refocuses all our parenting energies. They invite us back to a world of magic, beckoning us to marvel at the simple loveliness around us. They divert our attention away from the politics and injustice and corruption of our grown-up systems and establishments to behold with open eyes and hearts that which is good, and true, and beautiful. That is their gift to us.

So now, Josh and I will return the gift by searching for just the right "little Santa toy" to leave in Ben's stocking on Christmas Eve, our small contribution to the magic. And we'll sing Christmas carols before bed and look for Christmas lights as we drive and stare at the ornaments twinkling in the glow of the tree's lights, not just for the kids, but because we have rediscovered our own childhood wonder through them.

And while, technically, this may be "the most wonderful time of the year," with Ben and Abby in tow, the magic remains long after we take down the tree and pack away the ornaments. You see, Ben, we may not be able to keep the tree up all year, but Mommy and Daddy do get to keep you...and that's even better.

Friday, December 4, 2009

The Procrastinator's Wish List: Can I Get a Deadline, Please?

I should be doing something else, but I'm not. I'm putting it off--and off and off--for no good reason. Only because the task is large enough that it will soon consume all of my childless hours for a good several days, and I just can't bring myself to commit--yet.

I've even put off looking up my deadline, the finish date that will ensure my work arrives in time for gift-giving. This could be good or bad. As a serial procrastinator, I work best under pressure with a clear deadline that mandates time be allotted to the task at hand. If the date is coming soon, I will find the impetus to begin. If the date, however, is weeks away, well, I may find myself doing more of everything else in the meantime.

Just like I managed to while away an hour and a half of nap time today creating a centerpiece for my living room table, doing dishes, flipping through catalogues, checking e-mail, looking up dates for the Winter Wonderlights event at our local Wildlife Experience, and otherwise piddling away my opportunity for serious productivity. Focused, uninterrupted time in my life comes in small spurts midday, and if I do not seize that time within the first few minutes, I end up with an afternoon like today's, where I have little to show for my time--and certainly nothing gift-worthy.

For some reason, it is hard for me to work at something a little at a time. I just can't make good use of a half-hour here or an hour there. I am far more successful with several hours on end to immerse myself in a project. This trait is incompatible with motherhood, however, and the reason that several boxes of my grandmother's beautiful, hard-bound books remain in our storage room instead of on our bookshelves where they should be properly displayed. But this task requires finding a new home for the gazillions of paperbacks currently gracing the shelves, which no doubt entails cleaning out some of the books on a different shelf, merging the two sets, organizing them first by category and then by author's name alphabetically, and now you can see why this will take some time.

And such is life. Other projects in the back of my mind include organizing all of our recipes into a binder, creating baby albums for the kids, creating photo albums of life post-baby stage, hanging family portraits on the walls, creating a centralized location for all of our critical documents/paperwork/account information, and sprucing up our bedroom. There are others, I'm sure, but I gave up making lists of things on the "later" timeline years ago.

I may go away for a weekend in the spring with a friend to work on those photo albums. I'll pack up the computer, my comfiest jeans and sweaters, and some good coffee to help me take advantage of the wee hours of the morning. Forty-eight uninterrupted hours ought to be enough, right? It has to be enough, so it will be. A deadline, even self-imposed, works wonders.

But while this little procrastination issue of mine leaves many tasks untended, I like to think that, once I start, I complete my projects faster than if I'd devoted tidbits of time here or there for months on end. In fact, if it were up to me, I'd define it this way:

Procrastination: the wise woman's method of maximizing efficiency.

At least that's what I'll tell myself.

Wednesday, December 2, 2009

Fear Not: Behold the Corn

I stumbled onto a book of poetry in the midst of the holiday shopping frenzy Friday morning. It was sitting on a short table in a clothing store that dabbles in tasteful home accessories and adornments. No doubt intended as a coffee table book suitable for Christmas giving, its simple title, Evidence, sat boldly over a stunning, ethereal photograph of a river running through grassy fields toward a skyline of gray and gold clouds--at once majestic and familiar, like a snapshot from some distant dream.

Sucker for words that I am, I picked it up to flip through and found myself unable to put it down again, my soul drawn into her poems like a sojourner to home. Her language was clear and simple but absolutely precise. Her poetry offered reflections on the profound beauty in nature's smallest and most grandiose characters: a sparrow, sweet grass, the sun. Though I gravitate to nature--and couldn't imagine leaving our house where pine trees greet us through the windows every morning--I'm not generally drawn to writings on nature. But this poetry touched at something bigger than "just" nature: it spoke to the greater mysteries of existence as illustrated in the extraordinary details of a world that seeds and grows and flits and flies and rushes and pools all around us, every day, with or without our notice.

I managed to put it down only because I knew my final stop that morning would be a book store where I could see more of her work. Indeed, I later found myself sitting cross-legged on the floor beneath a bookcase labeled "Poetry," my heavy bags resting beside me, holding book after book of this woman's wisdom, reading deep the nourishment of her verse.

As I read, I thought of my dear friend, for whom this poetry would make the perfect gift, not as a book to be tastefully displayed on a coffee table but as a comfort to hold close and savor slowly in the quiet moments of a difficult day. I gave it to her today, and saw her also drawn to the words and images of the poems. And I thought, the only thing better than a world you never want to leave, created by the simple stroke of ink on paper, is someone who wishes to stay there with you. A friend whose soul speaks the same language and hears the same music and asks the same questions and marvels at the same truths.

Literature, friendship, ingestion of the word, shared wonder: communion.

And now, to share with You:
Little Summer Poem Touching The Subject Of Faith
by Mary Oliver
Every summer
I listen and look
under the sun's brass and even
into the moonlight, but I can't hear

anything, I can't see anything --
not the pale roots digging down, nor the green
stalks muscling up,
nor the leaves
deepening their damp pleats,

nor the tassels making,
nor the shucks, nor the cobs.
And still,
every day,

the leafy fields
grow taller and thicker --
green gowns lofting up in the night,
showered with silk.

And so, every summer,
I fail as a witness, seeing nothing --
I am deaf too
to the tick of the leaves,

the tapping of downwardness from the banyan feet --
all of it
beyond any seeable proof, or hearable hum.

And, therefore, let the immeasurable come.
Let the unknowable touch the buckle of my spine.
Let the wind turn in the trees,
and the mystery hidden in the dirt

swing through the air.
How could I look at anything in this world
and tremble, and grip my hands over my heart?
What should I fear?

One morning
in the leafy green ocean
the honeycomb of the corn's beautiful body
is sure to be there.

Monday, November 30, 2009

Cross My Heart

Saturday evening, after the din and excitement of Thanksgiving and Black Friday and my youngest sister's departure had settled, we settled ourselves in front of the t.v. with my parents and other sister to watch Up. And I have to confess that within ten minutes, I was practically weeping--and had to fight tears several more times through the movie.

I won't say that crying during movies is particularly unusual for me, anymore than laughing out loud at a clever commercial. This heightened sensitivity is a trait I developed when my son entered the world and I found myself completely responsible for this tiny person nestled in my arms. But I will say that, normally, I just tear up or feel my eyes burning in a touching scene. Rarely do the sentiments spill over so readily or profusely. I wiped my cheeks with the back of my hand several times over the course of the movie and couldn't speak without the tell-tale cracking of my voice.

(Spoiler Alert: discussion of plot to follow)

I think what touched me so deeply was the sincere love between Elli and Carl, the couple who fall in love with each other as children over their mutual thirst for adventure and then remain in love throughout their lives, thanks to their kind and devoted companionship. A five minute montage of their life--showing their wedding, their purchase of the abandoned house in which they meet, their loss of a baby, Elli's dream to move to Paradise Falls in South America, Carl's promise ("Cross my heart") to make it so, and the ways everyday life, loss, and responsibility got in the way of their dream--speaks volumes about the nature of life and relationship: life does not always go according to plan, but it remains good because of who it is shared with.

After a full life of work, home, and relationship, their hair now gray, their bodies succumbing to gravity, Carl figures out how to make their dream a reality. He tucks two plane tickets to Paradise Falls into the picnic basket they will take to their favorite picnic spot, hoping to surprise his bride with her dream come true. But as they climb the familiar hill to the grass beneath the oak, Elli falls ill--and Carl is left to write the rest of his adventure alone. A charming and tender story ensues, following Carl's quest to finally make a home for himself and his wife's memory in South America, which is threatened by unlikely traveling companions and a fear-driven villain. In the end, he finds permission to let go of their original dream in order to live more fully in his present opportunities for friendship, mentorship, and love.

I love, love, love this movie, and I keep wondering why it resonates so deeply with me. The story is sincere and brave, the characters endear themselves to us, and the three-quarter time music waltzes us through this whimsical world that seems bright and manageable, if not downright delightful. But those are only shadows of the real light in the story, which I think is the genuine love of a man and wife--so strong and true, it sacrifices everything for each other. She surrenders her dream of adventure for life with him, which turns out to be the ultimate adventure. He, in turn, leaves behind everything he knows and understands to fulfill her deepest desire, even though she can no longer share the journey. Both are driven by their love for each other. Both find themselves fulfilled by their genuine love for each other.

At the risk of sounding totally sappy and sentimental, I get this. I get their love because it's the kind of love Josh and I share. Life in all of its mundaneness and responsibility is good because we get to share it with each other. Circumstances change, dreams rise and fall, people come and go, but the constant is us. Every day. Together. I love the movie because I recognize us in the characters.

Josh shares my dreams. He encourages my endeavors. He supports my desires, regardless of whether he thinks they're sane. When I ask, "Do you think I could go to the Iowa Summer Writing Festival for a weekend to learn how to blog?" he smiles, admits he thinks it's crazy, and then does everything he can to make it happen. He loves me. And if I told him I wanted to live atop Paradise Falls, he would devote himself to making it so, even if he had to fly us there with a thousand balloons.

And so I ache with Carl, this fictional old man who, ten minutes into the movie, finds himself suddenly alone in a world that has moved on while he and his wife were dreaming their dreams, and living. And I will probably cry every time I watch this beautiful little movie and see this man attempt to make sense of his life without his life. Because the mere thought of being alone in this world without Josh leaves me unable to breathe. Because I can't imagine having to create a life without him.

Hopefully, we'll get to have many, many years of living together. And in the time we get to share on this earth, I will love him as well as I can.

Cross my heart.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Mirror, Mirror

After a mostly sweet day, Ben had an outburst before bed involving outright defiance and angry declarations of what he was not going to do. This, of course, happened in front of guests, which always adds an element of charge to parenting situations (and sometimes fuels these outbursts thanks to the pride factor that comes into play when Mom makes requests or corrections in front of others). It was ugly, but I managed to maintain my cool, and he took himself to his room voluntarily in spite of the drama.

He shed some tears, settled down in his room, and then got ready for bed without issue, though tears continued to fall intermittently. He had reached that place of physical and emotional exhaustion that only snuggles and sleep can repair. So after changing into pajamas and brushing his teeth, he settled into my lap with relief for the rest of his bedtime routine: books, prayers, and songs. When we finished, I held him close, rocking quietly in the dark room. I kissed his head and said, "You know what, Peanut? I love you. I love you very much."

He replied sincerely, "I love you more than that. Do you know how much I love you? I love you this big," and he stretched his arms out as far as they could go. "I love you," and then he paused to find the right description, "I love you bigger than Daddy."

"Ohhh...that is big," I said, and I saw Josh through Ben's eyes: tall, strong, capable of everything. His perspective reminded me of how large we adults loom in a child's world, how much influence we have as a result.

He continued, "And do you know how much I love our family? You and Abby and Daddy?" He answered with his most common refrain: "I love you from Colorado to Russia to Boston, Massachusetts, to the moon." Then he added, "I'm never going to stop loving you, and I'm never going to let you die. You'll only die when I start dying. And I'm not going to smoke cigarettes." Inside, I smiled at this last statement, which reflects his understanding of how to live as long as possible--avoid the white sticks that make things grow that aren't supposed to. I affirmed the wisdom of this decision, assured him I loved him as much, and tucked him into bed.

Sometimes I'm amazed by how tender the moments following misbehavior can be. It's as if he knows he has blown it and craves the closeness that communicates we're okay. He rests in the security that our relationship is in tact, that his behavior hasn't pushed me away, that we're going to love each other forever and ever no matter what.

This is the blessing of family. We screw up, we make bad decisions, sometimes we even hurt each other--and we love each other anyway. Perhaps this is actually the point of family: to have a place to make mistakes--to fail--in the most dramatic and inglorious manner, and still have arms to climb into at the end of the day. No matter how frustrated or bewildered or discouraged we are in this crazy ride called parenthood, Josh and I have to be that place of security for the kids. We have to be a safe place for them to lose it. None of us holds it together perfectly all the time, and we can identify our family by those who allow us to lose it with grace--that is, by those who do not identify us by our messes but instead speak gently into the mess the reality of our better, truer selves.

Ben learns who he is from what we believe about him. If we believe he has the capacity to make better decisions, to exert self-control, to communicate respectfully, to work out his problems independently--even, or particularly, when he fails to do so--we call him into more of who he really is. If we accept defiant outbursts and tantrumy behaviors as reflections of who he is, then what will he believe about himself? As parents, we hold up a mirror to his behavior, but we hold up a mirror of faith, hope, and love that reflects his failures in the context of the extraordinary person we know him to be. Judgement, condemnation, and shame have no place here, for they would only fuel the fear he feels when he makes bad decisions--fear of himself, of his place in this world, of his ability to be good.

I do not do this perfectly, nor am I able to maintain a kind and gentle response in every situation. There are moments I react in anger, exasperation, frustration, and exhaustion. There are times I pull away emotionally, so spent from my interactions with a two and four-year-old working out their independence and identity on the anvil of my heart. I, too, am human. I, too, fall apart. But the amazing grace of it is that my children crawl back into my lap to whisper assurances of their unconditional love to me, their small voices echoing the love of my Father in heaven.

I love them--from Colorado to Russia to Boston, Massachusetts, to the moon. Always and forever. No matter what.

Friday, November 20, 2009

On Leaving the "Merry" in Christmas

This morning, I bought Christmas pajamas for Ben & Abby, a gift we will give them Thanksgiving night as a festive inauguration to the season. I'm sure we will get the Christmas books out, too, so they can choose a couple to read before bed. As we walked to our destinations in the mall, Abby asked to stop and look at all the Christmas trees she saw. The ground of our yard and the woods behind our house are still covered in snow. And I keep dreaming about little white lights on the house and red and green accents throughout. It's beginning to feel a lot like Christmas--in my heart, at least.

I don't know why I'm so excited this year. Perhaps it's because Ben remembers things from last year, so I know we've reached the age where tradition means something. Already, he's asking when we'll get to watch "the Grinch" movie. He's remembering our adventure to the Wild Life Experience last year when he (and, by default, I) was Auntie NetNet's guest of honor at her office Christmas party; there, he got to experience Whoville's magic on the IMAX screen, and his delight was absolute. He giggled and smiled and pointed out novelties from start to finish.

Perhaps it's because I'm much less concerned about making things "just right." I'm already considering paper plates for Christmas dinner as a way of simplifying the night and keeping it focused on the magic of being together. And I am determined to trim the tree this year without futzing over the perfect placement of each ornament in order to achieve a perfectly balanced visual masterpiece of red, gold, and whimsy (here, my husband laughs and says, "Yeah right," but I'll show him). I want the entire season, from Thanksgiving night to Christmas night, to mean something more than me stressing over making things "perfect."

Of greater importance is the invitation for Ben (and, as possible, Abby) to help with everything from the tree to the gift shopping to the cooking--and I want to enjoy the perfectly endearing "imperfection" their contribution brings. Josh is a master at accepting whatever degree of proficiency the kids have to offer; I generally try unsuccessfully.

But this year, I trust it will be different. Something in my present outlook decries stress and welcomes rest, resists perfectionism and accepts a bit of mess. I'm ready to dive into the Little People nativity set, read Christmas books until I can recite every one, listen to The Muppets Christmas as many times as the kids desire, and wonder over Santa's incredible speed and knowledge of chimney-less house entrances.

Today is Friday, and Friday is always a good day because it marks the start of our weekend with Josh. Tomorrow we will tend to our birthday parties and other everyday-life responsibilities. But tomorrow night, we will wait excitedly for my youngest sister and her boyfriend to arrive, and so the festivities will begin. Next week is a short week of work, a short week of school, and a long week of family and fun and celebration. And come Thursday, it will officially be Christmas-time.

I wonder if, given my new, relaxed attitude, my family will indulge my desire to decorate the tree next weekend?

Either way, I can't wait.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

God and the Paradox of Power Surrendered

On Saturday night as we drove home from dinner at a friend's house, Benjamin shared that he had a dream about Kashmir Friday night (the night our kitty died). When we asked him what his dream was about, he said he saw Kashmir sitting on Jesus' lap. I was struck by what a gift this was for him--and even for us. It revealed to me so much of the heart of God: the omnipotent God of the universe comforting a small family in pain, providing a sweet image for a small boy grappling with this new concept of death. This dream was like a "new home" announcement: "Wanted you to know Kashmir's settled into Jesus's lap and doing well."

It makes me smile with thanksgiving and wonder and delight. It confirms what I already know about God: that He is Love, that He is good, that He can be trusted. It also makes me question any presentation of Him as anything less than utterly compassionate and merciful--even in His justice. God's greatest display of power was his surrender of it: his incarnation as a powerless baby, his body broken and blood shed in forgiveness, even--or perhaps especially--for those who "know not what they do."

As I think about this, I feel compelled to let go of my anger towards our less-than-compassionate vet at the hospital. Was he insensitive? Yes. Was he malicious? No. At least, I don't think he was aware of how he treated us. I still wish he had used his authority differently. It could have made all the difference had he entered into our world for a few minutes to understand our confusion and acknowledge our uncertainty and prepare us for the pain ahead. Then we might have trusted him and experienced our loss with hope rather than anger. But I'm ready to let go of my judgement and rest.

Amazingly, I think we have a God who did just what we longed for: He entered our world (Merry Christmas), understood our confusion ("They know not what they do"), and prepared us for the pain ahead ("In this world, you will experience tribulation, but I have overcome the world"). God trusted God ("Father, if You are willing, remove this cup from Me; yet not My will, but Yours be done...Into your hands I commit my spirit") so that we might trust Him, too--and live in faith, hope and love in the midst of the pain.

I promise I won't keep writing about our cat, but I haven't been able to stop thinking about this God who takes care of four-year-old boys mourning a beloved pet. Every time I sit down to write, it comes back. The God I know is not interested in power trips, terrorism, violent invasions of earth, firey vengeance, or destruction. The God I know snuggles kitties on his lap and then sends pictures to little boys as tokens of His love...

Emmanuel, God with us.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Knowing (And the Proper Use of Power)

Knowing is hard--and, paradoxically, uncertain.

We had to put Kashmir down last night. Through a roller coaster of possible diagnoses and prognoses, the doctor at the animal hospital--to which we were referred by the vet--ultimately determined she had a mass the size of his fist in her abdomen: lymphosarcoma, or some equally mystifying term like that.

She was, indeed, very sick. Her breathing was labored, her walking was slumped, and she was dangerously dehydrated. Here at the house from our untrained eyes, we knew she was losing weight and acting very un-Kashmir-like. Seeing her through the trained eyes of the professionals, she suddenly appeared so terribly ill. We had not realized the severity of her condition.

At the risk of sounding sappy, it is hard to lose a pet, very hard. But I'm learning that grief is about so much more than the loss. It's also about processing all the decisions and circumstances leading up to it; it's about how everything happens as much as what happens; and, for me, it's about reviewing and second-guessing the series of events leading to the outcome.

I won't go into all the details, but the doctor at the hospital--the second one we saw last night--was cold, cavalier, rushed. His callous approach leaves me questioning, doubting. His exam was cursory, his conclusion contradictory to what we had been told by the previous vet. We had to make a decision based on the recommendation of someone I found it difficult, if not impossible, to trust. Even as we tried to elicit explanations or assurances of certainty in the diagnosis, he provided half-baked answers and ingenuine alternatives to death. He had opportunities to inspire confidence, but he didn't care to. His role gave him authority, and he seemed to think that ought to be enough. The last two hours of our time with Kashmir were painful, not only because we realized we were losing her but also because she was in the hands of someone who didn't really see her, or us.

He brought his complete lack of sensitivity into our final moments with Kashmir. By the time we gathered around to administer the "medication" to end her suffering, her state of dehydration and her low blood pressure made her veins invisible. The doctor, rather than comforting her or apologizing for his multiple attempts to place the needle, acted irritated, commenting aloud over and over about how hard it was going to be for him to do this when he couldn't see her veins. It became so horrific, I took the kids out of the room when originally we had decided, based on Ben's wishes, to be there all together.

It was awful--an ugly, ugly, painful mess. So I'm left replaying all of my decisions over the last few days about when to bring her in and who to bring her in to, wondering if seeing someone else would have resulted in a different, or at least more compassionate, outcome. If she did, indeed, have the tumor, we made the right decision. I just wish I could trust his assessment, and I wish her last few hours had been handled with kindness.

The beauty in the night, which stands in stark contrast to the professional's bruskness, was sweet little Benjamin. We had been preparing him for all different outcomes, and I walked him through every step of the evening, from the first vet's original suspicion of diabetes (which I explained was just like Grandpa and Papa's condition) to the vet's subsequent conclusion--based on the results of the bloodwork--that she had pancreatitis (explaining that Kashmir was very, very sick; that they were going to try to give her medicines at the hospital for a few days to help her get better; but that we didn't know if she would get better or not), to the hospital doctor's conclusion that she was too sick to treat (explaining through tears that medicine wouldn't help her and she was going to keep getting sicker until she died, so we had to decide if we were going to bring her home, which would be very painful for her since she couldn't eat or drink, or if we were going to let the doctor help her die there so she wouldn't hurt anymore).

He got it. Every detail. And he comforted me through the evening.

When we first entered the room where they euthanized Kashmir, we asked the kids if we should pray for her. Ben immediately said yes and prayed this simple prayer: "Dear Jesus, Thank you for Kashmir. I pray that Jesus will take good care of her in heaven. She was a good kitty. Amen." When Ben noticed I was crying, he said, "Don't be sad, Mommy. We love Kashmir." Later he attempted to comfort us by reasoning, "If Kashmir's going to heaven, then when we go to heaven, we'll all be together. And that will be happy."

When I brought the kids back into the room after the doctor was finished, we all petted her one last time and said goodbye. Ben asked, "Who will come to take her to heaven?"--in his literal and simple faith, he believed an emissary of some sort would escort her body away. I adore this notion. We discussed, then, concepts of body and soul, why we can still see her even though the "her" that we love is no longer there, and where her body will go when we leave the hospital. After answering his questions and giving Kashmir our final demonstrations of our affection, we loaded into the car with our now-empty cat carrier and drove home.

He has continued to offer little statements of hope since. "Mommy," Ben said as we drove home, "Today is sad, but tomorrow won't be sad because we won't have to worry about Kashmir anymore." This morning, when we first came downstairs and saw Jasmine, our now lone kitty, he crouched low and said, "Jasmine, Kashmir isn't here. She moved..." At this point, he was cut off by his sister, but I'm pretty sure he was going to say, "She moved to heaven," his four-year-old explanation of death: relocation. Then this afternoon before naps, he lay down next to Jasmine on our bed, stroked her head and said tenderly, "Jasmine, you're not going to see Kashmir again until you die." He's trying to make sure she understands, just as we've tried to make sure he understands what is going on. His heart radiates compassion and purity and truth.

I realize that Ben is taking this loss in stride because we took the time to walk through it with him, to explain in terms he could understand what was happening, to answer all his questions as candidly and as thoroughly as possible, to do everything in our power to make him comfortable with the potentially uncomfortable. Our knowledge of life and death and health and illness and doctors and medicine puts us in a position of authority--and power--in his life, but we used that authority to teach and model and comfort.

This is what the doctor failed to do. His knowledge of veterinary medicine and Kashmir's body and the severity of her symptoms and treatment options and outcomes put him in a position of authority, and power, in our life. We had no choice but to trust his evaluation. But he wielded his authority carelessly, assuming our trust based on his position alone, refusing to enter in and explain, reassure, teach, comfort. This abuse of power leaves us feeling uncertain, taken advantage of, dare I say violated?--exacerbating the pain of an already difficult situation. Our grief was compounded rather than assuaged.

I realize Kashmir is just a cat, but there was a lot more than a cat at stake here, which, I think, is why this is hitting me so hard. It was the treatment of our family in a vulnerable moment. It was the abuse of power. It's the fact that I couldn't bear to let our children stay in the room to comfort Kashmir because of this man's callousness.

But now we have no choice but to move on. I'm trying to follow Benjamin's lead, trusting that we did what was best for our charming kitty. I'm trying to quiet the barrage of "what if's" that have plagued my mind since last night in hopes that the tears sitting just below the surface will stop spilling over. We did what we could. The finality of death means we cannot change it now.

So I'm refocusing my thoughts away from the circumstances of Kashmir's death to the hilarity she brought our lives. I'm holding onto Benjamin's wisdom: "Don't be sad, Mommy. We love Kashmir." Yes, we do. She was a good kitty, and she will be greatly missed.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Not Knowing

Kashmir, our less-than-graceful but utterly endearing socialite who lives for her twice-daily dish of wet cat food, is sick. Quite sick. And we're not sure if this is sickness of the temporary or terminal variety. I've been trying very hard not to think in terms of the latter, but it is hard to remain optimistic when I see her.

She hasn't eaten her wet food in a few weeks, which at first we blamed on a bad batch of food (at the time, Jasmine was leaving little "gifts" for us with alarming frequency). We threw that box of cans out, bought new food, but saw little improvement. Occasionally, she'd lick the gravy, but she wouldn't eat it. We tried other brands. No change. And then, about a week ago, she did not even show up in the kitchen at dinner time.

If you know her at all, you know that she is generally found stalking the kitchen and anyone near it for at least two hours before feeding time--rubbing against our legs, meowing in a pitch at once pitiful and hopeful, planting herself strategically between us and our destination, and otherwise making a nuisance of herself. She lives for her food, and her absence in the kitchen was more like a void.

At first, I thought she was just depressed over her food situation. Whether she was gun-shy after her encounters with the bad food or disgusted because Fancy Feast changed their recipe, I thought she might simply be losing her spirit over her mealtime travails. But this week, there have been other signs of concern: she is lethargic; she prefers to lay on the mat by our front door or on the cool, hard wood rather than on a fresh pile of warm laundry; she doesn't harass me at the computer during the kids' naps or snuggle into our laps in the evening; when we approach her to pet her or croon our concern, she squeaks in sincerest pathos. Last night, we had guests over, and she wouldn't move herself off the mat to allow the door to open, let alone charm the guests with her social antics.

Something is wrong. And we don't know what. We have an appointment this afternoon. If it weren't clear she doesn't have an ounce of energy to exert, I would be worried about wrangling her into the carrier. As it is, I don't think she'll protest at all. At 3 o'clock, the kids and I will load into the car with Kashmir to see the vet. I've already had the conversation with Ben about the possible outcomes of our visit: they may be able to give her medicine to make her better, they may need us to take her somewhere else for more tests, or they may say she's too sick for medicine, which means she may die. We're hoping against the last outcome.

So now we're in the waiting place, as we have been since we set the appointment on Wednesday. We don't know what's wrong or how to make it better. All we can tell the kids--and ourselves--is that she's sick and needs lots of extra love.

Poor Kashmir.

Monday, November 9, 2009

On Writing and Children

For four weeks now, I've been volunteering in Ben's class on Mondays, working with the children on creative writing. I'll confess that, at first, I felt a bit lost. What kind of concepts are appropriate for 3-6 year-olds? How exactly does one write with children who don't yet know how to write? As I prepared, I found even Barnes & Noble insufficient as I searched for pre-school writing concepts and activities (except for Lucy Calkin's wonderful book The Art of Teaching Writing, which I wish I'd discovered when I was teaching). Very little exists on the topic until kindergarten age.

I began with blundering and stumbling. The first Monday, I introduced myself to a group of four kids and immediately realized attention spans and reference frames and interest levels would not sustain the original idea I had for our time together. Working with these little guys in a structured sense is a giant leap from working with high schoolers, and I had too much information even in my seemingly scaled-back "plan." Even with a four and two-year-old at home to help me gauge what would be appropriate, I floundered. So I scrapped most of it and started at the very beginning ("a very good place to start").

"Do you know what an author is?" I asked them. Most of them shook their heads or said no, though through the morning I found a few who did. "Authors are the people who write books. They tell stories. Do you like to tell stories?" Most of them nodded their heads enthusiastically and began raising their hands and spilling all kinds of fascinating information about snakes and circus performers and playing with their parents and summer vacations and anything else they could think of. "Well, if you write your story down, do you know what that makes you?" A pause. "It makes you an author, a writer. Did you know that you guys are writers?"

I got a number of different responses throughout the morning. Some kids smiled a bit at the possibility. Others claimed they were actually artists. Some said they didn't have any stories to tell.

Here, I would interject and talk about "special writer's eyes and ears." For those in doubt--and even for those hopeful believers--I shared that what makes someone a writer is their "special writer's eyes and ears that see and hear and notice things that other people don't." We went for a walk around the school yard, then, "noticing" things other people might not: a spider web tucked into a dark corner, a brilliantly-colored leaf on the ground, an ant crawling on the slide, the sound of a dog barking from a car on the road, the shape of a particular cloud, the sound their feet made as they walked through the gravel. They returned to the table and "wrote," which for now means they drew, what they noticed--or anything else that caught their mind's fancy. And when they were through, they "read" their stories to each other. When one group finished, the authors took their stories to their cubbies and returned to class, and I began again with the next group.

In spite of the false start, it went okay, and now I start every week and every group with the same question: "Have you had your special writer's eyes and ears on since we were together last week?" Now, they almost all nod knowingly, and some even share special things they've observed. We're finding our rhythm, I think. We talk about a concept like characters or setting, they draw their stories, and then they tell them to me as I write down their creations.

I'm getting to know the kids. I call them by name and am learning about their families. Some now find me in class when I come in to gather another group of children and ask to work with me. Others are still skeptical but obliging. There are a few who are reticent to tell stories--cautious or shy or just unsure of what to say. There are a few who insist every week they don't know how to draw what they have in mind, and I just reassure them that they'll get better with practice and to give it their best try. Some can't stop the flow of stories welling up from within them--they've barely finished one elaborate tale before they're crafting another. Others get out a few lines and that is that.

My favorite part is that my primary role is simply to affirm every attempt. I want these kids to walk out of our time together actually believing they have a story to tell. Because they do. No one else in the world will see the same things and hear the same things and feel the same things they will and be able to tell about it from their perspective. There are very few original stories in the world, and by that I mean original plots. What is new and different and unique about each one is the perspective from which it's told, the feeling imbued by the author, the beliefs and attitudes and observations of a particular individual that color the entire event.

This morning as I talked with a group of four girls about characters, three of them decided to create pumpkin characters. This inclination to do what another does is definitely a danger with these little guys--if one person begins talking about something, you're likely to get that same concept from two or three more (I suppose that danger exists no matter what the age). But I pointed out that even if they all had a pumpkin for a character, they would still have different characters because they would all be making their own decisions about whether their pumpkin was nice or mean, helping someone or needing help, silly or serious, loving ice cream or loving green beans. And indeed, all three pumpkins were different--uniquely characterized by their unique creators.

I look forward to these Monday mornings, now, with a bit of childlike anticipation. Because there is very little "writing" in the stringing-letters-together-into-words-and-sentences fashion, I am freed from my teacher tendencies to correct grammar and spelling. Because they are so little, I am freed from my expectations that they understand concepts like characterization and plot development from an abstract perspective. Any attempt to understand and use the concept merits encouragement and attention and delight.

I do provide some guidance. As I worked with three boys today on setting, they all decided to write their stories about superheroes: Batman and Spiderman and "Star Wars guys." "Great," I told them, "and can you show me where they are, too?" So around their characters, they drew tall city buildings or a "[Bat]mobile" with a computer and buttons to push or outer space with stars and black holes and hot rocks--settings. They're getting it. I give them a bit of structure, turn them loose, and do everything in my power to draw out their stories. And then I get to enjoy the most original creations that emerge.

I wish I had had more of this perspective when I taught high schoolers--the bigger kids--several years ago. I wish there had been less judgment and more invitation, less focus on doing it "right" and more acknowledgement that everyone has a story to tell. A fellow teacher and I were trying to get there with a writing workshop format, but I wasn't quite here. Of course, mechanics matter. They provide the framework and credibility for the content. But I think I could have kept the elements in better balance. Alas.

As a parent, I am being drawn out of my regimented lists of do's and don'ts and musts and shoulds into the fuzzier, kinder, nuanced place of childhood. It is a gentler view that shades the world I see and influences the way I engage it.

Even before they can write, children are writers. I love that optimism. Even before I have life figured out, I am alive. And in theory, the writing--and the living--should just keep getting better.

Sunday, November 8, 2009

'Tis the Season

I have this itch to start playing Christmas music. I know it's early (unless you're a retailer), and out of principle, I just think all things "merry and bright" ought to wait until after Thanksgiving. But now that I get to share it with the kids, I can't wait to break out the Christmas books, sing the carols, and deck the halls. Especially because Ben really gets it.

Tonight, he colored a little wooden ornament he received as a gift and decided he wanted to leave it as a present for Santa with the cookies we will make him on Christmas Eve. He desires to give Santa a gift since Santa brings him gifts. We've already started in on the barrage of questions: How does he know when we're sleeping? Why does he come to the Lake House (where the fire department hosts its annual Christmas party for the volunteers complete with the most authentic Santa & Mrs. Claus I've seen)? How does he get in our house when we don't have a chimney? Does Santa share his cookies with his reindeer? (Okay, that was my question, but he sure chuckled as he thought about it).

I do love this time of year--the festivities make the shorter days more bearable. And I'm a sucker for anticipation, not to mention the sheer beauty of a warmly-lit tree, the comfort of a warm cup of spiced cider, and the joy of little ones in candy-cane striped pajamas. I can live with parking lot madness and party-overload and the stress of the quest for the perfect gift when, at the end of the day, I get to retire to Ben and Abby staring at the tree and the stockings--wide-eyed with wonder and bursting with their own excitement.

And I'm not concerned in the least that Ben may be forgetting the annoyingly-coined "reason for the season." Last night as we drove home from delivering a meal to a couple who is in the throws of newborn life, Ben engaged me in the most beautiful conversation about Jesus, asking me how He can move the mountains, how He can "get out of us" to do things like lift heavy rocks, how He's so strong, and why He would move mountains anyway.

I don't have the answers to these questions, and I told him so, but I did my best to answer as honestly as I could as he asked: "Because He is God, and God can do things that are impossible for us...He may not need to move mountains, but if He did, He could...And while He can do things 'out of us' if He wanted, what's more miraculous is that He generally wants to do things through us to show people He loves them, like He did when we brought food to this new family."

"So they can just take care of the baby and not have to cook," he chimed in.

"Exactly. We may not understand everything about Him, but we can trust Him, because God is Love and that makes Him Good. All the time."

As we talked, Abby kept asking, "Whah ahr you guys tah-ing abouht?" So I'd reframe these theological concepts once more at a two-year old level and say, "We're talking about how much Jesus loves us." And she'd say, "Oh," and occasionally start singing "Jesus Loves Me."

Toward the end of our conversation, Ben said, "Mommy, this morning when the clock still said 6, I looked out my window, and the sky had all these gorgeous clouds [yes, he actually used the word "gorgeous."]. They were bright orange. When I layed down in my bed, I thanked Jesus for the orange clouds." It was so very sincere, so precious. And I imagine his gratitude was received as a gift as beautiful as the ornament Ben made for Santa.

This is why I'm not concerned about the Christmas story getting lost in the commercialism or the Santa hype or the trimmings--we'll revel in it all over the next several weeks.

Ben knows who paints the sunrise.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Chapter With Our Music

The piano arrived yesterday, and I'm full of anticipation.

This is the piano I grew up playing. I spent hours in my early years taking lessons, making up tunes, giving lessons to littler kids, releasing stress, and generally enjoying the music. Unfortunately, come middle school, I gave up lessons in favor of more exciting endeavors like sports and talking on the phone with friends.

This is okay, and my parents were right to allow me this decision: surely if they had insisted I keep playing, I would have hated it. But now in my adult years, I wish I had continued. I think this is a common refrain of grown-ups: if only I had...

Now, I sit on the bench that suddenly feels small to play familiar music I had mastered once upon a childhood, and it feels like becoming reacquainted with a part of myself. In high school, when the stress became too much to handle, I would find myself drawn to the white and black keys, playing in a reverie the demands of the world could not surmount. After, I could return to whatever task or stress had driven me there and begin--focused, grounded, at peace. Music does that for me...and always has.

It probably began in a childhood full of grandparents and aunts and uncles and cousins who could sing. Driving to and from destinations during family reunions, I forgot myself in the harmonies produced by a handful of voices singing old hymns, revival songs, soul food. Someone would start and the rest would join until the car had been transformed into a miniscule foretaste of the Revelation vision: all creation singing before the throne, "Holy, holy, holy is the Lord God Almighty," in full understanding of the glory and mercy and grace poured out to all mankind.

And then in middle school, another revelation: Red Hot Chili Peppers, Pearl Jam, Guns 'n Roses...rock music. I found a voice for other parts of me as I awoke to the complexities of the world.

Now that I'm older, I realize most--if not all--music, speaks at least in part from the same sacred voice, where some element of longing, fear, anger, or loss is transformed into faith, hope, love, and joy. Somehow. Just as my time at the piano in my youth made sense of my world. Music translates that which the soul cannot speak and the mind cannot fully define into a language universally understood--or at least recognized.

Well, now this piano sits against the wall in my basement. I have to make myself not go to it when other responsibilities call. It feels like yet another chapter in my life beginning: the chapter that holds the music I create, and already, the music of the children. Ben could not tear himself away from it yesterday. I showed him middle C, taught him the alphabet names of the keys up and down the board, and described how the notes on the page correspond to the ivory.

He asked me to listen to his songs, and he ran his fingers along the keys in the rhythm of tunes he knows while singing along. And then he began making up his own songs--sweet, thoughtful, worshipful melodies from his own tender heart. When Josh arrived last night, Ben immediately invited him downstairs to see his new prized possession and to show off his budding piano skills.

I am happy to have this part of my life back. I'm rusty and now so aware of how much I don't know. But contrary to how I might have felt at other times in my life, I don't feel it's too late to learn. I hope to take lessons again, to master the scales and technicalities I managed to avoid when I was younger thanks to a good ear and some natural musicality, and to appreciate more fully the gift.

And if Ben or Abby wants to learn, I will do whatever I can to foster their desire. Ben, who has said on numerous occasions that he would like to play the guitar or the trumpet or the violin or the drums or whatever instrument happens to be on his brain at the moment, now has a vehicle to begin learning this new language: A,B,C,D,E,F,G in infinite arrangements, time in its varying meters, and all of it in the context of his tempo, his crescendos and diminuendos, his love.

I hope the piano lives a central existence in our home. As Abby and I drove this morning, she asked if she could "pay duh pih-ya-no" when we got home. And she ran straight to it when we walked in the door. Now Ben has come down from his nap and asked if we can play the piano together.

So begins this chapter...

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

All in a Day...

Today, Abby and I had the car washed and the grocery shopping completed by 10 a.m.

Today, Abby, nervous about the loud sounds and darkened windows at the car wash, bravely held my hand as I explained what was happening--and did not cry.

Today, Abby took her shoes and socks and barrette off in the car as we drove to the park, a problem for me who ends up replacing her shoes a half dozen times in an outing, and was unable to replace them herself.

Today, Abby and I did not get to enjoy the glorious sunshine at the park before we picked-up Ben because I am no longer putting shoes on after we leave the house, and we cannot enjoy the still-muddy park barefoot.

Today, my heart ached for Abby's disappointment--and mine.

Today, I second-guessed whether the consequence would be effective, or just crushing.

Today, Ben drew his first picture of our family, in which the two lines and a circle representing him are trying to hug the two lines and a circle representing me.

Today, while we were driving home, Ben asked Abby to please stop making spitting noises because it makes him worry that she's spitting at him.

Today, Abby said, "Oh," and stopped.

Today, Abby continues her nap strike for the third day in a row.

Today, Abby knew that if she layed down, she would fall asleep, so she spent all of nap time standing.

Today, Ben's little lion did not weather his trip through the washer and dryer as uneventfully as assumed: the once-soft and fluffy mane now resembles a matted helmet.

Today, Ben was so disappointed and heartbroken about his lion's altered appearance, he asked not to sleep with it at nap time.

Today, I had the thought, I hope I'm never maimed--what would Ben think then? And would I be strong enough to handle his reaction?

Today, I'm very much looking forward to my spin class at 4:00.

Today, I wonder how early I will have to put Abby to bed and if the early bedtime will only prolong the time it takes for her to adjust to the wretched time change.

Today, Ben suggested we play the "snuggle" game and then rested his little body next to mine on the floor and pulled Josh close to drink his juice.

Today, I love my children to pieces.

Saturday, October 31, 2009

The Horror

At the risk of alienating 90% of the population, I have to say I don't really like Halloween.

I get the fun of costumes and pretending to be someone or something else for a day, especially when those things are brave and noble like a knight or sweet and lovely like a princess. It is a day when a child (or adult's) most grandiose visions of themselves can become a temporary reality. And I think it is good to dream big dreams like that.

I also get the candy. Without question.

And since living in our neighborhood for the last seven years, I have grown to truly appreciate the community that this "holiday" creates. Our neighborhood has thrown a giant street party nearly every year, complete with jump houses and chili cook-offs and ugly cake contests and pumpkin carving competitions. All the neighbors join the festivities and enjoy a night of conversation, camaraderie and fun. It brings out the best in everyone: participation in something bigger than daily life, a communal spirit, a celebration of childhood. It is delightful to walk from house to house with our children, knowing the names of most of the folks who open the door to share in this event with people who have become friends as a result of our common residence.

What I don't like is the ugliness, especially now that I'm witnessing it from the naive eyes of a four and two year old, and especially when I have to anticipate how to answer the inevitable question, "Why?"

Several weeks ago, before my Halloween radar was even activated, we walked into the mall entrance closest to the children's stores in search of shoes for the kids. We were greeted by a Spirit Halloween: there was no way we could avoid it. And right in front of the store--practically in the walkway--was a fully-automated, haggard, ugly, witch-like manequin lying on the floor with an oustretched hand that reached up over and over as she made awful pleas for help.

Ben, of course, asked, "What's that?"

How do you answer this question? What is it? A woman trying to escape unimaginable evil? A woman, evil herself, attempting to lure innocent people into her grasp? A miserable soul, regardless. Yuck. Ben does not even have a frame of reference from which to understand this kind of, albeit pretend, suffering. Nor should he at this point in his life.

I scrambled to come up with an answer and settled on "a creepy doll."

"What's 'creepy'?" he asked.

Again, how do you answer this question? He doesn't know what creepy is--why would he? At this point we were past the store and coming up on the toy vehicles that offer kids a ride when filled with quarters. I think I replied with something like, "yucky or ugly," words that do exist in his vocabulary, and then breathed a sigh of relief when his attention turned to the race car.

To some degree, I've been holding my breath ever since, as we drive through the streets and see light-up zombies peering through windows and skeleton wreaths adorning front doors and giant insects crawling up the sides of houses and cackling witches beckoning from grocery store displays. Each decoration is so innocent in its intention, I believe. But each represents such nastiness. Sometimes I'm amazed that we could glorify death and horror and outright creepiness with such little thought or awareness. What do I do when Ben asks why a person's skull is hanging from a porch? What legitimate answer could possibly satisfy his curiosity? Any casual response will most certainly be followed by "Why?" and then more "Why's", and the answer to some of those why's are far too disturbing to be shared with a four year old navigating the territory of security and fear, literal reality and metaphor, good and bad.

I know no harm is intended by this celebration of the scare. And it's not that I want Ben to waltz through the world thinking everything is happy and light. I think it's that these caricatures of evil represent, on some level, real evil--these scary images and haunting effects are founded in real fear, true horror, awful realities.

We may not be haunted by actual shimmery white ghosts, and we may not encounter zombies or witches in our everyday lives. But many people are haunted by the hurt and horror inflicted by others. Many have skeletons in their own proverbial closets. Many have been cursed by a careless word or flippant comment made in anger or frustration. Many walk the earth resembling a living dead person. The line between fiction and reality is too thin here for my liking. The pain is too real. Perhaps I'm overthinking the whole thing, but I can't bring myself to enjoy its glorification.

So I'm hoping it will be just a matter of days before this ugliness is packed away for another year. In the meantime, I will try to create a day of innocent fun for the kids. Ben will enjoy the neighborhood festivities as a firefighter, his costume matching his father's actual fire-fighting bunker gear. This emulation of valiance I adore. Abby will prance through the street as a ladybug, replete with sparkly tutu, darling polka-dotted wings, and red and black snow boots. We will catch up with the neigbhors, exchange stories about the snow storm and our travails with H1N1, jump in the bounce house, admire the ugly cakes and expertly-carved pumpkins, and generally enjoy being together. We will celebrate community and children and fantasy.

And I will pray that the kids are blind to the creepiness so that I don't have to tackle these very difficult issues. At least for another year.
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