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.

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