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.

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